When I was on the Global team at The Motley Fool we had a wonderful intern named Chandler who had a list of “My five favorite…” on a range of topics including Korean pop music a.k.a. K-pop. I didn't care so much for the first, second and third but then Cheer Up! blew me away and I haven't looked back since! Thank you Chandler. There is so much great music coming out of Korea that it is hard to keep up with.
Why K-pop is different—and awesome
There are a handful of big entertainment companies and a bunch of smaller ones that hold auditions for those who think they can be a star and in practice, this means 13, 14, 15-year olds. (Here is the information page for JYP Entertainment's auditions for example. You can read in the original Korean if you wish though it is not strictly necessary to speak Korean.) Alternatively, one of the company scouts might spot you while shopping, think you have the look and personality they want and ask you to audition.
As I understand it, if a child is selected then they leave regular school and move into the company dormitory and will then spend the next few years training more or less full-time in singing and dance. There are constant evaluations and some will drop out. Trainees must behave appropriately in public, are told what to eat, have very limited contact with their families, or anyone else in the outside world and are not allowed to date – the myth created is that K-pop stars are desirable but yet somehow “available”. Indeed, the agreements have been called slave contracts and girls may be required to get cosmetic surgery!
Then in their late teens they will be assigned, or compete for, a place in a group – all girls or all boys – and they will debut. By then, after years of practice they should be amazing… but they are the only visible part. The company employs/contracts song writers, musicians, choreographers, hair stylists, mark-up artists, fashion designers and video/sound producers and technicians to make a complete “product“.
It is worth mentioning that the unblemished image created for K-pop idols means that the lyrics and the music vidoes are free from overt sexual overtones and as best I can tell from subtitles, no one swears. Performers and anyone else in the videos are fully clothed (though I will concede that skirts/dresses can be very short but they wear shorts for safety; it seems that even women showing belly buttons is a bit taboo in Korea). So, good clean fun.
Hopefully the song is a hit and the trainee becomes a star (fans will adore them but they are merely company employees and the company takes the money) but that can bring its own set of pressures, sometimes with tragic consequences as the suicide of SHINee singer Jonghyun demonstrates. More likely your catchy, beautifully executed song will get the interest of a small group of fans that will love it but most will never hear it and after a few years, the group will be disbanded. I make a point to listen to some of the lesser-known groups as some of their songs are as good as any and it is sad that they get so little recognition.
Interestingly, K-pop has a known starting point in the way that Rapper's Delight is for hip hop. In April 1992, 3-member Seo Taiji & Boys appeared on a talent show on MBC, one of Korea's TV networks performing a highly choreographed song that featured rapping. The judges were baffled and they came last. However the public loved it and the song was #1 in Korea for 17 weeks! The song: I know.
Where to start?
If K-pop is completely new to you, I suggest that you start with the following, each of which are mentioned again below
A song from the most popular boy band:
A song from, what was until recently, the most popular girl group:
(See BlackPink below for the currently most popular girl group.)
Not really standard K-pop as it is a solo act with no dancing but it is beautiful (more explanation below):
- A fantastic song from a girl group that even K-pop fans probably know of only dimly, if at all. A great example of why you shouldn't limit yourself to just the most popular:
Peter's K-pop selection
(As of 31th October 2020)
I have to mention boy band BTS first because if you have heard of any K-pop group, it was almost certainly BTS as they are huge. They generate more traffic on Twitter than either Taylor Swift or Justin Beiber. They are unusual in that they write a lot of their material
I love their 2019 hit Boy With Luv (791 million views as of 2020-05-28) but that was the first song of theirs that I liked.
The first video to hit 100m views on youtube in 24 hours: Dynamite which is also their first song in English.
It is definitely also worth watching the “dance practice” video so you can see the whole performance start to finish. In fact, I often prefer the dance practice videos and the live performances to the music videos. Indeed there is a huge sub-genre of dance covers and “KPop in public” performances where dance groups from around the world reproduce, or reinterpret, songs from popular groups. For Boy With Luv, I encourage you to check these out:
- 7 young men from Vietnam (over 9 million views!)
- a rotating cast of dance groups
- 5 Korean? girls on top of a building
- a fabulous collaboration of 3 members each from 4 girls groups
…and so on.
Someone at my old office (Dilene) gave me this list of her ten favorite songs. See if you like them:
- I need U
- Best of me
- Blood sweat & tears
- Boy in luv
Click on [CC] control to turn on subtitles. I found the lyrics disturbing, especially
“Hold tight on to me/before I jump on you.”.
