A Guide to K-Pop History, Evolution, and Idol Groups
“Oppa Gangnam Style!”
It’s not a traditional phrase you’d expect to hear at a wedding, but Gangnam Style is being sung and danced to in weddings, parties, and fitness classes around the world today.
Turn on the TV, and you’ll see the popular men’s group BTS featured, not only on Korean, but on American talk shows next to Jay Leno, David Letterman, and the like. Korean culture is spreading like wildfire in a movement known as the Hallyu Wave
Introduction: The Hallyu Wave
These are just two of the many examples of the Hallyu Wave. What is the Hallyu Wave? It is the term of the rapid advancement of Korean culture that is rapidly spreading all over the world. Let’s take a look at a few more examples:
Have you ever tried Korean BBQ? Have you ever fallen into the magical world of all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ restaurants? Korean foods, like Korean BBQ and kimchi, are becoming more popular around the world.
Walk into your nearest Ulta or Sephora, and you’ll see a plethora of Korean cosmetics and skincare products on the shelfs. Korean beauty products and brands have a sterling reputation within the world of women’s skincare and make-up.
Have you ever cried, laughed, and shouted in delight (or frustration) while watching a single show? It’s not an uncommon experience for those who watch Korean dramas. Korean dramas (also known as K-Dramas) tug at the heart, provide psychological thrills, and capture romance in ways that many other dramas do not.
Just last year, Korean filmmaking placed itself firmly on the global stage with the Oscar winning movie, Parasite, the first foreign film to win Best Picture.
Yet among these giant pillars of popular culture, K-pop might be the pillar that stands above them all.
So what exactly is K-Pop? And how did it become so popular?
Korean Pop Music
K-pop stands for “Korean pop music.”
At its core, K-Pop is not that different from other forms of modern pop music. It includes a variety of musical styles, subgenres, and influences — everything from folk and punk to hip-hop and traditional Korean music. Perhaps one distinguishing factor is that their melodies and themes are so catchy that even fans who don’t speak Korean find the songs easy to sing or hum along to.
However, just comparing K-Pop music with music from other countries fails to capture the essence of why K-Pop is so popular and well-loved. K-Pop is not just music; it’s a culture that involves manufacturing and publicizing the perfect idol groups who dress, dance, sing, and set the trends for their global fan bases.
To understand its popularity, we need to look at the history of K-Pop, the science behind creating these Korean idol groups and their music, and examples of the early K-Pop groups that paved the way for its global influence today.
Let’s take a look.
The History of K-Pop
The modern form of K-Pop can trace its origins to a 1992 performance by the band Seo Taiji and Boys on a talent show. They performed a song called “I Know” that featured rapping, Western hip hop stylings, and heavy guitar riffs. It departed from traditional Korean Pop for a heavier, more intense sound.
Though they didn’t win, they grew a devoted following and topped the music charts for 17 weeks. Their song influenced many other artists to incorporate elements of American pop and rap music with more traditional Korean music.
From this point on, modern K-Pop can be loosely organized into three main generations, or eras.
The First Generation: The Founders of K-Pop (1990-2000)
The first generation began with Seo Taiji and other bands that followed suit. Korean music studios were also becoming more and more established.
During this time, groups and bands were still forming and establishing their distinctive style: a blend of Western and Eastern music styles, coordinated group dance performances, and catchy melodies.
This generation of K-Pop music focused on youth and school life. And in step with 90s fashion, the music videos and performances often featured the artists wearing baggy clothing.
Around this time, K-Pop groups started becoming less and less organically grown, and more and more manufactured, as if on an assembly line. Korean music studios put together girl groups and boy groups between four and nine members. They were organized to include vocalists and at least one rapper.
The music was equally manufactured. Songs were produced in studios to blend seamless vocals, intense rap breaks, and catchy hooks. Many songs would contain at least one rap portion.
To add the cherry on top, K-pop idol groups would release music videos that featured some dance choreography, but mainly sold the attractiveness and trendy looks of the idols.
Some popular acts during this first generation included Seo Taiji, H.O.T., and Shinhwa.
The Second Generation: Breaking International Barriers (2001-2007)
The second generation of K-Pop marked the era when K-Pop – the music and the idols – gained global fame and recognition. Second generation idol groups like Super Junior, BIGBANG, Girl’s Generation, and Wonder Girls helped spread K-pop’s popularity worldwide, and these groups are still very influential today.
For example, the Wonder Girls’ hit “Tell Me” introduced the world to their feminine qualities, while simultaneously breaking the delicate ‘feminine girl’ stereotypes with a superhero theme and a strong rap sequence.
