K-pop, or Korean pop, is on plenty of radars today. However, K-pop is not a new fad — the genre has existed for around 30 years, with BTS being the biggest and most recent example.
Surprisingly, K-pop spawned from the most unexpected place, heavy metal. K-pop today sounds vastly different compared to its beginnings. Fans of the genre are chanting Korean lyrics whilst not knowing the language and becoming more engaged with Korean culture. The industry is booming with several new K-pop groups breaking into Western music charts. One of those artists is BTS.
K-pop had a steady following globally before BTS became the known “face” of the genre. The soloist Rain held one of the first K-pop tours in the United States in 2006. Even before him, the artist who popularized and “made” K-pop a genre, Seo Taiji, toured around Asia and Europe in the early 2000’s.
K-pop in its early days could be considered “campy” by today’s standards with its sound and poppy lyrics. The genre combines singing and dancing with performing, so the dance moves then were not as difficult compared to today. K-pop forever changed when a certain group debuted in 2013 to completely change the genre forever.
Starting out from a small company, Bighit Entertainment, the seven members debuted in 2013. The only K-pop phenomenon to break out globally at the time was Psy’s “Gangnam Style” back in 2012. The song seemingly skyrocketed into fame due to its catchy beat and dance moves, but the globe still partied to the song despite not understanding the lyrics.
By 2013, the hype of “Gangnam Style” seemed to fade away.
With a young BTS debuting with “No More Dream,” a few lyrics stand out:
I wanna big house, big cars, and big rings, but actually I don’t have any big dreams.
They wanted the fame, but what was the end goal of that fame? Their lyrics hit a mark with the working and student classes of South Korea and beyond. BTS averaged in their early 20s, the youngest member being 16 at his debut, so they knew the hardships of school and the pressure to find a job.
By criticizing the system of being stuck in an office, the group began to gain a small following. By 2016, they won their first major award in South Korea which skyrocketed them into fame. Their style of music shifted with their popularity. Fans who did not know Korean were singing along to their lyrics, lyrics that were about self-doubt, anxiety and finding their place in the world.
Today, BTS have been nominated for Grammys and top Billboard’s charts. They remain humble, as RM, the leader of BTS told the Associated Press:
We try to stay down to earth and put our feet to the ground and do what we do.
Perhaps it’s the humility of the group that allows fans to connect with them. They have sold out stadiums across the world and fans that spend so much money on them.
BTS breaks musical and cultural boundaries by being one of the first k-pop groups to perform at major music award shows. Having such a large presence in the entertainment industry allows for more representation and diversity. It’s amazing to see an entire stadium in another country sing along in Korean.
BTS have released songs in Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and English, allowing them to connect with several cultures through their music. All of them have some level of fluency in Japanese, while the Leader, RM, is fluent in English from self-study and studying abroad in New Zealand.
Touring around several countries allows them to be inspired by the sights and cultures they experience. While their past few releases have been in English, they continue to remain true to their K-pop roots.
There is concern from critics that K-pop is becoming too “westernized” with groups like BTS wanting to push fully English songs over Korean songs. Their company label, now called Hybe, is buying out other music labels. Recently, they bought out the label that includes Justin Beiber.
It will be interesting to see what direction BTS goes in the future with their music. Will they stay true to their K-pop roots in the end? Or will their company push a more westernized approach to K-pop?