Breaking The Language Barrier: How A Captive U.S. Audience Finally Embraced K-Pop and K-Drama

Say what you will about 2020, and as cursed as it has been, it was good for one specific thing: 2020 provided a captive audience.  Across the globe and, at varying times, each country had to go into lockdown for weeks or even months to combat the growing COVID-19 pandemic; so it essentially forced the entire world to go online.  Streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, AppleTV, Peacock, CBS All Access, and HBO Max all showed astounding growth in 2020. Alas, that streaming boon did not extend to Quibi, which did not gain any traction because the mini-episode format no longer held any appeal when people were searching something to binge-watch to keep occupied when they had hours, days or even weeks to fill the huge chunks of available time that they never had before.  Some people turned to cooking. Some people turned to reading books. Some people adopted pets. Some people turned to home gardening and crafts. But, for the majority of emotionally-overwhelmed and isolated global population, most collectively wanted to take their minds off the mind-boggling reality that we found ourselves thrown in the midst of.

It felt surreal and post-apocalyptic and there was solace to be found in watching and/or listening to entertainment online, which extended to films, television series, documentaries, true crime, how-to-series, and music.  Unable to go to movies, theaters or attend live performance concerts, everyone was in search of entertainment that answered the need for comfort and excitement in their souls.  It was akin to a “gold rush” as people signed up for the streaming platforms or looked for entertainment in the farthest corners of the internet.  Musical artists that were able to embrace the “new world” of digital-creation flourished.  TikTok, Instagram, YouTube all reflected huge audience numbers. Celebrity-chat and virtual-concerts experienced an explosion of interest and profit.  Thus, musicians and music groups, who adapted quickly to the digital realm, found that they could quickly create and release content to an avid and eager audience. Taylor Swift and BTS both released two albums in 2020, each selling faster and in higher numbers than ever before.  Similarly, other musicians also found their work welcomed, if they could find a way to record and release their work as digital entertainment.

Taylor Swift and BTS appeared to be uniquely situated to meet this digital-demand with the necessary tools and equipment at their fingertips, as well as possessing the specialized musical know-how to create, mix and release their music on their own or with virtual-assistance. They adapted seamlessly and released some of their best music to date.  Taylor Swift released her Grammy-nominated album “Folklore,” followed five months later by “Evermore,” each receiving high praise from the music industry and critics, while simultaneously adored by the fans.  Similarly, BTS released its best-selling and critically-lauded album “Map Of The Soul: 7” and was just about to embark on a world tour, which had to be cancelled suddenly after the COVID-19 outbreak. So BTS went back into the recording studio and produced its biggest commercial success to date: the Grammy-nominated single “Dynamite,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list and has only continued to break records everywhere since its release in August 2020. Spurred by the passion and desire to keep working, BTS continued to create songs and released their second album “BE” in November 2020, which also debuted to record-breaking album sales and quickly topped music charts across the globe with all eight of its songs.  There were numerous other artists who flourished in 2020, such as BlackPink, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa, Fiona Apple, The Chicks, The Weekend, Bad Bunny, Henry Styles, and many more. But the unparalleled success of BTS and Taylor Swift is notable.  

For one, both BTS and Taylor Swift ventured farther out of their seeming comfort-zones and took risks that paid off enormously.  Taylor Swift released two “cottage-core” albums, a far cry from her country and pop music roots.  BTS’ music in “Map of the Soul: 7” followed the natural trajectory of their evolution that began in 2016 into more introspective, soul-searching songs combined with rock, some rap, techno-pop and gorgeous melodies, which creates a special blend of sound that the band simple calls “the BTS sound.” Better still, in August 2020, BTS released their first all-English song “Dynamite,” which offered such a catchy, upbeat tune with recognizable phrases that everyone stopped and listened and, likely, danced right along with them. These unique blends of music offered by both Taylor Swift and BTS resonated with a world who had been left emotionally-reeling, disconnected, and unsure what the future held.  Their music answered something that our collective souls craved.

