Every fan wants to know that their favorite group is doing well: that their music is selling, the members have name to face recognition, and their fandom is always growing. And in recent years, this drive has surpassed fandom-centered goals to reach for higher and higher awards and recognition. And this has somehow manifested in K-Pop fans seeking fame and fortune for their faves outside of South Korea, but more specifically, in the West.
So Oh! Press is here to discuss: why are K-Pop fans so intent on earning recognition for their favorite idols within the Western world? Are Western accolades more important than Asian ones, or even ones earned within the borders of South Korea? Read on to find out our thoughts.
K-Pop is a very niche genre. It’s a niche in South Korea where “idol music” is more often than not expected to be upbeat, bright and well, “pop-y.” And it’s an even smaller niche in countries outside Korea, be it in neighboring Asian countries or the Western world. Many K-Pop fans seem to be drawn to the Korean music industry because it is a niche, and yet they seek widespread recognition for it. It’s a puzzling conundrum. But nothing is more baffling than the incessant need for their favorite groups to “make it” in the West. We’ve seen countless fails from K-Pop artists who tried to debut in America. I won’t go into the details there. But the sentiment now isn’t so much that the K-Pop fans want their faves to debut there, but somehow organically become mainstream. Or at least, acknowledged.
What’s most interesting about this is how some K-Pop fans will blatantly criticize or downplay the American music industry, and yet salivate when a D-list celebrity from said industry acknowledges their favorite K-Pop group. It’s hypocritical on multiple fronts, especially given how heavily K-Pop is influenced by Western music trends to begin with. And you see very little of this when non-Western celebrities acknowledge, praise, or otherwise recognize K-Pop groups. Not with Japanese, not with Chinese, not with any of the other countries whose combined population dwarfs the Western world. It’s either a product of the culture of the last hundred years or just the spawn of Western ifans deeming what is and isn’t relevant. And if you add in bigger awards or recognition to the mix and the hunger for this skewed kind of acknowledgement only grows.
In the context of the recent Twitter hashtag voting for the Bulletproof Boyscouts at the BBMA’s, there were a number of ARMYs, and even non-fans, that tried to make it about K-Pop as a whole. The general argument goes along the lines of “a vote for BTS is a vote for K-Pop, we can prevail against the Western celebs ehehuhehuheh.” It’s a nice sentiment, if you disregard all logic and assume that the two have to be wholly separate. As an American who listens to both K-Pop and Western music in equal parts this strange ultimatum only leaves me asking: “Why?” And also, “How?” How is this a battle against the West, when it’s for Western recognition? If fans really wanted K-Pop artists to be treated as equals alongside these other artists they wouldn’t make the distinction so black and white.
I mean, I’m all for Twitter awards. Social media presence, awesome. ARMYs should be proud that BTS is the first K-Pop group to be nominated for a Billboard award, ever. If they win, they will not only be the first K-Pop artist to ever win Billboard’s Top Social Artist award, they will be the only artist to win other than Justin Bieber since the award’s conception in 2011. It’s just the discussion and hype around the BBMAs in the K-Pop community that is somewhat puzzling to me given that the same treatment is rarely given to awards within South Korea or outside it. Hell, even the Korean Music Awards, which is likely the most legitimate and qualitative award ceremony for artists in South Korea, was less talked about. But then again, even MAMA’s relevancy in the international K-Pop fandom squarely beats the KMA’s.
I don’t mean this to point fingers at ARMYs because pretty much every K-Pop fandom that gets thrown a bone from a Western celebrity or media outlet thrives off the attention. And BTS really is inarguably one of the most popular K-Pop groups in the West right now. But it’s just a little food for thought about how we as ifans prioritize which recognition is most meaningful, and the Western-centric views that obviously are still present in parts of the world, even in the petty fandom wars of K-Pop.
I am going to be very frank here. Do I think that western validation is important? Short answer: no! Long answer: still no! Some of the biggest K-Pop acts in history (H.O.T, g.o.d, TVXQ, Super Junior, Kara, Fink-L, SES, and so on) did not get any western validation whatsoever. This did not stop them from creating a huge impact on the Korean music industry and until today, they are considered legends. What matters most is creating enough impact in one’s home country. Getting fame in the west is a good thing as it means more chances of success, but I am afraid that some K-Pop fans overstate K-Pop’s reach to the masses.
Some K-Pop groups do manage to gain decently sized fandoms in the West (groups like Big Bang, 2NE1, etc.) and some even get awards from western shows, but they are still irrelevant to the general public as a whole. And even then, these groups are considered to be legends because of contributions they made to their home country, not some distant market abroad. SNSD was already the Nation’s Girl Group when they won Video of The Year at the YouTube Music Awards. Even then, there was no skyrocketing in fame. They got a few hate comments from non-K-Pop fans but that was it; people forgot about the whole thing just as quickly and moved one. Same thing with Super Junior and the Teens Choice Awards. The general public does not actually care for K-Pop, even when these idols win awards over major western artists.
You see, K-Pop is nothing more than a niche here. You will probably find someone who is a fan of an idol but this is one person in millions. People also like to ignore the fact that the western music scene is just as fickle as the Korean one. People come and go, they rise and fall. Artists who were popular a few years ago aren’t as popular now. K-Pop acts will have a hard time breaking out here because 1) There is still racism, whether one likes it or not, and 2) They do not speak the primary language and language barrier can really dampen one’s success. PSY had the massive hit that was ‘Gangnam Style’ but he has failed to retain any relevance with his subsequent releases and has faded to obscurity. And while he may want to replicate his success with the song, he may not be too worried as he continues to do very well in his home country.
