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OP-ED: How BTS and K-Pop explain the world

  • Published at 12:43 pm April 19th, 2021
Photo: Reuters

The Korean Wave, otherwise known as Hallyu, continues its global march with popular boy band BTS leading the charge

We all remember those words from that summer of 2012 when the South Korean pop singer/rapper Psy redefined the word “viral” and etched those words and his kitschy dance moves into our collective global consciousness.

The summer of Gangnam Style bled into the fall, and the rest is history: the first Youtube video to hit one billion views (it’s at 4 billion+ now), the first K-pop star to truly go global, and thousands of localized “Gangnam Style” videos sprouting across the world from Saudi Arabia to the Philippines and beyond (I hesitate to add links here lest you, dear reader, dive deep into a global Gangnam style tour on youtube as I did recently, only to come up for air — woozy and disoriented — an hour later).

But why recall Gangnam Style now? A very “Emerging World” story caught my eye this week. The South Korean firm that manages the wildly popular K-pop group BTS has acquired a major US talent firm that handles the likes of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and others for $1 billion. So, a South Korean company will now manage some of America’s hottest stars in a powerful demonstration of the newfound global power of K-pop (South Korea’s hottest export: pop music), and the accelerating globalization of the entertainment industry.

It’s one of those under-the-radar “the world is turning” stories, but what does it tell us about our turning world? Let us start with multi-polarity, a concept increasingly discussed in geopolitical terms, but one that we should talk about in business too.

The world of entertainment - like other industries -- is no longer dominated by Western majors. Yes, Hollywood still wields enormous clout and US-based companies like Netflix and Amazon are redefining entertainment offerings globally, but Bollywood remains the most prolific center of movie creation and its stars like Shah Rukh Khan can go head-to-head with Hollywood bigwigs in popularity in most parts of the world.

Meanwhile, Turkish soap operas have been catching fire from the Middle East to Latin America (Turkish serials are the Latin telenovelas of today’s emerging world), Nigeria’s film industry (Nollywood) and African pop artists are exploding worldwide, hitting the Western cultural mainstream, and Netflix brings us top-notch serials from Latin America to the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Korean wave of music and entertainment, or Hallyu, seems to be growing ever faster and deeper. (For more on this, see Gangnam Style Globalization below).

The South Korean firm, HYBE (formerly Big Hit Entertainment), that made the purchase of the U.S firm, Ithaca Holdings, nearly went bankrupt in 2007. But curating and managing BTS — arguably the world’s most famous pop group today — has been a lucrative business. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “the deal will see HYBE taking full ownership of Ithaca, including a significant minority stake that had been controlled by the U.S. private-equity firm Carlyle Group…Ithaca Holdings, known for its acumen generating buzz around its artists through cross-promotion, has also grown to include Big Machine Label Group, a division focused on country music.”

A country music label with its parent company headquarters in Seoul? That is about as good an example of globalization as it gets.

To be sure, stories of emerging world companies doing big things on the global stage is not new. Some of the most globally impactful companies in various industries hail from the emerging world, from Emirates Airline and Turkish Airways disrupting aviation, to China’s Tencent reshaping gaming and messaging, to companies like India’s Tata Consulting Services, Brazil’s JBS (meat and proteins) or Vale (mining), South Africa’s SABMiller (brewing), China’s Huawei Technologies, or Mexico’s Grupo Bimbo (breads and baked goods) all emerging as global — not just national or regional — leaders in their respective fields.

The United States has also become far more globalized than it sometimes realizes. From its food industry to its home appliances to some of its iconic brands, dig a little deeper and you will find majority or significant foreign ownership. Examples: AMC Theaters, Budweiser (Anheuser Busch), Holiday Inn, Good Humor, Burger King, Jim Beam whisky, and the list goes on and on, with owners from China to Brazil.

But while U.S food, hospitality, and consumer goods have been globalized for a while, the country generally maintained a fortress around its world of mainstream entertainment, with European rock bands and British actors the main exception. Even when Psy stormed the United States, one got the impression that it was a fleeting moment, a quirky, foreign act that was fun, but not enduring.

It was not the moment that K-pop would go mainstream and explode in the United States. That moment would have to wait for the BTS storm.

It took a few years since their first arrival in the U.S in 2013, but the Korean band are bonafide superstars now. In May 2019, BTS played to 100,000 fans at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Earlier that month they played to nearly 90,000 fans at Soldier Field in Chicago. BTS is the only Asian band to ever top the Billboard 100 Hot Chart, and their devoted fans — known affectionately as “the Army” — are a formidable social media force.

In fact, BTS first got the attention of the U.S music industry when it won the award for “Top Social Artist” at the Billboard Music Awards in 2017. How do you win that award? With devoted fans because the award recognizes the artist that receives the most social media engagement. So, while Psy exploded onto the world stage thanks to Youtube, social media has been the key for BTS. Their Twitter feed has more than 34 million followers, and the band actively posts new content on Instagram.

Full disclosure: I knew of BTS in much the same way any reader of the global media would know of them (through headlines and articles here and there), but they were not a band I followed. Until now. Their story is not only a story of the globalization of entertainment, but something else, something more urgent to our times as well.

While BTS fans love the band’s catchy tunes, well-choreographed dance moves, and high energy videos, there’s something else going on beyond that. Their lyrics — mostly in Korean, with translations freely available on Youtube — often speak of loneliness, anxiety, and mental health issues. Their themes are universal and particularly relevant to our times.

We have all felt lost or anxious or low in self-esteem at times. Now, consider the life of a teenager today caught in the vortex of anxiety-inducing social media in the middle of an alienating and lonely pandemic (a double pandemic, if you will, the social media one plus the physical one). Enter a pop band with catchy tunes and flashy dance moves that tells them that they are not alone, that they simply need to love themselves despite their flaws and anxieties. It is a powerful combination.

They’ve launched a “Love Yourself” series through three albums and one video and a “Love Myself” campaign with UNICEF, with lyrics and messaging in the campaign that remind people to love themselves, to reach out to others in pain, protect children from violence and promote “self-esteem and well being,” as UNICEF notes. It is a particularly timely message in what I see as an age of anxiety that we are living in today, compounded by Covid-era lockdowns - an age of anxiety particularly hard on teens.

BTS star J-hope even referred to depression as a "Gray Rhino,” the term coined by Emerging World fellow traveler Michele Wucker as an obvious danger facing us all that we ignore. These are serious themes, not just K-pop candy.

So, while Psy was fun and kitschy, at times I felt like the Gangnam Style phenomenon was driven by the very “foreignness” and quirkiness and exoticness of the video and the artist. BTS seems to have caught the zeitgeist of our moment with their focus on anxiety and mental health. Meanwhile, their band manager, HYBE, has caught the zeitgeist of this moment — the globalization of entertainment — with their recent purchase of a major US branding firm.

It is a powerful story, and one that still has many more chapters to go.

There is much more to say on K-pop, Turkish soaps, and the globalization of entertainment, but for now, have a good weekend and week ahead.

The author is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and founder and editor of Emerging World newsletter.

The article has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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