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How K-pop took over the world — as told by one fan who rode the wave

In a new podcast, Vivian Yoon dissects her personal stake in K-pop, and how her obscure childhood passion has evolved into a billion-dollar industry.

Who is she? Yoon is a writer, performer and podcast host from Los Angeles.

  • Yoon helms K-Pop Dreaming, a podcast where she analyzes the music's rise to the international stage while also weaving in elements from her own life, starting with growing up alongside the genre in L.A.'s Koreatown in the 1990s.
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    What's the big deal? If you haven't been swept up in the global sensation of K-pop, it's only a matter of time.

  • While the genre has been around for decades, the current and most popular iteration of the music is in its fourth generation — and is loved by millions across the globe.
  • Yoon says broadening that appeal has been a very deliberate move.
  • "You're seeing this really clear intention on the part of these management and entertainment labels, and companies, to create international-facing groups," she told All Things Considered's Ailsa Chang. "So you will have groups with members who are not Korean, and that is totally on purpose."
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    Want more on pop culture? Listen to Consider This explore if we are currently witnessing the death of movie stars.

    The unlikely beginnings in the U.S. If you're still certain that you've never come across K-pop before, Yoon thinks there might be a chart-topping earworm from 2012 that you are familiar with:

    Here's what Yoon told NPR about the Gangnam Style phenom:

    Honestly, it was so confusing. It was such a weird time because up until that point, I had never heard non-Koreans really talk about K-pop or just even be aware that the music existed.

    And all of a sudden, you have people like, "Oppa" and "Gangnam." Those are very Korean words. And to see all these average American people suddenly singing it and doing the dance, it was very, very surprising and shocking and confusing.

    It was really complicated, but that song was really, really surprising, too, because it was so culturally specific.

    It's all satire and parody about this neighborhood in Seoul called Gangnam. And he's really parodying the lifestyles of the obscenely wealthy people who live there. So it was also really surprising just because of how specific the song's content was.

    And here is Yoon breaking down the history and rhythm that makes K-pop distinctly Korean, like a two-beat rhythm called bong-chak:

    So the thing that a lot of K-pop producers say that sets Korean pop music apart is bong-chak or bong or the bong factor, bong feel. That element really comes from this century-old genre of Korean music called trot.

    One person describes bong as coming from the Korean blues. And it's rooted in a century of hardship and suffering that the Korean people endured throughout history. So, you had the Japanese occupation. Then you had the Korean War. And then you had military dictators coming in in the '80s. And so Korea has had this really tumultuous and sort of tragic history.

    And that's really where this element comes from, bong or bong-chak, that gives K-pop its distinct flavor.

    So, where does an uninitiated K-pop stan start? Yoon says chilling out with the catchy global sensation, NewJeans, is a good starting point.

    What now?

  • Yoon says exploring this side of herself and her culture has been nothing short of transformative.
  • "Knowing your history can lead to a certain kind of acceptance. And for me, I didn't realize I was missing that in my own life. I didn't realize how much of those identity issues I struggled with growing up were still impacting me, until I started diving into the subject of this podcast and really talking with these different people and exploring these histories."
  • K-pop Dreaming is out now.
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