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.
Though new fans may be quick to equate K-pop with Psy’s “Oppan Gangnam Style” refrain, Hallyu is a cultural phenomenon encompassing television drama series and movies, pop songs, computer games, animation, and a revival of more traditional Korean art forms. In fact, many track the term “Hallyu” back to 1999, when Chinese journalists noted the rapid influx of Korean television drama series and pop music into mainland China. Perhaps Psy’s recent success is a perfect example of being at the right place at the right time, but it is also impossible to discount Psy’s talent and knack for songwriting, nor the fact that Psy has undoubtedly kicked wide the door that had previously been only nudged open by his predecessors in the world of K-pop: award-winning actors and Korea’s first boy bands, girl groups, and solo artists.
Since then, the Korean Wave has spread into multiple venues. In 2002, South Korea made the Top 4 cut of the FIFA World Cup tournament. Women and men alike fawned over professional football player Ahn Jung-Hwan and gathered in the streets of Seoul wearing red shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “Be the Reds.” Soon after, audiences spanning from East Asia to the Asian Pacific Islands were tuning into Korean melodrama series “Autumn in My Heart” and “Winter Sonata,” the latter of which is still responsible for the annual arrival of nearly 100,000 tourists to Nami Island, the site at which “Winter Sonata” was filmed. And most recently, albums by K-pop groups Girls’ Generation and Big Bang have earned coveted positions on the Billboard 200 chart, cementing a foundation for Hallyu in the United States.
While K-pop inherently includes Korean lyrics, Korean trends, and, of course, ethnically Korean artists, its recent expansion has global appeal: most artists are now required to gain fluency in Mandarin, English, or Japanese, and often release new versions of their songs or special edition EPs in languages outside of their native tongue. In fact, many popular K-pop groups, such as 2PM of JYP Entertainment or f(x) of SM Entertainment, even contain members who are ethnically Chinese or Thai or have mixed heritage. It seems the K-pop industry has recognized the need for both local and universal appeal—for its artists to serve as proud ambassadors of the Korean culture while delivering lines in perfect, unaccented English. The ability of its artists to collaborate and perform with artists of foreign markets only adds to the continuation of K-pop’s conquest worldwide.
There is a fine line to tread between a connection with the home base and the malleability required to captivate diverse audiences; the K-pop phenomenon is carefully walking across this tightrope as it continues to tap into new fan bases worldwide. In any case, there is no doubt that K-pop’s time is here, and K-pop will only continue to grow as it rides the high tide of consumer-driven waves.
—Columnist Soyoung Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org