For some it started with Netflix’s release of “Squid Game” or the popularity of the band BTS, but for me, my interest in Korean culture dates back to the year 2008, when I watched my first Korean drama — “Full House,” starring Rain and Song Hye-Kyo. Those were the days before streaming shows on the internet was commonplace. I had ordered the DVD boxset from Mongolia.
In 2012, the song Gangnam Style was released and became the quickest video on YouTube to reach a billion views. Over the years, Korean culture has continued to grow in popularity and go global. PSY laid several bricks in 2012 and paved the way for the Korean stars of the day to soar. With the rise of K-Pop groups BTS and Blackpink, and the release of Netflix’s Squid Game, Korean content has risen exponentially in popularity in the last handful of years.
And even though BTS is disbanding until 2025 so members can focus on their individual careers, BTS members still are remarkably valuable on their own. On Jan. 18, YouTube’s top trending music videos were:
No 1: Shakira’s “BZRP Music Sessions #53,” a song about her feelings after soccer star Girard Pique cheated on her.
No. 2: Mily Cyrus’ “Flowers,” a breakup song reflecting on the idea of self-worth.
No. 4: Taeyang’s “Vibe’ (feat Jimin of BTS)
If you’re still unconvinced about the status of the Korean Wave, the following data just might shock you.
While there are many Korean boybands, none have had such massive success as BTS (short for Bangtan Boys). They debuted at the perfect time. Popular culture was ready to welcome them into the fold. I know Americans have to feel nostalgic when they get behind Korean boy bands, since American boy bands had their heyday back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
BTS consists of 7 members — RM, Jin, V, Suga, Jimin, J-Hope and Jung Kook. Consisting of vocalists, rappers and some great beats, BTS is not only known for their distinct sound, but also for their members’ particular form of beauty. Korean men have softer features than western men (see: babyface) that many find attractive. In addition, the band has stayed scandal-free and the members constantly show love to their fans. The week of Jan. 15, BTS was the No. 8 artist on Billboard’s weekly chart, having been on the list for 324 consecutive weeks. On the 2022 year-end Billboard 200, BTS ranked No. 56 for their album “Proof,” which went double Platinum.
Now that the band is pursuing personal projects, (J-Hope released his solo album J-Hope in the Box; was the first Korean act to headline the music festival Lollapalooza; and released Rush Hour along with K-Pop star Crush. Jung Kook performed at the World Cup, singing “Dreamers,” and also released a song in collaboration with Charlie Puth, “Left and Right.” Jimin was featured on Taeyan’s “Vibe,” which made No. 4 on the YouTube chart as I mentioned earlier. RM released his solo album Indigo. Suga featured on and produced PSY’s “That That.” And V treated fans to a cover of “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” at the end of the 2022. While member Jin is undergoing mandatory military service in South Korea, he released a solo record, The Astronaut, before being deployed.) all members who have not released a solo album are currently working on making that happen.
BTS received seven Billboard Music Award nominations in 2022 and won three of them, which gave the band the record as the most-nominated and awarded musical group of all time. The band is still searching for a Grammy win, while fans have repeadly called out the awards each year for “robbing” the band of what they think they deserve.
Korean girl bands enjoy just as much popularity as boy bands. Blackpink is the girl band enjoying the highest level of popularity. Members Rosé, Lisa, Jisoo and Jennie, released their second album, Born Pink, in September of last year. And while their album didn’t make the list of top albums, their songs “Pink Venom” and “Shut Down” made Billboard’s year-end Global chart of the Top 200 songs. Lisa even had a solo song make it on the list. And BlackPink is headlining Coachella this year.
It’s a very interesting phenomenon to have members of a band almost as highly valued individually as they are together. But BlackPink and BTS are doing it. (Rosé released a short solo album, Gone, in 2021, and Lisa released her LaLisa the same year. Jisoo’s Obsession will drop on Feb. 25.) Jennie released a solo song three years earlier. She will also be featured on HBO’s soon-to-premiere The Idol, also featuring Lily-Rose Depp and The Weeknd.
And you might think CDs are a thing of the past in the music industry, but the Koreans are breaking records in that category, too. Limited edition packaging and paper goods with the CDs make them a hot commodity for fans. In fact, sales of Korean CDs are so high that last year they scored 7 of the 10 spots on the U.S.’s best-selling CDs of 2022. BTS and TXT also ranked as No. 3 and No. 10 respectively in the top best-selling albums in the U.S. in 2022 in terms of digital and physical copies.
Korean girl groups dominated streaming platforms rather than the CD department. IVE’s “Love Dive” was 2022’s most popular Korean song based on streams and downloads, both inside and outside of Korea.
Netflix recently announced that in 2023 it would be releasing the highest number of K-dramas yet — 34 new titles and sequels will debut on the platform this year. This was announced after data from Netflix revealed that “over 60 percent of all Netflix members watched Korean titles in 2022.”
By comparison, in 2022, Netflix released 25 Korean titles and, in 2021, only 15 titles were released.
