K-pop 101: K-pop for Newbies

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Korean Culture and Information Service/Wikipedia

K-pop has become super popular in the West over the last few years, but you may feel you've missed the boat. Don't worry — we're here to school you on everything you need to get started on your way to K-pop obsession. From terminology to history to band recommendations, here's our list for K-pop newbies. Sit down, because class is in session!

It All Began a Lot Earlier Than You'd Imagine

K-pop has its roots as far back as 1885 when Henry Appenzeller, an American missionary, taught Korean school children British and American nursery rhymes. These were called changga, but they were quickly banned during Japan's rule of Korean between 1910-1945 because many of the lyrics denounced Korea's oppressors.

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Photo Courtesy: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Wikipedia

When South Korea became liberated in 1945 by American soldiers, Western culture returned to the country for the first time in decades. The U.S. troops that remained in Korea both before and after the Korean war introduced the country to contemporary American music. This influence laid the foundation for what was to come.

American Troops Played a Role

The Kim Sisters were a trio of Korean pop-stars made up of sisters Aija and Sook-Ja plus their cousin, Minja. They got their start singing country songs to United States troops. These soldiers even donated records to the group to help them expand their music knowledge.

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Photo Courtesy: Chick Sponder/Wikipedia

Both sisters were children of Lee Nan-Young and Kim Hae-Song, who were each famous musicians. The Kim Sisters eventually left Korea to perform in Las Vegas. At one of their performances at the StarDust, a famous hotel, Ed Sullivan invited them onto their show for 20 performances.

Politics Was an Influence

The first Korean rock band ever, called Add 4, was fronted by Shin Jung-Hyun, aka the "Father of Korean Rock." Jung-Hyun and his band appeared after Beatlemania swept the world. Like The Kim Sisters and other notable Korean rock artists, they got their start performing for US troops in the '50s.

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Photo Courtesy: Attic Records/Google Play

Jung-Hyun's career tanked after he refused to perform a song in honor of President Park Chung-hee, and he was soon arrested in 1975 on drug charges. After his release, he was banned from all public performances until Park Chung-hee's assassination in 1979.


What Did Bob Dylan and John Lennon Have to Do With It?

Park Chung-Hee's authoritarian government disliked not only Add 4, but also Han Dae-Soo. He liked to perform American folk music similar to Dylan and Lennon in Busan during 1968. Dae-Soo spent a chunk of his young-adult like in New York City and picked up inspiration while there.

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Photo Courtesy: Daum Music/Google Play

He went back to Korea and was enjoying some popularity, but his albums were banned due to the anti-government message in the music. He was forced to return to New York. Still, his first two albums are iconic and set the standard for early K-pop

Once Beyond Korea, It Didn’t Stop

Cho Yong-Pil, otherwise known as "The Korean Michael Jackson," played an important role in K-pop as we know it. He also started playing music to U.S. soldiers in the 50s, specifically country and western. However, it wasn't until he released Come Back to Busan Port in 1975 that he experienced success.

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Photo Courtesy: Acrofan/Wikipedia

His success spread to Japan, which was a big deal at the time. He was also the first Korean ever to perform at Carnegie Hall, which happened in 1980. He made several appearances in other countries as well, including Pyongyang, North Korea in 2005.

New Voices Emerged When Love Came to the Fore

Ballad singers started to become a thing in the 1980's in South Korea, which mirrored what the West was going through music-wise as well. It became commonplace for pop-singers to explore love, romance and other heart-related affairs.

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Photo Courtesy: RIAK/Google Play

Along with the sweet, sad music came another early K-pop icon: Lee Gwang-Jo, one of the most famous and popular ballad singers in South Korea. He went on to sell 300,000 copies in 1985 of his debut album You're Too Far Away to Get Close To.


Television Changed the World of K-pop

K-pop wouldn't be what it is today without television and democracy. The reform of the government in 1987 along with decreased censorship established a new South Korea with different music laws. Before this, there were only two television shows in the whole country. Most music was banned.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

By 1992, 99% of South Koreans had a television set, and most were being introduced to new music via talent shows. This way of distributing media was the start of what we know as modern-day K-pop. And then came Seo Taiji & Boys ...

