Dive into the cultural behemoth with this immersive account of an outsider’s journey.
I took on the project of getting into K-pop not because I have anything to do with it, but because I don’t. Two weeks ago, the only K-pop group I knew by name was BTS—and I only knew about them because I had seen articles on my Facebook timeline about fans camping out in Central Park for over a week to get a good spot at their free concert for Good Morning, America. BTS’s top hit on Spotify, Boy With Luv, has well over 250 million listens and last year BTS was the second most-streamed group on Spotify after Imagine Dragons. These numbers are even more impressive when considering that the app isn’t even available in Korea. On Youtube, the Boy with Luv music video has well over 520 million views. I figured that the best way to get into K-pop was to just start listening, so I clicked ‘play.’
This was my first mistake. It turns out that getting into K-pop is like getting into Jackson Pollock—you can’t just stare at it and expect to understand what all the hype is about.
I stopped Boy with Luv at 2:01, a few seconds into the first rap verse. There was no point in continuing to listen. Though I had tried to be open minded, I couldn’t help but hear the music as fundamentally algorithmic, manufactured, and mass-produced, in its parts and as a whole. I knew this was not how I would get into K-pop, but I was still determined to learn to appreciate it.
My second (much more effective) point of entry is research. Highlighter in hand, I start by reading a bunch of scholarly articles—Critical Discourse of K-pop within Globalization and Idol Republic, The Aporia of Presentation: Deconstructing the Genre of K-pop Girl Group Music Videos in South Korea, Idols of Development: Transnational Transgender Performance in Thai K-Pop Cover Dance—to name a few.
I then reach out to the K-pop fans in my life to hear what they love about the genre. One of my colleagues at Document, who is a member of the BTS fandom, known as ARMY, has a lot to say. “Bands will have reality TV shows, or they’ll film themselves hanging out, so it’s a lot more personal than musicians in the West,” she explains. “To have a mixture of lyrics that speak to you—speak about how it’s okay to not know where you’re going in the world or to have bad days—that mixed with kind of seeing them as regular 20-something-year-old guys, you feel like someone gets you.” She also acknowledges that “it’s a really weird thing that someone can have such an impact on your life without you having met them ever.”
It quickly becomes clear that calling K-pop a musical genre is reductive. K-pop, I learn, is a multifaceted mass-culture phenomenon that encompasses a music subculture, a dance subculture, a fashion subculture, and a thriving social media subculture. This is why simply listening to the songs won’t get you anywhere near the full K-pop experience.
Above all else, K-pop is an idol culture, whose beating heart is its obsessive, die-hard, willing-to-camp-out-for-a-week-in-Central-Park super fans. “I think some people see that fanbase as crazy teenage girls, or kind of what we saw with One Direction, but I think it’s more than that,” my colleague explains. When I bring up the Central Park campers, she says, “I think it’s not only to see the people that have had such an impact on you, but to show them that their hard work is doing something.”
ARMY and other K-pop fan bases regularly spend tens of thousands of dollars on ad space in Times Square simply to celebrate and spread the love for their idols. Perhaps even more impressively, this week marks BTS’s 141st week as number one on Billboard’s Social 50 Chart. (In fact, five of the top 10 spots this week are held by K-pop groups—including one newly-formed group, X1, that hasn’t even released any music yet.)
Most people I talk to emphasize the importance of social media to K-pop culture. “It’s vital, it’s everything,” my colleague tells me. She pulls out her phone and lists all the different social media apps she uses to keep up with BTS: Instagram, Twitter, VLive, and a new company-specific app called Weverse. “And then there’s probably like 20 other billion ones that I’m not on,” she laughs. (She also mentions that BTS has several online games and recently released a movie—which she went to see in theatres).
Above all the rest, my colleague emphasizes the role of Twitter. “It’s actually insane. It’s such a huge way for fans to interact with each other.” Not just in the form of following and mentioning idols on Twitter, but also through fans-supporting-fans projects like tutoring groups and through a social activities like K-pop cover dance.
“People like to copy the dances of these music videos and post videos of them doing it,” a different friend of mine explains. “People like to recreate it and kind of make it their own, but at the same time it’s kind of representative of the whole mass culture.” Thousands of Twitter and Instagram accounts (some with hundreds of thousands of followers) are devoted to K-pop cover dance. “And that’s why these music videos are so huge,” my friend continues, “because people have them on repeat to learn the dance moves. Which is similar to what people did back in MTV days, they would learn all the moves of their favorite music videos.” The music video for girl group BLACKPINK’s hit song DDU-DU DDU-DU has a staggering 934,587,258 views. Some K-pop cover dance crews even perform and have fanbases of their own.
Perhaps the most crucial thing I learn from my research and conversations is that K-pop is an idol culture by design.
According to Yeran Kim’s article Idol Republic: The Global Emergence of Girl Industries and the Commercialization of Girl Bodies, “these girl idol groups are systematically cultivated and managed in uniform, affirmative yet docile styles by professional entertainment agencies.” The agencies running K-pop groups like BLACKPINK know that cover dance is a powerful way to engage fans and rack in video views and social media mentions, so they actively encourage fans to do it by posting official dance practice videos (the one for DDU-DU DDU-DU has 247,239,382 views) and hosting competitions like K-Pop Cover Dance Festival. “The girl idol groups are, in other words, themselves cultural content that is designed and cultivated in a corporate management system,” Kim’s article continues.
Not only do fans know this about their idols, but they actually admire it. “So many people respect them and have a deep appreciation for them, not only because the topics that they speak on, but also because what K-pop musicians go through compared to what Western artists go through as far as training and rehearsals and everything—it’s insane,” my colleague tells me. This sentiment is echoed by one of my little brothers’ friends from Queens High School for the Sciences: “I like how much effort each and every artist puts into their songs and their DANCES oh my god. They spend years upon years training just to be able to debut.”
I end my journey with the realization that my initial impulse description of Boy With Luv wasn’t wrong; rather, my error was in assuming that being fundamentally algorithmic, manufactured, and mass-produced is necessarily a bad thing. K-pop embraces these qualities openly and honestly, and for fans worldwide, they’re part of the genre’s appeal.
When you listen to a K-pop song, you know what to expect: Mostly Korean lyrics with a sprinkling of English pop-music buzzwords (“hands up,” “bottle full o’ Henny,” “I wanna dance,” “middle finger up,” etc.); high-energy electric drum beats layered on bouncy bass layered on of synths, sound effects, digitized harmonies, and backup vocals; a shout-out to the name of the group; a catchy chorus; and a rap segment or two. From the music videos, you know to expect a series of elaborate sets, enhanced electric colors, flashing lights, elaborate styling, close-up shots of each member of the group, and (of course) a repeated group dance. It’s accessible, relatable, and reliable. It’s undeniably fun, epidemically catchy, and transculturally cute. It’s something that millions of people across the globe can bop to and bond over.
By the end of the week, not only were K-pop ads popping up on my Facebook and Instagram feeds, but K-pop tunes were popping up in my head. While I won’t be camping out in Central Park or joining a K-pop cover dance crew any time soon, I can now say that I understand and appreciate why people do. Like Jackson Pollock, getting into K-pop requires an understanding of its context—where it’s coming from and what it’s trying to do.