K-pop (Korean pop music) has a massive influence around the world with its ability to transcend borders, despite the majority being non-Korean listeners. K-pop is proving to become a mainstream genre, with idols stealing hearts and generating a new fandom culture. Although the K-pop fandom may seem cringe-worthy at times – like most fandoms comprising largely of teenage girls – they have proved to be a force not to be reckoned with. There is no doubt that K-pop is now a global phenomenon, mainly because of the idol’s “perfect” image, appealing music and distribution of K-pop content on social media.

The genre of K-pop emerged in the 1990s and has certain characteristics that make it more than just Korean pop music. Entertainment agencies play a huge role in how groups operate. All idols of K-pop groups go through intense training (ranging from a few months to up to 10 years) in singing, dancing and entertaining before they debut. Ultimately, idols are essentially products of their respective agencies, giving agencies a lot of power in how their groups are marketed as they are groomed for success. Idols seem flawless thanks to their agencies, attracting fans from around the world. K-pop music also blends a range of different international styles and genres from Latin to EDM to tropical house to ballad for each group, appealing to people’s tastes. This contributes to their global success and people who live in the areas that have influenced their music to become more inclined to listen to them. Their consistency in new music releases – they have comebacks every three to six months – have kept fans engaged and attracted new fans. Their music and overall appeal have contributed to K-pop’s commercial success and hefty profits.

The first time that many people in the West had heard of K-pop was when Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ music video went viral and broke the YouTube record for reaching 1 billion views. But the group that really catapulted the genre to mainstream success in the West is BTS. Although there had been efforts years before to promote groups like Wonder Girls and Girls Generation in the US, BTS is the first group to really grab the attention of Western audiences and hold onto it. They don’t try too hard to appeal to global audiences and instead do so through different methods. For example, they collaborate with popular Western artists like The Chainsmokers and Halsey. By representing K-pop, audiences also became interested in other groups besides BTS. Most K-pop groups now generally have a decent international fanbase and can afford to hold concerts around the world. Even though there is a language barrier, K-pop songs usually have some English lyrics in their songs, and the eye-catching choreography, synchronization, attractive idols and musical style are enough to get anyone hooked.

Having a dedicated fanbase is incredibly valuable as groups can become popular because of their fans. Social media is one avenue used by fans where continuous promotion is done on behalf of groups. With the power to reach anyone with an internet connection, social media is not only used by idols to connect with fans. Fans also use social media to promote groups and build their fanbase, sharing their music and content with users across the globe. K-pop content is readily available for consumption on basically every mainstream social media platform like Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, where fan accounts work to promote their idols. Since idols depict an image of perfection, when social media users see stunning visuals and synchronized choreography in a music video for a song with a catchy tune, they share it on their platforms, encouraging others to listen to it, thus resulting in increased popularity for that group. It triggers a digital chain reaction that has an international effect. To capitalize on this, Western media has started to feature K-pop, expanding their influence on the other side of the globe.

2020, in particular, has shown the world that K-pop fans have immense power and do more than just stream music videos and buy official merchandise. This year has been largely defined by protests and activism, and K-pop fans have played their part by contributing to the Black Lives Matter movement. When the inherently racist #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag appeared on Twitter, K-pop fans drowned out the hashtag with fancams (video clips of their idols performing their songs) and K-pop-related content, as well as anti-racist messages. Soon after, K-pop fans used their collective power to humiliate US President Donald Trump. Lots of K-pop fans, as well as TikTok users, requested tickets for his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in late June this year, but with no intention of going. This resulted in a large arena that was only one-third filled and a deflated Trump. K-pop fans pride themselves on being a collective fandom and fueled by their strong community feeling and passion, they have the ability to make a change.

The popularity of K-pop is part of what is known as the Hallyu Wave, which refers to the global popularity of Korean pop culture. Being a fan of K-pop has also increased engagement with Korean cultures, such as a greater interest in Korean cosmetics, food, shows and movies, and even travel. In many cases, people have literally been drawn to South Korea because of their soft power – K-pop fans make trips to Seoul and also venture into what Korea has to offer besides K-pop, including tourist spots, traditional culture, shopping and food.

K-pop has had an astounding influence in the media, evident by the amount of social media-related records it has broken. The characteristics of K-pop have successfully appealed to Western audiences, contributing to its global success. The fandom has even become involved in their own methods of activism this year on social media. K-pop continues to gain popularity by the day as more and more people become exposed to it and get bedazzled by everything it has to offer.