K-pop has taken the world by storm. It slowly started accumulating international fans in the early 2000s, and now it’s a global phenomenon that consistently creates record-breaking hits.
Despite its international success, this massive genre of music has very humble beginnings and interesting history. This guide will briefly define K-pop and provide prime examples of what K-pop is and where it could be heading.
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A cohesive K-pop music definition is a bit of a challenge to conjure because it encompasses a wide range of musical genres and influences.
K-pop is an umbrella genre of mainstream music originating from South Korea. It’s a part of Hallyu, or the Korean wave, which is the rise in popularity of Korean music, TV shows, movies, and other pop culture elements.
A significant reason why K-pop became so popular is that it covers different musical styles and genres, so it appeals to more people. Since the start, it has mixed different styles. Today, many trending K-pop groups fuse hip-hop, jazz, rock, trap, and EDM.
Every K-pop artist draws inspiration and influences from various genres of music. However, K-pop still has key defining characteristics that make it distinctively its own style of music.
K-pop isn’t just about musicality or top hits. It’s an immersive experience that expands into other expressions of art, including dance, fashion, and videography.
K-pop usually blends Korean influences with western genres. K-pop first blended pop, R&B, and traditional ballads. However, many K-pop hits follow western music trends, so many recent hits contain elements of EDM and trap.
Many K-pop bands now aim to elevate these genres with their own homegrown flair. Therefore, when you listen to K-pop, the songs will have familiar western genres in them, but it has a distinctive Korean style that differentiates it from western music.
Usually, groups perform K-pop hits, and these groups average between five to six members. However, some groups can hit the double digits, such as Neo Culture Technology (NCT). NCT has 23 members that perform in rotating subgroups.
Many veteran groups eventually split off after performing for years, and members will do solo acts. There are several successful solo acts, such as Lee Hyori. However, the most popular K-pop acts are boy bands and girl bands.
The road to becoming a K-pop idol is long and hard-earned. It can take over seven years before someone makes their first debut.
Every K-pop idol starts as a trainee. Entertainment companies and K-pop labels use scouts or hold auditions to select K-pop trainees.
Once someone becomes a trainee, they undergo intensive training to work their way to debuting in a K-pop group. Trainees have dance and vocal training, but they also learn how to keep a clean image. Trainees receive evaluations regularly until they get deemed ready for debut.
This intensive training has its controversies. However, K-pop groups with global success have trainees that went through years of hard work to achieve their current stardom.
The ability to dance is equally as important as singing in the K-pop world. Dance is such a significant component of K-pop that many songs include instrumentals specifically for dance breaks.
K-pop hits have elaborate music videos, and they usually contain intricate choreography. Many dance moves become viral and boost the popularity of the songs.
Most K-pop groups have their own style, and many K-pop idols become fashion icons. Their style gets showcased in their music videos, live performances, and personal social media accounts. It’s common to see younger generations mimic the hairstyles and clothing of their favorite K-pop idols.
You can also frequently see K-pop groups having a cohesive style with individual members developing their own style within the group.
Every K-pop group produces songs with its own signature blend of genres. So, a wide variety of sounds and styles fall under the vast umbrella of K-pop music.
“Candy” is a bubblegum pop song mixed with rap, and it’s legendary in the K-pop world. It was on the debut album of the K-pop boy band, H.O.T. This boy band soared to success and gained admiration in Korean pop culture. It became the framework that a lot of successive K-pop bands followed.
Although the song debuted in 1996, it still holds nostalgic popularity, and many other K-pop bands have done covers of it, including Big Bang, PENTAGON, and Shinee.
As evidence of how much South Korea loves this song, H.O.T. had a reunion performance in 2018 that included “Candy,” and the audience went wild. The song received just as much love as it did when it first debuted 17 years ago.
Lee Hyori is a dynamic K-pop idol who started as a member of the girl group Fin.K.L and eventually became a solo singer. She’s an artist who always stood her ground as a strong woman, and many of her songs contain messages that encourage and empower women.
“U-Go-Girl” is no exception to Lee Hyori’s brand of feminine strength. The lyrics encourage women not to be shy and to be bold instead. The song itself is a cheerful dance number with a catchy hook.
Lee Hyori is one of the first breakout solo female K-pop stars, and she paved the way for many younger female K-pop stars.
Many recognize “Gangnam Style” as a significant song that pushed the Korean Wave. Released in 2012, this iconic dance-pop song went viral and became the first YouTube video to reach 1 billion views.
The song also reached number two on Billboard Hot 100 and topped charts in more than 30 different countries. The iconic dance choreography that occurs at the instrumental breaks only added to the virality of the song.
The song itself is a satirical commentary on materialism, class, and wealth in South Korea. It humorously points out how materialism affects people and how they’ll unreasonably purchase designer items as a status symbol. It also pokes fun at people trying hard to be something that they’re not.
