The fan scene in America has been largely centered on major immigrant hubs like Los Angeles and New York, where Girls' Generation sold out Madison Square Garden with a crop of rising K-pop acts including BoA and Super Junior. But until very recently, due to the high cost of touring and marketing, fans' interaction with artists has been limited to Internet and social media.
"There's been a combination of distance and needing to go where it's lucrative. You could do two weeks in Japan and do better than a full U.S. tour," said David Zedeck, a CAA agent who handles American management of several K-pop groups including 2 AM, 2 PM and Wonder Girls. "But that's changing. Wonder Girls have spent two years living and working largely in America, and their tour with Jonas Brothers taught K-pop managers that American audiences are open to something that seems foreign. These are Americans coming to their shows, the same fans going to see Gaga and Bieber."
Many of their U.S. fans are young, culture-mixing Asian Americans who maintain an interest in Korean pop culture, but are just as conversant in American pop. That some K-pop stars are actually American-born or raised, like Girls' Generation's Tiffany, influences their personalities and deepens their connection to U.S. audiences.
"There were so many more opportunities in K-pop for a young Asian American singer," the 22-year-old Tiffany, born Stephanie Hwang, said. "It took some adjusting to move there in my teen years. But fans respected that this group wasn't put together overnight, it took a lot of practice to learn our different values and strengths."
Several major K-pop acts have recent or upcoming releases that suggest they have wider ambitions than appealing solely to Korean Americans. Girls' Generation's 2011 single "Run Devil Run" was originally sung as a demo by Kesha, and its minor-key electronic jitters would be entirely at home on American radio as would "The Boys," the title track of its first American major-label release in January for Interscope. Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas is reportedly helming 2NE1's American debut album, and the group's future-noir swagger (its recent smash single was called "I Am the Best") would seem a natural fit for Will's sci-fi dance pop sensibility.
"In the past, it was the norm to reach out to the Asian music market and/or the Korean communities abroad before reaching out worldwide," said Joon Ahn, executive vice president for the Music Business Division at CJ Entertainment & Media, one of the dominant media conglomerates in K-pop. "However, we believe that now … it's necessary to directly reach out to the world market."
But while K-pop has a lively Internet presence, America lacks a dominant media hub for first encountering K-pop culture. If one emerges, it might the Culver City-based Mnet. Its cable channel, a division of CJ Entertainment, is heavily focused on K-pop and broadcasts a mix of video countdown shows like "M! Countdown," "Jjang!" (a celebrity gossip show) and "Hello Pop!" (a social-media-themed show whose 21-year-old host, Chrissa Villanueva, is L.A.-raised and Filipina).
"We want to organize the space. K-pop has penetrated the U.S. without radio or iTunes support, so the fan base is there," said Adam Ware, the former president and CEO of Mnet (who recently left his position). "There's just been no advocate for Asian pop yet in the way that MTV was an early advocate for hip-hop."
Mnet hosts the annual MAMA awards (the Asian pop equivalent of the Grammys) and through its sister company M-Live, the station is beginning to present Korean acts in L.A. concert venues, like last fall's set from the rapper Drunken Tiger at the Wiltern and a Nokia Theatre show by FT Island and CN Blue. The Korean Music Festival, an annual K-pop compendium, hits the Hollywood Bowl on April 28.
So 2012 may be the year that a K-pop artist makes a genuine American pop crossover. But some fans like Brooks don't want the genre's idiosyncrasies diluted for American audiences. "The last thing I'd want on a K-pop song is a Ludacris verse," he said. "I don't want it to become like harajuku culture in Japan, where the face of it here is Gwen Stefani."
But if Girls' Generation can headline a sold-out Madison Square Garden as virtual unknowns to the American mainstream, K-pop may have already rendered that crossover question pointless.
For artists with roots in both countries, K-pop's late rise in America (and what it means for Korean culture everywhere) is sweet but just the start. "Coming back to America to pursue music is a dream," Tiffany said. "Not just because it's America, but because this is just the beginning."