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Why U.S. Audiences Are Crazy for K-Pop

[bright chiming music]
Cheesy. Androgynous.
Curious. Bold.
Different. Spectacle.
Crazy. Fascinating.
In your face.
[crowd cheering]
[up-tempo pleasant piano music]
My name is Jenna Gibson.
I’m a doctoral student at the University of Chicago.
I’m Simon Critchley.
I teach philosophy at the New School for Social Research.
I am Dr. Crystal Anderson.
I am an affiliate faculty member
in Korean studies at George Mason University.
I’m Stephanie Choi.
I’m a PhD candidate
at University of California Santa Barbara.
My name is Jeff Rabhan.
I’m the chair
of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music
at Tisch School of the Arts.
My name is Tim Chan, and I’m the lifestyle editor
at Rolling Stone.
K-pop is just more than music.
It’s the styling.
Let me be your fantasy
It’s the choreography.
[rapping in foreign language]
It’s the makeup, and it’s the music.
Shining through the city with a little funk and soul
So I’m gonna light it up like dynamite, whoa oh oh
K-pop as a whole, I don’t think has broken
through that barrier yet,
not to the point where they’re a household name yet.
[bright soft music]
Well, look, I think that what we have
to talk about is the idea of is K-pop a thing?
It’s absolutely a thing.
Is K-pop a thing? Nowhere close.
I completely disagree.
I think that K-pop and BTS in particular
have broken into a mainstream audience in the last year
in a way that is unprecedented.
You’ve seen BTS on Jimmy Fallon.
They took over Grand Central Station.
They were on Carpool Karaoke.
They were on Ellen, Today Show.
There’s all kinds of mainstream audiences
that are being exposed to these K-pop groups
in a way that is unprecedented.
They’re on Ellen? I didn’t know.
Wait a minute! I got this all wrong.
We gotta start. I’m kidding.
[people laughing behind the camera]
The US market is fickle by ignorance.
People like what they like.
There’s a reason why every country song
since the beginning of time is about my dog,
my momma, my truck, and church, ’cause it works.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the American motto.
That’s why there are tried and true,
hackneyed, repetitive themes in music.
Pop music by design is the low-hanging fruit.
I don’t know if I would describe it that way.
We do know that the United States
has a certain pattern that it has followed in terms
of the types of music it embraces in the mainstream.
The closer you are to music that is familiar
or music that other people have deemed to be popular,
the easier it is for you to enter into the mainstream
in the United States.
But one of the challenges that K-pop has
is that we have several barriers, one of which is language
that makes that a little bit challenging.
Yeah, I would agree with that.
I think a lot of people in the US
would describe K-pop as a fad,
as something that’s not gonna last.
Part of it is because they
don’t really understand the language,
and so they don’t really know
what these artists are singing about.
[singing in foreign language]
So when it’s something that’s hard to follow,
you don’t really give it a chance
’cause you don’t really understand it.
Yes, it’s true.
A lot of global fans don’t bother
to look up the lyrics, and when they do, oftentimes,
those lyrics are mistranslated.
But they like the music anyway.
It definitely helps when they do sing in English,
but that’s not something that we really care about.
We just want them to be comfortable
with whatever language they wanna speak in,
how they wanna do it.
We’re fine with whatever they wanna put out.
I think one of the things that people misunderstand
about K-pop is that it’s like this bubble pop a genre
of music, and it can be that.
But it can also be a lot of other things as well.
Yeah, I think that’s another assumption coming out
from the outside of Korea,
that the western media, very often describes K-pop
as a stereotypical idea, that the Asian culture.
I think Americans don’t necessarily take the time
to learn the difference between Chinese Americans,
Korean Americans, Japanese.
Asian is Asian, white is white,
and when people are grouped together
in a large-scale way, everything feels foreign to them,
and there’s a real conundrum there.
I think the other part of it has to do
with the development of racial discourse
and racial histories in the United States.
Think about how many Asian American actors are popular,
how many Asian American musical acts we have.