The music video reinforces this idea by using sets and costumes that reflect a cheap version of the actual glamorous Gangnam Style.
Since its release in 2008, this song acquired many accolades that helped put K-pop on the global map. It was the first K-pop song to enter the Billboard Hot 100, and it became even more popular when Wonder Girls recorded an English version of it.
“Nobody” mixes dance-pop and electropop and has a reasonably easy dance that many people learned and copied. The dance only added to the song’s popularity and became viral. The song and dance proved to many in the music industry that K-pop can appeal to the American market.
This song is one of Big Bang’s biggest hits, and it received recognition and high praise for its catchy breaks and shifts. It was a part of the boy band’s experimental music that fused hip hop, EDM, and trap elements with several breaks within one song.
The formula was very different from other songs in the K-pop scene at the time. However, its creativity and ingenuity paid off and garnered international recognition. The song reached the top spot on the Billboard World Digital Song Sales chart and was the most viewed K-pop group video on Youtube in 2015.
The song also had a cultural impact as Seoul University students played it in their protest for the resignation of President Park Geun-Hye in 2016. The South Korean government also selected this song to play in its loudspeaker propaganda to North Korea. The government initiated this propaganda due to the nuclear tests that occurred in January 2016.
This song is a fusion of EDM, hip hop, trap, club, and pop music. It had a spot in the record charts of many different countries, and the music video had the most views within 24 hours for a music video on Youtube.
Aside from the catchy hook, the song was also very popular because of its positive message. It talks about not losing confidence in oneself and having the strength to get back up again after a fall.
Dynamite was released in 2020 and quickly became a worldwide success. Writers and producers of this song drew inspiration from 1970s music to create an upbeat disco song with funk, soul, and bubblegum pop mixed into it.
The song’s original intent was to cheer up listeners amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the band members sang about looking out for and appreciating the little things in life.
This positive and relevant message, along with the upbeat melody, pushed this song to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It became the first all-South Korean act to top this chart, and it sat in the top spot for three weeks.
We’ve picked five K-pop bands that are worth mentioning. We acknowledge that many exemplary K-pop bands deserve to be on a top-five list. So, this list isn’t exhaustive.
Blackpink is a girl group under YG Entertainment. It has four members, Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa. The main type of music this group produces and performs is a mixture of EDM, hip hop, and trap.
Since its debut in 2016, this group has climbed to the top to achieve international recognition and accolades.
Blackpink has two music videos that broke records for the most-viewed music videos with the first 24 hours of release on YouTube. This group has the most YouTube subscribers in the category of music acts, and it’s also the most-followed girl group on Spotify.
The group’s major hits include “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” and “Ice Cream.”
BTS, or the Bangtan Boys, debuted in 2013 with Big Hit Entertainment. The group consists of seven members: Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. BTS started as a hip hop group, but over the years, it added pop, R&B, and EDM elements into its music.
BTS members co-write and co-produce many of their songs. They also appeal to today’s youth because much of their lyrics provide social commentary on coming of age, mental health, and self-acceptance.
To date, BTS is the best-selling artist in South Korean history and received several international awards. It won the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) 2020 award for Global Recording Artist of the year. Some of their most popular songs include “Dynamite,” “Mic Drop,” and “Savage Love.”
This boy band debuted in 2006 and made significant contributions to pushing the boundaries of experimental K-pop, which eventually helped boost the popularity of K-pop in the global scene.
Along with “Bang Bang Bang,” their songs, “Fantastic Baby” and “Bae Bae” are just a few examples amongst many experimental hits that reflect this group’s unique flair and stage presence.
Big Bang’s approach of embracing its uniqueness helped shape the identities of the next generation of K-pop groups. Many successful K-pop groups followed suit and started becoming their own distinct brand and style of music.
Each group member also has successful solo projects, and their achievements led to the group receiving the name “Kings of K-pop.” This group is arguably one of the top influential acts in K-pop history.
Girls’ Generation, or SNSD, debuted in 2007 under SM Entertainment. This girl group originally consisted of nine members, and It was one of the first K-pop groups to have a large number of members. Its success led them to become “The Nation’s Girl Group” in South Korea.
Girl’s Generation gained traction with their 2009 single, “Gee,” and released many subsequent national favorites. The group started as a bubblegum pop and electropop group, eventually fusing hip hop, R&B, and EDM.
Several of the groups’ members had successful solo songs and projects. Since the group was so large, they could also form subgroups, which also performed pretty well.
The group is currently on hiatus, and many of the members moved forward in pursuing their own projects in other parts of the entertainment industry. Some have pursued acting, started YouTube channels, and made variety show appearances.
The general public sees these solo ventures as a healthy model of how veteran K-pop groups can continue growing and evolving in the industry.
