The Poly Spotlight

K-POP: Korean pop music spreads internationally, making a huge impact in the United States’ music charts. 

By Claudia Smith, Chloe Vega and Cassandra Navarro


South Korea, a small Asian nation, is not a place that most westerners imagine has a thriving, internationally- loved music industry. Many westerners may have heard of and forgotten about K-pop during the rise and fall of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” on American charts.

K-pop is defined as a blend of hip hop, electronic, rock, pop and R&B music that originates in South Korea. The scene truly began thriving with the introduction of Western culture during and after the Korean War. The foundations of Korean music were built upon the trends of American music, following hippy trends in the 70s and ballads in the 80s before the development of the modern K-pop system in the 90s.

What truly began the modern K-pop era was the founding of the “Big Three” production companies: JYP Entertainment, S.M. Entertainment and YG Entertainment. These companies were all founded in the mid to late 1990s, and they began churning out idol groups, or groups that consist of all male or all female members that sing, dance and even rap; their looks, sound and charisma makes K-pop such an international phenomenon. These companies accumulate millions of dollars a year in sales as more international fans become attracted to Korean music.

Modern K-pop idol groups are incredibly devoted to the craft. These men and women train for years, sometimes giving up their childhood and education to fulfill their dreams. The first generation of modern K-pop groups popular in the 90s included groups such as Shinhwa and g.o.d. More groups such as Big Bang and SHINee rose to fame as these groups lost popularity in the 2000s. These groups remain popular but are being surpassed by some novelties such as BTS, GOT7 and EXO.

Many of the previously mentioned groups are all boy bands, accounting for the large number of female international fans who are entranced by the good looks and “bad boy” personas that many groups have. Female groups also have eager fans. Ever popular Girls Generation, a formerly nine piece girl group that now has eight members, debuted in 2007 and rose to fame quickly. Newer girl groups, such as TWICE and Red Velvet, continue Girls Generation’s legacy of the “girly” girl group. They have cute concept videos, composed of bright colors and happy beats. Other girl groups, such as recently disbanded f(x) and startup group Blackpink, challenged the “girly” concert by creating songs that incorporated more rap and party beats. 

For the past few years, K-pop continued to explode internationally, going beyond South Korea and impacting countries around the world. People of all different ethnicities, countries and genders are becoming members of the ever-growing K-pop community. Some join for the choreography. Some join for the vocals. Some join purely for the photogenic Asian members. “The appeal for me was all the effort they put into their work, with all of the colors and how hard they work on vocals as well as choreography,” Jilleen Zink (10) stated. 

Whatever the reason, millions of fans have contributed to the constantly expanding K-pop fanbase. And it has paid off. Recently, popular K-pop group Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) surpassed several of its K-pop and American competitors, becoming the first Korean group to rank in the Top 40 of Billboard rankings, with four albums in the Top 200 and a nomination for a Billboard award. The seven members, Jeon Jungkook, Kim Seokjin, Min Yoongi, Kim Taehyung, Kim Namjoon, Park Jimin and Jung Hoseok, work together to write and produce their own music. Although they debuted in 2013, they launched to fame between 2015 and 2016, when they produced two songs: DOPE and FIRE. They have consistently improved, and now have a chance at winning international awards, as well as Korean ones.

Over the past few months, they have been traveling on their international tour, performing sold-out shows in Korea, Chile, Brazil and the United States. The U.S. is a hotspot, as many Korean artists have mirrored American music, combining modern hip-hop and R&B tracks with traditional Korean standards.


Many groups have faced the challenge to overcome the strict censorship laws in South Korea. Groups have to be careful about the content they produce, as many laws arbitrarily ban songs and music videos for what may seem like silly reasons to western fans who have become accustomed to the hyper-sexualized music videos. South Korean television networks, such as Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) and Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), often ban choreographies for being too sexual or controversial, and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family will ban songs for being “too dangerous for impressionable young ears.” BTS had to change the lyrics for one of its more racy tracks “War of Hormone” to be able to perform on MBC Music Bank, a popular dancing and singing performance show. Lyrics that are not seen as harmful in the United States, such as “women are the best in the world,” are changed to even less specific and more censored language; for example, “love is the best in the world.” South Korean censorship is quite the barrier to producing music that appeals to westerners, as lyrics continue to be desexualized; even mentioning alcohol or cigarettes can lead to a complete ban of the song from being performed or sold to people under the age of 19.

