How K-Pop Got It's Big Break

Updated on November 2, 2018
CHERMEL profile image

Chermel has been a fan of Asian language music since mid 2016.

From BigBang to BTS, Girls' Generation to BLACKPINK; K-Pop (short for Korean pop music) is taking over! In recent years, K-Pop has grown from a music scene serving exclusively to South Korea to a global phenom. K-Pop is often described as "integrated genres and an experimental take on different types of music from around the world," rather than being referred to as a standalone genre.

BTS performs at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada
BTS performs at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada | Source

How Did K-Pop Get Started?

The spark that started the Korean pop music genre was the result of a bands failed audition on a televised talent show. K-Pop is dubbed as “unusual” as a genre due to it having a definitive start date, which is April 11, 1992; Thanks to a band called, Seo Taiji and Boys. Seo Taiji, previously a member of the South Korean heavy metal band, Sinawe (which also played a huge factor in the development of Korean rock music in the late 80's) turned to hip-hop after the breakup of the band, and recruited two dancers, Yang Hyun-suk (currently know as YG) and Lee Juno. Together they became known as Seo Taiji and Boys. The group debuted on a televised talent show with their single “Nan Arayo (I Know)” Not only did the group not win the show, they also received the lowest score of the night.

At the time Korea's travel ban had just been lifted in 1988 and the censorship laws were at an all time high. The only style of music accepted at this time was trot music which is a mix of Japanese, Korean and Western (American) styles sung in heavy vibrato and ballad style. The country was not ready for Seo Taiji and Boys rowdy sound and accompanying choreography. It didn't sit well with the judges on the talent show, but a few weeks later the song managed to chart at #17 on the Korean music chart. The country was ready for a change and this marked the beginning stages of modern K-Pop with the song “I Know” representing the start of American-style pop being infused with Korean culture.

Seo Taiji and Boys challenged the norms around musical styles, fashion and censorship. They insisted on creating their own path and breaking out of the manufactured network environment. By the time the group called it quits in 1996 at the height of their career, entertainment agencies were popping up all over the place to score a shot at creating the next big K-Pop group. By 1998 the current “big three” entertainment agencies were born; Being SM Entertainment (SM Town) in 1995, JYP Entertainment in 1997 and YG Entertainment in 1998 created by Yang Hyun-suk of Seo Taiji and Boys.

Seo Taiji & Boys - Nan Arayo (Talent Show)

The OG's of Modern Korean Music

Seo Taiji and Boys challenged the norms around musical styles, fashion and censorship. They insisted on creating their own path and breaking out of the manufactured network environment.

1st generation K-Pop groups (form left) Seckskies, (top to bottom) Fin.K.L. , H.O.T. , (right) S.E.S.
1st generation K-Pop groups (form left) Seckskies, (top to bottom) Fin.K.L. , H.O.T. , (right) S.E.S.

K-Pop Gets Modernized

Modern K-Pop culture began in 1996 with the boy band H.O.T. . Their success led to the startups of other groups like Sech Kies, Fin.K.L, Shinhwa and more. The 1997 Asian financial crisis prompted South Korean entertainers to find a new market and a new audience in order to survive which led to the modernization of K-Pop music. This move was similar to J-Pop stars and the process used in America in the 1960s during the Motown era. K-Pop is uniquely different from other music cultures because these groups are not put together at their own will. Each member of K-Pop groups are selected and tailored to appeal to a global audience. They are selected on physical criteria such as; height, slimness and youthfulness. Male idols are expected to be tall, slim and have a feminine appearance. Once the group is formed the members are trained under an intensive and extensive process that includes physical and language drills. Some companies have been called out for their training methods being deemed as abusive. In the end, these efforts increase the marketability of K-Pop music while increasing the South Korean soft power. Lee Soo-Man, the founder of SM Entertainment is credited as starting the training method for future stars. Lee created this method after a stint in America during the MTV era, which was a heavily visual time, where music videos set off the artists whole career.

BTS Takes America by Storm!

It wouldn't be until BTS's win for Top Social Artist at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards, to kickstart Korean music taking over America. The following year BTS became the first K-Pop group to reach #1 on the Hot 200 chart and the first Korean group to headline a stadium show in America.

BLACKPINK | As If It's Your Last (Official Music Video)

The Korean Wave

Hallyu (한류) or “The Korean Wave”, which refers to the popularity of South Korean culture in other countries, has skyrocketed since mid 2017. Some say advances in social media has played a vital role in allowing K-Pop to spread to other countries, with artists putting out vibrant-attention grabbing music videos and more.

At the start of the 21st Century, 90's K-Pop groups were on a decline and by 2003 the birth of second generation K-Pop groups had begun.