Other second generation departures from the first generation included the massive improvements in the dancing skill and the increased use of plastic surgery across the entertainment industry.
Music videos featured captivating storylines, sharp coordination, and dance choreography. Many icons’ transformed their looks to make themselves more attractive and desirable.
Some other popular acts during the second generation include BoA, Rain, TVXQ, KARA, and Brown Eyed Girls.
3rd Generation: Major Expansion and International Influence (2008-Today):
The top groups today – BTS, EXO, 2NE1, to name a few – are at the forefront of today’s third generation of K-Pop.
How has the style changed? It’s become more varied, breaking old formulas on mixing in a little rap with a lot of singing and dancing. And as Electronic Dance Music (EDM) has exploded in popularity around the world, this generation of K-Pop has infused the heavy beats and melodies of EDM into the music too.
K-Pop group members have become style icons too. Their clothing choices have become more bold and stylized. Costumes and face makeup have become more common too.
These groups often go on tours internationally, and now cater their music and acts to more international audiences than ever before. BTS, one of the most popular groups today, has made numerous appearances on mainstream networks in the US, including late night shows, SNL, and New Year’s Eve specials.
The globalization of K-Pop is now led by idol groups like BTS, Blackpink, Red Velvet, Twice, and EXO. Some other popular acts in the third generation include SHINee, 2PM, SISTAR, Infinite, Secret, 4Minute, among many others.
You may have noticed how most of the K-Pop acts are in groups; this is not by accident. Let’s take a look at the tried-and-true “K-Pop Group” formula that the K-Pop industry has created and still utilizes.
What Goes into a Group?
The idol groups themselves are the most fascinating part of the K-pop world. At least 240 new groups have debuted over the last few years — many of whom have become popular far beyond Korea.
Both male and female idols are placed in groups, and these groups can be large, having as many as 40 members in a group. Sometimes groups are made to be an excessive size, so that half the idols can perform in one place while the other half can perform elsewhere at the same time.
Although K-Pop was originally a South Korean phenomenon, becoming an idol is so desirable that people from all over the world show up at idol auditions for their chance to become a K-Pop star. You’ll see teens from the United States, China, Thailand, Japan, and Australia with the hopes of becoming an idol being trained and placed in new groups.
In the K-Pop world, groups are not organic. Starting from the personality they express on screen, to the clothing style they like to wear — the criticism from many is that they are manufactured in the K-Pop lab.
For the rest of the world, we think of bands being formed when childhood friends decide to make music together in their garage. Not so with Korean idol groups; there’s a science behind the process and method to decide which individuals are assembled into which groups.
The idol groups are formed from a group of people who are all talented in at least one of the following: singing, rapping, and dancing. They begin their journey to become an idol (a K-Pop group member) in their teens and then train hard for years. If they are lucky and talented enough, they may be picked for an idol group.
Once assembled, the idols go through a rigorous process of training and rehearsing to become “perfect” for debut. This training is not for the weak-hearted, and the process is notorious for how difficult, draining, and competitive it is.
How to Become an Idol: The Idol Training Process
Idols go through intense training, and even undergo plastic surgery, so they can become the model of perfection for the record labels.
When they’re still young, children who can sing, dance, and rap audition for Korean music studios to become trainees.
If a studio selects a promising young talent to be a trainee for a K-Pop group, they will spend years studying singing, dancing, rapping, and acting. They’ll learn how to become a carefully polished celebrity. This includes how to perform onstage, handle live events, and interact with fans. All of this is for the purpose of joining a K-Pop idol group.
Contrast this to the process in other countries, where record labels will show interest in up-and-coming musicians and offer a record deal.
After years of agonizing training, the K-pop groups then debut with their first song or mini-album. They’ll perform all over the place for a period of 1-2 months to promote their lead single. As they publicize the music, they must be careful to also perform the choreography perfectly and dance with a smile on their faces.
As much as people dream of becoming an idol, the life of an idol can be very cold and grueling. Many idols suffer from anxiety and depression as they face the pressure of studio contracts and demands.
There are strict restrictions on weight, looks, and relationships. For some idols, the contracts are known as “slave contracts,” and the record labels can often cross the line between being demanding and being abusive.
After several whistleblowers and a series of scandals, a harsh spotlight is being cast onto these unfortunate aspects of the industry.
As a result, parts of the treatment and life of idols are improving. K-Pop groups are becoming more diverse with black and gay idols. However, many issues still persist, including concerns about the exploitation and harassment of women, drug abuse, sexual violence, and sexual assault.
Who Goes into Which Group?
