The West has been the world’s top exporter of mainstream pop music for as long as I can remember. As Western countries projected themselves as a mighty global trend-setter, citizens of periphery countries (such as my own, i.e. non-Western countries) have been subjected to the flow of influence and power from the perspective of “West to the rest”. For non-Western acts to find success therefore, we tend to subconsciously view it as the peripheral country (or, “non-White” country) assimilating with and adapting to suit the predominantly White, players.
The age of Western imperialism however seems to be shifting. I recently observed an interesting phenomenon on my local, English radio channel: K-pop, the genre that I previously could only find on YouTube, was now scheduled to play like a regular English song. With digital media allowing regional artistes to bypass traditional gatekeepers (e.g. Music producers and distributors based in the West) and appeal to audiences beyond their geographical boundaries, it seems that an increasing number of Korean musicians are broadcasting their exports in the Western-dominated global market. Today, K-pop songs flood YouTube algorithms and are always top trending topics on Google and social media.
In reference to the “West to the rest” perspective as mentioned above, it is intriguing how Korea, a country with a language unique to its region, managed to penetrate the global industry
I have no idea what bulk of the lyrics are, but one thing’s for sure – the moment the chorus begins, I know every word. Similarly, the bulk of K-pop has been observed to use English to appeal to the monolingual global market.
In the early stages of my Korean fever, mononymous or English-sounding names like Yoona, Suzy, IU, DO, Rap Monster (RM) and Solar left a greater impression than… Names I can barely pronounce without accidentally swearing in Korean. English or Romanised titles and lyrics sung in English were also easier to recall during karaoke sessions. Similarly, while “Psycho”’s lyrics were mostly in Korean, I found myself singing along to the randomly scattered English lyrics in the song simply because English words were easier to identify and remember.
Korea overcame the language barrier by emphasising on simple English words and singing them on repeat. This strategy is practiced widely in K-pop! For instance, the video (above) features nearly 60 tracks that used catchy beats and “nanana”s to aid the reception of Korean songs – and I bet there’s more.
The language barrier is broken down even further through musical engineering and the operational aesthetics in the K-pop music video. In the case of “Psycho”, an article by the Korean Herald notes that the song’s syncopated beats and distortion of chords were both catchy and communicated the song’s intentions. Even without English subtitles to explain what the song is about, “Psycho”’s music video’s dance moves, camera movement, and the visual effects effectively communicate the “psychotic” love that the song is about.
While “Red Velvet” and “Psycho” are undeniably English words, the fact of the matter is that English has become largely unessential towards the makings of a global hit. This is because Korea is not just “emerging” in the global market – they’re already taking over the world one “bop” at a time.
Hailing from Singapore, a country wedged between Eastern culture and Western influences, I am used to reading subtitles and listening to music in a foreign language. The larger part of the world may not, however, given that they may be more accustomed to the Western way of life. Korean agencies seemed to have considered these concerns and have produced Western-friendly content to reach out to those audiences. For instance, BTS collaborated with big Western names such as Lauv, Halsey and Nicki Minaj, releasing English versions of their songs with whole verses sung or rapped in English; BLACK PINK’s “Kill This Love” was largely sung in Korean but the whole final verse was in unaccented English; and for those completely abstaining from K-pop, Wendy (from Red Velvet) and John Legend sang their ballad “Written In The Stars” in English.
Image credit: Bong Joon-ho from Dazed Digital
While Korea’s inclusion of English argues that the glass ceiling still exists in the global music industry, I find that Korea’s successes in Western territory highlights the periphery’s potential for independence from the West. If anything, collaborations and appearances on Western television, and winning high-profile Western film awards highlights how the West is merely supplementary to the growth of Korea’s cultural power. As Bong Joon-ho mentioned during his speech during the Golden Globes, “Once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. Bong’s speech debunks the idea that the periphery requires the West to be successful – Korea has the power to make it on their own.
If we can overcome the imperialist mindset that subjugates us, we’ll see just how much Asia has in store for the global industry.