Coachella
Artwork by Olivia White

K-pop artists take on Coachella

Those chronically online probably had their social media feeds flooded by one thing last weekend (no, it’s not The Tortured Poets Department) – Coachella, the annual rock music festival, featuring big names and even bigger stages, lavish costumes, and influencers galore. Running for two consecutive weekends from 12 – 14 April and 19 – 21 April this year, Coachella remains one of the largest and most iconic music festivals in the world, averaging 125 000 daily attendees in recent years. 

This year’s festival featured Lana Del Rey, Doja Cat and Tyler, The Creator as headliners, performing alongside rising stars like Sabrina Carpenter, Ice Spice, Renee Rapp, and a host of up and coming artists from a variety of genres – indie, EDM, rock – you name it, they have it. Interestingly though, the lineup was further graced by a rather unexpected genre – K-pop, short for Korean pop music, with artists like ATEEZ, LE SSERAFIM and The Rose making an appearance. 

This certainly isn’t new – previous renditions of Coachella have invited K-pop trailblazers like BLACKPINK and aespa, but this does seem to indicate a trend towards an opening of the floodgates to more K-pop acts (and more broadly, South Korean acts). Simultaneously, this serves as a testament to the porous and fluid definitions of what is deemed “popular music” today, as well as to the appeal of the “Korean Wave”, or “K-wave”, referring generally to the global craze for Korean culture – a term so closely linked to the nation’s soft power that the Victoria and Albert Museum dedicated an entire exhibition to charting the miraculous rise of this phenomenon in 2022. 

Appearing on a stage as significant as the one in Coachella was no easy feat, and was a key catapult in BLACKPINK’s exponential rise to global stardom.

So what does this say about the future of K-pop, and the future of “popular” music? Appearing on a stage as significant as the one in Coachella was no easy feat, and was a key catapult in BLACKPINK’s exponential rise to global stardom. The four-member girl group made their first Coachella appearance in 2019 as the first ever K-pop girl group to play a US festival, still a newcomer to the music scene then after only debuting in 2016. 

Dubbed the “monster rookies” by Korean media upon their debut, BLACKPINK’s stage was a phenomenal success – performing title tracks like Kill This Love, BOOMBAYAH, and As If It’s Your Last, the four girls ignited the stage, complete with roaring fan chants, fiery dance moves and charismatic vocals. BLACKPINK’s resounding success and popularity was perfectly encapsulated in a Vulture article, which wrote: “On Friday afternoon, BLACKPINK fever officially hit Coachella.” 

Festival-goers were thrilled. Some consider inviting BLACKPINK as a historic and revolutionary move, one in line with the festival’s goal to bring more international pop acts to wider audiences. Others were just there for the music, dancing, and all-in-all having a good time to BLACKPINK’s famously catchy beats. Language barriers aside, it’s safe to say that the energy was at its peak well into the night. In 2023, BLACKPINK made their return, though this time as a headliner, making history as the first K-pop group to headline Coachella. 

BLACKPINK’s performance marked a promising beginning for future K-pop involvement in US music festivals. In 2022, another girl group, aespa, performed as part of record label 88rising’s Head in the Clouds Forever showcase, where the quartet gave their first full-length performance in the US after debuting in South Korea just about a year ago. 

Following this trend, this year’s Coachella included K-pop boy and girl groups ATEEZ and LE SSERAFIM respectively, with the former being the first male K-pop group to perform at Coachella. Korean indie band The Rose also made an appearance last weekend, marking the first ever performance of a Korean band on the Coachella stage. 

While ATEEZ and The Rose seemed to receive a rather unanimously positive reaction from audiences and netizens, LE SSERAFIM’s reception seemed to be more mixed. Specifically, fans reported that their performance was rather disappointing, with messy and unstable vocals and an over-reliance on shouting instead of singing. Granted, other fans came to LE SSERAFIM’s defence, claiming that they’ve outdone themselves considering the sheer scale of a Coachella stage and the fact that they’ve debuted barely two years ago. 

Regardless of the outcome of the performance, I think it is a feat in itself to step onto the Coachella stage as a foreign artist, and bring the music you know and love to a wider audience.

What, then, does this bode for the reception of K-pop internationally? Regardless of the outcome of the performance, I think it is a feat in itself to step onto the Coachella stage as a foreign artist, and bring the music you know and love to a wider audience. Speaking to Los Angeles Times before the event, the band’s bassist Lee Jaehyeong said: “We are proud to represent Korea in listeners’ personal journeys in music. We have so many artists from different lands and styles that we want to watch this year as fans again.” 

It’s clear – K-pop is here to stay, and Coachella’s intentional broadening of its international reach is sure to bring diverse music and even larger crowds to this already iconic music festival. And who knows? Festival-goers might leave the festival with a stronger appreciation for Korean (or more broadly, Asian) music, and maybe even a new favourite band or two.