K-pop in America: Racial Progression or Regression?

By, Kayla L. ’19

Korean Pop (K-pop) is a music genre that has dominated the music industry the last couple of years. Bands like BTS, Blackpink, and EXO have, within recent years, become more accepted into mainstream American media and popular culture. K-pop has certainly had many positive effects in America, but it is also important to recognize the possible negative effects of the music genre.

The beginnings of what we now know as K-pop in America started in 2012 with Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” With 3.2 billion views, “Gangnam Style” was for a long time known to be one of the most watched Youtube videos in the world. “Gangnam Style” re-introduced and “popularized” Korean pop culture in America. Although his funky and somewhat catchy tune seemed to capture the attention of the entire world, his hit song and goofy persona made it difficult for K-pop to really take off as a serious music industry in the States.

Flash forward to now and K-pop is becoming a worldwide sensation. It’s very likely that if you were to walk down the street and ask someone if he or she has heard of BTS, or of K-pop in general, that person would say yes. K-pop has done wonders for the Asian American community. Recognition in the media and in the music industry has finally shattered longstanding stereotypes that have plagued the Asian American community for decades. Whitewashing in movies and TV shows have enforced stereotypical Asian roles in the media. However, K-pop is redefining what it means to be Asian in America.

BTS, for example, has become the first Korean band ever to make it to the top of the Billboard Top 200 twice and is the “First Pop Act Since 2014 With Two No. 1 Albums in Less Than a Year.” Additionally, BTS ranked number one on the 2018 Billboard’s Artist 100 charts, beating out Drake, Travis Scott, Ariana Grande, and Post Malone. K-pop as a music genre has songs that are in all Korean with some English words scattered around occasionally, so one can argue that this aspect of K-pop is an example of racial progress in the United States because people who don’t speak Korean are appreciating music and lyrics that they don’t necessarily understand. In this way, K-pop has helped America begin to stray away from its relatively monolingual music industry. In fact, this past month, Dua Lipa and the Kpop girl group Black Pink released their fully bilingual song “Kiss and Make Up,” which signifies a huge step forward for both the American and Korean music industry.

More important, though, than this success in the music industry, is the diverse crowd that K-pop attracts. After going to a BTS concert earlier in October, I personally witnessed the diversity of K-pop fans. K-pop in America extends beyond the Asian community. Standing in general admission at a BTS concert I saw people with different racial, socioeconomic, and geographical backgrounds. I saw kids aged seven through adults in their forties. I was surrounded by mostly white, black, and Latinx communities. In fact, as an Asian American in the crowd, I was ironically in the minority. People of all genders flew in from Washington, from London, and from other places in the world and we all collectively congregated together for a single band. K-pop has a way of joining people regardless of race, class, and gender in a way that not many other things in America have. In regards to the concert, Teresa Lawlor ‘19 states “The BTS concert was an out-of-body experience. We were really close to the stage, and it was just an awesome show. The members are so talented, and even though I can’t understand Korean at all, I understood all of the emotions they expressed.”

The emergence of K-pop has done wonders for the Asian American community. Angela Su ‘19 states, “K-pop is a great way to spread awareness of Asian culture! I feel so proud to see people that look like me on screens across the globe!” Seeing Asians in the spotlight has allowed many Asian-Americans to become more confident in their identity.

Though K-pop definitely demonstrates racial progression for the Asian American community, it has undeniably created some racial regression to a certain extent. The popularization of Korean pop culture has also revealed people’s internal prejudices against Asians. When BTS performed at the BBMAs there was an influx of racist tweets pointed towards the group. Tweets stating “Idek who those Asians [are]. I don’t wanna know. I’m baffled. I didn’t understand what they said” or “How did these Asians wearing makeup beat ACTUAL FAMOUS PEOPLE?” These implicit biases have now intensified with the emergence of K-pop in America.

Despite these instances of racism towards Asians, K-pop has allowed for a large amount of racial progress in America, at least with regard to society’s view of the Asian American community. Being recognized as legitimate bands and winning titles on American award shows has finally given Asians the spotlight that they deserve. Most importantly, however, the diverse community of fans that K-pop attracts creates a microcosm of harmony that I hope will one day be reflected in societies all over the world.