K-pop enters American pop consciousness

From The Los Angeles Times:

Girls’ Generation, 2NE1, GD&TOP, JYJ, Wonder Girls and others from South Korea are expanding audiences in U.S. beyond Korean Americans.

The nine young women of Girls’ Generation sauntered onto the performance stage of “Late Show With David Letterman.” Flanked by a DJ and live drummer, the South Korean pop group wore lacy black mini-dresses and thigh-high leather boots, as if they were hosting a goth cocktail party. It was a rare American network television performance from a South Korean music group.

The song they performed on the January show, a slinky bit of minor-key dance-pop called “The Boys,” owed an obvious debt to Kelis’ catcalling hit “Milkshake.” The band’s gently lascivious choreography underscored the track’s sex-appeal boasts: lead singer Kim Taeyeon made come-hither hand gestures while her bandmates pulled PG-13 versions of Lady Gaga’s alien body bends. The song was in English, but the message was clear in any language. This was something new yet uncannily familiar on the American pop scene.

“As soon as I heard that we’d be performing there, I ran screaming and crying up and down our house,” said Girls’ Generation’s Diamond Bar-raised, Korean American singer Tiffany. “The other members were just like, ‘Huh?'”

Girls’ Generation is arguably the biggest name in an effervescent, operatic Korean pop music culture that quietly has won a fervent fan base of young Korean Americans, and plenty of non-Koreans as well. K-pop artists pull from techno, hip-hop, R&B and top-40; singles are often focused vehicles for elaborate music videos and rarely less than bonkers good fun. Traditional Korean culture can be patriarchal, but K-pop’s most famous acts, whose members often have roots in California, are groups of women deploying butt-kicking superhero imagery.

Poised at the intersection of two countries’ fast-moving pop cultures and cutting-edge media technology, the sprawling genre colloquially known as K-pop has operated outside the American pop limelight. But that’s changing. A-list producers like will.i.am, Diplo and Kanye West are lining up to work with South Korean artists like 2NE1, GD&TOP and JYJ.

K-pop comes alongside a tide of Korean filmmaking (the cult-favorite films of Joon-ho Bong) and culinary interest (L.A.’s Kogi truck, progressive Korean barbecue joints like LaOn Dining) turning heads in L.A. and in the U.S. As K-pop makes its first big moves into America this year with English-language tracks on U.S. major labels, a big question is this — does this music, at the vanguard of global pop, even need mainstream America at all?

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