Toward a Transnational Kpop: A Look at the Past and Future of the Global Genre

On July 22, 2015, GFRIEND released “Me Gustas Tu,” a curious title for a Korean song featuring no other Spanish lyrics. Though the title of the song may have raised a few eyebrows, the truth is that there is a burgeoning market for Kpop in Spanish-speaking countries. Yes, it’s official: Kpop is a global phenomenon. But how did this happen? How did a small regional genre of music explode into a transnational movement, and what can we expect for its future?

GFRIEND - "Me Gustas Tu"

The Rise of Kpop

Fifteen years ago, Korea was not a cultural power in any sense of the word. No Asian country was. Culture flowed from West to East, almost exclusively. This had nothing to do with any lack in the cultures of the East, but with the manner in which urban growth played out on a global scale. Rapid urban growth began first in Europe and America with the industrial revolution, and that transition accelerated the use of new media (such as film and TV) to reach a more urban citizenship. As John Ellis notes in Seeing Things, “Europe and America led the way simply because the rapid expansion of population took place earlier there.”

BoA's first Japanese single, "ID; Peace B"

Many recognize BoA as the first Korean artist to ignite the possibility of a truly global Kpop. And her success was a direct result of “SM Entertainment’s identification of Japan as an enormously lucrative market, twenty times the size of the Korean market” (source). Size is important here, as the monetary success of Kpop was necessarily limited in the early years by Korea’s relatively small population. Much as most Western businesses are currently salivating over the prospect of a new middle class in China, Korean executives have viewed the outside world as their target for years. But first they had to figure out how to reach those 7 billion potential fans, most of whom did not speak Korean.

By the time Kpop entered the scene, Western record labels controlled the global market. It was near impossible to enter a new market without the assistance of one of the big three Western labels. But Kpop entertainment companies soon found a way to bypass the the cultural dominance of the West. They released their music on the internet, specifically on YouTube, for zero cost and without need of any of the major music labels. By cutting out Western labels, in this distribution model the Kpop labels (along with Google) take the largest cut while the artists take the smallest (source).

GD & TOP's "Baby Good Night," which features lyrics in French

Even though revenue stayed with the entertainment companies, using YouTube was by far a more democratized process. The biggest draw of the site was that anyone could upload, and anyone could watch. This new distribution model had the effect of creating a global music industry that “destroyed the thick line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture on the one hand, and ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ country cultures on the other” (source). This would become important, as with the exception of growing promotions in Japan and a scattering of English and Chinese attempts, Kpop entertainment companies largely promoted on native soil. YouTube became the default medium of the Hallyu Wave.

But there’s another factor which has been every bit as influential as YouTube in the rise of Kpop. After all, what is YouTube without its viewers? The rise of Kpop, which came in spite of geographic, cultural, and linguistic barriers, is due to a new form of marketing which few critics have heretofore addressed: the fans themselves.

EXID's viral fancam for "Up and Down" with over 15 million views

In non-Asian countries, “fans not only consume imported music and the fashions associated with it but also serve as marketers, mediators, translators, and localizers of globalized culture” (source). In other words, the rise of Kpop in America and English-speaking countries, in Europe, South America, and even in Israel and Palestine, is not the result of Kpop groups promoting directly to those audiences, but of dedicated fans acting as “cultural missionaries” (source). In a study of Kpop culture in Austria, researchers found that many people who attended a Kpop dance festival in Vienna “were participating not only as a hobby, but because they wanted to help bring K-pop to Europe” (source).

Which brings us back to the recent release by GFRIEND of “Me Gustas Tu.” Rather than viewing this as simple fan service or a dedicated attempt to market to Spanish-speaking fans, this music video is a good indication of what to expect in Kpop over the next few years. Here are a few rules that the entertainment companies will follow through 2020.

1. Provide Bonus Content

Possibly the most important aspect to reaching international Kpop fans is to provide plenty of content for consumption. A large portion of fans report being introduced to the genre through K-dramas, anime, or other internet video which features Kpop music. But once fans are hooked, they need plenty of their favorite bias to keep them busy. Like, for example, this live version of "Me Gustas Tu." Or GFRIEND’s pet-themed reality TV show! Ostensibly, this show has nothing to do with the music, but watching your bias cuddle an adorable puppy builds a bond that is hard to get in the quick-cuts of a music video.

