K-Pop: history of the Korean genre, best songs and representative artists

K-Pop groups

K-Pop, in some aspects known as KPop, is, in short, Korean pop music that has dethroned the previous masters of Asian pop music from music players: the Japanese. While J-Pop was, including rock, jazz, and techno variations, an outsider in the musical culture of the 90s in the West, the fans it generated over the years remained loyal until its final twilight. Not in vain, if you were young in that decade and had otaku friends (with all that it implied back then), you’ll remember names like X Japan, their fashion styles, and how exaggeratedly (from your point of view) they lived every event related to their favorite artists.

Well, Korean K-Pop is nothing more than a translation within the natural evolution of musical Idols. If they were Japanese before, now everyone talks about Korean Idols, the forefront of pop music in general, with highly elaborate productions, plenty of dance choreographies to imitate at home, artists prepared for stardom for half their lives, and videos that show the state of Korean pop culture. That being said, in general terms, it’s clear what genre it is, but why is it an all-encompassing phenomenon full of morning trending topics and, in the case of the death or accident of a prominent member of the genre, also nocturnal ones?

In the following lines, we will explore how most of its fans experience the genre, numbering in the millions and language barriers notwithstanding. Despite how deeply ingrained Anglo-Saxon culture is within us, it might seem strange to many when observed in the Asian context. Nevertheless, ultimately, we’re talking about the same thing, just with a slightly different culture. Or maybe not, because South Korea, while Eastern in its habits, education, and academic and work performance, also has a lot to do with the United States, which culturally colonized hundreds of countries after World War II.

K-Pop Generations, Fan Phenomenon, and Fleeting Fame

If we want to summarize the concept briefly, we will say that the so-called KPop generation, even though the musical phenomenon started in the mid-90s (following the footsteps of the Japanese), is actually more modern in the Latin world. In general terms, it is composed of young people between 15 and 25 years old (as of 2020) and is experiencing a golden age of sonic and stylistic maturity, although many nostalgics will say that its quality is much inferior to previous generations. Because, according to how the music and film industry is understood in Asia, genres don’t suffer a wear and tear that deteriorates them until they disappear, but deterioration leads to the end of one generation and the beginning of another. Thus, the first generation of K-pop, which lasted from 1990 to the early 2000s, passed by without much fanfare overseas, and very few current fans will know who some groups like Turbo, S.E.S, H.O.T, Shinwa, or Baby Vox are.

But how did we arrive so quickly at the fourth generation in 2020? Quite simply, if something is ephemeral in the pop industry, it’s fame. Big names, many faces tailored to a personality within a group (mostly), singles, tours, and constant album releases cause mental and physical erosion in many Korean singers. However, it also causes fans to be intensely devoted, as their favorite artists keep feeding them with music and visuals. A well-produced pop song with a well-shot video can make a Korean pop dance go viral. Adolescents, in particular, quickly adopt and internalize what they love as their own, almost making it the center of their lives, leading to constant idolization of their favorite voices.

First Generation (1992-2002)

As we mentioned, the first K-Pop generation went through life without making much noise beyond its borders. If Japan incorporated dozens of American influences, Korea was replicating the trend but in its own way. In other words, Korean pop was a version of the original American pop, mixed with elements of Japanese pop and turned into a mishmash that… well: lucky those who enjoy it.

Considering what our concept of this prefabricated industrial pop is, but acknowledging that if so many people enjoy it, there must be something to it, the most relevant aspect of this generation was the small traces of classical Korean music in some contemporary songs. Similar to what Rosalía does. They added classical elements from their culture like violins and pianos to the pop of the time, making their pop somewhat more special. But nothing particularly memorable. Among the groups not mentioned earlier, we would highlight the girl band Chakra, which incorporated Indian influences, or the more classical BoA.

Second Generation (2003-2008)

In the second K-Pop generation, things got wild. Like much of the pop music of the decade, it doesn’t stand the test of time today. Everything has turned to dust. However, in some way, it’s still appealing, maybe because it’s unique, fortunately unrepeatable due to industry and market evolution.

The real key is freedom. That defined the generational change, the bridge through which the famous bands of the first phase were overshadowed by the new ones. Groups like Super Junior or Early Apink, for instance, epitomize this process. The drug?

However it may be, this period served to distance itself from American pop, precisely thanks to the freedom and the psychotropics they had to incorporate into their rehearsals. In other words, K-Pop was now genuinely Korean pop, unique. They constantly experimented with their sound, and in this chemical and musical context, the laboratory’s greatest scientists were Big Bang. We should value from this period that the bands and their producers took risks because beyond the results, there’s always something we can extract from them, how they picked elements from music of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It’s worth revisiting these songs for these flashes of talent or genius. Even if it’s just about aesthetics.

So much so that the hairstyles and haircuts of this period set the trend for what has now been perfected; colors, braids, ponytails, bangs… it all started here (in South Korea). Consequently, more and more artists began to appear with extensions, accessories, and clothes of often extravagant shapes and colors. And while girls have always been, for publicity, physique as well as talent, during these years they started to exploit it even more vigorously, both on and off the stage.

