What Comes Next After K-Pop’s Big Week?

K-pop is having a moment in America, and for once, BTS is not the only reason. But is K-pop truly achieving mainstream popularity Stateside beyond its fan base? 

The genre of pop music born in South Korea is a global phenomenon, and although K-pop is bigger than BTS, the Korean boy band’s loyal and global fan base (the ARMY) is surely a major reason why BTS has been the face of K-pop in the United States for the past few years. During the weekend of April 12, BTS set a record for the song with the most YouTube views within 24 hours, racking up 74.6 million views for its single “Boy with Luv” (featuring Halsey) from an album, Map of the Soul: Persona– which had sold millions of copies long before its April 12 release.

And on April 13, BTS became the first K-pop group to appear on Saturday Night Live, prompting music veteran Bob Lefsetz to write, “What kind of crazy, f—ked-up world do we live in where a Korean boy band sings to track and blows away every performance on SNLthis year? . . . That’s right, the Koreans know more about music than the Americans, at least those in the music industry.” Meanwhile, Map of the Soul: Persona was on its way to becoming a Billboard Number One seller.

The Rise of Blackpink

And BTS has company. On April 12, Blackpink became the first-ever female K-pop act to perform at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival — and on April 19, Blackpink performed during Coachella’s second weekend. Blackpink’s appearance was a coup because Coachella caters to the largest demographic in the United States, millennials. Of course, Blackpink was participating in a larger festival featuring headliners such as Ariana Grande and Janelle Monáe. Even still, Blackpink’s appearance stole buzz from BTS, creating, I suppose, K-pop’s equivalent of the Beatles-versus-Stones rivalry during the British Invasion. And consider these popularity signals:

  • When BTS accumulated the most YouTube views within 24 hours, the band broke a record that Blackpink had just set for their song “Kill This Love” a week earlier. 
  • The group’s EP Kill This Love debuted at 24 on the Billboard 200 chart.

As of this writing, Blackpink is keeping K-pop visible on the charts, not BTS. But stay tuned.

How Big Is K-Pop?

Meanwhile, whether K-pop has become a mainstream phenomenon in the United States is open to debate. True, we’re seeing K-pop acts achieving prominent roles in mainstream TV shows and concerts (after Coachella Weekend One, Blackpink performed on The Late Late Show with James Cordon. BTS is appearing on CBS Sunday Morning April 21). And BTS’s 2019 tour sold out quickly

On the other hand, the singles and album charts are dominated by mainstream pop and hip-hop, with K-pop barely visible (as you can see by reviewing the Apple Music Top 100Billboard 200, Billboard Hot 100, and Spotify Charts). And BTS’s SNL performance, while lauded, did not exactly win over mainstream American viewers. SNL suffered low ratings when BTS performed, especially among the 18-49 age bracket, an important age cohort with spending power. As Ashley King of Digital Music News points out, the low ratings reinforce a perception that BTS’s fan base remains firmly entrenched among digital natives as opposed to a larger American audience:

Teen girls in the United States may love BTS, but SNL viewers do not.  Adding to the mismatch, BTS’ younger base is far less likely to care about live television — or even know how to access it.

King goes so far as to state:

The no-show raises the possibility that BTS’ popularity in America may be a flash in the pan, with finicky younger audiences eventually moving onto the next boy band. The numbers suggest that BTS may already be past its prime in the U.S. The K-pop group placed 7 tracks in the top 10 on iTunes last Friday, but they are mostly gone now. Last August, the group claimed all 12 top spots on the U.S. iTunes chart with tracks from the Love Yourself album.

Incidentally, all 26 songs from the Love Yourself album featured in the top 50 when it debuted. This rapid success on the charts has prompted plenty of media outlets to highlight the craze, making it seem like K-pop is a huge media sensation. In reality, the genre still appears to be popular among a particular niche of fans.

Adam Buckley of Digital Music News argues that a vocal and relentless fan base makes K-pop seem bigger than it really is. (Side note: are Adam Buckley and Ashley King the same person?) Buckley points out that K-pop songs fall off the charts as quickly as they rise, and he also notes the paucity of K-pop songs on the Billboard lists.

That said, the popularity of the BTS tour cannot be denied although I’m sure Adam and Ashley will fold their arms and ask just how many of the stadium fillers are of legal age. At the risk of bringing the wrath of music fans on my head, I will say this: when the Beatles first hit it big, no one thought they’d really break through beyond the teen market, even after their triumph on Ed Sullivan (a historic ratings breakthrough unlike BTS’s paltry ratings on SNL). Beatlemania was about screaming teenage girls. And then things changed.

K-pop is having a moment. What comes next?

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