K-Pop has, without a doubt, become one of the biggest industries within the past ten years.
Warning: This article will cover topics which some people may not be comfortable reading about, including suicide and rape.
For those of you who don’t know, I love K-Pop. I’ve been listening to it more or less constantly since 2012 – just before PSY’s Gangnam Style hit the gloal music scene. So, sure, I’ve arguably not been a fan of K-Pop myself that long, but I can certainly see the changes that have happened in the last 7 years. I can certainly celebrate the success of K-Pop within the last decade and, honestly? Despite some people disagreeing, it really does deserve to be celebrated.
The Korean pop music scene has been constantly changing since its cocneption. Nowadays, produced tracks can contain influences from rock, jazz, gospel, R&B, dance, country, folk amongst many others. It’s a music scene full of experiments. However, with experimenting comes a series of ups and downs. Today, I’m going to be exploring K-Pop with the last decade in mind. Why? Well, it’s certainly been an adventure.
Although the Hallyu wave has been happening all over Asia since the 1990s, it wasn’t until the 2010s when Korean pop music entered the global stage. Before this point, there had been a somewhat anti-climatic reception to Korean artists trying to make the American stage. BoA – often dubbed as the “Queen of K-Pop” – had attempted to break America in 2008 but, despite charting in Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart, her attempt ultimately was fruitless. BoA was not the only relatively big name to attempt to break America in the noughties, either. Se7en also attempted to break America in 2008, but also failed to receive recognition. CNN labelled both artists to be “complete flops”.
Four years later, however, things begin to change. All of a sudden, we have PSY being played at every possible chance. Gangnam Style had become a disco classic seemingly overnight, despite the obvious language barrier. How had this happened? The Internet made it happen. Although many viewers were oblivious to the song’s theme and meaning, it was being shared and spoken about non-stop. So much so, that the song was also broadcasted on radio – something that honestly surprised me considering how usually reluctant DJs are to play music in a foreign language.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is where the story of K-Pop on a global scale truly starts. Sure, other K-Pop artists were working hard to try and become global artists (as seen with BoA, Se7en and Wonder Girls), but PSY’s Gangnam Style really was the point where everyone began looking at Korea. Even if it was for the sake of a meme, the Korean music scene was entertaining everyone.
Realistically, that’s how K-Pop continues to be as well. It’s because of YouTube that I found K-Pop and it truly is how other people are still discovering K-Pop today. Some people argue that this is not the Hallyu wave, but Hallyu 2.0. Since 2012, views on K-Pop music videos have tripled. In 2016, 80% of the 24 billion views on videos by the top 200 K-Pop artists came from outside South Korea.
With the increased global recognition of K-Pop, it should come as a surprise to no one that nowadays there are more and more K-Pop acts debuting each year. At the beginning of the decade in 2010, 22 acts debuted. This year, 27 different acts have debuted. Alongside that, more and more acts are finding themselves with official recognition by charting on Billboard 200. The first to do so was BoA in 2008 who peaked at 127. The second was BIG BANG who debuted on the Billboard 200 with their Alive EP which peaked at 150 in 2012. In 2018, however, 9 different albums by K-Pop artists debuted on the Billboard 200. 5 of these albums were by BTS.
The effect that BTS has had on the Korean pop industry has been incredible, it’s hard to deny that. Being the sole group of their agency for quite a while, one could argue that BTS have been quite fortunate. Everything Big Hit Entertainment had, for a while, went to BTS. That meant they had the money to produce good songs, good choreography, good styling… There’s no wonder BTS have become so popular. Through discovering BTS either through word of mouth, through YouTube, or even through some of the western talk shows that the boys have appeared on, more and more people are now discovering K-Pop and through discovering BTS, they’re also discovering groups such as BLACKPINK, TWICE and LOONA. It’s incredible to see the influence that BTS is having on the K-Pop fandom community. It’s doubly impressive to see the influence that BTS is having outside the world of K-Pop as well. They’ve collaborated with Halsey, Steve Aoki, Niki Minaj and Ed Sheeran just to name a few. You may not be a fan of them yourself, but you should be able to see the impact that BTS is making on not just the Korean music scene, but the global music scene.
It’s very much quite easy to just focus on the positive side of things. It’s easy to focus on the good things. But the 2010s for the world of K-Pop wasn’t without its periods of negativity. In fact, the scandals really did start from the get go. In 2010, Jay Park left 2PM, and SM Entertainment’s group TVXQ were practically split in half. In 2014, Jessica left Girls’ Generation. 2016 saw girl group 2NE1 disband, whilst 2017 saw a massive shift in negativity. Girls’ Generation lost another three members, sure, but this certainly wasn’t the biggest news to shake up SM Entertainment that year or the K-Pop community as a whole.
In December 2017, news was spread about the death of the beloved K-Pop idol, Kim Jonghyun. Just months away from celebrating ten years since his debut with his group SHINee, Jonghyun had comitted suicide in his apartment in Seoul. Although a very dark period for fans of SHINee and K-Pop in general, Jonghyun’s death did prompt well-needed discussion to take palce regarding the nature of the K-Pop industry. A conversation about the competitiveness and harsh nature of the industry had finally been sparked, as had discourse on the topic of mental health.