- Not today
"These ones are less upbeat but beautiful"
If there was a song in my head since mid-2015, it was probably one of theirs. They are wonderful! As with most K-pop, it is not serious music but it is so much fun! Three of the members are Japanese and one is from Taiwan which led to a diplomatic incident with China in 2016. Their songs all have bits of English in them, especially in the chorus, which is good marketing since it is everyone's second language no matter where you are in Asia. I think all the official music videos have English subtitles too.
- 2015-04-24 Cheer Up! (The last 20 seconds is odd and completely disconnected from the song; I have no idea why it is included.)
- 2016-05-02 Touchdown (live)
- 2016-05-07 Woo Hoo (live)
- 2016-06-30 Precious Love (live)
- 2016-07-14 Truth A dance practice video – the dance routines require so much precision and you can really see where all the practice time goes which is not evident in the actual music videos; they have to keep shifting positions so that the person singing is generally front and center.
- 2016-10-23 TT I don't especially like this song but I include it as it is their most popular with over 500 million views.
- 2017-02-19 Knock, Knock Possibly my favorite though it is hard to pick. Also the dance practice video.
- 2017-10-30 Likey The official music video has 450,942,423 views as of 2020-05-28 but this live performance is way more fun.
- 2017-12-11 Heart Shaker The video gets weird and disconcerting in a fun way at 2:27!
- 2017-12-21 Merry and Happy
- 2018-01-11 Candy Pop This one is in Japanese! The three Japanese members – Sana, Mina and Momo – had to learn Korean while they were trainng but for the Japanese songs, the other six members had to memorize their lines in a foreign language!
- 2018-02-18 Brand New Girl In Japanese.
- 2018-08-16 BDZ In Japanese) is not an outstanding song but I include it here for its strange video. It may or may not be a coincidence that the key words from the chorus happen to spell BTS.
- 2018-04-09 What is love?
- 2018-05-21 Really Really This is a fun cover of the song by boy band Winner – see if you like the original better.
- 2018-07-09 Dance the night away
- 2018-11-05 Yes or Yes The official music video is weird whereas this very informal version, shot in vertical like an amateur, looks like a group of friends mucking around https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGT1uFe5Rls. Also worth seeing is the dance routine
- 2019-04-22 Fancy As noted above, there are a huge number of dance covers and videos posted under "Kpop in public" and this was a popular song to cover of which these are four notable examples:
2019-09-23: Feel Special.
This song comes after Mina had to withdraw from performing and her part starting at 1:30 addresses her crisis.
By way of comparison, check out Dahyun's emotional solo; I think the style is better suited to the lyrics of the song.
- 2019-10-29: Luv Me This is one of my favorite songs of theirs and until this live performance in Tokyo was posted, it only existed as a “fan video”. You will notice that Mina is back on stage as she felt comfortable enough to be on stage in Japan and you can hear the crowd show their appreciation when she sings.
- 2019-12-23: A Christmas present from Nayeon as she cover's Santa Tell Me
- 2020-06-01 More and More. I am not sure I like it but I included it here because it is their latest and it seems to be popular. Just not with me.
- 2020-06-18 Fanfare! This was a surprise as I had no idea that it was coming though that is usually the case for the Japanese releases and is a welcome return to bubble-gum pop. Bear in mind that only 3 of the 9 members speak Japanese so the other 6 had to just learn their lines phonetically. No English subtitles yet.
- 2020-10-26 I can't stop me
Girls Generation a.k.a SNSD
An earlier nine-member girl group who I'm sure were the model for Twice. Indeed Girls Generation dressed up as flight attendants (twice!) and later Twice did the same which led to accusations of copying though the idea was not new.
(From Big Bang.)
I believe Big Bang were the biggest K-pop group before BTS but I have yet to find any of their songs that I really like. Two of members have done significant solo work since but the band had to break up because the members had to do their military service.
However, I have to mention that one of the other members, Seungri who was part owner of the Burning Sun nightclub, was in a major sex scandal which implicated others in the K-pop industry; it is not clear why that band member is not currently in prison.
Eyes, Nose, Lips This song about lost love is not K-pop in the normal sense of happy & bouncy but it is iconic. There are three different versions to see:
- the music video with English subtitles and also Romanized Korean so you can sing along. Don't be surprised by the low number of views as the actual music video has a 174 million views at the time of writing. I gather this video was somewhat controversial at the time because he appears shirtless—but he has a great body! If the comments to the video are to believed, he is married to the woman he broke up with and then wrote this song for her.
