Without a doubt, K–Pop is more omnipresent in pop culture than ever before. Peruse on Twitter and you will find millions of K–Pop fancams of all kinds. K–Pop fans may have even played a part in inflating attendance numbers for a rally for then–President Trump, leading to a mostly empty stadium. Considering all this and more, it’s safe to say that K–Pop has firmly entered the American public consciousness.
In part, groups like BTS and BLACKPINK have pioneered this recent wave of hype for the genre due to their chart successes in the West. K–Pop has always had goals of catering to an international audience, thanks in part to the Hallyu wave of exported South Korean entertainment and the advocacy of the South Korean government. However, only recently has the genre made waves in the West, appearing on the US Billboard charts with increasing frequency.
BTS and BLACKPINK are frequently mentioned in the West, but K–Pop as a genre is evolving, ushering in a new wave of groups and rookies dubbed the “fourth generation.” Thanks to increasing social media presence and a number of survival reality shows conceived to form groups, fourth–gen K–Pop acts are using the internet to their advantage, allowing for real–time feedback from fans and a built–in promotional machine.
In the early 2010s, social media platforms weren’t as big as they are now, meaning that K–Pop companies relied heavily on physical forms of promotion: performances, videos, and merchandise. The success of a K–Pop group depended on the appeal of a group’s individual members, colloquially known as “idols,” and how marketable the companies deemed them to be. These factors meant that management companies and the TV programs—like Inkigayo and M Countdown—were largely responsible for making or breaking a group’s career trajectory.
These limitations also meant that early K–Pop groups found most of their success exclusively in the Asian market. The first K–Pop song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 was “Nobody,” by second–generation K–Pop group Wonder Girls. This rare occurrence only came about in 2009, decades after the beginning of modern K–Pop in the 1990s. The song only saw Western success as a result of an American remix, an English version of the song, and the Wonder Girls opening for a Jonas Brothers tour. In other words, heavy promotion was necessary, and even then, “Nobody” only charted for one week at #76.
While companies and TV programs continue to influence fourth–generation K–Pop, there's another factor that plays into the success of newer groups: social media. In a blog post from Twitter in collaboration with K–Pop Radar, the platform published data comparing performances and social media activity between each generation of K–Pop, finding that fourth–gen groups “tweeted 5.8 times more than second generation stars, and 2 times more than third generation stars.” In addition, up–and–coming groups would use Twitter an average of four months before they even debuted. This early hype, combined with fan interactions and standard K–Pop promotional content, paved the way for fourth–gen groups to potentially have a faster, larger, and more impactful debut than their previous counterparts.
Fourth–gen K–Pop groups also found a home on TikTok, thanks to numerous K–Pop dance challenges. The number of K–Pop videos on TikTok reached 97.87 million in 2021, nearly triple from the 33.5 million videos made in 2019. When a song can become successful thanks to TikTok hype—like Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” or GAYLE’s “abcdefu”—fourth–gen K–Pop utilizes TikTok to connect with fans on a global scale.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that these new groups are also speedier with their Western debuts. The same data found that, on average, fourth–gen groups would make their Western–oriented album nine months quicker and would have their first overseas concerts 13 months earlier than third–gen groups. This trend would explain why aespa made an appearance in the 2021 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, becoming the first K–Pop girl group to do so, or why ITZY held their first US show less than a year after their debut. Social media is allowing groups to expand to the West earlier, faster, and at a wider scale than ever before.
Likewise, these groups have rapidly embraced newer styles of music, incorporating elements like disco, rap, hip–hop, and even hyperpop into their repertoire. Fourth–gen groups like ITZY, aespa, (G)I–DLE, Stray Kids, IVE, and Ateez now frequently appear on the radar alongside the aforementioned K–Pop giants due to strong promotion. K–Pop has always drawn from English–speaking markets, and it’s common to hear English littered between Korean lyrics in tracks. What’s different about fourth–gen groups is that they're more flexible and more willing to incorporate Western influences.
A prime example would be the girl group (G)I-DLE, whose comebacks range from the trap–inspired debut “LATATA” to the Salsa—influenced “Senorita,” to the synth–pop of “HWAA.” All of these sounds dominated American airwaves over the last few years, making them the perfect candidates for a Western crossover. Sure enough, a few of their comebacks made a splash in the States and appeared at the upper echelons of the Billboard World Digital Song Sales chart.
Girl group aespa debuted in 2020, and saw a major breakthrough in the US, thanks to the hip–hop–indebted “Next Level” and the EP Savage. The EP included the hyperpop song of the same name, attracting praise from Western critics, with some even comparing the song as “reminiscent of late PC music artist SOPHIE.” aespa’s willingness to incorporate genres like hyperpop and R&B suggest a potential long–term appeal towards the West. Not only is Savage the highest–selling debut in South Korea; the EP is the highest–charting debut for a K–Pop girl group in the United States.
That’s not to say older groups aren’t thriving. In fact, the Twitter/K–Pop Radar post attributes BTS, a third–gen group, as being a major part of this increased Westernization. The boy band is known for collaborating with Western artists like Steve Aoki, Halsey, and Coldplay. Brave Girls, a second–gen group, was able to use the power of the Korean military members and internet virality to propel a 2017 song (“Rollin’”) to the top of the charts and save the group from disbandment. Other third–gen groups like TWICE and Red Velvet have also adpoted the ‘80s disco sound for their projects like “The Feels” or “Queendom.”
But fourth–gen groups are at an advantage: They had the internet in their arsenal at the start of their careers. Older groups had to evolve during the rise of the internet, which phased out many of the second–gen groups (2NE1, BIGBANG, Wonder Girls) and third–gen groups (GFRIEND, AOA, EXID). When a fourth–gen group is able to utilize the internet and acclimate to a changing music environment, they have a better chance at making it big.