What Is K-Pop? A Beginner’s Guide To The Worldwide Phenomenon

K-Pop can’t be defined as simply a music genre.

K-Pop, also known as Korean pop, is not new to global audiences, but with K-Pop groups like BTS and BLACKPINK‘s global reach, K-Pop keeps becoming more and more mainstream.

Here is your helpful introductory guide to the world of K-Pop.

What is K-Pop?

K-Pop is a generic label given to mainstream music in South Korea. Although the name suggests that K-Pop is exclusively Korean pop music, many K-Pop artists branch into other music genres like Korean hip hop, electronic music, and the like. Since K-Pop encompasses a wide variety of music genres, there is likely a K-Pop artist out there to suit every music taste.

BTS | @bts_bighit/Twitter

K-Pop artists, also known as idols, include boy groups, girl groups, soloists, and even some mixed-gender groups. Idols are managed by South Korean entertainment companies that train the artists until their debut and are then responsible for managing their careers.

BLACKPINK | @blackpinkofficial/Instagram

How did K-Pop start?

Arguably, K-Pop was started by The Kim Sisters, a pop trio who promoted in the United States, despite not speaking English, in the 1950s. The Kim Sisters were the first Korean group to have a song debut on the Billboard charts, laying the very first groundwork for K-Pop’s current success.

Seo Taiji and Boys are also primarily credited with spearheading the creation of K-Pop, performing their song “I Know” on TV in 1992.

In 1996 Lee Soo Man, the founder of one of the prominent South Korean entertainment companies, SM Entertainment, created H.O.T (High-Five of Teenagers), a K-Pop boy group that debuted with the cheerful song “Candy.”

A year later, S.E.S., a K-Pop girl group also under SM Entertainment, debuted with their song “I’m Your Girl.”

These groups helped establish K-Pop as a profitable industry that has only grown over time.

How is K-Pop different from other music?

K-Pop is heavily influenced by Western music in its sound and the frequent inclusion of English lyrics. However, K-Pop extends beyond just music, as idols are expected to not only sing but give incredible, captivating performances.

Kang Daniel performing his song “Upside Down”

All idols have training in not only singing and/or rapping but in dancing to make sure that they will give off captivating performances from start to finish.

Jo Yuri performing her song “Love Shhh!”

K-Pop also differs from Western music in the amount of content that idols are constantly releasing for fans to enjoy.

K-Pop artists have what are called “comebacks” every time they release new music after their initial debut. Idols typically release promotional material for every comeback, including a high-quality music video…

A dance practice video to help fans to learn choreography…

An album that, besides just a CD and lyric book, includes photocards (collectible cards of K-Pop idols, kind of like baseball cards), a photobook, and other goodies for fans…

The first concept for TWICE‘s Formula Of Love: O+T+<3 album | @JYPETWICE/Twitter

The second concept for TWICE’s Formula Of Love: O+T+<3 album | @JYPETWICE/Twitter

The third concept for TWICE’s Formula Of Love: O+T+<3 album | @JYPETWICE/Twitter

The fourth concept for TWICE’s Formula Of Love: O+T+<3 album | @JYPETWICE/Twitter

Multiple performances on K-Pop’s weekly music show programs…

And usually variety show (South Korean entertainment shows) appearances.

But even when K-Pop idols are not actively promoting a comeback, the artists are still active in communicating with fans through social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Weverse.

Many idols also frequent VLIVE, which is an app that allows idols to stream live videos for fans where they do everything from listening to music to answering fans’ questions.

Idols also frequently release new content for fans on YouTube, which can include anything from their own reality shows to vlogs to behind-the-scenes content or even song and dance covers.

Fans stay invested in groups, even when they aren’t currently promoting new music, because of the continual new content.

Why Is K-Pop So Popular?

Currently, the K-Pop group BTS is becoming a household name as they constantly set new records, continually proving themselves to be one of the world’s most successful music groups.

BTS | @bts_bighit/Twitter

But before BTS debuted, K-Pop groups like BIGBANG, 2NE1, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD), and Wonder Girls helped K-Pop become more mainstream as part of the Hallyu Wave (the “Korean wave” of bringing Korean culture into the global market). These groups released widely successful music and promoted in the Western markets.

Solo artist PSY also undeniably made significant waves in making K-Pop more mainstream, especially with his viral hit song “GANGNAM STYLE.”

