• BTS, the first K-pop band to win big at the Billboard Music Awards, appears for one night only in Sydney on Friday. PIC: Supplied

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When the boy band GOT7 held a fan meeting in Australia late last month, Twitter lit up with a series of hashtags that revealed a growing Australian appetite for catchy K-pop – the music genre originating in South Korea that is a heady mix of catchy tunes, synchronised dancing and eye-catching fashion.

#GOT7inMelbourne, #GOT7inAustralia and #GOT7 were soon trending in anticipation of news of the multi-talented Korean idols.

And that buzz is set to intensify with Friday night’s one-off appearance in Sydney of fellow K-pop stars BTS and planned visits to Australia in coming months by G-Dragon and Jay Park.

Jeff Benjamin, Billboard.com’s K-pop columnist, told The Citizen that the “music itself is a true, full package of pop.”

“I think listeners find it so appealing because it isn’t just the music they become interested in; they become interested in the whole K-pop culture.”

Australians were first introduced to K-pop in 2012, when Korean artist Psy released the hit song Gangnam Style, which has drawn around 2 billion views on YouTube and was instrumental in spreading the Korean sound to a new audience.

Benjamin, who writes Billboard’s online column K-Town, senses that “K-pop has a strong and passionate underground following in Australia and the Korean promoters are starting to notice the continent a lot more.”

“I feel like we're seeing more tours include Australia in their tour dates and bigger acts are visiting,” he adds. “I think that’s a great move on K-pop’s part  since I would say the global music industry sees Australia (and New Zealand) as being early adopters of a lot of new pop music.”

One of the biggest acts to catch the eye of locals is Friday’s appearance in Sydney of Korea’s most popular seven-member boy band, BTS – Bangtan Sonyeondan, or “Bulletproof Boy Scouts”.

In response to Australian demand, concert organiser IME AU decided to divert the band for one night only on their 2017 BTS Live Trilogy Episode III: The Wings Tour. Tickets to the Sydney gig sold out almost immediately they went online.

In fact, Sydney will be the group’s first stop after making history by becoming the first K-pop band to win Top Social Artist at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards, after receiving more than 300 million votes from fans to beat Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes.

Some Aussie fans appear so infatuated with the Korean brand of pop that they have created Facebook pages dedicated solely to their favourite K-pop groups. Thirty-three-year old financial consultant Anne Lu is one of the administrators of AusArmyProject, a community of BTS fans in Australia and New Zealand, ranging in age from 13 to 40.

Ms Lu believes that the band’s popularity in Australia, and the reason they stand apart from other K-pop groups, is because their music addresses relatable topics and sensitive issues such as bullying, mental health, politics and adolescence, while incorporating some of the style elements of mainstream US artists, something uncommon for most K-pop idols.

“When they first came to Australia in 2015, their concert was filled with 2000 fans . . . It was the first K-pop concert to sell out in Australia,” Ms Lu adds.

Being an avid fan of the global music phenomenon for more than 15 years, and considered a part of the ARMY, the group’s official fan club name, Ms Lu says that the first K-pop concert in Australia – held in Sydney in 2011 and featuring some of the hottest K-pop groups of the time – pre-dated the K-pop craze.

Two years ago, promoters tested the market again and brought BTS and the better-known Big Bang, which played to sell-out concerts.  

“After that, we’ve seen a steady stream of K-pop bands coming,” says Ms Lu. “And it [has] really surprised a lot of promoters, so they have started bringing more bands down [from Korea].”

Increasingly, Aussie fans are taking their love of K-pop to a new level by uploading dance covers to YouTube of their favourite bands, such as the Melbourne-based dance group AO Crew, and by entering K-pop music “boot camps” where they can test their talents.

Unlike Western artists, South Korean K-pop wannabes go through a rigorous and “robotic” system of training at entertainment agencies where they join classes and spend long hours learning dance routines, music and language in a highly organised and frenetic environment, before they officially debut.

Some trainees at Korea’s top agencies spend years working to become idols. But most either drop out or simply fail to make the grade in an extremely competitive industry.

Aussie fans wanting a taste of K-pop training are turning to The Academy, a Sydney-based agency that runs experiential K-pop boot camps, choreography and other tailored programs and reality TV-style workshops.  Those attending also get the chance to work with professional trainers and consultants from top entertainment agencies across Asia.

“We picked K-pop because there is a demand for it on two fronts – from agencies searching for new talent, and young talent searching for a breakthrough in the entertainment industry besides Hollywood,” says Angela Lee, the director of The Academy.

“With the boot camp, it also provides talent scouts a better opportunity to observe the boot camp trainees over a few days so that they can have a better understanding of the trainee’s talent, personality and culture, [and] fit for Korea.”

Ms Lee says that one of the main reasons why fans want to experience the rigorous training is curiosity. Although it’s not widely publicised, or even documented, a lot of applicants want to challenge themselves and see whether they have what it takes to make it to the top.

“We picked K-pop because there is a demand for it on two fronts – from agencies searching for new talent, and young talent searching for a breakthrough in the entertainment industry besides Hollywood.”Angela Lee, director, The Academy

Much like Korea’s idol trainees, applicants are young teenagers and come with multicultural backgrounds – seven out of 10 are Asian Australians. But interest is starting to grow among other young Australians, too.

“We have seen an increase in interest from an international audience and an increase in the number of auditions by younger talents than in 2016,” adds Ms Lee.

Some Asian Australians, including JJCC’s Prince Mak, Jang Han-byul and Black Pink’s Roseanne Park, to name a few, have gone on to pass rigorous auditions in Korea and to debut at well-known entertainment agencies.

AusArmyProject’s Ms Lu believes that K-pop has boomed in Australia because of the global revolution in sharing – through YouTube and music streaming, as well as via content-sharing sites such as Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

“This has helped fans come together and share their love for their idols via fan-created content such as memes, gifs, fan art and fan fiction, and creates a perceived greater connection between fans and idols,” she adds.

Much to the delight of K-pop fans, it has been announced that KCON, an annual Korean pop music and cultural convention based in the US, will be extended for the first time to Australia in September, making it the seventh host country since its launch in 2012.

K-pop writer Jeff Benjamin has high hopes for the future of the genre.

“Just like how the current generation of stars utilised and built off the accomplishments of the past generation, the future of K-pop seems to be growing in healthy ways,” he says.

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