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.
While K-pop has maintained popular appeal throughout East Asia for nearly two decades, before the proliferation of global social networks, attempts by K-pop stars to break into Western markets essentially failed. In 2008, K-pop queen BoA attempted a foray into the US market. After disappointing results and failing to break into the mainstream pop culture, she ultimately returned to Japan and South Korea, where she still reigns at the top of the K-pop world as an active solo singer and a judge on popular televised audition program “KPopStar.” In 2009, the girl group Wonder Girls, pushed the boundaries of K-pop further by opening the Jonas Brothers’ tour throughout the US. However, they still remained relatively unknown throughout the States, and they too returned to South Korea, where they proved far more lucrative and popular.
Now, consider the development of social networking platforms. In 2006, Facebook finally opened its doors to the whole public. The same year saw the birth of Twitter, followed by Tumblr (2007), Instagram (2010), and Google+ (2011). The waves of social media through the past decade illustrate a level of globalization in which people on opposite ends of the world are able to connect through more and more readily accessible mediums. Likewise, these social networking platforms make it easier for K-pop artists to reach larger, more global audiences.
For instance, in 2011, Rolling Stone magazine mentioned hip-hop girl group 2NE1 as a group worth checking out in a News Round Up, and then in 2012, the magazine even published an in-depth list, “The Top 10 K-Pop Groups Most Likely to Break in America.” This is a far cry from the cold reception that K-pop artists previously received in the United States. Moreover, K-pop now has its own channel on YouTube; the video platform corporation even celebrated its seventh anniversary à la K-pop style with “MBC Korean Music Wave in Google,” a free collaborative concert between Korean broadcast corporation MBC and Google that gave away all 22,000 tickets within 30 minutes and attracted over one hundred thousand viewers in its livestream.
The K-pop culture seems to have recognized the massive role that social network platforms play in its ability to sell. Artists and corporations have fully embraced the benefits of social media. Silly snippets of conversations between artists on Twitter excite fans for allowing them a glimpse into the seemingly private lives of their idols, and fans take to the same social media platforms to express their dedication in return—hashtags of their own invention become top trending topics overnight to recognize the birthday, comeback, or album release of their favorite stars on Twitter.
Artists have even begun to take to Instagram to post quirky photos that receive thousands of “likes” from fans; the corporations that manage these artists use the same platform to upload teaser images leading to an artist’s comeback, as witnessed by YG Entertainment’s timed release of teaser stills of their “monster rookie” Lee Hi on the eve of the release of her first full album. Groups such as 2PM also utilize Google+ to host live-streamed hangouts with fans worldwide. Most recently, hip-hop rapper, fashionista, and the leader of Big Bang, G-Dragon, has announced that his latest track will be unveiled on April 1 through a free calling and chatting application, Naver LINE, and only fans following him on the platform will be able to download the track.
On the flipside, these same applications and platforms often lead to less than positive experiences for K-pop artists as well. For instance, Choi Siwon, member of Super Junior, revealed his Twitter was hacked last January: “Someone hacked my account…I know who did [it], but I’m not gonna tell. JUST DON’T DO THAT ANYMORE. Please.” Moreover, due to the public nature of social networking platforms, rumors of painful breakups and scandals spread like wildfire. For instance, over-attentive fans realized that lead rapper Yong Jun-hyung of BEAST and lead dancer Goo Ha-ra of girl group KARA “unfollowed” each other on Twitter, leading to a sweeping scandal before the breakup was officially announced by their respective agencies a week afterward. As such, perhaps it’s not too surprising that some artists choose to close their Twitter accounts altogether… only to be received with more enthusiasm when they return, like actor Jang Geun Seuk.
Despite the potential breaches of privacy that social media platforms may present, it’s worth wondering whether K-pop would have achieved the worldwide popularity it has today without the rise of social media outlets. However, the warm embrace of popular social networking platforms that aren’t necessarily as common in mainstream Korean pop culture as in the United States—for instance, pre-Twitter and Instagram, most people utilized Korean social networking platforms such as Cyworld or me2day, and still do—shows an attuned attentiveness to the outside world and global audience. The propelling forces and central figures of the K-pop realm have accepted social media’s proliferation and are unafraid of riding on its waves to better present and publicize the K-pop phenomenon.
—Columnist Soy Kim can be reached at email@example.com.