A fan-translated episode of GFRIEND! Take Care of My Puppy!

As a corollary to this, expect YouTube to continue to be a main source of material, not only of official content, but fan-made and fan-translated content as well. As a medium, YouTube is ubiquitous, easily accessible, and free to use, but more importantly, it provides a way for fans to upload their own content. Although distributing more Kpop music on services like Spotify and iTunes is nice, these sites have none of the small clips and ephemera that fans have lovingly discovered or created. YouTube offers “affordable and unlimited access to visual content that [goes] beyond the promotional materials available to fans from the company website” (source). Furthermore, YouTube provides a path for international fans to act as cultural missionaries through translations, captioning, reaction videos, and more. And that’s not changing any time soon.

2. Refrain from Direct Promotion

Outside of Asia, direct promotion has historically failed. BoA, Rain, Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation, Spica. These are just some of the big name acts that have tried, and failed, to make it in America.

Girls' Generation Performing "The Boys" on David Letterman

There are many reasons for this. We can blame the poor state of Asian representation in the West, or poor promotion by entertainment companies, or a dozen other things. But we would be ignoring the most important thing, which is that international fans are not asking for Kpop to invade the music scene of their native country. Kpop fans frequently point out that they enjoy being unique in their musical tastes. One study found that many listeners of the genre accumulated social capital through that uniqueness (source). Though it may seem counterintuitive, Kpop fans are not asking their bias to promote in a new country and learn a new language. American fans are not asking Girls’ Generation to sing in English on David Letterman. Part of Kpop’s appeal is its uniqueness and its inaccessibility. Which is exactly why PSY’s meteoric rise to fame irked so many Kpop fans (this writer included). Suddenly, a piece of our private world had gone more mainstream than anything else on the internet ever had before.

Over 2 Billion Views and Counting: PSY - "Gangnam Style"

We should not confuse uniqueness with exclusivity, snobbishness, or even hermitage. Do we want to see our bias in concert? Yes, of course. Do we appreciate the occasional fan service video? Absolutely. But fans of Kpop did not get into the genre so as to convert Korean stars into speakers of other languages. If we want pop music in our native language, that already exists, and is much more easily accessible. In other words, no market exists for Kpop that is stripped of its Korean roots.

It won’t necessarily stay this way forever. Slowly, over time, as fans evangelize and grow their own communities, Kpop may become acceptably mainstream. Direct promotion might make sense in the future, but right now, that kind of promotion would turn away the very audience it seeks to attain.

3. Keep it Weird

International fans of Kpop support a genre of music that is wholly different from what is on offer in their native country. We are, by definition, lovers of the weird. We have flocked to a culture that is different from our own and spend time building communities in this realm. For Kpop to continue to succeed in the global market, it must continue to surprise us.

Orange Caramel's "Catallena," which borrows lyrics from Punjabi

Take Orange Caramel, for example. Their incredible success is not solely a result of their good looks. It wasn’t just their music, either. Orange Caramel won fans over with fun and quirky concepts. Or take a look at BIGBANG. Yes, they’ve reached a point in their careers where they can experiment with new ideas, but the very reason that BIGBANG is still so popular is because they’ve never played it safe. International fans don’t want generic pop. We can get that at home. We want Kpop in all its glorious weirdness.

These three rules (provide bonus content, refrain from direct promotion, and keep it weird) are sure to carry us at least into 2020. But Kpop moves fast, and there’s no telling where the genre will find itself in the years after that. One thing that is for certain is that Kpop, as a transnational genre, is here to stay.

Have any thoughts of your own on where the Kpop genre is headed? Let us know in the comments!

Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.


  1. Dear Mr Writer, great piece! Very interesting reading.
    I am curious about your academic background and how it has informed your relationship with kpop and this site. Hope you guys will definitely keep it up. I have always appreciated being stimulated to think about what I consume and why, and I sure may other (silent) readers do too ^_^


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