THE HOUSTON LIVESTOCK SHOW AND RODEO’s 2020 concert roster features its usual mix of country (Chris Stapleton, Brad Paisley, Willie Nelson), pop (Lizzo, Gwen Stefani, Khalid, Maren Morris), hip-hop (Chance the Rapper), and EDM (Marshmello). Then there’s NCT 127, the very first K-Pop, or Korean pop, group ever to take the rodeo stage. Not up on the genre? We’re here to help.
WHAT IS K-POP?
In the mid-’90s, at the same time the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were dominating charts in the U.S., a similar boy-band movement was taking over in South Korea, with groups like H.O.T. and Seo Taiji & Boys at the forefront. “It’s the slick MTV-style choreography, pretty and polished faces, possibly overly so by U.S. standards,” explains Haejin E. Koh, associate director of Rice’s Chao Center for Asian Studies.
Since then the K-Pop genre has exploded. Today’s groups, both male and female, are formed in factory style: Entertainment companies select their stars by auditioning thousands of potential performers; form them into groups; and put them through rigorous training, teaching them to sing, dance, present themselves to fans and the media, and speak multiple languages. Then it’s time for the spotlight. “There is some criticism that gets even harsh sometimes,” says Koh. “It’s a business, it’s money.”
Borrowing from hip-hop, trap, 2000s R&B, and ’90s pop, K-Pop is all electronic. The performers are huge celebrities in Korea, and they set fashion trends—boys often dress in suits and wear makeup, while girls might wear anything, although sex appeal isn’t the emphasis. “I’ve heard the Korean girl singers are cute, not sexy,” says Koh. “Even at 22 they’re still marketed to be cute to the 16-year-old fans.”
HOW BIG IS IT OUTSIDE KOREA?
Pretty big. The world’s top K-Pop group, BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, has 17 No. 1 World Digital Song Sales hits, plus four Top 40 hits and three No. 1 albums in the U.S. Its success has opened doors for acts like NCT 127 to perform at events like the rodeo and, more generally, helped usher in the Korean Wave—the spread of Korean pop culture and entertainment around the globe.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that more college students are taking Korean language classes these days. “Here at Rice,” says Koh, “you go to a Korean language class and ask, Why are you learning Korean? And students will answer, I want to know what they’re saying in the lyrics. It used to be just Korean-American kids in the classes, but not today.”
WHO IS NCT 127?
In 2016 SM Entertainment, the largest K-Pop production company, formed Neo Culture Technology, or NCT, as a brand encompassing multiple boy groups, also known as units. The company oversees acts including NCT 127, named for Seoul’s longitudinal coordinate; NCT Dream, a younger unit whose members age out at 20; China-based WayV; and NCT U, an all-star group composed of members from the other units.
With 10 members—and 24-year-old rapper/singer Taeyong as its leader—NCT 127 has scored six top-five hits on the Billboard World Digital Song Sales chart. Last year the group embarked on its first world tour, appearing on Good Morning America and The Late Late Show with James Corden, and performing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
NCT 127’s most popular song on Spotify— with 52 million plays and counting—is “Cherry Bomb,” which mixes Korean and English and expertly weaves trap with a Celebrity-era NSYNC bridge. You’re bound to hear it this year at the rodeo—if you can score tickets.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo runs Mar 3–22 at NRG Stadium. NCT 127 performs Mar 10. rodeohouston.com