Fashion

K-Pop Conquered the World. Now What?

Geoff Kim

South Korea has quietly become Hollywood’s biggest competitor, churning out wildly popular music, TV dramas, and beauty and fashion trends with global appeal. This week, ELLE celebrates the K-World we’re all living in.


The year is 2013. Danny Lee, a project manager at a computer software company, walks into Kilroy’s Sports in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. It’s an oversize bar popular with college kids, filled with flat-screen TVs, Long Island Iced Tea specials, and bad decisions. As he walks in, Park Jae-sang, best known as K-pop rapper Psy, comes on the speakers. “Gangnam Style,” his viral hit, reverberates across the room. Heads turn to focus on the sole Korean American present. “Everyone is looking at me like, ‘It’s Psy’s little brother!’ So I do the dance. Everybody did it,” Lee recalls of parroting the video’s horse-prance choreography. “They were having fun, but 100 percent of the people were laughing at Psy. In Korea, he’s a legend,” Lee says. In America, he’s “a one-trick pony.”

Fast-forward to 2018. Lee, by then the founder of Asian Agent, a music management and label consulting firm, and head of talent and partnerships for premier K-pop agency YG Entertainment, leaves the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, where the biggest band on the planet, K-pop group BTS, has just performed. Its fans, known as ARMY, have been screaming outside for hours. An Uber driver shows Lee a picture of his daughters on his phone: “ ‘She’s 12 and she’s 9, and they’re at home right now learning Korean so they can understand what BTS is saying in its songs.’ Dude, think about that!” Lee says. How could you not? K-pop’s evolution essentially represents one of the most remarkable five-year plans of all time. By last year, Korean had become the second-fastest-growing language on the planet, according to Duolingo—thanks in large part to K-pop being the fastest-growing music market on the planet. In America, K-pop was once a niche interest. Now it is a dominant, multibillion-dollar global industry. And the music world will never be the same.

K-pop—high-concept, hyper-stylized pop music, known for its immaculate performances and Motown-inspired studio system—is the latest evolution in hallyu, or the current “Korean wave” of culture capturing international interest: K-beauty, K-fashion, K-dramas, Korean barbecue. But the industry has been around for nearly three decades, beginning in the early 1990s with the formation of the big three entertainment companies: YG, JYP, and SM. Think of the companies as one-stop shops—record label, talent agency, and artist management, all in one.

K-pop’s rise in the U.S. was slower, and involved more economic policy than you might have guessed. After years of financial precarity, South Korea passed a law in 1999 that dedicated a percentage of the nation’s budget to entertainment ($148.5 million), betting on the belief that exporting culture could bring money into the country. Spoiler: It worked. The average BTS ARMY fan, for example, has spent $1,422 on the boy band, according to a recent analysis by market research firm iPrice. If a fan likes multiple groups? That’s just good capitalism.

But the biggest factor that secured K-pop’s global success is the internet. “YouTube made [K-pop’s dominance] possible,” says Tamar Herman, author of BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears. Once international fans began bingeing the group’s mesmerizing videos with English subtitles—K-pop, well, popped.

K-pop fans feel involved in the lives and careers of their idols. They participate rather than simply consume.

K-pop fans feel involved in the lives and careers of their idols. They participate rather than simply consume. They invest and buy stock in their favorite acts; they purchase ads in Times Square for their favorite singer. They engage in sumseuming, Korean slang for “streaming 24/7 as one breathes,” to boost chart positions. It is an ideological divergence from American pop fandom: “What the West calls ‘meet and greet,’ the East calls ‘fan service,’ ” Lee explains. “ ‘Meet and greet’ is a privilege. ‘Fan service’ means ‘We’re here for you.’ ” With that language, the artist is fortunate to meet the fan, not the other way around.

