In 1964, the Kim Sisters, a South Korean singing trio, penetrated the American music market with an appearance on the Billboard charts alongside household names like Barbra Streisand and the Beatles.
Korean pop music, an East-West blend of Euro-Pop choruses, electric tones and dubstep beats, has made a prodigious entrance into the U.S. with the international “Hallyu” wave, a broad movement of Korean entertainment culture including music and dramas.
K-Pop’s popularity recently peaked with Psy’s viral hit, “Gangnam Style.” It earned the number one spot on iTunes in 31 countries, including the U.S., and gained over a half billion views on YouTube, making it the third most-viewed video of all-time. Seniors John Kim and Caroline Spears also participated in a Gangnam Style flashmob at the Houston Korean Festival at Discovery Green, Nov. 3.
“I think the success of ‘Gangnam Style’ mostly had to do with the hilarious music video – the catchy, repetitive lyrics only helped,” junior April Chang said.
Even before “Gangnam Style,” K-Pop had been quickly garnering popularity in the states, including the Storied Cloisters, despite the language barrier.
“Understanding the lyrics doesn’t matter to me because I think music should transcend language barriers; plus, English words spread throughout the song help me get the general meaning,” Chang said.
For some, the language barrier is a part of what makes K-Pop appealing.
“I mostly like K-Pop because of the dances, but also because bad lyrics really bother me. If they’re in Korean, I can’t tell,” senior Caroline Spears said.
“A lot of the Top 40-type songs in the U.S. have lyrics that are kind of embarrassing to sing. At least in K-Pop, nobody knows what you’re saying,” junior Claire Jones said.
Some attribute the success of K-Pop to marketing and the framework of the Korean music industry, which is structured differently from its American counterpart. Girl and boy groups are managed and created by companies whose executives will find talents, dubbed idols, bring them together, train them and manage their debut.
“Idols don’t have a lot of say in the creative aspect of their music, but I will say this for the company approach: It’s never boring,” Jones said. “There are dozens of groups active right now, and each one is constantly changing its look and coming out with new music.”
Companies also manage the day-to-day activities of their idols, including participation in shows, acting in dramas, competing in contests and singing on the radio.
“K-Pop singers never stop working, which is why it’s so easy for people who live across the oceans to fall in love with them; we feel like we know them, which isn’t something I can say about a lot of American singers,” Jones said. “I’ve also developed massive crushes on certain idols after seeing them on variety shows.”
Another characteristic that sets K-Pop apart from American pop songs is its emphasis on visuals and dance.
“In K-Pop, no song is complete until its music video has been released,” Jones said. “I think the glitter and glamour is what initially attracts people to K-Pop: It’s made to be beautiful and flawless, and people love that.”
Senior John Kim is optimistic that the success of “Gangnam Style” will bring more attention to K-Pop.
“It’s all because of ‘Gangnam Style’ and YouTube,” Kim said, “Once people click on ‘Gangnam Style,’ they’ll wander to other parts of YouTube with K-Pop and discover other songs.”
“More K-Pop artists are venturing into the American market, and with Psy’s explosive fame, only more and more people will know about K-Pop,” Chang said.
Jones is unconvinced that the massive popularity of “Gangnam Style” will translate into increased success of K-Pop as a whole.
“I think it’s great that a K-Pop song has finally become a mainstream hit, but at the same time, ‘Gangnam Style’ is basically a parody that doesn’t take itself seriously. K-Pop in general does take itself seriously,” Jones said. “Ultimately, ‘Gangnam Style’ is just a viral video.”