The rise of K-pop, and what it reveals about society and culture

Early in the pandemic, sociologist Grace Kao began watching K-pop videos, largely as a diversion. Now she’s exploring the societal impact of the popular genre.

Initially a musical subculture popular in South Korea during the 1990s, Korean Pop, or K-pop, has transformed into a global cultural phenomenon.

Characterized by catchy hooks, polished choreography, grandiose live performances, and impeccably produced music videos, K-pop — including music by groups like BTS and BLACKPINK — now frequently tops the Billboard charts, attracts a fiercely dedicated online following, and generates billions of dollars.

Yale sociologist Grace Kao, who became fascinated with the music after watching a 2019 performance by BTS on Saturday Night Live, now studies the subgenres of K-pop and its cultural, sociological, and political effects.

Kao, the IBM Professor of Sociology and professor of ethnicity, race, and migration in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and director of the Center on Empirical Research in Stratification and Inequality (CERSI), recently spoke with Yale News about the kinds of research her interest in K-pop has prompted, why the genre’s rise has been important to so many Asian Americans, and why she urges today’s students to become familiar with various musical genres.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

You have said that watching BTS on Saturday Night Live changed your view of K-pop. How did that performance transform your interest in K-pop from a personal one into an academic one?

Grace Kao: I saw that performance, and it stayed in the back of my mind. Then, when we were on lockdown because of COVID, being stuck at home set the stage for having time to watch more K-pop videos. At first, I was just watching them for fun. I knew K-pop was something important, but I didn’t know anything about it. I thought “I should educate myself on this.” My current research collaborator, Wonseok Lee [an ethnomusicologist and a musician at Washington University], and a Yale graduate student, Meera Choi, who’s Korean, offered guidance.

I’ve always been interested in race and ethnicity and Asian Americans. I knew in my gut that K-pop was important, but it was hard to figure out exactly how I could work on it, since I’m a quantitative sociologist. What's fun about being a researcher and being in academia is that we can learn new things and push ourselves. I think that’s the best part of this job.

Grace Kao recommends this playlist to get started.

When I started working on it, I tried to learn without having a clear research question. Then, along with my collaborator, Lee, we started thinking about papers that we could work on together. I was also able to take first-semester Korean, so now I can read Korean, and Choi and I can begin working on different research papers.

What kinds of research are you doing?

Kao: One paper is about the link between ’80s synth-pop and very current K-pop. Others have argued that K-pop borrows heavily from American Black music — R&B, hip hop, and so forth. And it’s true, but we’re arguing that K-pop has links to all these different genres because the production is much faster. We also finished another paper looking at the links between New Wave synth-pop to Japanese city pop [which was also popular in the 1980s] and a Korean version of city pop. And we’re probably going to start a reggae paper next.

In another project, with two data scientists we’re looking at Twitter data related to a 2021 BTS tweet that happened about a week after a gunman in Atlanta murdered eight women, including six of Asian descent. The tweet, which was about #StopAsianHate, or #StopAAPIHate, was the most retweeted tweet of the year. Everyone in that world knows that K-pop is extremely influential, but there are moments now where it seems like it’s ripe for political action because fans are already really organized. We’re looking at how the conversation about the shootings before and after they tweeted changed. The analysis involves millions of tweets, so it's very data intensive work.

Last March you gave a talk on campus in which you talked about the role of K-pop in “transformative possibilities for Asian Americans.” What is an example of those possibilities?

Kao: Partly it’s just visibility. The SNL performance by BTS was really important for people. Especially people my age, we had never seen a bunch of East Asian people on the stage singing in a non-English, non-Western language. I knew that was an important moment regardless of whether or not you like the music or the performance.

I think during COVID, BTS made Asian faces more visible. They were on the cover of Time magazine, every major publication. They were everywhere. But it also brought up questions of xenophobia. People were making fun of them because of how they looked. At the time there was also the extra baggage that comes with being Asian. But any time BTS were attacked, because their fandom is so big and so passionate, their fans would jump on anyone who did anything to them. Then journalists would cover it, and suddenly there were all these stories about how you shouldn’t be racist against Asians.

Many of us who study Asian Americans have observed over time that it often seems acceptable for people to make fun of Asian things. Just by virtue of the fact that it’s [BTS], that their fans are protecting them, and that that gets elevated to the news is a big deal. President Biden invited them to the White House. These are all things I would have had trouble imagining even just five years ago.

You teach a first-year seminar, “Race and Place in British New Wave, K-pop, and Beyond,” which focuses on the emphasis on aesthetics in both genres’ popularity. What understanding do you hope students walk away with?

Kao: I want students to take pop culture very seriously. Sometimes pop music seems not serious, but so many people consume it that it can have pervasive and serious consequences on how people see folks of different race, ethnic, gender, and national identities.

Another thing I wanted students to learn about is genres of music. Students today like music, but they consume it very differently than people did when in college. We listened to the radio or watched MTV, so we were fed something from a DJ or from actual people who were programming the content. You’d end up listening to a lot of music that you didn’t like, but you’d also have a better sense of genres than students now. Today students consume music through Spotify or YouTube and so forth, which use algorithms to give you songs that are similar to the songs you liked, but not necessarily from the same genre. Students can have diverse and wide-ranging experiences with music, but I found that they have trouble identifying that any particular song is part of a genre. So I feel like it’s important for them to listen to a lot of music.

I want them to consume it because sometimes we think we can comment on things that we don’t know anything about. We don’t actually consume it. I think it’s important for students to walk away knowing something about these genres and to be able to identify them: this is a reggae song, this is a ska song, this is synth-pop, et cetera.

What K-pop groups are you currently into?

Kao: Besides BTS, I enjoy listening to groups such as SEVENTEEN, ENHYPEN, NewJeans, Super Junior, and new group TRENDZ.

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