Taking the ‘pop’ out of K-pop
If you ask the Korean media their opinion on how K-pop is doing, they’ll tell you that the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, has taken the world by storm, and that the West is both dominated by and enamored with K-pop. From our perspective, though, and all of our work in K-pop’s place in the international sphere, the Korean Wave is only lapping on the shores of the West.
Unless they’re already dedicated fans, most Westerners living outside Korea couldn’t name a K-pop group, yet the Korean newspapers splash their pages with stories of sold-out K-pop concerts overseas. So, Kpop is definitely popular in the West. It’s just not as popular as the Korean media makes it out to be.
Expats living in Korea are oversaturated with K-pop. It’s blaring on just about every street corner because, after all, K-pop is the mainstream pop of Korea, just as Rhianna, Lady Gaga, or LMFAO can be heard in every mall in North America. K-pop, however, is not mainstream outside of Korea, and that’s what is crucial to its charm.
K-pop is becoming a new underground subculture. The super-popular music you hear everyday in Korea is an underground subculture overseas. It makes perfect sense, especially if you look back on your days as a high school student. When we were growing up in Toronto, most students were divided according to the music they listened to; those that liked rock music did not mingle with those that liked rap. Your musical taste dictated your clothing, attitude and selection of friends. Even though I attended a school that required uniforms, I could still pick out those students that were punk rock fans over those who loved dance music.
So where does K-pop stand overseas? For starters, despite the language barrier, it’s still a lot more accessible than, for example, heavy metal. It’s pop music, after all. That it’s sung by really good-looking people doesn’t hurt, either. While mainstream pop dominates the charts, K-pop offers an alternative for those who don’t want to listen to the mainstream, but still enjoy pop-esque music. K-pop’s charm as a North American subculture is that it’s easily digestible. By listening to K-pop you can be different, but you don’t have to work so hard at it. K-pop is off the beaten path, but it’s still a pretty damn smooth path.
With the sudden popularity of Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” we’ve seen a bunch of K-pop fans irritated that their friends (who knew nothing about K-pop pre-Psy) were Tweeting and sharing on Facebook their love for Psy’s song. I’m sure you’ve seen this kind of overprotective attitude with fans of indie bands who see that band become popular. And it’s hilarious if you think about it in terms of K-pop, since it has — for Western K-pop fans — that same kind of indie charm.
Regardless of how you feel about K-pop while you’re living here in Korea, whether you love it or absolutely hate it, we find it interesting how K-pop is being perceived and received in the West. While most discussions we’ve read about it claim that K-pop in the West is either very successful or a massive failure, we’re interested in a more nuanced look at what people are saying about it. Whether K-pop is mainstream or not isn’t really as interesting as thinking about how it’s flourishing as a subculture.