It’s the end of 2020 and I still see the same narratives on the same platforms over and over about Korean music on mainstream Western media.
Korean music isn’t going away. It might lose its high level of attention in the United States, but will continue to evolve without the Western “Oriental” perspective. Mainstream media outlets are trying hard to convince you that a select number of tastemakers can tell you what good Korean music is. What they’re actually doing to directing you down the single-minded rabbit hole of company-backed PR and website advertising.
Korean culture has been exported to the world for over a decade. Through dramas, movies, and music, the government has pushed culture into the world. The last five years or so have seen larger steps forward and now Korean entertainment can be consumed across streaming platforms, podcasts, and mainstream and fan websites.
But I don’t think KOCCA predicted the explosive growth of social media and the now-common weaponization of fans, especially in pop music. Cultural facets are shared, misinterpreted, and incorrectly acknowledged to a wide audience creating an illusion of South Korea.
Some feel that Korea is appropriating culture and style too. But that greatly discounts Korean history. Many cultural aspects were forced on Korea. And it’s very colonialist to apply Western cultural norms or expectations on top of another country across the world that doesn’t carry an identical cultural structure. Korea is not and will not ever be the United States. And don’t say it’s because of Confucianism, for fuck’s sake.
Korean pop music had a huge benefit from internet connectivity, social media, and YouTube. Girls’ Generation‘s “Gee” released, on YouTube, 11 years ago, currently with 265 million views. To compare, BTS‘ “Dynamite” has 769 million views and came out in August 2020. At the time, Girls’ Generation were the most popular girl group in South Korea, but relatively unknown in the international mainstream. BTS is the culmination of the power of internet connectivity. This is a direct example of how the internet has fueled the growth of pop music.
These views don’t source from mainstream media, they come from millions of fans worldwide. But in the United States, mainstream media is quick to disassociate non-localized artists into categories or selectively work with acts when it will result in some large gain in viewers or visits. Outside of BTS or Blackpink, how many other acts have actively participated in United States media multiple times? Were promoted as artists instead of clickbait?
Western Korean music media coverage is young and can still carry underlying “culturally other” undertones depending on the author. Psy‘s “Gangnam Style” wasn’t viewed as “good music,” but welcomed for the comedic value he had for media outlets. Eight years later, you can still view/hear racist or xenophobic commentary about Korean artists. Western media still keeps Korean music at a distance, very hesitant to welcome it on the same level as Western local music. How relevant have the Grammys been until BTS was nominated? How much attention will the show potentially get now?
Honestly, I don’t think many English-language mainstream outlets care to use due diligence because their strategy to get video views and pageviews is working. These sites use the same “tastemakers” who are creating the Korean music narrative for English-speaking markets without much oversight. There is definitely a wider spectrum of available voices, but why go outside the lines?
When it comes from an “American,” it’s trusted more than from a person of color or even more bizarre, someone of Korean ethnicity, especially when speaking about cultural aspects as an influence in the music. I’m not suggesting all Korean music should be covered by Koreans or Korean Americans. I’m saying that there are more people intelligently writing about pop music than the ones that mainstream media continues to have on speed dial.
The Korean pop music machine will always release and promote new acts and the same content strategies will be used. In my opinion, the constant slew of “first Korean group to” headlines continues to apply the “otherness” tag. BTS’ multiple Billboard chart placements will eventually be a footnote in their careers which will supersede an arbitrary chart ranking. Adding “the first…” is simple clickbait. Not many outlets reported that Ee was the first Korean act to play Coachella in 2011. They would rather change the narrative to “first Korean hip-hop group,” “first Kpop girl group,” or whatever is convenient.
This is going to bleed over into other genres and the fear is that mainstream media will bundle up Korean music into sellable packages. There’s already a lot of positive work being done to expand independent music by Zandari Festa and SXSW. At some point, mainstream media will need something smaller and less expensive to cover and that will come at the expense of independent acts.
Independent music should get more attention in Western media. But not with the constant narrative of “surprise” or “did you know there’s music other than Kpop.” Artists and bands are creating amazing music and are able to find fans through social media, streaming playlists, or friend recommendations.
The fear is that mainstream media will just go back to the same people who write about pop music and ask for their “expert” opinions about the wide selection of independent artists, stick to a select few, and ignore the rest. Or act like they “discovered” a new act and push them as a product under their influencer library.
What Korean independent music needs isn’t a “tastemaker,” it needs a constant stream of recommendations from multiple sources. There are more artists and bands than pop groups. A place on the Billboard chart isn’t going to pay bills, a mention on a mainstream site won’t result in a headlining festival spot, and someone acting like a gatekeeper won’t help a potential fan connect to an artist.
Streaming music is great for fan discovery, but it’s garbage for the artist. Streaming makes music a cheap commodity that doesn’t account for the years spent learning an instrument, finding a voice as an artist, writing music, recording music, and putting that music into the public where people will hear it.
Success for an artist isn’t getting on a meaningless chart or being highlighted on a playlist. It’s about being able to connect with fans and hopefully being able to sustain a career with music. In South Korea, that’s a dream that few have achieved, but music continues to grow with new artists and bands. All of which aren’t looking to Western media to help them survive.