The Influence of Television Talent Shows Was Huge

Idol group Seo Taiji & Boys appeared on a popular talent show on Korean television. They didn't win — actually, they achieved the lowest mark of the night. But none of that mattered. The band sang about teen angst and the pressures to succeed, and suddenly, all of Korea was enthralled.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Their single Nan Arayo (‘I Know’) went to the top of the music charts and remained number one for 17 weeks. Their unusual fashion sense, song topics and censorship issues changed the landscape of K-pop and paved the way for idol music domination..

First It Was the Boys ...

Right before Seo Taiji disbanded, H.O.T. (High Five Of Teenagers) appeared out of nowhere. The band was part of the initial wave of idol-esque boy bands in Korea and went to sell over a million albums — which is amazing considering the poor economy at the time.

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Photo Courtesy: SM Entertainment/Google Music

H.O.T. was the first band ever to have a performance in Seoul Olympic Stadium. They also went on to make their own movie called Age of Peace back in 2000. They eventually disbanded in 2005.


And Then the Girls

Record label SM Entertainment saw the rise H.O.T. (also signed with them) and quickly tried to find an all-female equivalent. S.E.S, which stands for member names Sea, Eugene, and Shoo, was one of the first idol-esque pop groups in Korea. They had many popular hits and are still beloved in the community.

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Photo Courtesy: Marie Claire Korea/Wikipedia

Upon their initial release, they were an instant success within the country. Unfortunately, there were many contract disputes that made them disband in 2002. Fortunately, they released an album in 2017 for their 20th anniversary along with a reality TV show.

You've Heard of the King of Pop? Meet the Queen of K-pop!

BoA, or Kwon Bo-Ah was also discovered by SM Entertainment. (You'll hear that name a lot, as they've discovered pretty much every famous K-pop star ever.) BoA never expected to become famous, either. She happened to go to a talent competition with her brother in 2000 and was immediately signed.

Photo Courtesy: SM Entertainment/Google Music

Now called the Queen of Korean Pop, she's sold more than one million copies of three albums just in Japan. Can you guess who else managed to do that? Mariah Carey.

K-pop Artists Can Be Wildly Successful

TVXQ, which stands for Tong Vfang Xien Qi, was a five member K-pop group that became a massive success after their first single, Hug. They've won multiple Golden Disk Awards and have a massive following in Japan.

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Photo Courtesy: Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)/Wikipedia

They've sold over 10 million records in their decade-long career, making them one of the most successful artists of all time, not just in Korea. Although their music is iconic in the Korean Pop scene, they are more famous for changing idol laws in the country. Speaking of which ...


Litigation Led to Changes in the Industry

Korean pop culture used to be tightly controlled. Groups were forced to go through rigorous training, and labels had total control over members’ lives. Unaffectionally known as "slave contracts," these agreements took most of the artists' money in exchange for marketing.

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Photo Courtesy: dispatchsns/Wikipedia

Labels like SM, YG and JTP Entertainment are mostly responsible for these contracts. However, in 2009, three members of TVXQ took SM to court over the terms in their contract. This resulted in more equitable contracts for all bands as well as more government support for artists seeking legal advice.

The Band That Started the K-pop Bandwagon in the U.S.

The first K-pop band to break through to Western audiences was Big Bang, signed by YG Entertainment. They made big waves in the Western market by showing off band personalities G-Dragon and TOP, who went on to have solo careers after the group disbanded. The Hollywood Reporter even named them the biggest boy band in the world.

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Photo Courtesy: Wasabi content/Wikipedia

Selling over 150 million albums and counting, these kings of K-pop have been featured in American magazines like Forbes, held concerts all over the world including America and Japan, and have won multiple awards for their chart-topping music.

K-pop Mega Groups

K-pop also has its share of mega groups, with some having as many as 134 members in their rotation (cough, AKB48). Among these mega groups is SM Entertainment's Girls' Generation, a name you've probably heard before due to their smash hits I GOT A BOY, Run Devil Run and Gee.

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Photo Courtesy: Pabian/Wikipedia

One of their many accomplishments is their success in Japan. They're the first band to sell a million albums in Japan, with over half a million fans attending their concerts in the country. They’re even more famous in their home country.


