By: Conan Zhang, Elle Grant × Kai Yeo
Korean pop music, known as K-Pop is becoming a global force. With forceful sounds, charismatic performances, and colorful concepts, it is a maximalist’s dream perception of music. The fans are dedicated, if not overwhelming in their dedication to their favorite artists. Recently, the political successes of K-pop fans are making just as many headlines: fans crashed Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally and have been at the forefront of vocalizing issues related to Black Lives Matter. Who are the artists that inspire such loyalty and such action? Read into 360’s introduction to some of the twenty-first century mainstays below.
Seo Taiji And Boys
Debuted in 1992, Seo Taiji and Boys were and influential 3-member band and are known as the first “boy group” in K-pop industry consisting of Seo Taiji himself, alongside fellow members Yang Hyun Suk and Lee Juno. Their debut single, “Nan Arayo (I Know),” was an instantly catchy hit that topped the charts for a record-breaking, seventeen consecutive weeks and propelled the group to pop mega-stardom.
In April 2017 it was announced that Seo Taiji was assembling a group of modern K-Pop acts to cover songs from his past to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his debut with Seo Taiji and Boys. The first act announced for the project was BTS, with other acts including Urban Zakapa and Younha. The first single from this project, a cover of “Come Back Home” (from Seo Taiji and Boys IV) recorded by BTS, was released with a music video on July 5, 2017.
In case you’re new to K-pop, it might be helpful to add that BTS was also invited by Seo Taiji to perform their rendition of Come Back Home and other acts at their 25th anniversary concert.
Heard of Gangnam Style? Born Park Jae-sang on December 31 1977, he is better known as the artist PSY. He is a South Korean singer, rapper, songwriter, and record producer. PSY is famous in Korea for his funny videos and stage performances. After releasing Gangnam Style on 15 July 2012, the video crossed over 2 billion views in less than two years (so many that it broke YouTube). This song can also arguably be named the first breakout Korean hit to become popular in the West. The song’s refrain was entered into The Yale Book of Quotations as one of the most famous quotations of 2012.
Since his international success, PSY has gone on to found his own record company P NATION and currently mentoring other artists.
No introduction needed, Big Bang is a South Korean boy band under YG Entertainment. The group consists of four members: G-Dragon, T.O.P, Taeyang, and Daesung; They are named as “Kings of K-pop,” Bigbang have greatly helped spread the Korean Wave internationally. A fifth member, Seungri, left the group and the industry in disgrace following an the Burning Sun sex scandal, of which he was an organizer, a moment that blighted K-pop’s reputation at home.
Eighteen of Big Bang’s singles have been number one hits in South Korea and have remained atop the Melon charts for a record 51 weeks. The group has sold over 150 million records globally, which rank them among the best-selling boy bands in the world. Forbes Korea ranked them as one of the most powerful celebrities in South Korea from 2009 to 2016 (placing 2nd in 2009, 2012 and 2014, and they were the first Korean artists to be included on the Forbes Celebrity 100 and 30 Under 30 list of most influential musicians in the world (2017).
Currently with 4 members discharged from military service, fans are eagerly waiting to see what happens next.
Lee Chae-rin, better known by her stage name CL, rose to fame as girl group 2NE1’s leader in 2009, one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. As a solo artist, CL made her debut with “The Baddest Female” in 2013 and has continued to pursue her own career following the group’s hiatus in 2015. The release “Hello Bitches” (2015) led CL to become the first female Korean solo artist to place onto the Billboard Hot 100, and the third Korean artist to do so overall.
In November 2016, YG announced the disbandment of 2NE1 after nearly two years of hiatus, and CL subsequently remained under the label. Shortly after leaving YG in December 2019, she released her solo EP project In the Name of Love (2019), consisting of six tracks written during the three years since her previous single “Lifted.” Her debut studio album, Alpha, was released in October 2021.
