Arts & Culture

The History of K-Pop

By Ethan L. ’25

Welcome to South Korea, a thriving metropolis filled with people, food, tourist attractions, and music. Yes, today I’m talking about something that has been blowing up worldwide. No, it’s not famine, disease, war, poverty, or climate change. It’s K-pop. You’ve all heard of it, and whether you love it or hate it, it has taken the world by storm. It’s why your cousin’s room is covered in posters of Asian people and why they suddenly speak Korean more fluently than English. K-pop is one part of the “Korean Wave,” also called Hallyu, a term referring to the popularity of Korean pop culture and Korean TV shows, music, and movies across the globe.

For those of you who have never heard of K-pop (which is probably none of you) it is essentially Korean popular music, which is a form of popular music originating in South Korea as part of South Korean culture. The common misconception about Korean music is that it is all bubbly pop music that only attracts certain types of people, and while some of that is true Korean music and K-pop is so much more. It consists of pop, hip hop, R&B, experimental, rock, jazz, gospel, reggae, electronic dance, folk, country, disco, and classical on top of its traditional Korean music roots. The term “K-pop” didn’t become popular until the 2000s, when it really started to get mass global attention. 

So let’s go to the beginning. The first group to really break through internationally was The Kim Sisters. Sook-ja, Ai-ja, and Min-ja started singing as children during the Korean War for American GIs. They sang, they danced, and they played twenty instruments. In 1959, they got a contract to perform in Vegas. Ed Sullivan was taping a show there, and they managed to book a performance on the show. They were such a hit that they got asked back 20 more times. 

Unfortunately, the growth of K-pop hit a bump in the road soon after when South Korea fell under the dictatorship of President Park Chung Hee, who started banning music. But Korean artists kept making music that challenged the status quo, like folk singer Hahn Dae-soo, whose albums were banned for anti-government messaging. By the ’80s, the dictatorship loosened significantly when President Chung Hee was assassinated. This meant outside music was allowed back in the country, and two of the most influential genres became hip-hop and R&B. Black artists, from Michael Jackson to Run-DMC, reshaped the musical landscape of South Korea. It inspired performers like Deux, DJ DOC, and Seo Taiji and Boys, who were the earliest examples of K-pop as we know it today. The next big step towards today’s K-pop was in the 1990s when major music studios started putting performers together in boy and girl bands. That’s right, Korea was doing that long before Simon Cowell was breaking little kids’ dreams on stage. 

It’s no surprise this new wave of K-pop blew up worldwide. It featured complex melodies unlike any other pop music and always had next-level dance choreography. To this day, those remain the signature elements of K-pop. This new generation of K-pop stars became so successful the government soon launched a program to promote Korean music around the globe. They saw K-pop as a way to boost Korea’s cultural strength and economy without having to do a Squid Game. But one of the biggest K-pop sensations that really defined K-pop as a worldwide phenomenon was a surprise no government could predict. I’m sorry. It took you ten years to get this out of your head, but we have to talk about it. “Gangnam Style” was the first video to break a billion views on YouTube. It was so popular that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised the song, saying the arts were the path to cultural understanding. Since then, the rest of the world has been more into K-pop than ever before, from groups and solo artists like Big Bang, 2NE1, Girls’ Generation, G-Dragon, and IU. And even more recently, groups like Twice, Seventeen, Red Velvet, and Got7 have taken the world by storm, with many fans worldwide all fanboying and fangirling over these Korean idols and their next-level music.

But it’s two groups that really have sealed the deal for Korean Music in world domination. You’ve definitely heard of them, and they’re probably the reason why you know what K-pop is in the first place. The first one is BLACKPINK. They have broken barriers to achieving worldwide success. They’ve shattered countless records that international artists in the US have never been able to do before like being the first Korean girl group to perform at Coachella. They have their own fanbase, referred to as BLINKS on every continent, consisting of millions of people. This Korean girl group was formed by YG Entertainment in 2016 and consists of members Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa. Their EDM Hip-hop Pop song style, visual concept, dance and singing technique, and attitude make for an extremely powerful and fun group to watch and listen to. Their music videos are stunning, and five of them have over a billion views on youtube. They were the first Girl Korean group to perform at Coachella and recently performed their latest comeback, Pink Venom, at the VMAs. They are set to go on tour with their latest album Born Pink which was supported by two singles, both of which reached number one on the Billboard Global 200. 

Now for the group that ties it all together: BTS. Three letters so important the rest of the alphabet doesn’t even exist anymore. They’ve dominated the charts. They’ve generated billions in revenue. They’ve made it okay to eat butter. They’ve even increased tourism to South Korea. BTS is, without a doubt, the biggest group in the world. They have broken so many records that it would take too long to name them. This seven-man group with members Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook has become only the third group in 50 years to have three number-one albums on the Billboard 200 charts in less than 12 months, joining the ranks of The Beatles and The Monkees.

Although the biggest boy band in the world right now might be on hiatus, there’s so much new K-pop we can enjoy while they’re gone. With Korean entertainment and culture taking over the world, it doesn’t look like K-pop’s popularity will stop anytime soon.

Categories: Arts & Culture

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