Are you sure?

Enjoying a ‘Stan’s’ eye View of the K-pop Phenomenon

I hadn’t given Korean pop, better known as K-pop, much thought until I noticed that my local Cinema City was showing “Break the Silence”, the fourth movie by K-pop giants BTS, for three nights in a row. And you had to buy tickets in advance. It turned out that the movie was being launched simultaneously across Europe.

K-pop band BTS at the 2017 American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theatre LA Live on November 19, 2017. Photo by Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock

“Break the Silence” promises to bring fans the “untold story” of BTS as it follows the band on its first international tour. It features interviews with the band’s seven members.

While I had no desire to see the movie, I am fascinated by the K-pop phenomenon.

It began in the early 1990s when the South Korean music industry combined elements of all the flavors of contemporary Western pop (R&B, hip-hop, electro and so on) with traditional Korean music and started putting together boy and girl bands. It, and the bands, became a global musical force to be reckoned with when social media exploded around 2010.

In 2018, K-pop revenue grew by 17.9%. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s “Global Music Report 2019”, Korea ranks sixth in the world’s top 10 music markets worldwide.

K-pop basically takes the elements that have defined pop music since at least the late 1950s: cute boys and girls, garishly colored outfits, frenetic dancing and catchy music, and makes them even more cartoonish.

But I’m sure K-pop fans have no interest in or knowledge of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, The Archies, The Osmonds, NSYNC or The Spice Girls, to name just a few of the thousands of manufactured pop bands of the last 60 or so years.

The great thing about being a teenage, or even preteen, pop music fan is that you have no idea of pop’s rich history. Your band is yours in that moment. And it’s even better if no-one over the age of 16 has any idea why you love your band so much.

What do you care if cute, cuddly band members have danced over the backs of countless hopefuls to get to the spotlight, signed slave labor contracts and submerged their real personality in one created for them by shadowy management Svengalis?

I’m not being facetious here. As a teenage pop fan, I only cared about the music, the image and the persona of my idols. Why should K-pop fans be any different?

Why BTS?

In 2019, BTS was worth more than USD 4.65 billion to South Korea’s economy. Remarkably, they were the reason one in 13 tourists visited the country.

To give you some idea of BTS’ global popularity, the band’s latest single “Dynamite” debuted in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 at number one in late August of this year; a first for an international band and an astonishing achievement.

BTS was also a major factor in music sales worldwide growing to USD 19 bln in 2018.

I’d assumed that BTS’ appeal was down to their androgynous, unthreatening image, the fact that fans have seven boys to choose from and, I guess, the music and the dance choreography.

So I was surprised to discover that BTS co-write and co-produce a fair amount of their music. If you’re willing to translate from Korean, their lyrics are also socially aware, going beyond the time-honored themes of troubled youth into things like mental health.

BTS’ seventh album “Map of the Soul”, released in February of this year, faced up to the band’s own existential concerns after its astonishing success. As RM, formerly Rap Monster, the band’s leader said, “One day, we woke up and we were like, ‘Where are we?’”

The cynic in me wonders whether the band does in fact write these lyrics. But does that matter if the songs make their fans feel less alone and help them find a way to cope with being a teenager in tough times? But this is all me speculating. To understand BTS’ appeal I needed to speak to a Hungarian fan. I found one in Lili.

Fan View

Lili became a fan, or “stan” (“an overzealous maniacal fan” according to the Urban Dictionary) of BTS in 2018. Especially the visuals and choreography. “BTS spoke to me in a way no other artist ever has,” she told me. So much so that Lili seeks out translations for the band’s Korean lyrics online.

The BTS story of overcoming ridicule from the K-pop scene and becoming a family after butting heads appeals to Lili. She also believes the band to be “genuinely nice and caring people.” But she’s really a fan of their music.

“BTS cover themes of mental health, sexual orientation, discrimination, suicide and so on,” she said.

“These are all things many, many teenagers relate to and to find comfort in artists who actually care about what they talk about in their music is incredibly inspiring. For example, their “Love Yourself” series of three albums and tour resulted in a campaign with UNICEF that built on the band’s belief that ‘true love first begins with loving myself’.”

This dimension to BTS’ appeal does put them in a different league from the bands I was in love with at roughly Lili’s age. I was 15 when punk exploded in the United Kingdom in 1976, times as tough as today’s but for different reasons.

Although I thought the music and clothes were fantastic, I really responded to the ferocious anger of bands like the Sex Pistols and the fact that my liberal, tolerant parents hated them.

I’m not sure if the sensitivity of BTS is a step up from righteous anger, especially when I think of the world Lili and her generation are going to inherit. But, as her father says, “I’m just grateful she’s not listening to music urging her to wage war!”