The colourful world of K-Pop can be a little overwhelming to newcomers. Luckily, for those who don't know their BIGBANG from their BLACKPINK, Sophie Qiu (Year 11) has crafted the ultimate guide to the most buzzed-about music movement of moment.
“Excuse me, where’s the nearest train station?”
“Oh! I’m listening to OMG by New Jeans. OH, MY, OH, MY GOD, YESANGHAESSEO NA (예상했어 나) I WAS REALLY HOPING THAT HE WILL COME THROUGH-”
Through this two-line dialogue, we are able to experience just a tiny fragment of how this genre of music called K-Pop is growing in popularity and integrating into our everyday society. There is no doubt that you, your friends, siblings, and anyone who is on popular social media platforms will have come across a video like this. Some of them may even be fans of K-Pop themselves! So… Now we know what it is called, what exactly is it?
Originating in South Korea, Korean Popular Music (almost always referred to as K-Pop) is a genre of music which has become much more globalised during the last three decades, particularly widening its influence in the 2010’s. From Super Junior, to BIGBANG, to BTS; from Girls’ Generation, to 2NE1, to BLAƆKPINK, these groups have had their fair share of accomplishments which have both greatly contributed to the South Korean economy and have made them an icon of the country. CNBC, a news programme specialising in economic data has stated that “data suggests BTS is generating an estimated $3.9 billion in economic value per year towards the South Korean economy.”
But how influential is it, to be able to earn that much?
Visually, the first thing you will notice when you enter the word “K-Pop” into a search engine, is that groups of stylish young boys or girls are shown, hence the reason for calling them “Girl Groups” and “Boy Groups”. The next immediate thing you will notice, is that there are not one, not two, but an average of seven people (generally referred to as ‘members’ or ‘idols’*1) within these groups. There are of course, cases in which this is not true, such as the globally beloved Girl Group Sensations BLAƆKPINK, which consists of 4 members, and K-Pop mega-group SEVENTEEN, which consists of 13 members. Soloists such as IU, BoA, and Eric Nam to name a few are also popular, however are less well-known than the aforementioned groups.
Let’s take a deeper dive into this.
Within these groups, there are multiple roles to which a member could be assigned, depending on their level of skill. These mainly include main/sub vocalists, main/sub rappers, main/sub dancers, visuals, leaders, all-rounders, centres and maknaes*2.
Let’s take 4th Generation*3 leaders ITZY for example:
Yeji: Leader, Main Dancer, Lead Vocalist, and Sub Rapper.
Lia: Main Vocalist and Sub Rapper.
Ryujin: Main Rapper, Lead Dancer, Sub Vocalist, and Centre.
Chaeryeong: Main Dancer, Lead Vocalist, and Sub Rapper.
Yuna: Lead Rapper, Lead Dancer, Sub Vocalist, and Maknae.
We can see from the information listed above that many roles can be taken by a single member. However, in order to fulfil these roles, each needs to specialise in a different area.
Another 4th Generation IT group Tomorrow X Together (more commonly known as TXT) is an example of an “all-rounder” group. This means that none of the members are assigned specific roles, as they are accomplished in every aspect from dance to vocals to rap.
However, this leads us back to the question of “why are there multiple idols within a single K-Pop group?” One way to answer this question could be to compare the K-Pop industry to a dessert factory. If the factory only produced one type of vanilla-flavoured cupcakes, it would eventually go out of business because people love variety. Therefore, producing multiple flavours of cupcakes such as chocolate, red velvet, and cookies n cream can increase the rate of consumer satisfaction. This is the mindset to which K-Pop has adapted its strategy: a larger variety of idols can increase the chances of the target audience engaging with and becoming fans of these idols.
This adaption has greatly benefitted K-Pop, as over the past few years there has been a massive spike in K-Pop stans*4. Especially when new groups, new concepts and innovative ideas are introduced, which appeal to new groups and generations of people. This leads us to the influences of K-Pop in our daily lives, and how it may affect us, as individuals.
Is all this information making your brain dizzy? Well, there’s more to come!
From billions of views combined on multiple streaming platforms, whether it be the TikTok dance trends, audios used in the background of YouTube videos, or simply the music used in your friends’ Instagram stories, there will be at least some K-Pop involved in it. On every single platform, there are literally, yes, I mean literally, millions of K-Pop stans who are dedicated to their idols, and spreading their music content across the internet, subsequently increasing their influence. Many people will remember the summer of 2020. BTS, a boy group who already had an immense global fandom of ARMY, released their hit song “Dynamite”. With the new title track memorably entirely in English, additionally with a catchy and repetitive melody, this song became THE song of that summer. And to live up to its name, “Dynamite” was estimated to amount to $1.3 billion USD.
But if we were to go back even a bit further to 2012, we would be reliving the year of PSY’s “Op, op, op, op, Oppa Gangnam Style”. With its catchy tune and iconic dance moves, this song travelled around the world, bringing the name “K-Pop” along with it. Whether you were old or young, lived in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, there was no doubt that you and your friends had danced along to this song.
That was, and still is the influence of K-Pop.
The main powerhouse building up these massive sales are the fans, and K-Pop stans are notable for their dedication to their idols. On each and every social media platform, ranging from Facebook to Twitter, you will be able to find an array of updates accounts, charting accounts*5, voting accounts*6, and much more, all dedicated to one specific group. If we take @idlecharts, a fanbase dedicated to “Nxde” singers (G)-IDLE, we can see that there are frequent, hourly updates, entirely dedicated to the 5 members providing relevant and useful information to their 60.7K followers. These updates can include anything from their idols’ newest Instagram posts, to where their idols’ newest song is placed on streaming charts.