In light of BTS’ nomination at the Billboard Awards, I do remain skeptical. As a closeted ARMY K-Pop fan, I do feel proud. But this nomination does not mean that BTS will actually gain relevance here, especially when one considers the fact that this is a nomination for a social media award (one that is generally not that important). Gone are the days when the western public would fawn over dancing boy bands that were crooning love songs. As someone who lives in the States, I can attest to the fact that no one here really cares for the BBMA and so K-Pop fans should lower their expectations. Harsh, but true.
Western validation is not the biggest mountain that an idol group needs to climb. Yes, for the likes of Big Bang, Girls’ Generation, Wonder Girls and PSY, they’ve all gained recognition in the Western music industry. Yet, many other groups have not gone close to getting it. Certainly, one Billboard nomination for BTS is a fantastic achievement and will put their name out there. But, they’ve still got some work to do if they want to be the first group that comes to mind in Western countries when K-Pop is mentioned.
The majority of Western media outlets treat K-Pop as a niche market where it is quirky and cool to see an idol visit a Western country. K-Pop acts don’t stack up against global superstars like Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, Adele and Ed Sheeran but they obviously still have strong enough fanbases to tour the world. Overall, the success of an idol is not solely dependent on whether they’ve got validation in the Western music industry or not.
This issue is such an unbelievably touchy one — even more than it ought to be — because so many K-Pop fans just can’t seem to take a step back as soon as they’ve crossed a line. We all want only great things for our favourite groups, that it’s all too easy to be wrapped in our own pride. Even if it’s at the cost of so much needless resentment.
But the root of the problem here isn’t the fans, or the cruel way that everyone has been treating each other on social networking sites. Daesangs aren’t treated with the same level of prestige by a great number of ifans for a whole other set of reasons. One of which is that the Western music industry is so massive, with such a highly developed global outreach and market, that it’s easy to see why both K-Pop labels and fans hope for Western relevance or validation. It’s The American Dream.
South Korea’s domestic accolades thus seem to fall into the shadow of awards from the West, which isn’t right. In fact, this is precisely what’s wrong with the South Korean music industry. Their growth is so hinged on Hallyu (or the Korean Wave) that, while it is impressive, is also incredibly fragile. Multiple South Korean acts failed to break into the Western industry, but Korean entertainment firms turned to China (yet another can of worms), and were met with some success. Even now, South Korean’s entertainment industry is still intricately tied with Chinese investment. China’s response to THAAD could still deal far more blows to South Korea as a whole, and the latter’s music industry has also been affected. And yet, Korean music labels and fans still desire the same kind of symbiotic relationship with the West, a market that is just as fickle as China, if not more so. Even much of their content, trends, and packaging increasingly reflect their growing Western influence.
That said, any sort of success ought to be congratulated, regardless of the relevance of the award. That includes South Korean’s domestic awards as well as other international awards, minor or major.
My first question to those who constantly seek Western validation would simply be: “Why?” It’s nice, of course, to see artists you admire receive the love and recognition they deserve, but why the West? And why is it so important to you?
BTS is among my favourite groups but some of the emotionally manipulative posts urging people to vote for them in the BBMAs are baffling to me. Among them are posts asserting that if we aren’t voting for BTS we’re anti-Asian, racist, contributing to white supremacy… the list of sins goes on. Apart from being blatantly wrong, I would argue that even if BTS win (which they most likely will), even if Ed Sheeran and Nicki Minaj meet them and declare themselves Armys, their status in America won’t change much, K-Pop’s status in the West won’t change much, and white supremacy, I’m sorry to say, will remain fully intact.
I would love to be proven wrong but I don’t think K-Pop will be anything more than a niche in the Western market, at least in this age. Do you think so many Asian-American artists would turn to the Korean market if they had a chance to make it big back home? How many Asian-American popstars do you know who are successful in the West? And BTS, and other K-Pop acts, have the extra challenge of not performing songs in English, barely being able to speak the language, and a number of other cultural barriers. Most English speakers can’t even be bothered to watch movies with subtitles and are perplexed if you tell them you listen to music in a language you don’t understand.
PSY, arguably the most well-known K-Pop act in the Western mainstream, was able to become mainstream because he was treated as a joke. Despite being an accomplished and seasoned artist, to the West “Gangnam Style” and PSY himself were reduced to a novelty and a curiosity, something to be laughed at and parodied. And I believe that’s the extent of mainstream Western recognition on any significant scale. BTS maybe trendy for a while, Western artists might give them shout-outs and the odd collaboration, and they’ll gain some fans who’ll stick around. However, there’s a reason K-Pop companies focus on the Korean market, despite the West being more lucrative and massive by far, and it’s because outside a few futile pipe dreams (I’m looking at you, JYP) they know it won’t be a stable and sustaining source.
In conclusion, it’s not K-Pop that falls short of the West, but the West that falls short of K-Pop. Our countries are too racist, too closed off to fully embrace and appreciate artists of different cultures in a way which is respectful and deserved. Perhaps one day the West will be ready to welcome K-Pop with open arms but that day is, in the words of BTS, not today.
Well that’s it for our thoughts on K-Pop in the Western world, but what are yours? Share with us below!