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Over the years K-Pop has changed and progressed to what we know it as today. Knowing the evolution that took place helps to have a deeper understanding of the music we are enjoying. As someone who is very interested in the history of K-Pop, I wish I could name each and every important group; however, this is only a summary.
- The 1990s – The Beginnings of K-Pop
- The 2000s – The Start of the Hallyu Wave
- The 2010s – The growth of K-Pop worldwide
- Why is knowing the history of K-Pop important?
The 1990s – The Beginnings of K-Pop
The 90s were the start of everything. Seo Taiji and Boys set the tone of K-pop with their rebellious youthfulness as well as discussing serious topics such as children who run away from home (“Come Back Home”). They made a huge impact in South Korea and its music scene which mostly consisted of Trot before them.
The iconic boy group did not only have success on its own. Seo Taiji, as a soloist, is still one of the most important figures in K-Pop and has never shied away from experimenting with sounds. In general, one can say Seo Taiji and Boys influenced the known KPOP formula of today.
Following, the duo Deux made a huge impact on the scene too with their elaborate dancing and Hip-Hop sound. What is interesting to note with them is how influential they were for all the known dancers in the industry. Their song “Turn Around and Look At Me” is still one of the most known songs and a classic for all Korean dancers.
As many know, SM Entertainment has a rich history of successful groups and it all started in the 90s with none other than H.O.T. who caused a huge commotion in Korea’s pop culture. One of the many examples is their hit song “Candy” which sparked many to wear the iconic costumes which were worn by the members during performances. SM Entertainment quickly saw this an as opportunity and finessed the formula of a ‘popular group’ for future idols.
Another big aspect of the 90s was the rivalry of the popular boy groups, H.O.T and Sechskies, which not only applied to the fandom but the boys themselves. (Funfact: The groups are now very close and support each other. They have had done multiple projects together which was considered near impossible during the first generation).
The characteristic of idols at the time was supposed to be reserved and mysterious. The group that changed this was the ‘Nation’s Boy Group’ G.O.D who had South Korea under their spell with hit songs like “To Mother” and “Candle”. They showed off their personality with a variety show similar to “Hello Baby” called “g.o.d’s Baby Diaries” which made them different from other idols at the time. This impacted the K-Pop scene greatly and is the main reason why fans get to know idols in a more personal way in the present.
Another interesting aspect of this decade is how successful and impactful co-ed groups were in the music scene at the time. Koyote, S♯arp and Roo’ra are prime examples of groups who did phenomenally well and still have a huge media presence in Korea – be it as hosts, casts of successful variety shows or music. They will most likely stay even longer in the industry.
Something very noticeable is how soloists of the time (especially females) had an interesting edge to them. One example would be Lee Junghyun who introduced techno to Korea and who is known as the ‘Queen of Transformation’. She is known all over Asia for her quirky style and upbeat songs like “Wa”, “Joolae” and “Half”.
Another very important soloist of the time is Uhm Junghwa who is considered to be one of the most influential females in the Korean entertainment industry. She is one of the biggest role models for many women in Korea.
Something to note when talking about girl groups – who also made a big impact in the entertainment industry – is how they mostly started with a mellow, softer and more innocent vibe. Songs like “Blue Rain” by Fin.K.L, “I’m Your Girl” by S.E.S or “Yayaya” by Baby VOX serve as an example for this. From cute and mellow sounds, these girl groups moved to a more RnB and mature sound (Examples: Fin.K.L “Now”, S.E.S “Be Natural”, Baby VOX “Killer”). Girl groups made a transformation from girls to women with their concepts as the decade progressed.
This is something apparent when comparing girl groups with female soloists who often had more edge to them. To see how the girl groups changed concepts to be successful in this period for K-Pop shows what femininity meant at the time.
Songs important to the decade:
The 2000s – The Start of the Hallyu Wave
With the major groups disbanding, the shift focussed onto soloists. Especially the rivalry between male soloists Rain and Se7en which was a huge topic during the early days.
BoA, a female solosit, took over Asia and and is known for her many talents. She is viewed as the idol who every dancer looks up to and would want to collaborate with due to her abilities.
Only one group can be viewed as the counterpart to BoA and that is none other than TVXQ. SM Entertainment hit it big again with not only one of the most known soloists from Korea, but also with a special five-member boy group who contributed to K-pop immensely after a drought of idol groups in Korea. To this day, TVXQ, even without the full line up, remains one of the highest-selling touring groups and has impressive power in Japan.
Another influence on K-Pop, due to SM Entertainment, is how larger groups are more common now. Due to the debut of Super Junior as the first group with a huge amount of members (13 members altogether), the landscape of the number of members in a group became more varied.
Another revolutionary aspect of Super Junior is Hangeng – the first foreigner who debuted in a K-Pop group. He paved the way for many idols from other countries since new laws and regulations were put place due to him debuting. Therefore, conditions would be fair for foreigners who wanted to debut in Korea.
Girl groups started to get more influential in K-pop too. In 2007 Girl’s Generation (SNSD) and Wonder Girls were neck to neck for the ‘Nation’s Girl Group’ title. The iconic JYP girl group even had a slight edge on SNSD with their hit songs “Tell Me” and “Nobody”. Ultimately SNSD took over Wonder Girls after JYP decided to promote the girls in the West and thus, neglecting their momentum in Asia. In the meantime, SNSD released the now classic songs “Gee”, “Genie”, Oh!” and more.