K-Pop stans are also well-known for their commitment to streaming*7 their idols’ music. For example, if we rewind to the song “Dynamite” by BTS, this song alone still holds YouTube’s Record for Fastest K-Pop Group MV To Hit 1.6 billion views. It had reached this mind-blowing milestone in 2 years, 3 months, and 15 hours. Additionally, it also broke YouTube’s Record for most views in 24 Hours, with more than 100 million views. This record was later broken by “Butter”, a song which is also by BTS. If we look at the top 10 most viewed YouTube Videos in 24 hours, 8 of these are held by the K-Pop groups BTS and BLAƆKPINK.
Music award shows such as the Melon Music Awards (MMA), Seoul Music Awards (SMA), and Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA), are prominent in the world of K-Pop. The results and achievements obtained through the streams, voting and record sales of albums are amounted up here, and the group with the highest scores receive awards. All of this would not have been possible without the dedication, thorough organisation, and hard work of fans.
Where there is glory, there is also darkness.
With the ever-growing K-Pop community spiking in numbers in the last decade, many more people have started to enjoy K-Pop. However, more people also lead to more opinions, more personalities, and with each of them belonging to different fandoms, there is no doubt that there are clashes and arguments. Stan Twitter is a place which evidently and effectively shows us this fine line between the equally strong feelings of hate and love between different fandoms.
On stan twitter, whenever you come across an account congratulating one certain group on their achievements, there will be “opposing fandoms” arguing beneath the main post. They will start small, from stating that the mentioned idol is “untalented” or “undeserving of the award”, to body shaming and sending death threats to these same idols. As mentioned before, K-Pop is reliant on its fans which has led to the development of apps, events, and experiences which allow these fans to feel “closer” to their idols. This allows for both positive wishes from stans and negative death threats from haters.
Apps which allow fanservice*8 experiences which let the fans and idols “connect on a deeper level” often misguide fans, leading them to think that they now know everything about their idol. This can develop into an unhealthy lifestyle, leading some “fans” to become saesangs*10. These saesangs are extremely dangerous and obsessive with their idols, believing that they “own” them, and have “every right to do anything they want to their idols.”
The period during which they are a trainee*11 is not simple either. There are already many limitations, which include firstly having to get into an entertainment company as a trainee. This is followed by the next towering ‘wall of age’. Data shows that at 17, you have a mere 50% chance of becoming a trainee. As a result, nowadays there are trainees and idols as young as 12! Next, even if you do get chosen, it takes years of training before a trainee can debut*12. The colossal costs during this training period, which include housing, food, and mentors, are yet another barrier. During the first few years, these costs are paid by the trainees’ entertainment company, however they need to be paid back by the trainees once they debut.
IF they debut.
On top of that, in their quest to become a successful idol, these trainees face many challenges, both physically and psychologically. Their management could go broke, forcing them to work part-time jobs and produce their own songs. The psychological aspect includes emotional pressure, brought on by Imposter Syndrome. It is not uncommon to subconsciously compare yourself to your peers. All these factors can add to their sense of despair which may lead them to give up their dream of being an idol. If you do choose to terminate your contract, you will be met with a massive number of illogical legal fees. These contracts are called “slave contracts”, which refers to the discriminatory and unfair contracts between trainees and their entertainment companies.
In the end, it is still the company that decides whether they debut or not. Some highly anticipated groups such as TraineeA, a boy group formed by entertainment monster Big Hit Music in 2021, disbanded without much of an explanation, creating distress amongst fans. It is highly likely for trainees who have trained for 10+ years to fail to debut as well.
This is still only the tip of the iceberg. It is said that there is a higher chance of your winning the lottery than becoming a successful idol. Some groups may even disband a few weeks after their debut, forcing them to work in another area of work to pay back the fees owed due to their “slave contracts”.
Next, we move onto the unimaginable beauty standards in the Korean entertainment industry. Slim body, pale skin, large eyes, small lips. This is the basis of the current beauty standard for female idols, which need to be met or they will be torn to shreds by the online community. The average age of debuting idols consistently decreasing, poses a huge threat to their mental health. Seasoned artists such as HyunA who has also debuted at a young age have shown their concern for this issue, with the maknae of the newest upcoming girl group BABYMONSTER only turning 14 this year. Having experienced the ups and downs of the vicious industry first-hand, it is only normal for them to feel troubled.
The bright star of K-Pop is ever glowing; but its dark side still has waters murkier than the Mariana Trench.
1* idols - a widely used term in K-pop meaning a K-pop performer
2* maknaes – romanised spelling of the Korean word ‘막내’ meaning ‘youngest’
3* 4th Generation – K-Pop groups fits into different generations depending on when it
was formed/active. As of right now, there are 4 generations: first generation (1996-2004), second generation (2005-2012), third generation (2013-2009), and fourth generation (2019-present)
4* stans – slang for extremely/possibly excessively enthusiastic fans
5* charting accounts – accounts managed by fans for a certain artist to keep track of their streams*7, achievements, and current place on the charting statistics
6* voting accounts – accounts manged by fans for a certain artist to organise group votes and updates managed by award shows to win certain voting segments (e.g., best artist of the year, etc)
7* streaming – the number of views or plays “streamed” on a particular platform
8* fanservice (in the K-Pop industry) – an act done by specific idols to entertain their fans and act to their liking (e.g., doing aegyo*9, cheesy lines, flirting, etc.)
9* aegyo – Korean; the act of being cute
10* saesangs – overly-obsessive stalker “fans” who act to their own interest even if it may harm others
11* trainee – a person who is training to become an idol
12* debut – the process of officially converging from a trainee to an idol
Print, digital and audiovisual loans
Reader's advisory services
Print and copying facilities
Individual, group and class lessons