Listening to K-pop offers a unique sort of joy compared to listening to other types of music. In some ways, being a K-pop fan might be more akin to being a sports fan. And because of the ways K-pop groups are typically promoted, with a heavy video and social media presence, it is often easier to forge an intimate connection with them since you are literally seeing them on a semi-regular basis. Plus, the music itself is just really infectious and diverse. It all adds up to a special communal experience that you won’t get anywhere else, at least not yet.
K-Pop as a Sports Experience
If you take a step back and try to create a mental image of what pop music currently looks like in the United States, you might find that… you can’t. The volume of music being created in America at any given time is simply so huge, with so much overlap among genres (pop, hip hop, rock, country, etc.), that it would be extremely difficult to map in a coherent and satisfying way. And to be clear, that isn’t a bad thing. Being spoiled for choice with music is a pleasant problem to have, aside from the fact that it can be potentially difficult to discover all the different sorts of music that are deserving of your time.
However, with South Korea being a country smaller in physical area than Pennsylvania, and with closer to a fifth of its more than 50 million citizens living in the capital of Seoul, its music scene is much more concentrated. Of course, there are still many genres, from trot to rock to a substantial underground indie scene, but if we focus strictly on mainstream pop music — it actually is possible to paint a broad picture of what it looks like. There are the big four music companies — SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and HYBE Corporation — with their own respective arsenals of respected artists. Then there are the mid-sized companies, like Cube Entertainment and Starship Entertainment (albeit backed by a corporate giant like Kakao). And then there are the many small labels with groups scrapping passionately for attention.
Most K-pop fans are not tuned into every K-pop group. In fact, a 2023 survey of 900 domestic Korean fans and 180 international fans found that 60% of Korean fans are “single-group stans” (“stan” being another word for “fan”), though 75.5% of international fans are “multi-stans.” However, most K-pop fans seem to at least have a vague awareness of other mainstream K-pop groups, even if they are not fans of those groups themselves. That brings us back to the notion that listening to K-pop music is akin to the experience of being a sports fan. If you’re a fan of the New York Yankees or the Pittsburgh Steelers, you probably don’t care as much about the Atlanta Braves or the Denver Broncos — but you’re aware of them, at least as far as how they relate to your chosen team.
The competitive aspect of K-pop groups and fandoms is particularly played up in Korean media by the abundance of “music shows” that declare K-pop winners of the week for given songs, like Inkigayo and The Show. If you’re a fan of a group from a smaller company like StayC or Dreamcatcher, you might be extra passionate about communing with other fans within the fandom to try to get the group a music show win. Or if you’re a fan of casually ultra-popular groups like NewJeans or Twice, you can just sit back and watch the music show wins roll in. Or if you’re a fan of groups across the spectrum, you can just kind of root for everyone and celebrate everyone’s individual wins, figurative or literal.
Regardless of who ultimately wins or loses, or whose album sales are huge or more moderate, there is fun in observing and discussing the outcomes. There is a thrill in watching small groups grow in notoriety, like H1-KEY and Fifty Fifty did recently, or to watch huge groups somehow get even huger, like NewJeans has done without pause since debut. Although, admittedly, there is also sadness and frustration in watching a small group never quite make it, as happened to, for example, Majors. But aside from the agony and the ecstasy that comes with supporting “nugus,” there is a striking joy in rooting for one or more K-pop groups, especially in tandem with other fans.
The Intimacy and Reciprocity of K-Pop Fandom
Another thing that differentiates the unique joy of listening to K-pop is just how much intimacy is created in watching idols in videos or in social media on a semi-regular basis. Most groups that belong to a mid-sized company or larger will be releasing new content to YouTube on probably at least a weekly basis, and that is in addition to a potentially regular stream of TikTok videos and Instagram photos (and maybe even more content on Korean platforms, like Weverse). In many cases, you won’t have a chance to miss your favorite K-pop group, because there is always another video on the way (well, unless they disband out of nowhere, like GFriend did).
For example, KOZ Entertainment’s Boynextdoor debuted back in May 2023, and of course, they have the financial backing of HYBE. As a result, in a short period of time, the Boynextdoor YouTube and social media accounts have already released a tremendous amount of content, almost too much to keep track of. Again, it’s a wonderful problem to have! Each new piece of content is a chance to learn about the unique personalities of each member, as well as their individual aspirations as idols and artists. Often, you can genuinely feel how much that idols want to please their fans, which in turn inspires fans to be that much more vocal in their support of those idols, to let them know that they are doing well. In the best cases, it’s a beautiful, positive feedback loop. Idols give their fans energy, and the fans give the idols energy back.
Listening to K-Pop Is Also Just a Joy unto Itself (Obviously)
It would be pretty silly to talk about the unique joy of listening to K-pop and not talk about the music itself. As is the case in American pop music, it is impossible to describe K-pop as sounding one certain way — because there is a huge diversity of sounds. A typical Blackpink song sounds nothing like a typical CSR song, for example. And again, that’s a good thing. But in this case, one might argue that K-pop actually even goes a bit further with its diversity. K-pop is fearless about pulling from styles of music from any decade — there is so much disco in K-pop, after all — and it is also actively involving more international music writers in creating music. For example, smash hit Red Velvet song “Bad Boy” was largely written by The Stereotypes.
In these ways, K-pop music truly feels like a great melting pot of music across history and nations, the ultimate celebration and synthesis of pop music. There is something for everyone because it is a reflection of everything that has come before. It’s really wonderful.
And on top of that, there are of course the music videos themselves, which are often famously elaborate affairs. A song like KARA’s “Step” is fantastic in the first place, but when you pair it with the lavish “Step” music video, the experience is elevated to a whole other level. What was an audio feast becomes an audiovisual feast. Both work clearly in K-pop’s favor.
So, in these ways, there truly is nothing else quite like the pleasure of listening to K-pop music. However, one wonders if pockets of pop culture throughout the rest of the world are taking note of the incredible things being achieved in K-pop and if they are considering how to incorporate some of the things K-pop is doing so well. Perhaps more music and art will try to create more intense relationships with fans the way K-pop does. Then again, one could argue this phenomenon has already been well underway for years, but probably more in the indie space. Could it go more mainstream?
Regardless, K-pop is something special, and if you happened to actually read all of this, you probably agree. Let us hear your thoughts on this subject if you have any to share.