Main image of BTS courtesy of Rovi.
Despite the nation’s relatively brief time to create a musical legacy, South Korea has constructed a pop-music industry that stands today as one of the largest in the world. Its focus on constantly expanding and evolving plays a crucial role in the small country’s growing overall impact. And while key moments like “Gangnam Style” and the history-making success of BTS have been perhaps the most visible elements of the international Korean-pop crossover, there’s a larger history there.
K-pop music has shown that South Korea’s entertainment industries can create a vehicle to push traditional musical boundaries while also affecting and influencing culture around the world. Take a trip through the genre’s history with 10 key tracks that represent K-pop’s sonic and artistic growth, and demonstrate how the definition of “Korean pop” continues to expand.
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Seo Taiji & Boys
“I Know” (1992)
Ground zero for K-pop. Seo Taiji & Boys’ debut single marked a watershed moment for Korean music with its mashing of genres, embracing then-popular sounds of the West like hip-hop and New Jack Swing and combining them with danceable, pop-styled choruses to create a phenomenon. Despite existing for only four years, the trio changed popular music in South Korea with songs immersed in everything from metal to dance, and lyrics that spoke to the frustrations of the country’s teenagers. The group was censored by the media and faced backlash from older listeners — all of which only cemented their place in music history.
“It’s Raining” (2004)
“Fantastic Baby” (2012)
“Gangnam Style” (2012)
“I Got a Boy” (2013)
As “Gangnam Style” was becoming a global breakthrough for K-pop, the scene was growing more experimental and competitive at home. At the start of their sixth year together, the reigning female troupe Girls’ Generation released “I Got a Boy,” a track often compared to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for its colorful meld of sounds, deliveries and tempos.
Today, the definition of K-pop has expanded beyond the confines of what could be termed “Korean pop music.” Reflecting a now-commonplace trait of K-pop groups, SuperM is a multinational act made up of members from Korea, Canada, Thailand and China. What’s more, SuperM brought together seven different K-pop stars in an Avengers-like formation — a never-before-attempted joint project between the Korea-based super-label SM Entertainment and Capitol Records in America.