That level of fan engagement is one of the biggest ways K-pop is changing the music industry. As Mark Mulligan, a music analyst at MIDiA Research, recently told NPR, “Western record labels are obsessed with building streaming numbers,” while K-pop is more concerned with encouraging fan participation. One genius innovation: placing collectible photo cards inside expertly packaged CDs to inspire fans to buy multiple copies. (Just ask girl group Twice, who’ve sold over 10 million physical albums.) Paid fan-club tiers on a direct-to-fan platform like Weverse can net a group serious money, too; BTS’s 2020 pay-per-view virtual concert, Bang Bang Con The Live, reportedly brought in $20 million.

bts, k pop, stop aapi hate

In some sense, K-pop fans are influencers themselves, amassing large followings and coordinating digital events to ensure their fave group is always trending. Fans often use their platforms for social good as well: planting trees to combat deforestation; donating rice and ramen to the Salvation Army; providing cochlear implants to deaf children. Last year, when the hashtag #whitelivesmatter trended on Twitter following the murder of George Floyd, K-pop stans overwhelmed the hashtag with fancams, effectively silencing the white supremacists. (When BTS caught wind of their ARMY’s activism, the group and their label Big Hit Entertainment donated one million dollars to Black Lives Matter; their fans matched that number in two days.) And brilliantly, when then-President Donald Trump organized an in-person rally in Tulsa in June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, K-pop fans registered for thousands of tickets they never intended to use, bloating RSVPs and preventing some of his supporters from attending.

Of course, not all stans are the same. There are millions of K-pop fans around the globe, producing 6.7 billion tweets in 2020 alone. With numbers that large, and the anonymity that the internet allows, hate goes unregulated. Just as there are K-pop fans with “BLM” in their Twitter bios, there are those who harass Black K-pop fans who dare to call out racism within fandoms. Journalists aren’t immune, either. Herman says she has faced harassment from fans. “One time I got a bloody corpse in my DMs, saying, ‘This should be you.’ ” Such cruelty, however warped, is motivated by extreme devotion.

It’s not easy to produce a pop star who can inspire such an emotive response while selling millions of records—or nine pop stars, in the case of girl group Twice—but K-pop has nailed the formula. The Korean idol industry studied the successes of Disney and Motown and developed its own system for building exemplary performers: a live-in boot camp, where teen talents move into dorms and train endlessly for years on end before debuting…that is, if they debut. They face constant scrutiny from fans, limited phone privileges, and dating restrictions. Depression is common. It’s especially hard for women, who have endured weekly weight check-ins and so-called “starvation diets.” K-pop soloist IU infamously consumed only one apple, two sweet potatoes, and a protein shake each day to lose 11 pounds in five days. Twice’s Momo once admitted to eating a single ice cube a day in order to lose 15 pounds.

twice sit together against a white background

Still, there are some signs of progress. K-pop stars like Monsta X’s Joohoney and Twice’s Mina have publicly taken mental health breaks. Draconian decade-plus contracts for trainees, once known as “slave contracts,” are no longer the industry norm. They’re imperfect, but such reforms are a step in the right direction. “It sounds harsh, but pop artists are a commodity. They are produced; they are expected to generate certain results,” says Seoul journalist Haeryun Kang, lest anyone forget the cutthroat industry was modeled after Western star-making factories where indecent behavior is often hidden beneath the sheen. “But, having said that, [K-pop idols] are individuals with desires and artistic interests of their own. We need to look at both.”

Clearly, K-pop is pop, but the music continues to be othered—categorized outside Western (i.e., white) pop as something as something exotic.

Warts and all, K-pop has forever transformed the industry. “Groups like BTS have made it normal to see Asian faces in the Western music market,” says Seoul journalist Haeryun Kang. “Positive representation opens up the question, Can K-pop one day just be called ‘pop’?” BTS has worked with Halsey, and reportedly with Justin Bieber. Blackpink has worked with Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa. Clearly, K-pop is pop, but the music continues to be othered—categorized outside Western (i.e., white) pop as something as something exotic, not unlike using the genre tag “world music” for anything non–European or North American. “[‘K-pop’ speaks] to a U.S.-centric, hegemonic hierarchy where things outside of Western music must be classified by region,” Kang says. (Though unlike world music, “K-pop” wasn’t coined by white Americans, but rather Koreans looking to export the music abroad—inadvertently capitalizing on the American tendency to otherize.)

Dropping the K feels like a distant dream in a world where anti-Asian hate has been emboldened, and yet, it’s 2021, and the biggest band on the planet is Korean. K-pop boy bands and girl groups are among the most tweeted-about musical acts in the world. K-pop idols are brand ambassadors for Chanel, Dior, and Saint Laurent. They sit front row at fashion weeks, hip-to-hip with the world’s biggest celebrities. They sell out stadiums worldwide. A handful of years can make all the difference. To quote Lee, Dude, think about that!

Artwork By Geoff Kim

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