The Korean wave hits New York


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How K-Pop took the city by storm — and where it goes from there


Photos



  • Fans lined up for G-Dragon's concert at the Barclays Center on July 27. Photo: Oscar Kim Bauman




  • Eric Nam at the 2016 World Hansik Festival in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Angelric, via Wikimedia Commons




  • Ailee performing in 2013. Photo: Wasabi Contents, via Wikimedia Commons




  • Amber Liu (second from right) performing with f(x) at the Jeju K-pop Festival in Jeju, South Korea in 2015. Photo: PTT, via Wikimedia Commons




  • Seventeen at the 2015 Summer K-Pop Festival in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Jeon Han, via Wikimedia Commons




  • BTS at the 31st Golden Disk Awards in Seoul, South Korea in January 2017. Photo: Ajeong JM, via Wikimedia Commons



What is K-pop?

Another evening, another crowd outside the Barclays Center. To the average passerby, the scene on July 27th seemed fairly typical for an arena that, since its opening in 2012, has played host to the biggest names in pop. Today, though, the fans aren’t lined up to see Justin Bieber or Jay-Z. They’re lined up to see G-Dragon.

Despite the fact that his name wouldn’t mean a thing to the average New Yorker, the Seoul-bred rapper born Kwon Ji-Yong is, by any standard, an international superstar, and this stop in Brooklyn was the conclusion of the American leg on a globe-spanning arena tour, during which G-Dragon will perform in front of over half a million fans in 19 different countries. G-Dragon, and the boy group Big Bang, of which he is the leader, are part of a genre known as K-pop, short for Korean pop, and if the fans in Brooklyn last week are any indication, it’s arrived in New York and is here to stay.

Although it originated in Korea, K-pop has had a strong international presence for years. Selling records just in South Korea, a country of only 50 million, wouldn’t have gotten Big Bang the coveted title of being the highest selling boy group of all time, selling 150 million records and counting, beating out American favorites like the Backstreet Boys and the Jackson Five.

Summer 2017 alone will see several K-pop concerts in the New York area, from G-Dragon’s Barclays Center show, to seven-member hip-hop boy group Monsta X, who played the PlayStation Theater in Times Square on July 14th, to Korean-American crooner Eric Nam, who will play at Irving Plaza near Union Square on the 8th, to the confusingly-named 13-member boy group Seventeen, who will be playing at Terminal 5 in Hell’s Kitchen on August 27th. But K-pop concerts in New York are not a purely recent phenomenon; the first one on record, a concert solo by the singer Rain sold two nights at the Theater at Madison Square Garden back in 2006.

Outside any K-pop concert, the uniquely exuberant K-pop fan culture will be on full display. Fans pay exorbitant sums to participate in post-concert “hi-touch” events, where they get the coveted opportunity to high-five their idols, and, if they’re lucky, exchange a few words. Concert-goers will wear their favorite groups and members’ names and faces on hats, headbands, t-shirts, and more. Fans often find a spot on the sidewalk to dance in sync to popular K-pop songs, many of which aren’t even by the artist they’re gathered to see. But before the merchandise and dancing, the first thing an outside observer might notice is the diversity of the crowd.

Although non-fans may expect the crowd at a K-pop concert to be primarily Korean- or Asian-American, they in fact make up, at most, a quarter to a third of the crowd. The remaining portion of the crowd includes large contingents of Latino, African-American, and Caucasian fans. The backgrounds of the crowds at these concerts is hard to gauge, as I found at boy group Monsta X’s concert on July 14th. Everyone in line seemed to be a different ethnicity from the person standing next to them.

K-pop, despite its defining factor being its Korean language, is not limited to native-born Koreans. K-pop group members come from a wide variety of nationalities and backgrounds. There are Canadians, such as Super Junior-M member Henry Lau, who is of Taiwanese and Hong Kong descent; Australians, like Rosé, born Roseanne Park, a Melbourne-raised member of girl group BlackPink; Japanese, such as Twice’s Minatozaki Sana; Chinese, such as Exo’s Lay, born Zhang Yixing; and Thais, like GOT7’s BamBam, born Kunpimook Bhuwakul. Many performers and group members, including Eric Nam, who is from Atlanta, and the New Jersey-bred pop diva Ailee, born Amy Lee, are American-born. Asian-Americans in K-pop aren’t even always ethnically Korean, such as Amber Liu, a Taiwanese American member of girl group f(x) and Nichkhun Horvejkul, a Thai American member of boy group 2PM. Singers like Nam, Lee, Liu, and Horvejkul represent a growing number of young Asian-American musicians who, viewing the lack of opportunities for Asian-Americans in the domestic music industry, turned to Korea to find success. Opportunities for Asian-Americans are also on the minds of K-pop’s fans and observers. Many fans noted that they liked K-pop because it provides an outlet to see a representation of Asians in music, which is hard to find in Western media.

K-pop’s Impact

As K-pop’s stateside standing has grown, professionals in music-related fields across New York have adapted. One such person is Jeff Benjamin. Benjamin is a senior digital editor at Fuse, and the K-pop columnist for Billboard, and has also contributed to The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Hollywood Reporter. A Chicago native who’s lived in New York since 2008, and written professionally about K-pop since 2011, Benjamin has observed K-pop’s growth from niche phenomenon to perhaps the world’s biggest niche from a New Yorker’s perspective, based out of Billboard’s midtown offices.