It’s not that they don’t exist,
but they haven’t entered into the mainstream
of the United States, either.
So to ask K-pop to do the thing
that even Asian American celebrities
and artists and musicians haven’t been able to do speaks
to something else that’s happening in American culture.
[bright soft music]
Back in the early 90s is when people say
that K-pop really started.
It started with a group called Seo Taiji & the Boys.
[singing in foreign language]
And that’s where historians who talk about this say
that K-pop really took off.
Well, interestingly, prior to K-pop,
J-pop had a marginal splash internationally,
and there have been a few attempts here and there
for Korean artists to break into the US market.
I would have to say I thought Rain
did a spectacular job, but I think recently,
we’ve seen much more of a full-scale attempt
to break into the American music market
and make an impactful international statement.
Yeah, I think it seems really amazing to us now
because we see South Korea as this very developed,
very advanced country, which it is.
But you go back just 40, 50 years,
and Korea was extremely impoverished.
It came out of the Korean War devastated,
and thanks to a lot of economic policies,
South Korea developed extremely rapidly,
and one of the main strategies they used
was to become an export-oriented economy.
In terms of an export-oriented culture,
there are extreme limitations as
to what they can actually export
because the country’s half the size of Florida.
It will have to be either manufactured goods in Korea,
of which there are few, or it’s going to have to be culture.
Yeah, and if you look at the consumer in South Korea,
the population is not large enough
to sustain the number of K-pop groups that are out there.
So the K-pop industry has become export oriented as well.
I don’t think K-pop acts are created
with this idea of exporting culture in mind.
They’re always really, really dedicated to their country.
They love their Korean fans.
So first and foremost, they’re a Korean artist.
I completely disagree.
I think that there is a huge range
in terms of what these groups could look like.
There are Chinese members, Thai members,
Japanese members that are in these K-pop groups,
and they can speak to those audiences
in Japan, China, the United States.
And you have K-pop songs that include lyrics in Spanish.
For example, there’s a group called Super Junior
who are very popular in Latin America,
and they recently did a collaboration
with a Mexican band called Reik.
[singing in foreign language]
And that’s very much with an eye
towards finding more consumers that are going
to support the long-term career of these groups.
We might wanna mention the importing of the culture.
So because of the American military presence in South Korea,
they brought American culture with them.
This was during the Korean War and in the years afterwards.
That’s how the culture got in.
So then it’s mixed and exported out
to the globe in terms of K-pop.
Once again, it’s a hybrid musical form.
So it’s taking things from this culture
and that culture and that style of music
and this style of music, and I think
that there’s something that’s unique to K-pop.
It doesn’t sound like other popular musics in East Asia.
There’s a wide variety of different types
of music in K-pop.
There are more happy, girly songs,
but there’s also more deep songs, and there’s rap.
And I feel like if people were more open minded to that
and then open minded to listening to something,
even if you don’t understand it,
it would definitely become a lot more popular,
and I think a lot more people
would realize they actually like it a lot more
than they think they would.
[bright soft music]
K-pop is definitely structured differently.
There’s a lot of highs and lows, louds and softs.
It doesn’t follow a traditional verse,
chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus formula.
A lot of times, we use in and out
between a rap verse and a melodic verse.
[Fantasia] [singing in foreign language]
A lot of times, the beat will drop differently.
[Kick It] [singing in foreign language]
And that’s why I think you can’t chalk it up
to being like generic cookie-cutter pop.
What that means is, musically,
it doesn’t sound like other records
that are on the air today.
It’s not made by producers that are on the air today,
and many of the K-pop records are intentionally made muddy.
So you don’t hear the separation of tracks.
You don’t hear the soaring melody lines.
They don’t stack vocals in the same way.
It just sounds like a vocal.
You’re not getting those opportunities
to actually see what an individual can do.
You’re meant to experience them as a group.
I think that’s correct,
especially when you’re dealing with the groups.