You Knew This Name Was Going to Come Up ... in Style.

You can’t talk about K-pop without mentioning Psy — he's been instrumental in bringing K-pop to the Western world. PSY was the first artist to reach one billion and later two billion video views on YouTube for his smash hit Gangnam Style. The song even broke records for most likes on a Youtube video.

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Photo Courtesy: Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)/Wikipedia

The popularity of this song is unbelievable, especially because it came from such a small country. The horse dance, the lyrics and the video are instantly recognizable by anyone who casually indulges in media. He was even signed by Universal Records and worked with Snoop Dog.

What Would Pop Culture — Even K-pop Culture — Be Without a Reality TV Influence?

Twice is a different breed of K-pop group — they were made and produced during a reality television show. Such K-pop reality shows are very popular in Korea. In them, multiple teenagers compete for the chance to be put in a group, and a company takes care of their marketing, training and all social media.

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Photo Courtesy: 시간은금!/Wikipedia

Such stars have every part of their career looked at through a magnifying glass. One such group, JYP, has produced an album, reality TV show, Instagram account and a fan group that are all carefully produced by corporate experts. They aren't the only group to be manufactured that way, either — it’s nearly industry standard.

BTS: Critics Don’t Always Get K-pop Right

No one expected BTS to be the behemoth that they are now. Their debut album and hit song were met with a lot of eye-rolls from critics who commented that their gangster style wasn't earned. They were written off as more or less copies of Seo Taiji & Boys.

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Photo Courtesy: Korean Culture and Information Service/Wikipedia

It wasn't until the band covered one of Seo Taiji's songs, Come Back Home, that they saw any sort of success. Where singles I Need U and Dope failed to gain traction, Come Back Home became a hit in part because it showed that the band could dance. Even though other K-pop stars were talented dancers, BTS did it better than the rest. And that’s not all ...


BTS: They Came Together in a New Way but Had One Key Thing in Common

BTS formed differently than other bands. They weren't manufactured by a record label. Instead, the members were all picked to be in the idol group despite coming from completely different backgrounds. What they had in common was that all of them could dance incredibly well.

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Photo Courtesy: BulletProof7BTS/Wikipedia

BTS was pretty controversial at first because of their gangster image and wild personalities. However, this ended up working for the group, as fans admired them for being different, not just because of their dance skills and image, but also their unique personalities

BTS: They Managed to Set Themselves Apart From the K-pop Crowd

BTS separated themselves from other K-pop stars by being active on social media, writing their own songs and being forthcoming about their issues with fame and success. They've even spoken at length about depression and mental health.

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Photo Courtesy: TenAsia/Wikipedia

The band became a group that teens all over the world could relate to because their lyrics aren't devoid of personality. They're socially conscious and speak about their home in a critical way that hadn't been seen in a while. It's made kids in Korea think more about their individual position in life instead of being a cog in the wheel.

BTS in the USA

BTS has since made an appearance at the American Music Awards, spent multiple weeks on US charts, appeared on the Chainsmokers' song Best of Me and collaborated with Steve Aoki to remix the band’s single Mic Drop. In 2018, BTS was the first South Korean band in history to debut at number one on the US Billboard Top 200 Chart.

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Photo Courtesy: KOREA Dispatch/Wikipedia

They've also had a single land at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 and collaborated with Nicki Minaj. They've received multiple awards and snagged a few world records. BTS is easily the most popular K-pop group ever.


EXO: Not Every K-pop Band Is Made Up of Just Koreans

EXO is a mega-group made up of both South Korean and Chinese men that is surprisingly popular in the US. Their first album XOXO rocketed them into fame, and they are now the best selling Korean pop group of the past 12 years.

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Photo Courtesy: Mang2Goon/Wikipedia

EXO is invested in philanthropy and has worked with UNICEF and other charities on continuous projects. The band has also been on many reality television shows and has a very active social media presence.

2NE1: International Versions of K-pop Songs Have Sold Millions Worldwide

2NE1 first appeared in an LG promotional video with Big Bang on the song Lollipop and soon after released two extended plays. They've also produced Japanese versions of their songs and have sold 66.5 million records worldwide, including the US, Japan, China, Taiwan and other countries.

