What a few years ago was South Korea’s best-known cultural export is now also its biggest cultural export.

K-pop popped into South Korea around 1992 and has become one of the world’s most sought-after types of music, heard by multiple generations. And because Bloomington, smack in the American Midwest, enjoys a cultural diversity and a major university, people don’t have to travel to Los Angeles or New York to attend a convention focused on Korean pop music. The Indiana University Institute for Korean Studies and the IU Arts & Humanities Council are offering a full day of K-pop immersion this month. 

BTS performs at SoHi Stadium near Los Angeles, California, Nov. 28, 2021, as part of a four-night run. The performance featured tight choreography and a colorful wardrobe. The continued growth of K-pop music's popularity and its influence on politics and more is the focus of a conference this month at Indiana University.

IU’s Korea Remixed K-pop Conference will explore the historic, cultural and political impact of South Korea’s now signature music. Panels with IU experts, visiting scholars and IU graduate and undergraduate students, lunch and dinner, and a party are on the docket for Feb. 26. The sessions and party are free and open to the public in IU’s Gayle Karch Cook Center for Public Arts & Humanities.

“The party will be an open mic karaoke and dance event,” Shreya Mapadath, an IU student who is interning on the K-pop convention, said in an email. “It will feature a fun performance from UNi.SON — one of IU’s very own dance groups. I’ve heard they will be dancing to ‘LOCO’ by the popular K-pop girl group ITZY.” 

UNi.SON is a group of K-pop inspired dancers at IU and welcomes people interested in dancing, filming or editing. 

Mapadath is also looking forward to the convention’s discussions. “My fellow Korea Remixed intern, Toby Huter, will be covering the fascinating topic of traditional symbolism in K-pop music videos.”

Semester-long festival focuses on Korean culture

The conference is part of Korea Remixed, a semester-long festival that encourages the Bloomington community, along with students and faculty, to meet with visiting artists and visit IU’s collections to broaden their understanding of Korean culture. The festival also includes art exhibits, film showings, author talks and more. 

The South Korean government has diligently encouraged K-pop’s hold. But its acclaim in the U.S. is growing, with the internet and live-streaming enabling its promotion. The website says South Korea is one of the only countries in the world, maybe the only one, that has made it a mission to be the planet’s biggest exporter of pop culture. 

One might expect K-pop — requiring exhaustive training, complicated choreography, brightly dyed costumes and hair, and vocal harmony — to be a hit in Korea. But the annual Korean Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles has sold out every year — and roughly 30% of the attendees are non-Korean, according to The Korea Times reporter Christine Ha in Los Angeles.

K-pop artists reach worldwide fame

Certain K-pop teams have spurred the genre’s international fame, particularly BTS and NCT, both male groups. And female groups BlackPink and Twice are dancing upward on the charts.

Fans are devoted. BTS’s are called ARMY, and they travel the world. Officials for SoFi Stadium in the Los Angeles, California, region reported the group’s four-night run of concerts there late last year attracted people from at least 78 countries. More than 200,000 tickets were sold, raking in $33.3 million.

In addition to affecting American music, K-pop is also having an impact on our politics.

K-pop has aligned itself with Black Lives Matter, and three female performers, JiNni, JiWoo and KyuJin, are in the cover video of Cardi B’s “Press.” In 2020, BTS said “we stand together” against racial discrimination. BTS and its Korean record label donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter, as told to Variety by “Big Hit.”

IU’s Susan Hwang, assistant professor of Eastern Asian languages and culture, is one of the conference’s presenters. She will present her findings, “Into the New World”: K-pop and Street Politics in 21st-century South Korea.”

Susan Hwang

“K-pop has had an impact on the American election scene in a very bizarre way,” she said over the phone. “Just (Google) ‘Trump rally.’ ” She has documented “deeply, intricately related connections between politics, nation branding and culture.”

Fandom, she said, is a way to bring about social commentary, which to her, is one of fandom’s most interesting aspects.

According to Julia Hollingsworth of CNN, before Donald Trump’s 2020 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Trump said he had 1 million RSVPs; the arena however, attracted fewer than its 19,000-person capacity. Before the rally, K-poppers reportedly urged others on social media to register to attend the rally and not show up.

If you go

WHAT: “Exploring the global impact of K-pop.” Institute for Korean Studies and the Indiana University Arts & Humanities Council offer full day of K-pop immersion. 

WHEN: 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Feb. 26. Check for schedule of events.

WHERE: Maxwell Hall’s Gayle Karch Cook Center for Public Arts & Humanities, Indiana University campus, 750 E. Kirkwood Ave., 812-855-8783.

TICKETS: Free and open to the public. 


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