Gaining recognition in the US pop music market was a yardstick for some Korean musicians, entertainment management agencies, and later on, K-Pop groups. Taking top on the Billboard was, perhaps, the biggest dream for many artist from the "Land of Morning Calm" (as seen by the West) and many recent K-pop groups indeed tried very hard and only to achieve almost success.
One of the examples could be Park Jin Young or JYP, owner of one of the biggest South Korean entertainment agencies, who endlessly knocked on the door of American producers trying his luck with both several seasoned and rookie Korean artists. Some seemed to work out, but many had a hard time strengthening their presence in the “US market," which, often times, also meant the international market.
But if you watched Korean individual or group artists almost two decades ago, you'll know that not all aimed for the US market. There used be more artists trained to conquer the Japanese music market in the early 2000s, alongside the unexpected success of Korean dramas in Japan.
The idea was, in fact, to conquer the “Asian” market – become a hit for their most influential neighbor and then expand to other countries. One of the strategies for them to penetrate into the local market was literally “localization." Teenage Korean artists learned the Japanese language, and sang songs in Japanese that were composed by Japanese. The management companies and composers analyzed what kind of music thrived in the industry.
If you look back at those years, you'll notice an influx of Korean artists who tried out their luck and found a niche among Japanese fans. Around this time, it wasn't just pop music, but other genres – rock, ballad, R&B – that made their "debut” in Japan.
Considering how the Korea-Japan World Cup 2002 still showed how the two countries were still “frienemies” (at least among their citizens), it was unbelievable how Korean culture was welcomed by the Japanese.
After China strengthened their economy and established themselves as a new world power, Korea witnessed China’s impact on their economy and cultural industry. It was, in fact, Chinese fans who coined the term "Hallyu" (Korean Wave) in their own language.
Some famous groups, including the current biggest name, Bangtan Sonyeondan or BTS, started releasing their songs with Chinese lyrics, targeting Chinese-speaking fans. In some more strategic cases, groups included a member from Chinese-speaking regions and could already estimate sales from millions of potential fans.
Thinking the past strategies K-Pop groups have used, the full English lyrics of BTS’ newest hit “Dynamite" is interesting and surprising. In their interview with Time Magazine on March 28, 2019, they said they didn't plan on singing in English, as the language in their songs expresses their identity.
Based on their recent interviews, “Dynamite” apparently became an exception because the members said they loved the song in its original English lyrics and got fascinated by the catchy lyrics and rhythm. The song was composed by British songwriters and turned out to have a huge mass appeal, attracting a wider audience in the global market.
Their topping the Billboard Hot 100 was not too surprising – and yet, still a huge deal in the K-Pop scene. So many Korean artists only dreamt of it and so did BTS – but they finally made it.
Recently, a local FM radio program in Manila started playing Korean and Chinese songs at certain times daily. I listened to “Dynamite” for the first time on the radio. As I am not too up-to-date with music, I just assumed it could be K-Pop or some English version of a K-Pop song. Nowadays, K-Pop groups often include a lot of English in their songs, so the boundary in the languages was quite blurry.
When news hit that BTS made history and became the first all-Korean pop group to hit No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100, it was only time I realized the song I heard on the radio was their new single “Dynamite."
I thought about the language choice of K-Pop groups. My curiosity was not fueled by an intention to criticize any use of English in K-Pop, but by virtue of being a language teacher myself.
The English language has blended so naturally into K-pop songs and is, undeniably, a good way to approach a wider audience. What surprised me was how quickly they transitioned. Some fans, who've praised BTS's soft power, say their motivation to learn the Korean language was to understand BTS songs and their message. It's also true that some slang and cultural references in their lyrics led fans to learn more about Korea and its language.
I can’t tell at all if the huge success of “Dynamite,” their first all-English song, will lead to different expectations from BTS from now on or if their successful challenge will trigger paradigm shifts in K-pop, locally and globally.
However, I am still curious to see how their fans and overseas K-Pop consumers perceive their choice of full English lyrics to conquer a "global audience” that may mean an “English-speaking” audience.
Whether or not future K-pop bands will try their luck by following BTS’ path – blending more English or option for full English lyrics in their songs – "Dynamite" is evidently a turning point.
This raises the fundamental question that's been asked for decades: What is K-Pop? Is K-Pop essentially Korean? Is K-Pop merely modified and adapted from Western pop? Or is K-Pop now a genre like Brit pop or Latin pop?
Remember, the term "Hallyu" was coined by Chinese fans, and the term K-Pop was also re-imported after gaining popularity overseas – rather than from domestic fans in Korea. In this sense, K-Pop's identity is complicated and dynamic.
There was a point in time when local consumption in Korea turned global, with the constant question being how they would be able to embrace non-Korean consumers.
One of the solutions was to train multilingual idols, making them sing in target consumers’ language, styling them in glocal outfits and colors. After so many years and despite K-Pop dramatically evolving, we'll never stop asking: What is K-Pop? The industry will also have to constantly ask itself about its sustainability.
Oftentimes, K-pop is stereotyped because non-Korean consumers only experience a glimpse of Korean culture through this form of popular culture. In contrast, Korean domestic consumers complain that K-Pop is losing its indigenous spirit or that it no longer shows a uniquely Korean culture.
When Psy’s "Gangnam Style" shook the world in 2012, foreigners (especially Westerners) were overwhelmed by its peculiar sense of humor, strange dance steps, and the unlikely stylings of of Psy, which was pretty different from those of baby-faced teenage K-Pop idols. But nothing could stop its sudden surge in popularity – even if the song was sung in the Korean language and the word “oppa” wasn't in the pop lexicon of foreign listeners yet.
BTS’ beautifully- and strategically-made “Dynamite” now leaves a big question as to how K-Pop can both show its uniquely dynamic identity while embracing transnational values. – Rappler.com
Kyung Min-bae is assistant professorial fellow at the Department of Linguistics, University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, and research fellow at the UP Korea Research Center.