K-pop 101: K-pop for Newbies
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
… 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."