If 2017 was the year BTS went global, then 2018 was K-Pop, as an industry, grabbing the axe and attempting to widen the doorway that the seven-member boy group had so spectacularly created.
BTS, of course, have gone on to even bigger things this year, including selling out two nights at London’s O2 Arena and 42,000 tickets for NYC’s Citi Field in minutes, and scoring two US No. 1 albums with Love Yourself: Tear (whose artwork earned a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package) and Love Yourself: Answer. As their fame, accolades and record-breaking stats increased, so did the op eds dedicated to their US breakthrough, focusing on everything from their social presence to their socio-political consciousness.
For anyone unfamiliar with K-Pop, BTS seemingly emerged from nowhere, but South Korean artists have been rocking up in America for over a decade now. Groups such as Wonder Girls, Big Bang and Girls’ Generation (all considered legends in K-Pop’s annals) took the most focused cracks at the west between 2009-2013, yet the timing, for a myriad of factors, was never right for them to go beyond a fervent but niche following.
But as industry and audiences grew more savvy and committed to technology, from streaming to social networks, K-Pop, as a whole, spread faster outwards to new audiences but also vertically -- new and existing fans increased their engagement, for example, creating Twitter accounts just to keep track of their favourite group or by zombie streaming (leaving all your devices playing while you sleep), which contributes to those mega-numbers attributed to K-Pop. It seemed inevitable that one group would take the lead, and BTS, who reworked the K-Pop formula into a far more individualistic and authentic device, won the race.
Naturally, there are sceptics, and yes, to say that K-Pop (other than BTS) has “taken over in 2018” would be a reach. But to suggest that it’s not popular nor that there hasn’t been an explosion of interest in the USA, and in any non-Asian country, is wrong. K-Pop went from being unknown to known. From little to no coverage in the established media pre-BTS 2017, there’s been a landslide of coverage that has, in 2018, widened to also champion acts such as TWICE, MONSTA X and NCT 127.
K-Pop went from rarely charting outside of specialist or music provider charts to visible positions on official mainstream countdowns; on the Billboard 200 album chart this year were, alongside BTS (as a group and two solo entries from RM and J-hope), appearances from BLACKPINK (#40), NCT 127 (#86) and EXO (#23). While in the UK, BTS claimed a Top 10 and Top 20 album and three single chart entries, BLACKPINK’s single DDU-DU DDU DU peaked at #78 and a collaboration with Dua Lipa put them at #38.
It’s not just the technological and cultural timing easing K-Pop into the west, it’s the artistic. K-Pop is never just about one element of performance, it’s a package -- the videos range from kooky and cute to dark and epic, the choreography is razor sharp, the songs are complex, catchy productions, and live shows are meticulously planned spectacles. Whatever your thoughts on Michael Jackson, there’s a simple reason why so many Korean artists (despite most being born well after his heyday) cite him as their hero -- he remains the ultimate performer; a thrilling, global pop phenomenon whose career transcended race and language. It’s exactly what a modern idol spends years of their life training to achieve.
'Global' was 2018’s keyword; the industry’s decision-makers seemed more interested where they fitted into the world beyond Asia than they had in years. BTS and their label Big Hit Entertainment had proved enormous international success was obtainable, and so other labels retrieved their western ambitions from the shelf and cautiously ventured forth. There was a pivot towards more ready-subbed content (a task usually taken on by fans), international collaborations, English versions of singles (some strategic, like NCT 127 below), others merely as album bonuses, like GOT7), and longer and bigger tours, though the latter was primarily by boy groups.
Collaborating, while nothing new in K-Pop (JYJ x Kanye in 2010, G-Dragon x Missy Elliott in 2013), can provide a win-win situation, a stamp of credibility both in Korea and outside of it, and exposure to the western artist’s fanbase. This year saw a rush of partnerships — Red Velvet’s Wendy x John Legend, MONSTA X x Gallant, BTS x Steve Aoki, NCT 127 x Marteen, the aforementioned BLACKPINK x Dua Lipa, Super Junior x Leslie Grace, SHINee’s Key x Years & Years, and the forming of K/DA -- the League of Legends girl group which saw Miyeon and Soyeon of (G)I-DLE join forces with Jaira Burns and Madison Beer for a viral hit that’s had over 100 million YouTube views.
These choices are obviously far from random -- K-Pop has a large, hardcore Latin American fanbase, and K-Pop itself has adopted a Latin sound as one of its sonic trends in recent years, making Super Junior's a smart move in prolonging their 13 year career. While for BLACKPINK, who debuted in 2016, teaming up with one of pop’s hottest young stars makes perfect sense when you consider the fact that they signed with Interscope/UMG in October, and, one imagines, will be making a direct play for western audiences in 2019.