With creating groups of large sizes, it’s important for the record label companies to create clearly defined roles and structure within the K-Pop groups. But given how much a band is required to perform and be in public, it makes sense to have more members to carry and split the load.
Group roles can be hazy and shift over time within each group. But the set roles help a group shape its identity, and give each member a main responsibility and image to uphold. Having roles also helps to improve how a group functions and what the members’ relationships are to one another. There’s usually a rapper, a lead vocalist, and main dancers in each group.
Below are the roles you’ll start to recognize in K-pop groups:
The leader is the spokesperson for the group in media appearances and interviews. They also serve as a mentor for the other band members. Because seniority and respecting those older than you are important elements of Korean culture, the leader is usually one of the oldest members.
The Good Looking One(s)
Every group needs to have some eye candy in order to gain fans and be the centerpiece in advertisements and photoshoots. This person is called the “visual”. Calling a member the “visual” is not an insult; rather, it is considered as a high compliment. The visual is the one considered the most attractive. However, fans may disagree about who the “visual” really is.
The Public Face
This role requires someone who can skillfully represent the group in public and at events. It can be interchangeable with the Leader and the Visual.
The Dancers, Vocalists, and Rappers
In music videos and concerts, each of these 3 roles will receive their fair share of spotlight. It’s important to match the talent with the skill. K-Pop groups are beloved because they equally combine looks, talent, and marketable appeal without sacrificing any of these aspects.
Dancers can help lead the entire group, especially when there’s difficult choreography. The best singers are given the most solos and the difficult parts. The rappers get centerstage during the rap portion of the song and tend to be the trendy or edgy one of the group.
Each of these roles can be fluid, or only hazily defined. They can also change from album to album. But it helps to know how the group is structured in order to understand the hierarchy, the best singers and dancers, and also the public face for the group.
KPop’s Influence in the World Today
One look at YouTube’s top videos list and the most popular videos show the power of K-Pop idol groups. It is not hard to understand why K-Pop idol groups are so popular, and why many people have become addicted to them. The songs are catchy, the choreographies are impressive (yet easy to follow along and even encouraged to be mimicked), and the members are charming and good-looking.
A lot of effort goes into perfecting their public image, and producing the music and videos to make the idols sound great and look cool. Dance numbers in these videos are performed in the streets, foreign locales, or out-of-the-world sets. The idols look fierce and dance with intensity, but at the same time, they make it look so easy.
Since the second generation, K-Pop has been gradually growing in the realm of pop culture and music. K-Pop exploded onto the map in a big way when Psy’s “Gangnam Style” went viral back in 2012, becoming the first video to cross 1 billion views on YouTube. Today, that number stands at 3.6 billion views.
The momentum continues even today, as BTS stands front and center of the world of K-pop in many’s eyes. Today, it’s not an exaggeration to call K-Pop a global phenomenon!
The K-Pop Groups Who Made K-Pop International
Girls’ Generation, also known as SNSD, is a long-standing group and one of the most respected girl groups in K-Pop, receiving the nickname “The Nation’s Girl Group.” They debuted in August 2007 and became a worldwide sensation with the song “Gee!,” considered one of the most popular songs of the entire decade. It originally consisted of 9 members, but one member, Jessica left the group in 2014.
Wonder Girls was another top girl’s Group, with hit singles such as “Tell Me” and “Nobody” that propelled them to fame in 2007 and 2008. They are known for their retro style, and although they have officially disbanded as of 2017, they helped usher in the rise of K-Pop internationally. For instance, they served as the opening act for the Jonas Brothers World Tour and attempted to break into the Billboard Top 100 charts through an-U.S. focused world tour.
For boy groups, the two most famous ones in Korea have been TVXQ and Big Bang. TVXQ was formed in 2003 and once had the biggest fan club in the world. TVXQ (also known as DBSK) is well known on the internet. They sold over 10 million records in their first 10 years. Today, they only consist of two original members, with two having left.
Big Bang is one of the most influential K-Pop groups and helped spread the Korean Wave internationally. Still active today, they are known as the “Kings of K-Pop.” They’ve been active since 2006, selling over 150 million records, beating out the Backstreet Boys for the record of most albums sold. Their music has a unique style that is very catchy, and their music has continued to evolve with each album. Big Bang has paved the way for newer idol groups, and their style and influence will be remembered for years to come. They were also present greatly in television shows, dramas, and movies, propelling their fame beyond just the music industry.
One of these mega-popular groups who came afterwards is BTS, formed in 2010. They have become the best selling act in South Korean history, and are still going strong, garnering a global audience well beyond Korea. According to Wikipedia, they are responsible for attracting 1 out of every 13 tourists that visit South Korea.
