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The Salute History of K-Pop

How K-Pop became a global craze


Before the internet was an efficient method of communication, back in the early-to-mid ’90s, many of us were so caught up with listening to boy bands such as Backstreet Boys and N’Sync that we really didn’t listen to the musical revolution taking place on the other side of the planet.

Following the breakup of heavy metal band Sinawe in 1991, Seo Taiji and Boys was created and have been widely regarded as one of the innovators of the K-Pop sound. Inspired by Western pop culture, the group would forever change the music industry in South Korea.

Like many controversial artists who change the game, Seo Taiji and Boys were accused of hiding subliminal messages in their music. The studio album, Seo Taiji and Boys IV (1995), was highly controversial for its foray into gangsta rap music and the controversial song “Sidae Yugam,” which translates to “Shame of the Times,” a song that was banned by the Korean Broadcasting Ethics Committee in 1995 for having lyrics that criticized the government. Fans backlash was immense and led to the abolition of the pre-censorship system in 1996.

Seo Taiji would change the game but the modern “pop idol” fanaticism that we know as K-Pop didn’t really take off until the boy band H.O.T. (“High Five of Teenagers”) created the teen heartthrob culture in Korea. The group sold more than 12 million records in South Korea during their career and were commercially successful in China and Japan as well.

H.O.T. disbanded in 2001, after contract disagreements with their label, S.M. Entertainment. Hundreds of fans protested, blocking roads and throwing rocks at the company’s headquarters over what they believed were unjust actions against the group on the part of S.M. Entertainment.


The K-Pop subculture went through a brief slump following the band’s break-up but was soon revitalized with the introduction of more contemporary recording artists such as K-Pop duo TVXQ and the proclaimed “Queen of Korean Pop” Kwon Bo-ah, better known by her stage name BoA.

This led to the creation of a great many cross-cultural groups, including SS501, a South Korean boy band who first entered the Japanese market with their 2007 maxi-single “Kokoro.” The following year they were the first South Korean artists to win “Best New Artist” at the Japan Gold Disc Awards. In total, they only released one studio album and seven EPs in Korean, and two studio albums and three EPs in Japanese.

The 13-member boy band, Super Junior, were among the first to gain international recognition in 2009, with their best-selling single, “Sorry, Sorry.” They were the best-selling K-Pop artist for four years in a row, earning thirteen music awards from the Mnet Asian Music Awards, sixteen from the Golden Disc Awards, and are the second singing group to win Favorite Artist Korea at the 2008 MTV Asia Awards after jtL in 2003.

2NE1, a four-member girl group, also gained popularity during the “second wave” of K-Pop, after appearing in a promotional single for LG Electronics, “Lollipop” alongside the boy band, Big Bang. Having sold 66.4 million records, they went down as one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. The group split in 2016 but prompted a successful career for the group’s lead singer, songwriter, rapper Lee Chae-rin, better known by her stage name, CL.

Since her departure from the all-girl group, CL has worked with manager Scooter Braun, producer/DJ Diplo, and rapper Lil Yachty. Plans are still in the works for her upcoming, English-language debut.


The K-Pop industry took off in 2008, with what has now been referred to as “K-Pop’s Second Wave,” expanding beyond the reaches of Asian culture, with influence in modern European and American culture as well. According to The Korea Herald, an industry report from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism indicated that Korea’s export of pop music went from $16.5 million in 2008 to $31.3 million in 2009.

G-Dragon, otherwise known as Kwon Ji-yong, is a South Korean rapper who got his start as a former member of the boy band, Big Bang. But it was ultimately his solo performances and stage presence that would garner him the honorary title, “King of K-Pop.” His debut solo album, Heartbreaker (2009) was commercially successful and went on to earn him “Album of the Year” at the 2009 Mnet Asian Music Awards.

K-Pop music has continued to increase exponentially each year since 2010 when export nearly doubled to $84.9 million and 800 million views on YouTube. By 2012, K-Pop turned into a global phenomenon thanks to K-Pop sensation PSY and his international hit single, “Gangnam Style,” which became the first K-Pop video to reach more than 1 billion views on YouTube.

The seven-member boy band BTS, also known as the “Bangtan Boys,” were created in 2013 and have since become global phenomena. Last year, they performed their hit song “DNA” during the American Music Awards, making them the first K-Pop group to perform at an American awards ceremony. They later collaborated with DJ Steve Aoki and rapper Desiigner to make two remixes of their song “MIC Drop,” aimed predominantly at American audiences.

So where does K-Pop go from here? Well, in 2018, the subculture is flourishing. In addition to the recent introduction of new K-Pop groups such as The Boyz and iKon, we have also been introduced to Holland, the first openly gay K-pop singer. It has also been confirmed that H.O.T. are planning to reunite on the MBC variety show, Infinite Challenge, on February 15th, and that there are plans for a new SS501 album following a reunion late last year, minus Hyung Jun, who was still serving in the military.

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