Music | Sound Off

Pyeongchang’s pop takes home gold

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Politics hovered over the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The pageantry came against a backdrop of geopolitical intrigue, featuring the presence of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Yo Jong, who was on hand to watch a unified Korean team march into the Olympic Stadium.

Yet once the Parade of Nations got underway, Twitter users around the globe shifted their attention from international drama to the music playing in the background.

A steady stream of K-pop songs soundtracked the parade, with fans watching at home geeking out over every new tune — from BTS’ “DNA” to Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby.” The U.S. team walked out to Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” resulting in the surreal shot of a perpetually glum Mike Pence waving vigorously to the chorus of “Heyyyy, sexy lady!” Twitter seemed especially hyped for Twice’s “Likey” appearing, but maybe I just follow a lot of the group’s fans.

The bulk of the event, however, celebrated traditional Korean culture, a technological future and world peace (a staple of Olympics ceremonies). Actual music performances came via a children’s choir and singers not associated with contemporary K-pop, though organizers have hinted that the closing ceremony may make up for that.

Still, it was more recent sounds that grabbed most of the attention — and not just on Twitter. Write-ups of the event devoted significant space to talking about the K-pop present at the ceremony, from the cerebral New Yorker to the meme-damaged minds at Elite Daily. The BTS charm offensive was in action — K-pop fans love to share and promote stories about their favorites, so there is no lower hanging fruit for a publication than an article about a hyper-popular group.

This focus on what was essentially background music reminded me just how effectively South Korea has sold its brand of pop to the world. It wasn’t the focus of the evening, but just having K-pop on the periphery got the type of viewer normally not interested in sports excited about the games.

The matter of who will perform at the 2020 opening ceremony has been on the minds of many since the city landed the Olympics but, at this point in time, J-pop probably doesn’t have the kind of cool cachet to pull off what happened in Pyeongchang. Babymetal has the popularity, but will organizers use thrash metal when the shirtless Tonga guy marches into the stadium? (I see Pita Taufatofua as more of a Ken Hirai fan anyway.)

So maybe 2020 organizers ought to make the bold choice of forgoing pop music altogether! One viral clip from the Winter Games found a pair of Japanese skaters performing a routine set to music from the popular anime “Yuri!! On Ice.” The internet loved it. Tokyo should keep this in mind and, rather than try to re-create Pyeongchang’s pop moment, focus on what makes Japan cool in the eyes of the world: anime, multi-flavored KitKats and Pepper the robot. Twitter will love it.


Correction:  Opera singer Sumi Hwang was misidentified as a traditional artist in the original caption. The error was corrected on Feb. 16.