- A beautiful concert performance
- The best duet ever! Seriously, this is amazing. Even more incredible is that they only had an hour or so to practice before filming. Apparently the format of the show is that people send in video of them singing a famous song and when they get that idol on the show, they select from the best videos sent in and let them sing together. The young woman had been on another talent show before but that was her only previous exposure.
- Wake Me Up
(Also from Big Bang)
He and Taeyang started as trainees when they were 12! I have to include two versions:
Although he is famous for the novelty song Gangnam Style (now 3.6 billion views at the time of writing!) but he is a serious entertainer. He does a lovely thoughtful song that has two very differnt versions…
She was in a from the cleverly named 2NE1 and released Don't cry as a solo effort.
Although I had mild interest in some of their early work, I don't particularly enjoy their recent songs but I am including them here because they are so popular – DDU-DU DDU-DU now has 1.1 billion views!
They released How you like that on 2020-06-26 and it set a new record on YouTube of 86.3 million views in the first 24 hours! However, it does not appeal to me – they seem too much like American wrappers – though I do appreciate the Arabic(?) vibe at 1:12.
I don't pay much attention to the boy bands but this one caught my attention because they are so good! These guys should be way more famous than they are!
The official music video for Breathless is OK but they really shine on the dance practice video. Keep your eye on the guy in the red and white shirt. In the comments:
Lazy Ace Dia2 years ago
I'm not (usually) gay but Rocky makes me feel things
I'm fine with this
xxPotato Queenxx 6 months ago
Lazy Ace Dia GO HOME ROCKY IS MINE
- Blue Flame
- The girl in Astro's music video for Breathless is Yoo-jung and reading the comments I saw that she was a member of Weki Meki. At the time, they had released Crush which has this music video but again, they are best seen in the dance practice. Great song!
- One of my all-time favorite K-pop songs! True valentine (dance practice)
- Do whatever you want (dance practice)
- Dazzle Dazzle
It is also worth mentioning that they are an 8-member group whereas almost all K-pop groups have an odd number of members. Having an odd number means that the person singing can be front and center with the other members symmetrically arranged on either side but with an even number they have to be more creative – which sometimes means hiding one member behind that person at the front and center.
- Really, Really and also the dance practice
- Hands Up. The group somehow lost three members and FNC Entertainment gave no explanation which naturally upset their fans. The entry for the company on Wikipedia claims that FNC stands for “fish 'n' cake”: The name is based on the miracle of feeding the multitude using only five loaves and the two fish. This is because Han Sung-ho is a devout Christian, he uses the name to hope for more miracles happen for the company.
However I am baffled why they have produced so little material in the years since. In 2019 there was just a 5-song mini-album Newtro – and one of those songs was an instrumental and the single Woowa failed to chart. The girls are presumably under contract and cannot leave to resume their studies or pursue other employment and MBK Entertainment is presumably still housing and feeding them – and I hope continuing to train them. There is a “comebavck” scheduled for 10th June 2020 so I hope whatever comes out is a hit.
Cuteness overload ahead! The Gwiyomi song. How can this have just 167,000 views? To be fair, it is a derivative of this this. They had more success with WiFi a song that to me sounds similar to Momoland's hugely successful Bboom Bboom (see below). By the time they arrived at Bbyong they had lost 4 members and gained 2.
Oh My Girl
Not bouncy and happy at all but arresting, even mildly disturbing: Oh My God
GWSN a.k.a. Girls in the Park
Bazooka! (Thanks Stephanie!)
I don't particularly like any of their songs that I know of but I am including them here because of them attempting their dance routine while blindfolded!
…and so much more!
I feel I've only scratched the surface and there are new songs and new groups coming out all the time. Other groups I've come across - and this is just the girl groups: A.O.A, APink, BerryGood, Bvndit, CLC, cignature, Dreamcatcher, DreamNote, Exid, Everglow, Fromis_9, f(x), Gugudan, Hwa Sa, I.O.I, Itzy (stablemate of Twice and successful because of it), I.Z. One, Kara, La Boum, Lovelyz, Orange Caramel, Pledis, Pristin, Purplebeck, S.I.S., UNI.T, WJSN (not to be confused with GWSN!).