Even people living under solid rock for the past few years have probably heard of K-pop. After all, K-pop references seem to pop (pardon the pun) up everywhere. Fast food comes in a box with BLACKPINK on it. The neighborhood burger joint suddenly sells the tteokbboki that Jimin from BTS likes. GQ and Vogue feature tributes to these Adonis-esque idols on their covers. K-pop is everywhere, literally and figuratively. The time has come to embrace it.
Why do these Dionysus level of perfect-looking creatures and their uncannily smooth numbers have the world so frenzied? Anyone a little bit curious about the phenomenon has come to the right place. First things first: check out our guide to all things K-pop.
What is K-pop
The K in K-pop stands for Korean and refers to all forms of Korean pop, including indie, mainstream, idol pop, and every other variation in between and beyond. For most people beyond Korea and on the global music scene, Idol pop is synonymous with K-pop. Idol pop is a subgenre of K-pop, possibly the most popular one at that. When people beyond Korea refer to K-pop, they generally mean Korean Idol pop or Idol pop.
Idol pop — referred to simply as K-pop from here on — as its name suggests, focuses on both the performer (the idol) and the music. K-pop as we know it, thus, is a larger-than-life theatre. It is not solely a musical performance but also a visual and often sensory one. The idol, the concept, the visuals, the choreography, and the ever-catchy lyrics together create a sensory extravaganza and are designed to be experienced as such.
The rise of K-pop marks a very millennial moment in music history. It returns to experimentation and maximalism in a way reminiscent of the 80s. In fact, the 80s are making a major return on recent K-pop concepts. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Where exactly did it all begin?
The Story So Far
It was the year 1992. On April 11, Seo Taiji and Boys had just performed “Nan Arayo” (“I Know”). The performance would become a momentous event in pop culture, but the group didn’t know it yet. They secured the last position on a talent show. But it was also a beginning. Houses and hearts across the nation began lighting up with the then-eclectic hip-hop number that mixed tradition with Western innovation. The song went on to make history and secured the coveted first spot on South Korean music charts for 17 weeks. They held the record for 15 years and marked the moment K-pop as we know it was born.
Three Generations Later
The genre has come far since its inception with Seo Taiji. Since 1992, the genre has seen three eras or generations. While the exact length and constituents of these eras are often hotly debated, they largely consist of:
The First Generation
The First Generation of idol pop began with Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992. Other groups followed the debut single, “I Know” (“Nan Arayo”), with hit songs by emerging idol groups like “Candy” by H.O.T. in 1996 and “I’m Your Girl” by S.E.S. released in the following year.
Other famous idol groups from the First Generation include Deux, Diva, and g.o.d. Of the three, only g.o.d. still performs today.
Idol groups of the First Generation still hammered out their sound in those early years. But bright, maximalist aesthetics and visually striking choreography, along with catchy one-liners and hooks, played a key part in K-pop from the start.
Remember “Gangnam Style”? The iconic single by Psy went viral across the global music scene in 2012. Psy and other popular idol acts like IU and BoA, who sang in English before anyone else did, comprise the Second Generation of Korean idol pop.
K-pop now mostly belongs to the Third Generation. All the biggest names in the industry — be it Twice, Exo, Red Velvet, or even BTS — fall in the Third Generation or Era.
K-pop truly took over the world stage and finally discovered its sound during the Third Generation era. This may mean a return to the 80s maximalism with BTS or a sudden fascination with R&B and Jazz elements.
The Third Generation of K-pop, thus, places as much importance on maximalist sensory extravaganza as it does on individuality. The movement also focuses on storytelling, and the concepts explore heavier themes like depression and abuse. But the true spirit of this era lies in its hopefulness. There is an idea that no matter how bad things get, we prevail in the end. Songs from the Third Generation have, thus, a vulnerability: a bittersweet celebration of life, love, and joy.
The fourth generation began in 2019. While music aficionados debate where certain groups like BLACKPINK fall, groups like Stray Kids, ATEEZ, and aespa fall solidly in the fourth generation or era.
This generation continues the spirit of experimentation in an age where K-pop has made its an unshakeable spot on the world stage. This has led to experimentation with genres and styles. For example, ATEEZ’s “Say My Name” masterfully blends punk elements with a bit of folk rock.
On Fans, Stans, and Antis: K-pop Terms you need to Know
Now that we've covered the basics, we may venture into the world of K-pop and discover its delights. Be prepared; know that this is a vast and treacherous world with its own rules, literature, and art.
The fan communities of each group have their own titles. The BTS fandom, for example, is known as ARMY, and it is indeed much like an endless troupe of soldiers ready to take down anyone stupid enough to utter a word against any of their seven darling boys. The K-pop fandom vocabulary also requires a dictionary of terms. Here are a few of the most common ones:
- Bias: A favorite idol, one true love, and the person who makes a heart go boom without even trying.
- Bias-wrecker: The one who makes someone question bias just by existing.
- OTn: The entire idol group, with “n” standing for the number of members. For example, BTS, with its seven members, would be OT7.
- Stan: The fan who takes enthusiasm a little too far and may resort to stalking their favorite idols, keeping track of their location and activities at all times, and often violating their personal lives. The more obsessive fans are called sasaengs.
- Anti: Someone who hates an idol or group so much that it turns into an obsession. They often dedicate their time to posting negative comments about these idols, often resorting to mockery and extreme criticism to bring them down.
- Fancam: A camera that focuses solely on one idol during a performance. For example, someone with a Jungkook bias may look up Jungkook fancams. Today, fancams also feature clips and photo compilations of idols and celebrities.
- Fanchant: The names of the members of a group and certain phrases twined together in specific rhythms and chanted at performances. Fans will often tweak these chants according to the song being performed.
- Fingerheart: A gesture crossing a forefinger and thumb to make a tiny heart.
- V Live: V Live is a livestream platform that offers the best way to keep up with K-pop idols. They follow idols and groups, feature backstage scenes, show moments from dance practice, etc.
- Leader: The designated leader of a group is responsible for keeping the members in check at all times and making sure everything runs smoothly. They also usually serve as the spokesperson of the group. For this reason, leaders often speak fluent English so as to communicate, even on international soil.
So, Who’s Your Bias?
So, now that we've covered the basics, prepare to explore the brilliant and bamboozling world of K-pop. Find a community, cheer for a bias, and chant along with millions of other fans just as obsessed with the idols.
For anyone unsure where to even begin, check out our playlist to get the party started. For now, buckle up and enjoy the ride.