If you listen now to 99% of the current Korean bands, you might think it sounds outdated. That’s how it sounded in their contemporaneity. It didn’t matter if it was Wonder Girls, PSY, 2NE1, After School, Miss A, G-Dragon, or HyunA. In any case, if you were immersed in this universe, you’d probably spend a lot of time watching Big Bang’s videos.

Third Generation (2009/10-2013)

Regarding the third generation, we’re talking about the maturity of the genre or subgenre. It still maintains its distinctive sound from the previous stage but always refreshed. Fortunately, the feeling of listening to something outdated disappears in most groups, but since many of the previous ones are still around, some whimsical flashes remain.

Here, newly formed groups are diverse enough to talk about different sub-genres that cater to similar but different tastes. It’s in the third generation that some groups become big beyond Asia. The songs are becoming catchier. Innovative bands emerge (like Blackpink), those that remain relevant over time (SHINee), those that renew and maintain the sounds of the first generation successfully (Gfriend), those that stand out based on established concepts (Twice), those that keep inventing new concepts (Red Velvet), and those that challenge everything (BTS), setting the stage for the next generation, creating a blurred bridge where many names like the ones mentioned or like Girls’ Generation belong to both periods.

Fourth Generation (2014-Present)

In the fourth generation, bands, producers, and composers have figured out what works and what doesn’t. This is where they strictly adhere to tested and successful procedures and rules. Ironically, even though it works, in these years it feels like we’re dealing with a more manufactured pop than ever before. In any case, K-Pop is better than it used to be, due to the variety. The industry meets demands with a supply of quality, whether in production, talent, or at least attractive appearances and stories beyond music. In any case, the truth is a bit sad because the well-oiled machine is built on the shoulders of exhausted human beings treated like robots.

This period is known as the Post-Hallyu wave and is full of scandals as well as the proliferation of solo idols alongside the slow dissolution of second-generation groups, suicides, accidents, and other murky news that are understandable in a world full of constant demands.

Mashups as an Entry to the Global Mainstream

A good way to see how the subgenre has evolved is to review some annual mashups created by the Brazilian DJ Masa, who compiled the best of each year from the mid-2000s to the end, mixing various K-Pop songs annually to the delight of fans. If you’re not familiar with his channel, even if you’re a current genre fan, you might discover some extinct groups that were trending back then.

Nowadays, things have changed so much that they don’t have as much importance, as collaborations with successful American artists are now more attention-grabbing and feasible, promoting entry into the international mainstream. And that’s how record companies behind all these groups and idols must be making a fortune year after year by keeping the machinery running non-stop.

Most Famous Korean Groups

Current K-Pop Boy Bands and Other Singers

  • BTS: Their collaborations with artists like Halsey, Charli XCX, or Juice WRLD have turned them into the band with the greatest international projection and the largest number of fans outside of Asia. From this boy band, members like J-Hope (versatile singer, composer, choreographer, model, and producer), Agust D, and RM stand out.
  • TOMORROW X TOGETHER: Also known as TXT, another boy band formed by Big Hit Entertainment, this time in 2019. The group consists of five members: Yeonjun, Soobin, Beomgyu, Taehyun, and Hueningkai.
  • SHINee: This band has been mentioned frequently because it was introduced in South Korea on May 19, 2008, formed by SM Entertainment, causing controversy among young audiences due to what the label represents within this culture of using and reusing Idols. They have fan clubs around the world where they discuss everything, from each new single to the favorite colors of the group members.
  • Big Bang: Another band that has been talked about extensively for being one of the most relevant. A quintet formed in 2006 by the YG Entertainment company. They handle a wide range of music genres, from hip-hop and R&B to electro-pop, jazz, and rock influences.
  • Seo Taiji, Boys: One of the early K-Pop bands, active since 1992, filled with influences and elements from Western genres like hip-hop, rock, and techno. Nu Metal, always criticized, was also part of this Frankenstein monster full of life.
  • EXO: Sporting 80s attire and hairstyles, this South Korean-Chinese group has been produced by SM Entertainment since 2012. Formed by 12 members (now 9) divided into two subgroups: EXO-K and EXO-M, both terms derived from the word “exoplanet”.

Korean Women’s Pop Music

  • f(x): The female idols with the best singles and albums in the subgenre. They’ve been so prolific that even in solo endeavors, members of this Korean girl band keep succeeding. Once again from SM Entertainment, this group has been active since 2009, and the internet is full of information about the origins of their name, their members’ lives, why they went on hiatus, and many more stories.
  • Wonder Girls: Formed in 2007, this group from JYP Entertainment, currently composed of Min Sun Ye, Park Ye Eun, Kim Yoo Bim, Ahn So Hee, and Yu Hae Lim (replacing Sun Mi). They mainly move between pop, R&B, and hip-hop.
  • Ladies’ Code: Created by Polaris Entertainment in 2013, the band, although still active, suffered the loss of two of its members due to a tragic accident, turning the quintet into a trio.
  • Girls’ Generation: Also known as SNSD, the acronym for So Nyuh Shi Dae, formed by SM Entertainment in 2007, boasting nine members.
  • Twice: Formed by JYP Entertainment through a reality show in 2015, this is another group composed of nine members.
  • Red Velvet: Another girl band formed by SM Entertainment. They began their career in 2014, contributing to a jumble of names, faces, and songs where one eventually loses track of what they’re listening to.

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