K-pop has reached audiences all over the world, and it continues to grow thanks to the power of social media. As groups venture into markets outside of their own, is it now a requirement to have members who speak multiple languages? Or is music truly a universal language?
Multilingual K-pop idols are not a new concept – but the numbers were far from where they are now. You could find English-speaking members peppered throughout the likes of veteran groups such as G.O.D (Joon Park), S.E.S (Eugene) and Fly To The Sky (Brian Joo). At the time however, international recognition wasn’t always one of the main goals for a group, so being multilingual often flew under the radar.
Girls’ Generation’s iconic debut in 2007 brought the industry into the new world – in more ways than one. With variety segments, radio pop song covers, and by keeping their English names, SM Entertainment made sure it was known that members Jessica and Tiffany were native English speakers. The two girls, who hailed from California, set a new standard in a world more connected than ever. Having English-speaking members ultimately helped the legendary girl group bridge the gap between two very different music industries.
While being multilingual isn’t as obvious of a pull into K-pop as catchy tunes, out-there style and unique vocals, there’s no denying that sharing a language with someone on your stan list is something special. It’s safe to assume then that idols become more relatable when they can speak your language, and perhaps knowing that you can communicate with them if you ever were to meet helps you understand their music.
As we usher in a new generation of K-pop idol groups, bands with all monolingual members are slowly becoming a rarity. Groups now release tracks in foreign languages, and hold fanmeets and concerts around the world. There are even experimental groups like Z-Girls and Z-Boys, with many saying their likeability comes from their cultural and linguistic diversity. Is multilingualism now a necessity in this growing industry? Or can the music just speak for itself?
There have been many groups who’ve reached international success without fluent multilingual members, for example, GFRIEND, Winner, Infinite, SISTAR… the list goes on. Despite not being able to explicitly communicate with fans in English, their music, concepts and manner have people flocking from all over the world.
This all may seem very black and white, but it does put a few things into perspective. Would the now-global superstars BTS have the same degree of success in the US if RM couldn’t speak English? Would the beloved TWICE have the same platform in Japan if it weren’t for Momo, Mina and Sana? Maybe representation and multiculturalism in groups has changed what was formerly a predominantly Korea-focused industry, into something with a strong global essence.
We know that at the end of the day, music, passion and talent transcend language and culture. Multilingual idols definitely have an edge, but thankfully, we’ll always have subtitles.
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