What Is K-Pop? A Short History: Pt. 1, Beginnings and Foundations

I’ve been listening to K-pop for something over a year now, and every time I see a new video, whether it’s from 2009 or from yesterday, I always wonder how we get from here:

to this.

Between these two videos there is a host of difference and a subtle kinship in terms of musical styles, aesthetic and cinematography (you might find that I will use these words plenty over the next two weeks).

At the bottom of my queries is that in the two or so decades K-Pop as we know it has been around, it has changed significantly without deviating from a core formula. I realize additionally that in order to make any sense of the musical culture we are about to delve into, we first have to have an idea of where everything came from.

K-Pop as we know it today first originated with Seo Taiji & Boys, a three-man boy group that includes the aforementioned Seo Taiji (born Jeong Hyoen-cheol), Lee Juno, and Yang Hyun-suk, the now-president of one of the big companies in K-Pop today, YG Entertainment. They were the first group in Korea to practice some of the key elements of K-Pop. Billboard wrote a feature that briefly but succinctly discussed Seo Taiji and Boys’ influence on the K-Pop world, as well as describing other groups and their influence on modern K-Pop, found here.

They first debuted in 1992 on television with their single “Nan Arayo” (난 알아요) or “I Know”. Far from the high-production, crisply choreographed and meticulously shot products of today, the trio’s appeal came largely from its blend of fresh American pop styles (specifically their New Jack Swing influences), hip-hop influenced choreography, put together for a Korean audience.

A lot of the mainstays of K-Pop today are seen in this video; alternating shots of choreography and gratuitous shots of the idols posing, solid vocals interspersed with rapping, wrapped in a diverse but unique wardrobe, and in fact, the video bears a lot of resemblance to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” Nan Arayo stayed on top of the charts for 4 and a half months, and their popularity paved the way for companies to begin to adopt to the idol group formula; SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment (started by Yang Hyun-suk of Seo Taiji and Boys), DSP and JYP Entertainment all followed suit and by the mid 1990s all had hugely successful groups of their own.

These groups aimed to do what Seo Taiji and Boys had already set out and done, and that was to take American pop music, and add the Korean idol group formula to it. Groups like SM Entertainment’s H.O.T and S.E.S, DSP’s Sechs Kies and Fin.K.L. and JYP’s g.o.d are all considered, along with Seo Taiji, to be part of the first generation of modern K-Pop idol groups, and many groups today are still influenced in all aspects and at all levels by these early groups.

Of these groups, H.O.T was the first largely successful boy group to use the full formula as we know it. MoonROK has an excellent series on the history of K-pop, and describes how Lee Soo Man, founder of SM Entertainment, at the time asked teens what they wanted of their idols, scoured the world for audition tapes, brought promising talent in, and then trained them in every last aspect of stardom possible, including how to act and how to look and how to handle the media.

Also under SM’s guidance, K-Pop’s first international star bolstered acclaim for the now proven SM idol formula. By the numbers, BoA was a much wilder success in 2002 on the release of her Japanese album, Listen to My Heart, and with it, SM Entertainment, as well as the rest of the Korean entertainment companies, could set their eyes worldwide to achieve success.

Because of BoA, many K-Pop groups and talents look to make it worldwide. SM Entertainment’s EXO is split into EXO-K and EXO-M with EXO-M focused on reaching Mandarin  markets, and Super Junior, ever famous for their subunits, has a similar Super Junior-M group built to reaching Mandarin audiences.

By the early to mid-2000s, the K-Pop idol group model had been tested and perfected; many second-generation groups that debuted around this time such as Super Junior, TVXQ, DBSK and etc benefited from the established model to explore new aesthetic and artistic choices, continually changing where American musical influences can meet Korean interpretation. In our next entry, we begin to explore the second and third generation of K-Pop groups, and begin to arrive at K-Pop as the international phenomenon we know today.

Mark James Russell’s book K-Pop Now!: The Korean Music Revolution aptly recalls a unique Korean term describing a mix of old and new. “That’s always been a defining part of Korea, the mix – combining new and old, fancy and simple, loud and quiet, cutting edge and retro. Koreans call it jjamppong, ‘all mixed up.'” (Russell) So too is K-Pop. It reflects that attitude of mixing it all up, and I hope that in these two weeks we can explore what that means.


Love Like Oxygen  – SHINee (2008)

Since we talk a lot about firsts, I thought I would use this section to highlight a video that first made me realize that K-Pop was rife with western influence. Before I had first seen this video, I had already heard quite a bit about SHINee’s members being hugely influenced by Michael Jackson, particularly their youngest member and most popular dancer Lee Taemin.

This song just confirmed that for me. Musically there are many homages to Jackson’s musical style. The opening vocal part contains Jackson’s signature growl singing, and throughout the song there is a subtle guitar riff whose sound is found in early-to-mid 80s Jackson songs such as “Billie Jean” and anything from Jackson’s debut solo album “Off The Wall”. Furthermore, the rhythm section features the same quarter note pulse signature to many of Jackson’s tunes such as “Beat It”, “Smooth Criminal” and others.

The final nail in the proverbial coffin is probably the series of dance moves starting at 2:57, which include a hand-leg pop sequence in a semi-parody of Jackson’s immensely popular moonwalk (Also noticeable in that link is the uncanny resemblance between Jackson’s outfits and the outfits worn by SHINee at the 2:57 mark. Hmm). The moves following that, at around the 3:06 mark, are also reminiscent of Jackson’s effortless but rigid poses that involve the limbs in geometric formation, which are all also featured in “Billie Jean”.

Of course, Love Like Oxygen could just be a huge parody/homage to Michael Jackson in general, but it’s undeniable that, considering SHINee dances quite like this many of their other videos (which I’m sure I will discuss), that Michael Jackson is a huge influence on this group, and perhaps on many other groups as well.


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