What Is K-Pop? A Short History: Pt. 2, Changing With The Times

When someone asks me how I get my K-pop fix, my answer is either from YouTube videos, or from friends and family who send me YouTube videos. For many people outside of Korea, especially relative laymen like myself, this is the truth. Apart from news sites and forums and social media posts, YouTube makes up the majority of international K-Pop exposure, and for good reason. This is what contributes to things like this blowing up:

In fact, multimedia distribution has always been at the core of the success of modern K-Pop. Even dating back to the days of Seo Taiji and Boys, the primary means of distribution for modern K-Pop is not the radio or records, but by performances on TV. Methods of distribution and exposure have diversified since then; while groups still debut on TV (shows like Inkigayo which feature live performances of new songs and routines) and are subject to several music rank system (similar to America’s Billboard charts), YouTube and online music retail among others are hugely important to the modern distribution of K-Pop.

However, K-Pop’s internet presence didn’t come by chance. Rather, there were several events during the 2000s that helped shape the way K-Pop is distributed today. According to moonROK’s History of K-Pop Series, “By 2002, over 10 million households – roughly 70% of all households in Korea – had either DSL or cable Internet connections.” This is important because it helped spur the piracy of music in Korea, leading to a serious plunge in hard record sales. Long story short, new laws got passed and streaming services were introduced, changing monthly fees to stream music online.

This sudden switch of profits from hard album sales to digital sales caused two things: One, it became imperative for companies to use their idols to advertise to bring in revenue that could not be brought in from albums, and two, it set the stage for a wide array of alternate distribution and exposure channels for all of its stars. Mobile phone advertisements, ringtone sales, mass appearances on TV for an audience that is exponentially making it easier to access TV, variety shows and subsequently forays into acting all define the 2000s for K-Pop. It could be said that in order for K-Pop to have the influence and media savvy that it has on the world, it had to learn how to saturate media at home.

SHINee showcases their adaptable dancing skills on variety show Weekly Idol.

This all came at a time when K-Pop was beginning to reach other countries. As mentioned in the last article, BoA has had much to do with popularizing K-Pop outside of Korea, bringing it to Japan, China, and even cutting an English album. Though her success in the West has been lackluster, she is largely revered for her success in Japan and the significance it has had for Korean stars in Asia. She is hailed by numerous sources as the Queen of K-Pop or the Queen of Hallyu.

And rightly so. Many 2nd Generation K-Pop groups benefit from international exposure as a result of BoA’s success. Super Junior, TVXQ/DBSK, SNSD, 2PM and 2AM, BigBang, KARA and many, many other groups forming in the mid to late 2000s have found success in either China or Japan or both.

DBSK released Japanese exclusive tracks in the same fashion as BoA, though later groups seeking success in Japan often just re-released their Korean material in Japanese.

It’s additionally safe to say that 2nd generation K-Pop is tied closely to the Hallyu Wave, a term that is associated with the rush and influx of Korean culture that becomes popular in other countries. While this movement includes TV dramas, soaps and other media, K-Pop plays a pivotal role in shaping it. Beginning in East Asia around the early 2000s (of which BoA was a huge part), the spread was mostly contained to Japan, then steadily outward into the rest of the world starting around 2008 as K-Pop began using YouTube as a means of distribution.

Later groups from the 2nd Generation (that debuted around 2007 or slightly earlier) got to ride the wave as scores of people around the world began to hear and absorb K-Pop purely through the Internet, YouTube specifically. The Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” and subsequently SNSD’s “Gee” took the internet by storm, and for many (including myself) were the first of many tastes of K-Pop for audiences abroad.

The Hallyu Wave, especially Hallyu 2.0, is crucial to understand K-Pop as it is now and as it was then because overwhelming international reception is causing companies and groups in Korea to consider the online and international demographics in new ways. Dal Yong Jin wrote a fantastic piece on Hallyu 2.0 for the International Institute Journal of the University of Michigan, found here. In it, Jin describes the crucial role that social media has played in advancing Korean culture worldwide, and at the forefront of this movement are massively popular online multiplayer games, and K-Pop.

SNSD’s Gee was, before Psy’s Gangnam Style, the most viewed K-Pop video on YouTube, fully representing the aesthetic of 2nd generation groups at the time, and the virality of Hallyu 2.0

So where are we now? At this point it makes a bit more sense to view Psy’s Gangnam style as a culmination of a whole decade’s worth of work by Korea’s music industry, rather than a the catalyst for K-Pop’s explosion on the internet, though Psy’s Gangnam style has its role. It brought K-Pop to the masses of the world, and it also coincided with a time when an explosion of new K-Pop groups in 2010 began making a name for themselves.