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Photo Courtesy: Acrofan/Wikipedia

With songs like Kiss, Clap Your Hands, Can’t Nobody, I Don’t Care, Ugly and Come Back Home, 2NE1 is truly a band to be reckoned with. Before their split in 2016, they were widely considered one of the best K-pop groups of the decade.

The Members of Black Pink Are Rising K-pop Stars

Although they're considered new to the K-pop scene, Black Pink has already found success, in part because these four ladies are incredibly talented. The band’s first single, Whistle, and their next single, Boombayah, hit number one on the Billboard World Digital Songs Chart. Other popular songs include Ddu-Du Ddu-Du and Kill This Love. The latter debuted at number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100.

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Photo Courtesy: Newsenstar1/Wikipedia

They also won New Artist of the Year at the Golden Disc Awards and the Seoul Music Awards. Their new album is widely anticipated.


Some K-pop Fans Even Protest Their Favorite Bands

MONSTA X was formed through the reality survival program No. Mercy. Although they have yet to gain as much critical success as the other bands listed here, they still have a notable following. They've been in the news due to the forced removal of one member, causing many fans to protest.

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Photo Courtesy: Bugaboo.TV/Wikipedia

MONSTA X has a large following in Japan and Korea, although they are more popular in their home country.Popular songs include Beautiful, Ready Or Not, HERO, DRAMARAMA, All In and Jealousy.

SHINee: Tragedy in K-pop

The band SHINee has been referred to as "The Princes of K-pop." They’ve been influential in K-pop since 2008. They've won multiple new-comer awards and started a new fashion trend rather uncreatively called "SHINee Trend." While their albums are loved by fans everywhere, they’re particularly talented when performing live.

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Photo Courtesy: Destiny/Wikipedia

Unfortunately, one of the members, Jonghyun, committed suicide due to stress of working in the industry. The remaining members still perform world-wide and continue to be successful despite what happened.

K-pop in the U.S.: Why Now?

So why is K-pop becoming so popular in the United States? Part of it has to do with China. When China placed a ban on K-pop in 2016 to show its displeasure with a U.S. South Korean missile defense system, Korean music labels turned to the United States to make up for the shortfall in sales

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Photo Courtesy: Acrofan/Wikipedia

However, K-pop was already on the rise in the United States even before that. A likelier reason for the genre’s success is social media. K-pop bands are particularly aware of the power of Twitter, YouTube and other platforms, and that’s helped acts like BTS, BoA and Wonder Girls break out on U.S. music charts.


K-pop Terminology ...

No K-pop education is complete without a discussion of some of the slang used by the fandom. A "bias," for instance, is your favorite idol group. If you say "BTS is my bias," it means you'll buy all their albums, watch all their interviews and support them no matter what.

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Photo Courtesy: Nicole Voon/Wikipedia

Many K-pop enthusiasts also love to imagine their favorite musicians in different friendships or even relationships. This is known as "shipping," a concept that is also popular in fan fiction.

More K-pop Terminology ...

Want even more K-pop lingo? "Aegyo" means super cute, while the Big 3 refers to the record labels JYP Entertainment, SM Entertainment and YG. The "killing part" is the best part of a K-pop song.

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Photo Courtesy: f2.8/Wikipedia

An "all-kill" is an artist that tops all the charts. Meanwhile, a "comeback" is when a group leaves to return on stage with a new look. A "concept" is the idea behind an album — you might say thatBlack Pink debuted with a girl crush concept.

… And Even More K-pop Terminology

K-pop fans also uses a lot of Korean family words when talking about their favorite musicians. A "maknae" is the youngest member of the K-pop group. An "oppa," or older brother, can be used in a romantic sense or as a term of endearment. "Noona" is similar but means "older sister."

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Photo Courtesy: TV10/Wikipedia

A "sasaeng," is a super fan, but not always in a good way — a sasaeng might stalk or harass their idols. With your newfound knowledge, hopefully you can go forth and identify your bias and favorite oppa and noona without becoming a sasaeng!