Pop with a bit more Seoul

looks into why young people in the UK are trading in American pop for their Korean counterparts

Image: BTS

Over the past year, the western world has witnessed a K-pop boom. Even those of us who have no particular interest in world music at all are now beginning to hear about the growing interest in South Korean music. Personally my music taste does not extend much further than anything that is related to Blur in some shape or form. Yet, K-pop playlists have now been infiltrating their way into my Spotify.

Like most people, I first came into contact with K-pop after PSY’s Gangnam Style became the top grossing song in 2012, hitting one billion views on YouTube. However, six years on, K-pop has transformed into a music movement. The quality of performances from K-pop stars immediately reveals the appeal of the genre. From watching music videos of groups such as BTS, it is instantly clear how high the production value of K-pop is. The group’s perfectly executed dance moves make synchronised swimming look like an ammateur sport. Harry Styles and Justin Bieber, in comparison look closer to Peter Crouch doing the ‘Robot’ than to professional artists.

In order to find out more about the appeal of K-pop, I spoke to Armadillios Robinson, a DJ who has been performing at K-pop events for three years. Armadillios was hesitant about K-pop at first. However, he too grew into the genre. Armadillios described how his fascination with K-pop meant that he “decided to dabble in experimenting with K-pop and implementing K-pop songs into non-K pop club nights.” From there, he went to his first K-pop event around three years ago, only to find that it was still dominated by mainstream track music rather than playing K-pop songs regularly.


Finding this disappointing and noticing that K-pop fans were beginning to disappear, Armadillios took matters into their own hands. This was the beginning of the K-pop nights at Revolution, which partnered with the Korean Cultural Appreciation Society at the University of York to create an environment for fans to enjoy K-pop together. Skip forward three years and K-pop can be seen all over the country.

Armadillious informed me that K-pop nights have become increasingly frequent: “As it currently stands, you can find a K-pop event happening around the UK almost on a weekly basis in different areas. Some fans in this scene would travel far and book hotels just to attend these events. From what I have seen from the different promoters, the number of attendants can fill up a club, with up to 500 visitors in a night. If you browse YouTube react channels, K-pop seems to have become such a mainstream scene now that many react channels cover K-pop videos on a regular basis. At the moment I’m in the planning stages of organising a K-pop night in areas that have yet to have a K-pop night such as Leeds, Newcastle, Cambridge and Brighton.”

People are finally accepting that language is not a barrier to music and you can still connect with the music

What became apparent to me from speaking to Armadillious is that the internet has now completely bypassed music magazines and review shows. Rather than waiting for music to filter into the UK charts, teenagers and students are finding their own music from all over the world. Armadilios confirmed this stating that “people’s increased interest in foreign culture and more available, immediate accessibility to foreign material on streaming services has boosted the genre. A lot of people know who BTS are now. It’s come to a point where just a few weeks ago, I heard Radio 1 play K-pop on the radio after Megastar DJ Steve Aoki released a mix of one of BTS tracks. This is a far departure from when all people had to reference K-pop with was Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style.’”

This perspective was mirrored by first year K-pop enthusiast Myoori Patel-Rivet who explained that “People are finally accepting that language is not a barrier to music and you can still connect with the music.”

For western listeners, K-pop is something curious and fun. The fan experience in South Korea can be very different. South Korean fans face rules and regulations prior to entering fan clubs with each fandom emphasising its exclusivity by having their own name and light stick. In general, there is a K-pop lexis that fans use when they are conversing which would seem alien to outsiders.

This secretive nature of K-pop demonstrates how the music is serving as a movement against the conservative culture of South Korea. This is most obviously demonstrated by how K-pop has been played over the border in North Korea as a political symbol of freedom and expression. In addition at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics the group EXO were chosen to perform be-cause of their success in uniting the local region. Young Koreans are being provided with a way to express themselves. Artists such as Holland, the first openly gay K-pop star, (pictured bottom right) now symbolise a shift away from Korea’s strict lifestyle.

In contrast, life as a star in Korea is very different to in Britain. Artists are forced to forgo romantic relationships or remain single to maintain the correct image. Artists also face a tough regime in order to get ready for performances with training days being up to 12 hours long in training camps, where groups live together away from their friends and families. The pressures which face South Korean performers are so high that according to research from actor Park Jin Hee in 2009, 40 per cent of South Korean actors have considered suicide. More recently, the pressure that South Korean musicians face was highlighted by the death of singer Jonghyun which stunned the K-pop world but also revealed the isolation and stress that K-pop stars constantly face.

K-pop has served to liberate not only South Korean teenagers, but also managed to help diversify the western world. Its popularity has helped the world to gain a greater under-standing of what it is like to grow up in East Asia. M

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