When we think of countries that strive to surpass the United States (and we try not to, generally) — China, Russia, and Iran leap to mind.
But there’s another nation entirely that’s gunning for our superpower status — though its ambition has little to do with political power, and everything to do with dominating American pop culture, which it hopes will lead to cold, hard cash.
“These people are more passionate than Bieber fans.”
South Korea has been steadily, tactically, stealthily gaining global ground in becoming the No. 1 exporter of all things pop culture — especially in the music industry.
Korean pop, known as K-pop, is now a worldwide phenomenon. Typically catchy, almost unbearably upbeat, and exceedingly polished, K-pop has mimicked Western pop and hip-hop in many ways, though its usually clean-cut persona makes it feel 1950s retro at times.
“Although it seems like [K-pop] came out of nowhere, it’s actually the result of over two decades of careful government planning and cooperation between the private industry and the government,” Euny Hong, author of the 2014 book, “The Birth of Korean Cool,” told the BBC.
So is South Korea giving the U.S. a good fight for pop culture bragging rights? Yes — and since K-pop’s influence is growing, Americans will see more of it.
Think you don’t know about K-pop? Consider Psy, whose 2012 juggernaut music video, “Gangnam Style,” was the first song to break the internet with a billion YouTube views. Since then it has reached 2 billion and remains well ahead of all other songs in terms of music video hits.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, himself Korean, even discussed with Psy how the singer and the United Nations could work together to solve global issues. (This was, naturally, after Psy taught him how to do his trademark horse-riding dance.)
Beyond Psy, there’s the 25-year-old rapper/hip-hop artist CL (from her Korean name, Chaelin Lee), now solo after leaving mega-famed K-pop band 2NE1. She just released “Lifted,” her first U.S. single, last month.
The song drew criticism because CL changed her style for American audiences; she also veered from squeaky clean K-pop ethos and sang glibly about drugs and alcohol. But it still appeared in the top 30 of iTunes’ Hip-Hop/Rap chart within three hours of its release on Aug. 18.
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Days later, CL was ranked No. 17 on Billboard’s Social 50 chart, which considers social media comments from around the world and compiles lists of hot artists that people are talking about. As a point of reference, CL beat out Taylor Swift, who was at No. 18.
Then there’s KCON.
“KCON is to Korean pop culture what ComicCon is to the Marvel Universe: a public lovefest for a subculture based on rabid fandom,” wrote Salon contributor Paula Young Lee. “And, for better or worse, that subculture is rapidly going mainstream.”
Angela Killoren told The New York Times of KCON attendees, “These people are more passionate than Bieber fans.”
Killoren, a marketing chief for CJE&M, the Asian media company that hosted the 2015 convention in Newark, New Jersey, has watched KCON grow from a single 2012 concert in Irvine, California, to a cross-country, multi-convention celebration of all things Korean. Mega K-pop bands EXO, SHINee, Big Bang, and 2NE1 have always been crowd-pleasers. Many K-pop stars attend to mingle with fans.
KCON doesn’t appeal to mostly Asians, by the way.
Drama Fever, a streaming service offering Korean entertainment, breaks its user statistics down to 85 percent non-Asian, most of whom are women ages 18 to 24.
Drama Fever is “like the Netflix for international content,” head marketer Yale Wang said.
The average Drama Fever user spends 53.9 hours per month streaming videos (the average Netflix user streams 10.7 hours a month). Korean dramas are especially popular in Iran, for example, and Hong explained, “Whole families can watch them together. And actually, there’s one drama in Iran that has captured 80 percent of the [country’s] viewership.”
The late South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who first promoted K-pop and South Korea’s cultural exportation, once predicted that if North and South Korea ever unified, it would be because of South Korean pop culture.
While his prediction today seems far-fetched, the fact that South Korea is permeating much of the world’s entertainment industries is not. Some day, as in 2NE1’s smash hit, South Korea might be able to say of its entertainment industry, “Naega jeil jal naga [I am the best].”