The Rise of K-Pop in Response to the Death of American Pop

As the year draws to a close, we need to address the seven-membered, brightly colored, tightly choreographed elephant in the room. That, of course, is the K-Pop group BTS, who was nigh inescapable in 2018 — appearing on Ellen and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, selling out stadium concerts in minutes, and winning pretty respectable honors for a boy band such as being hailed by both Time and the United Nations as a forceful influence on youth around the world. If you don’t listen to their songs, then you know someone who does, because BTS was also wildly successful musically, breaking Billboard and YouTube records, often beating themselves. This newest boy band craze may seem comparable to previous teen-bop idols, but BTS is quite unique in their success. Not only are they from another country and culture with albums in a completely foreign language, but they are also part of a bigger trend. Something is changing in the American pop music scene that has aided the huge success of K-Pop and BTS. When looking for a reason, the question isn’t so much “Why has Korean music taken off?” That question’s been around for almost as long as American pop music has. The question is, what is it about K-Pop in 2018 that has sparked such a significant musical and cultural mantra?

As far as viral trends go, the current popularity of K-Pop is not an uncommon affair in our increasingly globalized world (see, “Despacito,” the closest comparison to BTS, as far as international music hits go, and still somehow hanging around in meme form even in 2018). But the interesting thing is that BTS wasn’t some fluke overseas hit that the American public was obsessed with for a summer. You may have also heard of BLACKPINK, Twice, Wanna One, and NCT, just to count a few. They’re being featured on morning shows, on American YouTube channels such as Buzzfeed. There’s a general Korean obsession that has gripped a significant portion of American youth — an obsession that is showing no signs of slowing down.

To begin with, 2018 isn’t the first time America has come into contact with K-Pop and Korean culture. In the early to mid-2000s, the first big wave of what we recognize as “K-Pop” hit Western audiences with groups such as TVXQ, Big Bang, and Girls’ Generation. In 2009, K-Pop girl group Wonder Girls made history by being the first South Korean group to have a song chart on Billboard Top 100 with their single “Nobody.” But after that first wave, K-Pop seemed to fade from the West, and apart from PSY, there was hardly any Asian, let alone South Korean, presence on the pop charts. That all changed in 2017, when South Korean boy band BTS released their fifth EP “Love Yourself: Her,” leading with the single “DNA.” While BTS had been steadily climbing the Billboard charts since 2015, “Love Yourself: Her” shattered all expectations by suddenly shooting up to number seven on the Billboard Top 200, and with “DNA” claiming a respectable peak position of 67 on the Billboard 100, outperforming “Nobody,” which had peaked at 76.

Many would simply see this as a matter of trends; things go in and out of style, and ten years later, K-Pop may be simply more palatable to American audiences than five years ago. But there is something interesting about the time during which Wonder Girls, Big Bang, and Girls’ Generation made it big in America compared to the current K-Pop craze. That is a similarity in the climate of American pop music.

Around the time that TVXQ and Big Bang were just starting their careers in the early-2000s, the pop music scene in America was pretty lackluster. Other genres like R&B, crunk, and pop-rap were dominating the Billboard charts with singles like Usher’s “Yeah!” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” There was a gap in the pop charts for actual pop songs, and when no Western artist filled that demand, pop fans went overseas. In 2018, we are experiencing something very similar to that, with hip-hop and trap music taking over the pop charts and creating this void of traditional pop music. That much is unchanged when looking at the early 2000s, but there is something new about the lack of pop music in 2018. Because it’s not that American pop music isn’t just not in style right now, it’s that it’s disappearing.

It’s difficult in 2018 to really grasp how influential Lorde and “Royals” was to pop music, because we are currently swamped with artists trying to recapture the unique sound that Lorde brought to the American music industry. Julia Michaels, Halsey, Tove Lo, Alessia Cara, and Troye Sivan all owe their low-beat, whispery, percussion-driven sounds to “Royals.” Before that, it was all about disco-influenced dance music — early Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas. Lorde, with her deadpan eyes singing about how she didn’t care in an environment where artists were constantly reminding us to care about their success and fame, brought a fresh attitude to the pop charts. Her lyrics, so bluntly cutting down the celebrity artists of the day, were almost revolutionary in their apathy and distaste of the pop diva life. However, now current music has leaned to the other extreme. Every song isn’t “gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.” Every song is “Royals.” Lorde led this mega-shift away from music with higher tempos and major chords to music with minimalistic and minor chords, a change that is still very much present today. At first, “Royals” seemed to mark a fresh new sound that could vary the monotony of uptempo pop. But as the years went by, pop music has increasingly become duller and sadder.

