K-pop is now more popular than ever and the whole planet is in love with Korean culture. However, it is clear that the history of this industry, already almost 30 years old, is relatively unknown in France.
Today, no one seems to agree on what the term “K-pop” means. The word refers to all popular music produced in South Korea whenever it finds international success, even when the music in question is not pop. An appellation that results from a long history of growth and expansion of the genre.
Before BTS and other Blackpink, dozens of groups and singers paved the way and contributed to this now global movement. With its rich background and its ever more versatile artists, K-pop seems to be well established in the global musical landscape today.
Seo Taiji and Boys: The Beginning
On April 11, 1992, the group Seo Taiji and Boys, a trio composed of singers and performers Seo Tai-ji, Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Juno, played for the first time the title “Nan Arayo” (literally “I know”) at Korean national television, in a program that consists of a jury rating and appreciating the latest musical releases in front of the artists.
The performance of Seo Taiji and Boys leaves the jurors unsatisfied: they notably deplore a lack of vocal variety to the detriment of rap and especially dance, and lyrics that favor rhythm over meaning. If the trio still obtains the score of 7.8/10, no one in the studio suspects that we have just witnessed… the birth of K-pop as we know it today. .
The title “Nan Arayo” immediately met with monstrous national success and propelled Seo Taiji and Boys to the top of the charts from the country. So inspired by the new jack swing movement in the United States, a musical style halfway between hip-hop and R’n’B, the trio became ambassadors of a musical genre still very little known in South Korea. South. This is the first time that the general local public is confronted with a piece with urban sounds that mixes song, rap and dance. A veritable musical revolution then began.
Adored by Korean youth, the group will release a total of four albums that will mark the history of the country’s music. The trio likes to take artistic paths hitherto unexplored in Korea, dressing their songs with various sounds then relatively unknown to locals such as rap, dancing and even rock. While the trio broke up in 1996, the mark they left on Korean popular culture is now indelible.
The 1990s, the beginning of the idols
In February 1995, the music label SM Entertainment was founded. Quickly, the agency organizes auditions for young aspiring artists. Among the candidates, only the best singers and dancers, and those with an advantageous physique, are retained. The chosen ones then sign a contract with the agency which gives them singing and performance lessons before making them start in a group. The system of idols was born.
SM Entertainment then produced two groups, a boy band and a girl band, which marked the beginning of the effervescence of idols. Thus are born HOT (for High-five of Teenagers), in 1996, composed of six boys, and SES (the initials of the members of the group), in 1997, which has three performers. A dazzling success welcomes this very first generation ofIbad.
Sounds and choreographies that have been influenced by Seo Taiji and Boys, but also by the pop dance western. Coupled with clean visuals, Korean popular culture and exposing outfits and facial expressions “cute”, the recipe can only take.
Korean audiences are now well accustomed to these artists with their perfect presentation, and their frenetic choreographies that support ever more catchy. Other agencies then emerged and new groups took over, including the girls band Fin.KL, which started in 1998.
The 2000s: the second generation, the hegemony of “Big 3”
SM Entertainment becomes the most successful music label in South Korea. Soon, two agencies come to compete with him. The first, YG Entertainment, was founded in 1996 by a certain Yang Hyun-suk, who is none other than a former member of Seo Taiji and Boys. The second, which was founded in 1997, is JYP Entertainment, created by artist Park Jin-young.
These three agencies are rapidly establishing their hegemony over the Korean music industry. If other labels see the light of day, they will long remain in the shadow of those who are still called the “Big 3” today.
SM Entertainment continued its momentum by producing the boy bands TVXQ (2003) and Super Junior (2005), and the girl band Girls’ Generation (2007). This last group marks a record with its song “Gee”, which will remain nine consecutive weeks at the first place of the charts of KBS, a national television channel.
JYP responds with singer Rain, who debuts with his album bad guy in 2002. For its part, YG Entertainment launched the group Big Bang in 2006, a boy band whose title “Lies” enjoyed dazzling success in 2007.
K-pop is gradually taking the form we know today. Colorful clips, neat hairstyles, catchy melodies and dances that make you want to reproduce them: Korean pop quickly imposes its signature.
It was also during this time that the name “K-pop” became popular. Indeed, thanks to YouTube, listeners around the world are beginning to discover Korean artists, and the movement is spreading outside the peninsula. It is therefore clear that an identifiable name is needed for this new style of music, and the name “K-pop” (for “Korean-pop”) is then adopted.
The 2010s: the Korean surge
The K-pop of the 2010s is already better known to the French public. The beginning of the decade is marked by influential groups such as 2NE1, Fx, Miss A, 2pm or Kara. The style then took the form we know today, and its evolution in substance is no longer revolutionary. K-pop has found itself, it only remains to spread.
In 2013, the label Big Hit Entertainment, founded by Bang Si-hyuk, former composer for JYP Entertainment, launched the boy band BTS. The group met with only moderate success. At the time, it was a boy band among many others and no one (or almost) seemed to bet on the international success of BTS.
The 2010s are the scene of a real expansion of K-pop in the world. In France, we can mention the SMTOWN, a concert bringing together the artists of SM Entertainment, which took place for the first time in Paris in 2011. Originally, only one date was planned, and the 5,000 tickets were sold out… in one fifteen minutes. Annoyed, French fans gather during a flashmob at the Louvre to ask for a second date. Their wish will be granted.
The sequel is known to many. Groups like Exo (2012) or Got7 (2014) quickly met with international success and contributed to the influence of K-pop abroad.
In 2016, YG Entertainment launched the girl band Blackpink, which quickly became popular in Korea and abroad. The girl band is today one of the most influential Korean groups in the world.
In 2017, the group BTS won the award for Best Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards. The fame of Korean pop is now well established.
What about K-pop today?
The term K-pop is used today, especially abroad, to refer to all Korean popular music. Today, the name seems quite confused, and various musical styles that have no connection with the latter are grouped under this label when success is at the rendezvous.
Thus, certain artists who claim to belong to other genres, in particular rap, are sometimes placed in this category. One thinks in particular of the case of Zico, former leader of the boy band Block B, who has long suffered from his image as aidolconsidered too watered down to be a rapper.
Jay Park, rapper and former member of the group 2pm, founded his own music label, AOMG, in 2013. Now a producer of several talented artists such as Loco or Gray, Jay Park is deeply rooted in the Korean alternative music scene, which today competes with groups ofidols.
As for the more traditional boy bands and girl bands, the idols are not left out. BTS’ “Boys with Luv” music video featuring Halsey hits a new YouTube record in 2019: 70 million views in 24 hours.
What can we expect from the future?
With the overwhelming and global success of K-pop today, Korean agencies are not about to stop producing groups ofIdols.
In 2019, SM Entertainment launched the group SuperM in collaboration with the American label Capitol Music. This boy band is actually a “super group”, made up of members of former groups that were popular in South Korea. A project that lives up to the ambition of SM Entertainment and which recalls the adage: “Never change a winning team.”
The current public blames a lot of things on K-pop. The sounds are more and more similar to what is being done across the Pacific, and the genre seems to have lost its authentic, and sincerely Korean side, which made its charm in its beginnings.
In question, perhaps the multiplication of collaborations between American and Korean artists. If they allow the culmination of new musical proposals, many deplore the fact that these new artistic proposals dilute too much the characteristics of K-pop in genres that are already well known to Westerners.
Be that as it may, the Kpopmap site has already announced the groups that will debut in 2020. The boy bands BOY and DKB and the girl band Cignature are planned in particular. Let’s hope that this new generation will be able to keep K-pop at the top, renewing it so that it doesn’t lose its luster.