A Korean boy band can train us that about globalization
For the readers of the American TIME magazine it was clear: the Korean boy band BTS should be Person of the Year in 2018. According to a global online poll, they held their early lead to beat candidates like Planet Earth and US President Donald Trump.
But who is BTS? Well, unless you lived under a rock last year (like me) you wouldn’t be asking that question. The K-pop sensation scored two number-one albums in the Billboard Top 200, beat Justin Bieber to be Top Social Artist of 2018, and is the most talked-about artist in the world.
In their worldwide success, however, one thing stands out. Most of their songs are sung in Korean, not English. You are not alone in this phenomenon. Latin American artists like Fonsi (Despacito) and Enrique Iglesias or Korean artist colleagues like Psy (Gangnam Style) show that the globalization of culture no longer just coincides with Americanization. Will we experience a more diverse globalization from now on?
From the end of World War II through the 2000s, the arrow of cultural globalization pointed in only one direction: that of the English language and American culture.
While many European countries were still most strongly influenced by French culture until the 1960s, the tide began to turn from 1945 onwards. American GIs had come to Europe to fight, but they also brought Coca-Cola, jazz music, and an admiration for Hollywood films. America’s growing economic and political power led to growing cultural influence on other continents as well.
Indeed, when many Asian and European societies focused on rebuilding, American culture took over the world. Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and James Brown set the trend. Over the decades, only British and other English-speaking artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones could really keep up with their American counterparts.
Today it cannot be denied that the prevailing global culture is American. The world’s most successful films of all time come 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 Michael Jackson fought for his money).
Most social media and internet companies are American. And food culture, though more diverse, is still influenced by the world’s McDonalds, Coca-Colas, Starbucks and PepsiCos.
This development would not have been possible without the broader globalization of the world economy and the transformative effects of technology. Transatlantic flights and radio recordings enabled the Beatles to unleash a mania in America in the 1960s. In the 1990s and 2000s, open global markets and the Internet enabled cultural sensations to spread even faster.
The dark side of globalized culture
But this globalization of culture came at a price. Look at languages. Since the earliest era of globalization – the Age of Discovery in the 16th century – the number of languages spoken worldwide has steadily declined from around 14,500 to less than 7,000.
By 2007, the New York Times reported, half of the remaining 7,000 languages were critically endangered. And by 2017, wrote the World Economic Forum, almost 1,500 languages would have fewer than 1,000 speakers left.
As UNESCO, the education, science and culture arm of the United Nations, emphasized at Rio + 20, the homogenization of culture also harbors other risks.
In 2012 it said: “Although this phenomenon promotes the integration of societies, it can also lead to a loss of the uniqueness of the local culture, which in turn can lead to a loss of identity, exclusion and even conflict.” Recent outbreaks of violence caused by global social media such as Facebook and Twitter instigated show that it was a forward-looking view.
Added to this are the economic effects of a globalizing culture. Even before the advent of social media and the so-called big tech companies, fewer than a dozen companies – such as Disney, 21st Century Fox, Sony, and Viacom – owned the lion’s share of the world’s leading media and entertainment institutions.
The emergence of large technology platforms only accelerated the trend towards greater market concentration and the risk of loss of cultural diversity.
As much as we like our burger and french fries, our bag of french fries and our cup of coffee to go, the globalizing fast food culture also exacerbated global problems.
If everyone consumes the same amount of burgers as Americans or produces the same amount of junk, climate change and pollution could be insurmountable and obesity could be an even bigger cause of illness and death.
This raises some important questions. Is America-led cultural globalization a self-destructive time bomb designed to slowly kill languages, cultures, and life itself? Is cultural globalization a phenomenon that enriches local cultures with diverse foreign influences? Or should we be agnostic about it as long as it leads to more positive outcomes for society and the environment, such as better governance and climate leadership?
If until recently the first question seemed most likely to be answered with “yes”, BTS, Fonsi and their ilk showed that a more diverse globalization cannot be entirely written off.
Take the Luis Fonsi case first. With his hit single Despacito, the Puerto Rican singer broke seven Guinness world records, including the first YouTube video with 5 billion views and the most streamed track worldwide. He showed that you can also influence global culture through the Spanish language and the Caribbean culture. This is not surprising when you consider that there are 437 million people who speak Spanish as their 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 cultural adversity. While Spanish is one of the top 3 most widely spoken languages in the world along with Mandarin Chinese and English, Korean is not even in the top 10. In fact, Korea was known as the “Hermit Kingdom” until about a century ago. , because of its cultural and economic isolation.
Even today there are remnants of Korea’s isolation. In many other G20 economies such as France or Germany, English-language songs were among the most hits until 2017. In Korea, all of the top hits were still Korean. BTS is no exception. Most of her songs are mostly sung in Korean, only parts of the lyrics are in English. Nevertheless, BTS managed to become the worldwide music sensation of the year.
Additionally, their success is in part bottom-up as many of the band’s fans volunteer to translate and subtitle their music videos and performances into English. And BTS is not the first K-Pop band to establish themselves internationally. Psy is known in the west, but many more K-pop bands are very popular across Asia, including China, Vietnam, and Japan.
Of course, a swallow doesn’t make a summer, nor will Fonsi and BTS single-handedly change cultural globalization. But in other areas too, cultural power actors have emerged from elsewhere than America. Asia in particular is gaining cultural influence.
The first AI news anchor, for example, is from China and speaks both Mandarin and English. Hollywood is increasingly being influenced and partnered with Chinese companies and actors, such as The Great Wall with Matt Damon and Jing Tian or one of this year’s hit films, Crazy Rich Asians, which had an all-Asian cast and was based on an equally successful book series.
In the technology field, Spotify, based in Sweden, has managed to become one of the most successful streaming companies. And in the world of sport, both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games pride themselves on celebrating a multitude of nations and cultures, despite having been criticized for lack of leadership.
For all the criticism seen by the leaders of the Americanization of global culture, some of their most famous representative corporations have also led the world in positive culture change.
Saadia Zahidi of the World Economic Forum wrote in her book 50 Million Rising that McDonalds was among the first in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia to integrate women into the world of work.
And PepsiCo, led by its Indian-born CEO Indra Nooyi, has moved away from sugary beverages and invested in companies like Sodastream, which are commercializing carbonated tap water and eliminating plastic.
But these can be elements that miss the big cultural picture of 2018. The fact that singers and bands from the Caribbean and Korea can make the most popular music in the world shows that the Americanization of cultural globalization is not inevitable.
It is more likely that cultures will continue to exist and cross-pollinate, as they have for centuries.
It is important that everyone adopt their own culture and that policymakers and other actors strengthen and promote cultural ties in society. But if a boy band from the kingdom of the hermits in the economic metropolis of the world can become Person of the Year, a global monoculture is still a long way off.
Madeleine Hillyer contributed to this article.