How K-pop entered the U.S. groove


Xitllali Aguirre

A BTS fan's phone case, featuring a picture of BTS's Kim Taehyung, also known as V.

Cameron Laborin, Managing Editor

High fashion, dollar bills raining from the sky, beautiful women, fast cars. A party scene. Banging beats and rhyming lyrics synced in a video create an audiovisual expression: a music video. Music is the core of culture and thanks to the internet, globalized sharing of music has become commonplace. One genre that recently exploded in popularity: Korean pop or K-pop.

K-pop, characterized by single-sex groups, explosive dance routines and fashionable outfits, saw little success in Western countries until one song took the world by storm: PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” PSY pokes fun at the neighborhood of Gangnam, the Korean equivalent to  Beverly Hills, according to “What Does Gangnam Style Mean?” by Today I Found Out writer Daven Hisk.

The video follows a man (PSY) putting on a front of wealth who is constantly revealed to have little “Gangnam Style.” PSY’s song, goofy and comedic on the surface, is a sharp criticism of the materialism that has engulfed South Korean pop culture. PSY disappeared after his hit’s release but he paved the way for other K-pop groups.

Thanks to PSY groups such as EXO, TWICE, SHINee, BLACKPINK and Red Velvet gained exposure beyond South Korea. Despite numerous attempts, K-pop still had immense difficulty building sticking power in the West. One group broke that through — Bangtan Boys, also known as BTS.

In the U.S., record labels are important to fledgling musicians, but getting signed isn’t a requirement to gain popularity. In South Korea, entertainment companies scout talented performers, put them in training camps and build groups from these performers. The company a performer is signed by drastically affects their ability to become mainstream stars; the largest companies debut multiple groups and put the most resources into marketing their new stars while smaller companies can’t compete. BTS were recruited by BigHit, a small entertainment company.

BTS’s success is due in part to their underdog beginnings. They debuted in 2013 when boy group EXO was extremely popular. BTS is managed by a small company. Despite this difficulty, they’ve garnered fame nearly beyond any other K-pop group by keeping in touch with their fanbase through social media and releasing behind-the-scenes footage of their practice sessions and performances.BTS  has kept the attention of an extremely loyal fanbase that has inspired them to excel.

And excel BTS has with their latest album, Love Yourself: Tear, climbing the all-genre Billboard 200 since its May 18 release. The album is projected to reach one of the top two spots. Last year, Love Yourself: Her made it to No. 7 on the listing and became the first K-pop album to ever breach into the U.S. top ten, according to “Will BTS Become The First K-Pop Act To Chart A No. 1 Album Next Week?” by Forbes writer Hugh McIntyre.

BTS has done more than become famous. In South Korea, discussing mental health issues and showing vulnerability is frowned upon and openly insulted. BTS, through their fame, is beginning to open healthier conversations about sensitive subjects. In an interview with Billboard’s Chelsea Briggs, group rapper RM (Kim Namjoon) said their latest album’s goal was to show that “if you, in love, when you’re not true to yourself, the love won’t last. Because love is complex and we always have the dark sides and the sad sides.”

BTS has shown the world what K-pop has to offer through their transparency with their fanbase, their personal and career achievements and their willingness to use their fame as a platform to open discussion. By showing their vulnerabilities and who they are off the stage, BTS has gathered a fanbase that extends beyond national and cultural boundaries. BTS is a historical and record-breaking group, and in the future there may be more following in their wake.