Waiting for the K-Wave

On November 21st, the album “Love yourself: Answer” by Korean phenomenon BTS became the first from South Korea to earn a Gold certification from RIAA for 500,000 units sales in the United States. Though it still has a long way to go, BTS has paved the way for more Korean acts to expand into the American market.

What comes to mind when you hear the word K-Pop? For now, the answer to this question might be a bit hard to navigate. Despite “K-Pop” being a recurring term popping up every now and then for the past 15 years, it has not had a very strong footing in American musical lingo, until now.  

For starters, K-Pop is part of K-Wave, the global exportation of Korean culture which includes films, cuisine, and most predominantly, music. It is worth noticing that K-Pop generally refers to music from Korea as a whole, rather than exclusively the pop-genre. The achievement of BTS in the American market is by no means a solo rise but rather the next pioneer in the line of Korean acts who have attempted to tap into the largest music industry in the world.

The first major Korean presence in the American music industry dated back 2006 when Jung Ji-Hoon, stage name Rain, took the US by surprise. He topped the TIME 100 reader poll, won multiple MTV Awards, and sold out Madison Square Garden. However, Rain’s success in the US appeared to be short-lived. Management problems led Rain to cancel numerous American concerts in his 2007 World Tour, which spawned further legal problems. Furthermore, while his blast onto the scene surely attracted attention, his failure to establish a firm grip within a Western fanbase hindered his reach in the market.

Then comes Girls’ Generation, one of the most iconic girl groups in K-Pop history. SM Entertainment, the label behind the group, took a more gradual approach to entering the biggest music market in the world. Girls’ Generation made their debut, not by a music video, but by their appearance on Primetime television on The David Letterman Show. Their performance was greeted with warm welcome from the American press, and they were expected to be ambassadors for K-Pop in the Western market. However, similar to previous girls’ groups such as Wonder Girls and 2NE1, Girls’ Generation chose a more conservative approach by focusing back home where they continued their dominance in Japanese and Korean markets.

Rain and Girls’ Generation are just two among numerous Korean acts that have attempted a shift westward. Within the American market, attraction towards Oriental-based musical groups has always provided some lure. The raving phenomenon of Gangnam Style (yes, no one could forget the dance) shows exactly this nebulous state of Korean appeal. While the song redefined the meaning of the word “viral” on multiple social media platforms, it remained, for seven weeks, in second position behind Maroon 5’s One More Night on the Billboard Hot 100. Close, but not close enough.

And here we are with BTS. The group has surely learned a lot of lessons from the past. The management has lived up to the scope as they successfully capped off a North American and European world tour in 2018. Further, they have tried to foster a larger organic fanbase with a more innovative approach. 2015 saw the group revitalize their image by adapting both their music and aesthetics to specifically suit an American audience with their EP The Most Beautiful Moment in Life. Their melody embraced a contemporary and modern sound while their lyrics remained largely in Korean, showcasing a level of uniqueness. Their patience has also reaped results as three straight years of touring in US mean more exposure and publicity. While they might be far from creating the next Gangnam Style or hitting numbers that rival Drake, BTS has done enough to build a solid fanbase in the Western hemisphere, in which the RIAA certification is the best testament to their success. This does not mean that every single boy band from Korea could find its place in the hugely competitive American market, but it does mean K-Pop’s trial-and-error process has paid some dividends.

When Korean acts do crack the key to success, all the while maintaining their perseverance to compete in foreign markets, don’t be surprised if the mainstream music of the next ten years will start with some Korean phrases.