Why Language Matters in K-Pop

The discussion of the rise of English in K-pop songs is more complex—and important—than it may initially seem.

Music Features K-Pop
Why Language Matters in K-Pop

K-Pop Talk is Paste‘s monthly column featuring interviews, features, reviews and explainers dissecting Korea’s pop music scene from an American perspective.

If you care about K-pop, then you are probably aware of the ongoing conversation around the apparent increase in the use of English-language lyrics in the industry. This subject pops up every couple of years like a cultural whack-a-mole, looking for a simple, definitive answer in a messy, increasingly globalized world, only to disappear again until the next flurry of English-y K-bops hit the airwaves. From BTS’ “Dynamite” to TWICE’s “The Feels” to Fifty Fifty’s “Cupid (Twin Ver.)” there does seem to be more wholly English-language hits and full albums in K-pop lately (perhaps because there is more K-pop in general), leading some to ask the question: If a K-pop song is performed in English, is it still a K-pop song?

Sometimes, when Americans are asking this question, what they’re really asking about is a kind of “authenticity.” Because Western culture is invested in the myth of the auteur—the ideal of a (traditionally White, male) artist who creates brilliant art in a vacuum—we tend to place greater value on musical artists who write their own music, even when that music is shaped by other producers and songwriters. So when K-pop—with its many-membered groups, trainee system, embrace of elaborate dance choreography that is sometimes prioritized above other elements of performance and the way it wears its commercialism on its sleeve—enters the chat, there is a cultural backlash to the presentation of K-pop music alongside Western pop musicians.

If a K-pop song is performed in English, is it still a K-pop song? Yes, of course. But let’s break down what questions this conversation is really asking, and what fandom preferences, industry biases, and modern anxieties it may be provoking.

A History of English in Korea and in K-Pop

English has long played a role in Korean pop music, in part because English has long played a role in South Korea and in the broader world. English is a “lingua franca” in international business and politics, and English-language American pop culture has dominated the global market for the better part of a century. The American military has had a significant presence in Korea specifically since our country’s military occupation of the southern part of the peninsula in 1945; today, South Korea is “home” to the third-most U.S. military bases in the world, after Japan and Germany. “There’s Konglish everywhere in Korea, especially in Seoul,” says Nykeah Parham, an American K-pop music researcher working on a Master’s at Korea’s Yonsei University. “It seems random to us, but having English words in Korean songs does not bother [Korean listeners].” Many K-pop idols—including artists who grew up in countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia and Thailand—speak English as a first or second language.

From its inception, K-pop has been influenced by a globally dominant American music and media culture, interpreting elements of pop, rock and hip-hop through a uniquely Korean lens. 서태지 와 아이들 (Seo Taiji and Boys), considered to be the first K-pop group, debuted in 1992 in a Korea coming out of decades of military rule under which Western music was often censored. Their first song, new jack swing single “난 알아요” (“I Know”), blended elements of Korean music and language with the rap, breakdancing and fashion of hip-hop culture—which started in South Bronx’s Black community in the 1970s and was “mainstream” in America by the 1990s. “I Know” represented a kind of cultural liberation for a citizenship that had only been allowed to travel internationally for three years, and especially struck a chord with Korean youth.

“Young people loved everything about Seo Taiji and Boys,” says Vivian Yoon in Episode 4 of her very good podcast K-Pop Dreaming, where she contextualizes Seo Taiji and Boys’ music in the burgeoning hip-hop dance scene happening in Seoul at the time, directly influenced by establishments catering to Black GIs in the city’s Itaewon district. “Their sound was experimental and bold. Seo Taiji didn’t just make rap and hip-hop popular in South Korea, he also incorporated things like heavy metal into his music.” “I Know” was one of two singles off of Seo Taiji and Boys’ self-titled debut album. The record also included an English-language version of the hit song, called “Blind Love,” which means K-pop has been incorporating English—and getting funky with translations—into its production from the very beginning.

30 years later, K-pop (which wasn’t coined as a term until later in the ‘90s) looks very different than it did when Seo Taiji and Boys first burst onto Korean TV. Then, “난 알아요” was a domestic smash hit. Today, K-pop is one of Korea’s major cultural exports—and, of course, the U.S. isn’t the only country that it is exported to. “Korea, China and Japan,” says Parham, outlining the traditional path of K-pop international growth. “Maybe the Philippines? Honestly, it depends on how well you do in China or Japan.” China has mostly not been an option for K-pop groups since the implementation of the country’s tacit ban on Korean pop culture in 2018, but Japan has the second largest music market in the world, making Korea’s neighbor a frequent first stop for K-pop artists looking to expand internationally. Because of this, it is not uncommon for K-pop groups to have Japanese members, and to release songs or albums entirely in Japanese—something we hear less about in this “Why are K-pop artists not singing in Korean?” discussion.

