K-pop, as you likely already know, is an abbreviation for Korean pop(ular) music. For all intents and purposes we can presume that pop music, as we recognize it today, originated in Anglo-America. So in some other parts of the world, such as Asia, it is not simply referred to as “pop music”. For instance, in South Korea, we have K-pop. In Japan, there’s J-pop. Then in the Philippines, they call it Pinoy pop or P-pop.
Indeed it can be said that in a way every country has its own moniker for their respective brands of pop music, even if it doesn’t have the “pop” suffix attached to it.
And with that in mind, we can also put forth that different regions and countries have their own pop stars. But what has made K-pop different is that it has proven to be a global phenomenon. In fact heading into the third decade of the 21st century, it’s safe to say that after the US and UK, South Korea has been the most internationally-recognized country as far as creating music stars is concerned. And that reality is of course largely due to the efforts of BTS.
BTS & BLACKPINK
BTS is a seven-member boy band that has technically been around since 2013. But in 2020, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), they were actually the top-selling musical act in the entire world. That means they bested other musicians who dropped albums that year such as Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and many others.
Meanwhile if you would have told someone just five years ago that some dudes from South Korea would be outselling the likes of Eminem and Taylor Swift in 2020, they would have probably laughed in your face.
And the success of BTS also blew the doors open for other K-pop artists to make their mark. The main beneficiaries of such to date would be who may be considered their female counterparts in terms of notoriety, Blackpink. This is actually a musical team consisting of four female singers/dancers. In fact if you want to make it in the world of K-pop it’s pretty much compulsory that you know how to dance, which is something we will get into a bit later.
Blackpink also had a pretty notable 2020 with their second full-length, “The Album”, reaching number two on both the UK Singles Chart and US Billboard 200. Please, let that sink in for a moment. This is (despite featuring international all-stars like Selena Gomez and Cardi B) an album which is primarily in Korean, a language that virtually no one speaks in the West. But still, it managed to make it onto the top 10 of music charts throughout Europe, Oceania and the Americas.
International headlines were also made when a member of Blackpink, Rosé, dropped her first solo project, simply entitled “R”, in early 2021. For instance, she was afforded the opportunity to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. And about a year prior, when Blackpink toured North America, the whole crew also appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Good Morning America. Meanwhile, those are opportunities which are hard to come by even for many popular musicians who actually live in the States.
K-POP’S TOP RECORD LABELS
BTS and Blackpink are respectively signed to Big Hit Music and YG Entertainment. Along with another entity, SM Entertainment, those three make up what can be deemed the biggest record labels in the K-pop industry.
As of the writing of the posts, the only Big Hit acts you are likely to have heard of outside of the Southeast Asian region would be BTS and possibly Hitman Bang. But again, there probably isn’t a pop label in the world who wouldn’t mind having the Bangtang Boys (aka BTS) on their roster. In fact Big Hit possesses a relatively-small amount of signees, likely not really needing anymore, considering all of the money that BTS is generating.
Meanwhile in addition to Blackpink, YG Entertainment is also home to another group which has made a name for itself outside of South Korea, iKon. This crew is also seven-members deep, similar to BTS.
In fact their success during the mid-2010s can be said to have paved the way for BTS to come after. For instance, they have proven especially popular in the surrounding Asian nations of China and Japan, with the latter especially being a stepping stone to the West. In fact Japan is virtually a second home to the K-pop industry, as famous South Korean acts are pretty much required to occasionally drop an Japanese album or single. That’s because for the past decade, the Land of the Rising Sun boasts of the second-largest music market in the world, even bigger than that of the United Kingdom’s.
And before closing out this paragraph, it should also be noted the YG was the label responsible for putting out 2012’s “Gangnam Style” by Psy, the track which can be considered to have actually started the current K-pop craze.
Meanwhile SM Entertainment may not have BTS or Blackpink. But in terms of spread-out talent, we can say that they actually hold the advantage over both Big Hit and YG. That’s because they’re home to three different acts which we regularly cover over here, half a world away. And those would be Red Velvet, NCT and EXO.
RED VELVET, NCT & EXO
Red Velvet is actually a five-member girl group, somewhat similar to Blackpink, if you want to go there. In fact just as iKon were predecessors to BTS, the same can be said in terms of Red Velvet and Blackpink.
