K-Pop 101: Introduction to the Global Phenomenon
Whether you’ve seen BTS’s Dynamite playing on TV commercials or heard Blackpink’s Sour Candy blasting from the speakers of your local department store, you’ve probably heard of K-pop by now — the Korean music phenomenon that is taking over the Internet alongside mainstream media. But any fan will tell you that K-pop is more than just music: it’s a global movement that has allowed people from all over the world a glimpse into Korean language, fashion, and culture.
BTS’s Dynamite music video has amassed over a billion views on YouTube. Watch it here!
A Brief History of K-Pop and the Korean Wave
It may seem like K-pop appeared out of the blue in the last five years, but this genre has actually existed for far longer than you might think. K-pop as we know it today started in the 1990s, with the boy band H.O.T. making waves in the industry and creating a successful business formula for future k-pop groups. With the worldwide boy-band craze dying down after 2000, K-pop entered a brief slump for the next three years — until popular groups like TVXQ and BoA managed to break through in Japanese markets. With international sales growing and more and more K-pop groups showing up as guests on variety shows and interviews across East Asia, what we know now as the “Korean Wave” only grew more influential with the growth of social media.
Check out one of H.O.T’s music videos from the late 1990s here!
The Korean Wave has now grown strong enough to sweep the K-pop craze away from the Internet entirely. In recent years, K-pop has become so influential in North America that k-pop CDs and other merchandise items have found their way into big-box retail stores like Target, Newbury Comics, and even McDonald’s. K-pop idols are interviewed on Western network television shows and featured in commercials, which are often broadcasted to new and unfamiliar audiences. The presence of K-pop in mainstream media and daily life has made these idols into worldwide household names.
K-pop supergroup Blackpink has been featured in commercials and on late-night talk shows.
How Are K-Pop Groups Structured?
Though there are hundreds of K-pop groups out there, most of them follow a similar structure. Most groups are owned by a larger entertainment company, which is responsible for housing, training, and promoting several groups at a time. Most of the time, these companies will train dozens of prospective K-pop performers (known in the community as “idols”) for their big debut. The trainee process is notoriously rigorous, with several idols testifying that the conditions are extremely harsh and competitive. The trainees deemed ready for debut are then placed into a group together.
Based on each member’s strengths, he or she gets assigned a role in the group. Every K-pop group has four basic roles: the rapper, the singer, the dancer, and the visual. (Visuals are often seen as the “face” of the group, as their facial features are considered the most marketable.) Once a group is formed and roles are assigned, the company debuts the group’s song on several promotional stages, where the idols are dressed up in fashionable clothing to match the aesthetic of the song. These live performances appear on Korean network TV but are also uploaded to YouTube for international viewers.
Flashing lights and detailed outfits are a staple in live performances.
Though it may seem old-fashioned, the albums and EPs that a K-pop group releases can often be found in physical CD form, alongside Spotify and iTunes. These physical copies often include photo books, stickers, and other goodies featuring the group’s members, allowing fans to collect the merch of their favorite group member.
How Are K-Pop Fan Communities Influential?
Though most fan bases tend to lie low when they enjoy their favorite niche, K-pop fan groups operate differently. Since k-pop fans can be found on almost every continent, the fanbase is considerably bigger than your average TV show’s fan community. Its widespread influence is also almost entirely remote, operating solely on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Because of their size and online presence, these fans have the power to make a big difference — and they have.
When hate groups were trying to network with one another over Twitter, the K-pop community caught on fairly quickly; soon enough, the tags these hate groups were using were completely flooded with spammed K-pop fan content, rendering them completely unusable for the dangerous people who were originally attempting to use them.
K-pop communities are also large proponents of streaming culture — the repeated viewing of an image or video by one fan hundreds of times, allowing it to receive significant attention from mainstream media and other fan communities. When every k-pop fan views a new video a hundred times, the result is staggering: K-pop videos online have amassed hundreds of millions of views because of this streaming method.
K-Pop and the Korean Language Boom
With K-pop becoming prevalent in the past decade, it’s no wonder the interest in Korean language and culture is at an all-time high. Fans outside of Korea want to learn Korean not only to interact more with their favorite idols but also with each other; with Korean language and culture as the common denominator between fans of all different backgrounds, most k-pop fans have taken interest in learning Korean.
With that being said, K-pop entertainment companies know their audiences: though most songs are almost entirely in Korean, you’ll find English words and phrases thrown into nearly every successful K-pop song. This allows for non-Korean speakers to feel included, but also inclined to learn more of the song’s meaning.
You’ll hear a lot of English interspersed between Korean raps and vocals, especially from groups with lots of international fans:
With how much K-pop has been the catalyst to further interest in Korean language and culture, the Korean government has taken steps to make K-pop a useful tool to attract international tourists. The government provides funding to K-pop entertainment companies, which gives them more incentive to reach out to more fans and, as a result, get more people interested in the Korean language and culture. This process has proven influential, as Korea has experienced a continuous increase in international visitors in the past decade.
To really understand K-pop, it’s important to look beyond the catchy music and flashy outfits; this new phenomenon is the product of a tight-knit international community that uses the power of social media to stay connected. With K-pop becoming increasingly popular in North America, it doesn’t look like the Korean Wave will be crashing anytime soon!
Dive Deeper Into K-Pop Music by Learning Korean
If you haven’t already, get your free lesson from Pimsleur to start learning Korean. The Pimsleur method is one of the most effective ways to learn a language. But also, don’t forget that learning a language can be much easier and more fun when you build in some real contact with culture! The music of K-pop might be just the thing to get you motivated to properly learn Korean.