• Kavyaa Kannan

K-pop and its growing influence on the entertainment industry

After a long day at work or school, most of us unwind as we turn on the radio, the television or for the newer generations, Spotify and YouTube. Colourful clothes, fancy sets, extravagant cinematography and explosive choreographies to go along with the peppy music: This is the newest face of modern entertainment, welcome to the world of K-pop.

Korean pop, or K-pop for short, is a genre of popular music which originates in South Korea. It is known to incorporate various genres and styles from around the world, including hiphop, jazz, R&B, reggaeton, funk, rock, etc. These styles, incorporated with Korean musical roots, shape the K-pop culture.

Humble beginnings

The concept of K-pop is relatively new, as the Korean music industry was mostly comprised of trot and ballad singers until the 1990s. The first K-pop group was formed in 1992. Called Seo Taiji and Boys, the group left a huge impact in the Korean music scene, and their experimental styles revolutionized the way Koreans viewed music and modernized the idea of Korean pop.

The concept of “idols” in K-pop, refers to a music culture in where the fandoms follow activities of the artists and acts, rather than just the music. The first K-pop idol group, H.O.T, debuted in 1996. With the steady rise in popularity of the boyband, K-pop gradually grew into a subculture with huge fandoms throughout the late 90s and early 2000s.

Solo acts like BoA grew in popularity, along with the classic K-pop boy groups and girl groups, comprising of 4-12 members. The major feature that characterized K-pop idols was the extensive focus on visuals, the perfect, idealistic image they promoted, along with powerful performances and explosive stage presence.

The first breakthrough: The Psy effect

In July 2012, came an unexpected storm to the international music market, the release of Gangnam Style, by Korean artist Psy, the viral hit that amassed about 3 billion views on YouTube and remains one of the most viewed music videos till date.

This unprecedented breakthrough enabled the international music industries to take a look at Korea’s fast growing K-pop scene.

Rising K-pop acts like Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation and Bigbang entered the international music scene with performances catered to a large diversity of audiences during this phase, around the late 2000s to the early 2010s.

Heavy impact on mainstream pop: The Third Generation of K-pop, and BTS.

Soon after the initial advent of K-pop into the mainstream, came the real breakthrough that made K-pop a household name and spread the culture throughout the world. The third generation of K-pop, as fans like to call it, began to rise in the early 2012s, after the era of Wonder Girls and Psy.

The first generation saw the initial conceptual birth of K-pop, with H.O.T leading the way. The second generation created the first wave, that was soon about to ripple into a much larger phenomenon. With acts like Girls’ Generation, Wonder Girls, Bigbang and 2NE1 leading the way, a considerable international fandom had already been established.

The third generation of K-pop blasted through the charts, internationally and created a worldwide effect. It became normal for K-pop groups to have an international target audience from around 2015. The use of international social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Spotify and Naver fueled the globalization of K-pop.

The most prominent K-pop group who successfully managed to completely break into the mainstream is BTS. Since their debut in 2013, they have broken several records as artists, even surpassing standards set for pop stars, and breaking the boundaries of the “K-pop world”.

Since the release of their hit album “Wings” in 2016, BTS have been recognized as global icons and are household names, often appearing on international television and radio. BTS is the first K-pop group to win a Billboard Music Award and stay on top of the iTunes charts in 91 countries.

Other than BTS, groups such as BLACKPINK, GOT7, EXO, NCT, TWICE and Red Velvet are considered the pioneers of K-pop’s international foray. TV shows, especially in the USA and Asian countries like the Philippines and Japan, often had K-pop stars feature as guests. In addition to this, K-pop stars had begun to collaborate with the world’s most famous pop names, like BTS with The Chainsmokers and Blackpink with Selena Gomez.

Since K-pop tends to focus on international media platforms, unlike Chinese and Japanese artists, who tend to use homegrown media alternatives. This led to K-pop developing massive international fandoms.

