A look into the reason behind K-pop's never ending popularity
K-pop, also known as Korean pop music, has shown tremendous growth in the 2010s. The music industry has been ruled by Western artists, especially those from America, and in the 2000s when artists such as Britney and Beyoncé have always dominated charts and public appeal. Furthermore, it’s always been a challenge for foreign artists to penetrate the American industry but also become recognized globally aside from a one-hit-wonder. However, the emergence of K-pop boy and girl groups has changed that. What used to be a very Western-oriented industry, has been penetrated by artists such as the popular boy group BTS. They’ve even gone beyond the Western market and reached global popularity as a result of globalization. However, while K-pop groups have gained popularity around the world, we can wonder: is K-pop really still Korean?
Thus, this essay is going to analyze to what extent globalization plays a role in the development of K-pop in a global context. The concepts that are going to be used include globalization as explained by Jan Nederveen Pieterse (2009) as “a prism in which major disputes over the collective human condition are now refracted: questions of capitalism, inequality, power, development, ecology, culture, gender, identity, population, all come back in a landscape where "globalization did it"" (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009). Additionally, globalization includes several paradigms. The paradigm that I will utilize in this essay is 'hybridization' which according to Nederveen Pieterse centers around border crossing and is an antidote to culture differentialism of racial and nationalist doctrines. The notion of "world music", which basically boils down to "music we encounter, everywhere in the world" (Bohlman, 2002), will be explored in relation to K-pop. Lastly, the term “schizophonia” discussed in the article by Steven Feld (2011) will also be examined in relation to the possible anxieties/negatives that K-pop brings on.
Hybridization of K-pop
K-pop, contrary to its name, doesn’t only consist of one type of genre. Rather, it is a mix of a multitude of genres rooted in Korean culture but also adopted from other cultures.
Until the 1980s, Korean popular music has been predominantly monotonous in genre and in style (Yong Jin & Ryoo, 2014). Since the early 1990s, Korean popular music developed from being only ballads to adopting fast-paced Western music styles. The diversification took effect in the 1990s when Korean pop music went from a few limited genres such as trot and ballad to rap, reggae, R&B, and hip-hop. This diversification was sparked by the debut of the song Nan Arayo by a now legendary group in South Korea Seo Taiji and Boys which was one of the first rap tracks of the Korean language to emerge in South Korea (Yong Jin & Ryoo, 2014). This led to the departure of the previous system and resulted in the popularity of rap and hip-hop in Korean popular music.
In the music of Seo Taiji and Boys, the hybridity of culture and style is ever so present. Their music genres are creatively mixed together as rap, soul, rock and roll, and techno fused. This in turn created a unique musical form that is still ever present in K-pop songs today, where a song consists of rap only during the verses and the chorus is sung in a pop style including dynamic dance movements. This showcases hybridization as new and old genres are recombined and reconfigured creating entirely something new. Furthermore, a new distinctive audience appears as they cater to a new class or stratum (Nederveen Pieterse, 2009). This was also the case with Seo Taiji and Boys as this new wave of Korean music that they brought on became more youth-oriented, targeting teens and young adults which led to the arrival of new K-pop bands with young teenagers.
The fusion of English and Korean lyrics
There wasn’t only one type of hybridization in Korean popular music that came from globalization. K-pop hasn’t only experienced the mingling of Western music genres and styles but has also developed the mixing of the English language in K-pop songs flourishing as a new form of hybridization. Singing in English is nowhere new in South Korea. In the olden days, many English songs were covered by Korean singers and they even sang translated versions of those songs. However, it was only in the 1990s that the English language started becoming infused with Korean songs. So, it’s a mixture of Korean and English lyrics. This new hybrid form that came into existence and brought profound changes in Korean popular music happened as a result of globalization and specifically mobility, migration, and multiculturism.
According to Dal Yong Jin and Woongjae Ryoo (2014), the younger generation became more curious and eager to listen to artists of Korean American descent because they somehow brought something new to the table in comparison to just Korean artists. Popularity and the success of a few Korean American artists based on their language skills ignited a new trend where many other popular Korean artists started infusing English lyrics with Korean ones. Thus, efficiency in the English language became a must for Korean artists. Especially pronunciation of English lyrics became important, which led to many entertainment companies making learning English a must before an artist debuts along with singing and dancing.
Many entertainment companies even went out of their way to invite American musicians and producers to create music for their artists to fit in the changing patterns of youth (Yong Jin & Ryoo, 2014). In the year 2009, around sixty American composers were invited and received contracts with Korean music companies. From this joint collaboration came many popular K-Pop songs (Yong Jin & Ryoo, 2014). Thus, linguistic hybridization in K-pop was also a result of globalization, especially the migration of Korean American artists.
