South Korea is becoming a cultural powerhouse. From “Parasite” to “Squid Game,” fashion to technology and media to music, the country has broken barriers and redefined the status quo.
Korean popular music, commonly abbreviated to K-pop, is a genre that encompasses many styles. Its contemporary form emerged in 1992 when the group Seo Taiji and Boys released their single “I Know” from their self-titled debut album. The song is regarded as a pivotal moment in Korean music history, making way for other subgenres to bloom from dance and hip-hop to R&B.
Perhaps the genre’s international success can be attributed to its wide range of sound and experimentation, offering a little something for everyone.
So, are you looking for new music? Here’s VALLEY’s introductory guide to K-pop to get you started.
BTS is a septet consisting of (from left to right) RM, Suga, V, Jungkook, J-Hope, Jimin and Jin. Debuting in June 2013 under Big Hit Entertainment — now known as HYBE Labels — the boy group has achieved international stardom. Millions around the world connect with their lyrics centering themes of personal struggle, mental health, coming-of-age and self-love. The group — who co-writes and co-produces much of their music — is also recognized for their diverse discography, often combining genres or creating their own.
BTS has amassed numerous accolades over the years. They most recently became the first two-time Grammy-nominated Korean act, first Asian act to win “Artist of the Year” at the American Music Awards and addressed their third United Nations General Assembly in September 2021.
“Blood Sweat & Tears” is the title track from their second studio album, “Wings,” released in 2016. The song addresses the pain of addictive love and the difficulties of resisting temptations. Through its airy synths and echoing bass combined with dark academia-esque visuals, this era was a turning point in BTS’ career.
Under the same company is Tomorrow X Together, also known by the acronym TXT. Consisting of Hueningkai, Beomgyu, Taehyun, Soobin and Yeonjun, the boy group debuted in March 2019. According to their website, the meaning behind their name is five individuals “who come together under one dream in hopes of building a better tomorrow.”
Critics accredit TXT of being representatives of Gen Z. Their music addresses the fragility of friendships, young love and self-confidence. The group’s latest release in August 2021, “LOSER=LOVER,” is a rebellious pop-rock-infused record about fighting for the one you love no matter the cost.
Blackpink is a girl group, comprised of members Jisoo, Jennie, Lisa and Rosé, that debuted in August 2016 under YG Entertainment. Hailed as the “biggest K-pop girl band in the world,” the quartet is known for their high-energy hip-hop-inspired electronic dance music (EDM) tracks and vibrant music videos.
International acclaim skyrocketed after the release of “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” in 2018. A year later, Blackpink became the first Korean girl group to perform at Coachella — an annual music festival held in Indio, Calif.
“Lovesick Girls” served as the title track for the group’s first full-length studio record, “The Album.” Released in October 2020, it tells the narrative of four heartbroken girls learning to rely on each other for strength. This dance-pop track takes a step outside of Blackpink’s trademark sound — complemented by acoustic guitar, layered vocals and highway ambience.
Twice is a girl group composed of nine members: (from left to right from the top) Dahyun, Jihyo, Momo, Jeongyeon, Mina, Chaeyoung, Nayeon, Sana and Tzuyu. The nonet was formed under the reality survival show “Sixteen” in 2015, debuting under JYP Entertainment in October of the same year.
“Cheer Up” and “TT” bolstered their popularity in 2016 and have been consistent since. “Fancy,” Twice’s 2019 electro-pop lead single off their seventh EP “Fancy You,” encapsulates the revived disco trend. Bouncy, upbeat synths paired with the music video’s retro intergalactic imagery earned the track a spot on Billboard’s “100 Greatest K-pop Songs of the 2010s” list.
Exo is a South Korean-Chinese boy group consisting of nine members: Chanyeol, Xiumin, Kai, Sehun, D.O., Suho, Baekhyun, Lay and Chen. Debuting April 2012 under SM Entertainment, their music combines elements of pop, R&B, hip-hop and EDM. The group’s popularity — both domestically and internationally — rose exponentially over the last near-decade.
Warning: This video contains flashing lights.
“Monster,” one of two title tracks from Exo’s third studio album “Ex’Act,” is about an obsessive fixation with the one you love. The song is bass-heavy and features layered vocalization — a staple of Exo’s sound. Moreover, the group’s formation-based choreography echoes off the music video’s dark, purple-hued visual aesthetic — creating a looming, ominous aura.
Tweet us, @VALLEYmag, with your favorite K-pop song!