And, of course, groups like BTS and BLACKPINK have continued to make massive waves internationally. Not only have both groups continually made appearances on different international shows, but BLACKPINK was the first K-Pop girl group to perform at the American music festival Coachella.

And BTS has started normalizing the inclusion of K-Pop artists at music awards shows like the GRAMMYs and Billboard Music Awards.

Now it is almost normal for K-Pop groups to make appearances on different international shows or even have unexpected cameos in various TV shows and movies.

Artist Bo Coburn who included SHINee‘s Taemin, Jessi, BTS’s Jungkook, and BIGBANG‘s G-Dragon in the Disney Channel series The Owl House | @bobo_doodles/Instagram

And BTS has also pushed beyond music, becoming global ambassadors for UNICEF and speaking at the White House, gaining fans worldwide for their advocacy.

A Useful “K-Pop Term” Dictionary

As K-Pop is only becoming more and more mainstream, here is a list of terms that are helpful to know when getting into K-Pop.

Aegyo

When an idol acts really cute, usually for fan service. “Aegyo” can be performed by both male and female idols, and it is often expected by fans.

GOT7‘s Jay B doing aegyo 

Bias or Bias Wrecker

Your “bias” is your personal favorite member of a K-Pop group. Your “bias” can change many times, usually instigated by your “bias wrecker.” Your “bias wrecker” is the member of a K-Pop group that unexpectedly catches your interest and makes you question your “bias.”

Comeback

After an idol’s debut, they have a “comeback” every time they release new music. This can include singles, mini albums, or full-length albums.

Dance Practice

A video of an idol practicing their choreography for a performance. These videos are incredibly useful for fans trying to learn the choreography of some of their favorite songs.

ITZY‘s dance practice for their song “Not Shy” 

Debut

When a trainee transitions into an idol by releasing their first official song or album. Idols can have multiple “debuts” if they are in more than one K-Pop group or start a solo career.

Fancam

A video taken of a single idol during a performance. “Fancams” can be officially filmed by music shows or filmed by fans.

A fancam of Chungha performing her song “Snapping” 

Fanchant

An integral part of K-Pop performances, “fanchants” allow fans in the audience to cheer for idols by chanting a combination of the idols’ names and lyrics from their song.

Leader

An appointed position in K-Pop groups, “leaders” are responsible for motivating and caring for the rest of their members. “Leaders” also take responsibility for representing the group, usually by talking during awards shows or in interviews.

Bang Chan, the leader of Stray Kids 

Maknae

The youngest member of a K-Pop group.

BTS’s maknae, Jungkook 

Music Shows

“Music shows” are broadcast weekly as a chance for different artists to promote their new music. “Music shows” include SBS‘s Inkigayo, KBS‘s Music Bank, MBC‘s Music Core, Mnet‘s M Countdown, MBC M‘s Show Champion, and SBS MTV‘s The Show.

GFRIEND performing on Show Champion 

Netizen

Someone active on the internet, usually sharing opinions or comments.

Stan

An enthusiastic fan of an idol or group. “Multi-stans” are fans of more than one idol or group.

Sub-unit

A portion of members of a K-Pop group that have their own promotions in addition to the K-Pop group’s normal activities. “Sub-units” can be permanent or temporary.

K-Pop group WJSN (also known as Cosmic Girls) 

WJSN’s sub-unit CHOCOME 

Trainee

Before debuting as an idol, “trainees” sign under a company and take lessons in areas like singing, dancing, and acting.

BLACKPINK’s Jennie as a trainee under YG Entertainment 

Visual

A position in most K-Pop groups given to the most conventionally attractive member.

Weki Meki‘s visual Doyeon

You can read about more helpful K-Pop terminology here.

26 K-Pop Slang Terms Every True Fan Should Know

You can read more about the evolution of K-Pop here.

Here’s The Breakdown of K-Pop’s 4 Generations, According To IDOLOGY Webzine

You can read more about BTS and BLACKPINK’s impact here.

PSY Can’t Stop Praising The Efforts Of BTS And BLACKPINK And Their Global Domination

You can read more about misconceptions in K-Pop, like the incorrect assumptions about “fangirl culture,” here.

Mike Dean’s Offensive BTS Tweets Spark Conversations About Misogyny And Fangirl Culture

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