While a stable expansion into America has only been a more recent reality for K-pop, earlier K-pop generations have made valiant runs at sustained U.S. market interest, to partial success. In 2009, SM Entertainment artist BoA’s self-titled English-language album became the first album by a K-pop star to appear on the Billboard 200. Later that same year, JYP artist 원더걸스 (Wonder Girls) became the first K-pop group to land in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, with an English version of their 2008 retro dance-pop hit “Nobody” (which later got Japanese and Chinese versions too). Of course, Psy rightly took the world by storm in 2012 with viral phenomenon “Gangnam Style,” which includes an occasional Konglish or English phrase, but is largely—and unabashedly—performed in Korean.

However, it wasn’t until 방탄소년단/Bangtan Sonyeondan (or, as they are more commonly referred to in English, BTS) grew its fandom, known as ARMY, in the U.S., that the “mainstream” finally took real interest. In 2017, when BTS beat out artists like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes to win the Billboard Music Awards’ fan-selected “Top Social Artist,” they did it all while singing and rapping (mostly) in their native Korean and getting virtually zero radio play. However, it would take “Dynamite,” a fully English single, for U.S. radio to actually play their music.

What K-Pop Artists Potentially Gain When They Sing in English

It’s relatively easy to guess what K-pop artists stand to gain when they sing in English. In a world that has been shaped by succeeding waves of British and American imperialism, English is the most spoken language in the world, with more than 1.4 billion people speaking it natively or (more commonly) as a second language. When a song is sung in English, many people in the world have the fluency to understand it. In a 2021 article on this subject, Swiss K-pop fan Melanie Poy told Korea JoongAng Daily: “I listen to K-pop because I like the Korean language and culture as a whole, not just for the music. Perhaps English-lyric songs can help K-pop artists reach a wider audience, and I do enjoy those songs too.”

English is also the most-spoken and de facto national language in the United States, a country that is not only the biggest music market in the world, but also has a dominant system of cultural exportation steadily developed and solidified over the last century. “People are thinking [about K-pop], ‘Oh, it’s global,’” says Parham. “Yes. But it’s also: We don’t necessarily have to do the global work because everyone’s going to be looking at America. So, if I make it big there, I make it big anywhere.” It’s why getting a BTS song in a Marvel movie or having Fifty Fifty feature on the Barbie soundtrack might matter. Those songs are not only going to be played in America, where the movies were produced (if not shot), but in cinemas and homes around the world, as media conglomerates like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery use their industry dominance to distribute the films globally and broadly.

But to make it big in America—at least in some sense of the phrase—you need to make it onto the radio and, before BTS started releasing their fully English songs, radio stations would not play their music. While the “Top 40” is less relevant in the streaming era of music, it does grant musical artists access to a broader swathe of the American listening public, and it is taken into account when calculating certain music industry metrics, most notably the Billboard Hot 100. As noted by journalists like Lenika Cruz at The Atlantic, Aja Romano at Vox and Chris Molanphy at Slate, not only did BTS’ proven success with “Dynamite” not lead to American radio taking more chances on non-BTS K-pop, it didn’t lead to American radio taking more chances on non-English BTS. When the group released the primarily Korean-language “Life Goes On” three months after “Dynamite,” it was hardly played on the radio. According to Molanphy, while “Dynamite” reached an opening airplay audience of 11.6 million, “Life Goes On” only reached 410,000. (BTS member SUGA, who contributed to the writing of the track, would release his own version of the song on 2023 solo album D-Day.)

“There was no alternative,” said BTS leader RM, who is fluent in English, in a 2021 interview with Billboard about the group’s decision to release English-language singles “Dynamite,” “Butter” and “Permission to Dance” during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the article, while BTS came to a consensus, not all members agreed it was “a good idea.”

How K-Pop is Shifting Global Pop Culture Norms

All languages carry with them deep cultural meaning. The Korean language is one of the oldest living languages. Its written alphabet was developed by King Sejong in the 15th century to be logical and easy to learn, in the hopes that literacy rates would be high across social classes. When Korea was occupied by Japan in the early 20th century, the Korean language and culture were brutally suppressed, with many Koreans forced to learn and speak Japanese. Because of this, Japanese media was banned in Korea for 53 years. The ban was only lifted in 1998 (notably after Seo Taiji and Boys sang “I Know”). When BTS and other internationally popular K-pop groups like Monsta X, Blackpink, Stray Kids, TWICE and Seventeen sing, rap and speak in Korean to their millions of fans around the world, they are using a language that was under threat within living memory.

