In May a seven-member boy band from Seoul called BTS (aka Bulletproof Boy Scouts) won the Top Social Artist prize at the Billboard Music Awards, defeating Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, and Selena Gomez. It was a milestone moment in K-pop’s crossover into the Western marketplace, as was the chart performance of BTS’s second album, Wings, which in fall 2016 debuted at number 26 on the Billboard 200—higher than any previous K-pop release.
“K-pop” is a catchall term for South Korean music that incorporates elements of Western pop (especially post-2000 radio hip-hop, contemporary EDM, and 90s New Jack Swing) but whose lyrics are sung or rapped almost entirely in Korean. Despite the geographic and cultural distance between the U.S. and South Korea (and marketing plans that focus on Korean TV appearances and Southeast Asian fans), K-pop has been finding footholds in the States since long before BTS’s recent successes. The Internet has allowed the music to trickle into the country, language barriers notwithstanding, and tours have followed—though Korean groups tend to hit the same handful of big cities when they travel here. Over the past few years Chicago has become one of those cities—hip-hop boy band Monsta X kick off their six-date U.S. tour at the Rosemont Theatre on July 12.
Last year I jumped in with both feet when a friend invited me to see Shinee at the Rosemont—my first live K-pop experience was a polished pop group that could pull off complex dance moves with almost inhuman precision. But if you can’t spend $75 on a concert ticket and you still want an in-person K-pop fix—if streaming songs on YouTube and Spotify isn’t enough for you—then I recommend K-Pop of Chinatown. This obscenely brightly lit shop occupies the second-floor retail space of a building on Wentworth Avenue, where it’d be inconspicuous from the outside if it weren’t for the black banner emblazoned with k-pop three times in hot-pink lettering.
Being a hard-core K-pop fan can be expensive. Even if you stick to the cheap merch, you’ll pay way more for a pen adorned with the image of the group Big Bang ($3.99) than you would for an ordinary pen. do not disturb doorknob hangers featuring boy band Exo cost $7.99, a black-and-white snapback cap for rap duo Leessang is $12.99, and paper dolls of various stars are $8.99. You can also get a handheld lantern with its lit-up end striped like a cartoon bumblebee—an official piece of merch for the seven-piece Block B—for $49.99. “Hip-hop monster” dolls representing members of BTS will run you $39.99 apiece.
I bought two CDs—BTS’s 2013 debut single, 2 Cool 4 Skool, and a new edition of the album Now, We by eight-member girl group Lovelyz—and paid a total of $69. The Lovelyz CD arrived tucked into the back cover of a 118-page perfect-bound photo book that’d be right at home in the MCA gift shop. K-Pop of Chinatown displays most of its CDs along a wall behind a counter, so that it’s hard to get a good look at them without assistance—the only discs stocked out in the open are from girl groups. There’s a good reason for this arrangement, though, and it has everything to do with the enthusiasm of boy-band fans. As one of the teenage employees explains, “Most people who come here are young girls.” v