So and so is “paving the way” is a phrase you often get to hear as a K-pop fan. Here’s why the phrase is detrimental to K-pop’s global reach.
If you’ve hung out in the vestibules of K-pop’s internet halls (you know, Reddit, Instagram, or God help you, Stan Twitter), you’ve heard the phrase ‘paved the way’ or ‘paving the way’. These three words (that no one wants to hear I’d imagine) are a double-edged sword for any K-pop fan: on the one hand, it sums up perfectly the ethos of a groundbreaking act, who came and did something first. There’s sense of achievement, of pride, of carrying the flag for a generation of artists.
Over time, however, ‘paving the way’ has also become one of the most common ways K-pop fans lay claim to an act’s superiority over their peers. In recent years especially, as K-pop has moved beyond the borders of South Korea, the meaning of the phrase has shifted from celebratory and inclusive to diminishing and exclusive.
Here’s why “paving the way” is a problematic issue in K-pop
The phrase creates an intrinsic sense of ‘othering’ where acts are pitted against each other in a supposed battle of achievements. Not to mention, it diminishes other artists who created inroads for the industry as a whole, setting milestones of their own in avenues previously considered unreachable.
Let’s talk about BoA for a minute. In K-pop calendar terms, BoA is very much an industry veteran. At a time when K-pop was just starting to scale international waters, BoA became the first Korean face to break through in the traditionally intransigent Japanese music industry, also the second-largest music market in the world.
At the time of writing, BoA is the only foreign artist to sell more than one million copies of her albums in Japan. Of the three artists in history to have six consecutive No. 1 albums on the Oricon chart, BoA is one.
If we’re talking about firsts — which ‘paving the way’ most commonly refers to — it’s only fair to objectively consider the fact that every K-pop artist who has achieved something has created avenues for others to come and share that space. BoA’s breakthrough to the Japanese market not only created opportunities for other K-pop artists, but her impact throughout Asia also lent weight to K-pop’s popularity as a truly global genre.
In the past decade especially, every K-pop artist who has expanded internationally — be it BTS (who have numerous firsts of their own) or more recent rookies like ATEEZ or Stray Kids — owes it to someone who came before them who tried it first, no matter in what capacity.
If we talk about the US, for example, which ‘paved the way’ has usually come to refer to, we realize that K-pop’s expansion into the US started as early as the mid-2000s.
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In 2005, Rain became the first K-pop artist to perform at Madison Square Garden in New York. The next year, he was ranked No. 1 in the TIME 100 reader poll, surpassing Stephen Colbert by almost 100,000 votes. He’s repeated this feat three times to date.
In 2009, BoA’s album BoA became the first K-pop album to enter the Billboard 200 chart. JYP Entertainment’s Wonder Girls soon followed, becoming the first K-pop act to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2010, they took the 16th spot on Billboard’s 21 under 21 poll. HyunA came in at #17 the next year.
Which also brings us to a crucial argument about ‘paving the way’ and how Eurocentric the whole issue is.
In recent conversations, especially, the phrase ‘paved the way’ has almost always been used to refer to success in the American market. BTS, for example, ‘paved the way’ by being the first K-pop act to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Billboard Hot 100 charts. They also became the first act to be nominated for a GRAMMY.
While those are in no way to be dismissed — The Grammys are, after all, the biggest music award show in the world — it presents a very myopic view of success.
As if to say: “You are successful, but only if you achieve something in the West,” which is absurd to say the least, seeing as the U.S. is definitely not the centre of the world. This particular facet of the argument only feeds into the insular lens that Western media often analyses K-pop with — as a transient fad, or a novelty item — further bolstering the systematic dismissal of K-pop acts in general.
Moreover, it strengthens the very monolithic system that K-pop fans have been trying to dismantle for years. By giving Western institutions a metric of success that solely considers the U.S. the endgame, it becomes a convenient tool that helps the industry constantly shut acts out of radio-play and numbers.
Then, any sliver of success, whether it’s charting or getting airtime on radio stations becomes a considerable victory. Come on! Your faves got airtime on a U.S. radio station! They have made it! They paved the way, right?
Fans revel in this Pyrrhic victory, unaware that this stamp of approval undermines K-pop’s credibility as a global behemoth, putting acts only at the mercy of Western validation.