It’s about putting those voices together
in particular kinds of ways,
which is why when individuals from those groups
release their own music, it’s a treat
because then you can see the kind of range
or the kind of different ways they use their voice,
which is not always apparent in the singles
that are with the entire group.
In K-pop, there’s also always roles in a group,
like you need your rap line, your vocal line.
There’s the dance line.
They usually have certain amount
of group members who are advances in dance,
so it’s like a divide and conquer type thing.
We’ve always had a boy band scene here in the states.
We’ve always had pop groups, girl groups
ever since, I would say, the 60s and 70s.
And I guess it’s hard to say if people
are asking for these individual personalities
or if that’s the way they were marketed to us.
So because a western audience is familiar
with boy bands like The Backstreet Boys, One Direction,
they have a very specific picture in their mind, right?
There’s always a cute one.
The pretty one. The boy next store.
The heartthrob. The one that Mom loves.
[Jenna] The sexy one.
[Tim] The one who’s good at dancing.
[Jeff] The bad boy with the tattoos.
And I think I don’t really see that
in K-pop nearly as much.
The members of the groups definitely
have their own personalities,
but I think it’s a lot more of a mix,
and there isn’t necessarily a push
to have them fit into those specific types of molds.
A K-pop boy band is really meant
to just be seen as a band, not a boy band
where there are not eight unique personalities or,
in some cases, 18 unique personalities.
It is meant to be seen as one.
I don’t think so.
They do definitely have characters.
It’s just that they just construct
over the course of their career.
I think BTS’ Jimin was one example.
The company wanted him to project this chic image,
so he tried not to talk at the beginning
of his [indistinct] years,
and fans were like, I don’t really feel close to him.
And then he started to talk, and he was really hilarious.
He had a really friend personality,
and fans were like, Now he’s showing his real personality,
and they loved him more.
[bright soft music]
Part of what makes K-pop so exciting,
especially the boy bands in K-pop,
is that they’re really blurring the lines
between what’s considered masculine and feminine.
For example, a lot of these K-pop groups
are ambassadors for makeup brands,
and the fact that they’re not ashamed about it
or embarrassed about it really speaks
to this larger idea of K-pop encouraging people
to be who they wanna be, to be free to express themselves
however they wanna dress, however they wanna look.
They’re not worried about these rigid standards
of masculinity, and they do wanna look good on stage,
and they don’t necessarily need to be worried
about wearing makeup just because of some rule
about what men should and shouldn’t be wearing.
But that being said, you do have people coming out
and saying really awful things,
homophobic things, racist things.
And the more exposure to a broader audience
and the more success, you’re gonna get some
of those comments as well.
It’s the problem of the American media
that keep pushing this stereotypical image
on these K-pop idols as typical Asian men stereotype
that they already had.
[upbeat blues rock music]
If you look at the way black musicians,
especially black male musicians,
entering the entertainment industry
before the civil rights movement,
they tried to portray non-threatening,
entertaining, happy look.
I think the same thing is going on
with Asian masculinity nowadays
that we can think about why was it Psy
who became popular in the US, and why Gangnam Style?
One of the reasons why Psy was embraced in the way
that he was is that he did not present a threat.
[Gangnam Style]
Gangnam style
[singing in foreign language]
Gangnam style
He was round, the video was funny,
and so there was no challenge
to the way that American culture perceives Asian men.
What I found out was that the western media
very often describes idols as androgynous.
So it’s not simply about
whether they look androgynous or seem.
That would be a cultural difference
of how you view these idols.
I think the main aspect of this
is that are they gonna be popular
to women in our society? [laughs]
You cannot be a modern handsome man
because that’s threatening.
So you have to think about culturally
how K-pop is engineered.
K-pop is a creation, okay?
The boys, men, males, females,
people who are chosen are chosen for very specific reasons.
They are trained. They are characters.
They are taught to behave a certain way,
which embraces the theme of that particular group.
I think we have to be really careful
about how we talk about these stars.
