According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, The Korean music industry has jumped from the 33rd to the 11th ranked largest music market since 2005.
South Korea is a highly developed country, with the world’s fastest Internet connection speeds and it is a global leader in many technology and innovation-driven fields. Since 2014, South Korea has been labeled the world’s most innovative country by the Bloomberg Innovation Index for 6 consecutive years. Since the 21st century, South Korea has been renowned for its globally influential pop culture such as K-pop and TV dramas, a phenomenon referred to as the Korean Wave The Korean Wave, or “Hallyu,” refers to the growing global popularity of South Korea’s exporting pop culture, entertainment, music, TV dramas and movies, and its fandom culture. More specifically, Korean popular music, or “K-pop” has gained much popularity in the last 20 years. It has become a global phenomenon with its addictive melodies, choreography, production values, attractive performers, costumes, and music videos with budgets comparable to those of Michael Jackson. It has become a very large and distinguishing part of South Korea’s identity.
I have been intrigued by Korean culture for many years, starting with my grandfather who taught Tae Kwon Do. I learned the language and studied the culture, immersing myself in the local South Korean community before finally visiting Seoul, South Korea in the summer of 2018, and again in the spring of 2019. I was curious to find out what exactly has shaped K-pop in not only becoming the sensation it has in South Korea, but also around the world. I’ve seen for myself just how influential and vast the music and entertainment industry is within their own country.
Following its rise in popularity, there has been much debate over where K-pop pulls its inspiration from. There are significant similarities across different music genres between Korea and the West. In order to understand how K-pop has gained so much worldwide fame, it’s important to understand what aspects of K-pop are resonating so much with people from all over the world. Western music has significant worldwide popularity, specifically the US and UK with artists such as Michael Jackson and The Beatles. So, the appropriate question to ask is To what extent did American and British music influence the Korean music industry? In answering this we can finally gain a better understanding of why Korean music appeals so strongly to people who don’t even speak Korean. Music is a huge part of what shapes cultural identity in children and adolescents. We can learn how these aspects of music are able to shape young peoples’ views on the world around them. Exposure to music from other countries eases children and adolescents into tolerating and being intrigued by other cultures. It is through music that people of other cultures and backgrounds all over the world can be unified.
This essay discusses how American and British music reached Korea and the many ways it influenced Korea’s music style. I will also analyze how these styles shaped the Korean music entertainment industry into the global phenomenon it is today. The research methodology was conducting an analysis of various artists and music types from the west, including the UK and the Americas, and comparing them with those in South Korea. The sources used in this essay are a majority from databases. Other sources come from authors of educational backgrounds or contain reliable citations. Any sources that don’t provide enough background information have been taken into account with careful discretion.
The Origins of Western Influence
The term “boy band” originated in the 1990s, however there were many early pioneers that led to the bands we know today, beginning with the acappella barbershop quartets in the late 19th century. The 1940s and 1950s brought male groups with doo-wop music, a genre of rhythm and blues music featuring vocal group harmony that carried an engaging melodic line to a simple beat with little or no instrumentation. They sang about love and other themes used in pop music. Rock and roll was also born during this time.
In South Korea, the largest influence of American music began during the Korean War in 1950 to 1953 due to the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) being stationed there. A radio channel called the AFKN played American hits for Korean citizens and educated the US troops about Korean culture. They played jazz and rock and roll which were styles of music completely new to Koreans that immediately attracted them. Korean artists wanted to learn these songs to perform them for the troops at the American Military Base Show to earn a considerably high income.
In 1955 when the Vietnam War began, many troops left Korea. The Korean artists who used to perform in the military camp now had to modify their performances and integrate Korean elements to attract domestic audiences. Despite that, American and British popular music continued to influence Korean music preference as is evidenced by the musicians that followed.
In the 1960s, American bands like The Osmonds and the Jackson 5, and English bands like The Beatles created many features that are still recognizable in boy bands today. All members of the band sang and the music featured melodies closely related to soul music and catchy pop hooks. The famous 1960s Korean band Key Boys had a sound influenced by American rock band The Turtles. Another style that originated during this time among British and American musicians and influenced musicians in Korea was psychedelic rock. Shin Joong Hyun, a South Korean rock guitarist and singer-songwriter known as Korea’s ‘Godfather of Rock,’ had a hit song from 1968 in a psychedelic rock style with a sound identical to the 1960s English rock band Zombies.
In 1965 American rock and pop band The Monkees were the first manufactured boy band put together by television producers to sing catchy pop tunes and act in their own series. This method was adopted in South Korea in 1996 when the first K-pop idol group called H.O.T. appeared on the scene created by SM Entertainment Co., Ltd. founder Lee Soo-man. He assembled these five singers and dancers based on what he believed teens wanted to see from a modern pop group. “Idol” is the term used to refer to a K-pop artist with a large fanbase. They usually work under a mainstream entertainment industry and have undergone extensive training in dance, vocals, and learn foreign languages such as Chinese, Japanese and English, and even come from diverse backgrounds. Idols maintain a carefully groomed public image and social media presence, dedicating significant time and resources to building relationships with fans through concerts and fan meetings or “meet and greets”.
After the 1970s, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues or “R&B” elements became increasingly popular in Korea, which motivated more and more artists to start performing songs that contained these two elements. They followed the styles of the 1978 R&B group New Edition which led the way for the biggest groups of the 1990s: New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync.
