In 2018 especially, the definition of what it means to be a successful K-pop group or artist has evolved to include the western music market. However, with this new definition, what does it mean for the newest generation of K-pop?
There have been numerous popular Korean artists who have had performances overseas in such places as Australia, the U.S., and Europe including acts like Big Bang, Wonder Girls, VIXX, and Super Junior. However, it was a completely new concept to be noticed outside of the then niche audience that listened to music that came out of South Korea — especially by moguls and entertainment programs. That is until Psy’s 2014 song “Gangnam Style” literally took over the world.
While most couldn’t understand the lyrics, the energy of the song, the catchiness of the hook, the absurdity of the video, and the bizarre horse dance created the perfect mixture for a worldwide hit (think of “What Does the Fox Say” for another reference). I witnessed the song played at weddings, in shopping malls, and heard it drift out of cars once in a while. However, the appeal of the song in the west also played to stereotypes about East Asia and East Asian music being different, wild, peculiar, and otherized.
As the years went on and K-pop moguls pulled in more popular Western music sounds to appeal to a wider audience, so did the acceptability of K-pop become more palatable. The updated music, artistry, and over-exposure of the singers which resulted in emotionally dedicated fandoms created an impetus that had no real alternative than to go global.
As such, while Psy presented the absurd, BTS presented a more approachable image.
Although there are still lingering conflicts with the image of masculinity they present in comparison to the common constructs presented in Western media, with their fandom, charisma, and similar sounding music, they were accepted into popular Western culture in an unprecedented manner. They appeared on several liver entertainment programs, got a few plays on radio stations, performed at large venues, attended award shows and have even collaborated with different artists including Steve Aoki and Charlie Pluth.
In the manner, BTS began to change what it means to be successful in K-pop.
In their footsteps, several other boy groups began making media tours in addition to concert and performances including Monsta X, GOT7, Super Junior, and NCT 127. More, artists like BLACKKPINK, Wendy from Red Velvet, and CL have gone on to collaborate with Western singers Dua Lipa, John Legend, and The Black Eyed Peas. Not only that, but landing on domestic charts hardly makes waves — what matters now is appearing on Billboard’s Music Chart or topping iTunes in several countries.
As these larger and more established groups expand into different markets, what does this mean for new generation groups or those who don’t have popular (Western) appeal? While some of these new group have managed to build up their fan base, they have struggled to have that popularity translate to an international fanbase that makes media tours like the groups mentioned above feasible, like Wanna One. Earlier this year, the group was unable to sell enough tickets for their North American tour and had to downgrade their venue size.
Similarly, having sold over a million albums this year alone putting them on a similar level as EXO and BTS, and breaking other records TWICE have failed to gain international attention and acceptability like BLACKPINK and Red Velvet. Prior to this change in the definition in success, winning on a domestic music program like “M! Countdown” or “Inkigayo,” or maintaining a decent spot on music charts was enough. Now it is not. So what happens now? Will groups be able to be in the top 10 on a music chart and still be considered “flops” if they can reach the level of these other groups?
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