There’s a tendency in the western media
to say things like, They’re coming off an assembly line,
the K-pop factory.
And I have a really big problem with terms like that
because I think those terms are very dehumanizing,
and so I think that that’s one thing
that I would like to see change a little bit
in the discourse of how we talk about K-pop.
What I would say to that
is they do have unique personalities within Korean culture
where they fill a certain void or a need
that executives have identified
or believe they have identified.
So every part of that experience
is meant to fulfill a certain need.
They are meant to be looked at not like you and me.
They are meant to be elevated.
I agree.
It’s completely constructed, and the superficiality
of K-pop is joyful, I think.
[soft bright music]
We don’t care, and K-pop is about that not caring.
These are characters. We don’t really know them.
They don’t really know us,
but there’s a kind of free enjoyment that that allows.
I would agree with the latter part of that.
I think that one of the great things about K-pop
is its joy, and I think that as academics,
we don’t spend a lot of time talking about joy.
[laughs] I approach it in strictly Heideggerian terms.
Heidegger wanted authenticity.
Heidegger wanted us to rise up
above our inauthentic involvement in lives.
But I think that’s why he ended up as a Nazi.
I think the politics of authenticity
are what lie behind Heidegger’s national socialism,
and I think average inauthentic existence is where it’s at,
and pop music is the kind of symphony of that existence.
Heidegger’s account of inauthentic social life
is governed by these three mechanisms:
chatter, idle talk,
[muffled chatter]
curiosity, lust, and ambiguity.
I see each of those three things as operative in K-pop.
It’s not clear what anything means.
Everything seems to mean something else.
We look at things with a kind of lustful curiosity,
maybe bordering on obsession and love
in the case of a lot of fans,
and then chatter that this is words being used
in this free and bizarre way and in multiple languages.
What I take from Heidegger is to celebrate inauthenticity,
to celebrate the messiness and curiosity,
ambiguity, and chatteriness of popular culture.
So K-pop is a kind of wonderful celebration
of our inauthenticity.
Authenticity is just an argument. It’s not a fact.
Authenticity very often plays a role
for a certain genre or a certain musician
to claim authority, for instance,
rock authenticity or hip hop’s keeping it real.
Yeah. What do you mean by real?
Authenticity always seems to return to an idea of purity,
the expression of some pure essence
or the expression of some purity in relation to place.
But the genius of pop music has always been about impurity.
It’s blending, it’s mixing, it’s borrowing,
and K-pop is where that adventure is at the moment.
I do agree with that.
I think that what you see in K-pop right now
is this blending and mixing and that there
is a kind of authenticity in that.
[crowd cheering faintly] [bright soft music]
[fans yelling and cheering]
So intimate labor is the type of labor
where you present intimacy your consumer.
So in terms of K-pop idols, they present
what we call fan service, which is verbal
and nonverbal, musical and non-musical behaviors
that would please their fans.
Yeah, the idea that, as a star,
you have to generate that intimacy,
that kind of curiosity bordering on lust, on love.
One thing that K-pop has done really well harks back
to the 90s and 2000s when bands
would do mall tours and meet and greets, backstage passes.
K-pop artists do a lot of those
and an old-school way of doing business,
but I think it’s been really effective
because these fans feel more of a personal,
deeper connection with the artist.
It is.
So intimate labor is not unique to K-pop,
but it’s actually very prevalent
in the entertainment industry in general.
If you see Justin Bieber outside of the stage,
he would let his fans kiss on his cheek,
although he doesn’t know who they are.
But he understands that these are his fans,
so the identities are not on a personal level,
but you understand them as your idol,
and the idols understand these group
of people as one personality that would be the fan.
It’s crucial that you have those kinds of events
to maintain your connections.
But I do think it is a component of K-pop for sure
that helps them maintain that rabid fan base.
I think the prevalence of things
like behind the scenes vlogs
and going Instagram Live before going to bed
is one thing that’s really cool in a way
because the fans are able to connect with them
in a little bit more of an intimate setting
rather than on the stage.
