K-pop: from local to international

11 minutes to read
Gergana Mihaylova

K-Pop is a recent fad that has recently emerged as an apparent cultural phenomenon in Europe and America. That being said, K-Pop has already made a name for itself as one of the "coolest" mainstream musical genres across most East Asian nations, including Japan, as well as the Korean home market and Chinese-speaking territories (Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc.) This has caused the new and widespread cultural phenomenon known as Hallyu or Korean Wave to gain rapid popularity in East Asia. 

In this regard, K-Pop is undoubtedly Korean pop music, but it also falls under the category of transnational hybrid music that makes many references to other international popular music. Moreover, in contrast to what hybridity or Pop Asianism ideas imply, I contend that the globalization of K-Pop entails a far more involved dynamic process of localizing and globalizing musical content that comes from various countries. In particular, the rise of K-Pop in the international music market entails a novel method of identifying unique musical material in Europe or other parts of the world, adapting it into Korean content, and disseminating it globally. Consequently, I will use the notion of hybridization as a framework to demonstrate how Korean pop expands from local music to international sensation through globalization.

The history of K-pop

Nowadays, the word "K-Pop" has started to be used by fans, the media, critics, and academics to designate the broad genre of modern popular Korean music (Russell, 2009). The name "K-Pop" has only been in usage since the late 1990s, a period that is even relatively new in its native country. Furthermore, the term "K-Pop" refers to a certain type of music that is developed and consumed in a precise manner rather than all Korean popular music. K-Pop songs are often electronic dance songs delivered by idols and created and released by agencies representing those performers. The common conversation about artists and record labels, the two key axes in the majority of other worldwide music sectors, cannot be automatically applied to the K-Pop sector. K-Pop celebrities are artists, and the agencies are record labels, yet they do business differently than most other sectors of the economy. According to Guy (2013), in the late 1990s, Channel [V] International gave one of its television programs the name "K-Pop Station," which is believed to be the birthplace of the term "K-Pop". It was during that time that several famous Korean music artists started to catch the attention of young people in East Asian Chinese-speaking regions. Hence, early in the new millennium, the term became frequently used in the media of those Chinese-speaking areas and other East Asian nations. 'K-Pop Super Live Concert' (Kang, S.H., 2005), 'K-Pop All-Star in Japan' (Lee, G.L., 2006), or 'Feel the K-Pop in Shanghai' are a few examples of names given to combined events in China and Japan that featured the participation of a few of Korean performers (Lee, E.J., 2006). It appears that K-Pop first started to gain widespread acceptance as a legit name of a particular music genre around 2008, the same year that a few K-Pop artists, including Rain, BoA, Wonder Girls, and Se7en, started promoting their music to global consumers other than East Asian market, such as the American and European market. Hence, the borders between government and business, media and social movements, and general and academic interests are all being crossed by globalization (Nederveen Pieterse, 2015). Globalization is constantly shaping our cultural and technological development. In this regard, the phrase "K-pop” was not intentionally created or used by Korean media or fans, who instead adopted it after hearing it used by audiences and media from other countries. This indicates that the term "K-Pop" didn't start to become popular until the music started to reach consumers outside of its home market.

Globalization as a process in the Korean music industry

The ideology of the mainstream music business frequently made the assumption that there is no class divide and focused on the practice of top-down control of "low culture" elements through institutions, companies, and innovations (Hirsch, 1971; Peterson and Di Maggio, 1975). These social categorizations place K-pop in the "Third World" low culture classification since it originates from a nation that is rarely discussed in the typical dominant cultural discussions in industrialized countries (Oh & Park, 2013). Despite the fact that Hirsch (1971) was right to forecast the structural relationship between mainstream media technologies and emerging mainstream music genres, he was unable to foresee the emergence of K-pop as a distinct mainstream pop genre with the advent of YouTube and downloadable free digital music. K-pop involves exporting music "created in Korea" to consumers worldwide because the local music industry got severely constrained by its small size and widespread, albeit declining, piracy. In the new global order, K-widespread pop's popularity in the twenty-first century has a unique historical and geographical significance. According to Oh and Park (2013), K-pop is successful for numerous reasons, such as the idols' appearance, and a wider variety of popular cultural content, such as music and dramas in Korea due to the loosened censorship of both Korean and Western popular music as a result of political democracy in Korea.

Importantly, the South Korean culture's primary focus on physical appearance has a bearing on how individuals are viewed in day-to-day interactions. Those who are considered to be generally beautiful or "handsome" typically have access to superior options, particularly in regard to employment. Physical attractiveness frequently takes precedence over someone's educational background or skills.  As a result, a sizable portion of people take every opportunity to improve their physical attributes. In reality, a lot of parents perform a double-eyelid operation on their kids as graduation gifts. People have gone to tremendous lengths to change their appearance because of how seriously lookism is taken. Additionally, in the 21st century, technical development has enabled a primitive type of internationalism, especially in the virtual realm, where fans from around the globe can consume content from other nations, including Korea.

