The K-Pop back catalogue is so vast it will make your head spin. And, while a lot of the music confirms to a certain formula, that doesn’t mean you can just dive right in and understand everything about it right away. Read on for a 10-step lesson in everything great about this burgeoning, bewildering musical genre.
As we discovered in our Beginner’s Guide to K-Pop, Korean Pop music goes well beyond “Gangnam Style”. It’s a gigantic billion-dollar industry that almost seems like the past two decades of Western pop music were distilled into concentrated form and regrown in a petri dish at an alarming rate. Sometimes it’s cute, charming and downright bizarre, other times it comes out of left-field with some extraterrestrial beatmaking that feels far ahead of its Western counterparts.
In the last few years K-Pop has truly become a phenomenon, spawning groups and singers who manage to succeed in places once thought impossible. This upward trajectory shows no sign of slowing down, and—being that television is the key to musical success in Korea—the visual element is becoming evermore eccentric, expensive and expressionistic as it goes.
Armies of beautiful girls and boys, choreographed with military precision, standing on incredible sets and wearing amazing costumes, flood the television screens of South Korea—and that’s still not enough. The thirst for new video content runs so deep that dance rehearsal videos can rack up millions of YouTube hits themselves, and with each new one they have to raise the stakes to fresh levels of spectacle.
So, to catch you up, here’s a crash course in just how out of hand this cycle of one-upmanship has got. Prepare to be awed.
Girls’ Generation – “I Got A Boy”
Girls’ Generation may well be the definitive K-Pop girl group of all time. This team of eight (formerly nine, but we don’t talk about that one) perfectly choreographed girls established themselves as a hyper-cute, inoffensive pop act in the mid-2000s, cycling through styles and haircuts quicker than you could learn their names. In 2009 they launched into the K-Pop stratosphere with “Gee” which, despite its sickening bubblegum cuteness, is perhaps the perfect pop song, dripping with melodies so catchy you can’t scrape them from your brain, no matter how hard you try.
From there, Girls’ Generation have gone on to push the conceptual envelope as often as they can – culminating in 2013’s “I Got A Boy”. The fact it exists as a lead single for one of the biggest bands in a billion dollar music industry is astounding, given that it skips through multiple genres and changes BPM seemingly at will. Listening to it is akin to skipping between the best parts of four or five completely different songs – which is entirely the point, and that’s what makes it great.
2NE1 – “I Am The Best”
This song may be 4 years old, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel it. 2NE1 (pronounced as both ‘To Anyone’ and ‘TwennyOne’—genius!) threw down the gauntlet with the audacious brag anthem “I Am The Best,” whose chorus essentially mimics the sound of a machine gun. It’s pure style and pure attitude. The video features a vast array of amazing high fashion, including a whole section at the end with the most expensive punk-inspired outfits you’re ever likely to see.
EXID – “Up & Down”
EXID (which stands for Exceed In Dreaming—not quite so genius) are an interesting case study in how manufacturing success doesn’t always work out as planned. After being plucked from the trainee division at major label JYP Entertainment by producer Shinsadong Tiger in 2011, EXID put out a couple of average-selling singles before going through a series of lineup changes. The comeback single “Up & Down” was released in August 2014 and barely broke the top 100 in the domestic chart, which all but guaranteed EXID’s descent into obscurity.
However, in October a fan-shot video of a live performance that focused heavily on band member Hani’s provocative dance moves went viral (securing over 15 million views) which sent the song hip-thrusting and gyrating firmly in the spotlight. Which is good news, because it’s a great song, with a bizarrely colourful pop-art video.
BigBang – “Bang Bang Bang”
There’s just too much to say about BigBang so, to keep it brief – they’ve been around for almost 10 years and they’re probably the biggest boyband in South Korea. Diplo and Skrillex are regular collaborators, and they’re currently in the middle of a huge comeback with their MADE series – in which they release a double A-side single every month for four months. The best of the bunch so far is “Bang Bang Bang” – not only are the song’s dubstep and hip-hop leanings good enough to grab you for the full three-or-so minutes, the video also features some astounding Mad Max and 2001: A Space Odyssey references for no discernible reason. Brilliant.
