Every now and again our readers help us to see other aspects of Korean pop culture we never thought to look for. Earlier in the week we had a discussion of K-pop’s faulty perception of a homogenous west and among the many valid points there’s one in particular I would like to expand on. Where does K-pop fit in western culture? So, I would like to go further into the discussion and try to figure out how it momentarily fares and how K-pop can actually market to its future potential audience in the West.
In the past many big acts have tried to break into the western markets but with very little success. BoA tried to do so in 2008, and though her promotions garnered interest, it was minimal in amount. Her efforts seemed futile even after she tried to revitalize struggling album sales and released “I Did It For Love” and “Energetic” which were both better songs and better produced music videos in my opinion. Her biggest fault lied in the fact that her starting efforts were incredibly half-assed (check out “Eat You Up” U.S. version for reference) and that she essentially brought nothing new to the table. She started off so bad that it was hard to catch up, and what her company failed to realize is that just because she was popular in Asia didn’t mean it would translate to popularity in America.
When Se7en made his debut in the States, YG also made the mistake of thinking popularity in Asia would translate to popularity in the U.S. Unfortunately, the tactics used to break in were behind the times. Lil Kim was off the radar and people weren’t interested in seeing her comeback. It’s true what they say: “Timing is everything.” Had he done a collaboration with her now I think he would have fared better because there is buzz on her and her dispute with the most popular female rapper of the moment, Nicki Minaj. To top off Salima’s point on how she was off-putting to audiences, Se7en brought nothing new to the industry. His songs were generic, his voice was unspectacular, and his dancing was lackluster.
When JYJ began promotions on their English album “The Beginning,” Kanye’s rap was basically the same as it was on all of his albums. His rap was cocky and unapologetic, which is essentially what he always does. I know there are a lot of opinions on this song and I might not be the biggest fan of his (especially after his last couple of albums), but I honestly didn’t think “Ayy Girl” was a lost cause. What really messed up the song was adding Malik Yusef, an unstructured bridge, and bad editing. The response from most of the American blogs I visited had a positive reception. I would chalk it up to around 75% positive and that’s considering that Kanye was one of the most hated people in the U.S. at the time because of the Taylor Swift debacle. In fact, most negative responses on the song came from K-pop fans which is ironic since many complain about the west not accepting K-pop.
This brings me to another drawback: K-pop fandoms. Fans can be so persistent and out of control that they create negative perceptions of the idols themselves. When someone doesn’t like a certain artists’ music it doesn’t usually mean they hate the artist. It just means they’re not a fan of their work, but unfortunately it’s not seen this way amongst a lot of K-pop fans. Verbal and sometimes physical fights often breakout which causes negativity to be placed artists. Artists are going to need to keep their fans in check unless they want the backlash Justin Bieber has been getting. Fans need to realize that what works for them doesn’t always work for everyone else.
What K-pop companies have to understand is that popularity doesn’t translate from the East to the West. Yes, there is a chance to become an overnight sensation, but the chances of that happening are slim to none. Unlike many parts of Asia where an artist(s) can gain popularity in other countries just from being popular in their own, western audiences often do not follow that route. People usually have to work their way up to success by booking small venue gigs, or getting radio and TV airplay. And usually only after years of struggle do people actually get to see the fruits of the labor. In Korea though quick popularity and buzz can be produced from flash mob performances, teaser videos, and knowing some other idol or person who’s famous. Also, producing exact replicas of previous artists are frowned upon. People want something new and exciting.
The West (for the most part) doesn’t want music that it’s already had. Many K-pop fans complain about the West not having an open-mind or being open to other countries music. In some ways that’s true, but K-pop companies should also try to understand why that is. K-pop is basically shelling out the same music the West has either had previously or has at the moment, but it’s expecting the West to eat it up. Why would western audiences want it when they’ve already had it or are served it in a language they can’t understand? K-pop doesn’t have the new or unique aspect to it, so why would western audiences want something they can get on their home turf in a language they can understand?
Since western audiences don’t necessarily understand K-pop, where will it market itself? Concept and sound changes might spell trouble for K-pop groups. For example, Big Bang loves to change the style of their music up often. They started off hip-hop and have gone through many genre changes in the process of their career. Who exactly will play their music? Will it be pop stations, hip-hop stations or rock stations.etc? Another example is EXO and their latest single “MAMA.” They go from pop, to opera, to screamo, so who will they market to?
With the exception of probably one group (maybe two?), the only way I see these K-pop groups making any major impact on the West anytime soon is by promoting as teeny-bopper magnets. Their music often fits what you would see on the Disney channel or Nickelodeon. But even going this direction brings up problems. With the returning wave of girl/boy bands springing in popularity again, there is increasing competition on the western home front. Naturally people will be more drawn to homegrown groups whom they feel they can relate to more.
K-pop companies will have to have a long, thought out discussion if they expect to make a splash in the West. If they cannot understand the mindset of the audience they are marketing to, they might as well crush any dream they have of breaking in.