One outcome of a heightened spotlight on K-Pop is that it’s not just the music making global headlines. In November, BTS were cancelled last-minute from a Japanese TV appearance, an alleged response to the controversy arising from a 2017 image of Jimin wearing a contentious t-shirt celebrating Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule at the end of WWII (featuring the Nagasaki mushroom cloud), which had been circulating online in both countries. After the Japanese media picked up on the situation, it became publicly inflamed to the point where TV Asahi pulled the plug, which is where the world media stepped into the fray.
Condensed like this, the situation sounds cut-and-dry, but it is by no means straightforward. The background -- WWII, K-Pop in Japan, modern relations, nationalists in both countries -- required to fully unpack the story is too vast for this feature, though BTS’ fandom wrote a helpful but biased white paper that gathered many of the moving parts. Days later, however, an LA-based Jewish human rights organisation demanded an apology for the victims of the bomb but also to those affected by Nazism; the band had done a 2015 photoshoot at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Faced with criticism at the time, Big Hit removed the images from Twitter, though they can still be found online. Members of the band were also accused of posing for a photoshoot wearing hats with the Nazi SS Death Head logo, as well as using flags similar to the Nazi swastika as concert props.
The accusation wasn’t entirely accurate -- one hat on one member, the flags were connected to critiquing the Korean school system, not pro-Nazism -- but the photoshoot had happened, the hat been worn and for the second time in under a week, BTS came under fire. Faced with rising criticism, BTS’ label issued a considered apology in which the company squarely shouldered blame for the liberation shirt and the hat, stating their artists had “no relation” to the issue, and from there the furore slowly dissipated in the UK and USA.
No doubt any ARMY reading this will wonder what, with the dust just having settled, warrants a rehashing of the incident. But there’s a systemic issue present in which BTS are far from being the sole perpetrators. While in no way forgetting that western entertainment is a discriminatory, ignorant hellhole at the best of times, any long-time K-Pop fan will attest that the idol industry is rife with missteps, ranging from blackface (members of Big Bang, Beast, Mamamoo, Apink) and appropriation (members of EXO, Block B, GOT7), to stereotyping (members of Red Velvet, Momoland), and that’s not even a full list.
In ethnically homogenous South Korea, few take offence, let alone recognise it as an issue. Both the international fan community and media however, have consistently made their feelings known, and some idols, once alerted, apologise. But given the frequency with which problems arise, it’s clear that entertainment companies aren’t listening. Ultimately, the global backlash faced by Big Hit should serve to remind companies that if they want their groups to not only stand on a world stage but significantly profit from new and culturally diverse audiences, then the onus is not just on its idols but staff -- like managers, creative directors and stylists -- to develop a wider understanding of the world they occupy.
From world politics to matters of the heart, this summer heralded the biggest dating scandal since 2014’s “Oreo-gate”, which saw EXO’s Baekhyun and Girls’ Generation Taeyeon outed as a couple. In August, Pentagon’s E’Dawn and his superstar labelmate, HyunA (a soloist, formerly of girl group 4 Minute, pictured above with E'Dawn) admitted they were dating after their label, Cube, denied it. As with all idol dating news, shit hit the fan thanks to K-Pop’s long-held and unhealthy culture of fan ownership, something openly championed by labels who often stick dating bans on many of their artists. Cube cancelled promotions featuring the two and angry Pentagon fans called for E’Dawn’s removal from the group. He was put on hiatus.
In September, Cube -- who had stated both were being kicked out, only to double back -- announced fresh plans to drop both artists, citing the couple’s “dishonesty” as the cause. The story was suddenly, unusually, everywhere -- from trashy British tabloids to American women’s magazines -- and the outrage, even in South Korea, was directed at the company. HyunA and E’Dawn have since made an official appearance as a couple, as well as uploading plenty of PDA shots on Instagram. But the big question is, will their careers continue successfully? Should the answer be yes, they may be the catalyst for a change -- a future in which an idol is welcomed to have a personal life, not be reduced to dating in a stressful cloak-and-dagger situation and have their livelihoods threatened when exposed.
In 2018, K-Pop felt marked by external ambition but also the desire and need for internal change -- as exemplified by the two major aforementioned stories, by the misogynistic backlash Red Velvet’s Irene faced over reading a feminist book, by idols reaching for more artistic license, and the growing openness around mental health. We saw impressive steps in the right direction this year. May we see them become great, ballsy strides in 2019.
ICYMI: We made you a playlist of essential 2018 K-Pop. You're welcome!
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.