K-pop culture is very different from western music culture, in that censorship and aesthetics play a larger role than real meanings of the songs, but they also carry similarities. Trendy American clothing brands, such as Supreme and Hood by Air, are seen in music videos, and idols can even be seen wearing brands such as Gucci and MCM. The beat of the songs can be seen as strikingly similar to popular western music, and the songs flow so well that one does not even really need to understand the lyrics to understand the “vibe” of the songs. K-pop is made both for Korean audiences and western audiences, so the music and videos are a mix of South Korean beauty standards, American style back tracks and hip hop or contemporary dance to win the hearts of their international fans.


The outskirts of the Honda Center were consumed by a thick cloud of anticipation as thousands of girls huddled around in single file lines outside of the center’s many entrances. It was 2 hours until show time, and my heart was pumping vividly through my ears. It was finally starting to hit me that I was actually going to see one of my favorite Korean bands live. Bangtan Sonyeondan, more commonly known as BTS, was inside the arena, backstage, preparing for one of the biggest shows of the U.S leg of their Wings Tour. An uncontrollable wave of excitement was building inside me with every passing second and by the time my part of the line was allowed into to the center, I could not control my emotions. With my friends Chloe and Claudia beside me, I made my way inside, and the overbearing smile plastered on my face was reflected on their faces as well. It was really happening; it wasn’t a dream.

The screams of those already seated could be heard throughout the arena; the echoing halls only increased my already intensified mood. The arena was flooded with elated A.R.M.Ys  (Adorable Representative M.C for Youth)— BTS’s passionate fan base —of all different shapes, sizes and colors. The diversity in the crowd was intriguing, because who would think that a K-pop band would have such a mixed fanbase in the West? The genuine popularity of this band was being exemplified in such a simple way, and it made me proud to be an international fan. With our $60 dollar Army Bombs (BTS light sticks) in hand— rest in peace to our already limited bank accounts— the three of us waited out the last grueling hour before the start of the show. The minutes seemed like days, and the seconds seemed like hours. Time wasn’t going by fast enough. Occupying ourselves with animated K-pop related small talk and aggressive Army Bomb waving, the three of us somehow managed to get through the hour; before we knew it, there were only ten minutes until the start of the concert.

We parted ways at that point, because our seats were in different sections. But that didn’t matter. We all knew that we were going to have an amazing time even while separated. Saying our last goodbyes, we hurried to our seats. It was almost time. As I finally took my seat, I was amazed by the beauty of the diverse crowd and the populated arena. Almost every single A.R.M.Y had an Army Bomb in hand, illuminating the arena with a wave of fluorescent white lights. The view from my seat was breathtaking. The stage was directly  in my path of vision, and I could see everything, fueling my enthused state.

The lights then started to dim, which earned a loud roar from everyone in the crowd. The girls beside me were just as excited. The only audible thing that I could make out from them were the frequent mutterings of “Oh my God,” and I couldn’t help but smile. Those strangers and I already had a small connection because of BTS, despite the fact that we never met before that night.

One minute. The intro video popped up on the three large screens above the stage. The crowd came alive at that point. Every single fan was either screaming or crying in anticipation. My heart felt like it could explode at any moment. As I watched the seven members on the screen, an overwhelming sense of realization took over me: it was time.

The screen went black then and the entire arena was cascaded with an intimidating darkness, the only light source coming from the wave of army bombs. A chant began when the show didn’t start immediately after the video. “BTS! BTS! BTS!” was all that was heard from the restless fans. In the blink of an eye, the curtain dropped, and the familiar sound of their popular song “Not Today” blared throughout the Honda Center.

Any bit of reserve that I had left was thrown out the window as soon as I laid my eyes on the seven member boy band. My own screams drowned out the rest of crowd as I stared at their exquisite profiles on the arena screens. I was in complete shock at that moment, and nothing else mattered except for them on that stage. There was no time for me to recollect myself before they started singing, and, with no warning, I was thrown into a whirlpool of erratic emotions for the next two and a half hours. The entire night consisted of me straining my vocal chords with my terrible Korean singing and incomprehensible screams, and I would not take back one second of it.


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