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The Second Korean Wave: K-Pop in America

Updated on August 30, 2017
Kavya Sebastian profile image

Kavya is a current student at the Isenberg School of Management and an avid fan of South Korean boy group, Bangtan Sonyeondan.

Globalization lends its hand to several aspects of modern culture, from the implicit societal hierarchies set in place to beauty standards and practices to the technology used every day. In conjunction with the ease of access provided by the internet, individuals now have the power to select the information they access. Be it news outlets or entertainment, the ability to choose has granted us the freedom to explore various avenues of material on the internet. The elements of globalization, specifically cultural globalization, that are found in modern society intermingle to inform the choices of individuals. In this way, certain trends of beauty or music are directly related to globalization. One example of such cultural globalization is the newfound popularity of the industry of Korean Pop, commonly known as ‘K-pop’, within the United States, and around the world.

South Korean boy group, Bangtan Sonyeondan
South Korean boy group, Bangtan Sonyeondan | Source

The history of what is known as the “Korean Wave” starts with the media liberalization in Asia in the 1990’s. Under the pressure of the United States, the Korean government allowed studios in Hollywood to distribute films directly to local theaters which ultimately led to the decline of Korean films, television, and music in favor of American entertainment. The public television networks in Korea controlled the distribution and held the influence over the direction of media consumption. As such, Koreans were swayed towards American styles of music and entertainment. The result of such influence was the incorporation of American elements into original Korean forms of popular culture, and this progression led to the explosive popularity of Korean pop groups and films. In particular, Korean television dramas received a great deal of popularity throughout Asia, being distributed with subtitles and dubbing. Amongst the Korean television drama channels was also “a regional music television channel, Channel V, [which] featured Korean pop music videos, creating a huge K-pop fan base in Asia” (Doobo 2015:384). Consequently, K-pop expanded quickly into Asia during the late 90’s, and this era was known as the ‘Korean Wave’. Japan and China in particularly consumed this form of entertainment and effectively transformed the industry into something quite profitable for Korea.

Korean artists and groups such as Psy or Bangtan Sonyeondan, and many others have gained traction amongst fans in the United States, and many have called this rise to popularity the ‘Second Korean Wave’.

In recent years, K-pop has once again made it way into mainstream culture, this time spreading to Western countries. Korean artists and groups such as Psy or Bangtan Sonyeondan, and many others have gained traction amongst fans in the United States, and many have called this rise to popularity the ‘Second Korean Wave’. This phenomenon of K-pop emerging in American culture offers many potential positive impacts for the societal values of America. For instance, the concept of the ‘Yellow Peril’ may diminish as the culture becomes further integrated and accepted into the United States. Regardless, the international development of these Korean media industries “is clearly a sign of resilience of the subaltern – and of the ‘contamination of the imperial’, considering the context of decades-long American domination of global cultural industries” (Doobo 2015:388). Ultimately, K-pop could prove to be a valuable tool in some sense of cultural global equality, and the simple presence of this type of music in American media is a clear demonstration of cultural globalization.

Bangtan Sonyeondan on their 2017 WINGS Tour
Bangtan Sonyeondan on their 2017 WINGS Tour | Source

Of the aforementioned artists, Bangtan Sonyeondan, also known as BTS, is a Korean pop boy group that has caught the attention of major music organizations in the United States. Upon the release of their album, titled ‘Wings’, BTS has gained a lot of attention for their music and choreography styles. From being the first Korean group to win Billboard Music Award, to selling out arenas all over the world, BTS has garnered a lot of significant international, let alone American, attention. For instance, as they announced their recent world tour, they were forced to add more tour stops –one extra night in Anaheim and Newark, and an additional stop in Chicago– in the United States. Even so, the tickets to all stops were sold out in record times. In fact, the Newark stop at the Prudential Center, which seats about 18,700 people and is one of America’s largest arenas, sold out in under four minutes. The group, which debuted in 2013 with very little funding for their projects, has turned into a sensation in Korea, beating many self-held records, topping charts, and making history in the Korean music industry. The international attention has only improved their sales and brought even more attention for the seven members.

Beyond the spread of culture, the industry of K-pop also offers a great economic advantage for South Korea. As one of the country’s biggest exports, K-pop brings in revenue in more ways than one. Viral sensations, such as Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” further spread the exposure of Korean culture and values. It is then no coincidence to note the significant influx of tourists to Korea, as well as the increase in interest and consumption of Korean products and cuisine. From skincare and beauty products to bibimbap and kimchi, Korean vendors have seen quite a growth in sales; places like Koreatown in New York are seeing more business than ever, attracting consumers to their local stores. Even cultural activities, such as noraebang, or Korean karaoke rooms, are becoming increasingly more popular in the United States. It is all truly the work of K-pop and other modes of entertainment, such as Korean dramas. These celebrities are able to gather crowds like only a handful American artists can. Groups like BTS, as mentioned before, hold world tours that span from Japan to Chile to California, expanding music trends and influence into other parts of the world. Consequently, their impact through product promotions and sponsorships also lend a hand to the country’s economic health. The groups promotes Puma, and their campaigns have proved to be wildly successful for the firm. Although Puma leans towards the use of single global brand strategy, their single exception is South Korea in which they use the local talent of BTS to target the region. In fact, Adrian Toy, the company’s regional marketing director stated that “the initial plan was to target South Korea [through BTS], but with the power of social media, their story and subsequent content gained life across the region” (Iyer). The popularity of the group has earned revenue both for their own company as well as those that they promote. Puma is an international brand that is very successful, and for their marketing exception to be South Korea due to the ability of local K-pop celebrities to promote more efficiently than the global brand strategy is quite significant.

BTS promoting Puma in South Korea
BTS promoting Puma in South Korea | Source

One of the foundations of social change lies in the defeat of the initial apathy towards other groups of people. As such, cultural globalization is a powerful tool that can be used to permeate Western hegemonic cultures with ideas and perspectives that are different from its own. This can expose groups that have been rendered to be the racial Other to the Western culture and overcome the aforementioned apathy. Such ideas can also empower members of such Other groups to feel that they do in fact have a voice, that their culture and traditions do in fact matter. These seemingly simple sentiments can drastically transform and challenge the socio-political views of the West. In this way, K-pop is more than music in another language. In the words of BTS member Namjoon Kim as he spoke to the audience: “music transcends language, countries, or races”. His words perfectly sum up cultural globalization and how the messages contained in music and entertainment can spread throughout the world regardless of their origins. As something that has been surpassing regional barriers in a frenzy, the genre of music might just have the power to question the validity of stereotypes and encourage Western culture to accept and legitimize the practices and norms of other groups of people.

Bibliography

Fineman, Nicole, Logan Jaffe, and Samantha Quick. “Crossing Cultures: Black K-Pop Fans in America.” New York Times. 27 March 2017. Web.

Shim, Doobo. 2015. “Hybridity and the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia.” Pp. 383-388 in The Globalization Reader: Fifth Edition, edited by Frank J. Lechner, and John Boli. United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons. Ltd.

Iyer, Byravee. “What Puma is Doing Right in Asia.” Campaign Asia. 12 October 2016. Web.

© 2017 Kavya Sebastian

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