Kacie on K-pop: TikTok dance challenges determine chart success

As we approach the two-year anniversary of the March 2020 nationwide coronavirus induced lockdown, it’s shocking to see how quickly so many aspects of life have shifted back to their pre-quarantine statuses, as mask mandates loosen and large social gatherings return. Yet, despite society’s overall trend back towards an in-person lifestyle, TikTok has maintained its relevance since its boom at the beginning of quarantine and remained a constant for many. 

I think I’ll always relate TikTok to the first few months of quarantine, despite downloading the app a month before everything started. When I think about TikTok, memories of whipped coffee and the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King” immediately come to mind, but it’s TikTok’s initial dance challenges that define the app and its cultural impact for myself and many others — but even more importantly, for the K-pop music industry. 

I still remember the first dance challenge I actually participated in: Zico’s “Any Song” challenge. A bright melody paired with a catchy beat and simple dance motions anyone could follow, “Any Song” arguably already followed the perfect formula to go viral on TikTok, even without intending to. Zico ensured his song’s viral success early on by creating its dance challenge and posting videos of himself, along with MAMAMOO’s Hwasa and soloist Chung Ha, doing the challenge to TikTok and establishing the #AnysongChallenge trend.

The challenge resulted in numerous other K-pop stars participating in the challenge, ranging from WINNER’s Mino to AB6IX’s Daehwi and Woong, and also catapulted “Any Song” to the top of Korea’s music charts, earning a certified all-kill just two days after its release and a perfect all-kill two days after that.

In his unique approach to marketing “Any Song” so successfully, Zico capitalized on two core aspects: following the growing global trend of TikTok dance challenges and utilizing his connections with other idols to expand his audience. It’s a strategy still implemented by many idols, with groups partnering up to film dance challenges to promote each other’s songs, such as ASTRO’s JinJin and Rocky and MAMAMOO’s MoonByul with their songs, “Restore” and “LUNATIC,” respectively.  

Perhaps even more intriguing than the songs that are purposely promoted by K-pop companies on TikTok are the songs that go viral seemingly by chance. Driven by a desire to promote their favorite artists’ music even more to non-fans, it isn’t uncommon for fans to edit short video compilations of their idols with, or make up simple choreographies for, their idols’ “B-side” tracks — or songs that aren’t performed on weekly music shows. These strategies often propel these B-sides to new levels of popularity – ENHYPEN’s “Polaroid Love” and TREASURE’s “DARARI,” despite not being promoted actively, surpassed their respective albums’ title tracks in Spotify streams following the creation of TikTok dance challenges and edit trends. 

In this way, fans are suddenly given a unique opportunity to play an integral role in the success of their idols’ activities. Prior to TikTok’s boom in relevance, in order for fans to tangibly demonstrate their loyalty and support for their idols, many spent obscene amounts of money on albums and streaming passes to boost album sales and charting positions. 

In an industry driven by capitalism, it’s interesting to see how TikTok — a free platform — has suddenly become so instrumental in how K-pop is shared, consumed and marketed. Even more so, perhaps the growing prominence of TikTok in relation to K-pop is reflective of the growing shift away from the capitalist nature of the industry itself.

Kacie Yamamoto is a  junior writing about Korean pop music. She is also an associate managing editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column “Kacie on K-pop” runs every other Thursday.