Analysis: as K-Pop's popularity continues to soar worldwide, Irish acts like Sodem Solana are beginning to have an impact
In 2018, I wrote about the growing popularity of K-pop. When I wrote that piece, I had no idea that I would still be writing about K-pop two years later. So, why has K-pop continued to grow in the west and what is the attraction of K-pop to western viewers?
K-pop (short for Korean popular music), blends multiple music styles with slick choreography, beautiful fashion and curated makeup and hair styles to produce music that has a wide audience in the west. In my research in Chicago and London in the past year, I found that the fan base, while predominantly female (although there is a growing male fandom) are of all ages. There are women in their 50s and 60s (known as Ahjumma - older, often married, lady fans), 30s and 40s (known colloquially as Noona, older sister fans) as well as young girls in their teens and twenties.
The other big surprise was that many (more than 55% in Chicago) fans describe themselves as not white, but predominantly as African American and Latina and not Asian/Pacific Islanders. So, what is the continuing appeal to fans of colour? Fans talked about how they see K-pop idols (what the musicians and stars are called) as Korean, Asian and in the US, as people of colour who have overcome racism within the mainstream (white) popular music scene in the US, through singing in Korean, not English
Blackpink "DDu-Du DDu-Du"
Many of them said that they liked the "old school hip hop" vibe of K-pop which is also mixed with more current Electronic Dance Music (EDM) styling. Others said that is was just fun to dance to. This was clear when Blackpink, a K-pop girl group which headlined the Coachella music festival in the US in 2019, saw their "DDu-Du DDu-Du" video reaching one billion views on YouTube, the first K-pop video to do so
Many talked about the wider range of gender identities and presentations of masculinity in K-pop. In particular, men or boys in K-pop are "soft boys" or "flower boys" with a more feminine self- presentation, often with pastel dyed hair, make up, and feminine associated clothes. Westerners who see K-pop music videos for the first time often ask me if the more feminine men are in fact, gay. I often find myself explaining that feminine masculinity and even men showing affection towards each other, doesn’t mean that these K-pop artists are gay.
Many female fans were quick to point out that they think that feminine K-pop idols free men all over the world and allow them to be more feminine without the fear of criticism and they like this – they like it a lot! In fact, Asian men have recently been portrayed much more as romantic leads in films like the blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe (on Netflix), and Last Christmas, all of which featured handsome and desirable Asian male leads. Many fans welcome the increase in Asian leading men and often said that becoming a K-pop fan made them more open to dating an Asian partner.
Highlights of the World K-Pop Festival 2019
K-pop music and dancing have also increased in popularity closer to home in Ireland, with a K-pop panel at the recent J Con in Dublin's Croke Park. Thanks to Sodem Solana, Ireland was also the Grand Prize Winner at the World K-pop Festival in Changwon, South Korea. The festival is sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a way to "unite K-pop fans from around the world." Selected from 6,400 teams from over 80 countries as one of 13 finalists, Sodem Solana and BIAS (which is a clever play on K-pop slang which refers to one's favorite band member), went on to be selected as Grand Prize Winner. This is the second time that Ireland has won the KPOP Grand Prix: Irish girls' hip-hop group, GGC Crew, also won the grand prize in 2014.
Sodem brought down the house when he sang and danced to "Solo" by Jennie from Blackpink. As a man dancing to a girls’ group song, Sodem says that he never really got any outward criticism and he wanted to show that boys can appreciate girls' K-pop too. This sentiment is growing around the world, with 2019 having been one of the biggest years to date for the success of K-pop outside of Korea and in the west. Building on the global success of K-pop bands like BTS, who sold out two nights at London's Wembley stadium in June, Sodem hopes that more people will give K-pop a listen.
Bo Kyeong Kim, Third Secretary of the Korean Embassy in Dublin, and host of the K-pop festival regional competition in Ireland, said "we were delighted to hear that Sodem Solana won the KPOP Grand Prix for Ireland. Sodem and his team members worked so hard and they really deserved it.
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Sodem Solana performing at the World K-Pop Festival 2019
"An important part of the Korean Embassy’s remit is to promote Korean culture and KPOP is a perfect example of how the power of music can transcend borders. KPOP is now a global phenomenon, it is extremely popular in Ireland. We hope this trend continues! We are so proud of Sodem’s achievement and look forward to hosting the KPOP Festival again next year!"
The regional competitions are held every year in Dublin, so if you fancy yourself a potential K-pop star, start practicing your favourite moves for next year. Keep an eye on the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Ireland’s website and Facebook page for details.
Or, you could practice your skills at the monthly K-pop disco night in Dublin or take a few K-pop dance classes. You can also meet up with others interested in Korean language and culture. If you are fan of K-pop, there are more opportunities than ever to participate in the fandom. If you aren’t a fan, you might want to get used to the fact that K-pop in Ireland doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