The Korean Wave: Rise of a revolutionary pop culture

A decade ago, no one had any idea about what Kpop was. Now, there seems to be a gigantic community of Korean pop culture lovers in our country. Those flashy colours and enigmatic lyrics have grabbed the eyeballs of millions of Indians. So, how did this trend start? Moreover, what is Kpop?

It is a futile feat to try and come up with a single explanation of what Korean pop culture is as it is so diverse. Ranging from their personal genre of pop music to diverse fields of Korean dramas, what attracts people towards their culture is their proficiency of showmanship. And, hands down, no one can argue against that.

The world was first introduced to their culture by Kpop—EDM, rap and hip-hop fuelled music that is exuberant and energetic beyond any scale. Not only are the performers’ good singers whose lyrics have a deeper meaning about the world around them, they are also amazing dancers with witty and catchy moves that you can’t help but marvel at.

The beginning of Kpop and its USP

Looking at the current Kpop artists, it might seem that it was created about 10 years ago. But its history dates back to the early 90s. A band of three guys named ‘Seo Taiji and Boys’ participated in a reality show where they incorporated hip-hop, rap and breakdance moves with Korean lyrics and invented an all-new genre. While the judges were not really impressed by them, the music connected with the teens at the time. They rose to fame over the years and gradually, Kpop became a thing. The impact of Seo’s Kpop was so big that the group was called the ‘President of Culture’.

‘I Know’ by Seo Taiji and Boys which became a groundbreaking song for Kpop.

With time, Kpop developed its own personality among the bands. They started incorporating complex and catchy dance steps in their performances and mixed genres like R&B, dubstep, hip-hop, auto-tune and rap. The genre still resonates with the teens and early adolescents but also evolves as their tastes do.

If you would see early Kpop music videos, they stuck with old-school and traditional hip-hop dance styles that embodied the American pop-culture which was comparatively new at the time. Now, Koreans have come up with their own distinct style. But all of this would not have been impactful if it weren’t for the cinematography in the videos. They have a way of communicating through the videos that they put out that no matter the language, the artists can convey what they mean anyway.

Hallyu effect taking over the world, and India

In late 90s, as Seo Taiji and Boys rose to fame, the government tried to censor their content, but they could not stop their influence. As time passed, the audience of the genre increased and in early 2000s government saw its potential too.

Estimating the impact and power of ‘Hallyu’ (meaning Korean Wave), the government wanted to make Kpop globally known. Realising the ‘soft power’ of Hallyu, the Ministry of Culture in South Korea dedicated an entire division for Kpop. Kpop is promoted as a tool to educate the world about the South Korean culture and to increase tourism.

Schools all over the country started incubating emerging Kpop artists where they trained students in dance, music and the signature Kpop showmanship. Label companies fetch for these schools to mine out emerging artists and bands. And these labels have lengthy contracts when they are signed. The artists are heavily monitored by the company. So much so that they regulate their rehearsal schedules, control their image and even put restrictions on relationships. You will hardly ever find a Kpop artist in inappropriate behaviour in public, let alone any scandals. But, all of these aspects help manage their image and persona which gives them unprecedented fame.

The country made revenue of 11.6 billion dollars in 2017 from the Kpop business, out of which a 5 billion-dollar contribution was by BTS (BangTan Boys) alone!

BTS Band (BangTan Boys)
BTS Band (BangTan Boys). Source: nickiswift.com

People all over the world know about Kpop today. For most, the introduction may perhaps have been through PSY’s viral song ‘Gangnam Style’. That funky, catchy and extremely playful song was the most viewed video on YouTube for 5 years straight and the first video to cross the billion-view mark. People from all around the world were evidently lured towards Kpop after that. The view counts of Kpop videos on YouTube doubled and numerous Kpop videos started crossing the 500 million view mark.

India is no exception when it comes to the consumption of Kpop. Koreans were, however, unaware of Kpop lovers in India until one day, when the Rolling Stones India published an interview with Rap Monster (RM), the leader of BTS, the biggest boy band in the world. It was an ordinary interview but its reception by Indian Kpop-fanatics was not. The sheer volume of the response to that interview crashed the servers of Rolling Stone, and that too within minutes.

Seeing such a response from India, VH1 launched K-Popp’d on September 16th, 2017—India’s first-ever music segment that is solely dedicated to Kpop. Today, not only do Indians appreciate Kpop, a group of boys from Mizoram called Immortal Army, inspired by the artform won the best dance prize at the Kpop World Festival that was held in Changwon, South Korea in the year 2017.

An interesting historical documentation shows us that the influence of Korean culture dates back to the early 2000s and for the most part, it originated in the Northeast. In 2000, the Manipur Revolutionary People’s Front, an armed secessionist group, banned Hindi films and TV shows in the state leaving no means of entertainment for the public and as an attempt to stop the Indianisation of the north-eastern states, they also banned people from speaking Hindi.

The cable network in Manipur began broadcasting channels like Airarang TV and KBS World which introduced them to Korean Drama. Connected through ancestral affiliations with the Mongoloids and similar family values, people connected with the Korean Culture and soon embraced it.

Korea’s Beauty Standards and its effect on Kpop

Another major aspect of Kpop is the superficial beauty. South Koreans are extremely conscious of their beauty standards. If you check out any Kpop band, the artists will look like porcelain dolls with perfect features and spotless skin without a speck of fat on their bodies. They go through extensive regimes to stay in shape and countless beauty products to retain their glow.

The Beauty standards of Korea

The Beauty standards of Korea
The Beauty standards of Korea, Source: pinterest.com and soominkang73.weebly.com

The beauty industry in Korea is estimated to generate about 7 billion dollars in 2020 and has contributed to a massive boom in the economy. Koreans go through plastic surgeries so matter-of-factly that their parents often gift their children plastic surgeries for their 18th birthday. It is no surprise that South Korea is known as the plastic surgery capital of the world.

Kpop stars have also been ambassadors of the Korean Fashion industry celebrated as one of the most influential in the world. You might notice the youth with blue hair, blue outfits and blue eyes. Their unique dressing and hairstyles sometimes make it easy for their fans to identify their favourites from a distance.

BTS Members
On the right, you can see BTS members dressed in similar clothes with black hair and similar hairstyles. On the left, you can see their early years of their own distinct hair colours and funky clothes. Source: allure.com

Social Media Pioneers

One of the major reasons why Kpop bands have such a strong fan base is due to their smart social media handling. In a week of browsing and going through the enormous content on their YouTube channels, you can find out what food items they like, their favourite songs, even what grooming products they use. Fans feel so connected to the band members that they feel as if they are a part of it.

Some bands have also come up with their own reality TV shows. The ‘Blackpink House’ is a South Korean variety show which documents the everyday life of the leading Kpop girl band, Blackpink. BTS has also come up with their own variety web series called Run BTS!, and a movie named Burn The Stage.

Be it dance, music or physical beauty, Kpop has conquered them all and blended them into a perfect concoction of pop-culture that is only rising. Will it become bigger than any other cultures that preceded it? Only future can tell that. But one thing is for sure, Kpop will never seize to amaze us.

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