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Can K-Pop become a transnational genre?

  • [등록일]2017-07-07
  • [조회] 713

In the 1970s, Korean Pop was following the footsteps of British and American music. It was almost impossible to find a musician or listener who didn’t listen to Western Pop, and that music served as the yardstick for measuring music quality. Radio programs would play Western music all day long with a few exceptions. People used to ask themselves, “Can Korean music appeal to foreign audience? Will there be a day when British and American listeners become a fan of Korean musicians?” Surprisingly, this actually became reality 30 years later in the 2000s. Unlike the 80s, when only a few artists like Cho Yong-pil and Na Hoon-a gained popularity among Japan and Hong Kong, Korean Pop music is now spreading overseas as numerous idol singers and groups are now gaining popularity in Southeast Asia and the Americas.
  Still, the older generation do not believe in Hallyu and the popularity of K-Pop singers all across the globe. They can’t believe that Western fans are enthusiastic about Korean musicians. When they hear about local fans crowding the stages of MAMA (Mnet Asian Music Awards) in Hong Kong and KCON (Large scale K-Culture Convention) in LA, they believe it only attracted overseas Koreans. They respond suspiciously when they hear that airports in Beijing, Hong Kong, Paris, and London are paralyzed when Korean Idol singers arrive, as employees stop doing their work to see the musicians.
  K-Pop is spreading all over the world as exceptional dancing skills, visual, singing, and the effort of management companies come together to create a synergy effect. The presence of K-Pop, as well as the growing number of Korean students in the school, played a role when Shin Jung-hyeon, the Godfather of Korean Rock, received an honorary doctorate at the prestigious Berklee College of Music this May. A staff member at Berklee said “K-Pop is the most prominent genre in world music. Everybody knows at least one or two K-pop artists such as PSY, 2NE1, or BTS.”


Shin Jung-hyeon receives honorary doctoral degree - Source: Shin Dae-cheol’s Facebook

  The most important accomplishment is that Korean Pop music is growing up to become a transnational genre not only for Koreans, but also for people all over the world. Its progression is not that different from that of the American or British Pop in becoming a “language for global Pop music” during the 1950s and 60s. This is confirmed by the fact that K-Pop is covered frequently and periodically by the celebrated Billboard chart compared to J-Pop (Japanese Pop music).
This shows that our efforts have paid off. First and foremost, credit must go to domestic entertainment agencies that made considerable strides in size and quality through a prospective approach. They became a stepping stone for K-Pop in becoming a global music genre through extensive planning that expanded beyond borders as they kept pace with Western Pop music and even lead trends. Agencies believed in the potential of Korean idol singers and spreading Hallyu, even in the early 90s. These agencies saw the possibility of transnational dance content.
  H.O.T., one of the forerunners Hallyu, held a concert in Beijing in 2000, which led the way for other Idol groups to advance into the Chinese and Southeast Asian markets. However, this didn’t mean that a mutual exchange of culture was possible. Agencies only cared about sending their artists abroad. However, they figured out in the 2000s that Hallyu couldn’t be consolidated without cooperating with foreign countries and markets.
  The concept of nationality shifted as BoA gained success through entering the Japanese market while collaborating with Japanese agency Avex for marketing and promotion. According to Japanese critics, the Japanese audience saw BoA as a Japanese artist rather than a Korean one, which ultimately made way for her success. Even though the meaning of nationality didn’t die out, it was apparent that it weakened considerably in BoA’s case.


(Left) H.O.T’s concert in Beijing marked a milestone in the growth of Hallyu - Source: Beakers Blog
(Right) BoA as a cover model for a Japanese Magazine - Source: Blog “Catwalking”

  BoA’s success led Korean agencies to an interactive approach, where they tried to form a partnership with a targeted country through making a multinational group that included local members as well as Koreans. For instance, 2PM, one of the most admired groups in Southeast Asia, has NichKhun, an American born in Thailand, among its seven members. It is difficult to deny the fact that ‘a Thai Hero NichKhun, helped 2PM to become one of the most popular artist groups in Southeast Asia while their career in Korea didn’t exactly flourish. Lisa, a member of YG’s ambitious new project “Blackpink,” is also from Thailand.
  Many other groups followed 2PM’s way of including foreign K-Pop aspirants to their group. Suzy’s agency JYP has Chinese member Fei in miss A, and Jia was also in the team through a JYP audition in its school in Beijing before her contract ended. Likewise, Korean agencies have been selecting foreign participants through official scouting of foreign talent for a few years.
  SM entertainment’s F(x) started as a multinational group with two foreigners, Victoria from Qingdao in China and Amber, an American born in Taiwan. Another member Krystal and her older sister Jessica from SNSD are Korean-Americans. Jackson of GOT7, Cao Lu of Fiestar, and Zhou Jieqiong from I.O.I, a group formed through reality show ‘Produce 101’ are all Chinese. Cosmic Girls, a girl group composed of 13 members include 3 Chinese members: Cheng Xiao, Mei Qi, and Xuan Yi.