It can also be sort of put forth that K-pop bands operate along prescribed formulas, which is an idea we will also get into briefly. But one that slightly breaks the mold, at least from the other acts mentioned in this article, is NCT. And that’s because they are a whopping 23-dudes deep – so large in fact that they have a number of subunits.
Meanwhile size-wise, Exo falls somewhere in-between all of the above, being an all-male group composed of nine vocalists. In fact none of the mentioned acts are really bands in the truest sense of the word, as in playing instruments on top of singing. Yes, they may have members who produce songs for the group. But by and large all of the participants are either singers, dancers or rappers and in most cases fall into at least two of those categories, with dancing once again being compulsory.
And it should also be pointed out that it does not seem as if the K-pop industry embraces the idea of co-ed musical acts.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN K-POP AND WESTERN POP
And with that fact noted, there are some marked differences between K-pop and pop music as we generally know it in the Western world. For instance, South Korea is not only a nation with a troubled modern history, but it is also situated in what is currently one of the most-volatile regions in the world.
So accordingly, young men (i.e. being 18 and 28) are conscripted to do about a year and-a-half of military service. So for instance as of the writing of this post in May 2021, nearly half the members of Exo are on hiatus from the band, fulfilling their military duty. In 2020, as a result of the success of BTS, the South Korea government passed a law in which certain K-pop musicians, as deemed by the country’s Culture Ministry, would be exempt from mandatory service.
Yet and still, as implied by the example of Exo, actually doing so is considered a source of pride amongst South Korean men. And as it stands now not only are the members of BTS expected to still commit to their service regardless, but it is also anticipated that they will do so simultaneously.
Another difference with the K-pop industry is that artists tend to train before fully being released into the world – not practice but train. And by that what we mean is that they actually enroll in training facilities managed by their respective labels. This is where some who may have two left feet learn how to properly dance in a synchronized fashion.
And it is also quite common that said participants compete in contests before being accepted into said facilities and/or even afterwards, before making the finalized roster of a group. As such, reality competitions are often held in South Korea to determine which trainees actually score a professional recording contract.
Then as far as the most-visible difference between the K-pop and Western music industries, most readers would probably agree that would be the fact that male musicians over there tend to wear makeup. Well it just so happens that South Korea is a beauty-obsessed society, even with young male adults regularly opting to get plastic surgery.
And as history would have it, the very-first K-pop groups also wore makeup, just for shock effect, if you will. Indeed back then in the 1990s, acts such as Seo Taiji and Boys and H.O.T. dealt with a considerable amount of backlash as a result. But now, with K-poppers actually being the most-popular individuals in the entire country, the male masses are actually emulating them. They copy them by rockin’ lipstick and engaging in other beautifying acts which more traditionally-minded folk would deem as being effeminate.
CONTENT OF K-POP MUSIC
Inevitably as K-pop becomes increasingly global, the content of the music, as in its subject matter, is also becoming more and more streamlined with the dominant styles of the day. This is buttressed by the fact that, as fate would have it, South Korean pop music is more influenced by hip-hop than any other genre emanating from outside of the region.
But with that said, traditionally K-poppers are not like their Western counterparts as far as musical content is concerned. South Korea appears, at least to some degree, to be a more-disciplined nation. And as such you don’t see guys and girls just going crazy like that, spitting whatever potentially off-putting lyrics which may sound cool to certain people.
Instead K-pop tracks, at least the ones that we have studied up until this point, are almost universally based on the themes of self-empowerment, encouragement and/or overcoming personal obstacles. Or put differently, they tend to be a lot more positive than tunes emanating from Anglo-America. And this is true even as far as love songs go, though it should be noted that virtually no K-pop tracks are overtly or solely romantic.
This article serves as just a surface exploration of the K-pop industry, based on knowledge we have amassed researching for the past couple of years or so. It doesn’t look like K-pop is going anywhere anytime soon, so as time progresses we will become even more familiar with the related culture and musical acts. For instance, some pundits would argue that BTS, despite having had an amazing run, is already on the outs.
So it’s only a matter of time before the next big thing comes along, if it hasn’t already via acts such as Enhyphen or Twice. But either way, so long as such groups or individuals remain poppin’ out West, we will do our best to stay on top of yet another major music industry.
VARIOUS K-POP RECORDS & FACTS
In 2016 one of the members of Exo, a multi-faceted vocalist called Lay, dropped his first solo EP, which is entitled “Lose Control”. It was a major success in nearby China, in fact setting a few Guinness World Records there. And the selfsame Lay was actually the best-selling musician in all of the Middle Kingdom during 2020.
