K-Pop Hits U.S. Airwaves

This past Friday night, more than 1000 fans–teens and early twentysomethings, nearly all shrieking in delight–packed elbow to bouncing elbow for a performance by the Korean boy-band Block B. These devoted BBCs (the name for hardcore Block B fans) came prepared; they were decked out in the band’s official apparel, hoisted signs, and waved official tour light-sticks purchased at the merch booth. As a DJ warmed up the crowd for the band’s set, the fans rapped and sang along to every song—in Korean.

But this isn’t another “crazed Asian teens” hype story. After all, the concert–the third of three shows in Block B’s U.S. tour–was in Miami, a city with no significant Korean, or East Asian population. The majority of the audience singing along to the songs were Latina, white, and black. It was one of the ultimate signs of a post-everything, Internet-driven, crossover pop culture—one that “K-pop,” or Korean pop, is finally tapping.

“K-pop is making strides,” says YouTube vlogger Mr. Popo, a New-York based commentator popular for stereotype-shattering videos like ‘Black People React to K-Pop.’

South Korea’s pop music history dates back to the early 20th century but the term “K-pop” refers to a specific flavor of music that’s grown popular only in the past two decades. It’s characterized by the so-called “idol groups,” massive multi-member ensembles put together “Monkees-style” by three major entertainment companies: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment.

The music companies act as managers, record labels, songwriting houses, and merchandise manufacturers, all wrapped in one. They audition prospective group members and train them for years in everything from rapping to dancing. The “big three,” as they’re called, control every aspect of the music groups they create, from conception to dissolution.

Musically, K-pop has largely coalesced into an amalgam of dance music, sugary versions of American Top 40, hip-hop, and New Jack Swing-y R&B. All the music seems highly calibrated to be catchy. And the formula works; K-pop groups have produced bubblegum hits that are even more popular than madmen Swedish songwriters.

Visually, too, K-pop groups offer what 99 percent of western pop groups do not. First, there’s the sheer number of group members; many K-pop groups are more than a dozen strong, moving in super-tight, synchronized choreography with pop-art-ish costumes and incredibly specific gimmick concepts. See, for instance, Exo, whose theme is something like “naughty schoolboys.” The girl group Orange Caramel, meanwhile, has a candy theme.

Yet in the early days of crossover fad, Psy is still the only Korean pop artist that the average American music fan knows. His 2012 track “Gangnam Style” became the most-viewed YouTube video ever, with more than 2 billion views to date.

Still, for all the articles that heralded his hit as the arrival of K-pop, Psy was an outlier. “Gangnam Style” was peppered with enough English to not sound totally foreign on U.S. radio. And Psy started out as a somewhat more serious rapper than as an idol group member. At 36 years old, he’s also way older than the average K-popper, who tends to age out by their mid-twenties.

The K-pop Invasion

True K-pop—in all of its synchronized, Korean-dominant glory—is clearly gaining a foothold in the U.S., even in communities that aren’t East Asian strongholds. In the past five years, groups like the Wonder Girls, Girls Generation, and 2NE1 have all cracked U.S. charts including the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard Top 200, or, in some cases, both. In 2012, 2NE1 also ranked on Billboard’s Current Box Score, a ranking of the country’s top-grossing concerts. Last year, the first K-pop act, f(x), performed at the taste-making SXSW festival.

Then, of course, there was the Block B tour. Its promoters, Jazzy Group U.S.A., routed it through just three cities: New York, Washington D.C., and then, Miami.

“Why not Miami?” says Joanne Goh, Jazzy Group’s managing director. “From our first venture in U.S., we wanted to explore different cities because we listen. A lot of cities and states have been neglected. After all the consideration, K-pop should not be just in L.A. or New York.”

Tickets to the concert sold briskly. The mid-sized venue, the Fillmore Miami Beach, nearly sold out. And that was enough of a sign of interest for Ted Kim, of the company Kpoppin USA, to mount the day-long K-pop Con Miami the following day. It was the first K-pop fan convention of its kind on the East Coast.

The convention offered most of the same kinds of activities you’d expect at other pop-culture fan conventions: workshops, panels, an expo hall full of stuff for sale, and a dance party at the end of the day. But what it offered, specifically, was a view of pop-music stardom reminiscent of the kind of late ‘90s-era frenzy around The Backstreet Boys, N Sync, and other boybands, but rarely seen today, even around Simon Cowell’s prefab acts. Check our video above for a glimpse.

The tracks played throughout the convention also signaled a shift in the music itself. “Girl groups, especially, are going over to a serious concept, or they’re leaving the girly concepts back for a while,” noted one convention cosplayer Seki, who was dressed as a male version of female star CL.

For every fluffy, Spice Girls-ish track, say, like Girls’ Generation “Mr. Mr.”:

There’s a harder-edged number, like 2NE1’s “Come Back Home,” a tough ballad that mixes reggae, R&B, and dubstep bass that sounds like a Rihanna b-side:

“Compared to what it was probably a decade ago you have a lot of ‘gangster rap’ and those hip-hop influences that are now somewhat making their way to the industry. In terms of K-pop, they’re a couple of decades behind,” says Mr. Popo. “In America right now, everything is swag this, swag that, and K-pop is just now trying to get into that.”

Just see, for example, Alphabat’s “Tantara,” whose neck-snapping beat sounds as good as anything on U.S. rap radio right now:

The result, then, is an enticing blend of transnationalism that’s transcending borders, especially with the marketing muscle of the Big Three companies. And as much as diehard fans of K-pop in the U.S. enjoy their small and close-knit fan community, many convention-goers expressed a readiness for a proper crossover—as long as the music keeps its hallmark sounds.

“I feel people want K-pop to change to English, but then we’ll lose the identity that it already had before. People love it because it’s something different from the over-sexualization of music that we already have in mainstream America now,” says Mr. Popo.

“We don’t want it to become Americanized. We want the fancy concepts, the clothes, the dancing, the singing, the rapping,” says Liseth Vazquez, a 19-year-old Block B fan who led a panel on K-pop marketing at the Miami convention. “But we want to be able to go to the music store and buy that album. We want to be able to go to these concerts and support the groups, just like the Korean fans do.”

There’s more K-pop coming. Kim and MNET’s massive KCON returns to the United States this August at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. It’s part convention, part all-day arena concert; titans like Girls’ Generation, BTS, and the newer Teen Top feature on the bill. Last year some 20,000 revelers attended.

“In the U.S. culture,” says Mr. Popo, “anything could go mainstream.”

Video shot by Gabriel Morales
Edited by Jesse Swinger