Illustration by team illustrator Sakura Siegel.
When Mariam first discovered K-pop, she was about 12 years old. She said she was “immediately hooked” by the genre’s intricate choreography, mesmerizing music videos and visually stunning performances, which offered a complete audiovisual experience – something she had never seen before.
Roughly seven years later, the genre has continuously gained traction since then. On Sunday’s annual “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve,” NewJeans made history, becoming the first K-pop girl group to be featured at the New York City special where they performed their mega hit songs “Super Shy” and “ETA.”
And as the genre continues to evolve, Mariam noted that there’s another rising star in the K-pop industry–Jay Chang, who’s just from across the Hudson River, which divides New Jersey and New York.
“The K-pop industry is slowly starting to open up to diversity through artists such as Jay Chang, proving that talent is not limited to any specific cultural background. It’s inspiring to see how Jay is breaking down barriers and transcending cultural divides…,” Mariam, a Moroccan-born, Italian resident, told Slice of Culture.
“As the K-pop industry becomes more diverse and inclusive, I believe that we’ll continue to see more talented artists like Jay Chang emerge and flourish.”
The Genre’s Evolution
Korean pop, or K-pop, emerged in the 1950s, started by The Kim Sisters–Kim Suk-ja, Kim Ae-ja and Kim Min-ja–who were a trio that spoke no English, but became famous in the U.S. with their captivating renditions of American pop songs. They were the first Korean singers to land in the U.S. Billboard’s singles chart, at No. 7.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s that K-pop matured into the audiovisual experience it is today, with Seo Taiji and Boys being dubbed as the pioneers of modern-day K-pop groups.
Now, global sensations BTS, EXO and BLACKPINK have taken millions by storm, only empowering the genre even more. In a 2022 global survey, nearly 50% of respondents from 26 countries stated that K-pop was “very popular” in their respective country.
If you’ve never heard a song, think “electronic and hip-hop to R&B and rock – into a single, power-packed soundscape,” Mariam described.
“This fusion of genres gives K-pop songs their unique edge, and it’s one of the reasons why I believe this music style is becoming increasingly popular around the globe,” she added.
Now, at 19 years old, Mariam said that K-pop has become more than a musical interest – something arguably relatable for many of the genre’s fans.
“It’s an immersive experience into a completely new cultural landscape,” she said.
“I appreciate how its often-positive and uplifting lyrics have empowered me with a motivating message, and how it’s allowed me to connect with fans from around the world through online fandom spaces and concerts. K-pop has given me a sense of belonging and truly unique memories that I will always cherish.”
For others, however, they haven’t had as pleasant experiences with K-pop fandoms.
In a study done by Cloud Cover Media, a Pandora media company, they looked at the top 100 artists from Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 charts for 2018 and visited four videos of each artist where they sampled 10,000 comments to determine the level of “toxicity” through 89 terms.
“K-Pop fans will viciously defend their chosen band and often spew hateful commentary toward other bands and their fandom. Blinks, fans of BLACKPINK, are commonly referred to as some of the most toxic fans in music, for example.” the study wrote.
Mariam said she can understand why some people might label the genre’s fans as “toxic,” but added that it’s not the full picture.
“[It’s] important to note that like any other communities, there are always a few bad apples,” she explained. “Overall, I think K-pop fans are some of the most supportive and passionate people out there who simply enthusiastically support their favorite acts and have genuine connections with fellow fans.”
The Future of K-Pop
And Chang’s appreciation for his fanbase is one of the things that reeled Mariam in.
Chang was born and raised in New Jersey, but is currently based in South Korea. He debuted as a solo artist in November 2020 with his song “Is You.” But he didn’t gain fame until after competing in “Boys Planet,” which is a South Korean reality competition show where 98 contestants sing and rap for a chance to make their boy group debut.
Half of the participants are from South Korea and the others are from different countries. Chang is from the Garden State and is a mixed ethnicity of Irish-Hungarian and Filipino-Chinese.
In October, he released a solo mini-album called “Late Night.” In an interview, he explained that one of the tracks, “Sunlight,” held a special meaning to him.
“The reason why it means so much to me is because even though the song is very bright and happy, it was when I was living in Korea by myself for the first time, and I was feeling very homesick and missing all my friends and family,” he told FOX.
Though Chang ranked 10th on “Boys Planet,” falling short of debuting in a nine-member boy group, he found himself with a different opportunity, becoming the fifth member in ONE PACT, a five-member K-pop group.
They made their official debut on Nov. 30 with their first mini album “Moment.”
“The future of K-pop is exciting because the genre is not afraid to take risks and experiment with new sounds and styles. Recently, we’ve seen different genres being integrated into K-pop music, taking it to a new level,” Mariam said.
“As the industry continues to evolve and become more diverse, we’ll see even more creative and innovative music that pushes the boundaries of what K-pop can be.”