Confession time, I am a long time fan of Taylor Swift, but prior to June of 2020, I cannot recall having heard a single BTS song before.  Yet, after seeing how BTS had openly tweeted their support for Black Lives Matter and donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter (which its fans matched within 24 hours), I took notice and began listening to BTS’ music, and what I discovered surprised me: I really liked BTS’ music. This will come no surprise to the legion of fans, known as ARMY (which stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth), across the globe, but for me, it was a revelation. Curious, I sought out more South Korean musicians to sample their music and discovered more whose music I loved — including BlackPink, The Rose, Taemin, EXO CNBLUE, ATEEZ, B.A.P., GOT7, CLC, UP10TION, Heize, IU, BTOB, MONSTAX, Spectrum, SuperM, and artists such as Janet Suhh, Kim Feel, Henry, Lee Suhyun, Lim Yeon, Hwa Sa, Ha Hyun Woo, Mido & Falasol, and Sam Kim.  (For many of the solo artists, I discovered them through the OSTs aka: “original sound track” for various South Korean drama television series, after hearing their songs while watching the K-dramas.)

June 2020 was a tenuous time for those of us residing in the United States.  On the heels of a countrywide-shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic to “flatten the curve,” racial tension sparked protests in major cities and small towns across the 50 states after the brutal killing of George Floyd.  Those mass protests were long overdue as it was time for a much needed change in the U.S. laws, judicial system, police enforcement, responding to the mistreatment and unprosecuted-killing of Black Americans.  So, with a global pandemic running unchecked until there is a vaccine available and distributed, it was a time to isolate at home as much as possible to keep our loved-ones and vulnerable safe from COVID-19.  Contrast that with mass protests springing up and continuing for weeks (and some are still ongoing) in what seemed every local community and major city, life in the United States felt filled with stress, tension, and not a lot of hope on the horizon.  It would have been easy to succumb to the futility and depression of that time.  But, right in the middle of that, artists were releasing music and entertainment available online that was a welcome and soothing balm.

Other nations, outside of the United States, had fared better with their lockdowns to eradicate and/or control the COVID-19 pandemic and were further along in their tests for a vaccine, so it was the perfect time to look outside the United States for glimpses of entertainment offering hope and happiness.  Since most U.S. television and film production had come to a halt in early March, as of June and July, there were only tenuous and limited signs of that production resuming in the coming months.  It was the perfect time period to discover film and television from other countries, and Netflix perhaps anticipating the demand for more global-interest in foreign-made series, had hundreds of non-U.S. films and television series to sample.  

Thus, paralleling my venture into the world of K-pop, I (along with millions of others) ventured into the world of K-drama.  South Korea seemed to have raised the bar on its entertainment and, looking back in time, it was easy to see the goalposts that had raised South Korean entertainment to such a highly entertaining and U.S.-friendly level.  Sometime around 2012 through 2014, there was a significant investment by the South Korean government into the various entertainment fields to help its own economy and to make its mark more visible in the increasingly globally-oriented marketplace. With the 2018 Winter Olympics about to be held in Pyeonchang, South Korea, it was a timely, smart, and valuable investment.  Most countries invest in infrastructure when hosting a Winter Olympics or Summer Olympics, which while also essential, is not as solid a long-term investment. South Korea’s investment in the entertainment industry has reaped billions in revenue, proving to be a wise decision.

Ask any K-drama fan and they will tell you that there was a cultural reset around 2015-2016, whereby the writing and production-value of the K-drama television series and films seemed to have been raised.  In fact, the K-drama series from 2016 are still all time favorites with K-drama fans.  Interestingly, the 2015-2016 timeframe is about the time that K-pop bands began to shift by embracing more modern styles, looks, and melding more English-influenced phrases and music elements into their songs and videos.  I am always astounded listening to modern K-pop and other South Korean music artists how much English is used in their songs.  I also found listening to the theme songs and other songs featured in the K-dramas, that many were in English or had recognizable English phrases. But, while interesting, it was not the only reasons to enjoy South Korean K-pop or musical artists. The majority of the time, I just like the sound of the song and it made me feel something while listening to it, whether it was in English or Korean, or, as in the case of the K-drama OSTs (“original sound tracks”), frequently there was instrumental music, not songs, that reminded me of and brought me back to those wonderful scenes from a show that I enjoyed watching.  

