In July 1970, American Top 40 was born – dominating the radio airwaves for decades and cementing Billboard Magazine’s iconic charts as the relevant metric for the industry. Just last month, they launched the “The K-Billboard Awards” to celebrate the accomplishments of K-Pop artists.
K-Pop is absolutely a musical phenomenon. Combining fun tunes, precisely coordinated dance routines and flashy fashion, the bands have gained popularity around the world. BTS is perhaps the most well-known group, but there are literally hundreds of others. If you’re reading this, the odds are pretty good you’re involved in brand building – so you know this type of global enthusiasm doesn’t just happen. So what’s going on?
Understanding Hallyu: The Rise of South Korea’s Cultural Economy
It was in the mid-nineties when South Korean economic officials began to realize how profitable popular culture could be. The profits from Jurassic Park – a mega-hit at the time – was the equivalent of exporting 60,000 Hyundai cars.
At this point, South Korea began investing heavily in developing its music and film industry. There’s been some critiques of how K-Pop musicians are trained in an assembly-line fashion, but no one’s knocking the cinematographers: Squid Games, Love and Leashes, and other South Korean offerings are earning rave reviews.
It’s important to understand that there’s absolutely an economic incentive to create and export great content. But we’d be naive not to examine this phenomenon in its greater context. The K-Pop phenomenon results in more people loving (or at least being quite fond of) South Korea. In geopolitical terms, that’s known as Soft Power.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which began writing about the K-Pop phenomenon in 2020, explains soft power this way:
“…being home to popular shows and bands is not in itself a form of soft power. There is a distinction between nation branding—a country generally promoting a positive but relatively shallow view of itself—and soft power. Soft power takes the appeal of soft resources—attractive pop culture fixtures like movie stars and pop icons, tourist attractions, and a welcoming environment for study abroad programs—and combines them to create, and solidify, new long-term changes in how people think about or interact with the country in question. After all, as the father of soft power, Joseph Nye, wrote, soft power is all about getting another party to want what you want.”
But Does It Work?
It’s one thing to say that creating a legion of fans for a particular country’s culture can influence politics – but does it work? Well, K-Pop fans famously (and fraudulently) registered for hundreds of Trump-rally tickets they never intended to use. This led to the former President to give a speech to a nearly empty house in Tulsa. Cable news had a field day playing and replaying the story, which, ultimately, to some degree, influenced the election.
Was this coordinated by the South Korean government or a spontaneous action of a cohort of like-minded individuals? These lines blur, don’t they, when we stop thinking of art as an end in itself and consider it instead as a strategic asset in an increasingly uncertain world? If you had Kim Jong-Un living next door to you, you’d want lots of friends too.
And if that means making beautiful music, beautiful music you will make.