K-pop is a musical genre that has existed since the early '90s, but it's relatively new to the masses in North America. The genre, which reads as an abbreviated version of the term Korean pop, has tried for years to break into the Western market but finally found mainstream success last year when the seven-member group, BTS, became the first K-pop act to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Artist 100 chart with its album Love Yourself: Tear.
Since then, other groups like Blackpink and NCT 127 have begun to find larger pockets of audiences not just in the U.S. or Canada, but worldwide. Thanks to online streaming, and the internet at large, language barriers are now breaking down and the growing interest in both K-pop and Latin music have reshaped the way we see and hear pop.
But even in its burgeoning ubiquity, K-pop can be a tough world to enter. Of course, it's (mostly) in a foreign language, but K-pop's complexities stretch beyond that. It operates in its own unique ecosystem. The structure and science behind forming groups (members are often assembled by an entertainment company and some may not even be Korean-born), the discipline that goes into intricate dance routines, the bright and elaborate videos and South Korea's mandatory military enlistment rules all contribute to an environment that is almost unrecognizable when put next to the mainstream music industry in North America. So where do we start?
While it's easy to scan definitions of K-pop and find pre-built playlists, we wanted to reach out to the real K-pop experts: the fans. To celebrate the release of BTS's newest album Map of the Soul: Persona, which already smashed the YouTube record for most-viewed video in its first 24 hours, CBC Music spoke with nine Canadian K-pop fans and picked their brains on how they discovered K-pop and why they love it.
We also asked each fan to help us out and provide one song that would serve as the ideal introduction or gateway into the genre. Scroll down and prepare to dive into the fantastical world of K-pop. (Interviews have been edited and condensed.)
Who: Milusha Copas, 23
Favourite K-pop act: Exo
Why do you think K-pop has become such a global phenomenon?
I wonder sometimes. I think the quality of the music and its overall production scale is something people are recognizing. I think people are willing to listen to music now that isn’t necessarily of a language that they understand or would typically listen to. I also think that the internet is the internet; it spreads things that are popular like wildfire. And it’s more things that are popping up in your feed as opposed to searching them out.
Have you ever been to a K-pop concert?
I have not been to any in Toronto, but I did see Exo when they were on tour, in New York.
Can you describe the concert experience?
Everyone was very excited and engaged, and was passing out little photo cards. The paraphernalia that fans invest in for K-pop concerts all have different members’ faces and names on them. The concert itself was honestly one of the best concerts I’ve seen. It was like, three-and-a-half hours long. I was thrilled. I was like, please don’t let this end.
If you had to explain what K-Pop is to someone, how would you describe it?
I feel like I’ve had to do this with my parents already. I would describe it as high-energy music with strong visual concepts to accompany it. That’s the bare bones of what it is.
Introductory song selection: Exo, "Monster."
Who: Ozzy, 23
Favourite K-pop act: BTS
When did you first get into K-pop?
I first discovered K-pop in 2008, when I was in high school. A group of my friends got really into Shinee, Infinite, Exo, Big Bang, B.A.P but I didn’t start stanning until I encountered Got7 and BTS on Instagram in 2017.
What do you love about it?
Calling K-pop a genre is really a misnomer. It’s a very diverse category of music that has a lot of different styles to suit different audiences and moods. I'm always pleasantly surprised. I enjoy hearing a good, catchy song, looking up the lyrics and often finding meaningful commentary on society. It led me to explore another culture with its own attitudes, exposing me to a new perspective.
How would you describe the K-pop community in Vancouver?
In Vancouver, K-pop artists only started getting heavily promoted in the past year or two. Vancouver’s K-pop convention is only in its second year. But it’s nice to see K-pop-related events, stories and groups emerge. I’ve met a bunch of kind and supporting people through local groups.
Introductory song selection: BTS, "Sea."
Who: Maria Casacalenda, 27
From: Brampton, Ont.
Favourite K-pop act(s): BTS, Monsta X, NCT 127
What do you love about K-pop?
At first, it was how upbeat it was. Most of the time, it just really makes you want to dance. Pair that with the unbelievable visuals that come with the music videos, and I was sold. Everything from the music to the visuals, to the fashion and the dancing creates one huge masterpiece.
