The Rise of K-Pop

A look inside the industry with a rapidly growing fanbase. Spoiler: There’s more to it than BTS.

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Popular music from South Korea, otherwise known as K-pop, has been gaining traction in America in recent times. One could say that the unprecedented success of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012 marked the beginning of this trend. The legendary boy group, BTS, along with the acclaimed girl group, Blackpink, are also regarded as trailblazers of the genre. From BTS being named TIME’s Entertainer of the Year in 2020 to Blackpink headlining Coachella in 2023, K-pop has remained a facet of American pop culture--and its popularity doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Last year, the US generated 6.6 billion K-pop streams. As for this year? A whopping 9.2 billion.

Although K-pop has prospered in America, the genre has amassed more of a niche following rather than a mainstream audience. Most people know BTS and…that’s it. After all, out of the 60 K-pop songs featured on the Billboard Hot 100 since 2020, 42 involved BTS or a BTS member. Maybe you’ve heard “Seven” by Jung Kook or “Cupid” by FIFTY FIFTY (both of which landed a spot on Spotify’s 2023 “Songs of Summer” global list), but perhaps not much else. Or maybe you've watched a Blackpink music video at some point, considering that they have the most YouTube subscribers of any musical act on the platform.   

Reaching a magnitude of success seen by the likes of BTS and Blackpink are slim to none for the average K-pop group. However, the notoriety of both groups has paved the way for newer artists to acquire a solid American fanbase. Popular names in the current K-pop scene include Stray Kids, aespa and NewJeans.

K-pop has garnered fans across the nation, and USC is no exception. The university is home to Kosmic Dance Club (KDC), a student organization aimed at bringing students together through a mutual love of K-pop and dance. Aiden El-Mereebi, a sixth-year studio arts major, is head of the dance committee for KDC. He joined the club his freshman year. 

"I love expressing myself through dance and motion- it’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to join Kosmic." To El-Mereebi, KDC is “more or less a space to express yourself. A space to just be yourself, and then having K-pop and dancing be the medium that you go about it." 

For many, communities like Kosmic Dance Club and other K-pop spaces create an environment that feels safe and free of judgment. So--why K-pop? What makes listening to K-pop so appealing when you can’t even understand the lyrics (which is the case for many American fans)?

One of K-pop’s charms is the variety of music genres within the industry. “K-pop’s not just pop,” El-Mereebi said. “It’s encompassing everything, and it’s whatever they want to produce, whatever style. I think people find that really interesting--that whatever group you go to, there will be a different take on what they see as K-pop."

K-pop truly has something for everyone. NewJeans and Stray Kids--two groups at the forefront of K-pop’s fourth generation--are great examples. NewJeans is characterized by dreamy bedroom pop tracks, playful choreography and Y2K-inspired stage outfits. At the other end of the spectrum, Stray Kids has a heavy EDM and hip-hop influence, with energetic, powerful dances and stage outfits reminiscent of punk fashion. 

There is often variety within the same group as well. Tomorrow x Together, nominated for Top Global K-pop Artist at the Billboard Music Awards earlier this year, is known for their diverse discography. Take their most recent album, “The Name Chapter: Freefall,” for instance. You’ve got catchy synth-pop with the song "Chasing that Feeling,” sensual R&B with “Dreamer” and angsty rock with “Growing Pain” all on the same album. It also isn't uncommon for a group to switch “concepts” (the overall vibe or theme of an album or group) across different “comebacks” (a music release and the subsequent promotional period). All of this variety within K-pop creates interest and draws fans in. 

Another distinguishing feature of the K-pop industry is the high standards that K-pop artists, commonly referred to as idols, are held to. Idols are expected to excel in both dancing and singing, while simultaneously exceeding Korean beauty standards. There are strict limitations placed on idols’ personal life as well. Many companies enforce a no-dating policy for their artists. Park Jin-young, founder of one of the biggest K-pop companies, JYP Entertainment, said in 2015 that groups under the label were restricted from dating for three years after their debut. This kind of rule would seem ridiculous in America, where it is commonplace for stars to have relationships that are known to the public. 