At a time, as in during 2017, Red Velvet held the record for the most albums to reach number one on the Billboard World Albums chart for a K-pop girl group.
In 2018 Blackpink signed a contract with Interscope Records who, along with its parent company Universal Music, represent the girls outside of South Korea.
Shortly thereafter, in 2019, the boy band dropped a single entitled Lights with another well-received track, “Idol”, on its B-side. Fans of the crew pre-ordered in excess of 1,000,000 copies of said single. And in doing so, BTS broke said record set by Céline Dion in 1995 with her classic hit, “Love You More”.
MORE FACT & RECORDS
In mid-2020 Blackpink’s song “How You Like That” set a few YouTube 24-hour viewing records, as certified by Guinness. Prior to that, those same records were held by BTS. And the record in question is the “Most viewed YouTube video within 24 hours”. The BLACKPINK track in question garnered more than 86 million views with just 24 hours.
Also during mid-2020, BTS staged a premium virtual concert called Bang Bang Con: The Live. Slightly over a quarter-million people paid to attend this remote show. And that made it the most-viewed paid virtual concert in history.
Then a few months later, they bested this record by attracting close to one-million visitors to their Map of the South ON:E virtual concert, which was staged from their hometown of Seoul.
And speaking of primarily Korean-language albums which prove to be chart toppers in the West, with the release of “Map of the Soul: 7” in 2020, the ever-busy BTS achieved four Billboard 200 chart-topping albums in less than two years. This amazing feat began with “Love Yourself: Tear” in 2018.
Top K-pop Artists and Bands
In addition to BTS, these are currently some of the biggest artists and bands in the K-pop music landscape:
XOXO, their debut album in 2013, sold over one million copies, making this boy group the first Korean artist to sell that many album copies after 2001. The band has won numerous awards including five consecutive Album of the Year awards at the MNet Asian Music Awards. The band is a benevolent group and have participated in several UNICEF programs.
Blackpink is a South Korean K-pop group of four girls. Their song, “Ice Cream,” released in 2020, made them the highest-ranked Korean female artist on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, reaching number 13. Their music videos, ‘Kill This Love’, ‘How You Like That’, ‘Lovesick Girls’ and ‘Ice Cream’ have set records for the most viewed music videos within 24 hours of online release.
Their 2016 single, ‘Cheer up’ earned them a rise to fame. It reached number one on the Gaon charts, winning “Song of the Year” and “Best Single of the Year” at the Melon Music Awards and Mnet Awards. This girl group gained international recognition, becoming the first Korean artist to top both Billboard World Albums and World Digital Song Sales, with their debut studio album “Twicetagram” released in 2017.
Formed in August 2014, this five-member girl group dropped their first EP, Ice Cream Cake, in March 2015. Since then, the group has won career accolades including the Golden Disc New Artist Award of 2015, Best Pop Song at the 2018 Korean Music Awards, Mnet Asian Music Award for Best female Group, and 2019 Song of the Year Award at the Asia Artist Award.
Also known as SNSD, the eight-member Korean girl band officially debuted on 3 August 2007 with their debut single ‘Into the New World’. They hold the record of being the first Asian female group on YouTube to cross a hundred million views with just five music videos. Billboard named the group the best K-pop female group of the past decade in 2017.
Seventeen is a South Korean male band, formed in 2015. It consists of 13 members. All the members of the group are experts in songwriting, choreographing, and all other aspects of music, making the group a self-producing group. In October 2020, they received the Prime Minister’s Commendation Award from the Prime Minister of South Korea for their commitment to promoting contemporary South Korean pop art and culture.
Their fifth EP, Alive, is the first Korean album to appear on the US Billboard chart. In 2015, they broke the record for most attended concert with Made world Tour, their second concert, becoming the most attended concert by a Korean artist with over 1.5 million audiences. They are therefore one of the most influential South Korean male K-pop groups in history.
Real name, Min Yoon-gi, first made a name for himself in 2013 as a member of the renowned K-pop band BTS. He released his first solo mixtape, Agust D, in 2016, which he later re-released in 2018. It was a top 10 hit on Billboard’s World Albums Chart. His second solo mixtape, D-2, released in 2020, also reached number 11 on the Billboard 200 chart. As at 2020, he had written over 100 songs according to the Korea Music Copyright Association.