Like how H.O.T. made K-pop popular, TVXQ was one of the leading groups that helped bring about the K-pop resurgence. K-pop experienced a drop in popularity in the late 1990s, but TVXQ’s first single, “Hug,” boosted this group into Korean mainstream recognition.
From there, the group only continued to succeed throughout the 2000s and had many hits, including “Tri-Angle,” “Rising Sun,” and “Mirotic.” The group went through several phases of musical genres and mainly incorporated pop, rock, R&B, and electronic music elements to produce hybrid hits.
K-pop started becoming popular again as TVXQ performed dynamic and powerful acts at their concerts. The group also had members with strong vocals and often performed solid acapella versions of their songs equally as popular as the originals.
The group disbanded in 2010, and TVXQ became a duo. It was on hiatus as the members fulfilled their military service. In 2017, TVXQ returned with comeback tours, and although they had a positive reception in South Korea, their popularity continues to grow mainly in Japan.
The blending of Korean culture and Western music found its roots in 1885. An American missionary by the anime of Henry Appenzeller taught American and British songs at school. Koreans adopted these Western melodies with Korean lyrics, and these hybrid songs became known as “changgas.”
After the Korean War in the 1950s, US troops remained in South Korea, and Western culture continued to spread. Korean singers began to perform at US army clubs and sang songs of western genres, including jazz, blues, and rock & roll.
Beatlemania spread to South Korea in the 1960s, and it inspired South Korean artists to start their own rock bands. One of the first all-Korean rock bands, Add4, appeared in 1962.
South Koreans grew attached to the sound of group vocals from The Beatles, which eventually developed into boy bands and girl bands.
In the 1970s, American folk music started to inspire many Korean artists. MBC, a local television channel, began broadcasting music contests for university students. These contests set the stage for future elaborate music festivals that helped boost Korean bands to fame.
K-pop entered a decade of ballads in the 1980s. Then, a historic shift occurred in the 1990s when the first iconic K-pop boy band, Seo Taiji and Boys, performed its hit song, “I Know,” on one of MBC’s talent shows. This song received criticism from the show’s jury, but it quickly became a hit with the general public.
Seo Taiji and Boys continued to pioneer the K-pop scene and push boundaries to create unique sounds that Korean listeners had never heard before. This band paved the way for modern K-pop to expand into what it is today.
With Seo Taiji and Boys’ immense popularity amongst teenagers, the Korean music industry began to cater to this group of listeners. After years of training, one of the first K-pop idol groups, H.O.T., debuted in 1996.
H.O.T. was an outstanding group at the time because all the members had to train on many components outside of singing. They had to learn to dance, practice proper etiquette, and be presentable in front of the media.
The wide-range success of this boy band led to the formation of many other K-pop bands, including Sechs Kies, S.E.S., and Fin.K.L. All these bands followed a similar business and training model as H.O.T. and achieved notable success.
Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, refers to the increased popularity of South Korean culture in the international community. Although K-pop bands experienced a plateau in the late-1990s, a resurgence occurred with the debut of the boy band TVXQ in 2003.
Many other K-pop bands followed suit, and iconic bands reappeared in the 2000s, including SS501, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, Shinee, Wonder Girls, and 2NE1.
Around this time, K-pop groups expanded their member numbers. Both Super Junior and Girls’ Generation had nine members each, which was an unusually large number at the time.
Adding members from different Asian countries also started to become more common. This only boosted the Hallyu movement as K-pop bands appealed to other countries and overcame language barriers.
The formation of the boy band Big Bang in 2006 pushed Hallyu even further. Although they had a mediocre debut, they eventually started producing chart-topping songs, such as “Lies” and “Haru Haru.”
Like Seo Taiji and Boys, Big Bang also pushed the boundaries of K-pop. They set music trends with their experimental approaches and unapologetic lyrics, and they consistently produced something different.
Big Bang grew popular in Japan, and they eventually had their first world tour in 2012. The band members eventually received the moniker “Kings of K-pop,” and many subsequent K-pop bands followed in their footsteps.
Big Bang received praise for being unique, and many other K-pop groups started to follow this approach. K-pop groups began to become their own brand with unique and distinctive styles that set them apart from one another.
Today, K-pop continues to grow in popularity. Bands such as BTS and Blackpink have songs that topped the Billboard charts and music videos that surpassed 1 billion views. K-pop bands have started many trends, so it won’t be any surprise if they continue to push the boundaries of pop culture.
K-pop has always been an evolutionary process that blends different genres to create new and inspiring sounds.
It doesn’t seem like the K-pop craze is going to die down any time soon. It continues to set trends, and several K-pop idols are pioneers in the experimental music scene.
So, it’s an exciting time for K-pop fans, and it’s never too late to join a fandom to support your favorites.