This also created K-pop’s own concert culture. K-pop acts generally have impressively planned world tours spanning several nations at once, and they ensure that they entertain fans abroad just as well as they do at home. K-pop’s unique concert culture has influenced the international music industry and K-pop style grandiose performances are becoming the norm in any live concert.

Negative repercussions of the K-pop wave

K-pop’s harsh training system is infamous among K-pop fans. In a quest for “perfection”, K-pop stars hopefuls enroll in labels producing K-pop, as they also manage their idols, and train potential idols. The training system is filled with uncertainty as the competition among trainees is extremely high and K-pop groups rarely make it big in a culture where manufactured groups debut every other day. It has been estimated that nearly 70 groups debut every year.

During this harsh training period, young trainees, around the ages of 10-18 are forced to go through several hours of training everyday in addition to attending school and keeping on top of academic work. They need to live in dorms, away from their parents and are monitored strictly. Everything, including what they eat and the clothes they wear are judged by the agency. When the company finds a trainee overweight, they even go to the extent of controlling their portions.

This kind of immense pressure especially impacts younger trainees who take to eating disorders and have a poor overall mental health. Plastic surgery is also extremely common and companies usually urge these trainees to get plastic surgery to maintain and match their manufactured image. South Korea is known for its advancements in beauty and plastic surgery. This also led to the culmination of toxic beauty standards, which applies more severely to K-pop idols, who are what society considers to be closest to “perfect”.

This does not only apply to K-pop trainees. Even established K-pop stars and popular idols have talked about bullying and their experiences with mental illness. In December of 2017, in what came as a shock to K-pop fans worldwide, highly popular K-pop star, Jonghyun of SHINee, took his own life at the age of 27. He was still a very relevant star in K-pop and stated in his suicide letter that he was unable to withstand the pressure that came with being as famous as he was. Soon after, in October 2019, K-pop icon Sulli took her own life, after years of being cyberbullied by haters and pushed down by media and tabloids. K-pop star Jae from the band DAY6 recently expressed his struggles with anxiety and his experience with panic attacks.

Toxic fandoms are also a huge issue in the K-pop culture. Stalkers, referred to as sasaeng fans, are obsessive fans who invade the privacy of idols they are fans of, even going as far as to track down their phone numbers or addresses, and frequent the places they do. The ideal k-pop idol has a public moral record as unblemished as the pores of their glassy skin, but behind those facades there may lie a completely different person even their own fans may not recognize.

The current influence of K-pop and the future of the Hallyu wave

Korean pop and the Hallyu wave have been creating ripples across the world, and notably, changing stereotypical views on East Asians and Asian culture.

K-pop has enabled people to take up numerous jobs, created more employment opportunities and has been a huge cultural reset to the nation. More young people are not only dreaming to stand on a glamorous stage but are also exposed to fields such as cinematography, stage design, artist management, to name a few. Universities in Korea have been offering majors in K-pop for a few years now, where students learn the working of K-pop agencies and music production.

The economic impact of the K-pop culture is not superficial either. It is estimated that the net worth of the K-pop industry is close to 5 billion USD. K-pop offers support to the South Korean economy in trying times, and is a huge contributor to sectors such as fashion, food development, tourism, etc.

It is also a commonly discussed opinion that South Korea’s quick venture into pop-culture and it taking the world by storm was a carefully planned diplomatic strategy. Hallyu, or the ‘Korean wave’ of culture, has been a deliberate tool of soft power. South Korea isn’t alone in this; many countries invest in cultural councils and exchanges partly to strengthen diplomatic aims. But the South Korean government’s push for cultural power has had remarkably quick success.

K-pop is taking over the world rapidly with massive fanbase-driven activity, and this craze doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Although there are negative influences with K-pop and the pressure that idols are under, K-pop is a huge industry and this doesn’t affect music sales or chart performance at the end of the day. K-pop is conquering the world at any cost.


~ Kavya Kannan

Sources - BBC Culture, BBC News, Bloomberg, CGTN News