While some people were familiar with Korean dramas for their romantic and feel-good story lines, 2021 was the year that the world was introduced to Korean TV, via “Squid Game.” The show, depicting the ills of capitalism, won many awards, including two Emmys, a Golden Globe Award and three Critics’ Choice Awards. Korean dramas had hit the big time in Hollywood, a place notoriously hard to break into.
“Pachinko,” based on the novel by Asian-American Min Jin Lee about Koreans living in Japan, was produced by Apple TV and won a Critics’ Choice Award this year. “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” also received a nomination for a Critics’ Choice Award, after the show about an autistic female attorney, dominated pop culture for weeks. The show is currently the sixth most-watched non-English TV show on Netflix.
All three of these shows have been greenlit for second seasons, which is actually quite rare for K-dramas. Netflix’s vice president of Korean content, Don Kang said, “Over the last year, Korean series and films have regularly featured in our Global Top 10 list in more than 90 countries, and three of Netflix’s most-watched shows ever are from Korea.” I guess it’s no surprise more K-dramas are getting seasons.
It’s hard to replicate the appeal of K-dramas. Some people watch them for their romantic story lines and find the lack of heavy sexual material to be refreshing. In a story from CNN titled “’The Netflix Effect’ Why Western women are heading to South Korean in search of love,” reporter Jake Kwon details how young women from North America and Europe are increasingly traveling to South Korean in the hopes of finding love. Women consider Korean men “romantic,” “in touch with their emotions,” and “willing to embrace” qualities that might make them seem less manly in other cultures. Kwon says women “considered Korean men cultured and romantic while complaining that men in their home countries often neglected their appearances and had one-track minds.”
Of course, you can’t judge a whole society based on your viewing of rom-coms, but the cultural displays on the K-dramas are very much real. Some women find their dream man, while others find the reality quite different from what they imagined.
K-dramas aren’t all romantic. In fact, they are becoming quite famous for depicting strong female leads who are independent of their love interest. Korean National Broadcasting cites that women were the leads in 53 percent of KBS dramas in 2021. According to Statista, in 2021, films in the United States had female leads 47 percent of the time. Other studies have female leads featured in a lead role in the 30-percentage range.
K-dramas, such as the recent “Under the Queen’s Umbrella,” show that a woman can be strong and confident, while still being attractive. Other dramas show women as prosecutors, lawyers, judges and business-owners. In the magazine Tatler Asia, Jianne Soriano wrote, “In the world of Korean dramas … One thing we can count on is seeing women run the world, whether it’s by standing up to those in power or subverting society’s expectations on how a woman should be.”
The reality differs a bit here too when it comes to K-dramas versus reality. Women in South Korea still struggle to hold positions of powers and to shake off traditional female roles. And the country has a huge gender pay gap. However, the trailblazing seen in K-dramas is sure to catch on and empower Korean women to take more control of their lives.
Luxury Brand Powerhouses
Korean celebrities are proving to be prime investments for businesses. BTS has sealed deals with McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Samsung and Louis Vuitton in the past.
The week of Jan. 16, three boyband members were announced to be participating as brand ambassadors for luxury conglomerates — Jimin of BTS for Dior; Suga of BTS for Valentino; and Taeyang of Big Bang for Givenchy. There are also rumors that another member of BTS will soon become brand ambassador for Bottega Veneta.
All four members of girl group Blackpink are brand ambassadors for various luxury brands — Rosé for YSL and Tiffany & Co; Jisoo for Dior and Cartier (Cartier reportedly doubled Jisoo’s Dior salary to convince her to take the role); Lisa for Celine and Bulgari; and Jennie for Chanel. The K-pop girl group Aespa recently became ambassadors for jewelry brand Chopard.
Lefty, taking social media reach and engagement into account, recently listed the top 10 fashion influencers of 2022. All four member of Blackpink beat out all the Western big names like Kim Kardashian, Zendaya, Bella Hadid and Kylie Jenner. Here is the entire list:
5) Kim Kardashian
7) Bella Hadid
8) Kylie Jenner
9) Cha Eun-woo of Astro
10) Billie Eilish
Lefty determined that while the reality TV show stars had more followers that Jisoo, who ranked No. 1, fans and followers engaged more with Jisoo’s posts. (I’m taking this to mean Kardashian and Jenner have a lot of bots on their accounts.) Jisoo also was determined to have an estimated market value of $198 million for Dior alone.
Cha Eun Woo, the only man to make the top fashion influencer list, is a brand ambassador for Dior, Skechers and Burberry. Cha Eun Woo is a singer for the band Astro and also an actor. Many K-pop singers transition from singer to actor over time. Jisoo has already starred in Disney+’s “Snowdrop.” It will be interesting to see if BTS members do the same in future.
The final stamp sealing Korean culture as a global event is the fact that the Victoria & Albert museum in London is currently holding an exhibition dedicated to the Korean Wave.
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