The Korea Herald


[Grace Kao] The appeal of K-pop to Americans

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 30, 2024 - 05:30

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What is the appeal of K-pop to audiences in the United States? I am a fan and researcher of K-pop, so I think and talk to college students and fans of all ages regularly about it. If you do not live in the US, it might be difficult to imagine the level of visibility of K-pop here in the United States.

It is not everywhere: We don’t see idols in advertisements and we do not hear K-pop songs in public settings, except perhaps at a Korean restaurant. Still, most Americans have heard of K-pop. If they are not fans themselves, they know someone -- a friend or family member -- who is an ardent follower.

This is even true for people from other non-Asian countries. My colleague at Yale, who is originally from Mexico, has a sister who is a huge fan of BTS. Like him, those who know K-pop fans understand the importance of K-pop to them.

Here are a few themes I have learned from my conversations with fellow fans, and I share these sentiments. I limit my thoughts to idol groups, which is what Americans think of when they are asked about K-pop.

First, the production values for the music, music videos and performances are all very high. There is no other pop music genre that can compete in terms of choreography.

I have shown many of my family and friends BTS’s performance of “On” at Grand Central Terminal in New York City for "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon (a US nighttime talk show) from Feb. 25, 2020. Their performance is stunning for its difficulty and expansiveness. Grand Central Terminal is a well-known landmark, and most of us on the East Coast have seen it first-hand.

BTS’s “Mission Impossible” and James Bond-inspired performance of “Butter” at the 64th Grammys in 2022 was also spectacular -- accessible to new fans, but also with references to their previous albums. These are shows that are well-known to all Americans.

K-pop music videos are also beautiful -- complete with concepts and performers perfect in their appearance, singing and dancing. Longtime fans may detect repetition among music videos and stages, but newer fans will not notice it. While girl and boy groups express romantic innuendos, explicit references to sex are generally non-existent. When they are visible, it is modest relative to contemporary Western pop songs.

K-pop videos are nothing like Cardi B.’s “W.A.P. (featuring Megan Thee Stallion)." BTS’s “Butter” or “Dynamite,” as well as more recent K-pop music videos such as “Cupid” by Fifty Fifty, “Super Shy” by NewJeans, “In Bloom” by Zerobaseone, or “Go Up” by Trendz are sweet and innocent, G-rated, and appropriate for all ages. OnlyOneOf’s “'libidO (Guilty Pleasure Ver.)" and Kard’s “Icky” are examples of music videos with direct references to sex, but many casual fans of K-pop are less familiar with them, and they are still modest by Western standards.

Some K-pop fans have also told me that K-pop music videos give them a reprieve from the oversexualized content of other Top-40 singles on the US Billboard Hot 100. Sometimes we just want to hear a fun song to which we can hum or work out. Sex is further de-emphasized in the stage performances by many groups -- backup dancers are often the same gender as the group members, and there is relatively little interaction between the group members and the backup dancers. Homoerotic performances (with the exception of very few groups) are generally not present.

In both live fan videos and stage performances, K-pop idols seem genuinely interested in the fans and stare longingly into the camera, thus directly into the eyes of the viewer. Of course idols are trained to do this, and shots are coordinated with the cameramen and directors, but it effectively creates an intimate space between idols and fans. For Americans who may feel lonely and isolated, especially during and post-COVID, the feelings evoked by watching K-pop idols are warm and comforting.

Finally, American fans like that K-pop songs are primarily in Korean. It gives them a sense of something out-of-the-ordinary that they can look forward to learning about, and many K-pop fans aspire to learn Korean, eat more Korean food, and go to Korea.

Bilingual fans who speak Korean provide translation services, and non-Korean speaking fans are grateful to them, which further builds a sense of community among fans. They might enjoy Cha Eunwoo from Astro and then turn to "True Beauty" or "My ID is Gangnam Beauty."

Perhaps watching Rowoon in "The King’s Affection" will lead them to look for songs by SF9. Korean lyrics are essential to the experience of K-pop. Frankly, there is no comparison between the quality of lyrics of K-Pop songs in Korean versus English. If you don’t believe me, look at the lyrics of BTS’s “Dynamite” versus “Spring Day.”

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is an IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. -- Ed.