K-pop as World Music
World Music, as described before, is music that’s everywhere in the world. Philip Bohlman (2002) also mentions that “For many, world music represents much that is right in the world, indeed, the very possibility that music and music-making bring people together”. Thus, this can also be seen as a gathering of people regardless of who they are anywhere in the world. In the context of music and K-pop, this can be seen in concerts. K-pop artists now don’t only hold concerts in the Korean peninsula or in East Asia but have toured all around the world. The group BTS held a tour in 2019 called Love Yourself, where they performed 20 shows from Europe to North America to Asia. Every show consisted of an average of 48.814 attendees (Rolli, 2019).
Today’s World Music, according to Steven Feld (2011), "tells a new story, a story about intersections of transnational capital and global economic niche expansion" which is very representative of K-pop in today's day and age. K-pop has managed to intersect markets far beyond where it originated. The group BTS alone has been on an all-time high in billboard charts for the past few years and has also collaborated with many famous Western artists such as Steve Aoki and Nicki Minaj.
There are more different audio technologies today that facilitate encounters with more world music than ever before, and this market is catered to by transnational music industries
The reign of K-pop is never stopping, and this is also because of the advancement of technology. Communicative media have made the world “a smaller place” says Noël Carroll (2012). Music can be heard anywhere because of CDS, radios, television, film, and now especially the internet. There are more different audio technologies today that facilitate encounters with more world music than ever before, and this market is catered to by transnational music industries.
Therefore, anyone is able to have access to music from anywhere in the world which is the case with K-pop as well. Carroll talks about how this has led to the spread of Rap music everywhere as people around the world have started to produce rap in their own language which was also the case with Korean popular music as mentioned before. World music has led to a form of transnational hybridization as artists from around the world are breaking into different industries and there is no longer a monopoly held by Western companies on the music world. In the context of K-pop, this can be seen with groups not only holding concerts in different countries but also performing and attending big music festivals. Blackpink, a K-pop girl group, performed at Coachella and their performance was even live-streamed on a large screen in New York’s Times Square at night (Gallucci, 2019).
K-pop not as “Korean” anymore
The popularity of K-pop on a global scale has brought nothing but pride to Koreans back in South Korea. However, there are people who point out how Korean music isn’t even that Korean anymore. This relates to the role of schizophonia in world music as Steven Feld (2011) discusses. Schizophonia is “the separation of a sound from its source and the recontextualizing of that sound into a separate sonic context” (Feld, 2011). Basically, the term itself means when the sound is separated from its original source, and in the context of K-pop it is basically how the Koreans are saying that K-pop songs originate in Korea but there isn’t anything in it left that makes it Korean anymore. Therefore, a listener listening in some other part of the world would just think that sound they hear is from where they are if language isn’t considered.
The hybridization of K-pop has also led to the anxiety that world music variously reduces cultural equity and can create further cultural cleavages
Ingyu Oh (2013) discusses why many consider K-pop as nothing that can be considered “Korean” anymore. That is because firstly, it is a commercial combination of global liberalization of music markets in Asia and other parts of the world. Secondly, it depends on digital technologies such as YouTube which is a platform that only prefers to select and feature “perfectly photogenic performers” from around the world (Ingyu Oh, 2013). Thus, the hybridization of K-pop has also led to the anxiety that world music variously reduces cultural equity and can create further cultural cleavages.
The changes in K-pop
In conclusion, globalization, and more specifically: hybridization has drastically altered Korean popular music from how it used to be before the 1990s and the advancement of technologies which led to the reconfiguration of how music was produced in Korea. As different Western genres such as rap and rock and roll started to be incorporated into Korean music, a unique style of music was created which has now become popular worldwide. Furthermore, K-pop can be considered world music because of its reach, how it's borderless, and how it has managed to touch different markets around the world. However, success and the rise of K-pop have led to K-pop's own demise as it has also started to lose its cultural authenticity according to many. Overall, globalization, migration, and technological advancement have had a massive impact on Korean music.
Bohlman, P. V. (2002). World music: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Carroll, Noël. (2007). Art and Globalization: Then and Now. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 65. 131 - 143. 10.1111/j.1540-594X.2007.00244.x.
Dal Yong Jin & Woongjae Ryoo (2014) Critical Interpretation of Hybrid K-Pop: The Global-Local Paradigm of English Mixing in Lyrics, Popular Music and Society, 37:2, 113-131, DOI: 10.1080/03007766.2012.731721
Feld, Steven. (2011). My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: World music and the commodification of religious experience. Music and Globalization: Critical Encounters. 40-51.
Gallucci, N (2019) Blackpink made K-pop history performing at Coachella. Mashable
Nederveen Pieterse, J. (2009). Globalization and culture: Global mélange. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
Oh, Ingyu. (2013). The Globalization of K-pop: Korea's Place in the Global Music Industry. Korea Observer. 44. 389-409.
Rolli, B. (2019) BTS’s ‘Love Yourself: Speak Yourself’ Tour Wraps With Staggering $117 Million. Forbes