Why is K-pop So Appealing?

K-pop stans attempt to find the root of their obsessions

No one can deny the fact that K-pop is a global phenomenon, and despite all its flaws and imperfections, it has continued to grow enormously over the last few years. Although I grew up with K-pop, it was not until 2014 that I took a more active role in analyzing and dissecting the good, the bad and the ugly of Korean pop music and entertainment, which has since taken the world by storm.

What makes K-pop so bankable and appealing to its audience? Why do fans spend thousands of dollars for merchandise? What does K-pop offer that the audience doesn’t get with Western artists?

Before I delve into answering all of these questions, I am going to share my own experience. Super Junior was my first introduction to K-pop, and I didn’t really know what to expect. I vividly remember the moment I went down the fangirl rabbit hole⁠—it was 2007, and I was 12.

My friend, Sharlene, showed me photos and music videos of the group while we were on our lunch break at school. I found the music videos to be so silly, but the dance choreography and their visuals were what kept me hooked. Over the next few days, she would bring posters and photos of the members, and our group of friends would playfully fight over which member was going to be our boyfriend or husband. Oh, how innocent we were.

But even though I was obsessed, K-pop momentarily lost its appeal to me. Since 2007, I have witnessed one too many cross-over attempts, gimmicky rookie groups, fan movements and lawsuits that I eventually became fatigued with K-pop. The flashy debuts, the half-assed comebacks, the nonsensical scandals, the depressing news of star suicides and K-drama cliches did not excite me anymore. In fact, they all seemed like a waste of my time, and it eventually translated into a K-pop withdrawal.

Back then, I never imagined that in 2019, I would be writing multiple articles⁠—read them here and here⁠—about my obsession with all things K-pop, but here we are: 12 years later, and I’m literally writing one right now.

Interestingly, what got me back into K-pop again was one of the reasons I left: scandals.

In 2014, one of my all-time favorite bands, 2NE1, was in the middle of a drug scandal. I was bewildered and my only solace was to understand why it was happening. Day in and day out, I researched it and went on social media to get different perspectives. I’ve realized that even though the surface of K-pop is all bubblegum, sparkles and happy faces, a deep-rooted form of evil actually lingers.

But despite all the shady and crazy moments in the K-pop world, what is it that keeps people coming back to it? Why is K-pop such a global phenomenon⁠—a force that can, and does compete with other foreign and Western artists?

I asked K-pop fans to expound on their perspectives regarding my inquiry⁠—and the overwhelming response I received echoed what my younger self already knew: the Korean pop music industry invests unimaginable amount of money, time and talent to hone and create their perfect stars.

Despite several plagiarism cases, the industry does a good job of churning out pretty decent tracks with very catchy tunes, such as “Blood Sweat & Tears” by BTS, “Ko Ko Bop” by EXO, “Ddu-du Ddu-du” by Blackpink, “TT” by Twice and the like.

Although many Korean producers cite American artists as their inspiration, K-pop definitely has its own unique sound. And maybe the conservative or the “innocent” nature of the lyrics adds to the appeal of K-pop.

Isaac, 24, said that he listens to K-pop because it’s appealing to his ears. “The biggest advantage that K-pop has is the technique depuration.”

Reddit user Hedley echoed Isaac’s notion, adding that, as an audiophile, he spends a lot of money on earphones, amps, DACs and FLACs. “I gravitate toward music that is well-produced and engineered,” he said.

Many share the sentiment that K-pop lyrics have deep meanings, which evoke different feelings in their audience, even if they don’t understand the language. “The beats are real catchy… and [their] singing can carry emotions,” Lauren, 30, said.

“My favorite thing about K-pop is the way it makes me feel. I’m an emo kid for life, but K-pop never fails to put me in a good mood,” Meg, 31, said. She also added that K-pop songs make her feel different, depending on her situation.

“Many K-pop songs make me feel bright and happy, or tough and badass, or somewhere in between⁠—and I love it,” Meg added.

Nicole, 24, said that K-pop makes her feel happy. “I love how they go crazy with their music videos, outfits and choreography…it’s because of 2NE1, they’re the group who made me love K-pop,” she said.

Diana, 28, added that the style of K-pop songs are reminiscent of the ’90s pop that she liked growing up. “The K-pop girl and boy bands fill a void that American music hasn’t been providing.”

Reddit user Roocha shares the same views as the others. He also added that unlike American music, K-pop serves new music constantly. “I don’t get bored with K-pop. The concepts and performances are always different, impressive and colorful.”

K-pop ranges from so many types of music: bubblegum pop, EDM, hip-hop, rap, trap, metal, dance, etc., so there’s no question why fans are captivated.

“Unlike American music, little to no mumble rap exists in K-pop. It’s also easier to find high quality music⁠—and it doesn’t go after the specific pop song formula,” Roocha said.

“In K-pop, there’s a wide variety of types of music and K-pop idols feel very accessible compared to Western artists, which again just makes it easier to get into new groups,” Meg said.

Yes, there’s always an influx of rookie groups debuting every year that are not as polished, but one cannot argue that most of the girl and boy bands can’t synchronize on cue, especially those BTS and EXO boys. Wink, wink.

Sometimes, I fear that their limbs may fall off after such energetic stages. Such emphasis on performance is not only reserved for certain bands either; the intensity and the level of synchronization may vary from one act to another, but in general, the importance of performance or “stage manner” is very apparent in K-pop.

Reddit user Rayesafan said that, as a dancer, she appreciates the artistry behind K-pop choreographies. “Not a lot of Western artists have that touch—even the golden age of early 2000s pop doesn’t compare.”

