Ryo Cifra fell in love with K-pop 15 years ago, just a few years before Korean boy band BTS — the industry’s most successful export to date — was formed in Seoul.
After hearing an earworm called Fire by the girl group 2NE1, Cifra dug into all things K-pop, developing an appreciation for the country’s pop music industry and other facets of Korean culture.
Nowadays, he performs in the Edmonton-based K-pop dance cover group Apricity. A linchpin of the scene’s vibrant fan culture, dance covers involve fans lipsyncing and reenacting choreography by their favourite K-pop idols — briefly replicating the beloved musical acts that are now some of the most popular in the world.
“You see it everywhere. There’s no corner of the globe where where K-pop doesn’t have some sort of influence,” Cifra told CBC News.
While Cifra and others express their love for K-pop from Canada, thousands of fans travelled to Seoul over the weekend to celebrate BTS’s 10th anniversary. The group ushered K-pop into the North American consciousness five years ago, becoming the industry’s first act to reach number one on the U.S. albums chart in 2018.
Some who study and work in the industry think that K-pop’s future depends on its international fandom, as devotees from outside Korea learn how to sing and dance like the idols they adore and labels invest in K-pop education for wannabe superstars around the world.
Fans have ‘interest in learning’
Chuyun Oh, an associate professor at San Diego State University, has been conducting field research in Seoul’s Gangnam district amid festivities dedicated to the BTS anniversary.
The group is currently on hiatus as two of its seven members, J-Hope and Jin, complete mandatory military service, but lead performer RM attended an anniversary festival on June 17.
Oh teaches a K-pop dance course at the university, which she says is the first of its kind in the U.S. She’s watched fans spill into the capital city from all around the world and, not unlike a holy pilgrimage, visit sites where the famous boy band has studied, rehearsed and performed.
“I feel the liveliness of the city and a lot of global fans’ love and interest in learning … the local context and the origin of K-pop in Seoul,” she told CBC News.
While the K-pop industry rumbled to life in the ’90s, it exploded during the 2010s as labels and production companies in South Korea began investing as seriously in education and training as they did in touring or music production, opening schools like Def Dance and Global K Center where people could learn professional K-pop performance.
SM Entertainment, one of Korea’s largest entertainment agencies, represents K-pop acts like Red Velvet and Super Junior. Last March, it enrolled its first batch of students at SM Universe Academy, an arts institution dedicated to training the next generation of idols.
“Nowadays, K-pop agencies are not just entertainment, business or music labels. They are also international performing arts schools,” Oh said.
Even as fans eye K-pop as a long-term professional pursuit, a shadow of mental health issues and suspected suicides continues to linger over the industry, which is known for strenuous training programs and difficult working conditions that sometimes puts undue pressure on its idols.
54:00We hear from a local teen who’s behind a K-Pop sensation’s new hit
Recently, BLACKPINK singer Jennie left mid-concert because her condition was “deteriorating,” according to a representative’s statement. Other K-pop idols like Moonbin and Hae Soo died this year, both before the age of 30. Tragically, they weren’t the first.
While Oh says the working conditions of K-pop idols have improved, she stresses that there are two issues at play: how an agency treats the artists they manage, and how the artists themselves prepare for high-intensity performances and taxing schedules.
“K-pop idols are professional, highly dedicated, highly trained artists,” not unlike Olympic athletes, Oh said.
K-pop without the K?
As K-pop swept the Internet, social media became the premiere forum to learn and practice the industry’s performance model. Fans began copying and posting videos of themselves doing “point choreography,” a form of dance easily replicated and usually informed by a K-pop song’s lyrics.
When the pandemic hit and social life migrated to the Internet, K-pop TikTok challenges and dance covers flooded people’s feeds. That same year, BTS released its first all-English single, Dynamite, earning the band its first Grammy nomination and cementing K-pop’s place in the global pop music landscape.
WATCH | The music video for BTS’s first English-language song Dynamite:
Many well-known K-pop performers are not Korean, including members of popular girl groups like BLACKSWAN and Kep1er. Oh said that K-pop, during its globalization, has been “de-ethnicized.”
“I think we can even compare K-pop with hip-hop or tango. They have been also globalized too,” she said.
“So you don’t have to be African-American” to perform as a hip-hop artist, “although we know the significance of the root and original culture of hip hop” is in that community, she said.
Entertainment executive Bang Si Hyuk, who founded BTS as chairman of the Korean record label Hybe, reportedly said during a March press conference that the only way K-pop can sustain itself in the future is to dilute the “K” and invest in foreign talent.
Some fans question whether a song by a K-pop group that’s sung completely in English is still K-pop, said Cifra. To him, it is — but he still enjoys learning Korean through his favourite songs.
“Me and my friends can pick up on words that are Korean even though we don’t speak Korean,” he said.
“I know a lot of people can relate to this.”
‘They want to become a K-pop idol’
Evelyne Ung and Hugo Racine are students at McGill University, where they’re part of a K-pop club on campus called K-Rave. There’s a reason why replacing K-pop performances has become the in-vogue way for fans to show their appreciation, Ung said.
“I think a lot of it stems from that feeling of wanting to be famous,” she told CBC News.
“Some people might want to dance just [for] fun, just to join a community, while for others, I think a lot of them actually still have this small dream in them that they want to become famous, that they want to become a K-pop idol.”
WATCH | A K-pop dance cover by McGill’s K-Rave:
According to Jeff Benjamin, a K-pop columnist at Billboard Magazine based in New York, the industry’s propensity for mixing and matching different genres and musical styles, from pop to hip hop to electronic music, is part of the reason why it quickly went multinational.
“K-pop itself was kind of created in the sense of making sure it had maximum enjoyability by having lots of different genres, different languages mixed in. It was never meant, I think, to stay strictly within Korea,” he told CBC News.
“I think especially thanks to the international and global interest in K-pop, more groups are hitting the seven-year mark, more groups are hitting the 10-year mark like we’ve just seen with BTS, and it’s sort of making K-pop more of a sustainable career.”