If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of K-Pop, welcome to the bandwagon. It’s almost full, but we’ll squeeze you in. K-Pop, which is just the shorter version of Korean Pop, is a genre of music that has started taking over the world.
It’s one of the only genres that have people from all over the world singing in a language they don’t even speak. But, even if you’re a fan, there’s probably a lot you don’t know. One of the biggest stars is an African-American singer, and that most of the performers have been training since a young age.
How It Started
The modern form of K-Pop can be traced back to the early 90s, even though the actual term itself was popularized in the early 2000s. It replaced the term “Gayo” which is the more domestic form of pop music in South Korea.
K-Pop generally indicates that an artist is popular, but more so, it means that their brand of music has been influenced by genres around the world. The K-Pop “Idol” culture began with the band H.O.T.
Grew Out Of The Subculture
In 1996, the K-Pop genre grew into a subculture that amassed enormous fandoms of teenagers and young adults.
While the genre remained a subculture for many years, in 2003, it began to take off. It seeped into the Japanese music market, and with the advent of social networking online, it started to become VERY popular. It’s quickly taken off in all the Asian countries, and has even started to become very popular in the very competitive American music market.
The K-Pop Revolution
As was mentioned before, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Korean pop musicians incorporated American popular music styles. The group Seo Taiji and Boys were the pioneers of using that style, coming out with the notorious single “I Know” in 1992.
It was incredibly controversial and most Korean critics hated their music, saying they would never make it. However, the group became incredibly popular very quickly and are considered one of the revolutionaries of the K-Pop movement.
There’s A Lot Of English Used In Their Songs
Modern K-Pop is marked by its use of English phrases. In 1995, the percentage of songs that used English titles in the top 50 charts was 8%. It’s now upwards of 50% as many K-Pop bands use English names rather than Korean ones.
This allows songs and artists to be marketed to a wider audience around the world. There’s been a huge increase in English musicians featured in K-Pop songs and writing for K-Pop artists.
The Merge Is Happening
Musicians like Akon, Kanye West, Ludacris, and Snoop Dogg have all been featured on K-Pop songs. Just because you have a foreign artist featured or writing on your song certainly doesn’t guarantee worldwide success. However, it does help spread the genre.
There were zero K-Pop artists in the early 1990s that had English names. Now, nearly 85% of them don’t carry their Korean names when they get famous, and that’s solely for marketing purposes.
First Commercially Successful South Korean Act
The Kim Sisters, Yoon Bok Hee and Patti Kim, were the first singers to debut in countries like Vietnam and the United States. The Kim Sisters even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
They were the first South Korean act to end up breaking into a global market. In 1962, their cover of The Coasters song “Charlie Brown” reached #7 on the Billboard singles chart, which also made them the first commercially successful Asian artists in the United States.
They Hold Auditions
Management agencies in South Korea hold auditions for trainees starting at a very young age. They all live together in regulated environments and spend many days learning music, learning how to dance, and learning other languages.
It’s often criticized by Western media outlets because they claim it violates human rights. If a management company sees potential in a trainee, they could invest upward of $3 million USD per person in hopes of finding a success.
The Love/Hate Relationship
While it’s not that big of a surprise to say that South Koreans and the Japanese have a love/hate relationship with each other politically, it also bleeds into K-Pop too.
Idols in the industry have to be careful with what they say or sing about. If you are labeled as unpatriotic one way or another, it can destroy your career no matter how popular you are. Sensitive topics regarding the Japanese invasion era are off limits.
Some Groups Have Sub-Units
The groups are given a name and a concept for each single and album. Sometimes they’ll even have sub-units or sub-groups that are formed amongst the members that have specific purposes.
For example, if the group needs to do a promo tour overseas, many K-Pop groups have sub-units that will travel there on the entire group’s behalf. The industry over in Korea is VERY different from what we’re used to over here.