Was the language barrier ever a problem for you?
While I think it’s important to go in and find out what they’re saying, especially when some songs have really deep and meaningful lyrics, I don’t focus my energy on translations. I like to enjoy the music in its original form first.
And then you look up lyrics?
Once I’ve listened to a song a few times, I’ll then go in and watch YouTube videos, which provide the lyrics. Sometimes the entertainment companies provide the translations themselves, right in the captions feature on YouTube.
How would you describe K-pop to someone who knows nothing about it?
I’ve actually had to explain K-pop to newbies many times, and they end up looking like a deer in headlights. It can be a lot for those new to the genre, but I think if you ease them into it, it can be done! I would probably explain it as a genre in which you need the entire big picture. You can’t jump into K-pop with just the audio alone. If you’re going to start getting into it, YouTube is your best friend. You need the visuals and potentially the subtitles. K-pop isn’t just about the music, most of these groups have variety shows and other YouTube/V Live specials that help you get to know the members and their personalities. K-pop does something that Western music just doesn’t.
Introductory song selection: BTS, "Blood Sweat & Tears."
Who: Keely Valentine, 27
Favourite K-pop act: CL and Sunmi
How did you first discover K-pop?
As a kid, I fell into J-pop while trying to download Sailor Moon so I grew up loving BoA, who was a major Korean star in Japan. Later, I found a rap cover of a Maroon 5 song that [Big Bang member G-Dragon] did, which got me curious. Then I found “U-Go-Girl” by Lee Hyori and I was hooked.
How do you deal with the language barrier?
I’ve always loved how K-pop is a way to learn something new. It was a challenge to try and learn to sing along but I loved that. Music has a vibe and when an artist or song I really like is focused on communicating something sad or serious, I look up translations. Sometimes, the translations for really cute songs throw me off when I see them automatically on YouTube. I can’t picture myself listening to someone say cute things like that in English! It’s a cultural thing too, though.
Why are CL and Sunmi your favourite K-pop artists?
CL spoke out from day one against the plastic surgery her company tried to push on her and the backlash she gets from sticking up for herself. She’s truly a charismatic artist that fits right in with the North American artists I admire. Sunmi is an artist I’ve fallen in love with in the last two years. As a former member of Wonder Girls, she’s really blossomed into this incredible solo artist. She’s really embraced her international fanbase and makes such an amazing effort to communicate with them. She’s been criticizing the media backlash on her outfits and her latest song, "Noir," is about how she’s killing herself to look good on social media. She’s such an amazing, sexy, strong woman and I hope she continues to stick up for her right to be that.
How would you describe the K-pop community here in Canada?
The community is always changing in Toronto. It used to be a lot of video games and anime fans. It still has a lot of crossover, but K-pop is now its own world. I DJ every month in Ottawa and their community seems very centered around tons of big, crazy talented dance groups. Montreal as well!
Introductory song selection: Sik-K, "Party (Shut Down)."
Who: Jerome Racho, 18
From: Surrey, B.C.
Favourite K-pop artist: BTS
What first got you hooked on K-pop?
I first heard K-pop back in 2007, when I was still living in the Philippines. I was six years old at the time. I remember a girl group called Wonder Girls back then. They were so huge that you could literally hear their song “Nobody” everywhere, in the malls, convenience stores and on the radio. K-pop was so common in the Philippines that literally everyone knew about it. That was when I started listening to Shinee, Girls Generation and Super Junior. To this day, I am proud to say that I love listening to K-pop and will be until I die.
What was it like being a K-pop fan once you moved to Canada?
I moved to Canada in 2010. I noticed that K-pop here, back then, wasn’t as popular as my home country and, at the time, my friends here listened to English songs. So it made me feel like I was left out. I also remember back then, when I was in Grade 4, I got bullied for listening to K-pop. But they never stopped me from listening to it. I showed the bullies that I wasn’t scared of them and it made me listen to K-pop more. Now I’m glad that K-pop is becoming popular in Canada.
Have you been to a K-pop concert yet?
I have not because I don’t have enough money to buy tickets. My goal is to go to BTS concerts in the future before they enlist to the military!
Introductory song selection: BTS, "Spring Day."
