From “Gangnam Style” to BTS: The Rise of K-pop in the U.S.
Nielsen Music reports that the consumption of Korean music in the U.S. has doubled over the past three years. Thanks to social networking platforms, user-generated content sites like Tumblr (R.I.P.) and South Korean promoters’ loose perspective on copyright, Korean bands, TV shows and more began seeping into America’s pop culture consciousness in a whole new way at the beginning of the last decade.
The term "Korean pop," most often abbreviated as "K-pop," originated in the 1990s but gained widespread popularity in the early 2000s, replacing the term "Gayo," which was used to refer to pop music created in South Korea. This more modern form of South Korean pop music has been influenced by numerous genres — hip hop, gospel, folk and so on — and musical styles from around the world. Apart from celebrating its hybridity, K-pop also leans heavily into sleek fashion, mesmerizing audiovisual content and — perhaps above all else — incredible dance and choreography. These days, K-pop boy band BTS has taken the world by storm: The group’s first stadium concert in the U.S. sold out within 20 minutes, which is quite a feat for a non-English-speaking musical act. But how did K-pop go from being celebrated by one pocket of the internet to mainstream darling? Well, there are quite a few factors at play, but there’s one pop culture touchstone that we probably all remember well: "Gangnam Style."
In 2012, PSY’s "Gangnam Style" hit YouTube and, soon after its release, the music video began garnering 5 million views a day. Not only was this a huge moment for K-pop, but it was also a huge moment for music in general as "Gangnam Style" became a viral phenomenon — and became the first YouTube video to hit 1 billion views. The song reached #1 in over 30 countries, went 10x Platinum in Australia and 5x Platinum in the U.S., and holds the record for the "most liked" video on YouTube with over 16 million "thumbs up." Although the video now has upwards of 3.3 billion views, it’s thought of as a bit of a one-hit wonder in the States. Regardless, "Gangnam Style" undoubtedly helped K-pop break into the mainstream.
And K-pop has continued to thrive in — and thanks to — digital spaces. K-pop fans are incredibly active online; Billboard reported that "[in] 2018, K-pop artists and related content were referred to in 5.3 billion tweets globally." Additionally, Spotify reports that the number of folks listening to the genre has grown since 2015, with K-pop’s share of listening increasing by roughly 65% annually for the last four years.
K-pop Becomes a Valuable Resource
Before PSY and BTS, there was the boy band H.O.T., which rose to international fame in 1996, launching an entire subculture referred to as K-pop "idol" culture — wherein a group has a very active and dedicated fanbase. At first, H.O.T. seemed like something of an anomaly — that K-pop’s popularity outside of South Korea was destined to remain a blip. In 2003, TVXQ and BoA proved that K-pop was anything but a trend, popularizing the genre in Japan and parts of East Asia.
K-pop Continues to Ride the “Korean Wave”
Another asset? K-pop is extremely accessible, thanks to sites like YouTube and various social networking platforms. Unlike American record labels, Korean entertainment companies are deliberately open when it comes to distributing content and not so stringent when it comes to copyright issues. That is, the mentality is to cast a wide net — to give folks the ability to easily access, and fall in love with, the music and K-pop groups.