What SNSD achieved over the years is impressive and not many other groups were able to replicate their success. SNSD is one of the few girl groups of their time who were able to match the sales of boy groups. SNSD still is viewed as one of the most successful groups to this day which many female idols look up to.
Another important group to note is SHINee who released one of the most popular debut songs with “Replay” and have also had a phenomenal career over the years. They are one of the many groups significant for the Hallyu Wave that reached new heights in 2008-2009 and thus, made K-Pop grow.
SM Entertainment has been one of the main companies written in this article so far but there are a few other companies who are equally as important. JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment are a growing influence to this day with the groups such as 2PM, Wonder Girls, Big Bang, 2NE1 and more. All of these have taken a significant role in the history of K-Pop. 2PM, for example, are one of the first boy groups who added acrobatics into their dancing and their image as ‘beastly idols’ really pushed them as different to other groups at the time.
Big Bang is also a name that cannot be forgotten when talking about this topic. Their songs took Korea by storm and catapulted them as the ‘Nation’s Boy Group’. Their songs transcended over generations and made them unforgettable to the general public. Despite all their scandals, Big Bang remains one group that will always be important in K-Pop.
Other important groups of this decade are KARA, 4 Minute, BEAST, MBLAQ, Brown Eyed Girls and many more who all helped to diversify the industry. KARA’s popularity in Japan especially caught attention.
T-ARA is another important girl group who went through many hardships over the years. T-ARA became loved and almost reached a status many groups wish to get. However, they went through a scandal that made it difficult for them in Korea. After everything, the girls were able to win a music show after five years with “What’s My Name?” which marks their last song as a group.
Songs important to the decade:
The 2010s – The growth of K-Pop worldwide
The 2010s already started big. The Hallyu Wave was now a full force with K-Pop gaining attention worldwide and more groups debuting.
One prominent person for the public eye is the ‘Nation’s Sister’ IU who became popular in Korea after her hit song “Good Day”. Her popularity never declined and is continuously was reaching new heights even today. Her singing career is still very much important but she has also attention for her acting skills. She is pivotal to the entertainment industry.
An artist that truly made K-Pop seen more all over the world is none other than PSY. He was already known in Korea prior to his success with “Gangnam Style”. PSY‘s journey in the west was truly unexpected for everyone and it has yet to be topped by a Korean artist.
Another very important group that should be noted is APINK. A lot of groups, especially within the realm of numerous girl groups, have reached high popularity but disbanded. However, APINK is one of the few groups that are still active and doing well despite being in the industry since 2011.
EXO were another group that were massive in this decade, bringing justice to the legacy of SM Entertainment with hit songs such as “Growl”. The boys took Korea and especially China by storm in a way that has not been done in a long time. Their popularity has not declined and have a big fandome to this day
This decade has several more groups who will make history. Twice have reached the ‘Nation’s Girl Group’ title and also have sales that can easily compete with boy groups who usually sell more. Twice is the group who joined SNSD with this special achievement. Their songs like “Cheer Up”, “TT” and more will always be remembred when talking about these years in KPOP.
In this decade, groups began to garner more attention in the west and reached new types of popularity. Especially BTS and Blackpink whose power outside of Korea reached levels unlike before. Blackpink were the first Korean group to perform at Coachella which is one of the biggest festivals in the world and BTS were the first K-pop group to perform at the Billboard awards. Before them, some groups took Asia by storm (example: SNSD, TVXQ) but very rarely reached continents such as North America.
One also should not shy away from mentioning Monsta X and Got7 who also have a massive following in America and Thailand (GOT7 mostly due to their member BamBam being Thai). These two groups are also doing a lot for the growth of K-Pop worldwide.
Even with the West jumping aboard the K-Pop train, one should not forget the groups that are popular in Korea too. GFRIEND released some of the biggest national hits with “Me Gustas Tu” and “Rough”. The popularity of these songs can be compared to Twice’s “Cheer Up”.
Another group who continuously released hit after hit since debut is MAMAMOO who are known for their songs and legendary performances on, especially on Immortal Songs 2. They made a large impact since their debut and have achieved an it-status with their appearances on variety shows. Hwasa, especially, made Korea fall in love with her despite not following the general public’s beauty standards.
A more recent development in K-pop scene is the MNET show Queendom. This survivial show was a healthy push for many of the groups who participated such as: (G)I-dle, AOA and Oh My Girl who benefited a lot from their participation. Thus, they were able to garner more interest from the public and have gained new fans.
Songs important to the decade:
Why is knowing the history of K-Pop important?
Some may think it is not important to have knowledge of the history of K-Pop but I would strongly disagree with that statement. Knowing the beginnings helps one get a deeper understanding of what makes the Korean music industry and how far it has progressed over the years.
The changes and developments are truly fascinating. Even if the music of older times is not in your interest, just reading about the struggles and breakthroughs of K-Pop can still be an eye-opener which might make you appreciate your favourite groups even more than you already do.