It was a Sunday evening in November 2017, and I was preparing for the next school day. My family’s TV was turned on to Channel 5, where the American Music Awards were airing. I was one of the 9.15 million people who watched.
Different household names—including popular musicians Khalid, Selena Gomez and others—appeared on the screen from time to time. Just as I was finishing a math problem, I heard on the screen a whistle and whipped my head up only to find a group that felt unfamiliar to me. The performers were wearing colorful yet stylish outfits, executing complex choreography without messing up their vocals. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about the group that I had never seen.
They were BTS, one group of many in the Korean pop music industry. They also weren’t the first group to grace American soil. K-pop has attempted to break into the West for years and recently found success.
K-pop is a Korean genre and industry of music that leans heavily on visual elements to appeal to audiences. Acts participating in the industry are called idols, and companies scout them to intensely train in dance, vocals and rap, and to live with their fellow trainees in dorm rooms. They are also to always watch their weight and appearance in order to maintain their approachable, perfect demeanor (hence “idol”) and are usually banned from dating publicly. And according to a Rolling Stone article in 2018, western pop music influences the genre, from hip-hop to teen pop to R&B, even employing western producers to help work on the group or soloist’s music.
Companies have tried to spread K-pop globally with the hallyu wave, a movement started in the 1990s of Korean culture moving out of South Korea. Two of the most successful K-pop groups, Girls’ Generation and Wonder Girls, promoted the English versions of their songs on American talk shows: Girls’ Generation performing “The Boys” on “Live with Kelly” and “The Late Show with David Letterman” in 2012, and Wonder Girls performing “Nobody” on “The Wendy Williams Show” in 2009. It didn’t bring the exposure they wanted for either of the groups. And even JY Park, CEO of JYP Entertainment, Wonder Girls’ label, admitted that the girls’ promotions flopped on a Korean broadcasting channel.
“If I think about it now,” he said, “it made no sense.”
Even though those groups had failed to get traction in the West, that didn’t mean that all of K-pop would suffer the same fate. PSY, a South Korean singer, shot to international fame with his song, “Gangnam Style,” with its catchy tune and dance. According to Patrick St. Michel from Pitchfork, an online magazine, unlike Girls’ Generation and Wonder Girls, PSY didn’t intentionally plan to become popular in the West. Nevertheless, the blitzy track landed him on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” alongside Britney Spears and he created a global dance craze.
BTS, who had not only performed during the AMAs but had appeared on multiple shows, including “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” improved upon PSY’s success. They had become the first K-pop group to sell out New York’s more than 40,000-seat Citi Field in under 10 minutes, according to Forbes. Neither PSY or BTS had promoted English versions of their songs but rather had performed in their own language, presenting their culture without changing it to fit into the western market.
Back in my living room more than a year ago, I found myself enjoying BTS’ TV performance of “DNA,” even though I had completely dismissed the genre before that. I had turned my nose up at K-pop, thinking of it as something I wouldn’t take seriously. The comical lyrics in some songs, the flashy visuals and the multiple members in one group was something I thought I’d never appreciate. But the boy group changed my opinion on the genre, making me want to look more into K-pop, and it was interesting to discover the industry’s history and how it wasn’t always the way it is now. It all had started with the group Seo Taiji and Boys, the group cited as the originators of K-pop, who had actually passed off the torch to BTS, saying that it was “their generation now,” during an anniversary concert in 2017.
Both used their careers to speak out on various topics impacting South Korean youth, from the harsh school system to mental health, and had fought to help destroy the stereotypes and prejudices against young people, all while suffering judgment and hate initially. For me, the fun music drew me in, but the collective dedication of BTS’ seven members to inspire millions of youth around the world is what made me a fan.