Korean pop culture: K-pop is about more than just boy bands

Aug 10, 2019 |3 min read
korean pop culture loyalty K-pop

Looking into the power and people behind K-pop


A boy band that could be bigger than One Direction but relatively unheard of?  Well yes!  BTS is the latest boy band seemingly overlooked by Western media but has garnered a massive following over the past few years.  The numbers that surround them are impressive - 21 million follows on Twitter, 10 billion views on YouTube, and in 2018, owned 22% of share of voice on Spotify globally - just to name a few!  This following has beaten One Direction's box office record - grossing $18.5 million dollars for their last movie - BTS "Burn the Stage".  I watched their latest movie in cinemas just last week - to my fangirl delight!


BTS is currently K-Pop's most successful group to date, breaking into the US music industry where many have been unable to do so.  They are worth an estimated $3.6 billion dollars to South Korea's economy - impressive, no?  However, this article is not about how BTS has risen to fame (already covered by many) but rather, about the industry and culture that surrounds the rise and fall of K-pop groups.  As they say, what goes up must come down…

What is K-Pop?

As I write this article, I'm listening to a genre of music called K-Pop (Korean pop music) which BTS comes from.  K-Pop sits under the larger umbrella of the Korean Wave or Korean pop culture.  The main pillar of the Korean Wave is content (K-pop music, K-dramas and K-movies) which then extends to Korean beauty (K-beauty), fashion, games, tourism and lifestyle.  The Korean Wave is also a form of soft power, a tool used to enhance South Korea's national image, re-establishing itself as a modern and sophisticated country, distancing itself from their troubled neighbours in North Korea and ahead of other Asian counterparts.

K-Pop has helped to boost inbound tourism from all over the world - it is estimated that every 1 in 13 inbound tourist to South Korea is due to BTS.  On the export side, it has created a demand base for South Korean products, making it easier for Korean brands to export their products overseas to willing consumers (like myself).  More than just commercial gains, it has helped the government to establish free trade agreements and widen South Korean exports to not only neighbouring Asian markets but also to Latin America and the Middle East.

What makes the Korean Wave so popular is that in some ways it is the anti-thesis of Hollywood/ Western culture.  The content is more innocent (at best there is a kissing scene in dramas while boy and girl group members have dating bans) and storylines are more wholesome and family friendly, enabling large audiences to enjoy it.  Idol groups portray a cute and pure image for as long as possible. Whereas, in Latin America, the telenovelas can be violent and depict issues of domestic abuse and drugs, which Korean content provides a refreshing alternative to.

What distinguishes K-pop boy bands from your typical Western boy band is that they continuously feed the fandom with content via social media - new appearances on TV shows, behind the scenes footage, live streaming, new music twice a year, which means the online fandom community is kept thoroughly well fed and happy.

Feeding the connection and crafting the right image is a critical aspect of how K-Pop works.  The groups are referred to as 'idols' and are often depicted through music videos and referred to as 'angels', 'goddesses' or 'gods'. These groups are carefully managed and perfectly crafted to align with Korea's high expectations around beauty and perfection.  They are then used as promotional tools in a variety of ways - not only through their own music and content but also for national tourist campaigns and as ambassadors for major events.  These groups are effectively 'products' to generate revenue for entertainment companies and held up to be exemplars for the nation - not an easy role for any young adult.

Next week, I will share the latest K-pop scandal and why it has been happening - big money, big name celebrities and more…

Lisa Do