Here’s what a Korean boy band can teach us about globalization 4.0

Concert 2019

(Unsplash, 2018)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Peter Vanham, Media Lead, US and Industries, World Economic Forum


For the readers of America’s TIME Magazine, it was clear: Korean boy band BTS should be 2018 Person of the Year. After a worldwide online poll, they held onto their early lead to beat candidates like Planet Earth and US President Donald Trump.

But who is BTS? Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock this past year (like me), you wouldn’t ask that question. The K-pop sensation scored two number one albums in the Billboard Top 200, beat Justin Bieber to become Top Social Artist of 2018, and are the most talked about artists in the world.

In their global success, though, one peculiarity stands out. Their songs are mostly sung in Korean, not English. They are not alone in this phenomenon. Latin artists like Fonsi (Despacito) and Enrique Iglesias, or fellow Korean artists like Psy (Gangnam Style), are showing that the globalization of culture no longer only coincides with Americanization. Will we see a more diverse globalization as of now?

From the end of World War Two to the 2000s, the arrow of cultural globalization pointed in only one direction: that of the English language and American culture.

Whereas many European countries until the 1960s were still most influenced by French culture, the tide had started to shift from 1945. American GIs had come to Europe to fight, but they also brought Coca-Cola, jazz music and an admiration of Hollywood films. On other continents too, the rising economic and political power of America translated into a rising cultural influence.

Indeed, as many Asian and European societies were focused on rebuilding, American culture conquered the world. Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and James Brown started the trend. As the decades went by, only Brits and other English language artists like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones could really keep pace with their American peers.

Today, there is no denying the dominant global culture is American. The highest grossing films of all time, worldwide, are almost without exception from Hollywood (think Avatar, Titanic or Star Wars). The best-selling albums of all time are mostly American (although Australian band AC/DC and British band Pink Floyd gave Michael Jackson a run for his money).

Most social-media and internet firms are American. And food culture, though more diverse, is still affected by the McDonalds, Coca-Colas, Starbucks and PepsiCos of this world.

This evolution would not have been possible without the wider globalization of the world economy, and the transformative impact of technology. In the 1960s, transatlantic flights and radio recordings made it possible for The Beatles to unleash a mania in America. In the 1990s and 2000s open global markets and the internet allowed for cultural sensations to spread even faster.

The dark side of globalized culture

But this globalization of culture did come at a price. Consider languages. Since the earliest era of globalization – the 16th Century Age of Discovery – the number of spoken languages worldwide has steadily declined, from about 14,500 to less than 7,000.

By 2007, the New York Times reported, half of the remaining 7,000 languages were at danger of extinction. And by 2017, the World Economic Forum wrote, almost 1,500 languages had less than 1,000 speakers left.

As UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural arm pointed out at Rio+20, the homogenization of culture brought other risks too.

It said in 2012: “While this phenomenon promotes the integration of societies, it may also bring with it a loss of uniqueness of local culture, which in turn can lead to loss of identity, exclusion and even conflict.” Recent outbursts of violence incited through global social media like Facebook and Twitter show it was a prescient view.

Then there are the economic effects of a globalizing culture. Already before the rise of social media and the so-called Big Tech companies, less than a dozen companies – like Disney, 21st Century Fox, Sony and Viacom – owned the lion’s share of the world’s leading media and entertainment institutions.

The arrival of large tech platforms only accelerated the trend towards larger market concentration, and the risks of loss of cultural diversity.

Finally, as much as we may like our burger with fries, our bag of chips and our takeaway cup of coffee, the globalizing fast-food culture exacerbated global problems too.

If everyone consumed the same amount of burgers as Americans, or created as much rubbish, climate change and pollution might be insurmountable, and obesity an even bigger cause of illness and death.

Time bomb, or boon?

This raises some important questions. Is American-led cultural globalization a self-destructive time bomb, destined to slowly kill languages, cultures and life itself? Is cultural globalization a phenomenon that enriches local cultures with a diverse set of foreign influences? Or should we be agnostic about it, as long as it leads to more positive outcomes for society and the environment, like better governance and climate leadership?

If, until recently, the first question seemed most likely to be answered “yes”, BTS, Fonsi and their peers showed a more diverse globalization can’t be completely written off.

Take the case of Luis Fonsi first. With his hit single Despacito, the Puerto Rican singer broke seven Guinness World Records, including first YouTube video to reach 5 billion views, and most streamed track worldwide. Doing so, he showed that you can influence global culture through the Spanish language and Caribbean culture too. This is unsurprising when you consider that there are 437 million people who speak Spanish as a first language compared to 372 million native English speakers.

The case of BTS is perhaps even more impressive, because it is so much more against the cultural odds. While Spanish, alongside Mandarin Chinese and English belongs to the top 3 of most spoken languages worldwide, Korean doesn’t even feature in the top 10. As a matter of fact, Korea until about a century ago was known as the “Hermit Kingdom”, for its cultural and economic isolation.

There are still remnants of Korea’s isolation today. In many other G20 economies, like France or Germany, English language songs counted for the majority of hits by 2017. In Korea all top hits were still Korean. BTS is no exception. Most of their songs are largely sung in Korean, with only parts of the lyrics in English. Yet, BTS managed to become the global musical sensation of the year.

What’s more, their success is in part bottom-up, with many fans helping the band voluntarily to translate and subtitle their music videos and performances to English. And BTS is also not the first K-pop band to break through internationally. In the West, Psy is well-known, but across Asia, including in China, Vietnam, and Japan, many more K-pop bands are vastly popular.

Of course, one swallow does not a summer make, nor will Fonsi and BTS change cultural globalization single-handedly. But in other domains too, cultural power players have emerged from elsewhere than America. Asia in particular is rising in cultural influence.

The first AI news anchor, for example, comes from China, and speaks both Mandarin and English. Hollywood is increasingly influenced by and working with Chinese companies and actors, like The Great Wall with Matt Damon and Jing Tian, or one of the hit movies of this year, Crazy Rich Asians, which featured an all-Asian cast, and was based on an equally successful series of books.

In the field of technology, Swedish-based Spotify managed to become one of the most successful streaming companies. And in the world of sports, both the FIFA World Cup of football, and the Olympic Games pride themselves in celebrating a diverse set of nations and cultures, though they faced criticism for failing to lead on governance.

For all the criticism the leaders of the Americanization of global culture face, some of its most famous representative companies have also been leading the world in positive cultural change.

The bigger picture

The World Economic Forum’s Saadia Zahidi wrote in her book 50 Million Rising that McDonalds was among the first to integrate women in the workforce in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Saudi-Arabia.

And PepsiCo, under the leadership of its Indian-born CEO Indra Nooyi, has been shifting away from sugary drinks, and investing in businesses like Sodastream, which commercialize carbonized tap water and eliminate plastic.

But those may turn out to be elements that miss the bigger cultural picture of 2018. The fact that singers and bands from the Caribbean and Korea can make the world’s most popular music show that there is nothing inevitable about the Americanization of cultural globalization after all.

More likely, cultures will continue to exist and cross-fertilize each other, as they have for centuries.

It is important for all to embrace their own culture, and for policymakers and other stakeholders to strengthen and promote cultural bonds in society. But if a boy band from the Hermit Kingdom can become Person of the Year in the economic capital of the world, a global monoculture is still quite a way away.

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