They are also embodying an alternative to the Eurocentric, English-language hegemony that has dominated the pop culture scene for a very long time. “English is often centered as this power language globally,” says Melody Lynch-Kimery, an American doctoral student at Indiana University, researching how K-pop fans use language in online and physical spaces. “It’s seen as the standard and the norm and what we should aspire to.” Lynch-Kimery became interested in studying K-pop because of the way it challenges this American-centric assumption. “There are all of these fans who are defying this norm of the Western world being the standard for pop success. There are all of these fans who are not speakers of Korean or who are maybe just learning Korean who are learning these lyrics and they’re making these signs with [the Korean alphabet] Hangul, and they’re learning the language through music.”

That’s powerful. It’s also, perhaps, why some K-pop fans have strong reactions to a linguistic shift in their favorite artists’ music. “I think [this discussion] does, oftentimes, come down to how we define K-pop, and which country is defining K-pop,” says Lynch-Kimery. “Because [fans] have a sense of ownership, globally. And even though, of course [K-pop] is rooted and emanates from South Korea, there’s this interesting ownership by fans globally, where they feel like, ‘This isn’t right,’ ‘This feels weird,’ ‘Why is this happening?,’ ‘Why are there so many more English lyrics?’”

K-pop fans are not a monolith and many either do not mind or even appreciate a shift to more English-language lyrics. Suok Kwon, a Korean PhD student at Indiana University, studies the fluidity of languages and culture, including in K-pop fan spaces. Many of the U.S.-based fans Kwon has interviewed feel positively about the rise in English-language K-pop songs. “I didn’t really find them pointing [the shift] out,” says Kwon of her interviewees. “They were just appreciating that they could have more original songs in their own language.” On the other hand, Kwon has observed that some Korean fans can struggle with the shift. “The observation I made from the Korean-speaking fans is that they think Korean is a huge part of K-pop, that even calling BTS by this international title—‘BTS’ as compared to ‘Bangtan Sonyeondan’—gives a different impression of what they are doing, of their identity,” she continues. “They feel like ‘Bangtan Sonyeondan’ is more like a Korean pop band, but ‘BTS’ is more like a K-pop band.”

Lynch-Kimery notes that, while it has become more normal for K-pop groups to release fully English songs or albums, there has been a commitment by artists to speaking Korean during live video chats with fans, such as on popular platform Weverse. In these livestreams, it is not uncommon for “Please speak in English” to come up as a comment in the chat. “In the last two years, I’ve started to notice more pushback by the artists where they’re like, ‘No, I’m speaking Korean,’” says Kimery-Lynch. “I know SUGA has a great example, but it’s not just BTS. I think something that’s so misunderstood about K-pop artists [in the West] is that they are multinational groups where you do have members for whom their first language is English. And even those artists are saying, ‘No, I’m gonna speak in Korean in my live, this is a Korean industry.’”

While K-pop artists may be releasing more music in English, they are more often speaking in their native Korean during promotion. “We’re seeing Korean norm-ed in certain music industry spaces where it wasn’t before,” says Lynch-Kimery, who is working on a paper about the evolution of the BTS interview process on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “In the beginning, [the way Fallon interviewed BTS] was kind of pandering. It was very much like, ‘Alright, we can only say these English phrases, this is what we’re doing,’ and it didn’t give the artists a chance to really express themselves.” By the time BTS released their solo albums in 2023, things had changed. “It’s become normal to let [the artists] talk in their first language and express what they want to express about the process behind the songwriting,” says Lynch-Kimery. “And it wasn’t mentioned, like, ‘Oh, this is strange, like we’re having the artists speak in their first language.’ It was just like, ‘Here are the subtitles, here’s the translation.’ Things we’re used to as a global fandom.”

Localization, the process of adapting a piece of content for a specific market, is a part of most media that crosses cultural borders. It’s what’s happening when a TV show is subtitled or dubbed from its original language to a new one, allowing a broader audience to access the story. Some cultural context and specificity is usually lost in the process. However, we can often find connections between the two cultural contexts, and there is great value in that process—it’s related to what Seo Taiji did when he found something brilliant in the combination of American hip-hop and his own Korean culture and language.

“I think there’s this constant expectation that English is gonna get you that money,” says Lynch-Kimery. “But K-pop, in many ways, has shifted that perspective in the U.S. Even though we still have this radio barrier, and we still have a lot of ignorance and a lot of misunderstandings about what K-pop is, or what the U.S. is defining as K-pop, there’s still a recognition that there is a lot of money in the Korean language.”

Kayti Burt is a working class journalist based in New England with more than a decade of experience covering the world’s most popular stories and songs for outlets including Paste, Rolling Stone, Vulture, TIME, the LA Times, Den of Geek and Polygon. She is particularly interested in how fandom shapes modern life, and is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Freelance Solidarity Project.

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