From the phenomenon that was Gangnam Style to BTS making history as the first K-Pop group to perform at the American Music Awards, K-Pop’s popularity in the west, albeit surprising, has been a long time coming. Although groups such as Wonder Girls, Big Bang and Girls Generation have all made small ripples across the pond in past years, it was BTS’ success in the US which really bought K-Pop to everyone’s consciousness.
So how did we arrive to overseas fans passionately singing along lyrics in a language they don’t actually speak? K-Pop is influenced by a range of genres, most noticeably taking American Pop music and turning it up a million degrees. Vibrant, upbeat and irresistibly catchy melodies infuse the genre and combined with polished choreography, highly produced music videos, altogether they provide a brilliant sensory experience for fans to consume and take apart.
But unlike music production in the west, K-pop as a genre encompasses much more than just the songs. Behind the lyrics and melodies, there’s years of extensive training before one can officially ‘debut’ as a band, or more rarely, a solo artist. The amount of control a studio has over its artists is staggering compared to western counterparts, not to mention accusations of exploitation with contracts overseeing their private life and romantic relationships.
BTS’ success owes some part to this heavily produced system, but where others before them have tried and failed to really make an impact in the west, how are they different? In one way, the majority of BTS’s discography is self-written and produced, including themes relatable to their youthful fan-base. Members themselves are humble and generous towards fans, often a stark difference from Western artists who are also more cautious of their privacy.
Timing is also a significant factor, this year seeing the global success of Despacito – further highlighting music’s capability to transcend language barriers. It seems the west is becoming more open to foreign language media as also reflected by trends in cinema and television. So whether you’re jumping on the K-Pop bandwagon or bingeing the latest foreign language series on Netflix, start brushing up your language skills, one just isn’t enough.