How Kpop got its Place in Western Media

Now that the season of music and movies has hit, Spotify has begun releasing a weekly playlist called “New Music Fridays”. I’ll listen to it sometimes to find music to add to my own personal playlists, and am unsurprised with the typical English and Latin music that comes on.

Today was different, however. Today I was pleasantly surprised to hear Blackpink’s “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du”, which had been released today (along with the music video for it). Blackpink is a prominent girl’s Kpop group, whose song “Boombayah” had broken records for being the most viewed debut song on Youtube, and achieving 150 million views in less than six months. Even as I write this, the music video “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” became the fastest girl group Kpop music video to hit 10 million views. To hear their newest song on a playlist of otherwise Western songs was interesting.

The song (which was pretty good, by the way) got me thinking about Kpop as a whole. Just six years ago, most people outside my neighborhood (I grew up in a Korean neighborhood) had never heard of Kpop. Now, advertisements featuring BTS (the most popular Kpop group of right now) are growing increasingly less uncommon, and just about everyone I’ve spoken too knows about Kpop. This did not happen for no reason.

No, the reason Kpop has burst on to the scene goes beyond the accidental popularity of “Gangnam Style”. South Korea’s entertainment industry sits in an interesting situation, receiving direct funding and advisement from the Korean government while at the same time holding themselves as a private industry. This is because while the South Korean government is promoting a market economy with both a private and public sector, they are promoting it in a way that gives them control over how they promote the nation’s image. They want Kpop and Kdramas to spread and show how “cool” of a country South Korea is. The goal is to have their pop culture be known not only in Eastern and Western markets, but also in what’s called “developing” markets as well.

With the massive amount of funding the entertainment companies receive, they can push out higher quality media, to the levels of Japanese and Western media. They promote a Western appeal (adding rap, street wear), while at the same time keeping a unique flair that is inherent to Korean media. They were trying to make their brand known.

But even with all the effort put in, many were shocked to find that “Gangnam Style”, a lyrical satire about the Beverly Hills of South Korea, took the cake for breaking into Western markets. The song, which makes fun of the mannerisms of the rich in South Korea, was not the song the government wanted to be the first Kpop song that new audiences heard on a large scale. While that isn’t to say that they didn’t want singer Psy to make the song at all (he was a relatively popular artist within South Korea), they certainly didn’t want it to become that popular. But not everything can go according the plan, however.

I can’t say “Gangnam Style” was the song that put Kpop in the spot it holds today.  It seems more like the genre gained a more permanent footing when BTS shocked audiences by snatching the title of Top Social Artist at the American Billboard Awards in 2017, beating out prominent names like Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber. It sent the internet ablaze, being divided between fans who were excited for the win, and quite a few people who were asking “who are these guys?”. And while Kpop was popular already, I felt it opened more people to exposure from Kpop, getting more people to jump on the “Korean Craze”.

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