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.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Human rights: breaches in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan

These are the top 10 emerging technologies of 2019

UN urges protection of indigenous peoples’ rights during migration

Hurricane Dorian: Bahamas death toll expected to rise as thousands remain missing

The Novel Coronavirus: The Truth against the Myths

Africa shouldn’t have to choose between high growth and low emissions

Taxation: Commission refers Poland to Court for failing to remove certain tax exemptions on the use of energy products by highly polluting businesses

Renewed pressures on Berlin to adopt growth policies

COVID-19: MEPs free up over €3 billion to support EU healthcare sector

MWC 2016 LIVE: Ericsson/Cisco partnership on track, insist execs

Europe moulds global defense and security chart given US new inward vision

EU-UK future relations: crucial to ensure EU leverage and unity

These are the world’s best universities for recycling and sustainability

“Health and environment first of all”, EU says with forced optimism after 7th round of TTIP talks

‘Do something’; UN relief chief urges Security Council action to stop the Syrian carnage unfolding ‘in front of your eyes’

How to make sure tech doesn’t leave people behind

From UN Assembly podium, Central African Republic leader appeals for lifting arms embargo

Female leaders warn about the erosion of women’s rights

Juncker and Tusk killed Greece on 07 July 2015 to meet the Commission’s summer vacation plan? #Grexit #Greferendum #Graccident

Health equity and accessibility for migrants is a peremptory demand

The EU spent €158 billion on vague, open-ended rural projects

Pollinating insects: Commission proposes actions to stop their decline

How Africa and Asia are joining forces on universal healthcare

COP21 Breaking News_03 December: Unprecedented Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction to Combat Climate Change

I have a rare disease. This is my hope for the future of medicine

‘Alarming levels’ of methamphetamine trafficking in Asia’s Mekong, UN warns

Trump and Brexit: After the social whys the political whereto

Technology is delivering better access to financial services. Here’s how

Africa-Europe Alliance: two new financial guarantees under the EU External Investment Plan

Is Britain to sail alone in the high seas of trade wars?

Syria still suffering ‘staggering levels’ of humanitarian need, Security Council hears

Returning to free movement across borders is of utmost importance

Will Qualcomm avoid Broadcom’s hostile takeover post the 1 bn euro EU antitrust fine?

Monsoon rains turn millions of children’s lives ‘upside down’ across South Asia

Sochi not far away from Ukraine

Corporate bond debt continues to pile up

Review on ethics and technological development

The EU and North Korea: A Story of Underestimation

Industrial producer prices on free fall and stagnant output

Does Greece really weigh what is asking for today in Russia?

European Parliament and Eurovision sign partnership for European Elections

Support for EU remains at historically high level despite sceptics

This is Germany’s $45 billion, 18-year plan to move away from coal

Why banks escape from competition rules but not pharmaceutical firms

The EU condemns Faroe Islands and Iceland to poverty

Mental Health: Role of the individual for their well-being in the pandemic

A Sting Exclusive: “Climate change-the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, yet overlooked in climate negotiations?” IFMSA wonders from COP21 in Paris

Twenty days that may remold the future of Europe

How the United States is falling in love with secondhand clothes

What will higher education in Africa look like after COVID-19?

These countries have the highest minimum wages

Health should be central to the conversation around climate change

‘12 million’ stateless people globally, warns UNHCR chief in call to States for decisive action

EU invests more than €100 million in new LIFE Programme projects to promote a green and climate-neutral Europe

Banks suffocate the real economy by denying loans

Workplace bullies could now go to jail in South Korea

More progress needed on reducing and redesigning agricultural support policies

MEPs demand unprecedented support measures for EU firms and workers

The Sahel is engulfed by violence. Climate change, food insecurity and extremists are largely to blame

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s