[CRITICALLY SPEAKING: K-POP] Critic Kim Heon-sik shares hot take on K-pop's consumer centricity
K-pop continues to grow across the globe and it’s not just boy band BTS making it big — other groups are landing higher and higher on international music charts. With a unique set of rules that sets it apart from other industries, K-pop is becoming not only a driving force for pop culture, but opening up a new chapter in Korean history. In the following interview series, the Korea JoongAng Daily will sit down with Korean music critics who have been following the growth of this unique industry and ask, "How did it happen and will it last?"
BTS may be the most talked-about star in K-pop, but it still fails to be recognized by some musical authorities — namely, the Grammys. Different critics have different explanations as to why, but Kim Heon-sik believes it’s because the older generation refuses to acknowledge the cultural significance of the younger female generation, a big contributing factor to BTS's success.
“K-pop is led by women,” Kim said. “The reason that the Grammys doesn’t award K-pop is because it doesn’t want to give credit to the female culture. It’s not a matter of race, but gender. Women should be infuriated by this.”
Kim’s interpretation comes from his unique academic roots, with a doctorate in public policy as well as cultural content. Merging his two academic backgrounds, the critic observes pop culture phenomena through the lens of public policy and social power dynamics.
According to Kim, the fandom is what sets K-pop apart from other music genres, especially the borderline-toxic relationship between artists and fans and the “war of all against all” relationship between fan clubs.
“K-pop today is very consumer-centric,” he said. “The Anglo-American pop market is still centered around the artist. The singers come up to the public and announce, 'This is my song, and this is my dance. Listen to it if you like it, or don’t.' Meanwhile, K-pop artists care a lot about how fans react because the fans are the ones in control.”
As a familiar figure on the radio and small screen as a regular panel member for numerous television shows, Kim has been sharing his insight on a wide array of issues in Korean pop culture, especially K-pop. He has written books such as “Korean Society Seen Through the Popular Culture Psychology” (2007), “The Psychology of K-pop Culture” (2012) and “The Root of the K-pop Spirit and System” (2013).
Kim sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to talk more about the unique connection within K-pop between stars and their fans, and among the fans themselves. Below are edited excerpts from the interview at his office in Yeongdeungpo District, western Seoul, on June 7.
Q. Tell us more about how K-pop is led by women, and why they should be infuriated.
A. At the core of the K-pop fandom are young women in their teens and 20s, whose consumption and political powers are small. Because they’re the ones that formed the K-pop culture, those who hold the authority in music keep saying that “K-pop music isn’t music.”
Even the fans themselves fail to see that this is about gender, not about race. That’s why they keep bringing racial diversity to the discussion table, but that frame just doesn’t work. Just look at the Grammy award list and you’ll see how racially diverse it is.
This is about women’s power being belittled. Even within Korea, it took a long time before local music critics started acknowledging K-pop as “proper” music. It wasn’t until BTS started getting international popularity that people started seeing that K-pop is a unique genre in which dancing is just as important as the vocals.
Why is it still taking time for K-pop to be recognized by the older generation?
It’s because K-pop is spread online through social media and YouTube, not the mass media of the 20th century like traditional stars. A lot of the lack of understanding of K-pop or backlash against it stems from this difference.
People who are used to the traditional mass media system, like those in the U.S. pop industry, do not understand and therefore are hesitant to acknowledge K-pop.
They’ve never heard of these K-pop bands nor have seen them on their mass media outlets, so it seems like they came out of nowhere to take No. 1 on the Billboard charts. It can be hard to grasp — another reason why it seems unlikely for a K-pop act to win a Grammy any time soon.
But as content distribution transitions to social media, things will gradually change. K-pop has a very strong competitive edge because in such a digital media age, music is not just auditory but also consumed visually — and K-pop is all about entertaining all senses of the consumer.
How has this online method shaped the K-pop market?
K-pop fans voluntarily come together through online platforms to promote their favorite stars. What this means in reverse is that the celebrities have to be very conscious about what their fans like and how to please them. They keep asking, “Oh, you don’t like this?” and change anything that displeases the fans.
This is so much the case that K-pop artists quickly change their lyrics and music videos in response to negative feedback from fans.
