Even before idols began singular attempts on the American market, K-pop was alive and well in its main U.S. strongholds of Los Angeles and New York City. In 2003, the Korean Music Festival sold out its first multi-artist concert at the Hollywood Bowl. And in 2006, YG Entertainment packed up its biggest artists (including Se7en and 1TYM) and fledgling boy band Big Bang for three major U.S. shows. Though the masses weren’t ready for South Korean idols, this didn’t stop K-pop agencies from repeatedly testing the waters throughout the years.
In 2021, K-pop is no longer niche, but its journey toward mainstream recognition has been a long, bumpy, and unpredictable one. Even as BTS became the first South Korean group to score a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single, the group was surprised to have become household names. They’re not alone in changing the face and sound of pop music in America. Below, NYLON looks at the cultural milestones that brought K-pop to where it is today, and what may be next for the industry few believed could cross over.
2006-2009: BoA, Rain, And Se7en
In the mid-00s, it wasn’t groups but soloists venturing west: Se7en, Rain, and BoA were three of K-pop’s biggest stars, though their international fortunes differed wildly. Se7en retreated after one English-language single, 2009’s “Girls (feat. Lil Kim).” But BoA, who’d debuted at 13 and risen to A-list status in South Korea and Japan, took an organic route: by settling in L.A. to promote her English-language single “Eat You Up.” Her eponymous 2009 album made her the first K-pop singer on the Billboard 200, and she starred in a U.S. movie (Make Your Move, 2013), but without an upward trajectory in sight, BoA ended her American activities, returning home where she remains successful to this day.
Rain achieved the highest U.S. profile of this era. He sold out two nights at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in 2006, starred in 2008’s Speed Racer and 2009’s Ninja Assassin, was named by Time magazine in 2006 as one of 100 Most Influential People That Shape Our World, and topped its online readers poll in 2007 and 2011. Yet Rain’s U.S. career wasn’t truly taking off and, cut short by his two-year mandatory military service in October 2011, his U.S. profile faded out.
2009-2011: Girls’ Generation Attempt To Crossover
In 2009, “Gee” put Girls’ Generation on the map at home, and their agency, SM Entertainment, hadn’t been put off U.S. advancement after BoA. SM founder Lee Soo-man has a long-held vision of globalizing idol music, but the label’s acts, uniquely K-pop with large group numbers, appeared to be a tough sell for U.S. audiences.
Girls’ Generation’s third album, The Boys, had a U.S. release in October 2011 supported by TV performances on mainstream talk shows, but it failed to place on the Billboard 200. As quickly as it began, Girls’ Generation’s American endeavor was over. SM Entertainment was done with the U.S. for the time being, and its next generation of superstars, EXO and Red Velvet, stayed focused on Asia. It might’ve been a missed opportunity: As K-pop grew after 2012, Girls’ Generation’s Korean releases reached the top five on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart, while each subsequent EXO album also climbed higher on the Billboard 200 without a shred of U.S. promotion or touring, with a peak of No. 23.
2009-2012: Wonder Girls Grab Traction In The US
As Girls’ Generation were blowing up in South Korea, the five members of Wonder Girls released an English version of their retro-style hit “Nobody” in the U.S. in 2009, making them the first South Korean group to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 79. That summer, they gained important grassroots exposure by opening for the Jonas Brothers on tour, with a U.S. media onboard with their ambitions. But Sunmi left in early 2010 (replaced by Hyerim), the delay hurting their momentum. They eventually embarked on a North American tour, released two more English singles (“2 Different Tears” and “The DJ Is Mine”) and an endearingly cheesy, self-titled TeenNick TV movie in February 2012.
In 2012, Wonder Girls released “Like Money (ft. Akon)” in the United States, but the group’s leader, Sunye, later announced she would be marrying. The English album was shelved and Wonder Girls went on hiatus until they rebooted in 2015, leading to two more critically acclaimed years in South Korea before disbanding.
Two main factors stacked the odds against K-pop breaking in the West. The pop charts were predominantly and stubbornly white, with significant diversity nearly a decade away, and although heavily influenced by the sound and look of U.S. pop, the complexity of K-pop’s reconfiguration, compounded with racism, still baffled many.
2012: PSY’s “Gangnam Style” Razes Through The West
Some may see it as a mere novelty song, but “Gangnam Style” is a significant paving stone in Korean pop’s path. Prior to PSY, Westerners were mostly unfamiliar with the term “K-pop.” By 2013, it had entered the West’s cultural lexicon. “Gangnam Style” opened up South Korean music (as well as food, style, and K-drama) to people who hadn’t even known the country had a lucrative entertainment industry. PSY’s satire of the residents of Seoul’s moneyed Gangnam neighborhood was a video monster, the first YouTube video to be viewed 1 billion, then 2 billion times. (It’s currently the eighth-most-watched with more than 4 billion views.) It reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 in 2012, the highest ranking ever for a South Korean artist. Behind the scenes, it was also a game-changer, helping hasten the Billboard charts metrics to allow YouTube views to be counted for a modern reflection of how audiences were consuming music.
2012-2019: KCON, K-pop Tours, And Fashion, Darling
KCON — now a three-day, global K-pop conference with multi-group concerts — hosted its first event in L.A. in 2012, drawing 20,000 people. By 2014, it had grown to 42,000 attendees, less than 10% of whom were Korean.
YG Entertainment’s 2NE1 became the first K-pop girl group to stage solo U.S. shows, while its now-huge boy group Big Bang (the first idol group to ever chart on the Billboard 200 with 2012’s Alive) undertook a world arena tour; it proved so popular that dates were added in L.A., New Jersey, and London. By 2013, a dozen idol groups played their own theater shows outside of Asia, and by 2019, two dozen undertook extended tours, many in arenas. In the early ’10s, 2NE1 and Big Bang’s maximalist styling and EDM-pop bangers caught the attention of Western music media, but also designers like Yohji Yamamoto, Lanvin, and Jeremy Scott, who designed stage clothes for 2NE1.
