Technology helps sustain K-pop popularity

A combination of timing and technology helped K-pop win a formidable American fandom, with the latter key to how it’s consumed and enjoyed – particularly via social media.

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP/File
BTS performs at the American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles in 2017

As a frenzied capacity crowd demonstrated at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., back in September, K-pop mania is alive and well in the United States. The vocal group BTS, which is made up of members V, J-Hope, RM, Jin, Jimin, Jungkook, and Suga and is currently enjoying its position as the king of K-pop, was holding court with an impressively multicultural but mostly female audience, which alternately sang and screamed throughout the night. 

In 2017, the all-male septet became the first Korean act to win a Billboard Music Award, taking the top social artist prize. Then this past May, BTS became the first K-pop group to top the Billboard 200 chart of most popular albums with the work “Love Yourself: Tear.” Earlier this month, they presented a prize at the Grammy Awards, where their work was also nominated, earning a nod in the category of best recording package.

Apple Music and Spotify feature K-pop as a musical category, and music publication Billboard regularly covers the South Korean musical genre. Solo artists and other groups are poised to follow the path blazed by BTS, including the all-female vocal quintet Red Velvet, which recently concluded a five-city US mini-tour.

A combination of timing and technology helped the foreign-language genre win a formidable American fandom, with the latter key to how it’s consumed and enjoyed – particularly via social media. The seeds may have been planted in another form of entertainment, reckons Suk-Young Kim, a professor at the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles. Ms. Kim, the author of “K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance,” recalls how different things were during her early days in Chicago as a graduate student from South Korea in the mid-’90s. “Nobody knew or cared about Korean pop culture back then,” she says. “One of my classmates even asked me if Korea made TV shows.”

But then Korean television dramas began to attract followings in Asian-American communities, following a path laid down by Spanish or Portuguese telenovelas. “I think K-pop started to catch fire there, because a lot of K-pop stars made appearances in Korean TV dramas,” she says. “This was also the time that YouTube was about to step in. K-pop came at the right moment to fully ride that tidal shift and make it into more of a visual, multimedia performance that you can enjoy on YouTube.”

As YouTube has gone from a viral curiosity to a regular part of people’s lives, the video platform has allowed fans to connect with their K-pop idols as well as fellow die-hards on a daily basis, offering a home for the fan community. Kim recalls hearing an intriguing news report about how teenage girls and boys spend their time online differently, which she says echoes what she sees with K-pop fans. “Boys play video games and watch stuff, whereas girls spend time on community activities,” she explains. “They want to get social validation through their online activities. Perhaps this explains why there’s this really active girl [K-pop] fandom online.”

Stephanie Choi, a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, agrees that the community aspect is an important part of how K-pop’s popularity in America has sustained itself. “The K-pop industry has cleverly utilized people’s desire on community-building and has incorporated fans as part of the industry by creating the fan management department in the company and hiring fans for this department,” writes Ms. Choi in an email. “As a result, fan activities are managed and organized by the industry, although the industry has given a bigger voice and power to fans as well.”

Technology has also lowered the language barrier for fans who don’t speak or read Korean. Some devotees have started to learn Korean, motivated by their love of K-pop, but it can still be an issue. 

Choi says that a lack of Korean-speakers among fans of a music group can in fact impact the singers’ careers. “The popularity of each K-pop group depends on how many devoted translators they have in each fandom,” Choi says. “I have heard several fans complaining about how they cannot get enough information on their favorite group because there aren’t enough translators for this particular group.”

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