The K-Pop Chronicles: From Middle School to Mainstream

Since I was a kid, I was always classified as the weird one. I wasn’t your “stereotypical” black girl. I was extremely reserved unless I was around friends. My interests gravitated towards the unconventional: anime and rock music became my sanctuary. Being a part of the minority in my school (I was one out of very few black students in my entire grade), I was an outlier. Everything I liked in one way or another was considered weird. This was especially evident in middle school. People would make fun of me for wearing anime shirts and dressing emo. But I never took it personally because what do they know? To add to my unconventional interests, I discovered something I had forgotten about. K-pop. K-Pop just stands for Korean pop. Everyone knows what it is now but back in 7th grade, it was “unknown”.

The genre has been around since the 1980s. It wasn’t until the second generation (2005-2011), that it went international. Years later, BTS would become a global sensation and they would put K-pop on the map. I, however, found K-pop when it was still lowkey in America. The year was 2014, I had just started 7th grade. YouTube suggested a music video for me to watch, it was Oh! by Girls Generation. I clicked on it because it looked familiar. And to my surprise, I already knew the song. I first heard Oh! in 4th grade when we had a cultural day. Everyone made a basic slideshow presenting their culture to the class. One girl was Korean, and she mentioned K-pop and how huge it is in Asian countries. She listed out some songs that were popular at that time. Such as Gangnam Style by Psy (This song was everywhere), Oh! by Girls Generation, and Superman by Super Junior. 

After class, I went home and started watching music videos on the family iPad. I would watch these videos in secret, hoping to keep this to myself. I stumbled on a video that catapulted my interest in K-pop, Gee by Girls Generation. The music video starts with mannequins posing in a storefront. A guy (Minho from Shinee) organizes the mannequins and fixes their outfits. It’s 9 girls wearing bright-colored skinny jeans and t-shirts. The bird clock coos and he leaves the store. The video’s narrative unfolds as one among them, embodied by Tiffany, breaks the silence with: “Uh oh. Listen boy, my first love story/My angel, and my girls, my sunshine. Uh uh let’s go!”. The rest of the mannequins come alive and they sing and dance about falling in love for the first time. I found myself captivated by the electro-pop beats and the adorable choreography. It was like I discovered a whole different world of music. One distinct from the mainstream of American artists at that time.​​ K-pop is filled with strong visuals, high-production videos, and synchronized choreography. K-pop stars (also called idols) train for years just to be put into a group. They must be well-versed in multiple aspects such as singing, dancing, different languages, and visuals. Some American artists are not required to be good at most of these things. 

I’m not sure how I forgot about it. Like everything in middle school, things started going downhill. The aftermath of my parent’s divorce combined with puberty led to a downward spiral. I started hating everything from my home environment to myself. Middle school was an awkward period of trying to figure myself out. While also attempting to assimilate with my classmates. Despite all of that, K-pop was one of the good things I had during this difficult time. I hyper-fixated on it like crazy, looking for any group I could find. I would watch interviews even when there weren’t any English subtitles. I resorted to reading their body language, granted that was not my favorite approach. All I wanted was to understand K-pop. There’s a whole culture to how people become idols and how they’re supposed to behave. These are things you wouldn’t understand unless you’ve investigated it.

K-Pop was treated the same way anime was back in the early 2000s. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you don’t have a clue. The most that people knew about these two things was that they’re both Asian. When I would mention K-pop to my classmates, they would be so confused. Like what’s so special about it? Why are there so many members in a group? After being met with slight distaste, mostly from the fact that they didn’t understand. I stopped mentioning it unless someone else did. To me, that meant they already knew the deal. And I wouldn’t have to give a painstaking explanation about what it is. It was embarrassing having to explain what this thing is and why I like it. It didn’t help that middle school was filled with people who made fun of everything they deemed weird. I got discouraged and didn’t bring it up for a while.

That was until my best friend, Nina, asked me about GOT7. GOT7 is my favorite boy group of all time that came out of K-Pop. Nina would always playfully make fun of me for the things I liked; so many jokes that I was forced to hear daily, until it all came to a halt. One day, she saw my Chromebook background, which was the cover for GOT7’s Identity album. She was curious about one of the members (Jackson) she thought was cute. The amount of shock and confusion I had when she told me this was astronomical. This girl used to laugh at me for this and now she wants in? Hell yeah. I gave her the basic rundown that they debuted under JYP, one of the top music companies in Korea. There are 7 of them, and 3 of them are foreigners, and they make a mix of pop, hip-hop, and R&B. I invited her over to my house and we watched their music videos together. I could see the gears turning in her head and she finally understood why I liked them so much. Following this, I started bringing it up in conversations again and I found more people who also loved it. It was like a secret club that only a selected few participated in. Once I found my little community of fellow K-pop lovers, I realized we were all going through the same thing. Any shame I had left because I knew I wasn’t alone in this experience. 

Now it’s been a decade since I rediscovered K-pop and so many things have changed. K-pop songs have reached the Billboard charts. BTS, which used to be a small group from Big Hit Entertainment, is now a global sensation that helped increase South Korea’s economy. In 2021, it’s been estimated that BTS will add $5 billion to the economy each year. Their songs continue to be in the top #10 even though some of them are currently in the military. As well as anime rising in popularity as streaming has had a huge increase since the lockdown. Over 69% of Gen Z watch anime. They’re both well-known now. It’s weird seeing how both of these things evolved from being niche and nerdy to popular. All things considered, I’m glad I didn’t let my embarrassment stop my love for these things. I wouldn’t be who I am without them. Also, I get the privilege to say, I was here before y’all; I was here first before anyone else! Just kidding. As much as I wish I could have kept it to myself. I’m pleased that others get to enjoy K-pop in a way that I couldn’t when I first got into it. 

Sidenote: Anyone who watches anime or listens to K-pop now and used to make fun of others in the past for doing so. You deserve a major side eye, we don’t forget…