Can K-Pop Make it in America?

I’ve been a fan of Kpop for the past eight years. I was with the genre before there were such thing as “The Hallyu Wave,” before Simon and Martina made Kpop accessible to western audiences, even before there were website like All Kpop, Soompi, and even YouTube. In the past eight years, I’ve seen Kpop evolve from being simply “the pop music of Korea,” to a world wide phenomenon, and it just keeps on growing.

Suddenly, the Hallyu Wave has become a tsunami that has enveloped most of Asia. Korean artists now dominate the Oricon charts in Japan, and have become massively popular in China, Thailand, and Vietnam. However, the question on everyone’s mind seems to be this; Can Kpop succeed in the Western world? Of course, by “western world,” we really mean America.

Being a fan of the genre for so long, and also being an American, I’d like to take a minute to address this question. The Kpop community seems to be evenly split by this question. Many are quick to say “Kpop will never be popular in America, so why bother!?” On the other hand, many are quick to shout “The Hallyu wave is coming to America! Daebak! Hwaiting!”

Then, of course, there are those who don’t even want Kpop to come to America. These fans be even divided against themselves for their reasoning. Some say that it won’t be “cool” if it becomes popular, and want to protect the hip “indie-ness” of the genre (seriously?). Some say that they would rather see their favorite groups succeed in Korea than fail in America. Some just don’t want to see Kpop become further “Americanized.” (once again, seriously?) Despite where you may or may not stand on the issue, it hasn’t stopped Kpop from going global, and it hasn’t stopped companies from trying to expand into Western markets.

Now, I’d like to say this; I think that everyone is asking the wrong question. The question shouldn’t necessarily be “Can Kpop succeed in America?” That question is going to be met with a resounding NO! Kpop is, after all, the pop music of Korea. Its more than just the language language. Its the culture. Its the music industry itself. Its the process of a song’s creation, the choreography, the dynamic of the groups. Its the values and behavior of the performers. By nature, almost everything about the culture and music industries of America and Korea are completely different. Perhaps certain elements of Kpop will find their way to America, but Kpop, as a genre, will never flourish in the US. Ever.

However, if we re-phrase the question, we can get a very different answer. The question we should be asking is Can a Korean act succeed in the American market? And that, my friends, is a much trickier question that has yet to truly be answered. Right now, the Hallyu wave hasn’t quite crashed down on US shores, but the waves are lapping at our coasts, perpetually threatening to make a splash. In order to do that, its going to have to adjust itself slightly.

Before we talk about the Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation’s US promotions, lets take a look at the differences between Korea and America, and see what exactly a Korean act will have to do to be able to succeed in America.

