Having a spectacular start to the new year, with a number of broken bones alongside contracting a virus, I have been spending a lot of time on the couch in the past couple of weeks. Here I have found myself down a curious rabbit-hole, being drawn into the soft power juggernaut that is South Korea’s K-Pop industry, and discovering, to my surprise, that Australia plays an outsized role within the industry. What could be seen as a curious consequence of the great attraction K-Pop has to those outside of South Korea may also say something about Australia and its emergence and comfortability as an Asian country.
My introduction to this phenomenon started, as most things tend to these days, with the YouTube algorithm. Despite my not paying much attention to K-Pop previously, the algorithm now knows us better than we do ourselves and so I found myself watching a clip by a group called NewJeans. Unbeknownst to me at the time, NewJeans are incredibly popular, becoming the fastest K-Pop group to reach 1 billion streams on Spotify in May last year – 219 days after their first release.
Yet as I read further about the group, what was most interesting to me is that two of its five members – Danielle Marsh and Hanni Pham – are Australian. Rather than seeing their career prospects as artists in Australia and then trying to find traction in the American market – as has been the standard operating procedure for Australian singers and musicians – these young women instead saw South Korea as both their preferred option and the best option to advance their ambitions.
What is even more intriguing is that Marsh and Pham are not alone. Some of the biggest groups in K-Pop have Australian members, including Rosé from megastars Blackpink (who was born in New Zealand but raised in Melbourne). The Substack “Let’s Talk K-Pop” profiled a total of 13 Australians currently working in the South Korean music industry. This is clearly not a unique occurrence, but something that has materialized due to cultural factors.
The most obvious driver of this trend is South Korea’s soft power reach. Over the past few decades Seoul has been able to rapidly expand its cultural influence through not only music, but film and television as well. As a result, demand for Korean language courses at Australian universities has exploded, with Korean proving far more attractive than languages that would have greater geostrategic importance for Australia, like Indonesian.
While Korean Australians have an obvious connection and foot up into the industry, NewJeans’ Pham, as a Vietnamese Australian, has made her way solely due to the influence of K-Pop and the effort she has made to be a successful artist in the industry. This presents a serious shift in where young Australians are gaining their cultural influences from, and where they sense their opportunities. It also reflects both the changing demographics of Australian society and how Australian culture is shifting as a result.
The question of whether Australia is an Asian country is one that Australia has been debating for some time. It is not simply a question of demographics, nor is it solely one of geography. It is about how Australians perceive themselves, whether they feel a natural affinity with the countries in their neighborhood, and what forms of culture they gravitate toward.
Having been dividing my time between Melbourne and Sweden over the past few years, it has become clearer to me that there is an obvious Asian cultural influence that is now an integral part of the city. Melburnians have dispensed with meat pies and sausage rolls as the go-to quick lunch, and it is now the bánh mì that reigns supreme. Yet this influence is not only food-related; it is present in aspects of the city like better design and more interesting use of space (something Anglo-Australia became disinterested in during the 20th century), and broader cultural and artistic interests.
Of course, it is not only Australians’ sense of themselves that is integral to whether the country has successfully integrated itself into its neighborhood, but whether neighboring countries perceive Australia to be an Asian country. It is here that K-Pop’s Australian contingent can be highly influential. They present a new representation of what it means to be Australian and a reframing of traditional conceptions of the country.
In this way, the soft power that South Korea gains from K-Pop is not simply a one way street. There is a soft power circulation taking place, where fans of K-Pop groups with Australian members are becoming interested in Australia as they seek to learn more about the artists they love. Given the global popularity of K-Pop, these artists are doing much of the heavy lifting in enhancing Australia’s international influence.