Who: Gerald Belanger, 22
Favourite K-pop artist: A.C.E.
When did you first get into K-pop?
I was introduced to it in Japan in 2010 when it started to make a big impact over there.
Is listening to music in a different language ever a problem for you?
Not really. As a DJ, the music is more about the feeling and atmosphere for me.
How would you describe the experience of attending a K-pop concert?
Deafening, due to screaming fans.
What’s the K-pop community like for you in Toronto?
It changes, mutates, evolves and grows exponentially year to year. We went from a city with zero shows before 2012 to currently being the North American nexus of Korean concerts.
Introductory song selection: Brown Eyed Girls, "Abracadabra."
Who: Catherine Wijaya, 20
From: Burnaby, B.C.
Favourite K-pop artist: BTS
When did you first become aware of K-pop?
I was in Grade 6, back in Indonesia in 2009. I knew some K-pop groups back then such as Super Junior, Girls Generation, and Wonder Girls. I knew some songs but I was not into K-pop at the time.
So what changed your mind?
In 2018, I opened my YouTube and discovered seven boys who were invited onto Ellen and I accidentally pressed play on the video. That’s when I first discovered BTS and fell into the ARMY hole. [ARMY is the name of BTS's fanbase.]
What do you love about BTS?
I really enjoy listening to their songs because they have a deep meaning. Most of the songs are talking about self-love and about life. It is really different compared to the songs that I used to listen to.
Introductory song selection: BTS, "Answer: Love Myself."
Who: Emily Lim, 18
From: Richmond, B.C.
Favourite K-pop artist: BTS
How has getting into K-pop changed your life?
When I was young, I had always tried to assimilate myself into the Western culture. I didn’t accept my Asian heritage because I felt the need to meet the all-around “Canadian kid” quota. However, after that initial exposure to K-pop, as well as the culture, curiosity pushed me to want to learn more, and to listen to the genre without prejudice.
My first time listening to BTS — it may be dramatic to say — really did impact my life in many more ways than I had imagined. My introduction to K-pop, especially BTS with its messages of self-love, truly helped me overcome personal self-confidence issues and anxieties. It taught me that although I’m not white, I still have as much worth as those who are, that I have every right to live out my dreams as a Chinese-born Canadian, second-generation immigrant.
What would you say to people who struggle with the potential language barrier in K-pop?
I understand why many people may find it an issue, and use it as a reason to close the door on it as many in our society do. They become defensive when a topic confuses them. It is frustrating and understandable. But, personally, I don’t see it as a problem. I believe that music conveys itself in a way where it doesn’t matter what language it’s in. No matter what language you speak or where you are in the world, everyone experiences happiness, sadness, anger, love and more. They are feelings people can relate to, regardless of the language.
Introductory song selection: BTS feat. Halsey, "Boy With Luv."
Who: Kat, 20
From: Burnaby, B.C.
Favourite K-pop artist: BTS
How is K-pop different from pop music in North America?
K-pop is commonly mislabelled as being conventional pop music, but written and sung in Korean. However, K-pop differs in the sense that it has an entirely different structure than Western pop. The production value and artistic facets of K-pop elevate it to another level that is unmatched in America.
Why is BTS your favourite band?
They came back on my radar in 2017 because of the buzz that surrounded them regarding their stance and openness with important topics such as mental health, a heavy subject to discuss, especially in Asian countries like South Korea where mental illness stands as a sort of elephant in the room. Coming from a small company without a large financial security net, BTS risked everything to put out these messages, yet they dutifully did so. Lots of people in the community describe BTS’s relationship with their fans as being a learning journey in which no hierarchy of status or wealth exists. Instead, the focus is on enjoying music and self-growth together.
You attended BTS’s first Canadian shows in Hamilton, Ont. — what was that experience like?
Those shows stood out in a way that transcended the music itself. The fan community is so large, diverse and altogether wonderful, it makes the experience all the more worthwhile. BTS concerts are not the type of concerts where you go, listen to the music and leave. They’re a wild dance party and a chance to make new friends and cry on new shoulders during emotional ballads. I suppose you can liken it to a euphoric flashbulb memory.
Introductory song selection: BTS, "Idol."