F(x) – “Red Light”
F(x) are one of the few K-Pop acts to garner international acclaim. They are the first Korean Pop act to ever play SXSW—a US festival steeped in indie-cred—and they’ve even welcomed Anna Kendrick into the band as an honorary member. “Red Light,” taken from the 2014 album of the same name, feels like the slightly tamer cousin of the aforementioned Girls’ Generation track “I Got A Boy”, in that the structure throws a few stylistic curveballs across its four-minute runtime. With a bridge and chorus that sound almost as if they were built in reverse, “scattered” would definitely be one way to describe it.
Skrillex ft. CL + G Dragon – Dirty Vibe
Alright, so maybe this is cheating a little bit – but if proof was ever needed that K-Pop was well and truly breaking into Western music scene, this is it. CL, (from 2NE1), and G-Dragon (from BigBang) are front and centre in this crazy club-bangin’ anthem. If you like this, then also check out Diplo’s hookup with CL, RiFF RAFF and OG Maco on “Doctor Pepper“: another absolutely huge track taking the best of K-Pop and twisting it for a US audience. Criminally, this song doesn’t yet have a video, but it’s screaming out for one for sure.
Exo-K – “Overdose”
Exo is a twelve-piece band split into two factions; six sing in Korean, six in Mandarin, although both (as you’ll see) lapse into bouts of English from time to time. Exo-K, (who we’ll be focusing on because this piece is about Korean pop), are an immaculate boy band whose choreography is so robotically perfect that at times you wonder if they are, in fact, real boys. Their videos often include elements of the supernatural, and even the occult, all alongside the kind of twee, multicoloured backdrops you’d normally associate with a pop video. That said, the video for “Overdose” is far more dystopian, and feels a little like the Backstreet Boys at their creepy, ’90s prime.
Gain – “Fxxk You”
Gain is most famous for being a member of the group Brown Eyed Girls, who first introduced the world to the “arrogant dance” that Psy would later make famous all over the globe. Gain’s solo career, while still in its infancy, has been an interesting journey thus far. The single “Fxxk You” attracted attention not only for its controversial title, (which slipped past some censors on the grounds that technically Gain doesn’t sing the words “Fuck You,” but rather “Fa Kyu” or simply, “Fxxk You”), but also for its video.
Probably the most honest depiction of a volatile, abusive relationship you’re likely to see in a K-Pop video, it tackles an incredibly prickly subject pretty much head on, which is especially shocking to a conservative Korean audience. Controversy aside, it’s also notable for being far more restrained, musically. showing that K-Pop isn’t all gloss, beats and big drops.
Red Velvet – “Ice Cream Cake”
Red Velvet are a new band on the K-Pop scene. They had a bit of accidental controversy after the video for their first single, “Happiness,” apparently featured references to Hiroshima and 9/11 which were quickly removed, never to be spoken of again. While it’s hard to imagine what such references were doing in the video for a band whose catchiest song is called “Ice Cream Cake,” at the end of the day we’re not sure which is more haunting—that, or the irrepressibly catchy “la-la-la” of the song’s melody.
JY Park – “Who’s Your Momma?”
If you paid attention during our Beginner’s Guide to K-Pop article, you’ll know that JY Park is a big deal because he runs JYP Entertainment, one of the biggest record labels in Korea. He’s the founder, CEO and no.1 decision maker. So, here’s a video of him from this year in which he, a 42 year old man, sings into a woman’s rear end about how much he loves asses. Somehow I can’t see someone like current Sony Records CEO Doug Morris or Universal Records CEO Lucian Grainge doing anything similar. Incredibly, as it’s so transparently false in all that it creates, it seems K-Pop can remain true to itself all the way to the top. Or, at least, provide an excuse for “plausible deniability.” You decide.
Words by Luke Bather for Highsnobiety.com.