It’s Tricky To Pick Your Name
It’s nearly impossible to pick your name independently. Your management team will always have a say in what your name is going to be. For example, former Girls’ Generation member Tiffany is not actually named Tiffany.
She wanted her English name to be Stephanie, but had to change it to Tiffany because SM Entertainment (who managed her group) already had a Stephanie in a different group. It seems that picking the right name is a very tricky aspect of starting your K-Pop career.
They Have To Pay Their Debts
One of the more controversial aspects of the K-Pop industry is that many Idols won’t get paid until they pay off all of their debt. So, if a label spends $1 million to train their members before they debut, those members will not get paid until they make that money back.
There are some newer companies in the industry that don’t make their trainees pay their debt back, which is a very progressive position over there.
They Don’t Last Very Long
The longevity of an artist in the K-Pop industry is almost always very short, while In North America we see artists like The Rolling Stones, Elton John and many others who have been around for over three decades.
In K-Pop, Sechs Kies is the longest running idol group in South Korea. Formed in 1997 with six members, they are currently active with five. They also took a 10-year hiatus in-between. A two-decade career is nearly unheard of because of the number of artists that get pumped out.
The Government Support
The South Korean government has recognized the benefits that K-Pop offers for their country’s export sector. Government initiatives are undertaken by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, which has organized K-Pop concerts in other countries.
Can you imagine that? The American government organizing a concert for Beyoncé in Asia? I mean, I don’t think that it’s a bad idea, and we’ve had far worse representative of the country travel around the world in the past.
You Can Become Famous Overnight
In the K-Pop industry, you can literally become famous overnight. Usually, in the U.S it takes AT LEAST a few months for a singer to become a household name. That’s not the case in K-Pop.
Artist CNBLUE took just 16 days after the release of their first song to win an award. In 2016, BLACKPINK took just 13 days to win their first trophy with their first single called “Whistle”.
Choreography With Fans In Mind
Dance is an integral part of K-Pop. The singers often switch positions while singing and dancing. The Korean choreography is made up of hooking and repetitive movements within their performances.
Unlike in the U.S, the choreographer for the dance will ALWAYS keep in mind the fact that they want the audience to be able to dance as well. There’s no better example of this than PSY’s Gangnam Style dance, which we’ll get into later.
It’s A Big Selling Feature
The dance moves and the way that a K-Pop concert flows is a big selling feature for the genre. You’re never going to be able to go to a Jennifer Lopez concert and expect to know all of the choreography — it’s just not going to happen.
But, if you go to a BTS concert, you might be able to learn some of the repetitive dance moves and bring them home with you afterward.
The Entire Genre Is A Fashion Statement
K-Pop has a significant influence on fashion in Asia, and the trends that idols set are followed by their fans. It kind of happens in the U.S with people like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, but it’s to an extreme in Korea.
Most of the K-Pop groups will wear vibrant streetwear that is very Backstreet Boys-esque. If you’re a fan of colorful windbreakers, you’ve come to the right genre because those are extremely popular.
The Dyeing Skin Concern
Fans are so drawn to K-Pop idols that they will literally dye their skin to try to have the same tone as the singer. This is one of the trends that has many parents concerned about the influence of K-Pop.
The most common fashion themes that are followed fall under street, retro, sexy, black and white, and futurism. Most groups follow a “uniform” pattern where they all wear the same outfit.
Idol Dating Clause
Some of them have to sign an “Idol Dating Clause” that says if they date, they have to do it in secret. It not only increases sales and excitement for an idol, but it also shows the control that these entertainment companies have over their stars.
The good news about the whole dating in secret thing is that the tabloids, as I mentioned, have morals. One of the things they don’t usually do is “out” someone for dating as we see in the U.S.
The BTS Movement
You can’t even begin to talk about K-Pop without mentioning the most popular band in the genre right now, BTS. This group of seven has taken over the world. Their second album, Wings, peaked at #26 on the Billboard 200 charts, which marked the highest chart ranking for a K-Pop album ever.