Thailand’s special edition of 2PM’s album in 2009


Poster of GOT7’s American Tour concert - Source: GOT7’s official Facebook Page

SM has aimed at China as its ultimate target for K-Pop, and came up with TVXQ, a name familiar to the Chinese. In 2010, their team EXO, currently one of the most famous idol groups, was composed of two teams, EXO-K and EXO-M (M stands for Mandarin, which shows their aim), and SM filled the latter group with four Chinese. Although three out of four members, Kris, Luhan, and Tao were swept away due to maneuvering of a Chinese agency, their existence has played a key role in making EXO one of the most popular groups among Chinese teenagers in a short period of time.
  The fact that members from the U.S. and Japan, powerful nations in the music industry, are included in Idol dance groups is proof that K-Pop is taking a prominent position in the music world. TWICE, a group that has made five continuous hits including ‘Like Ooh-Ahh’, ‘TT’, ‘Knock Knock’ and ‘Signal’ has four foreign members. Tzuyu is from China, while Momo, Sana and Mina are from Japan.
  Vernon is an American member of the group Seventeen, which has gained popularity among Korean teenagers, while Henry from Super Junior M is from Canada. These two singers a sign that more music aspirants from Europe and America are about to join K-Pop. However, they are of Asian heritage, rather than a Western one. K-Pop would be truly transnational if a member from Europe, South America, or North America (Notably American) perform as a member of a K-Pop group. This scenario is realistic as well as logically possible.

Although we use the term K-Pop, K-Pop’s nationality has exceeded beyond “Korea.” This means that K-Pop, with its powerfully unified dance moves, has become a form of globally shared content, rather than a result of K-Pop’s effort to extend itself. Now, it is challenging the global status of British/American Pop and Latin music. Numerous adolescents from America to Southeast Asia and the Far East are fascinated by the visceral appeal of K-Pop and want to be a part of it.
  If the meaning of K-Pop is limited to Idol dancing groups, the possibility of transnationality has already been fulfilled. The trend of drafting foreigners into K-Pop starts from recruiting overseas Koreans such as Johan Kim of Solid, Joon Park of g.o.d, Yoon Mi-rae, and Bobby Kim to scouting Asian-based foreigners from nations including Japan, followed by signing up overseas Koreans from Europe and America. This development concluded with the debut of EXP edition, a K-Pop group without a Korean. Composed of members from the U.S., Croatia, and Portugal, this group serves as living proof that K-Pop is now advancing to become truly universal content.
  The success of K-Pop has proven to be inspiring to many Koreans. People from older generations, however, grew up envying foreign products, and many feels ill at ease, looking at foreigners envying Koreans for its musicians. However, the true transnationality of K-Pop is not realized by the fact that foreigners are included in Idol dance groups. EXP edition is at best an outlier and the musical status of foreign members in K-Pop group has never overtaken or even matched those of Koreans.
  For now, foreign members only serve as an exhibit in a K-Pop group, but being foreign is not really necessary for success. The appeal of content, rather than showcasing different nationalities, is what is really needed for a transnational genre. K-Pop can’t be transcontinental if it can’t move audiences all over the world through “music.” The emergence of K-Pop groups with foreign members or even without Korean members doesn’t make K-Pop a worldwide phenomenon. Music is dependent on its ability to gain the sympathy of the listeners, rather than the external details. One still can’t say that music fans all over the world truly love K-Pop’s musicality without any doubt. Even though the formal progression of K-Pop is impressive, K-Pop still has a long way to go in order to achieve true transnationality. To achieve that goal?even though this has already been said more than enough?K-Pop needs to diversify. Musical progress is still required.



  • name  : Lim Jin-mo
  • profile : Music Critic