By Carla Calderon
Beginning of K-pop
K-Pop is an interesting genre. It’s something that’s relatively new and can be easily dated back to its very beginning.
Its history begins on April 11, 1992 with Seo Taiji and Boys. Seo Taiji was previously a member of the South Korean heavy metal band Sinawe, which had an influential part in the development of Korean rock music in the late ‘80s.
When the band broke up, Seo turned to hip-hop. After recruiting Yang Hyunsuk and Lee Juno to be his backup dancers, the group came to be known as Seo Taiji and Boys. Their music had deep lyricism, trendy styling, and accompanying choreography, which broke barriers and pushed the boundaries for future K-pop groups.
Before their arrival, Korea’s pop music were ballads and trot—a blend of Japanese, Western, and Korean styles sung in the vibrato-heavy Gagok style. This was due to South Korea’s travel ban, which was recently lifted in 1988, and strict censorship laws.
Seo Taiji and Boys had their first performance on a talent show. They sang their single “Nan Arayo (I Know)” and received the lowest score of the evening. Immediately after the song debuted, “I Know” went on to top South Korea’s singles charts for a record 17 weeks. The record would stand for more than 15 years as the longest No. 1 streak in the country’s history.
While the group quickly charted, they were met with pushback from the industry and the older generation. Seo Taiji and Boys were often banned from TV broadcasts and even accused of sneaking satanic messages in their songs to brainwash young people. But the group and their fans fought through, eventually changing censorship laws and industry standards.
The Big 3 – SM, JYP, YG
Between 1995 and 1998, the three powerhouse music studios appeared. Together these studios began deliberately cultivating what we would come to know as idol groups.
The first idol group to appear in South Korea was H.O.T. SM’S founder, Lee Sooman, assembled five singers and dancers who he thought represented what teens wanted to see from a modern pop group. The group shares traits with today’s current idol groups. They combine singing, dancing, and rapping with a multitude of personalities united through music.
In 1999, H.O.T. and their female counterpart, S.E.S, were chosen to perform in a major benefit concert with Michael Jackson. They were chosen because of their great potential to become international pop stars. It’s a clear indication that even in the ‘90s, the industry was aware of K-pop’s potential for global success.
First Wave of Korean Music in the U.S.
In the late ‘00s and ‘10s, soloists like BoA, Se7evn, and Rain, as well as girl groups like Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation, try their hand at breaking into the U.S. music industry.
BoA released more than a dozen records in various languages and debuted and English-language album in 2009. It took into the Billboard 200 at No. 127 before falling off the chart the next week. She hasn’t released music aimed for the U.S. since.
Wonder Girls spent an extended amount of time in the U.S. They released an English version of their song “Nobody.” It made it into the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 76 in 2009 before also falling off after a week. The girls even toured with the Jonas Brothers in 2009, but failed to score a hit. Wonder Girls did star in a Teen Nick movie, though, and appeared on Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards in 2012 for Favorite Asian Act category.
One of the biggest break for K-pop in the western market was Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” While some argue it was an anomaly or one-off gimmic, you can’t deny the impact it made. It became the first video to top a billion streams on YouTube and is still synonymous with Korea and their pop music.
BTS on the Rise
The global phenomenon that truly made a name for themselves in the U.S. is BTS. The group has experienced many firsts for Korean artists and is showing signs of not stopping.
They were the first K-pop group to perform at the American Music Awards in 2017; first to win at the Billboard Music Awards in 2017 for Social Artist; and first to present an award at the Grammys in 2019. BTS also made appearances on TV shows, such as the Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Their music is one of the firsts to be heard on the radio as well and they’ve had tons of collaborations with western artists. All of it opens up the possibilities for other Korean artists’ music to be spread and heard.
Tsunami of Korean Artists
The wave of Korean music and media into the U.S. is only growing and steadily going faster. More and more Korean artists are making their way to the U.S.
Artists such as BlackPink are headlining at a huge festival like Coachella and Monsta X was recently announced to perform at iHeartRadio’s Daytime Stage for their festival. Other K-pop groups are set to perform in North America as well, with new tours getting announced almost every month.
Steve Aoki pointed out the K-pop wave likely wouldn’t have happened without the streaming revolution. “With streaming, fans now have such a large voice, and that’s how BTS really became a phenomenon – because the fans made it a phenomenon, like with the underground culture of punk and hardcore,” the DJ said. “These guys just crush it. And I think because the fans are making such a big deal, it’s not going anywhere.”