While some have degraded this phenomenon as the artists having “no guts,” I don’t necessarily believe this is worthy of being criticized. It just functions differently. In fact, K-pop is in a way quite honest about this and treating artists like products.
Pop music was initially looked down upon by classical music as being too “commercial,” so even pop musicians have been averse to coming off as such. But K-pop is very willing to provide services — songs, performances, fan services — that match each culture. They will gladly do what appeals to fans and potential consumers, and that’s the core of its attitude.
If the idols and management don’t ceaselessly strive for self-development in order to keep with those consumer needs, they’re unlikely to survive in this industry. In the sense of the term “popular” music, K-pop is really true to its name.
With the global rise of K-pop, the fans are also a diversified mix of different communities. Whose demands do K-pop acts follow when fans have conflicting opinions?
I personally think we are seeing the onset of a culture war. Fans are going to engage in battles with each other because fans from different countries and cultures have very different stances.
For instance, Korean fans tend to react more to Korean celebrities’ scandals, whether it be a legal matter or just on a personal level. But non-Korean fans don't tend to think controversies surrounding their favorite K-pop stars are that important.
Heated arguments take place online within the same star’s fandom. But in the end, the victory goes to whichever side stays more united and vocal, and, most of all, how large those groups of fans are.
So stars and their management have to take into account the size of each fan clan when making decisions. We end up seeing the outcome of their strategies.
Most recently, regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, virtually no K-pop idol has spoken out about that topic. They have to be conscious of fans who are Russian or stand on Russia’s side, and that’s an enormous number. Indonesians are known to be pro-Russia, and many are even expressing support for Russia’s invasion. Indonesia is also a huge and growing market for K-pop with a population of 200 million. No K-pop act would want to antagonize all those fans.
In that sense, being fan-centered is what made K-pop competitive, but it is also rife with the possibility of causing culture wars between different nations and cultural spheres. The artists are pressured to go the way fans, or at least the most sizeable group of fans, want them to go.
How will this culture war unfold in the future?
Sooner or later, it’s going to be a hot topic who the K-pop acts choose to “represent.”
The “representation” factor is more important than you may think. In fact, it’s a big factor behind BTS’s success.
Before them, K-pop stars had this strategy of presenting themselves as literal idols — like these deified, otherworldly beings. BTS chose to present themselves as their fans’ peers instead, singing about not just love songs but topics that teens can relate to, and shared their innermost personal lives and emotions that the fellow younger generation can relate to.
It’s great that K-pop fandoms are growing larger and more international, but it also poses a new challenge for K-pop.
How will K-pop meet different local needs, taking into account the local culture and religion? Will it or will it not speak on behalf of racial or sexual minorities with potential backlash from certain sides?
If the decision is always swayed based on which side is bigger, it’s not a good outlook for the future of K-pop. One slip could make a large chunk of fans from certain cultures turn their backs, or a group could keep playing safe to the point of becoming neither one thing nor the other, devoid of any personality.
This is a difficult question to answer, but if K-pop truly wants to leap globally, it’s a rite of passage that it must go through.
You specialize in the policy aspect of pop culture. What structural changes are needed for K-pop to thrive?
K-pop is receiving a lot of attention internationally but is still insufficient in terms of establishing a virtuous cycle that can last.
We tend to put great emphasis on numbers like chart rankings and album sales. Those are all important, but what we really need to start paying attention to is how much of the money that fans spend goes to the creators and actual performers — including the K-pop idols themselves.
Right now, K-pop has a winner-takes-all structure that has chart-toppers, usually the big players, taking pretty much all of the profit. It becomes a vicious cycle. Right now, even the government only cares about K-pop stars that have already achieved success and wants to freeload off their name value, rather than thinking of ways to provide more opportunities to smaller, newer artists.
We need a transparent system that reasonably distributes the profit to the people involved in the creation process. That’s how we get the next big K-pop stars and the ones after that. We should never forget why BTS became a global success. BTS was not from a major K-pop agency. They were young men who just wanted to make music that they believe in. That’s the kind of youthful spirit we shouldn’t forget.
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com],BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]