What Is K-Pop Music?

Korean popular music, or K-pop, has taken the world by storm with its simple yet catchy songs, influences from various genres, intense dance choreographies, and great video clips. The popular genre from South Korea became a global phenomenon, continuously producing record-breaking hits.

Since the early 2000s, the Korean Wave, “Hallyu,” which consists of Korean pop culture, Korean TV shows, music, and movies, is getting more and more fans in Asia and other parts of the world. Consequently, K-pop cannot be thought of without it, since it is an umbrella term for different music from Korea, which can have elements from a wide range of genres such as hip-hop, electronic dance, jazz, and rock.

With millions of diehard fans and globally famous artists and bands such as BTS and Blackpink, K-Pop rocked the world with catchy beats, rapping, instrumental partitions for dance breaks, and hooks. 

While the genre’s frame is quite large, K-Pop also has some specific shared characteristics, such as large bands with “idols,” hybrid sound that mixes different musical elements, unique styles and appearances, and systematic training for intense and extensive choreographies on the stage.

So what exactly is K-Pop Music, and how did it become so successful? Let’s take a closer look at K-Pop to answer that question.

What does K-Pop sound like?

It is not easy to frame the K-pop sound as K-Pop is a general name of popular Korean music with Hip-hop, electronic, dance, jazz, and rock elements. It consists of catchy beats, hooks, simple melodies, rapping, occasional English words and phrases, and instrumental parts for dance breaks.

K-Pop songs can be very different as there are jazzy ballads or heavy hip-hop-influenced tracks as well as upbeat, electronic dance music-style songs. Even the same band can produce various songs in different styles in the same album. 

Mainly, K-Pop is a hybrid genre with elements from western music as well as Korean music. While K-Pop has been more western-oriented in recent years with the influence of EDM and trap, many K-Pop songs have the distinctive Korean style infused in western music.

Is all K-Pop music the same?

As K-Pop is an umbrella term to refer to Korean popular music, not all K-Pop music is the same. K-Pop has many influences in the genre, from jazz to trap, making the variety of song styles pretty broad. Some K-Pop music is dance-heavy upbeat songs, while others can be jazzy ballads.

Where does K-Pop come from?

As the name suggests, K-Pop comes from South Korea. K-Pop became popular as a part of the Hallyu Wave or the Korean wave, which increased Korean culture’s popularity in East Asia and the world starting from the 90s.

Typically, K-Pop mixes traditional Korean elements with modernized western music. There are many Korean elements in K-Pop, but the influence of American elements are getting stronger in the last few years. 

The Evolution Of K-Pop Music

The story of K-Pop began in the late 80s when political changes in South Korea led to a democratized country. As western influences got stronger in the country, musicians began fusing Korean contemporary music with western popular music like rap, rock, and hip-hop, which started the evolution.

The first phase started when Seo Taiji and the Bots released the song “I Know,” which became a huge hit in the country and occupied the top position on the lists for more than 4 months. The band experimented with a new approach by using American New Jack Swing influences with Korean contemporary pop. The band inspired many other musicians and created a huge fanbase, which led to the creation of the Idol Culture.

The idols are celebrities of the K-Pop world and culture and are characterized by their young age, attractive looks, shows, and performances, as well as their public images and social media presence.

Either male or female, idols project an image of purity, attractiveness, and friendliness, which are thought to be role models for kids. Most idols go through extensive training and live a highly disciplined life to maintain their “idol” position.

In the late 90s, K-Pop experienced a big rise in its popularity thanks to the success of Seo Taiji and the Boys. Most entertainment agencies back at the time started searching for more young talents to train them as idols and create new superstars. They followed the footsteps of the Japanese pop culture in terms of idol training and creation to create successful bands and artists to fill the demand.

After the 2000s, K-Pop started to achieve international success with the bands such as Big Bang, TVXQ, and G.O.D. or Groove For Dose. These bands broke the grounds of country borders and K-Pop started to gain international attention. Bands of this era are called the second-generation K-Pop artists, who started to shape the K-Pop culture and frame.