The growth of K-pop to its current level of popularity would not have been feasible without recent technologies, such as streaming in real-time and platformization. In this sense, platformization seems to significantly alter how cultural production, distribution, and commercialization are organized (Prey, et al., 2022). Particularly, platforms like Spotify, YouTube, and other mediums seem to be a paradigm for other businesses that use digital technology to revolutionize the distribution of cultural commodities these days. Thus, it seems that such platforms are intentionally encouraging users to listen to music through playlists rather than alternative formats. In addition, platforms like Spotify privilege their own playlists above those made by big labels and other third parties by leveraging their administrative power to do so. Compared to commercial radio playlists, digital platform playlists provide more space for alternative music. In this regard, K-pop can be explored by various people internationally.

Hybridity in K-pop music

Many people think that K-Pop is the true representative of the new generation of Korean music, thanks to the change in demographic variables that have shaped its distinctive musical features. Moreover, some of the highest-charting songs in K-Pop have been created by producers and songwriters from the United States, Europe, and Japan. For instance, the Girls' Generation (popular South Korean girl group) song “The Boys” got created by Teddy Riley, one of the world’s top three producers, and Michael Jackson’s producer (Choi, 2011). Nevertheless, many K-Pop artists are actually foreigners, and the majority of K-Pop is created by people with multinational origins.

Guy (2013) argues that the present Korean music industry includes many innovators and insiders who have learned music-making and entertainment management abroad (mostly in the US and Japan). They are multilingual and bicultural because of their international/global origins. In this regard, K-Pop is one of the most obvious examples of "hybridity as genesis," with particular consequences, acceptances, and consumption patterns. In addition to its musical hybridity and demographic, K-pop's transnationality also contributes to its comparative de-nationalization. There is barely anything recognizable about K-Pop that is traditionally "Korean" because the genre has incorporated many different types of mainstream music. That leads to Nederveen Pieterse's concept of globalization as hybridization.

According to Nederveen Pieterse (2015), hybridization has led to an increase in the frequency of cultural interaction. Therefore, the emerging culture is not only a combination of the original culture but rather a special and distinctive cultural form that has been impacted by different cultural factors. In addition, because of enhanced global communication and technological advancement, identity is no longer solely a national idea. As a result of hybridization, a wide range of subcultures combines to form an individual's identity. Furthermore, Nederveen Pieterse (2015) elaborates on the notion of transcultural compatibility in hybridization. He emphasizes how it is now common to see a distinctive mix of immense and more intense interpersonal contact between cultures in a given area. The inevitable merging of nationalities creates a unique fusion of diverse cultural backgrounds that have had time to develop and integrate together. Perhaps combining American and European elements will make K-Pop more recognizable and alluring to a worldwide public already attuned to Western beats.

Is K-pop losing its Koreaness?

Although it gets expressed and enjoyed by Korean artists, musicians, industries, and consumers, K-Pop is also simultaneously national Korean music. Despite the fact that English lyrics are occasionally used by K-Pop composers and despite the genre's growing international popularity, it is exceptional. In this case, the majority of songs feature Korean lyrics in addition to trot-inspired music, which is one of the characteristics that distinguishes K-Pop as uniquely Korean.

Regardless of the fact that K-Pop is more globalized and international than at any previous time in the history of the Korean music business, many commentators, media outlets, and viewers have sought to nationalize what is already a transnational culture. The "Jay Park Scandal" is a prime example of how K-Pop continues to thrive inside the confines of Korean popular culture despite its international and transnational reach. The renowned K-pop boy band 2pm fired Jay Park, a Korean-American artist who had served as the group's main vocalist at the time. Jay Park had been heavily condemned by several viewers and the media for complaining aloud about his livelihood in Korea and mocking the Korean culture and society on his Facebook page. The intriguing part about these writings is that they were made years ago, even before he joined the group, and the critiques did not seem very severe at the moment because he was only starting to settle in Korea. Although Park appears Korean, he was conceived and brought up in the United States and is culturally American. In this regard, he did not fully comprehend the customs of Korean culture. However, he came under fire from numerous patriotic Korean media outlets and followers. This refers to the notion of Tomlinson’s cultural hybridization.

Tomlinson (2003) asserts that people may not abandon their nationalistic identities when they become closer to these communal identities because of cultural hybridization. He also explains how the emergence of several identities due to globalization may lead people to lose their sense of self. Thus, cultural hybridization aims to show that there should not be limitations on how people define themselves. A particular cultural identity is no longer required. A human can combine different identities to create one that fits them well. Hybrid cultural identities are starting to emerge as a result of the international structure of contemporary nation-states and the emergence of international forms. Consequently, the ardent desire to re-nationalize K-Pop into Korean cultural identity and its transnationality have continuously clashed. These disputes in Korean organizations are a reflection of the fight between "global" and "local," as well as between internationalism and nation/ethnic centrism.

From local to global

In this paper, I traced the process of Korean pop music from local to global by providing numerous materials from selected research papers. I examined the history of Korean pop and how it affected Korean culture and identity. In addition, I analyzed how the digital market helped K-pop to become popularized by suggesting numerous Korean songs to their users. Moreover, the hybridity of the K-pop genre, such as adding English lyrics and incorporating various music styles into the genre, made Korean pop more appealing and engaging to the international public. That is why K-pop has proven its authenticity internationally and its uniqueness and has always stayed true to its genre. Importantly, this infusion may result in losing the Koreaness of the music and its cultural identity. Hence, it may become mainstream and Westernized. In this sense, the main goal for K-Pop is to deliver top-notch material and production that can compete on a worldwide scale. In this sense, the rising popularity in emerging markets indicates that K-Pop has already expanded beyond its Asian allure.


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