The style press introduced K-pop to audiences outside its primarily younger demographic, while G-Dragon’s relationship with Chanel from 2013 onward shifted idols into the world of international luxury brands not just as models but as muses and active collaborators. These partnerships continued with Big Bang’s Taeyang (Fendi), Jackson Wang (Fendi), Blackpink (Celine, YSL, Dior, Chanel), BTS (Dior, Louis Vuitton), Kai (Gucci), and Aespa (Givenchy), increasing K-pop’s global consumer influence and power.
2010-Present: The Rise Of Stan Twitter And YouTube
In 2010, idols like 2PM’s Nichkhun began opening personal Twitter accounts, and K-pop agencies began uploading all their content, including older releases, to YouTube, making these K-pop’s most public stomping grounds. Only in recent years have companies begun subtitling all their content; thus fan translators were the unsung heroes of K-pop’s Western expansion: They ripped and subbed reality and variety shows and behind-the-scenes clips, made lyric videos from scratch, and translated everything from tweets to magazine interviews, allowing fans to emotionally connect with K-pop artists, a process so visceral it’s become a meme.
On Twitter, fans amplify their favorite idols through hashtags, fancams, voting campaigns, and memes. As a whole, K-pop fans racked up 6.7 billion tweets in 2020 alone, boasting enough muscle to even shift the social needle beyond K-pop, as seen during the pandemic’s Black Lives Matter protests. In 2021, the likelihood of having never encountered a K-pop fan or content online is a rarity, and this content avalanche has snared many a “local” (a nonfan) into K-pop’s clutches.
Recognizing passionate fans translated into huge amounts of digital traffic, Western media were eager to capitalize on it; idol groups now appear regularly across mainstream media like Rolling Stone, Vogue, Good Morning America, and the late night talk show circuit, anchoring K-pop in America’s mainstream cultural landscape.
2016-Present: The BTS Effect
BTS refined and redefined K-pop’s playbook from the way they communicated with fans online to their in-depth visual storylines and thought-provoking lyrics, sending them stratospheric and breaking records along the way. In early 2017, they won Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards, a moment frequently seen as the turning point for the group in the United States. Five months later, in October 2017, the group’s fifth EP, Love Yourself: Her, reached No. 7 on the Billboard 200, the highest a K-pop group had placed on the chart at the time.
Fascinated and shocked that a group of seven Asian men could succeed in America, Western media in 2017 and 2018 was a time of think-pieces dissecting how this could have possibly happened. Conversations around BTS and K-pop were, and often still are, riddled with Asian xenophobia and derision. (For a frustrating lack of progress around Asian artists, see the press treatment of Minari star and 2021 Oscar winner Yuh-Jung Youn.) Yet BTS created an undeniable sea change in the U.S. entertainment industry, from breaking new ground for K-pop to setting the stage for their successors: SuperM, Blackpink, NCT, and Monsta X, all which have charted on the Billboard 200 since.
2016-2021: Blackpink And The Art Of Less Is More
Debuting in August 2016, Blackpink pulled off one of K-pop’s canniest feats: becoming the biggest girl group in the world with just a handful of songs. Yet the longer the wait for new material, the more engaged the fandom became, venerating the group to new heights. In 2019, they became the first ever idol group to play Coachella, and the first idol group to rack up 1 billion views on a music video (“Ddu-Du Ddu-Du”). When their debut album finally dropped in October 2020, it flew to No. 2 on the Billboard 200, making it the most successful debut from an all-female group in more than a decade. Their English-language collaboration with Selena Gomez, “Ice Cream,” became a Top 20 radio hit, their first.
Even when solo, the members are a force to be reckoned with. Jennie’s 2018 single “Solo” is the most watched Korean female solo video, while Rosé’s “On the Ground” topped the Global Billboard 200, placed on the Hot 100, and is the most viewed YouTube music video in 24 hours by a solo K-pop artist. With highly anticipated releases from Lisa and Jisoo still to come, Blackpink are the indisputable queens of girl groups in the United States, Korean or otherwise.
2021: HYBE, NCT Hollywood, And The Future
As K-pop has grown, so have the ambitions of the industry’s main players: YG, JYP, SM, and outlier turned industry-leading giant Big Hit (renamed HYBE).
In February, HYBE announced a partnership with Universal Music Group’s Geffen Records to create a new K-pop label and boy group in America in 2022. In May, SM Entertainment announced it’d be partnering with MGM to find members for a new U.S. NCT unit named NCT Hollywood. Other South Korean entertainment companies are also getting in on the action. K-pop has been a multi-billion-dollar earner for years, and companies are trying to now replicate those enticing revenue streams on U.S. soil using talent survival shows and K-pop’s infamous training regimes.
Fandom reactions have varied from asking agencies to better manage their current roster without the burden of an extra group to debating the inclusion of non-Asians in K-pop. (One only needs to look at previous furor around groups like EXP Edition or Kaachi.) K-pop’s global popularity is unlikely to wane anytime soon, but should these Western versions succeed — groups who can constantly promote in America, who are trained like Korean idols, and employ the same songwriters and creative tools that made K-pop into a global force — we may be looking at a return to the heyday of vocal pop groups dominating the U.S. musical landscape, but one that’s more diverse and visually and sonically thrilling than its previous heyday. Far from the days of repeatedly being beaten back from America, K-pop's creators now stand welcome at the zenith of the American pop industry, blueprint in hand and ready to conquer anew.