K-pop continues to grow across the globe and it’s not just boy band BTS making it big — other groups are landing higher and higher on international music charts. With a unique set of rules that sets it apart from other industries, K-pop is becoming not only a driving force for pop culture, but opening up a new chapter in Korean history. In the following interview series, the Korea JoongAng Daily will sit down with Korean music critics who have been following the growth of this unique industry and ask, “How did it happen and will it last?”
K-pop acts are topping international music charts, selling millions of albums and racking up billions of views on YouTube, and yet many Koreans confess that they’ve never actually heard their songs or even really know who they are.
So why do these quantitative results tell a different story from the real world? According to pop music critic Jung Min-jae, that’s because the outdated standards can’t speak on behalf of the general public, which is becoming increasingly fragmented and individualized.
“The term ‘popular appeal’ hardly holds any meaning anymore,” Jung said. “It once had meaning in the mass media age, when pop stars appeared on the same television shows and everyone watched the same shows. But today, pop culture content is fragmented and so is the public.”
Even BTS is no exception.
Boy band BTS [BIGHIT MUSIC]
“To the general public, BTS doesn’t have that much popular appeal either,” he said. “People know who they are from the news that they topped the Billboard charts and whatnot. But the majority of Koreans have only heard of ‘Butter’ as news and haven’t really listened to the song. In that sense, BTS isn’t that different from other boy bands.”
A member of the annual Korean Music Awards’ selection committee and former editor-in-chief of music critique web magazine IZM, Jung is one of the leading young critics in Korean pop music. Jung has been offering his insight by contributing to publications including “The History of K-pop: A Hundred Waves” (2022) and “Top 100 Albums in Korean Popular Music” (2018).
The critic sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to further share what popularity means in the current K-pop scene. Below are edited excerpts from the interview at the JoongAng Ilbo building on June 10.
Q. CD sales, music video views and streams are seen as indicators of how popular a K-pop act is. How accurate are they?
A. I don’t think they reflect the general public’s reaction, in terms of whether the release was popular and widely listened to among the masses. How many people do you know that buy CDs to actually listen to it? Considering that, it makes no sense that these boy bands sell two, three million copies. It’s largely due to fans buying in bulk.
That being said, do those indexes not reflect reality at all? It’s becoming increasingly murky, because what is that reality people talk about? Let’s say 10 fans each buy 100 copies of an album. It doesn’t mean that 1,000 people purchased that album, but are those 10 loyal fans not part of the general public? It’s still meaningful that the singer has a sturdy fan base, and that’s an important reality in today’s K-pop.
So whether it reflects the general public or not might be an outdated discussion at this point.
Pop culture critic Jung [PARK SANG-MOON]Q. Then what would be more accurate indicators today?
A. Nowadays, a song is a hit if the general public is talking about it, and especially if elements from the song are used widely as a meme. A great recent example was “Next Level” (2021) by aespa, which was a megahit in the sense that the public chatted about it like, “Have you seen its strange lyrics and song structure?” It eventually turned it into a viral meme on social media and was even used on the ballot counting TV broadcast animations during the presidential election back in March. When something becomes a meme, it means that a large part of the public recognizes it.
Q. Tell us more about what CDs mean in today’s K-pop industry.
A. CDs are now souvenirs for fans. For instance, before girl group Nmixx debuted in February, its agency JYP Entertainment launched a limited-edition “blind package” of the group’s debut EP. This was last summer, and even the group name and members had not been revealed at the time, let alone the EP’s tracklist. I’m assuming many of the purchasers aimed to resell them to fans later, but it shows what CDs have become.
Before JYP Entertainment debuted its girl group Nmixx in February 2022, it launched a limited-edition “blind package” in 2021 before the group name or members were revealed. [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]
Fans buy CDs competitively in a show of support for their favorite artists, by boosting their sales in the first week, also referred to as chodong in Korean — a term taken from the Japanese pop scene.
A negative consequence of this obsession with numbers is that only the commercial side of albums gets emphasized, not the actual music. The numbers are mostly for fans and the industry to self-celebrate, “Look, we sold over 60 million copies last year!”
Q. What are other negative consequences of K-pop’s emphasis on numbers?
A. To boost sales, entertainment companies have been randomizing album packaging designs and collectible components inside. The CD market was thought to have collapsed in the mid-2000s due to digital downloads, but then boy band TVXQ saw huge success with its 2008 album “Mirotic,” selling over 500,000 copies.