So K-pop idols use a multitude of tools to talk
with their fans and also have fans access their content.
They do that through V Live, which is another avenue
where idols can talk in real time with their fans.
And so it’s that kind of interaction
that I think is unique in the level of interaction
that happens between K-pop idols and their fans.
[bright soft music]
The more you pay, the more you feel
like you have ownership over idols’ bodies,
idols’ privacy, mainly because you feel
like you’re buying that intimate relationship.
You see this particularly in Korean fandom.
If members start dating or it comes out that they’re dating,
there’s this big scandal because they
should be only focused on the fans.
There was recently a particularly big scandal
because someone came out and said
that he’s getting married and that he’s getting married
because his fiance is expecting.
And so this wall just went straight up
between the Korean fans who largely wanted
to kick him out of the group and the international fans
who really are supporting him.
There was a member of BTS that was photographed
at a bar having a beer in Paris,
and this photo circulated, and it got a lot of attention.
Some people were like, We should leave him alone.
He’s on vacation.
Other people were like, Oh my God,
how can he be drinking alcohol?
Now keep in mind, he’s fully legal age, he’s on vacation,
his management company knows where he’s at, but again,
there’s almost this expectation for these K-pop idols
to be pure and to be completely blemish free,
and you wanna preserve them
as this really idyllic, angelic figure.
There is this sense that, because there’s no line
when it comes to the content that they’re putting out,
sometimes people worry that it’s encouraging this lack
of a line with their actual private life,
not their broadcasted private life.
So one trend that we’re seeing a little bit more of
that I think is really promising is, for example, BTS.
Last fall, they decided to take a break, a vacation,
and that was a big deal in the K-pop industry.
And fans really took that as a role model
for the rest of the industry.
Hopefully, that’ll trickle down throughout the industry,
and more stars can take a total break
and step away from that need to constantly be on
and constantly be showing their private lives for the fans.
[girl speaking in foreign language]
[bright soft music]
In the US market,
there’s about two million Korean Americans
or people of Korean descent.
Without question, BTS or large K-pop groups
are going to be able to sell tickets in New York City
and certainly sell out in Madison Square Garden
and can do well probably
in the top 10 Korean American markets in the US.
But beyond that, they can’t.
I would actually challenge the notion
that BTS’s success depends on Asian Americans.
I know for a fact that one of the things we know
about K-pop fandom is that it’s incredibly diverse.
In fact, in my data, I constantly see very,
very few Asian American respondents
and more Latino, African American,
and white respondents in the United States.
So that’s actually a myth.
Yeah, so BTS has been number one
on the Social 50 chart for Billboard
for more than two years, and they just broke the record
that was previously held by Justin Bieber.
And then you can also, of course, look at sales.
That’s the easiest way to look at it.
So BTS, for example, has sold thus far more
than three million copies of their latest album.
I think they actually hit three million preorders
before it even came out.
So if that’s not success, I don’t know what is.
But there’s a big gap between being a phenomenon,
which is actually impacting all the music around you
versus having a little bit of success.
So ultimately, they’re doing fine, but they certainly
are by no means a staple of American culture.
I think what that means is that the people
that love them love them,
and nobody else is paying any attention.
So I think the American music audience
is getting less xenophobic over time.
We’re seeing that barrier broken down,
and we’re seeing some really amazing artists breaking in
in a way that we haven’t seen before.
Look, with each passing day,
there’s gonna be new audience members.
There’s going to be people who discover it.
There’s going to be people who enjoy the art form
in many different ways.
And look, by design, it’s meant to be expansive,
and I think that opportunity exists.
I think that success in the US
does represent a particular kind of prestige.
However, if you look at what the Korean music agencies
are doing as a whole, their primary markets
are still China and Japan.
It’s very interesting coming from an American point of view
because we’re used to being the center.
We’re used to everybody aspiring to be like us.
From an economic point of view,
K-pop does not need the United States.
[crowd cheering]read more

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