Years ago, when a K-pop artist released a new song, it was deemed a success if fans at home received the song with open arms. That is not the case anymore. As the clock struck midnight on KApril 12 worldwide, the song “Gentleman,” rapper PSY’s follow-up single to “Gangnam Style,” was released in 119 countries. Within minutes of the single’s release, people began to debate whether PSY would be a “one-hit wonder” in the Western Hemisphere.
Imagine it’s the morning of your birthday, or the afternoon you’re headed to the airport, or the evening when your new relationship status (#taken) was unveiled. You turn to your cell phone to share this news with your Twitter fam and discover that the top trending topics in the Twitterverse are actually already about you. Sound exciting? Frightening? Bizarre? Welcome to the social media world of K-pop.
The K-pop phenomenon has been in the works for quite some time, and it is impossible to dismiss either the expansive business strategies created to elevate the popularity of artists or the creative genius behind the craft of composing addictive tunes. However, it’s hard to imagine that the genre’s universal domination would have fully come to fruition without the parallel rise of social media.
Dedicated fans who speak about their favorite artists as though they are on first-name terms; paparazzi shots that circulate daily; concerts that sell out online within minutes—we’ve seen it all before. These aren’t specific to only one country. This is the norm for the U.S., whose “stans” (a portmanteau of the words “stalker” and “fan”) monitor their favorite artists, devotedly engage in conversations with each other through various social media platforms, and even disagree with other stans on fan forums. Within minutes, stans “like” posts on Facebook, “favorite” images on Instagram, and retweet Twitter posts left by their idols. To an outsider, it borders on obsessive—reminiscent of I Saw You Harvard but lacking the humor and oozing pure creepiness. However, most artists seem to have embraced their fan clubs, even appointing them with endearing names. Nicki Minaj refers to her fans as “Barbs” and “Ken Barbs,” while Justin Bieber has taken to calling his cohort of followers his “Beliebers.”
To a certain extent, it’s a symbiotic relationship between the artist and the fandom. Even if an artist desires to create music for the sake of creating something beautiful, without the fans, the artist essentially lacks an audience. Without the consumption of products, there is no funding for the future opportunities to continue producing work. A good artist deserves a respectful fan following so that he or she can gain recognition. But is there a breaking point when fandom edges on insane?
It may come as a surprise that modern-day K-pop started in a country that once lacked its own pop culture. Hallmarks of the K-pop culture now include live concerts that sell out in minutes, platinum status digital and physical album sales, appearances of artists on television miniseries and talk shows, and glamorous magazine photo shoots. However, music was not always a commercial phenomenon or commodity.
On a sweltering August evening in 2012, a plump, 34-year-old hip-hop artist, father of twins, college dropout, and self-proclaimed “B-list star” dropped his sixth album. Within hours, he became the world’s most sought-after musician. Twelve years into his career, Psy (Park Jae-sang) witnessed his fame skyrocket overnight. A few short months later, the music video for his song “Gangnam Style” hit a record-breaking one billion views, becoming the most watched video in YouTube history. Listeners and audiences on multiple continents danced along to the famous horse-dancing moves as they declared the song the pinnacle of K-pop history.
However, despite the catchy tune and addictive dance moves of “Gangnam Style,” the song is in no way K-pop’s first formal greeting to the world. Rather, the highly successful song came at the peak of the “Hallyu” Korean Wave that has been sweeping across East Asia for nearly two decades. In fact, according to some music critics, Hallyu itself is the product of nearly a century’s development of Korean music.