After that, entertainment companies got bolder — vicious even — with their marketing tactics. SM Entertainment first introduced randomized photo cards in Girls’ Generation’s second full-length album “Oh!” (2010). How many copies would fans have to buy in order to collect the photo cards of all nine members?
Randomized components such as photo cards and posters inside a K-pop album. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
I understand those fans because I’ve purchased a hundred copies of singer BoA’s album myself. The media paints it as if these crazy fans are overspending on hundreds of the same album, destroying the environment. But fanhood stems from love. When agencies exploit that love with all these tactics inducing them to bulk-buy, we can’t expect the fans to remain perfectly rational and environmentally conscious.
Q. BTS is considered to be indisputably the most successful K-pop act. What about their popularity?
A. Before “Dynamite” (2020), BTS’s songs like “DNA” (2017), “Boy With Luv” (2019) and “On” (2020) did enter the Billboard charts, but most of their ranks dropped after a couple weeks. That suggests that rather than being organic hits, those songs were boosted on the charts thanks to the power of its fandom, ARMY.
I think BTS was at a crossroads before releasing “Dynamite” — whether to maintain their musical identity or aim for No. 1 on Billboard. I’d say they chose the latter. “Dynamite” was not self-produced, and the lyrics were in English to come across as more familiar to American listeners.
Commercially, it was a smart choice, but I hope this phase of BTS doesn’t last long in terms of their musical style. I once talked about this and got so much backlash that I thought I was going to die (laughs). But the lines of “Dynamite,” “Butter” (2021) and “Permission to Dance” (2021) didn’t have BTS’s own color.
BTS initially rose to success for of their unique music and self-written lyrics that were honest, relatable and contained social critique. I’d like to see that again.
Q. Why do the numbers not reflect the reality fully?
A. Koreans who remember the days of Koreans all singing along to nationwide hits, like Wonder Girls’ “Tell Me” (2007), lament that K-pop has lost its “popular appeal.” They call all these sales numbers and fandoms “leagues of their own.”
Girl group Wonder Girls in 2008 [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]
But in an era of fragmented interests and tastes, we have to think of the term “popular appeal” in an accordingly updated context. It once had meaning in the mass media age, when pop stars appeared on the same television shows and everyone watched the same shows. But today, pop culture content is fragmented and so is the public. Idol groups have their own shows on YouTube. Most people can’t keep up with all the content scattered across social media.
Before K-pop idol music as we know it today emerged in the ’90s, young generations and their parents all listened to the same singers. Nowadays, I hear boy band NCT is really popular among teens, but most people in their 20s and above don’t know a single member or song from NCT. Does that mean those K-pop idols are unpopular? No, it means content is individualized today.
Boy band NCT [SM ENTERTAINMENT]
Q. When did this rift start?
A. The estrangement between public appeal and fandom power is especially noticeable among boy bands. Girl groups still tend to make music more palatable to the general public. We’re no longer seeing songs like that from boy bands anymore. But until the early 2010s, boy bands like SHINee, Big Bang and Infinite also produced widely-known hits.
Boy band Exo in 2013 [SM ENTERTAINMENT]
Things started changing in the mid-2010s when boy bands like Exo and BTS became bolder in incorporating hip-hop elements into their music, ending up with songs that are too convoluted to appeal to the masses.
Instead, boy bands started going for new concepts and visually overwhelming performances like kalgunmu [dancing in perfect sync], which set them apart from Western pop.
Q. What should agencies and fans do so that K-pop doesn’t stray too far from the public?
A. Fandoms also need to refrain from instigating competition among themselves by comparing artists’ album sales. But now, it’s past the point of no return unless there is a systematic change. A single agency or K-pop group can’t put a stop to this.
Copies of boy band NCT’s album “Universe” (2021) thrown out after the buyer took out the components, such as photo cards. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
Recently, agencies have started saying they’re using environmentally friendly materials for albums and photo cards. That’s just plain greenwashing, when fans continue to buy an exponential amount of CDs only to throw most of them away. They can’t even recycle the mix of plastic, paper and fabric.
The agencies must come together and reach a consensus on how many versions of an album they will release. In this day and age when every industry is talking about environmental protection, it simply doesn’t make sense that the huge K-pop industry gets to pump out tons of unrecyclable waste.
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]