A Kpop primer: Ten random facts to get you started

by Valerie Soe. Posted November 30, 2022.

Aespa, Savage, 2021.

#1: The term Kpop was first seen in print back in 1992 but Korean music industry insiders had used the term before then. The literal translation in Korean, gayo, (가요), just means Korean popular music, and Kpop is only one aspect of South Korea’s large pop music universe. Some other musical styles that are popular in South Korea include trot, OSTs (original soundtrack songs from K-Dramas), and hiphop.

Kpop queen IU sailing above her audience in a hot air balloon, 2022.

#2: The standard image of Kpop is a group that sings and dances along to pre-recorded tracks, but in fact many of the most famous and influential Kpop artists are not dance groups. The most popular Kpop female singer is soloist IU, who regularly tops the charts with her releases. Other well-known non-dance performers are soloist Ailee, brother-sister duo Akmu (aka Akdong Musician), the duo Davichi, and bands such as CNBLUE, FTISLAND, N. Flying, and The Rose, who play musical instruments instead of dancing. 

#3: Kpop groups are mostly formed by agencies, or entertainment companies that specialize in developing, marketing, and overseeing idol groups. Young aspiring entertainers audition for these agencies, who are looking for good-looking kids with some singing, rapping, dancing, and in some cases, musical instrument skills. Once recruited, trainees spend many years learning the ropes and are sorted into their eventual groups by their agency. 

 #4Most Kpop idols go through years of rigorous training sponsored by their agency before making their official “debut,” when they launch their careers in South Korea. They receive training in singing, dancing (or musical instruments if in a band), acting, foreign languages, publicity and marketing, modeling, and other professional performance skills. By the time they debut some years after signing their trainee contracts most idols are slick and polished entertainers. Some idols sign contracts in their early teens and many debut before their twentieth birthday. 

Longest-running Kpop group, Shinhwa, 2017.

#5: Around 50-100 Kpop groups debut every year, but on average only a few of those have enough success to continue more than a year or two. Even the most popular groups often disband after a few years and if a Kpop group reaches its seven-year anniversary intact (the standard length of a Kpop contract) it’s considered a major milestone. The Kpop group that’s been together continuously for the longest time is Shinhwa, who debuted way back in 1998. 

Blackpink, 2020.

#6: Kpop agencies maintain strict control over their trainees’ personal lives, often forbidding or limiting drinking and drug use, tattoos, clubbing, or the use of cell phones. Even after they debut, Kpop groups usually live together with their groupmates in dorms. And most famously, many idols including Blackpink have had no-dating clauses have written into their original contracts which officially ban public romantic relationships. Of course, as clever and intrepid young people, many idols find ways around these restrictions, with a little help from their friends.

#7: As well as its huge reach in Asia, Kpop has been popular for years in Latin America, India, the Arab world, and pretty much all over the world. Until a few years ago the exception was the US, where Kpop was a niche genre, but the past few years have seen an explosion of Kpop’s popularity in the States, with many Kpop groups touring the country—there’s even a Kpop musical opening on Broadway. 

SNSD/Girls Generation with one of its 414 wins, 2009.

#8: Winning trophies and awards is a big thing in Kpop and there are several weekly televised music shows where groups compete for trophies that are based on sales, streaming, and fan voting.  Kpop also has a number of year-end awards shows that also hand out trophies based on sales and popularity. As of 2022 the most awarded Kpop girl group is SNSD/Girls Generation, with 414 music show and awards show trophies in their 15-year career. BTS tops the list with 463 awards. 

#9: Not unlike the way that sports fans root for a single team, Kpops groups and agencies actively encourage their fans’ loyal support as a means of audience-building. One of the most significant moments in a Kpop group’s debut is the selection of their fandom’s name and some popular groups such as CNBLUE even have fandom names for individual members, with accompanying intra-group fandom rivalries. Fans also bond with one another via social media, with twitter being the platform of choice for many Kpop stans. 

Fans opposed to EXO dating, 2017.

In a more fanatical example of Kpop’s parasocial environment, some fans are so devoted to a particular group that they become critical of their idols having romantic relationships, such as during this television broadcast from 2017 where EXO fans loudly protest the idea that group members might be dating. Other extreme Kpop fan behavior includes “sasaengs,” obsessed fans who stalk idols and who in some cases invade their personal space, breaking into their living quarters, chasing them in their cars, or sending inappropriate gifts or messages. 

#10: Many Kpop singers are also actors and many have gone on to acting after a successful launch as an idol. Current popular actors Rowoon (SF9), Cha Eun Woo (Astro), Bae Suzy (Miss A), Do Kyung Soo (EXO), and Lee Jun Ho (2pm) all started out in Kpop groups and have since moved on to acting success. Other popular singers-turned-actors include Yoona (SNSD/Girls Generation), Jung Yonghwa (CNBLUE), and Im Siwan (ZE:A), among many others.

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Author’s Bio: Besides CNBLUE, Valerie Soe doesn’t really listen to Kpop, but somehow she knows a lot about it as a cultural phenomenon. She is a filmmaker, writer, and educator whose most recent documentary, Love Boat: Taiwan, premiered to sold-out festival audiences in 2019.

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