A multi-billion dollar industry in the south-east Asian country of South Korea has emerged in the last two decades, thanks to Hallyu (the Korean wave). With government funding and its aim of soft diplomacy to establish influence over the world, many artists have emerged onto the world stage.
New music is pumped out from labels big and small, each trying to put their artists in the spotlight. However, one company, Big Hit Entertainment has outdone them all. Home to the now first-ever Grammy-nominated Korean boy group Bangtan Sonyeondan (Bulletproof Boy Scouts or Beyond The Scenes) and with an IPO valuation of $7.5 billion, it has redefined and shaken the Kpop industry at large.
While taking a risk and moving away from the somewhat controversial pre-existing practices of the industry, Bang Si-hyuk -CEO and mastermind behind BTS’ success- debuted a seven-member boy band group in 2013 and gave them autonomy to express themselves without much intervention from the company. This self-expression, honesty, and relatability along with their unwavering dedication to speak against the toxic norms of the society led to their popularity among the youth.
Still, the road to success was never easy. As a group from a small label nearing bankruptcy, they were often the second option. But with the help of, then, a small legion of fans who they named ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth), they continued to showcase their talent on every platform possible.
While many K-pop songs are about relationships and love, BTS covers subjects that other bands may not: bullying, elitism and mental health to name a few. With each successive album, they expose listeners to not only great music but literature, art and philosophy, educating their fans to look inwards and have a positive impact on society.
However, some questionable practices in the industry remain; from TV network and award show monopolies to having potential artists (trainees) go through several years of gruesome training before they debut. Having unrealistic beauty standards which are deep-rooted in their society and the constant critique with the margin of zero error in their daily lives has led to artists suffering from serious health issues. Not giving them the leverage of being a human, often invading their privacy and boundaries while constantly wanting more from their favourite artists has led many commentators to raise concern over the fan culture surrounding kpop. Further read 1.1 and Further read 1.2
On the other hand, with the increasing demand for authenticity in music, the artists are gradually being given control over their music. Various bands like GOT 7, Twice, Black Pink, EXO, NCT etc have made their mark on the global stage, acting as a catalyst to the Korean wave which has led the entertainment industry, contributing $12.3 billion to South Korean GDP in 2019 according to the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange.
For many listeners, Kpop is like a breath of fresh air from western pop and other genres that may seem monotonous at some point. However, the fanfare behind it is still questioned by many. These questions often come from people who have preconceived notions about certain aspects of this industry and are not ready to put those notions aside. Suga, the rapper of BTS addressed this by saying, “You’ll like BTS’ music if you listen without prejudice.”
In a time where globalization is entering a new age, these notions and prejudice must not stop us from exploring new cultures, languages and ideas. As the director of Oscar-winning film Parasite puts it “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing things.”