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Why is Kpop so popular?

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A night-time cityscape of South Korea.

It has been over a decade since Psy – the sharply-dressed, sunglasses-sporting South Korean popstar – and his paean to the trendy lifestyles of a Seoul suburb, “Gangnam Style”, became the first video to be streamed more than one billion times on YouTube. In the years since, the growing influence of “K-culture”  – alternately called the “Korean Wave”, or “Hallyu” – has transformed the spheres of music, fashion, TV, cinema, make-up, food and beyond the world over. 

Yet for all the positive feelings of novelty and spontaneity attached to the meme-like, global popularity of a moment like “Gangnam Style” – the “where did this come from?” of it all – the story of how K-pop came to take a central place in global culture is even more compelling. The rise of the K-culture phenomenon is far from a case of overnight success … rather, it’s in keeping with the dedicated “segyehwa” (literally, “globalisation”) strategy that initially put South Korea on the road to economic internationalisation in the mid-1990s. K-culture today is a big export.

Here at Curtin, the developments of Korean culture have long been in focus. We introduced WA’s first Korean Studies degree program in 1992 –  recently re-launched as the Korean Studies Major (Bachelor of Arts) – and we’re also proud to host the Korea Research and Engagement Centre, a hub for Korean Studies teaching and research that’s helping to deepen the collective understanding of Korea’s sizeable impact and contributions across the global stage.

Part of the team tracking K-culture’s impact is Associate Professor Jo Elfving-Hwang. Intrigued by the cultural and sociological layers of K-pop, Elfving-Hwang’s research looks at how beauty work and cosmetic surgery in Korea relate to expressions of social class, status and race.

Ahead of our discussion with Professor Elfving-Hwang on The Future Of: Korean Wave (podcast episode now available here) – we caught up to explore the phenomenon that is the Korean Wave, how it came to be and why it matters.

Associate Professor Jo Elfving-Hwang.

Q: What sparked the global ascension of Korean pop culture, and how has it maintained its momentum?

A: Elfving-Hwang: The global ascension of Korean pop culture was a gradual process. Initially, Korea wasn’t well-known culturally, largely due to political censorship that lasted until the early nineties. But as the country embraced democratisation, there was a newfound freedom that allowed artists to experiment and express themselves more openly. Bands like Taiji and the Boys, who emerged in the early nineties, marked the beginning of a domestic phenomenon, capturing the raw, rebellious spirit of youth and igniting a fan culture that Korea had not seen before – while also borrowing elements from Japanese and American music. With the government’s push for globalisation under the Segyehwa policy, cultural products, especially cinema, began to receive more attention, paving the way for the broader Korean Wave. 

The adoption of digital media – the early internet and then global platforms including YouTube – propelled Korean content to international fame. But what’s maintained the momentum is how Korean pop culture managed to stay innovative.  Artists combined traditional Korean elements with global music trends, like US hip-hop, which resonated with international audiences. Also, as the digital age progressed, K-pop especially harnessed the power of social media and online communities.

Fandoms became more organised, fan movements more strategic, and the music itself even adapted to new forms of technology. The Korean Wave has thrived not just because of its content, but because of its adaptability and the sense of belonging it fosters among fans worldwide. And even during economic downturns – the Asian financial crisis, the pandemic, etc. – K-pop and Korean dramas provided a form of escapism and a virtual community for fans. The drive of Korean pop culture is about constant evolution, reflecting Korea’s narrative while also being flexible enough to incorporate international tastes, which keeps it growing and maintaining its global presence.

Q: How has the international success of K-pop groups like BTS and BLACKPINK influenced the perception of Korean culture as a whole?

A: Elfving-Hwang: The international success of K-pop groups such as BTS and BLACKPINK has significantly altered global perceptions of Korean culture. Initially, Korea’s cultural exports were limited and not well-known outside its borders. What’s fascinating is how these groups, embodying the youthful energy and innovative spirit of modern Korea, have become cultural ambassadors. Their narratives, often woven into their music and public personas, speak of perseverance, self-love, and community, which resonate globally – their international success has challenged and reshaped stereotypes about Asian artists and cultures, prompting a re-evaluation and deeper appreciation of Korea’s contributions to global arts and culture. In essence, they’ve made Korean culture accessible and appealing to a worldwide audience, leading to an unprecedented cultural diffusion that continues to draw people into exploring and appreciating the myriad facets of Korea’s cultural heritage.

Their narratives, often woven into their music and public personas, speak of perseverance, self-love, and community, which resonate globally.”

Q: Can you discuss the impact of Korean pop culture on diasporic communities and its role in shaping their identity?

A: Elfving-Hwang: Korean pop culture has emerged as a crucial element of identity and representation for diasporic communities around the globe.  Through the universal language of music, drama, and art, it offers these communities a unique way to connect with their heritage, fostering a sense of pride and belonging. 

In academic settings, like the ones I’ve been involved with at Curtin, you can see the tangible impact of this cultural exploration. Students, especially those from diasporic backgrounds, engage deeply, finding reflections of their own experiences and challenges. It’s fascinating how Korean pop culture, through its narratives and community, acts as a vibrant medium for these communities to explore and assert their identities. It’s not just about the music or the dramas; it’s about the dialogue it creates around cultural diversity, representation, and inclusion. This phenomenon has essentially opened up a global conversation, allowing these communities to showcase their heritage and engage with a wider audience proudly. In a positive light, Korean popular culture can empower across geographical and generational divides. 

Where next?

Standing at the east gate of COEX mall in Gangnam, Psy’s megahit now has its own commemorative statue. Popular with tourists and visitors from across the globe, who often queue for a chance to take a selfie under its arches, the piece features two giant hands, fixed in the interweaved pose of the iconic “galloping” dance that accompanied the song. A fun piece of space activation on the part of the mall that plays a starring role in the video for “Gangnam Style”, certainly – but also a metaphor for K-culture’s enduring prominence on the global stage. The message is clear: a flash-in-the-pan “one-hit wonder” this phenomenon certainly is not. K-culture is here to stay.

Whether you’re excited by the ever-evolving phantasmagoria of Korean pop culture, or seeking to delve deeper into the factors underpinning the continued global prominence of Hallyu, check out the Korean Studies Major (Bachelor of Arts). We also provide a complete Korean Studies major, fully online, through both Curtin and the Open Universities Australia (OUA) platforms – as well as offering programs for higher degree by research (HDR) study within the Korean Research Centre. If you are interested in undertaking any Korean studies courses, feel free to contact us.

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