They are the second sub-unit of the South Korean boy band NCT. They officially debuted on July 1, 2016, with their EP, NCT #127. The Ep earned them many nominations, eventually helping them to win the Best New Group at the 2016 South Korean music awards. ‘Neo Zone’ their second album is their first album to reach the top five on the US Billboard 200 chart and sell over a million copies.
NCT, which stands for Neo Culture Technology was formed in January 2016. It is the ‘umbrella’ group for sub-groups like NCT U, NCT 127, NCT Dream, and WayV. So far, they have released two albums, ‘NCT 2018 Empathy’ and ‘NCT Resonance’, which were in two parts. The album has sold over two million copies and earned them their first Grand Daesang award at the 2020 Asia Artist Awards.
The group is the third sub-unit and teen-aged unit of the boy band NCT. The group released their first single, ‘Chewing Gum’ on August 25, 2016. They were the first and only Asian artists to appear three consecutive times on Billboard’s yearly ’21 under 21’ list. “We Boom”, their Ep was among the top 10 best physical sellers of South Korea in 2019.
Their debut EP, Got It?, released in January 2014, was number one on Billboard’s World Albums Chart and peaked number two on the Gaon Album Chart. Although they are a South Korean boy band, they released their first Japanese-language single, ‘Around the World’, in October 2014 and it peaked number 3 on the Oricon’s chart. So far, the group has released 15 EPs, 5 studio albums, 22 singles, and 2 box sets.
Also known as SJ or Suju, the boy band debuted on November 6, 2005. In 2009, their album Sorry, Sorry broke the record for the longest stay at number one on the Thailand music chart. In March 2020, they broke their own record by staying number one for 122 consecutive weeks with their eighth album, Play, on the Korean Album Chart of Taiwan’s KKBOX.
Real name, Kim Nam-Joon, and formerly known as Rap Monster. He is a rapper and leader of the famous Korean boy band BTS. He released his maiden solo mixtape, RM, in 2015. His second mixtape entitled, Mono, was one of 2018’s most successful mixtapes. Actually it was the highest-ranked project on the Billboard 200 chart by a Korean solo artist in October 2018, having peaked at number 26.
Lee Ji-Eun, is her real name and she released her first album, Lost and Found, in 2008 at age fifteen. She has since released five studio albums and nine extended plays in her career. Billboard has recognized her as the all-time leader of their K-pop Hot 100 chart because she has the most number-one songs and has held the number one position as an artist for most weeks on the chart.
Jung Ho-Seok is his real name. He made his debut in 2013, as a member of the BTS band. On March 1, 2018, he released his first solo album, ‘Hope World’. The album peaked at number 38 on the Billboard 200 chart. On October 12, 2019, his single ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’, reached 81 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, making him the first BTS member to have a solo song on the chart.
Formed in 2008, this boy band has been nicknamed “Princes of K-pop” by the natives of South Korea. They officially debuted in May 2008, with their EP, Replay. Sherlock, their fourth EP, released in 2012 was the fifth most sold album of the year with over 180,000 copies of sales. Forbes included them in their 2014 and 2016 list of Korean Power Celebrities.
Also known as, SKZ, this boy band was formed through the stray kids reality show in 2017. They officially debuted on March 25, with their EP ‘I Am Not,’ which peaked at number five on the Billboard World Albums chart. To date, they have released eight EPs, 14 singles, 1 studio album, 2 compilation albums, and 1 reissue album. They have also won 25 awards out of 56 nominations by various Music award ceremonies.
Itzy is a girl group formed by JYP Entertainment in 2019. They released their first single, It’z Different, on February 12, 2019. “Dalla Dalla” was the first single from the album. The song reached No. 2 on the US Global Digital Song Sales Chart and the music video broke YouTube’s record for the fastest K-pop debut music video to reach 100 million views upon release.
Formed by RBW in 2014, the girl group officially debuted on June 18, 2014, with their hit “Mr. Ambiguous”. It was a commercial success and helped the group win the Best New Artist of the Year award at the 2014 Gaon Chart Music Awards. The group went on to release three albums and numerous singles, winning numerous awards for these songs and albums, including a 2019 State Award from the South Korean Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
IKON is a boy band group formed by YG Entertainment in 2015. They were number one on Gaon’s album chart during the first week of October 2015, with their debut half album, Welcome Back. They were one of Korea’s best-selling artists in 2015, selling over 1.6 million copies of their first single, “My Type”.