They became the first and only K-Pop band to sell over a million copies of their album and have won countless awards.
They Blew UP
They followed up their second album with a third album called Love Yourself: Her, which debuted at #7 on the Billboard 200 charts, making them the highest rank for an Asian artist in history.
If you thought that was the end, nope. They dropped their fourth album Love Yourself: Tear and their fifth Love Yourself: Answer which both debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. The group has now sold over 10 million albums in Korea, and five million alone in 2018.
They’re Loved By The Government
But, they’re not just pretty faces. They gave a speech at the United Nations as ambassadors for UNICEF, as well as being on the cover of TIME magazine as “Next Generation Leaders.”
They were the youngest recipients to be awarded the Order of Cultural Merit from the South Korean government. It’s easy to see why the government likes BTS as they’re estimated to bring in nearly $3.2 billion for South Korea’s economy every year.
Guinness World Record Holders
Forbes listed them as the most retweeted artist on Twitter in March 2016. Billboard also placed them at #1 on their Social 50 chart, making them the first Korean group to do so. Are you seeing a trend yet?
They now have the Guinness World Record for most Twitter engagements for a music group. They were “liked or retweeted” over half a billion times in 2017 alone. That’s nuts.
Remember PSY? Let’s be honest, you probably did the Gangnam Style dance at least once or twice. He’s probably the most popular K-Pop artist to break into the U.S market. At one point, he even had the same manager as Justin Bieber.
He has the sixth most viewed video on YouTube with over 3.2 billion views. He earned more than $40 million in 2012 through concert sales, TV commercials, and social media revenue.
He’s Been Around For A While
Just to show how separate the K-Pop industry is from the music industry around the world, PSY has been making music since 2000. By no means was he this overnight sensation that took over the world.
He even enlisted into the South Korean army after the government imposed a mandatory military service on all South Korean men from ages 18-35. He was exempt after very little time in the army because he was working as a software developer for the government.
Not All K-Pop Stars Are Korean
Yep, that’s right. K-Pop stars, just like in America, come from all over the place. Idols like Nichkhun is a member of the boy band 2PM and is nicknamed the Thai Prince.
There are also many idols from China and other Asian countries. Not only that, but there’s even an African-America girl named Alex Reid who joined the K-Pop community. There is a surprising amount of diversity in K-Pop in both the artists and listeners.
The K-Pop TV Industry
The Korean music industry has spawned numerous K-Pop related TV shows that have allowed the genre to grow even faster than it was projected to. Talent shows such as Superstar K, K-Pop Star have become insanely popular.
There’s also a K-Pop rap subculture that’s taken off. There are rap competition shows like Show Me The Money, and Unpretty Rapstar that have also added to the K-Pop hysteria. Just imagine American Idol, but only rappers. Interesting.
Ah, if you ever want to make a person who likes K-Pop cringe, all you need to do is say the word “saesang.” These are the fans who go over the top with their obsession of a Korean idol.
This doesn’t mean they go out and buy all the merch — it means they literally stalk the Idol. They’ll pull the artist’s hair to get a lock, or touch the idol to get a chance to eat their sweat.
They Take It To Another Level
You’ll see them chasing their idols down the street, and they even carve the names into their skin. Yes, there have been many instances of hospitalization because fans cut themselves trying to give a permanent “skin tattoo” of their idol.
While it’s pretty common to see superfans over here in the U.S, these people have nothing on the super fans in South Korea. It’s an entirely different level over there.
They Have To Date In Private
There are tabloids and magazines in South Korea that focus on K-Pop stars, but they all have morals and boundaries. But, there’s also not much to report.
It’s well-known that the K-Pop stars are not allowed to date publicly. Why? Because that will affect sales. Celebrities that aren’t single usually don’t do as well because it takes away the fantasy for the fans. Many fans dream of dating their favorite idol and knowing they’re single just increases that desire.