K-Pop Choreography That Made the Whole World Dance
The dancing and choreography may be the most unique and iconic part of K-Pop, which is saying a lot, since K-Pop boasts catchy music and beautiful aesthetics as well.
When you enjoy K-Pop, you don’t just listen. You are supposed to dance along too.
K-Pop idols train for years to become the best dancers. Some even spend years training overseas to improve their skill. Choreography is so important to K-Pop. Think about it: the most memorable parts of songs are associated with the dance routines attached to them.
Think of Psy’s Gangnam Style. As Psy raps through the verses in his live concerts, the entire audience is ready to explode once the chorus hits. In an instant, fans can break out their horse and lasso dance. Wonder Girls similarly used a memorable yet simple dance during the chorus for their hit song “Tell Me.” You’ll find people ready to break out these moves at the next wedding or flash mob, regardless of their nationality or language.
K-Pop choreography tends to be a broad fusion of many styles: hip-hop, club, and jazz, to name a few. As K-Pop has become more physically intense over the years, dancers are challenged to perform more difficult choreography.
Especially with large groups, they are judged by how well they dance, not just individually, but together. Some K-Pop dance sequences often follow a pattern of separation and unification. They keep group members apart until a dramatic moment, when they come together to dance in perfect unison.
Despite the difficulty of the choreography, K-Pop idol groups invest a lot into making it seem as if their dances are accessible and easy to follow. They encourage their fans to dance along to the songs, whether at the concert venues or at home in their own rooms.
One way in which K-Pop idol groups achieve this is by making and releasing high-quality practice videos that not only show off the groups’ skills, but inspire their fans to follow along. They perform moves that are visually appealing, yet simple enough to follow along. The dance videos help promote the groups as talented, hard-working and relatable by showing them in a more casual setting.
Some songs also feature a “performance video,” which is pretty much just the dance performance of the official music video.
So if you’d like to enjoy K-Pop to the fullest, take a look at some “performance” or “how to” videos to follow along the next time you play the song. This is the full K-Pop experience.
The Best 9 Songs to Get a Taste of K-Pop
By now, I hope you’re ready to listen and dance, rather than read more, about K-Pop. In this section, we’ll introduce a number of songs and videos that capture the essence of K-Pop, its most culturally significant songs, and the timeline of its transformation.
You’ll see a mix here of familiar groups like Girls’ Generation, BIGBANG, BTS and more. Whether you’re here to listen or simply want to know more about the musical style, this list should help you on your quest.
And beyond some of the big names, there are plenty of other artists to discover that I’m sure you’ll find from online fan sites and music resources once you begin exploring the world of K-Pop.
1. Wonder Girls — “Tell Me” (2007)
“Tell Me” is an uptempo song about a girl who has fallen in love. She hopes that the guy would tell her that he likes her too. This bubblegum-style song topped the charts and featured choreography that fans around the world still know and dance to until this day.
Fun Fact about the Wonder Girls: Because they toured with and opened for the Jonas Brothers in their 2009 world tour, they became close with the rock trio. Their exposure on this tour also helped fan the flames of Hallyu, the Korean Wave, and spread the love for Korean music and culture from Korea to the rest of the world.
2. Girls’ Generation — “Gee” (2008)
Of all the musical genres associated with K-Pop, “bubblegum pop” is still one of the most characteristic of Korea. This list would be incomplete without acknowledging “Gee.”
Gee was the most popular South Korean song of its decade. Though some Girls’ Generation members left the group in the last few years, they have established their position as one of South Korea’s greatest girl groups ever.
Fun Fact about Girls’ Generation: They hated their name at first, and a member even cried, saying that they trained so hard only to receive such an unremarkable name. Little did she know that they would later be very thankful for the name and the record-breaking history they would make together.
3. BIGBANG: “Fantastic Baby” (2012)
“Fantastic Baby” was released in 2012 by the Kings of K-Pop, Big Bang. It remains a track that is able to bring everyone to the dance floor. It was a key song that helped spread the Hallyu Wave across Europe due to its house and electro-influenced beats, and is known as “one of the biggest K-Pop hits ever.” It’s distinguishable for its strong beat and energetic tone. Big Bang continues to innovate and set trends in K-Pop, even over a decade after their inception.
Fun Fact about BIGBANG: The singer, songwriter, and composer G-Dragon became interested in music after receiving a Wu Tang Clan album when he was 6. He didn’t know English, but memorized the rap to it. He takes pride in writing songs; he doesn’t just conceive the lyrics, but creates the dance and the production too. He’d rather be complimented for his abilities as a writer than for his looks, despite being considered as one of the “visuals” of Big Bang.