We are still, in 2015, living in the wake of the 3rd Generation of K-Pop, an era built completely in the influence of the Internet and of amplified global exposure. There are countless videos of Brazilians, Malaysians, Thai, not to mention Japanese and Americans dancing to videos that came out in the years after 2009, videos that they might not have otherwise seen because of the explosive popularity of “Nobody”, “Gee” or “Gangnam” style, and certainly would not have seen if it wasn’t for BoA’s pioneering efforts in the mid 2000s to help bring K-Pop to East Asia first.

We are living in a time where the 2nd generation of K-Pop are slowly dispersing and doing different things with their lives, while the 3rd generation of K-Pop groups are gaining more and more acclaim by the month. Jessica Jung, a core icon of SNSD (as all of them are), is no longer a part of the girl group, and is now working with her own fashion line, while EXO, a guy group debuting in 2012, is taking its place as SM’s flagship group, their videos raking in 30 to 40 to 50 to 60 million views each drop. Members of BigBang (from YG) and SHINee (from SM) have launched solo debuts in Korea to much acclaim, where A Pink, a girl group from A Cube Entertainment, have cleaned up awards over the last three years and are a sort of heir apparent to SNSD’s aesthetic.

As more and more online journalistic sources write about the 3rd generation of K-Pop at an excruciatingly detailed level, the world of K-Pop is wider than ever for everyone in the world to jump in and enjoy the best of the Hallyu Wave. The point of this blog is to understand the stylistic, aesthetic and cultural roots, specifically those of western origin, of these groups, but to talk about K-Pop without talking about its impact on the world, and its unique history will make it difficult down the road. The truth is, K-Pop has a huge influence on the world as it is, and it would be entirely plausible for American artists to take a huge aesthetic chunk out of the K-Pop phenomenon as K-Pop has done for itself. In the next entry, I hope to discuss one of the groups at the head of this globalizing movement, perhaps not in excruciating detail as I’ve done with this history, but in such a way as to highlight what makes up a K-Pop group, and what that means for the world.

K-Pop is by no means history, as these last two entries might also have implied. It is a changing scene, and while forums are arguing that it is coming to a close, its impact is undeniable. The world is different because of K-Pop, and I am going to attempt to understand why.

K-Pop comes full circle: Red Velvet, an SM girl group that only recently debuted, covers SM girl group S.E.S.’ “Be Natural”


Nobody – Wonder Girls (2009)

I still remember clearly when the lyrics to this and the lyrics to “Gee” echoed mercilessly in the halls of my high school. To be honest it was a toss up between featuring this video or “Gee” as both are milestones for the internet distribution of K-Pop, but Nobody has had the greater influence by far.

The Wonder Girls debuted the same year as SM’s SNSD, topping charts with the single “Tell Me” and then releasing this bombshell of a video. While the opening narrative/backstory is a bit strange, involving JYP’s preseident Park Jin Young being upstaged by his own girl group, it was the live version of this video that went viral first.

This video is mainly known by itself; it is known as the video that started K-Pop’s explosion over YouTube, and paved the way for SNSD’s success with “Gee” and Psy’s success with “Gangnam Style” though the latter was only released 3 years later. One could argue that the Wonder Girls are the internet counterparts to BoA in terms of influence and pioneering but the Wonder Girls have not had comparable success in America that BoA had in Japan (which in terms of opening the Internet and the world to K-Pop, America would be the field of success comparable to BoA’s influence in Japan).

Aesthetically this video borrows heavily from the 60s, something that isn’t found with the Wonder Girl’s debut single. 60s bobs, glitter dresses and circular frame ribbon microphones all dominate the video. The stage itself is reminiscent of show stages from Motown, where the band and backup singers are all on stage at the same time.

What’s interesting about this video however, is that they combined that aesthetic with an otherwise generic dance/bubblegum pop track. It has a grove, synth fills, and a very very memorable chorus (something my high school friends can attest to). It is pretty reminiscent of Britney Spears and other early 2000s bubblegum acts, a style which has been a mainstay of K-Pop influence since the 1st generation of K-Pop.

Perhaps the appeal (and virality) of Nobody can be explained simply by those two aspects coming together; the glam and nostalgia that comes from the 60s aesthetic, which is romanticized as K-Pop is wont to do, and the catchiness of bubblegum pop played next to it. That and the clever use of a simple and repetitive but memorable hook allows the song to stay stuck in one’s head for days at a time, adding to the video’s staying power. All of these ideas did originate from American pop innovations, though it took America 4 or so more decades to reach these understandings that it did for K-Pop to assimilate and then merge it into something that is uniquely theirs.


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