The K-Pop”Wave” Is Engulfing the USA

by Ayanna Jacobs-El

Psy in the “Gangnam Style” music video.

I’m sure, by now, pretty much everyone has heard of K-Pop (Korean Pop) and has some awareness of what it is, in varying degrees. K-Pop first started gaining international media attention with Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012 (Fun fact: Psy briefly attended Berklee). To show you just how many people are aware of the genre, “Gangnam Style” is currently approaching 3 BILLION views on YouTube!

The genre features the pop sensibilities and production that are found in Western, Billboard charting music within the genres of electronic, hip-hop, pop, rock, and R&B music. K-Pop originated in South Korea, and the artists and groups primarily sing in Korean, but they often sing in English as well. In addition to being a musical phenomenon, K-pop is a popular subculture among teens and young adults. This subculture has given way to a fascination with the fashion, private lives, and style of K-Pop stars. The surge in international popularity of K-Pop is known as the “Korean Wave” or “Hallyu 韓流.”

Girls’ Generation

A few of the current stars of K-Pop are BTS, Girls’ Generation, EXO, BIGBANG, Taeyang, and Super Junior. Much of the music that comes out of the K-pop genre is performed by all male or all female groups; which was once very popular in American Pop music, with groups such as Destiny’s Child, Backstreet Boys, The Pussycat Dolls, and Boyz II Men. In the US, the format of all female and male singing groups isn’t as popular as it was in the 90s and early 2000s, but Fifth Harmony and the recently broken up One Direction prove that Girl and Boy Bands still have clout.

BTS is the most popular K-Pop group right now. Their song “DNA,” off of their most recent album Love Yourself: Her was released on September 18th, 2017; but it has already amassed over 27 million streams on Spotify and allowed the group to make history by scoring the highest-charting Billboard Hot 100 Hit for a K-Pop Group. I’ll have to admit, the song is very catchy with a “Moves Like Jagger“-esque whistling line placed above a simple verse with an endearing acoustic guitar part that grows to a climax with a powerful EDM drop. The band members’ polished vocals are interspersed throughout the track with lush reverb and at times strong autotune and pitch effects.

Even though the life of a K-Pop star may appear to be all glitz and glamour, these singers have to go through a rigorous audition and training process that starts from a very young age. It starts with years of pre-audition training and then auditioning at multiple companies that are known as “Star Factories” (kids can participate in 30+ auditions). If they pass the audition and are selected by a company, the trainee is then offered a 2 to 4-year contract. This doesn’t guarantee that they will be debuted as a new artist, it only means that they have been accepted into the companies training program. While in the training program, they partake in rigorous dancing, singing, acting, language, and etiquette classes while still competing with numerous other trainees for the number one spot. From this phase, only a very select few are offered an artist contract. Once offered these contracts, many artists drop out of school and spend up to 15 hours a day practicing and rehearsing! The artists are under very strict meal, exercise, weight, and appearance rules and even after all of this training only around 10% of those artists make a successful debut! The debut is another competition against other debuting groups and of those groups, only a few eventually make it to superstardom and a life of luxury.

One of Berklee’s own, bassist Paul “Papa Bear” Johnson, is currently touring with K-Pop star Taeyang on his White Night World Tour. We spoke to Paul about how he got the gig and what the tour has been like:

“Everything has been so much fun and life-changing. I actually got the gig through Berklee, when I was accompanying my friends, Mufaro and Jennie during a Career Jam audition for this big time music director, Gil Smith. Gil told me recently he picked me to do the tour because, not only did he think I was an amazing player; he thought the way I carried myself made a great impression on him.

Paul “Papa Bear” Johnson and Taeyang

I got the call when I was traveling with this band I’m in, called BAERD, to Idaho to record an album. Gil told me rehearsals started in Los Angeles a week from the day he called me, as a result, I had to cut down the time for the album recording and fly back to New York and get my stuff. I forgot to mention, I play drums for BAERD, so I didn’t have any time to practice on my bass and there was barely any service in Idaho so I couldn’t check out the music. On top of that, Gil sent the final set list the day before I left for rehearsals.

I was definitely nervous going into rehearsals because I didn’t know what to expect, but the band and Gil were very loving and helpful. We had a good amount of rehearsals before we actually performed (8-10 rehearsals for at least 7 hours). So I felt well prepared for this gig.

The touring life has been great! I love experiencing new cultures, playing in front of huge crowds, seeing the audience’s reactions, and growing with the people I work with. As far as our work schedule, we pretty much have a show every other day. Since the show and sound check are about 3 hours of the day, we have a lot of downtime.

The music is great, especially when we play it live. Taeyang’s songs sound great on recordings, but it really comes to life when we play it live. There are some really cool arrangements of his songs. Overall, I’m so grateful for this opportunity! I feel like I’m in a situation a lot different than most touring musicians. The company I’m working with (YG Entertainment) is extremely professional and works so diligently. They’re extremely organized and very detailed about how the shows should run from supplying all the gear we need, to transportation and living expenses. I barely have to lift a finger or worry about anything.

A lot of people have been asking me how I got this gig and how to get into the touring world. Honestly… if you’re trying to get a tour, keep working at your instrument and try to meet new people. There’s no set way of getting a tour. You never know who’s watching or what opportunities will happen from whatever you do. So always play your best, and be the best person you can be at all times. You can get called for a tour from playing at a big festival in front of 10,000 people or a tiny club filled with 1.”



About the Author

Ayanna Jacobs-El
Ayanna Jacobs-El is a composer, producer, songwriter, singer, alto and baritone saxophonist, and DJ dual majoring in Contemporary Writing and Production and Professional Music with a minor in Writing for TV and New Media. You can learn more about Ayanna and hear her music by visiting