The Korean Wave in America

October 12, 2021

The appetite for Korean entertainment is visibly deepening. As people languish from a prolonged pandemic, they are finding inspiration and connection online, and finding Korean entertainment particularly resonant. Thanks to the help from platforms with international reach (e.g., Netflix, Spotify, YouTube), people looking to learn about and consume more Korean entertainment don’t have to look far. Korea’s cultural influence, dubbed Hallyu, is already decades in the making and in the midst of its third wave of impact, Hallyu 3.0.

Back in 2012, changes in Billboard’s ranking methodology incorporated YouTube views as a factor. This meant global web demand for PSY’s Gangnam Style led to the song topping the music chart. PSY’s success paved the way for growing interest in other K-POP musicians, like BTS who debuted in 2013. By 2019, BTS was named one of Time 100’s most influential people. And in 2021, the group performed their English-language debut at the Grammy’s, completing the cultural crossover.

In the film industry, Boog Joon Ho’s 2019 dark comedy thriller Parasite became the first foreign language film to win best picture at the Oscars. According to Flix Patrol, in September 2021, Korean dystopian drama Squid Game quickly became the #1 streamed show in the US in just two weeks of its release despite having no US-based promotions. With a rising demand for multiethnic experiences, it’s clear Americans are desiring a Variety Show: where diversity of people, passions, and platforms encourage and promote multifaceted self-expression and are driven by values of fluidity, identity, eccentricity, and fun.

Korea’s fresh perspective is inspiring Americans in their quest for richer cultural connections in mundane times. In music, K-POP groups are perfecting compassionate engagement with their fanbase. In film, stories that play with themes of class disparities are captivating audiences. Read on to learn more about the enticing differentiation of Korean entertainment.

CAPTIVATION BY CULTURAL CURATION

To start, K-POP groups are a product of their country and funded by the government, the opposite of the traditional Western rags-to-riches rise-to-fame narrative. Korea’s cultural values of clean-cut aesthetics and reputation are embedded in the products they release – and its musical acts are no exception. Lessons from the rise and fall of Western boy bands in the 90s and early 2000s may have helped Korea craft its unique approach. To ensure long term success, Korea has honed its operation to systematically produce “perfect” performers through rigorous vetting in performance schools, adherence to strict public reputation codes, and continuous emphasis on building strong relationships with their fanbase. With clear-cut icon-to-fan expectations, K-POP members deepen fan relations through their cohesive messaging of togetherness in their lyrics and online engagement. In September 2021, BTS accompanied South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the United Nation General Assembly in NYC to advocate for climate action, the significance of vaccines, and sustainable growth. They also put on an inclusive performance that integrated sign language, underscoring their values as a Korean performance group. Korea’s streamlined approach to entertainment is a force to be reckoned with, and K-POP’s success continues to strengthen the country’s GDP year over year.

UNSETTLING TALES STIR CONVERSATION

Socioeconomic class divides are a universal theme experienced around the world and have been exacerbated by a global pandemic. Squid Game’s appeal lies in its tantalizing narrative of stark competition that leaves viewers vested in seeking a more satisfying resolution, thus stirring social conversation. The series’ themes draw audiences in through the undeniable truth about the powerful role money plays in elevating daily life and social status. Yet the main intrigue is how the series defies traditional western tropes. Much like Parasite, no character is romanticized or glamourized. There is no savior, no villain, no life-altering event – life simply continues being the mix of good and bad it always has been. Because this is contrary to western narrative expectations, most U.S. viewers are left yearning for a “justified” resolution – which leaves them to watch the series tentatively and stir social conversation to find closure. Threads such as subtitle translation conflicts, viewer engagement with show materials (e.g., people sending money to on-screen bank accounts), and character theories have all emerged as viewers try to grapple with their unresolved issues with the story.

SO WHAT?

Understanding Korea’s influence and impact can provide opportunities for U.S. brands at large. As people crave more multiethnic products, experiences, and stories, brands that focus on the collective rather than an individual may have broader appeal. “Slice-of-Life” narratives may feel fresh and intriguing in a sea of hero-vs.-villain stories which we see played out time and time again in sequels and reboots, on screens large and small. Compassionate, inclusive, and kind interactions could help build a more global, and deeply resonant fanbase. For example, a TV network can collaborate with a K-POP star to create a series focused on the power of vulnerability. Have the series showcase the soft skill in both American and Korean cultural settings to deepen viewers’ understanding of human interaction on a global scale.

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