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K-pop for beginners: A crash course on South Korea's greatest pop culture export

guides May 19, 2020

K-pop seems to be steadily taking over the world with its memorable melodies and perfect choreography. If you don't live under a rock, then chances are that you've heard of the global phenomenon. But even if you know what K-pop is, there's still a pretty good chance you don't quite get it. How do they have such a legion of obsessed, non-Korean speaking fans? Why are there so many people in one band? What is it about these pop stars that reduces audiences to screaming, jumping worshippers?

When did it all begin?

Let's start with a quick history lesson: Seo Taiji & Boys can be considered the founding fathers of K-pop. In 1992, the trio debuted on a television talent show with their song 'Nan Arayo (난 알아요, I Know)'. The boys didn't win – they actually received the lowest score from the judges – but the song and album went on to becoming a soaring success among the public, topping South Korea's music charts.

The song's commercial success (and, ironically, disapproval from the judges) was attributed to the influence of modern American music – it was a completely different musical style to what had been previously seen in South Korea. Following the success of Seo Taiji & Boys, the Korean music industry actively catered to teenagers, forming and marketing pop groups of young boys or girls.

How do you become a K-pop star?

Fast forward to the late 90s and South Korea's music industry was churning out dozens of successful idol groups. Talent agencies began setting up programs to train potential future K-pop stars. These programs still exist, training children from the age of 10 on how to sing, dance, and even conduct themselves in the public eye. Successful children are then placed into an idol group, where they record studio-written tracks, embark on marketing campaigns and perform live tours. Basically, the K-pop world is a bit of a machine, with groups manufactured by record labels right from the get-go.

One deciding feature of a K-pop group's potential success is their ability to perform live. Given the popularity of X-Factor-style talent shows within South Korea, winning one is considered a success like no other. Because of this, K-pop artists pull out all the stops for live performances and release songs that, when performed live, will encourage enthusiasm and involvement from fans (for example, having fans chant throughout performances).

Why are there so many singers in one group?

If you've ever seen a K-pop performance or music video, you may have noticed that they often feature a lot of members. Some idol groups have an absurd amount of members (NCT has 21) whilst others have just three or four.

One of the biggest considerations that record companies have is the marketability of these groups and their ability to connect with young fans. So, if you have an idol group of 21 people, chances are that listeners will connect with at least one of the members.

Another, more pragmatic reason behind these supergroups is South Korea's mandatory conscription, when South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to perform military service for two years. That's why large group numbers are so common among male idol groups – having so many members means that bands can still perform if some members are on military service. It's also why talented dual-citizens are often sought after, since  dual citizens are exempt from mandatory military service.

How did K-pop go international?

The marketability and high-quality production value of these groups has allowed them to break into a wider audience. In 2009, Wonder Girls brought K-pop to the global forefront, becoming the first South Korean group to hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart with their multilingual hit 'Nobody'. Psy's 2012 hit 'Gangnam Style' was also a major contributor to K-pop's western popularity, with the video reaching over three billion views on YouTube.

Since then, supergroups have continued to dominate Western music charts. BTS is arguably South Korea's most successful musical export. The group has reached the Billboard Hot 100 with two songs, performed at Times Square on New Year's Eve, and were the first South Korean artists to perform a US stadium show. The supergroup is set to perform a pay-per-view online concert in June for their fans across the globe. If K-pop is seeking world domination, BTS could well be the chosen ones.

Do I need to understand Korean or be a teenager to listen to K-pop?

K-pop songs may be marketed at teenagers, but they're designed to be ear worms. Don't be ashamed if you find yourself humming along to BIGBANG's 'Fantastic Baby' (it's almost ridiculous how catchy this song is). And you don't need to speak Korean to get on board the K-pop train. In fact, you've probably noticed that many K-pop songs feature English words; this is deliberate, to make the song catchier and easy to remember. So let loose and sing along to those lyrics.

In all seriousness though, as the diversity of fans shows, language isn't a barrier to enjoying K-pop.

So now that you've read through this K-pop crash course, it's time to experience it for yourself. We've made a playlist featuring some of the most iconic and popular K-pop songs from the past decades. You're welcome.

Tabitha Gyde

Tabby loves puns and pop culture. She also enjoys eating, travelling, and overwatering her plants.