Younger generations turning to K-pop instead of American music

How the K-pop craze took over


Photo by Alysse Baer

Written By Jordyn Hronec, Co-News Editor

In Newark, New Jersey, a line stretches the length of the sidewalk in front of the Prudential Center. The line makes a sharp left at the corner, and continues, past the stadium and through the small city. Newark stands in the shadow of New York City, and while it is home to the New Jersey Devils, it makes an unlikely host to an event of this magnitude.

It is 3 p.m. on a Friday. And the vast majority of the crowd is made up of teenage girls. They stand in merchandise lines, scavenging through what has yet to sell, they dance together in an open space, they talk to each other, animatedly and excitedly. They attempt to sing along to the various songs playing, none of which are in English. The fans who bought floor tickets are camping out as they have been for days before.

This scene is not uncommon for boy band concerts. In fact, many would say that boy bands always garner the attention of young women.

But this boy band, BTS, is from South Korea.

BTS is part of a new music sub-genre is captivating the hearts of many young people, not only in America but all over the world — K-pop.

South Korea has been steadily producing music groups and cultivating the industry of K-pop, which really took shape in the nineties. K-pop had its first breakthrough in America in 2012 with the song “Gangnam Style” by Psy.

Today, K-pop has a different reputation. The music and performances are characterized by colorful visuals, fast-paced and clean choreography, and large music groups made up of attractive, young artists. BTS is made up of seven young men, talented in vocal performance, dancing and rap.

The industry is dominated by a few large entertainment companies — such as SM, JYP, and YG, who are considered to be the “big three.” Companies recruit artists at young ages to one day be a part of a group, using their cultivated talents and good looks to produce content and bring in revenue.

It is an industry that has a clear aesthetic, and for outsiders, appears to produce content at an efficient and perfected pace.

And via the power of the World Wide Web, K-pop has broken the language barrier and has infiltrated the Western world.

Alexis Ligus, 18, from Pittsburgh and a freshman history student at the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown, has been an active fan of K-pop music and groups since 2011. According to Ligus, she was introduced to the music through YouTube.

“I didn’t choose this,” Ligus said. “I was recommended a [YouTube] video by the algorithm, and here I am seven years later.”

Ligus said that the first K-pop song she listened to via YouTube was called “Trouble Maker” (performed by a duo of the same name consisting of individual K-Pop artists, named Hyuna and Hyunseung). According to Ligus, at first, she didn’t even realize that the song was in Korean.

Christiana Cates, 18, from Pittsburgh and a freshman journalism major at Point Park University, also discovered the genre through YouTube in 2015.

“I was watching a lot of YouTube videos and I came across the REACT channel and they were reacting to K-pop videos,” Cates said. “I saw EXO’s ‘Call me Baby’, and BTS and BIGBANG…they were the big three. So I started looking into more videos and now three years later, I know a lot and I’m still into it and I love it.”

Cates has since started a “K-Pop Dance Club” on her college campus, where members of the club learn and perform choreography from K-Pop performances. These types of clubs, as well as clubs dedicated to Korean music and culture, are increasing in popularity on American college campuses.

“I was inspired by my love for Korean Culture, dancing, and K-pop,” Cates said. “First I was into anime, and then I got into K-Pop and then I started liking East Asian culture as a whole. It’s something to be physically active and have a club of my own.”

According to Cates, the club has already begun to perform and connect with the student body through music.

“We had a Halloween Social party where we ate snacks and did K-pop dances,” Cates said. “We have general dance meetings a couple times a month where we learn a routine. Now we’re starting these ‘busking’ sessions every month…it’s like an outdoor street performance.”

Kaylee Wendt, 21, Pittsburgh local and a junior psychology major at Penn State and friend of Ligus’, is also involved in a K-Pop organization on her campus, K-pop Music and Dance, or KPMD. 

And online, Cates, Ligus and Wendt all participate in “fandom”, or a community of fans dedicated to K-pop, expressing both their interest in the music as well as the artists themselves.

“I am  on Twitter almost constantly,” Wendt said. “The K-Pop community on there is extremely widespread, and it’s really easy to find information and updates.”

For K-pop enthusiasts looking to connect with other fans online, delving into the world of fan culture comes with a whole new set of vocabulary.

In the world of K-pop, the word “idol” is used to describe individual artists in groups put together by large, influential music companies, of which there are only a few in South Korea. Fans often refer to their favorite idol in a group as their “bias.”

“I follow a lot of fan accounts, and different fandoms,” Cates said, describing her online activity. “Depending on who my bias is, I’ll follow bias-specific pages. I follow K-Con to see what concerts are coming up. That type of thing.”