By the mid-1970s, Korean rock music had gone from the U.S. military camp shows to Korean nightclubs and TV shows which offered various annual ‘song festival’ contests to attract talent from colleges. The next wave of rock music came by way of clean-cut, amateur college bands known as campus groups. These groups made some of the most memorable sounds Koreans ever heard during times of extreme political turmoil. In 1977 the Sand Pebbles, with a sound similar to the British band The Eagles, won the grand prize at the inaugural Campus Song Festival hosted by a major TV broadcaster MBC. These talent shows and contests have become a huge part of the entertainment system.
More recently, American talent shows such as X-Factor, The Voice, and American Idol, where random civilians compete for a chance at stardom, influenced shows in Korea like Masked Singer, Superstar K, The Voice of Korea, Korea’s Got Talent and several others. They hold the same ideology of seeking fame and fortune to strike it rich. Similar to parts of the US, Korea has low wages and poor working conditions, as well as high emphasis on educational credentials and fewer available jobs. There aren’t many occupations that pay well for people who aren’t hyper-educated and K-pop is one of them. Many aspiring K-pop stars believe that this is the only route to success. In contrast to the US where the ideology of genius and talent is strong, South Koreans tend to believe in the virtues of dedication.
Ballads and rock and roll dominated the hits from 1980 to 1989. You can clearly hear similarities to Journey’s “Separate Ways” in Cho Jung pil’s “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Yim Jae Beum’s “Turn on radio loudly” was another huge hit that sounds similar to style of American hard rock band Guns n’ Roses. Singer and songwriter Yoo Jae-ha’s voice and style was very similar to Neil Diamond in his hit “You in my arms.” Award winning Lee Seung-Chul’s ballad style is comparable to the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change.”
In the 1990s, even more new music styles from the US such as hip-hop, pop, and ballads flooded the Korean music industry. Many female vocalists had pipes comparable to those of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.
The first pioneers of rap didn’t form in South Korea until 1992 following the assassination and failing popularity of dictator Park Chunghee. Under Chunghee’s rule in the 1970s and 1980s, Korea’s broadcast system and songs were controlled by the government. All lyrics of songs had to be patriotic. No one could try music with new influences from genres such as rap, hip hop, and/or rhythm and blues. Following the democratization and ensuing globalization of South Korea, Seo Taiji and Boys debuted with b-boy, or breakdancing, and rap style. It was a defining moment in South Korea’s popular music scene. They began using MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology to incorporate Western music elements such as rap, rock, and techno or electronic dance music into their music. They also began incorporating English lyrics in their songs, a popular trend in South Korea, that resulted due to increased reliance on the United States for economic stability. This hybrid of existing Korean pop with US pop, R&B, and hip-hop music created a new genre called K-pop.
Hip-hop was first introduced to Korea in night clubs near the U.S. military base, but it did not begin with rappers and DJs, it started with dancers performing to New Jack Swing, a style from the mid-1980s that fuses the rhythms of hip hop and dance-pop with the urban contemporary sound of R&B. Initially, these clubs were only open to American soldiers but by the mid-1980s they became available to Koreans as well. These clubs held competitions for dancers who learned their moves from American military members or their families. Korea’s biggest dance-music stars began their careers there, including Seo Taiji and Boys. Korea’s first hip-hop star Hyeon Jin-yeong debuted in 1992. The genre was so popular, entertainment companies focused on creating idol acts rooted in hip-hop.
The cradle of hip-hop in Korea was the dance club, which had deep implications that can still be seen in mainstream K-pop today. As K-pop entered the international stage, the identity of Korean hip-hop as dance music assimilated into mainstream K-pop idol groups, especially through the producer YG, a former member of Seo Taiji and Boys.
Korean hip-hop’s identity as dance music caused a backlash in the mid and late 1990s, as it was different from the rap-centered hip-hop in the United States. Under the strict definition of “rap” as rhythmic and/or rhyming speech or chanting set to music, many non-Koreans argue that hip-hop and rappers in Korea are inauthentic solely based on their style, however, hip-hop in Korea has become an authentic expression of the identity of the Korean artists’ response. This departure from the “original” American hip-hop sparked a reaction, which came in two forms: Korean-Americans who took on American hip-hop aesthetics, and Korea-born Koreans who explored the possibility of rap within their own language. Korean-Americans have played a significant role in introducing rap and hip-hop music to Korea. Their English-speaking ability, American-style fashion sense, style, and attitude were considered a trademark of their authenticity.
In 1998, the godfathers of Korean hip-hop known as Drunken Tiger debuted. They also formed the Movement Crew, the influential hip-hop community that emphasized lyrics-centered hip-hop firmly in mainstream pop music in Korea. Influenced by the U.S. underground hip-hop of the 1990s, specifically gangster rap, Korean-American rappers sought to create raw and message-driven music. By the late 2010s, these trends of “rap dance” performed by K-pop idols, Korean-American rappers, and Korean-language rap would unify in BTS.
One of the main reasons for Bangtan Boys’, or BTS’ success is that they differ from other K-pop groups in several ways, such as they write their own music, and they have the freedom to use social media and express themselves. Music companies like Big Hit Entertainment seem to swing towards more US-style norms, which have unintentionally helped BTS to break the US market. “The fact that they co-wrote the music would definitely be a significant factor in the US market, especially for those who value ‘authenticity’ in music and would not listen to K-pop out of disapproval,” music critic Youngdae Kim argues.
K-pop is now the biggest genre and industry of South Korea. The entire genre has become a large topic of discussion around cultural appropriation. Creator of American K-pop group EXP–a group that received much hate for cultural appropriation–Bora Kim comments that there’s nothing traditionally Korean in K-pop today. K-pop itself is built on the borrowing of aspects from other cultures, specifically from hip-hop, which originated among the African-American community of the Bronx in 1970s New York. Kim believes Western fandom’s conversation around what is appropriative and what is not seems selective.