Why are idols placed under such strict scrutiny? Well, many aspects of the K-pop industry are designed to push the idea that idols are just that--idols. Placing rules on an idols' dating life, restricting what they say and having them work to produce endless content for fans’ consumption are all ways that K-pop stars are marketed as a commodity--as something that fans feel they can control. Idols risk facing massive backlash if they challenge this persona. Earlier this year, boy group ENHYPEN's song, "Bite Me," involved a controversial choreography sequence in which each member was paired with a female backup dancer. Some outraged fans raised money to send protest trucks to HYBE, ENHYPEN’s parent company. The signs on the trucks demanded the choreography be changed to remove the backup dancers. 

The K-pop industry does seem to encourage parasocial (i.e. intense and one-sided) relationships, which can be said to contribute to K-pop’s success. However, many fans reject the idea that idols should be within their control. In ENHYPEN’s case, after the original protest trucks were sent, some fans sent trucks with encouraging messages expressing their support for the group and the female dancers. While some fans take their love for an artist too far, the majority of fans enjoy K-pop in a healthy way.

El-Mereebi explained that another contributor to K-pop’s popularity is simply the way it’s structured. “A lot of groups are popular in Korea, whereas in America there’s usually soloists, so I think it’s easier to find someone that you identify with better in a K-pop group.” (El-Mereebi, 10:52). 

Perhaps K-pop is capitalizing on a market otherwise left untapped--a market left behind by massively successful groups like NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and One Direction. It’s simple: people enjoy the unique dynamic of a team. With a variety of content featuring your favorite group, from interviews to behind-the-scenes videos to vlogs, it’s fun getting to know the members past the music they create. “Entertainer” seems to be a more accurate term for K-pop idols, rather than simply “music artist.” 

In some cases, a group’s personality can be even more important than the music they create. One group, SEVENTEEN, has a YouTube series called “GOING SEVENTEEN" that is immensely popular. In fact, there is even a fanbase name (like Beyoncé's "Beyhive" or Justin Bieber's "Beliebers") for the series--"Cubics"--which is separate from the title of SEVENTEEN fans--"Carats." Fans regard SEVENTEEN members as fantastic entertainers, and many enjoy watching them play elaborate games and complete fun challenges together. Many groups produce this game-show type of content, and it’s another of the many attractions of K-pop. 

There are many more unique aspects of the K-pop industry that were left unmentioned--fancams, ending fairies, photocards, biases, aeygo, fancalls, visual positions, light sticks, fanchants… we’d be here all day. Perhaps the most important aspect of K-pop? The ability to bring people together. 

El-Mereebi explained how the genre positively impacted him. “Dancing helped me get through a lot of tough times, and [during] happy times, it’s really nice to go to a concert or just listen to music with friends. It’s just a really nice way to foster [a] community that likes talking about music or likes dancing together,” El-Mereebi said. “I’m really into K-pop because I find people that actually care about each other." 

One possible explanation for K-pop's innate ability to bring people together can be viewed through the lens of Social Identity Theory. This psychological theory states that one's identity is partly created through self-categorization into groups. This self-categorization causes individuals to create positive associations with said group and contribute to the group's morale. It’s why you likely have something hanging in your closet that’s garnet, black, reads “Carolina” or all of the above!

So, what does that have to do with K-pop? A study conducted in 2020 found that higher K-pop fanship levels (with "fanship" defined as "an individual's psychological attachment to their fan interest") predicted higher levels of happiness, self-esteem and social connectedness compared to participants with lower fanship. Humans like to identify with something bigger than themselves, and K-pop seems to be a great avenue to do so.

To many, K-pop is more than just music--it’s a way to connect with people and create long-lasting, meaningful bonds. K-pop is on the rise, and the community it builds is evidence that it’s likely here to stay--at USC and nationwide.

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