She made her debut in 2007, as a member of the Wonder Girls group. After leaving the group for 3 years for her educational career, she released her first solo EP, full Moon in 2013. Two singles from it; ’24 Hours’ and ‘Full Moon’ peaked at number two on the Gaon Digital chart in 2013. However, her second EP, ‘Warning’ released in 2018 had two songs ‘Heroine’ and ‘Siren’ reaching number one on the Gaon chart in 2018.
Also known as Kim Chan-mi, she placed fourth in Produce 101, Mnet’s survival show for girl groups in 2016. She debuted on May 4 2017 as a member of the project girl group I.O.I, with Chrysalis their mini-album. The group was dissolved after this album. On June 7, 2017, she released her first Ep, Hands on Me, as a solo artist. The album peaked at number 8 on the Gaon Album Chart.
Formed by KQ Entertainment in 2018, the Korean boy group officially debuted on October 24, 2018, with “Treasure EP.1: All to Zero” their first extended play. The group has so far released 6 EPs, 3 Japanese-language albums, and 1 full-length album. These records have made them very relevant in the Korean music industry. They have been awarded the title of “Fourth Generation Leaders” and are official Global Ambassadors of Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism.
A boy group formed through No.Mercy, a reality show by Starship Entertainment in 2015. They officially debuted on May 14, 2015, with their first EP, Trespass, which peaked at number 5 on the Gaon Album Chart. In February 2020, the group released its first English album, “All About Luv”, which reached number five on the US Billboard 200.
Park Jae-sung is the real name of the “Gangnam Style” hitmaker PSY. His music video for “Gangnam Style” was the first video to exceed one billion views in the history of YouTube. He also earned two Guinness World Records for the most liked and most-watched online video at the time of the release of Gangnam Style.
“Solo”, her first debut single as a solo artist, was released in November 2018. The song peaked at number one on the Billboard’s World Digital Songs Chart and the Goan Digital chart. It won the song of the year in November at the 2019 Goan Music chart Awards. Besides music, she is also a model and is the Ambassador of Chanel Korea.
Formed in 2019 by SM Entertainment and Capitol Music Group, this boy group made their debut with their first Ep SuperM, on October 4, 2019. The self-titled EP was a huge commercial success and peaked at number one on the Billboard 200. This made them the first Asian artist in Billboard’s history, to peak number one on the US album chart, with a debut album.
Kim Tae-Hyung is his real name and he is a vocalist of the boy group BTS. He made his official debut on June 13, 2013 from the BTS debut single album 2 Cool 4 Skool. He released his first solo song, ‘Scenery’, on January 30, 2019, through the SoundCloud page of BTS. The song broke SoundCloud’s daily streaming record nine times in two weeks after its release.
SM Entertainment musical collective was formed in 1999 for recording artists. Recording artists under SM Entertainment have performed at annual SM Town Live world tours since its commencement in 2008 (08 Asia tour in 2008). The concerts have cumulatively attracted an audience of over two million fans. SM Town also has two projects, “The Agit” and “SM station”, that help to showcase SM Entertainment’s artists and producers.
FAMOUS K-POP SONGS
Below is just a handful of some of the most famous songs from the K-pop industry:
- BTS’ “Dynamite”
- Psy’s “Gangnam Style”
- BTS and Halsey’s “Boy With Luv”
- IU’s “Celebrity”
- Zico’s “Any Song”
- Lee Seung-gi’s “Return”
- Soyou x Junggigo’s “Some”
- IU’s “Eight”
- iKON’s “Love Scenario”
- Sistar’s “Alone”
- SSAK3’s “Beach Again”
- IU’s “You and I”
- IU’s “Every End of the Day”
- Taeyang’s “Eyes, Nose, Lips”
- Blackpink’s “How You Like That”
- BTS’ “Fake Love”
- BTS’ “Idol”
- Brave Girls’ “Rollin'”
- BTS’ “On“
- Blackpink’s “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du”
- Ben’s “180 Degree”
- Jo Jung-suk’s “Aloha”
- Changmo’s “Meteor”
- Lee Hi’s “1,2,3,4”
- Big Bang’s “Blue”
- Twice’s “Kura Kura”
- NCT Dream’s “Hot Sauce“