K-Pop Goes West

   By Blanca Méndez | Nov 26th, 2019

    Artwork by Alonso Ayala (@ouchal)

I still remember that night three years ago, sitting on the floor of my Seoul apartment, eyes glued to the screen of my laptop, nervously waiting for the clock to strike midnight and for Big Hit to tweet out BTS’ new music video. The seven-member K-pop group had by that point been the center of my musical universe for more than two years, and the thrill of the midnight release was just part of the deal. BTS had just wrapped up their The Most Beautiful Moment in Life era and the teasers for the new Wings era promised drama and lots of it.

When I followed the link to “Blood Sweat & Tears,” I was met with a cinematic intro that immediately signaled an ambitious undertaking. As soon as the music started, it was clear that BTS was determined to show a more mature side, and as it progressed it became evident that this didn’t just mean a sexier image but more experimentation with their sound and their storytelling. I emerged from that first viewing in awe and in tears.

Then I took a breath and watched it again because was that moombahton I heard? In 2016 K-pop? K-pop has somehow always been both behind and ahead of musical trends in the way producers reimagine and repurpose popular Western music. But moombahton, as I remembered it, was a happy accident which quickly turned into a very niche and short-lived trend. How did it make its way to the producers at Big Hit?

It turns out that, while I was pivoting completely to K-pop, moombahton, as a small part of the broader tropical house wave, had taken a hold on the West. Thanks to the likes of Major Lazer and DJ Snake (along with Danish singer MØ and everyone’s favorite culture vulture Diplo) and their hit “Lean On,” moombahton was scrubbed of its roots and repackaged as something ambiguously ethnic that white people could enjoy at a music festival. Then came the success of Justin Bieber’s foray into tropical house on 2015’s Purpose – which was wildly popular in Korea – and K-pop producers began injecting tropical rhythms into everything.

Co-ed quartet K.A.R.D. debuted in 2016 with a reggaetón-leaning sound that they’ve since embraced as their signature, but everyone from Red Velvet to Twice to Winner, Playback, and CLC has given the trend a go. Even rappers like Jay Park and Hash Swan got in on it.

And as these songs emerged, Latinx K-pop fans began to notice and to get excited about their worlds colliding. On the other end, K-pop execs took notice of Latinx fans a fairly untapped market. Huge and loyal fan bases had already allowed groups to tour in Latin America and special concert editions of countdown show Music Bank had been filmed in places like Mexico, where this cover of “Sabor a Mí” had fans sobbing. But outside of these special concerts, there wasn’t a lot of effort given to catering to Latinx fans through music releases until more recently.

Last year, industry vets Super Junior teamed up with Leslie Grace for “Lo Siento” and later with Reik for “One More Time (Otra Vez).” The collaboration with Reik went for a more adult contemporary take on Latin pop that felt more natural and fitting. In the time between the two collaborations, K-pop producers have shifted away from tropical house and toward Latin pop.

When BTS was making waves on the American entertainment news circuit around the time of the 2017 Billboard Music Awards, you couldn’t get them to stop singing “Despacito.” Later that year, when they returned to the States for the American Music Awards, they had already fixated on Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” While absent from our Best Songs of the Decade list, both songs had undeniable impact and were largely responsible for K-pop’s shift to Latin pop. BTS even enlisted one of the “Havana” songwriters to help write “Airplane Pt. 2” for their 2018 album Love Yourself: Tear.

Mamamoo followed with sultry “Egotistic,” which, like “Despacito,” starts with guitar and builds into reggaetón rhythm (and sounds like something Shakira would have done circa Sale el Sol). Similarly sultry (G)I-DLE took a brassy approach with “Senorita” earlier this year. But the biggest surprise came just a few months ago with De La Ghetto’s feature on VAV’s “Give Me More (Un Poco Mas),” which I’m still recovering from.

Just as the 2016 release of “Blood Sweat & Tears” was a turning point and a defining moment for BTS, this year marked a defining moment for the group’s rapper and dancer J-Hope. His remake of 2006’s “Chicken Noodle Soup” featuring Becky G, while not Latin music per se, is a cross-cultural triumph in three languages that, according to Becky G, proves that music is universal. Both K-pop and Latin music had a strong second half of the decade in terms of global reach, and as a fan of both, I can’t wait to hear what the next decade has in store. Maybe I’ll finally get the J-Hope x Bad Bunny collab I’ve been yelling about for the past two years.

Blanca Méndez is a writer and editor who contributed to Club Fonograma from 2010 to 2013. Her work has since appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Now she mostly cries over BTS. Follow her on Twitter if you’re into that.