K-pop has 'conquered the whole world,' Behrend professor says

Inkyu Kang's 2015 book foresaw the spread of Korean pop culture, including K-pop — short for 'Korean popular music' — band BTS

ERIE, Pa. — The K-pop juggernaut BTS hasn’t found much support on U.S. radio, even though the group, which debuted in 2013, produced two of the best-selling albums of 2020.

That could be a career-killer – for radio, according to Inkyu Kang, an associate professor of digital journalism at Penn State Behrend.

Online, BTS has a following that rivals – if it hasn’t already surpassed – that of the Beatles. The band’s official Twitter account has 27.9 million followers. The hashtag #bts is used nearly 959,000 times every day, according to Brandwatch.

At this point, the group is all but printing its own money: A Hyundai Research Institute study found that BTS generates more than $3.6 billion for South Korea’s economy every year.

“K-pop has conquered the whole world,” said Kang, who teaches courses in mass media, journalism, graphic design and multimedia production. He also teaches a Penn State course about Korean culture and influence, including K-pop, which is shorthand for Korean popular music.

Kang was early to the K-pop party. His 2015 book, “K-Pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry,” anticipated the spread of Korean pop culture, in both music and film. We asked him about BTS and the increasing popularity of Korean entertainment.

Inkyu Kang, an associate professor of digital journalism at Penn State Behrend

Inkyu Kang, an associate professor of digital journalism at Penn State Behrend, wrote a book about the rise of K-pop, which is shorthand for Korean popular music.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Q: You were clearly ahead of this trend: Global sales for K-pop were estimated at about $30 million in 2009 and jumped to $5 billion by 2020. How did you decide to write a book about K-pop when you did?

Kang: I started writing it after I gave an invited talk at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2012, as part of a conference known as KPOPCON. They learned about me through a column I wrote in Korean for an online journal, which was translated into English.

K-pop was already rising as a global phenomenon, making itself felt in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. When I arrived at Berkeley, many students were practicing K-pop dance moves on campus, and the classroom was packed with students — with wide smiles on their faces — when I entered.

Q: Why did BTS break through?

Kang: If you Google the question, you’ll get hundreds of answers. Most of them talk about things like the band’s addictive melodies, talented members, superb dancing and their videos’ production value. Those reasons may all be correct, but hundreds of other bands also fit into these categories.

I think there are more important reasons for the popularity of BTS. BTS talks about pain, agony and concerns we have in common: bullying, depression, self-hate, broken love and an uncertain future.

BTS reaches out a hand to frustrated youths, giving them a shoulder to cry on. They have actively interacted with each other through social media, establishing a strong bond over a number of years.

Q: Aside from the social-media component, that sounds a lot like the connection a previous generation had with the Beatles. Is it fair to compare the two bands?

Kang: BTS is often compared to the Beatles, but they are different bands that mark different sociocultural moments and are loved for different reasons.

The Beatles embodied the hopes and dreams of the '60s for the baby boomers. The Millennials and Gen Z, meanwhile, face an uncertain future characterized by a slow-growth economy, employment instability and widening inequality. They also are the most progressive generations in history, and they are hyper-connected across borders.

K-pop has proven to be a good fit for the new generation, which shares some of the same problems across the globe.

Q: We’re also seeing more openness to Korean films. “Parasite,” for example, won the Oscar for best picture in 2020 — the first non-English film to win the award.

Kang: That’s right. Korean movies like “Parasite” and “Oldboy,” dramas like “Kingdom” and “Sweet Home,” along with writers like Han Kang and Kim Young-ha are rapidly expanding their global fanbase and critical reputations.

Since its democratization, South Korea has developed a strong civil society, leading many talented youths into the cultural industry. The Korean government and corporations have invested heavily as well, after recognizing the economic potential of cultural products.

Q: The South Korean government clearly recognizes the importance of BTS on the world stage. They even changed the law regarding compulsory military service so members of the band could keep touring.

Kang: Korea requires all men between the ages of 18 and 28 to serve in the armed forces for two years, but those who “enhance national prestige” in athletics, music and the arts may be given an exception or extension.

Such exceptions and extensions had been limited to Olympic medalists, pianists, violinists and ballet dancers. Now, under a change in the law, pop artists can enjoy the same privilege.

The change was not made solely for BTS, but their significant achievements obviously motivated the government to extend the waivers to pop performers.

Q: Are there other K-pop bands we should keep an eye on in the coming years?

Kang: I’m anxious to see who will be chosen by the young generation, but I am an observer, rather than a predictor.

Q: If we went for a ride in your car right now, what music would we be listening to?

Kang: I do listen to K-pop, but I’ve been an avid lover of classical music for my entire life. So, we’d be listening to Erik Satie, performed by Olga Scheps. The young Russian-German pianist’s interpretation of the French composer’s work is astonishing.

Although they are different genres, music works in the same way: People with different social and cultural backgrounds inspire each other to create something more beautiful and meaningful.