“I used to idolize *NSYNC and Britney Spears, but looking back, it’s quite painful to appreciate them compared to K-pop,” she said.

Even though I don’t agree with Rayesa’s sentiment regarding GODNEY (I’m a Britney fan, if you can’t already tell), I do get what she’s saying. To be honest, I believe the dances and choreography of K-pop groups are definitely on another level compared to 90 percent of the popular Westerns groups we have today.

Rodrigo, 25, echoes my thoughts regarding K-pop choreography. “It’s how I initially got into K-pop, some of the dances are in video games.” He went on to cite Twice’s “Like Ooh Ahh” dance in Destiny 2 as the one that got him hooked.

Like Rodrigo, Reddit user Pikablu183 also cited video games as the reason he first got introduced to the world of K-pop. “A video game I play a lot features some K-pop songs, and the next thing I know, I already fell down the K-pop rabbit hole.”

Even though many video games feature songs by Western artists, K-pop has a different pull to its viewers and listeners. Harvey, 15, said that he thinks the performance of K-pop groups itself is the reason why it’s unparalleled compared to Western music.

“The choreography and skills they show are very interesting and different… they are enjoyable to watch.” He also added that watching his idols act goofy and funny is a perk. “It really shows how idols are humans—beautiful and handsome ones,” Harvey said.

Speaking of beautiful and handsome human beings, so many K-pop artists are on the top of the food chain when it comes to being national and global ambassadors for luxurious brands. Many of them endorse global brands such as Chanel, Gucci, Burberry, Celine, Moschino and Louis Vuitton, among others.

Although South Korea gets a lot of criticism because most celebrities rely on “magic knives,” also known as plastic surgery, here and there, K-pop has a distinct look, especially when it’s conceptualized àla K-pop style. I give props to the entertainment companies for producing, in my opinion, the best looking groups of this generation: Blackpink, Twice, Red Velvet, BTS and EXO.

As human beings, we can’t help the fact that our eyes are the first to consume every little thing around us. Many K-pop fans readily admit that the beautiful visuals of these artists are what drew them in.

“To be honest, I had seen a picture of Tzuyu from Twice somewhere online and absolutely had to figure out who it was,” Robert, 18, said.

Mae, 22, also shared similar reasons as to how she’s into K-pop now. “I got drawn into K-pop during the Girl’s Generation era, I got so hooked by their visual… it made me curious about them so I had to look them up,” she said.

Natalie, 21, reiterated this fact. She said that at first, the “pretty people” made K-pop appealing to her, but as she grew older, the music, unique concepts and outfits added to the appeal.

“The visuals, at first—and then their talent. They have such catchy songs and great dance routines; some of their songs have great meaning, especially DBSK [TVXQ],” Sharlene, 24, added.

Joevelyn, 24, explained that for her, V of BTS made her a fan of K-pop. “I first saw him in Hwarang [a K-drama that aired in 2016], and since then I was drawn to their music and personalities, too.”

One of the main differences between K-pop and Western artists is the way K-pop artists train in order to debut as singers. There aren’t many music industries that put the same kind of effort and money into their artists—but South Korean companies do.

“You can rate K-pop groups after appearance, movement and voices, whilst Western talents pretty much only need a face and a memorable story,” Anon, 20, said.

Even though it sounds harsh, I agree with Anon. The extensive and competitive trainee system that all of K-pop artists go through is brutal, and there’s no guarantee that it would even bear any fruit. I’ve read articles and watched documentaries about trainee life; it is not glamorous at all. Many trainees rack up debt in order to support their dreams, and some even get two or three jobs while training for nine to ten hours a day, everyday.

Marta, 24, also shares our thoughts. “The hard work idols put in their performances is amazing. You’ll rarely see that dedication in Western artists.”

“The fact that the idols have to go through the harsh training process is why I support them and K-pop so much,” Antonio, 26, said. “Most foreign artists do not have to live the way these idols do, and once they debut as singers, they put 101% effort in everything,” he said.

It’s not a secret that the K-pop industry relies on the trainee system, but we all know that training isn’t enough to produce a stellar singer and a phenomenal star—there’s that X-factor, some sort of “oomph” underlying these talents that we tend to pick apart.

One great example is G-Dragon, the “King of K-pop,” as he is dubbed by many. He underwent several years of extensive training, and even though he is currently serving his mandatory military service, he is still at the top of his game. His influence goes way beyond music, album sales, YouTube rankings and world tours. And once in a while, if we’re lucky, we also get raw talents such as Tablo, Henry, IU and the like.

To me, everything about K-pop and the industry is an entire experience, and that’s what makes it appealing. They do so many crazy things simply because they can—flashy colors, crazy outfits, ridiculous hairstyles, changing concepts, lyrics, sets, etc. They don’t need any justification. K-pop has no boundary that says, “No, we can’t do that.” To put it simply, it’s manufactured, and it doesn’t try to hide it or be anything else.

In an ever-evolving industry, K-pop is fast-paced enough that there is always something new clamoring for your attention—which adds to its allure to the masses.

Maybe it’s some combination of these factors, or maybe I’ve only delineated aspects that are easy to communicate and am missing the deeper point. Or maybe, there is no deeper meaning behind it all.

In any case, I turn to you, my lovely readers, to help me understand why you are into K-pop. Feel free to share your opinions and thoughts to me via @SAConScene or @ferrybaylon on Twitter. Let’s fangirl, fanboy and fall even more in love with K-pop together!