After successful debuts form groups like Super Junior (2005) , Wonder Girls (2006), Girls Generation (2007) and more, this kicked off the discovery of this genre elsewhere in the world. In 2012 singer Psy's electro-pop track titled “Gangnam Style” (named after the Gangnam District in Seoul) released his first hit song “Gangnam Style” which became a global hit with everyone from celebrities to politicians imitating the signature dance. “Gangnam Style” was the first Youtube video ever to receive one billion views. Several attempts have been made by other agencies by having their artists release songs catered to the English market, the Wonder Girls even opened for the Jonas Brothers on their North American tour in 2009 and made TV show appearances, but all attempts failed. Maybe America just wasn't ready at the time. It wouldn't be until BTS's win for Top Social Artist at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards, making them the first Korean group to win an award at the BBMA show and have a performance. This appearance also lead to their song peaking at number 67 on the Billboard music charts, and the following year BTS became the first K-Pop group to reach #1 on the Hot 200 chart.

In recent years, a convention that has been held worldwide annually celebrating Korean culture has seen a popularity spike in attendance numbers. In 2012 KCON was created by the digital media company Koreaboo with the purpose of allowing fans outside of Korea to experience Korean culture and see their idols in person for an affordable price. Since the first KCON held in Irvine, California in 2012 with four idol groups making appearances and attracting a total attendance of 20,000 people, each year the attendance continued to increase allowing the convention to expand to other states and countries such as New Jersey, Japan, United Arab Emirates, France, Australia, Mexico and Thailand. Outside of Korean culture conventions, some groups such as BTS, Got7, Monsta X and Day6 have been able to take their music around the world by headlining world tours.

KCON 2018 held in June at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey
KCON 2018 held in June at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey

How Are Idol Groups Formed?

Unlike American singers and groups who find success overnight and vanish the next day, the K-Pop industry tends to look for artists who will stick around long term. As mentioned before, K-idols go through intensive sometimes brutal training periods in order to become an “idol”. Starting from as young as 9 or 10 (although there is no set age limit to begin training), after successfully passing through an audition, the training begins. Under very tight supervision, they train in singing and dancing at night and attend school during the day. During the training years, trainees typically live in a college dorm-like setting with group members. They are also trained in languages such as Chinese, English and Japanese as they are expected to perform not only in Korea but abroad as well. Monthly, they are tested on their skills to see stability or improvement and if they are not keeping up, they are left behind and ultimately "let go" from training.

Appearance is a big deal. Many idols are forced to go on strict diets and workout daily. Plastic surgery is often encouraged to maintain the visual image. Grade school aged trainees often train from 6-10pm allowing very little leisure time or sleep. Being a trainee does not always guarantee a debut. Some may leave before debut due to the rigorous program, some are considered to not be ready yet and some just don't match the concept of the potential group. Some idols for example, Super Junior's Kyuhyun trained for only 3 months and was able to debut where as Suho from EXO trained for 7 years. In some cases idols debut with one group and change groups later on down the road, for example EXID's former members who moved to girl group BESTie or (G)I-dle's Soyeon who initially debuted as a solo artist but in 2018 re-debuted with girl group (G)I-dle. The Korean music industry has also branched into reality style survival competitions in which groups like WINNER, Twice, Monsta X, Pentagon and Stray Kids have spawned from.

Hopefuls practice for a chance to become a member of a future K-Pop group.
Hopefuls practice for a chance to become a member of a future K-Pop group.

Idol Culture

K-Pop artists are often referred to as “idols” or “idol groups”. The members of a group typically have designated roles being;

  • “The Leader” who is often either the oldest or most experienced and has the job of doing most of the talking for the group. (Some groups do not have a leader)
  • “The Vocalist(s)” which is divide into sub roles of main vocal, lead vocal and sub vocal.
  • “The Rapper(s)” divided in the same way as the vocalists. “The Dancer(s)”,
  • “The Visual” often the member who is considered the most physically attractive.
  • “The Face” which is sometimes overlapped with the visual. “ The Face” is usually the most popular member of the group and the one who gets invited the most to make appearances on variety TV shows and ad campaigns, etc.. The face of the group can constantly change from member to member and sometimes the member who is the visual is also the face of the group.
  • “The Center” which is the member who is usually placed in the center during promotions, photo shoots, etc. because of their good looks, talent or popularity, the center can change from era to era. And last but not least,
  • “The Maknae” , the term maknae comes for the Japanese term "マンネ" which translates to 막내 (maknae)in Korean meaning the youngest. “The Maknae's” role is usually to show the innocence and cuteness of the group.

K-Pop is known for being one of the few music crazes where the fanbases are not just made up of crazy teenage girls. Due to K-idols typically being adults by the time of their debut and most idols relatable and like-ability charm; Idol groups tend to have a very diverse group of fans from different age ranges to gender to race.

2018 has been a busy year for the Korean music scene around the world! It's no telling what's in store for the future of K-Pop!

BTS's Leader RM at a fansign.
BTS's Leader RM at a fansign.

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© 2018 Chermel Porter

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