BTS, an abbreviation for Bangtan Boys, was formed in 2010 while the group debuted in 2013. The team is made up of seven members including Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. The members co-write and co-produce almost every song that they perform, marking a shift in the K-Pop industry to including artists in the songs they sing and promote.
Originally intended to be a Korean hip-hop group, they are now producing music in a wide range of genres. Their songs often focused on personal and social hot topics, mentioning mental health, troubles of school-age teenagers.
Having sold over 20 million albums on the Gaon Music Chart, BTS is now the best-selling artist in South Korean history and holds the best-selling album in South Korea with the work Map of the Soul: 7. The group’s numerous accolades include six American Music Awards, nine Billboard Music Awards, 24 Golden Disc Awards, and nominations for a Grammy Award and a Brit Award. They are undoubtedly the current Kinds of K-Pop and have broken through to Western popularity unlike any other artist.
Blackpink is a girl group formed by YG Entertainment, featuring four team members: Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé and Lisa. In August 2016, they debuted with their single album Square One, which is features the extremely popular songs “Whistle” and “Boombayah.”
Blackpink is ranked as the highest-charting female Korean act on the Billboard Hot 100 and they broke a huge number of online records since they released “Kill This Love” (2019) and “How You Like That” (2020), each become the most-viewed music video within the first 24 hours of release. Though this record was eventually broken by BTS, it is nonetheless just one of many examples proving the quartet’s impact on society.
Lee Ji-eun is well known as IU. She is a South Korean singer-songwriter and actress. The name IU is a combination of the letters ‘I’ and ‘you’ which means “you and I become one through music.” She debuted as a singer when she was fifteen with her first mini album Lost and Found (2008). Her work “Good Day” won her five consecutive weeks at the top position of South Korea’s Gaon Digital Chart. In the year of 2019, “Good Day” was ranked number one on Billboard’s “100 Greatest K-Pop Songs of the 2010s” list.
NCT are a K-pop group created by SM Entertainment. NCT stands for Neo Culture Technology, and the idea is that they’re a group of infinite members who are constantly shifting into different sub-units in different cities around the world. Currently consisting of 5 sub-units – NCT U, NCT 127, NCT Dream, NCT 2018, WayV.
Currently, NCT is made up of 21 members – we know, it’s a handful! The members are: Taeil, Johnny, Taeyong, Yuta, Kun, Doyoung, Ten, Jaehyun, Winwin, Jungwoo, Lucas, Mark, Renjun, Jeno, Haechan, Jaemin, Chenle, Jisung, Xiao Jun, Yang Yang, and Hendery.
After debuting in 2016, they have won 7 awards from 19 nominations and are continuing their stardom today. Pionerring the “noise music” trend and have so far been the only ones that do it well – “Simon Says.” Find out more information about them through their show NCT Life streaming on YouTube for free.
Like many of today’s K-pop acts, Twice originated from a reality competition show. The 2015 series Sixteen involved that many JYP entertainment “trainees” – the term used for aspiring idols-in-training, preparing for a potential debut. After a series of challenges and fighting for a place in the final lineup, the remaining nine formed a new ensemble, also known as Twice.
After the announcement of the label’s new girl group, founder and CEO of JYP explained that Twice refers to the act of making an impact “once through the ears and once through the eyes.” As so, the group’s fame has been propelled by hit after hit of vibrant sound through bright and colorful music videos. Their unique sound can be heard especially in “TT” and “Cheer Up.”
More on K-pop
These men and women are just of a few forcing open the door to K-Pop in the west after being mainstays in South Korean and Asian popular culture for years. This list features artists from the first to third generation of K-Pop stars, known as the generations to push international boundaries of popularity. In this new decade of the twenty-first century, K-Pop is more popular than ever. Stars of the fourth generation, coinciding with the Gen Z age group, are achieving international successes early on in their forebearers above could only dream of just years ago. A great deal of this success is owed to the listed artists, who have collectively decades breaking barriers and sharing music. New groups like ITZY, TXT, Ateez and Enhypen are achieving new heights, learning from the elders while paving the way for the future.