This topic is still quite raw, I admit. I would also like to say that something like this has changed K-Pop this decade, however I should probably say that it is contributing to changing a small part of it. Although people are arguably more open, it seems as if Jonghyun’s death hasn’t explicitly changed much in the industry itself. In October, we lost f(x)’s Sulli. Last month, we lost Kara’s Goo Hara. There are so many things we need to reconsider when it comes to K-Pop and looking after our idols. It’s brilliant that we actually have a discourse around matters that have troubled the industry for so long, but we need to actually do something about it now.
The industry is rife with problems, though and 2019 has very clearly shown all of the problems quite well. The industry continues to have scandal after scandal, the most recent arguably being the Produce 101 scandal – Mnet being investigated for vote manipulation and manipulating the final lineups of groups such as X1, that had been formed as part of the reality shows Produce 101 and Idol School. However, although full of bribery and corruption, this is by the worst scandal of the past decade.
At the start of the year, I posted my first drama review here on AGAHA based around YG Future Strategy Office. The show followed BIGBANG’s Seungri taking charge of the fictional strategic resources team at YG Entertainment. Honestly, I really liked the show. In fact, I gave it full marks. In the review, I said:
One of the reasons why this show works so well is because of Seungri’s personality outside of the show. To give some context, Seungri isn’t the most popular member of BIGBANG by any means, so the idea of his career “fizzling out” isn’t exactly too far of a stretch for somebody to imagine. […] Not only that, but Seungri is also known for his past ventures. In the past, he has failed to avoid some pictures being taken that don’t exactly paint him in a positive light when he was attempting to meet lovers in private. So, ultimately, Seungri’s ‘irrelevance’ and past scandals made him the perfect actor for the role of a failing idol.
Of course, I wasn’t to know what was going to be revealed just a couple of months later, nor was I to know how ironic that paragraph would be.
For those of you who don’t know, January 2019 saw the world be rocked by a scandal on a scale never seen before. What started as an investigation of an assault turned into an investgation involving prostitution, rape, drug trafficking, and police corruption. Despite Seungri and Yang Hyun-suk, the CEO of YG Entertainment, initially denying any involvement in the case, on March 10th, Seungri was booked on sex bribery charges. His past scandals were nothing on this scale and there was no way now that this negativity was going to turn positive any time soon. He wasn’t acting as a failing idol now, he was a failing idol. Seungri resigned from the entertainment industry, stating that he had caused a “societal disturbance”.
Yet, this was just the start of the Burning Sun scandal, named so after the Gangnam nightclub where it all stemmed from. Slowly but surely, various other celebrities were named as being involved in such criminal activity. Jung Joon-young, the lead vocalist of the band Drug Restuarant, admitted that he had filmed women without consent and shared the recordings in a group chat. Recently, he’s been sentenced to six years in prison.
Additionally, Yong Jun-hyung, formerly a member of Highlight, admitted to watching videos sent to him by Jung and proceeded to leave Highlight, whilst Choi Jong-hoon of F.T. Island retired from the industry. In April, Choi was booked for illegally filming women without consent, distributing six videos, and bribery. In May, Choi was arrested on gang rape allegations and, as of November, he has been sentenced to five years in prison. CNBLUE’s Lee Jong-hyun has also retired from the industry due to his involvement in the scandal.
It’s hard to say where this will go next. There are a lot of people involved with Burning Sun and the scandal itself, so it’s very much still a current affair. It just goes to show, however, that idols are far from perfect. A lot of the K-Pop industry has largely ignored the Burning Sun scandal, but it has certainly rocked the fan community and has impacted the impression of the K-Pop idol.
Aside from group lineups changing, however, the biggest change is arguably the music itself. In 2009, iconic songs included Fire by 2NE1, Nobody by Wonder Girls, and Ring Ding Dong by SHINee. Repetition, relatively easy choreography, and so much autotune that every idol sounds like robots are just a few qualities that a lot of the songs share that contributed to the era of K-Pop sounding 10 years older than it actually was. Not that I’m disputing the success of these songs. A lot of them still exist on my playlists and are what helped to propel K-Pop to its current fame, after all.
Fast forward to 2019 and K-Pop songs have found themselves to be on the same scale as international pop music. The choreography has improved drastically, becoming more complicated with groups such as Monsta X, ATEEZ and NCT continuously impressing people. The songs themselves have less explicit autotune and, instead of sounding like 90s pop music, have found influences in genres such as EDM, hip-hop and electronica, creating hybrids between genres to make the music sound refreshing and new. Nowadays, there’s truly something for everyone.
There’s no denying that K-Pop has grown massively in the last ten years, yet it has been massively tainted in the process. Where does this leave K-Pop for the next decade? Honestly, I can’t really say. There’s no doubt that it’ll get bigger, but just how big I don’t know. If the last decade is anything to go by, it’ll be somewhat significant.
There’ll be new groups debuting and groups disbanding, but let’s hope that the 2020s aren’t as scandulous as the 2010s and that a new golden age of K-Pop is on its way.