South Korea: land of TV dramas, mukbang, celebrity StarCraft champions, and one of the world’s most vibrant and dominant pop music industries. Since modern Korean pop music took shape in the early 90’s, the Hallyu, or Korean culture wave, has been steadily building into a global phenomenon. Fans of BIGBANG, EXID, and Girls’ Generation are now found all over the world, alongside legions of K-drama TV junkies and Korean film devotees.
“In the 21st century, culture is power,” former (and now-incarcerated) South Korean President Park Geun-hye said in her inaugural address in 2013, referencing the growing worldwide domination of the Hallyu. Still, many North American music fans, if they think of South Korean music at all, think of “Gangnam Style,” and that’s about it. When Korean music is mentioned in Western outlets, it’s often in judgment of the South Korean and Japanese systems of training their idols intensely from a young age. Only devoted K-fans and noraebang disciples really know the history and big names from the full spectrum of Korean pop history, and that’s a shame—K-pop history is every bit as vibrant, relevant, and entertaining as its more widespread Western counterpart.
The roots of Korean popular music can be traced all the way back to 1885, when a missionary named Henry Appenzeller began to teach American and British folk songs to schoolchildren, replacing the original English lyrics with Korean ones. These songs, known as changga, were collected and banned by the Japanese during their rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945, as the lyrics of many changga denounced Korea’s colonial oppressors.
After the Korean peninsula was partitioned into North and South after its liberation from the Japanese in 1945, Korea and Western culture first encountered each other, with American popular music filtering into the landscape through the U.S. troops that remained in the country after the end of the Korean War. Over time, American pop culture gradually became more accepted, and “trot” music, the oldest type of Korean pop music derived from the old changga songs, started to take a distinctly Americanized form. It was in this era that the first Korean pop stars appeared, such as:
1959: The Kim Sisters
A trio consisting of two sisters, Sook-ja and Aija, and their cousin, Minja, The Kim Sisters started their career singing country songs to U.S. troops, who donated rock and roll records to the group in order to help expand their repertoire. The two actual Sisters were children of Kim Hae-song, a conductor, and Lee Nan-young, one of Korea’s most famous singers from the pre-Korean War era. The Kim Sisters would eventually leave Korea to pursue a music career in Las Vegas. Performing at the Stardust Hotel, Ed Sullivan saw them perform and invited them onto his show, where they would go on to appear over 20 times, introducing Korean music to a huge American audience for the first time.
The original Korean rock band, Add4, were founded in 1962 by guitarist, songwriter, and the widely-acknowledged “Father of Korean Rock” Shin Jung-hyeon. Add4 were the very first rock band to appear in Korea, soon after Beatlemania started to make inroads globally. Like many other South Korean musicians of the era, Shin honed his chops by performing for U.S. troops in the late 50s, and soldiers who were sick of endless tango and trot music appreciated his psychedelic guitar style. Shin’s music career began to suffer after he refused a request from Korean President Park Chung-hee to compose a song in his honour, and Jung-hyeon was eventually arrested in 1975 on spurious drug charges. After his release two years later, he was banned from public performance, a ban which continued until the assassination of Park Chung-hee by Korean Central Intelligence director Kim Jae-gyu in 1979.
1974: Han Dae-soo
Another thorn in the side of Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian military government of the ’60s and 70s was folk singer-songwriter Han Dae-soo, who began performing Lennon and Dylan-inspired music in his native Busan in 1968. Dae-soo spent much of his childhood and university years in New York City, where American folk music of the era seeped into his musical experience. After returning to his native land and starting to achieve some popularity there, Dae-soo’s first two albums were banned in South Korea for perceived anti-government messaging, and Dae-soo was eventually forced to return to New York. Even so, those first two albums (1974’s Long-long Road and Rubber Shoes in 1975) mark his enduring contribution to Korean popular music, and are considered classics and hallmarks of early K-pop.
1975: Cho Yong-pil
An enduring, near-legendary figure in Korean music, Cho Yong-pil also started out playing country & western music to U.S. soldiers in the 50s, but it wasn’t until he released his debut solo single “Come Back to Busan Port” in 1975 that Yong-pil started to experience true success, including, notably, in Japan. Cho Yong-pil, sometimes referred to as “the Korean Michael Jackson,” would become the first Korean singer to perform at Carnegie Hall, which he did in 1980. That wouldn’t be his only rare concert appearance, either: in 2005, Cho became one of the very, very few South Koreans to hold a concert in Pyongyang, North Korea.
1985: Lee Gwang-jo
The 1980s in popular South Korean music saw the rise of “ballad singers,” a new generation of doe-eyed musicians whose slow, syrupy songs focused entirely on romance and other affairs of the heart. One of Korea’s most popular (and first) ballad singers, Gwang-jo Lee, managed to sell 300,000 copies of his 1985 album You’re Too Far Away to Get Close To.
1992: Seo Taiji & Boys
The history of Korean pop since the 90s is largely the story of idol groups, and one of the first was the trio Seo Taiji and Boys. The Boys’ debut on a talent show on Korean TV in the early 90s marked the beginning of the modern, beat-oriented era of K-pop. Seo and the boys may have gotten the lowest possible score from the show’s jury for their performance of what would become their signature song, “Nan Arayo (‘I Know’),” but their hip-hop and new jack swing-influenced songs became massively successful, paving the way for an entirely new format of pop in Korea.