#1 – Girl Groups over Boy Bands
This…will never be popular in America
If anyone is going to succeed in the US, its going to be a girl group. Boy bands may be all the rage in Asia, but in the US, they’re looked at as a novelty act and a relic of the 90’s.
Sure, right now groups like One Direction and The Wanted are seeing huge success in the US. However, can these groups really be compared to say…Big Bang or MBLAQ? Or any other Kpop act for that matter? One Direction is getting by on their youthful charm, while The Wanted is getting by on their bad boy image. These groups each have an established image, but don’t mess around with over stylized concepts like your average K-Boy Band. Also, neither of these groups dance. Dancing seems to be looked at as “cheesey” in America. The basic components of a K-Boy Band simply won’t translate well in the American industry.
Also, lets not play dumb and ignore the stigma that comes with the boy band label. Boy bands are often looked at as “gay,” both in the matter of being “homosexual,” and “stupid.” Lord knows I hate using that word in that way, but lets not ignore the stupidity of the American masses. Also, lets not forget the main draw of boy bands. They have to be hot. Is it racist to say that a primarily white audience simply won’t be attracted to a group of Asians? Yes it is. And unfortunately, its absolutely true.
Simply put, a Girl Group will have a much easier time finding success in America. Girls can get away with things like dancing, and the typical girl group image is both accessible to girls, and interesting enough for guys.
#2 – Image is Everything
Tame in America. Banned in Korea.
Anything even remotely ageyo has got no shot of making it in the US. NONE! Especially if it ever comes from a guy. The US market is much more accepting of sex appeal and scandal than the conservative Korean market, so an idol group may have to put their ageyo smiles away for awhile and brush up on their “come hither” eyes.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone has to spread their legs and flash the goods. The US market is currently seeing a trend of fresher and more innocent faces. Carly Rae Jepsen, Karmin, Adele, Justin Beiber and Cheryl Lloyd are all huge right now, and all have a very clean image. Its possible to have a similar image in pop music, but even those artists aren’t making cute faces at the camera and acting like children.
Admit it, Americans. Part of you wants to slap her.
Also, lets not ignore the differences in body types. Korean women are often smaller than American women. Much smaller…in many ways. The same goes for the men. While Korean men may have washboard abs, most have rail thin arms and almost no muscle. It may be difficult to sell an image to a country when your sexiest stars are seen as quite…average.
In America, the edgier, the better. Because of this, groups like Boyfriend, Secret, Hello Venus, and Kara have got no shot at a US debut. Some groups can make their image a bit more mature to fit into the US market. We’ve seen Wonder Girls and Girls Generation ditch their past images in favor of more sophisticated ones. Groups like 4minute, Rania, and 2NE1 are good to go in the US. Also, Sistar has the right combination of sexy and cute to be safe with an English cover of So Cool.
#3 – The Smaller, the Better
Wait…how many are there again? Which one is the lead singer?
America simply isn’t used to groups. Seriously…our last big groups (before One Direction and the Wanted) were The Black Eyed Peas and The Pussycat Dolls…and neither of them were actual groups.
In Korea, its not unusual to see groups with more than five members. Hell, the two most popular groups are the ten member Super Junior, and the nine member Girls’ Generation. In the US, that would just seem like overkill. We’re used to groups with five members or less, and even in those cases, there’s usually one “star” of the group. Just ask Aubrey O’Day and Beyonce.
Girls Generation, Rainbow, Super Junior, After School, T-ara, and EXO, have no shot at being taken seriously in America with so many members. Ideally, a soloist would have the best shot of making it in the US. In this case, Hyuna, G.NA., Kahi and NS Yoon-Ji could actually make it with the right material. I’ve been waiting for BoA’s follow up album. If she had pushed it, she very well could have become popular in time.
#4 – Culture Matters
I’m not going to mention the language. That’s kind of obvious. But if you want to succeed in the Western industry, your going to have to know the culture as well.
Korea seems to make a scandal out of anything. Songs and videos have been banned for reasons that seem quite trivial in America. The current controversies with T-ara and Nickhyun wouldn’t be anything more than a small article in the tabloids in America, whereas in Korea, its a nationwide issue. As a result, Korean idols are always aware of how they’re presenting themselves. This seems to cause them to have an almost universal personality, which in turn, extinguishes some of their individuality. How many times have we seen an Idol take to Twitter and say;

“I’m very sorry for (insert non-scandal here). I will be sure to learn from my mistakes an never repeat them again. I am very sorry for causing distress to those I have offended. Please look forward to my more mature image in the future.”