Even artists who came before Lorde are experiencing this influence. Taylor Swift has shifted from country-pop to indie-pop, and finally made a very public transformation to more electro-pop and trap this past year, and there are many other artists who were more subtly also shifting away from their old, more traditional pop sound — Katy Perry, Rihanna, Selena Gomez. Just looking at the discographies, it is almost unbelievable how different their music has become. Compare “We Found Love” (2011) to “Work” (2016), “Firework” (2010) to “Chained to the Rhythm” (2017), and “Come and Get It” (2013) to “Bad Liar” (2017). Not only has the music itself gotten slower and moodier, but the lyrics have become darker as well. Katy Perry went from singing about California girls and fireworks to society’s willful ignorance of its own shortcomings through the false comfort of pop music.

Thanks to Lorde, what we have in music right now are young pop artists attempting to carve out an identity that’s been worn thin, older pop artists either abandoning whatever made them popular in the first place in favor of adopting a much grimmer style of music, whoever’s won the Soundcloud lottery this week, and, of course, Drake.
K-Pop sidesteps this issue because K-Pop groups aren’t stars — they’re idols. Everything about how the groups are formed, how the members are chosen, and how they promote to the rest of the world is so meticulously manufactured to be as successful as possible that it is hard to even compare K-Pop artists to American artists. They aren’t just relying on a catchy song and a charismatic performance, but on visuals and music videos and carefully crafted personalities to showcase on game shows. All this isn’t to say that K-Pop is completely hollow or that K-Pop groups aren’t sincere in their artistry, but it is fascinating to see how companies can manage to keep their artists relevant and popular by watching what’s trending and what’s popular and tailoring their group to appeal to that trend.

BTS in particular have found this sweet spot of creating music that is much more of the traditional pop sound that was popular in the 2000s, while tempering it with other trendier music styles like electro-pop and hip-hop. This all tied together with their uniquely socially conscious lyrics makes for a powerful combination of music and culture that has proven to be a huge success among the American public.

Recent events that seem to signal the complete degradation of our society have occurred at a devastatingly rapid pace—the 2016 election, the exposure of sexual assault in Hollywood, the Kavanaugh trial—and that is, as always, reflected in our pop culture. Our generation is trending towards cynicism, yes, but that is accompanied by nostalgia. It’s seen in our fashion, in our media, and in our music. Soundcloud rap might be what’s popular at the moment, but there is a growing population of people tired of what’s being thoughtlessly regurgitated in our society, not just in music, but in politics and media as well. Perhaps there’s a desire to go back to our childhood, before we were old enough to understand and grudgingly care about these kinds of controversial issues. Around the time when pop music was seeing a boost in popularity about 2008, there were very clear positive trends and changes in American society. Even during financial difficulty and a real estate crisis, there was never a sense of hopelessness. Pop music was used as a booster, an encouragement, of reaching a better time. Now, when rappers mumble about their fame and drugs and cars and girls, they don’t even sound like they’re enjoying it. There just isn’t anyone left in the American music scene who is willing to create that kind of semi-obnoxious, upbeat anthem that dominated 2008-2013. If disco dance music was a source of cheerfulness and encouragement during difficult times, then K-Pop is a distraction in 2018. BTS offers many lyrics outlining themes of triumph and self-exaltation, but it was a song entitled “Still Wishing for Better Days” that they specifically dedicated to their fans in 2016. Fittingly enough, this is the exact sentiment felt by many of their overseas fans today.

So why K-Pop in 2018? The simple answer is because no one else is doing it. According to The New York Times, teenage girls are the heralds of popular culture, often half a generation ahead of the rest of society. If that is true, then nothing speaks more to the dissatisfaction of our music climate than the rise of K-Pop. It is providing a callback to the upbeat, major chord music of the 2010s while creating a whole new fandom culture. It’s new, diverse, and is constantly changing so as to keep audiences and fans engaged and plugged in. K-Pop as a genre isn’t by any means revolutionary or thought-provoking, but it does seem to be striking a balance of nostalgia and novelty that so many people are longing for, and will continue to persist as long as there is this demand in audiences and a lack of supply from American artists.