The final phase consists of the third-generation K-Pop artists who started breaking records worldwide by dominating the charts and creating huge fanbases. Over the last decade, bands like BTS, EXO, Seventeen, and BLACKPINK even changed the pop scene in the U.S., which was pretty surprising as the U.S. is typically known for exporting culture but not importing it.

With groups of young people who can sing, dance, create impressive shows and live the “idol” lifestyle with the help of social media, K-Pop became a huge culture in the world, especially appealing to youngsters and teenagers. Most K-Pop idols today are impressively talented, socially conscious, have unique styles with great attention to each detail, and have a gigantic presence and engagement on social media.

While boybands and girl bands were already popular for many decades, it was the first time world was dominated by pop culture coming from outside the U.S.

Quintessential K-Pop Artists

Blackpink

One of the most famous K-Pop groups is Blackpink, a four-member girl band formed by YG Entertainment. The band fuses trap, hip-hop, and electronic dance music elements into their music and has a high fashion, hip-hop-inspired trendy look. The group was formed in 2016, and since then, Blackpink has been rocking the charts all over the world.

BTS

The seven-member boyband, BTS, is one of the most successful K-pop bands today. The band produces emotional, romantic, and personal lyrics that appeal to young women. The band is adored by young audiences and the idols of the band have a very strong connection with them.

BTS is a globally famous group, and they are especially loved in the U.S. That is why the band uses English lyrics occasionally. The band mainly focuses on the hip-hop style, and their show is considered one of the best in the K-Pop scene.

Exo

Exo is a nine-member South Korean-Chinese boy band founded in 2012. Exo is one of the few K-Pop bands performing in Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese. They became Japan’s highest-selling artists in 2014 and started becoming internationally famous in the following years. Exo’s sound mixes classic pop, hip-hop, and house music.

Girls’ Generation

Another SM Entertainment-founded band is the Girls’ Generation from South Korea. The eight-member girl band is also known as SNSD and has been active since 2007.

The band is known for their electropop and bubblegum-style songs, but they have been experimenting with different genres throughout their career. The band became globally famous and was nicknamed the K-Pop girl band of the decade.

Psy

Probably everybody knows of the famous song and dance Gangnam style. Psy broke almost any record available back in 2013. The song became a massive hit worldwide and played everywhere, from the streets to big events.

The lyrics, dance, and performances of the song became a large part of the global pop culture. Psy continued releasing successful hits, and his style has strong humor and satire.

Seo Taiji and Boys

Seo Taiji and Boys are one of the older K-Pop bands that helped put the genre on the mainstream scene. The band was active between 1992 and 1996 and featured three members.

Seo Taiji and Boys are pioneers of the genre and the first musicians to experiment with blending Korean traditional songs and ballads with western modern music elements, which resulted in the K-Pop as we know it today.

SHINee

SHINee is another boyband from Seoul. More than its music, SHINee is famous for its impressive dances and live shows that are amazing to watch. Their sound is closer to modern R&B, but they do infuse elements from other genres such as hip-hop, pop, and electronic dance music.

Conclusion

K-Pop is one of the most fun and popular musical genres today. The idols of K-Pop are adored and loved by many youngsters thanks to their pleasant looks, active social media presence, easy-listening songs, and melodies, as well as emotional lyrics that are easy to connect with.

But, as K-Pop is an umbrella term to refer to Korean popular music, sometimes it is hard to define the genre. So, in this article, I have tried to draw the lines of the K-Pop frame for you to get more familiar with this relatively new hype in the music world.

Exo Featured Image by: https://www.youtube.com/user/mang2goon/about, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Berk Öztuna is a handpan player, percussionist, and guitarist. He has been playing multiple instruments over the last 10 years. He started his music career as a guitarist, playing with several bands before putting his main focus into playing the handpan.

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