Following in the footsteps of Seo Taiji, H.O.T. (High-five Of Teenagers) were part of the first wave of Korean boy bands, and were the first pop group to sell a million albums, which is even more of accomplishment considering that South Korea was experiencing a financial crisis during H.O.T.’s heyday. H.O.T. would become so, well, hot, that they would be the first pop group to hold a show at Seoul Olympic Stadium, and they would go on to star in a Space Jam-esque sci-fi soccer movie called Age of Peace in 2000, before the disbanding in 2005.
After H.O.T became mega-popular, their record label SM Entertainment wasted no time capitalizing on their success by forming an all-female, R&B-focused counterpart to the group, and S.E.S. was the result. S.E.S (named for members Sea, Eugene, and Shoo) was one of the first all-girl Korean pop groups, and they nearly immediately became one of the most successful. The group would disband at the end of their notoriously long contractual obligations in 2002, but they reunited in honour of their 20th anniversary at the end of 2016, with a new album and reality show in tow.
Kwon Bo-Ah, aka BoA, was discovered by, you guessed it, SM Entertainment, when she accompanied her older brother to a talent competition in 2000, and it wasn’t long before she was crowned the “Queen of Korean Pop.” BoA remains one of the only foreign artists who’s managed to sell more than a million copies of three separate albums in Japan. In case you’re interested in which other foreigners have managed that feat, well, the answer might surprise you.
In the modern era, the manufacture and direction of Korea popular culture is more tightly controlled than ever: the current K-pop landscape is dominated by pop groups that periodically emerge from incubation under the training, management, and absolute total control of the record labels. The major labels are really more like colossal artist management and image consulting conglomerates, and they maintain absolute legal control over their charges – a widely-criticized practice which has come to be known as “slave contracts.” Contracts from the Big Three record labels (SM, YG, and JYP Entertainment) are notoriously one-sided and long-running, with a vanishingly small percentage of an act’s total earnings actually going to the artists. The practice was started by SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man, who called the contracts part of his “cultural technology” and justified them by saying it was an effective and efficient means of spreading the Hallyu across the world.
In 2009, three members of boyband TVXQ took SM Entertainment to court over the length and terms of their contract, and the lawsuit resulted in the Korean Fair Trade Commission to produce a more equitable “model contract” that the record labels are meant to base all their artist dealings around, as well as a government support centre where artists can seek legal advice.
2006: Big Bang
The uncontested dons of global Hallyu domination, all five members of Big Bang (or BIGBANG) have gone on to massive solo success in the music, fashion, and acting worlds. Comprised of members G-Dragon, T.O.P, Taeyang, Daesung, and Seungri, Big Bang formed in 2006 as a creation of Seoul-based YG Entertainment. The group would go on to sell 140 million records over the course of their career, leading the Hollywood Reporter to call them “The Biggest Boyband In The World” in 2015. Notably, breakout members T.O.P. and G-Dragon formed their own autonomous subgroup outside the main Big Bang family, and found great success with their own harder-edged, more attitude-laden sound:
2007: Girls Generation
Like BoA, eight-member group Girls’ Generation found great success outside of Korea in Japan, where their 2011 self-titled Japanese debut album became the first album by a non-Japanese girl group to be certified a million-sellers by the Recording Industry Association of Japan. More than 550,000 thousand Japanese fans have attended their three Japanese tours to date. All this isn’t to say that the Generation aren’t a success in their native land, however: the group’s immense popularity in Korea has led to them to being known as “The Nation’s Girl Group”.
For better or worse, it’s impossible not to mention the man responsible for the most-viewed YouTube video ever (currently sitting at 2.8 billion views!) when discussing K-pop in a global context. PSY’s horse-dance seen ‘round the world remains the average digital native’s sole encounter with the Korean pop music industry, and that’s…not a bad thing! Five years after its release, the incredibly fun, poppy jam about the trend-crazed residents of the Gangnam district of Seoul remains the enduring piece of South Korean culture that sticks in the brains of the world at large. Korean government culture officials looking to intensify the growth of the Hallyu couldn’t have asked for a better tool than “Gangnam Style,” which to-date remains the only K-pop anthem name-checked by Barack Obama (at a bilateral meeting with President Park Geun-hye in 2013) and specifically called out as a “force for peace” by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
Korean pop groups continue to form, release music, disband, and reunite at an incredible rate, and the industry as a whole shows no signs of slowing down. The Big Three and other offshoot labels continue to function more as extreme developmental training centres for their artists than as record labels, and every element of the average Korean pop group continues to be rigidly controlled, promoted and directed. For example: Twice.
Nine-member group Twice were drawn from the winners of a reality survival show called Sixteen, in which 16 competitors vied to be a part of a new band. Twice officially debuted in 2015 after the conclusion of the show, with label JYP Entertainment rolling out a massive promotional campaign complete with an official web series (“TwiceTV”), highly-produced Instagram account, official fan group (“Once”), an EP, and, of course, two “official colours” (Apricot and Neon Magenta, naturally). Every aspect of Twice had been planned since early 2013, and the administration and planning that went into the act is in no way unusual for groups in the modern K-pop era; in fact, Twice are only one of many idol groups formed from a reality show.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of massively popular K-pop acts that could’ve made the cut for this primer, but we’d be here for days. Every week, the Gaon music chart is replete with new artists, debuting solo acts, and reunited idol groups… and that’s not even getting into the huge number of classic, now-defunct bands, so anyone interested in becoming a K-pop superfan has their work cut out for them.. The massive K-pop industry, which is supported by the South Korean government as a a valuable part of the Korean Wave and a soft power apparatus towards youth around the world, isn’t going away any time soon.