Image courtesy of Billboard Magazine
By Saysha Mahadevan (‘24)
If you have paid any attention to the trends in today’s entertainment world, you may have realized that K-pop is quickly becoming a worldwide sensation. Maybe you have noticed more K-pop stars plastered on more posters in stores, more K-pop music videos topping the YouTube trending list, and more K-pop songs breaking records and climbing charts. What you also may have noticed is that K-pop does not get played very much on the radio, even though it is growing and expanding in popularity. So…why is that?
Well, there are many reasons why radio stations refuse to play K-pop songs, even if their hit songs are being performed at multiple major award shows and talk shows. Take BTS, the biggest boy band in the world and the K-pop band that everyone knows because of their numerous, trailblazing achievements. Even when their 2019 hit single “Boy With Luv” won 10 large awards and was certified Platinum by the RIAA, it still got barely any radio play. If it was played on the radio, it was the version featuring Halsey, a popular American singer who has won many awards in her own right. By spotlighting Halsey in these versions, they usually omitted the rap parts, which consisted mostly of Korean lyrics.
Not only “Boy With Luv”, but many other of the band’s singles haven’t gotten much radio play, if any at all. Despite BTS being bigger than many of the artists that are played on the radio today, they still get less radio play because of the simple fact that they are Korean and they do not make English songs. The radio industry is afraid to play Korean songs because they do not think that they will appeal to many Americans. They don’t think that Americans, most of whom speak English, will accept songs that are not in their language. This seems like a fair argument until one just looks at the numbers for Korean songs! K-pop is taking over streaming platforms, where people can listen to whatever they want, so clearly the language barrier is not very effective. K-pop’s success indicates that there has to be something appealing about it for people, not just in America, but all over the world. If we just look at some of these fandoms for other big groups like Blackpink’s BLINKS and EXO’s EXO-Ls, we can easily spot the diversity within them. Not only Koreans but people all over the globe of all ages who may or may not understand Korean are embracing these bands and helping their songs soar. This should be proof enough for radios to see that playing Korean songs will not hurt their listener numbers, but may in fact boost them.
There must be some English songs that K-pop bands are producing though, and there are. The most famous and well-known one is probably “Dynamite”, by BTS. When it was released in August, it peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a first for the band. It has also been virtually performed at many award shows and talk shows, but it still hasn’t gotten much radio play at all, although more than usual. This may be because BTS’s influence is growing or because they have finally come out with an all English song. Still, if this was Ariana Grande or Drake, “Dynamite” would be getting played a lot more on the radio. It might even be overplayed! In K-pop, groups will also sometimes produce English versions of their top singles so that they will appeal to wider audiences. These English versions usually get more radio play than the original versions, but they still don’t get much (if they even get any at all).
It doesn’t always have to be about the language though; it can also be about the culture. K-pop is a very foreign culture compared to the Western culture that we are used to. There are different concepts that groups follow and terminology that is specific to K-pop culture. Idols, both male and female, wear makeup on a daily basis and perform choreography while singing on stage. They usually have individual roles to play in their group. These roles consist of a leader, visual, vocalist, dancer, rapper, and sometimes even more, like center. Groups can have an insane amount of people in them. For example, the band Seventeen has 13 members. K-pop idols go through long and intense periods of training before their debut. K-pop groups also produce many more albums and songs per year than the normal Western group. In Western entertainment, groups usually consist of about 3-5 members, they do not have specific roles in the groups, and their albums/ideas do not really follow a concept. These are just some of the stark differences that can be observed between the two entertainment industries. From these, it can be understood why radios might feel like Korean culture is too foreign, so they don’t want to introduce it into mainstream American culture.
Many people in American society today embrace the Korean culture and we are also learning to become more accepting of people and things of all backgrounds. We are working for black equality, LGBTQ+ equality, and acceptance in general. As we start to open our eyes and open our minds, there is definitely a possibility that the radio industry will start doing the same and that it will begin playing more diverse music, not even just K-pop, but also music in other languages and of other cultures too. America is a very diverse country, so we need to have music to match us. We can all do our part in supporting our favorite artists by streaming their music. However, we also do need the radio because it still appeals to a massive audience, so it is a great way to spread the message that an artist is trying to give to us. Though we do not know exactly what it will take for the radio to start playing more diverse music, we can still choose to be accepting of other cultures and help shape a society that appreciates everyone for who they are, where they come from, and their music preferences. Together, we can break down the slowly crumbling language barrier that America’s radios still hold up today.