BTS, Other K-pop Stars Are Leaving American Music in the Dust

What's the 'secret sauce' in explaining the K-pop juggernaut?

BTS’ domination of the worldwide music industry is undeniable. They’ve amassed a huge (and hugely loyal) fan base, reached the top of the Billboard charts multiple times, and been nominated for a Grammy for their song “Butter.”

The BTS phenomenon is but one indicator of the current worldwide domination that is Korean Pop (K-pop). But the cultural shift toward K-pop didn't occur overnight or in a vacuum. The entertainment company CEOs behind hit K-pop groups like BTS have admitted to being influenced by American (and especially African-American) artists. It’s hard not to see Janet Jackson and Britney Spears in K-pop solo legend BoA or B2K in the scandal-plagued boy group Big Bang.

BLK is an R&B girl group hailing from Toronto, hoping to make it global. The members, Khatalia Korahjay, Bexk and LilacX are well aware of K-pop and its growing influence in the industry. “It’s hard to take your eyes off of them!” says Korahjay. “I feel like North American groups/artist back in the day like TLC and Destiny’s Child were a lot like how K-pop groups are now. I’m pretty sure it’s what inspired a lot of K-pop.”

The impact of K-pop is massive with the success of groups like BTS and BlackPink. American entertainment companies like Universal Music Group (UMG), HBO Max, and MGM Television have teamed up with the biggest K-pop management agencies to create their own “American” K-pop groups in the near future.

But what's the 'secret sauce' in explaining the K-pop juggernaut? Many experts in the Korean music market agree that aside from the music itself, performance is K-pop's biggest selling point. According to Wooseok Ki, author of 'K-POP: The Odyssey', dance and choreography is built into the very DNA most companies use to promote their groups.

“For K-pop acts,” Ki says, “the official dance choreography is an integral part of the performance in addition to the music, and is presented as such by the artists who are also talented dancers. This is evidenced by the plethora of official dance rehearsal videos, choreography videos, and dance challenges that the artists/companies release.” 

Dr. Areum Jeong of the Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute cites the reality competition program 'Kingdom: Legendary War' as an example of how integral performance and choreography is to a group’s success. In Kingdom, select boy groups must compete with weekly performances to gain votes from viewers. According to Jeong, the show reveals “how much the idols’ agonize in creating unique concepts and themes for their stages. In addition to the clean-cut choreography, the costume and hair, lighting, and stage design will all add up to the audiences’ visual pleasure.”

Not only are do performances attract audiences, but through the power of social media they entice fans to create online challenges and covers which further promotes the groups and their music releases.

According to Dr. Crystal Anderson of George Mason University, the importance the American music industry as a whole places on performances today may in part be owed to advances in social media technology. As she tells NBCLX, “The standards for performance set by artists like Janet Jackson and Britney were in part due to a context where those kinds of performances were appreciated and expected by audiences."

Anderson adds some might argue that the general reduction in the kind of large-scale performances we tended to see in previous years in pop music may be linked to the different ways that people access their music. "Streaming, a decline in the impact of radio on music consumption and a reduction in access to music videos may affect the expectations people have for the performance of music,” she said. 

On the other hand, advances in social media seem to have only helped K-pop because of the industry’s already built-in extreme visual element. As Wooseok Ki argues, “social media amplifies K-pop’s audiovisual flair via live performances, choreography videos, viral dance challenges, and more.” Social media can be a life-line to K-pop groups thought to be on their last legs. Girl groups like EXID and recently Brave Girls skyrocketed to success because of videos that spread like wildfire amongst the Korean general public, reviving their careers.

It also doesn’t hurt that the Korean music industry has several weekly performances, called “music shows” where K-pop groups can show up to perform when they have a song to promote. These performances end up on YouTube and spread throughout the Internet as fans capture, edit and post parts of choreography or certain members their eyes gravitate to.

So while there’s plenty the American music industry can learn (or re-learn in some cases) from the K-pop industry, there are certain elements it should stray from. Those astounding performances require dedication and training, but that comes at a cost.

“The long hours and hectic schedules…can have a negative impact on physical and mental health in the way we see with other performers, such as ballet dancers,” writes Dr. Anderson. Likewise, songwriter and producer Tiffany Red, who has written for massive K-pop acts such as BoA, Shinee and NCT, has seen the flipside of K-pop visual presentation firsthand. In her estimation, K-pop groups are too controlled by their management companies who seek perfection relentlessly.

“Being an artist is supposed to be freeing, not militant," she says. "Seeing how some of the idols have struggled with their mental health is heartbreaking.”

Some musical acts may benefit from the strictness of the K-pop system. As for other acts, like BLK, the laid-back approach is just fine. “By spending time outside the studio,” says LilacX “I feel as though creating a bond besides the business really has contributed to the synergy in our music. No boot camps, just chill vibes and communication.” 

With new American K-pop -style groups on their way, we’ll see what America learns from the Korean music industry and what they set aside in the coming years.

Sarah Raughley is a columnist and YA author of The Effigies Series. Her new book, The Bones of Ruin, is slated for September 7, 2021.