Just as I had found watching K-drama films or television series, once you adjust to reading subtitles, you barely notice that you are reading words on a screen. You are simply watching and your brain processes the words simultaneously as you experience the emotion of what you are seeing.  Likewise, when listening to K-pop music or South Korean singers, I am not really listening for the words of the songs, I am listening and experiencing it as an emotion.  Likewise, ask me if I know the words to the majority of the U.S. music that I enjoy and I am the first to admit that I do not know the words. I just love the songs by the sound and emotion that I feel when listening to them. In fact, for the majority of art in any form, whether it is paintings, film/television, video, music or live-performance, art is appreciated for how it makes you feel.  

How something makes you FEEL is the important part.  It is what makes us spend money on music, films, online streaming, concert tickets, and collecting reproductions of that art so we can continue to enjoy it at home.  We buy songs or shows, either digitally or in physical CDs or DVDs, or in the case of art, photographed or physical copies.  And once we can resume going to movies, theaters, concerts and stadiums, we will pay to go experience that art in-person again so that we can FEEL the experience of it.  

2020 was a unique, collective experience of the whole world being in search of entertainment at a time when we felt like a captive-audience.  For millions, in every country, it was a glorious time of discovery.  Already excited by prospects of reaching beyond our own borders to a global-community, finally having access to each other through the internet and advanced technology (thanks to smart-phones, wifi, and 4G/5G access) putting the internet and entertainment literally at our fingertips, accessibility really was the other key factor.  Without access, it would have remained impossible to watch K-dramas or listen to K-pop music.

The success of K-pop and K-dramas finally breaking out and becoming more well-known and appreciated by U.S. audiences was that 2020 offered the pivotal convergence of available time (“captive audience”) and accessibility.  To a lesser extent, but just as key, was the willingness of the U.S. audience to try new things.  That willingness to sample new music and new films/television/entertainment was important.  It was not that there was a drought of English-speaking content, there was actually plenty to keep audiences entertained, but there was a restlessness or craving of something new. Just like going to a restaurant and deciding to try a new dish rather than get the one dish that you always get, that curiosity that seeks out new experiences and tastes is what propelled 2020 to be the year that K-pop and K-drama gained such popularity.  

In fact, BTS’ album sales rose from the 500,000 range in the U.S. in 2019 to over 1 million in 2020, with an additional one million in individual sales for “Dynamite” alone, and unprecedented exponential growth in sales of BTS’ prior studio/compilation albums and other song singles along with it. In addition, the online streaming of BTS’ entire catalogue of songs (dating back to 2013) now exceeds several billion plays on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes and the other music platforms.  Worldwide, BTS sales went from a 6-year cumulative total of 9 million albums sold by the end of 2019 to an impressive 25 million albums sold by end of 2020, indicating a gain of 14 million albums sold (worldwide) in 2020 alone.  So BTS did not just crack the “glass ceiling” to the U.S. audience, BTS smashed that invisible “glass ceiling” that had been holding the U.S. back from discovering BTS’ phenomenal music and helped open-the-door wider for other K-pop and South Korean music artists to being discovered by U.S. fans; and it was not just the South Korean music and television that benefited, Latin American artists, European artists and Middle Eastern artists also seemed to break through the English-language barrier and found eager fans.

Captive-audience, accessibility, and a “willing heart” are the three key elements that broke the English-language or English-only barrier for audiences seeking out entertainment in 2020.  It was long overdue and for those of us who did get past that barrier, we found a vast world of amazing entertainment.  I found BTS and dozens of other South Korean musicians whose music continues to uplift my spirit and inspire me every day. I found K-drama series, such as “Crash Landing On You,” “The King: Eternal Monarch,” “Itaewon Class,” “Hospital Playlist,” “Flower Of Evil,” and “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay,” and over 50 more K-drama series that made my heart happy watching them.  Breaking that English-language barrier finally allowed me to discover and appreciate so many more television series, films and a whole universe of music, that has brought so much joy into my life.

If you have not broken that “glass barrier” yet, I encourage you to do so. You are missing out.  There is so much more art, entertainment and music to discover and fall in love with.  If you need any recommendations, just ask. I am happy to share — or you can just reach out online and, trust me, there is an incredible world of international fans just waiting to greet and welcome you and guide you into what you may appreciate and enjoy from their countries.  Break that barrier. Embrace a new world of entertainment and experience the joy.