4. PSY – “Gangnam Style” (2012)
Psy burst onto the global scene with this smash hit in 2012 that became the first YouTube video to cross 1 billion views. The song, Gangnam Style, comments on the lifestyle of the rich Gangnam district of Seoul. However, the catchy dance and tune has led to fans, politicians, and athletes all over the world to learn the Gangnam style dance. By the end of 2012, this song had topped the music charts of more than 30 countries.
Fun Fact about PSY: His love for music began by watching footage of Queen perform “Bohemian Rhapsody” at Wembley Stadium. He was being prepared to take over a business from his father (the DI Corporation), but he lost interest while studying in the United States and spent his tuition on musical instruments. He started at Boston University, but dropped out and applied to study at Berklee College of music instead. However, he didn’t finish there either as he returned to South Korea to pursue his music career.
5. Girls’ Generation — “I Got a Boy” (2013)
Speaking of Girls’ Generation, they dabbled into tonal shifts and BPM shifts with this 2013 smash hit, “I Got a Boy.” Though they made their name through bubblegum classics like “Gee”, this song demonstrates their abilities in an unfamiliar realm. The song is split between five movements, and there are 40-BPM tempo jumps, and a spectrum of genres, covering snap music to disco. Despite how disorienting it may sound, it has garnered over 230 million views on Youtube.
6. BTS — “Fire” (2016)
BTS is one of the most successful K-Pop groups in South Korean music history. They’re a household name, not just to Koreans but to those around the world too.
But if you’re still unfamiliar with BTS’ musical style, have a chance to listen to their single “Fire” for its tense builds and rallying chorus, and then head to the dirty beats of “MIC Drop” and, “Blood Sweat & Tears.” Through these 3 songs, you’ll be able to get a good sense of their style and why they have a tight grip on fans around the world today.
Fun Fact about BTS: BTS stands for “Bangtan Sonyeondan”, which means “Bulletproof Boy Scouts.” The 7 members of BTS go out of their way to interact with their global fanbase, by staying active on social media and hosting a lot of livestreams. They also produce a lot of their own music – which has a heavy hip hop influence – and they shatter records every time they release a new single or album.
7. BLACKPINK — “Playing With Fire” (2016)
BLACKPINK is part of the latest generation of girl groups and they have a huge fanbase for their distinctive vocal delivery and strong pop stylings. “Playing With Fire” has a distinct sound, and there’s more than a hint of bite to the girls’ voices that will leave you desiring for more.
Fun Fact about BLACKPINK: One of their members is from Australia, one studied in New Zealand, and one speaks English, Thai, and Korean because she is from Thailand, not South Korea. With such an eclectic background and members who can speak multiple languages, the members of BLACKPINK are able to interact and engage with fans from all over the world.
8. EXO — “Ko Ko Bop” (2017)
Ko Ko Bop is an energetic reggae song that topped the charts in 2017. It was written by a few of the members of the 9-person group EXO. EXO, which began in 2012 with a superpower concept and a lot of exposition, has been popular and well-loved for their exploration of dozens of concepts and sounds, from icy funk to lush orchestration. So not only is it hard to find a single that isn’t super catchy, but their numerous incarnations provide a thrilling pop evolution.
Fun Fact about EXO: EXO is a large group, and was created intentionally at that size to support 2 subgroups: EXO-K that sings in Korean, and EXO-M that sings in Mandarin. They would be able to do tours and sing songs simultaneously because of the amount of members they had.
9. VIXX — “Scentist” (2018)
The six-member VIXX boy group has made a memorable and impressionable debut in the K-Pop world through their single, the Scentist. They use concepts that touch upon horror and Greek mythology, while their sound can be described as a dark synth-pop that overflows with passion. “Scentist” is a sensual, aromatically-inspired track with a dark ambiance. This Gothic style appealed to K-Pop fans who were looking for something more edgy and intense than the standard “bubble-gum pop” that was still popular in the Korean music industry at that time.
Through this guide on K-Pop, we were able to trace the steps of the industry and its evolution through history to understand more about how K-Pop is taking the world by storm today.
K-Pop has changed greatly over 30 years, but the combination of well trained and talented idols, catchy, well-produced music, and dance numbers that everyone can imitate, have made K-Pop into not just a type of music, but a global, cultural phenomenon.
If you haven’t given K-Pop a chance, hopefully this guide has inspired you to check out and enjoy some of the most popular hits. Not every song is for everyone, but still, K-Pop is here to stay and will only continue to grow in the years to come.
What are your favorite K-Pop groups? What was your first K-Pop song that you loved?
Share about your K-Pop love in the comments below!