From the Beatles to Max Martin, Europe’s influence on American pop culture is undeniable. Nevertheless, Europe had widely absorbed American pop as a standard alternative to its local culture too — and well, who wasn’t? But maybe the latest question is: who still does?
From the United States come some of the biggest pop icons and landmarks of the last decades, but those of today come from a wide array of countries — and not rarely, from Korea. As The Guardian headline says, the United States might just be losing its grip on pop culture. Korean music, on the other hand, is battling against more odds than American pop ever had to; and yet, it’s now standing among the world’s most prominent pop culture shapers.
It’s a movement that Europeans saw coming. In fact, they partake in it: Scandinavian songwriters and producers have been among the creative minds of K-pop music for at least a decade. But just like with American pop, Europe’s interchange with K-pop might actually be happening the other way around now.
While Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Post Malone, Doja Cat, and many other American artists are nowhere declining in popularity in Europe, names like BTS and Blackpink are a part of Europe’s mainstream culture just as much as they are. Senior K-pop acts Super Junior and SHINEE have big and dedicated European fanbases, and newer acts such as TWICE, Stray Kids, and ENHYPEN are becoming powerhouses of their own in Europe too. Many of these European K-pop fans are 20 to 40-year-olds drawn to the music’s unique flavor; but also, many are kids or teenagers who simply did not grow up with American pop being the standard alternative to local music.
BTS pays homage to the Beatles while also performing their Korean song Boy With Luv on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in 2019. The performance was recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theater, the same place the Beatles recorded an epic performance in 1964.
If you take in mind how much K-pop pulls out from European songwriting styles, you can even think that the music appeals to European fans by invoking some kind of familiarity. But if this was the main reason why K-pop is growing in Europe, it would be way bigger there as of now before it had exploded in popularity in farther places with contrasting cultures such as Latin America. The explanation for K-pop’s rising popularity may be as simple as the world being more open-minded to music than it used to be — or even that K-pop might be doing a better job than American pop at providing immersive experiences to fans of pop culture. That’s because of K-pop’s intrinsic flair to engage people in a culture and lifestyle of its own, and also because of how its package of music, visuals, dance & variety of content is attracting people that are not getting this kind of entertainment experience from American pop.
The live music industry is catching up on Europe’s rising interest in K-pop. Over the years, European countries have erratically received K-pop concerts such as SMTOWN Live World Tour in Paris in 2011. But of course, it was after BTS’ massive global stardom that the number of K-pop and overall Korean artists’ concerts in Europe increased — starting with BTS themselves, whose 2018 Love Yourself World Tour sold out dates in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris.
Judging K-pop’s appeal in Europe by BTS’s success alone, or by the continent's occasional inclusion in world tours by K-pop acts, might paint a picture that is more optimistic than reality, though. K-pop is still a niche market in many ways, and its popularity can vary drastically from place to place. Even in the United Kingdom, which stands out amongst European countries when it comes to K-pop’s popularity, the music is mainstream only as much as it means that people know that it exists, but not that it is as popular outside fan communities as the Dua Lipa's or Ed Sheeran's of the world.
However, as shown by events like the KPOP.FLEX festival, there is demand for K-pop in Europe and potential for it to grow even more. The festival, which took place in Frankfurt over the weekend of May 14th and 15th, 2022, gathered over 65,000 people for a unique opportunity to see NCT DREAM, MONSTA X, ENHYPEN, MAMAMOO, EXO’s Kai, (G)I-DLE, Dreamcatcher, IVE, AB6IX, and Dreamcatcher. KPOP.FLEX is set to have two more editions in 2023, in Frankfurt and London, cementing these two cities as K-pop capitals in Europe.
Dreamcatcher @KPOP.FLEX, Sun 15 May 22, Credit: DKphotos
If K-pop is a niche strong enough in Europe to have its own festival and make it into European music charts, is it a stretch to see it as a serious competitor to American pop? There might still be a long way until K-pop and/or Korean-language music, in general, to be as widely embraced by Europe’s general public as American pop. However, the very idea of thinking of any music genre or industry binomially with American pop is taking away from the very fact that American pop no longer reigns alone in the world, and no longer shares space with only 1 or 2 cultures, but many. And in a continent whose musical range of options was never tight to begin with, like Europe, K-pop deserves huge credit for conquering a space of its own despite all cultural and language differences.
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Do you think K-pop is an alternative to American pop in Europe?
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