Showing no signs of stopping, K-pop seems set on dominating mainstream media. But what exactly is the appeal behind it?
“I buy their albums; I stream their music… I retweet the stuff they post… I always find myself on Twitter, refreshing and scrolling, seeing if anything’s been updated.”
Though this may seem tedious for some, for twenty-year-old K-pop fan-girl Rachel Hong, this comes as “second nature” to her. While the genre of Korean pop music—alternatively called ‘K-pop’—may come across as a ‘niche’ genre, its popularity has risen exponentially over the past few years and has been making its way into mainstream media.
Stacy Nam, the marketing and communications manager from My Music Taste, a South Korean concert crowdsourcing platform, asserts that much of the popularity K-pop has is rooted in social media.
“Before Twitter, Instagram, etc. fans used forums to find each other and communicate,” she says. “International K-Pop fandom was born before social media from it’s most primitive beginnings…it’s been growing strongly but surely ever since that time.”
Rainbow Chan, a solo artist, producer, and lecturer at the University of Sydney places importance on the role social media plays in the exposure of foreign artists.
“Platforms, like online platforms and sharable contents [are easier] to increase…visibility,” she states.
However, as Andy Trieu, SBS PopAsia Radio Host and TV Presenter articulates, with the increasing use of social media K-Pop is now much more accessible, and also pins down the popularity K-pop has been gaining in media to ‘fandom power’.
“…So many people are jumping on Twitter, Snapchat, [and] Facebook,” he states. “Also, strong fandoms have a lot to do with it.”
‘Fandom’, by the definition of Dictionary.com, are the “fans of a particular person, team, fictional series, etc. regarded collectively as a community of subculture”. Like Rachel, many fans are able to build connections with through social media with not only ‘idols’—as K-pop stars are referred to as—but also with other fans.
“[Korean idols] have such a strong social media presence… They’re always posting online and chatting…and [interacting] with their fans,” Rachel says. “Even if I’m not in Korea and I can’t see them first-hand… they do so many things that allow… international fans to interact with them as well.”
“Through Twitter, I’ve been able to make friends that aren’t even from Australia… It’s like a community that’s…allowed me to build connections, not only with singers, but with other people as well.”
BTS performing at the Wings Trilogy Tour in 2017 at Qudos Arena. Photographed by Chrissy Chon.
Trieu uses popular South Korean boyband BTS as an example of when the K-pop fandom power was apparent.
“[They have a] really strong fandom called BTS Army who are very, very loyal…They are so strong and powerful online that they can connect power,” Andy states. “Especially during the Billboard Award when…BTS won a social media award…which led them to appear on so many shows such as Ellen [and] Jimmy Kimmel. That was all because of the power of social media.”
BTS at the Billboard Awards with their Top Social Artist Award. Picture taken from Soompi
Rachel, an ‘ARMY’ herself, had also shown her support towards BTS by voting for them when they were nominees for the Billboard Top Social Artist Award.
“It was a social media voting system,” she says. “[Fans] would upload [tweets] with a certain hashtag and [other fans] would retweet that, and based on the [amount of retweets] they received was how they won their award. So during that period, I would retweet a lot of things that had that particular hashtag in it to show my support.”
A screenshot taken from Twitter, depicting an example of the tweets that were used during the voting system.
With the increasing amount of those who are listening to K-pop, Trieu suggests that the appeal of K-pop lies behind the trendiness of the music.
“[K-pop]’s just got a great flow to it,” Trieu asserts. “There’s also a huge new trend in EDM—electronic [dance] music—and so we are seeing… [a bit of a] cross-over, especially with collaborations like Steve Aoki and BTS, and The Chainsmokers and BTS.”
Additionally, Rachel states that “K-Pop idols… package themselves in a particular way to appeal to larger audiences as well.”
Furthermore, with K-pop groups performing songs produced by American producers such as Bruno Mars and Will.I.Am, Chan states that the globalisation of K-pop has allowed the genre to become “fluid and interesting and dynamic”.
Music academic Rainbow Chan pegs down Western media’s interest in K-pop down to similarities—and differences—of the music.
“Even though the language is not the same…the imagery [as] a commonality, which is very appealing… In western culture, we have become so desensitised to similar songs being churned out… [K-pop] becomes a palette cleanser… but it is still within a very recognisable style.”
Chan states that K-pop music comes from “[borrowing] ideas and [developing] it into its own thing”, and says it is interesting to note that, “[now] Western people are borrowing from K-pop, so it’s an ongoing dialogue and an ongoing…melding of ideas and sounds.”
Academic, artist, and producer Rainbow Chan. Photographed by Laura Rando.
However, despite a growing interest in K-pop from Western and mainstream media, many fans, including Rachel, worry that this could lead to trivialising K-pop.
“In my opinion, [lots of people] trivialise it, or make it a joke,” Rachel states. “I [see] a lot of tweets that [ridicule] or [mock K-pop idols] … A lot of people… can be close-minded about these kinds of things… There might still be a while to go before [K-pop] completely assimilates into western music and mainstream media.”
Chan, however, has a more hopeful outlook towards the assimilation of foreign music into western music and mainstream media.
“Hopefully with time it won’t be sort of a discursive, like ‘oh, that’s Asian music’, [but rather], it will be just music…It is important to be reflexive about it as well, and to make it known that it is something that is resisting the dominant portrayal of voices because then that will draw… people together.”
BTS at the Wings Trilogy Tour in Sydney, 2017 at Qudos Arena. Photographed by Chrissy Chon.
With BTS alone encompassing over 49 million followers across their social media platforms, Trieu reveals a similar positive outlook, stating that “the great music…[and the] awesome fashion [is what] makes news and headlines. Obviously, that is helping with the growing audience.”
“I think there will always be a gap for K-pop somewhere.”