With the rather abrupt rise in popularity of the South Korean boy band BTS, it is natural to wonder what exactly made them explode in Western pop culture. Maybe it was the colorful hair and clothes of the artists, or the beat of the music, which seems to have an entirely different feel from what you would normally hear on the radio in the US. Perhaps it was the fact that they could pass as professional dancers instead of singers with their complicated choreography. Either way, BTS is commonly described as a “worldwide phenomenon” by many critics, and K-pop seems to be taking off in the entertainment industry today.
To really understand why K-pop is so popular these days, you first need to get a feel for what the genre truly is. Suga, a member of BTS, explained his own definition of it: “I think rather than approaching K-pop as a genre, a better approach would be ‘integrated content’. K-pop includes not just the music, but the clothes, the makeup, and the choreography;all these elements amalgamate together in a visual and auditory content package that I think sets it apart from other music or maybe other genres”. These components truly are the reasons why the genre is considered to be exceptional, especially to most Americans, who are generally used to similar artists following uniform styles of music every time they release new songs.
Nonetheless, behind the glamor of these pop stars known as “idols groups”, the competitive industry is known for their countless agencies that control these idols with an iron fist. For example, most are prohibited from openly dating and when they are caught doing so by Dispatch, one of South Korea’s biggest paparazzi news companies, idols often plummet in popularity. The rather conservative culture of the country plays a significant role in these rules as well, with several idol group members losing support in the industry because of certain actions that the public did not approve of.
One of the most major examples of this can be found with Sulli, a K-pop star who was part of the girl band F(x). Idol groups are expected to be obedient and submissive to public reception while keeping a clean image with no imperfections, even in their private lives. Sulli, however, made sure her voice was heard by openly speaking up about her struggles with mental health issues, her relationships, and women’s rights. The Korean public is known to frown upon celebrities, who many think of merely as sources of entertainment, whenever they speak up on sensitive topics as such. Sulli was found dead at her home in October, 2019.
For me, K-pop is a component of Korean culture that many citizens consider to be the pride of the country. Despite the negative and almost toxic environment in which these idol groups have to compete against each other, being a K-pop star is still the number one dream for teenagers in South Korea. With other idol groups emerging in the Western industry, the most prominent one being girl group Blackpink, who recently performed at Coachella in 2019, K-pop is becoming a genre that cannot be ignored easily. Netflix even has a K-pop episode on their show titled “Explained”, which touches upon the cultural phenomenon through the eyes of critics. Although it is hard to say whether K-pop will continue to grow bigger in Western culture, it has certainly become prominent enough to slip inside our current lifestyles.