“K-Con” is a yearly convention dedicated to K-pop that takes place in both L.A. and Newark, which tends to be the east-coast stop of choice for Korean artists, as it’s close to New York City but more easily accessible.

K-Con, which has been occurring since 2012, is sponsored by South Korean company, CJ E&M, which is involved in entertainment and mass media. CJ E&M owns Mnet, which is a television channel dedicated to music, comparable to MTV in America. Mnet also has a hand in the event that is attended by fans from across the country.

However, apart from the largely innocent following K-pop groups have garnered, there are fans whose obsession runs deeper than simply attending a concert or dancing to music.

These fans are referred to as “saesangs’”, and their obsession has driven to activities such as causing car crashes, infiltrating hotels, and attempting to kidnap K-pop stars.

“Saesangs are one step up from a regular stalker,” Ligus said. “Stalkers might break into celebrity hotel rooms just to catch a glimpse of someone…saesangs spend money traveling and following groups around. They are desperate for idols to notice and remember them. They love idols, but are willing to physically harm them, just so they are remembered…they’re nuts, and they’ll spend thousands.”

But while saesang fans display their dedication via extreme measures, regular fans such as Ligus, Cates and Wendt, show their support through attending concerts and buying music and merchandise.

Ligus estimates that she has spent a minimum of $2,000 so far on her favorite groups’ music and merchandise, partly due to shipping costs from South Korea. Ligus has also attended two BTS concerts so far, both in Newark, spending $350 on a ticket for the first, and $800 for the second.

Ligus said that at the second concert she attended, she waited outside of the venue for over 24 hours.

“It was miserable and cold, and I was hungry, but I was looking forward to the show,” Ligus said. “Those two hours made it all worth it.”

Wendt was also in attendance to both shows.

“Seeing BTS in concert was interesting, because not only was I able to compare the concert experience to concerts of American artists, but because I was able to see everyone, people from all different backgrounds, in the middle of the Prudential Center in Newark,” Wendt said. “They were singing in not-so-perfect Korean at the top of their lungs, being filled with so much joy for three hours of their lives. It’s something I will never forget.”

However, it is not just fun-filled concerts, conventions and merchandise sales that mark the K-pop fan experience.

According to Ligus, fans of K-pop groups are entirely allegiant to their chosen favorite group, sometimes creating conflict. Arguments are often based on award shows and voting, as well as accusations of plagiarism.

Ligus, however, does not engage in this conflict.

“There are fan wars, but they’re an absolute waste of time,” Ligus said. “We’re all fans of different groups, we all have a different experience, but it’s similar. We all have similar tastes in music and similar dedication…fan wars are a small, but significant part of the experience.”

Wendt has also experienced unrest in the K-pop community.

“There is often conflict between fans and fandoms, and intense fanwars that encourage malicious behavior,” Wendt said.

Apart from this, Ligus and Wendt instead cite the friendships they have made in the K-pop fan world as being the most valuable part of their experience.

“The friendships I’ve made have held up,” Ligus said. “And they’ve changed a little bit over the years. I’ve made new friends, especially online. The presence of an online community has been incredible. Suddenly, you can be talking to someone over halfway across the world every day.”

“Being a K-pop fan is something that has helped me and brought me so much joy, because it has allowed me to meet the people in my life that I consider my absolute best friends, people I care about more than anything,” Wendt said. “It allows for an instant connection, a bond with another person centered around a passion for music that surpasses any connection I’ve had with people who are interested in similar American music as me.”

But aside from the colorful and shiny appeal of the K-pop aesthetic, as well as the promising interactions of the K-Pop fandom, it is truly the music that keeps listeners coming back for more.

“I think K-pop just fits my personality more,” Cates said, thinking about how K-pop matches up to the American music scene. “In recent years, I haven’t been into American music. It can be very obscene with cursing, and it’s not me. With K-pop I can listen to music without hearing cursing or anything. I also like the groups and the companies and how they form their unique choreography.”

Ligus feels similarly.

“For me, it’s not so much about the lyrics,” Ligus said. “The music sounds good and has a good beat…although when translated, the lyrics do have a good message. And I’m down for any song that has a good message.”

Wendt cites that for her, K-pop simply provides an overall experience that American music cannot.

“K-pop doesn’t stop at offering music,” Wendt said. “It instead provides a production, an entire experience that includes choreography, high-quality videography, concepts and storylines that span over a number of months and years. There is a level of commitment to impressive craft that doesn’t at all come through in American music.”