What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you think of K-pop? Let me guess, bubblegum pop, synchronized dance moves, and brightly colored music videos? Well, you’re not alone. A lot of people perceive K-pop as a novelty with few accidental successes in the West, thanks to a couple of groups of dedicated K-pop Idol fans.
But is that all there is to K-pop?
If you have not been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you’d know K-Pop or Korean pop music has become a staple in the Western music market recently and even more so with their online social media presence.
Groups like BTS (Beyond The Scene or Bangtan Sonyeondan) have become regulars in the Billboard Hot 100 charts and even went to the Grammys in 2019. Other groups like MONSTA X, NCT 127, Red Velvet, and BLACKPINK, have had tour dates out for many of the countries in the West.
So, where did this surge of insane popularity come from? Was it a sudden burst that finally let K-pop artists break into the Western mainstream market? Or was it a gradual build-up of momentum from years and years of building a fan base outside of South Korea? To find out, we have to start at the beginning of K-pop.
So, how was K-pop born?
Unlike other genres of music, the birth of K-pop is actually definitive and traceable. In the past, South Korea had tight regulations and laws regarding music and entertainment. But once those laws were relaxed, a big change began to come through in the form of the iconic Seo Taiji and Boys.
Seo Taiji was a member of a South Korean heavy metal band that had enjoyed brief success. He recruited two dancers and went on a talent show that was a primary source of entertainment for the South Korean people at a time with limited sources. Seo Taiji and Boys performed a song called Nan Arayo (I know) in 1992 and represented teen angst and social pressure from the education system in South Korea.
And inadvertently, they brought a significant change in the music scene that inspired other future artists to experiment with their works by combining the sounds of American pop music with Hip-hop, rap, and dance.
After Seo Taiji and Boys disbanded in 1996, another genre-defining phase of K-pop started in the form of the Big 3. The Big 3 are the most significant three music studios in South Korea, with a plethora of iconic K-pop idols to brag about. They also are the reason behind the whole concept of a K-pop idol group.
The first of the Big 3 was SM entertainment, started by Lee Soo-man in 1995 which has produced some of the biggest names in K-pop like Girls Generation, Super Junior, Shinee, EXO, and F(x), to name a few. Then came JYP Entertainment, established by Park Jin-young in 1997 that has some of the hottest groups in K-pop right now like TWICE, Got7, Stray Kids, and Day6.
And last but not the least, came YG Entertainment of the Big 3, established by one of the members of Seo Taiji and Boys, Yang Hyun-suk in 1998. With names like Epik High, 2NE1, Sechskies, BLACKPINK, Winner, and iKON, YG established itself as a major competitor in the K-pop scene.
The first K-pop idol group ever was H.O.T debuted by SM Entertainment in 1996. And it was only the beginning. What these music studios started doing was that they would take a bunch of pretty fairly-talented people as trainees under their entertainment company, and literally train them for years to become the perfect pop star. They would usually be formed into groups and release music videos with synchronized choreographies to match.
Now, imagine for a moment a group of good-looking people, who can dance well, and sing songs that are easy on the ears. Not only that, they have a lot of content in the form of behind-the-scenes looks at their lives or participation in entertainment shows to help their fans connect with them.
Sounds like a perfect strategy to gain an intense fan base. And that is precisely what happened. Each of the K-pop idol groups has a fan base with a distinct name, a distinct fan chant, and the idols never fail to mention their fans any chance they get. BLACKPINK have the Blinks, MONSTA X have their Monbebes. And as for BTS, they have ARMY.
Now, in the past, a lot of groups have come close to cracking or at least knocking on the Western market’s door. Wonder Girls, a girl group under JYP Entertainment were the first K-pop group ever to have a song debut on the Billboard’s Hot 100 charts in 2008. It was a historic moment for K-pop, as it was just the beginning of their international stardom.
Then groups like Super Junior and Girls Generation from SM Entertainment introduced a larger portion of the western music listeners to K-pop. In fact, Girls Generation is still quoted as being the queens of K-pop, and that title has more or less remained unchallenged.
And while all these groups were doing well internationally, both in and outside of Asia, their presence was still largely unknown by the general public in the West. But it all changed when Psy released the viral hit Gangnam Style in 2012, breaking all sorts of YouTube records and letting the whole world know exactly what K-pop looks and sounds like.
But while Psy broke down the door in the Western music for K-pop, he didn’t stay for long beyond his viral hit. So, someone else had to carry the torch for K-pop. That’s when BTS comes in. A group that debuted in 2013, they took a while to gain international attention, but once they started, they haven’t slowed down since.
From having two of their latest albums peak at number 1 on Billboard 200 charts to breaking several YouTube records, BTS has brought the K-pop craze right through the front door of the U.S.
Their intense fan base called ARMY fills up any award shows that BTS is attending with cheers and chants, helping them gain exposure through social media, radios, and awards. Also, the amount of critical acclaim along with the commercial success of BTS has allowed them to solidify their position as actual artists and not just some K-pop novelty in the Western market.
From their Grammy appearances to their speech at the U.N. General Assembly on their End Violence campaign, BTS not only gained a lot of international fans for themselves but also for the entire K-pop industry because when fans get into a certain type of music, you search for other similar artists or songs. While BTS cemented K-pop as a big player in the West, many of other K-pop groups were quick to take up on this golden opportunity when people were more ready to hear about K-pop than ever.
So, for people who were not aware of K-pop, this whole media interest in the Korean music industry can come off as sudden and unexpected. But for those of us, who have been supporting and following K-pop groups and their music for a long time, their recent successes in the West and the U.S. has been a long time coming. And we hope it is here to stay.