You would never see this in America. Here, being a star is about living larger than life, and expressing yourself. A little scandal and controversy seems to do more good than it does harm, which may seem strange to a Korean idol.
On the other side of the same coin, Korea doesn’t seem to make a big deal out of things that are huge issues in America. America is probably the most diverse country in the world. I’ve seen numerous interviews where people talk about having “dark skin” and other accents as a bad thing. Lets not forget about SNSD’s rather offensive impersonations of a certain minority type. Issues like bullying and racism just aren’t as big a concern in Korea as they are in the US. This could cause someone to make a fatal mistake in America. Not knowing how to behave for a Western audience is part of the problem that will keep Koreans from connecting with the rest of the world.
JYP had the right idea by taking the Wonder Girls over to New York. There, they’ve been able to not only absorb the language, but the culture as well. In one of their earliest interviews, the girls seemed so out of touch and uncomfortable with the American media. However, now, they almost seem…native!
#5 – Know the Industry
Take note, American Idol. These judges are what I like to call…relevant.
Big in Asia does not equal big in America. When BoA failed to become a world star with the release of her first English album, she made a comment that was so poignant and true. I don’t have the quote, but she said something like “I wasn’t expecting instant success. I’m used to performing on the main stage, but now I’m back on the side stage. I have to work my way up again.” So true.
In America, there are no real time charts. There are no fan chants, music shows, dramas, or CF’s. Our music industry is currently a mess as we still try to figure out how to live in a world with iTunes. The main source of promotion and money making in the US is touring, which may seem like a strange concept to the artists of a country the size of one US state. Getting used to a completely different industry may be the single biggest challenge a K-pop act has when making the big crossover.
When The Boys and The DJ is Mine failed to chart on Billboard, fans were devastated, and haters trolled. Come on, people. Did you honestly expect either of those songs to become the next Just Dance or I Kissed a Girl. This is the American music industry we’re talking about!
The music industry is all a game of who you know, and how much are you willing to pay? In America, nobody is an overnight success. People seem to think that Lady Gaga and Katy Perry were instant stars…like they were somehow given a record deal, released a good song, and became a pop music mainstay. In reality, that is the American fantasy.
In America, any artist has to pay their dues to the industry. They have to play to small audiences on cramped stages for little pay before a record label will even begin to take notice. Lady Gaga was slaving away for years before a label signed her. Here, its all about building a name and working your way up from the bottom. Pop stardom doesn’t happen over night.
If you want to succeed in the US, get your songs on the radio, and score the top spot on Billboard, you need to be signed by a major record label. You see…its more than having a good song. Like Money has all the necessary components for a hit, but without a major record label putting their full resources behind it (in this case, resources = money) it’ll never be on radio playlists. The US industry is pretty much pay to play, so you better have lots of money if you want to be a star.
The other side of that is knowing what the record label wants to accomplish. In the case of many record companies, all they’re looking for is a fast payout rather than creating the next big thing. If an album costs, say…100,00 dollars to make, all the company has to do is make those costs back, and a little bit of profit. If they can do that without getting the artist to Billboard, then you can bet they’re going to stop promoting the artist once they’ve made enough money. Its sad, but this is how the industry works, and this is why The DJ is Mine never made it onto US radio.
The US industry is a battlefield, and only the rich survive. If an Korean act can somehow land a major US deal, then there’s no doubt that they can become huge. Look what happened to Carly Rae Jepsen. Call Me Maybe was released on an independent Canadian label six months before a major label found it, and paid for it to be popular. By pounding away at the US market, the Wonder Girls inch closer and closer to closing the deal, and 2NE1 is relying on Will.I.Am to score them a deal. If they can sign the papers, they can very well find the crossover stardom they seek.
#6 – Be Realistic
Umm…yeah, this is what an American Girl group should look like…buuuttt….
This is more of a restatement of everything else that I’ve said that anything else. But seriously, lets all be realistic. The odds of a Hallyu Star finding Lady Gaga like success are slim. Think about it. What are the odds of becoming super popular in a small country, and then finding success in a new country with a vastly different culture and a notoriously tough music industry? Slim and none. Even American Idol can’t do that for people from our own country. But can it be done? Absolutely.

No doubt, there’s a huge audience willing to buy English material from Korean acts. We Kpop fans are among the most rabid fans on the planet! The Hallyu wave perpetually threatens to crash down on US shores. As fans, we’re happy with the occasional English release. We’re happy just to see our favorite groups release a new song, and find any sort of recognition outside of their mother land. But if the Wonder Girls, 2NE1, or anyone else wants to become a global star, now is the time to do it. Just realize that road will be tough and chances of finding global stardom are slim, but now is the time for them start the crossover process, and for us to cheer them on.
We should be proud of our little accomplishments. As Kpop fans, we should be proud of Girls Generation for appearing on David Letterman. We should take pride in the Wonder Girls terrible Teen Nick movie. We should rejoice that 2NE1 won Best Band in the World. It may not be the biggest victory, but it is indeed a victory for the genre, the fans, and the artists.
A famous record producer once said, “You’ll be a star. All you have to do is change everything you are.” Can a Korean act make it in the US? Absolutely. If they’re willing to pay, and more importantly, if we are willing to wait.

One response to “Can K-Pop Make it in America?

  1. I know this is an old article, but i think some can make it with limited success with the points you mentioned having to understand. I think a group like Nine Muses can do it if they can speak and sing in English. They are a more mature group with none of that cutesy aegyo stuff which Americans hate. It is too bad that 3 members left the group including Sera, the only English speaking member. Their songs i believe would interest Americans.

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