It’s a wave that’s swept Indians off their feet, dictating everything from their choice of music and TV shows, right down to beauty and skincare… all of it made entirely in Korea.
Much of the world woke up to K-pop after Psy’s 2012 viral hit Gangnam Style, but the genre dates back to the 1990s, when ‘idol’ groups started making waves in the Korean music scene.
Most people trace the genesis of the ‘idol’ phenomenon to the 1992 debut of Seo Taiji and Boys, a trio that melded American pop, swingbeat and rap with Korean lyrics and musical tropes. Their immense – and unexpected – popularity encouraged Korean entertainment companies to jump on this new trend, and by the mid-90s the Korean music industry was dominated by boy bands such as H.O.T and SechsKies, who quickly built up large, passionate and competitive fandoms. These bands would lay down the template for generations of K-pop groups to follow – music that mixes elements of Korean pop culture with a wide cross-section of contemporary music genres from the West, a focus on over-the-top fashion, and a visual aesthetic that is fully committed to gleeful audiovisual excess. Around the same time, the South Korean Ministry of Culture started investing heavily in the country’s entertainment and pop culture industries in an attempt to stave off the impending influx of Japanese anime, manga and music, which had been banned in the country before 1998.
Recognising the potential of culture as soft power, the government also put into place policies to promote the production and export of Korean pop culture. This was the beginning of Hallyu – the Korean Wave – in which Korean films, TV dramas and K-pop gained rapid popularity across wide swathes of China, Japan and South-East Asia, before the internet allowed it to spread its reach across all the world. And since the late 2000s, K-Pop has been at its forefront.
So, what started the Hallyu Wave?
Winter Sonata, a KDrama, started the Hallyu Wave, in Asia. It was so popular in Japan that matchmakers started advertising that they could hook up Japanese women with Korean husbands.
KPop took a bit longer. BoA was the first Korean singer to make it big in Japan (2001), but she sang in Japanese and people didn’t necessarily know she was Korean. The first KPop group to hit Japan was TVXQ (all five of them) in 2006 – they became known as the Korean Beatles due to their immense fandom in Asia. SS501, Super Junior and SHINee also had great success in Japan, and the Hallyu Wave started lapping at the shores of Australia, New Zealand and California.
Groups started coming over to the US in the late 2000s, and after Gangnam Style went viral on the web, more came. Before BTS made it huge, several other groups had profitable tours, including Got7 and Big Bang (with the MADE Tour doing exceptionally well).
In 2012, KCon started in Los Angeles. This convention, with highlighted artist concerts each night, has grown exponentially since, with KCons in a variety of places around the world (Japan, Australia, Paris) and expanded to NYC as well as LA. 70,000 people attended KCon NY 2019, with the convention held at the Javits Center and the concerts at Madison Square Gardens. KCon LA had 94,000 fans in 2018 (figures aren’t out yet for 2019). Now of course BTS are the world’s biggest boy group, and have just finished a massive worldwide stadium tour that outgrossed most of the acts this year from ANY country.
But India’s first brush with Hallyu had more to do with local politics than it did with soft power diplomacy. In 2000 the Manipur Revolutionary People’s Front, an armed secessionist group, issued a notice banning Hindi films and TV shows – as well as the use of Hindi – in an effort to fight the ‘Indianisation’ of the north-eastern state of Manipur. As theatres and cable operators quickly acceded to the demand, people started looking further east for entertainment. Korean TV channels like Airarang TV and KBS World started being broadcast in Manipur and other north-eastern states, and soon the region was awash with cheap pirated Korean CDs.“The key factor that abets the popularity of Korean Wave is the cultural proximity of Korean and Manipuri societies,”
The fact that people from the region are rarely represented in Indian pop culture – and if they are, it’s usually as an offensive racial stereotype – also made the switch to Korean culture easier. When young people from the region travelled to cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Pune for college, they took their love for Korean TV and K-pop with them, seeding K-pop fandoms in their hostels. But it would take until after 2012 for these seeds to start bearing fruit.
The rise of YouTube and social media had already allowed K-pop to make inroads into the United States, Europe and India, but it was K-pop star Psy’s 2012 viral hit that really turned it into a global phenomenon. But why was BTS the band that finally broke through the culture barrier overseas to make significant waves in the US? The answer lies in a combination of factors, and most of them are about change: the changing nature of K-pop’s studio culture and the way “idols” are produced; changing depictions of masculinity in South Korea; changing ranges of acceptable expression in K-pop; and, above all, the approach BTS has taken to building its fan base and interacting with its fans.
It’s this high level of online engagement – as well as the lack of non-Bollywood boy bands or pop music in the country – that has helped K-pop acts build highly dedicated fandoms in India as well. Indian K-pop fans congregate on act-specific Facebook and Twitter pages, like Bangtan India (for BTS fans) and EXO-L India, as well as more general platforms like Destination K-pop India.