One notable feature of K-pop is the sheer number of artists to keep up with. Although a few groups will reliably top the charts whenever they put out a song, dozens of other singers are constantly popping in and out of the spotlight. In an interview held, appropriately, in Koreatown, Benjamin noted the recent stateside success of seven-member boy group BTS, who sold out two nights at Newark’s Prudential Center back in March, and became the first Korean artist to win a Billboard Music Award in May. “There are so many exciting things going on for them right now,” said Benjamin, adding that he’s “really curious to see how their next album cycle goes,” and how they handle their expanding American fan base.

Benjamin also expressed admiration for the label Pledis Entertainment, whose management have found new success with groups like Seventeen, and their new 10-member girl group Pristin. Seventeen and Pristin are both known for their cheerful, youthful image, but more notably, both groups are at the forefront of the “self-producing idol” trend. The phrase emerged recently as a way to describe K-pop groups whose members take part in creating their own music and choreography, as opposed to many older groups, who traditionally would simply perform songs and dances others had created for them.

Despite the fact that K-pop is most well-known for its boy groups and girl groups, several solo artists have also managed to find fame. Benjamin noted the success of recent releases by female singers Heize and Suran, who he says are “making really beautiful, awesome, interesting music that has a lot of emotional depth to it.” Although solo artists tend to be more successful in Korea, some are finding their way to the American market; Heize will be making her American debut at KCON LA on the 20th, and other singers like R&B trendsetter Dean and Eric Nam have, or soon will be, playing in New York.

Another professional whose career has been greatly impacted by K-pop is MJ Choi. Since 2006, Choi has run I Love Dance, a studio that teaches K-pop and hip hop dance and boasts locations in both midtown Manhattan and Flushing, Queens. In an interview, Choi reminisced about the beginning of I Love Dance, noting that back then, at a time when K-pop was a little-known phenomenon in New York, her student body was entirely Korean. When she started getting her first non-Korean students, Choi “sensed that it’s not only Korean people listening to K-pop anymore.” Now, she says, 80 percent of those at I Love Dance’s classes are non-Korean, exemplifying the genre’s growth in popularity over the years.

One reason for K-pop’s success is the fact that is isn’t just music. K-pop artists are known for their dazzling music videos and complex choreography as much as their catchy tunes. All the K-pop fans interviewed for this article said that although music is the main attraction, the visual elements are what converted them from casual listeners to superfans. Dennis Ahn, a 16-year-old Korean-American fan from Flushing, said that a song’s accompanying visuals can serve as a “hook,” and Dante Urzua, a 13-year-old Hispanic fan from Washington Heights said that visual elements make the music more engaging, and allow it to “stand out more.” Choi also chimed in on this topic, noting that K-pop groups’ digital content makes them very approachable, noting that “they’re communicating and interacting with their fans. For fans, that’s something very fun and exciting.” Choi believes that this gives fans a greater sense of connection to K-pop stars, something beyond “just looking at them on the TV.”

Social media has an enormous role in creating new K-pop fans. Both Urzua and Fatema Alam, a 17 year-old South Asian fan from Elmhurst said they became K-pop fans after hearing a catchy K-pop song featured in a post by a social media personality — in Urzua’s case, an artist on Instagram used veteran boy group Super Junior’s 2014 hit “Mamacita” in the background of a video, and Alam first heard rising girl group BlackPink’s 2016 debut single “Boombayah” in a reaction video uploaded by a young woman on Vine.

Benjamin and Choi also mentioned the significance of YouTube, with Benjamin noting that the success of Psy’s 2012 song “Gangnam Style” triggered a boom in YouTube views of all K-pop videos. Choi, taking the dancer’s perspective, noted the common practice of groups uploading fixed-camera dance practice videos in addition to the standard music video, which she said makes K-pop groups seem more accessible, and allows fans to follow along.

But why has New York become such a hub for K-pop and its fans? Pointing to New York’s massive cultural diversity, Choi said that New Yorkers, more so than most Americans, are “very open-minded,” observing that “they’re willing to try different food, different cultures, different music.” Benjamin noted New York’s internationally famous pop-culture image, observing that performing in the “Big Apple,” and seeing the city’s famous attractions is something artists can brag about back in Korea. Whatever New York’s appeal may be, it’s so strong that artists are performing at venues of all sizes when they come to perform. A day after rookie boy group NCT 127 performed in June at the KCON music festival in Newark, they did a free show at the Apple Store in Williamsburg.

K-pop has more fans in New York than ever before — largely due to the passionate fanbases of young groups like BTS and Exo, as well as respected industry veterans like G-Dragon and CL, who performed at the Hammerstein Ballroom last fall, and has been teasing an American debut under the management of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande manager Scooter Braun since 2014. However, their level of stateside fame didn’t come from nowhere. As Benjamin put it, “every generation is building off one another,” meaning that one has to look back at the paths older groups blazed into the American market, such as CL’s original group, the recently-disbanded 2NE1. 2NE1, a convention-shattering girl group, remain the only K-pop girl group to have performed at the Prudential Center, where they sold out the venue back in 2012, just as PSY was giving most Americans their first taste of K-pop. Five years after PSY, a full K-pop crossover may be closer than we think.







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