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The Rise of

K-pop

By Eric Han

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     Before Psy burst onto the scene, Korean culture wasn’t global, but things change quickly. Pop culture has a way of reaching mass audiences rapidly and overnight things change, people change. When Elvis shook his hips on stage, when the Beatles descended the steps onto the American tarmac, when the first flash mobs in malls seemed to spontaneously burst into song and dance, was the world really ready? Most people could not even imagine the changes to come. Fast forward from Gangnam Style to a musical group named BTS being named global ambassadors for an entire nation, and one can see the power of a movement. In the United States, music and entertainment in general have enjoyed a diverse journey from simple beginnings to embracing global phenomena that years later seems almost home-grown. A part of that is the spread of copycats or “cover bands,” as they are known.  Of course, many talented artists, inspired by the new styles, go on to create original works within the same genre and the abundance of similar material quickly expands. How many rock bands are there? How many country bands? How many heavy metal groups? How many rap artists? 
     Given that each subgenre enjoys large followings, the inspiration is there for new artists to settle into a niche and try and build an audience. As a niche, K-pop isn’t new. Yes, it is relatively new to the U.S. but in Korea, that is what we grow up with. BTS is just one group in a large pool of K-pop artists that have emerged over the last few decades. Some people say that K-pop originated back in 1885 when an American missionary named Henry Appenzeller started teaching his students American and British folk songs with Korean lyrics. While that may be true, no one outside the area even knew of it. My point here is that social media and the internet have a way to quickly amplify a localized moment into a global sensation. 
     Sometimes I ask myself why Japanese pop [J-pop] has not proliferated in the same way that K-pop has? Japanese pop has a big head start over its Korean counterpart, yet I cannot name one single Japanese pop group or artist that is popular today. Meanwhile, I can point to nearly a dozen K-pop groups who are flourishing now. Girls in Iowa are learning to sing and dance to K-pop songs they find online, yet there are no known efforts to cover any Japanese pop groups or songs. Correct me if I’m wrong. The same is true of Germany, China, Russia and even France. Not a single pop group or artist is being covered from these countries in the United States today. 
     In a world hungry for entertainment, filled with so many streaming platforms that seek content, the fact that Korean pop performances are flourishing in the USA amazes me. Not long ago a K-pop event sold out the Hollywood Bowl and girl groups Blackpink and TWICE are nearly as popular here as BTS, as if that was even possible. No one knows how long this will last. That is the thing with pop culture. 
     Some older friends asked me if I remember Boy George? Apparently he was huge once. My friend rattled off a list of names… Pat Benetar, Joan Jett, Donny Osmond, the Jackson 5, Alice Cooper, Lionel Richie, Rob Zombie,  Rick Springfield, Tina Turner, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, and several others, all of them were popular here once, so it seems.  This week it’s K-pop and BTS. Next year, who knows? 
     Entertainment is like fashion. What is popular changes from season to season. During each season there are so many different “houses” that compete for our attention. Each line has splashy new shows to try and attract us as followers. The same is true with entertainment. It used to be that people were very limited when it came to listening to pop music. Radio DJs were the gate keepers, for the most part. They determined who got the most airplay. With entertainment on demand now, the choice is ours. There are still gatekeepers, but they have shifted their operations. Now they determine who will stream at a Fortnite concert or who gets the L.A. stage at a Global Citizen event. Still, concerts are a thing, and ticket sales are a form of barometer to what people want. 
     On YouTube and on streaming platforms, views are the latest metric. According to the numbers, the Korean film “Parasite” and the streaming series “Squid Game” are doing for visual entertainment what BTS has done in the audio and music video arenas. Both have received amazing recognition in the American market and have expanded the appeal of and fascination with Korean entertainment. Can other acts follow in the steps of BTS? Can the creators of “Squid Game” make another show with the same level of commercial and artistic success? At this point, no one knows. Popular culture is not something anyone can predict. While it is here, we can enjoy it and later on Mars they will look back at all of this as the golden oldies.
As I prepare to enter college, I consider what kind of future I want.  American President Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” Knowing that most adults in America change their careers multiple times, I am drawn to the worlds of finance and investing. The thing about investing, particularly when it comes to pop culture, is which horse do you bet on? The game keeps shifting. This week it may be squid, but next year it may be camels. NFTs weren’t even a thing five years ago. Today I can watch a 3D hologram K-pop concert in the middle of the afternoon in Seoul, but what I think about most is the tremendous investment required to realize such technology.  How does an angel investor or a hedge fund manager decide which Korean entertainment, or any entertainment for that matter, makes the cut? If a K-pop band streams on Fortnite, is it better to spend my client’s ad budget there or is it better to go after the Metaverse through Facebook? Will I learn that in college? Textbooks written and approved by academia from five years ago are already obsolete. Investors make tremendous returns by betting correctly on entertainment, but not all bets are advisable. Art is subjective. All pop culture is fluid. Is it better to avoid the rollercoasters in investing and play it safe or does one just go with their gut? In a world where AI creators are churning out and monetizing “original” content, what does that even mean?  I believe the correct answer to that is not to be found in any book. Still, I am compelled by the premise in the old TV show “The X Files” when they say: “The Truth is Out There.”          

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Spring/Summer 2023

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