As BTS reach No 1 in the US and other K-pop stars start gaining traction in the west, here is a glossary for the uninitiated – from agencies to zaniness.
By Taylor Glasby
Aforeign-language album recently took the No 1 position on America’s album chart for the first time in 12 years – Love Yourself: Tear (which also currently sits in the Top 10 UK album chart) by South Korean boy band BTS. Since winning top social artist at 2017’s Billboard music awards, they have been muscling into America’s – and indeed the west’s – consciousness with their genre-hopping music and intricate visual narratives.
Overall, the slick, highly trained K-pop groups have slowly but surely gained traction in the west over the years. In 2012, the US-based Korean pop culture convention, KCON, drew an audience of 10,000. Last year, that figure was 149,000, but the US and UK music industries have remained oblivious to the phenomenon, or unconvinced that a record sung in Korean could ever find an English-speaking audience large enough to compete with their homegrown artists.
That theory is now shattered by BTS’s success, and the spotlight is now on South Korean pop, a fast-paced, riveting and fertile industry but one with its own rules and lexicon that isn’t always simple to navigate. This is your essential guide to who’s who and what’s what in K-Pop.
A is for agencies
Record labels, such as Universal and Sony, exist in Korea, but the entertainment agency is king and key names include JYP, YG, SM, Cube, Pledis, Starship and FNC. They audition and train hundreds of teenagers before placing a select few into new “idol” groups. Agencies also do everything in-house: management, PR, A&R, production and concerts/events.
B is for Big Hit/BTS
Founded in 2005 by Bang Sihyuk, a former JYP songwriter, he debuted BTS in 2013, who turned Big Hit into the most profitable agency in South Korea, with a market value estimated at $1.85bn (£1.38bn). BTS – rappers RM, Suga and J-hope, and vocalists Jimin, Jungkook, Jin and V – are rewriting the rules of K-pop, with their new single Fake Love taking the highest ever position (No 10) by a Korean group on the US Billboard Hot 100.
C is for comeback
A new release. Groups make multiple comebacks (usually several EPs) each year to maintain and grow their fanbases. The album and single drop simultaneously and though there are exceptions, it’s one single per comeback. C is also for choreography, a vital K-pop ingredient, and idol groups practise endlessly to execute flawless, complex routines.
D is for drama
If hip-hop has beef, then K-Pop has drama, and a lot of it. Idols embroiled in a scandal (anything from a display of bad manners to being outed as dating) is a regular occurrence, but for consistent drama, look to the fandoms. Fandom rivalry stretches back to K-Pop’s first generation in the 90s where physical fights took place, while these days, there are small but noisy pockets of EXO EXO-l fans and BTS’s Army who are infamous for their online spats. Fandoms fighting internally is also commonplace.
E is for experimental
There’s little to rival the experimentation of K-pop. From mashing together sounds, whether it be pop, rock, hip-hop, reggae, EDM, Latin or jazz, to the idols’ hair, makeup and styling (BDSM harnesses and mullets, anyone?), there’s always something to hook your eyes and ears.
F is for fandoms
Fans, also known as stans, generally dedicate themselves to one group only. The relationship between fandom and group runs deep both ways, so you’ll often see idols cry or do a floor bow at concerts as they thank fans for their support.
G is for genres
K-Pop is a fluid beast that cherrypicks influences from a multitude of genres, which are then altered or combined to suit a group’s concept. Popular high concepts for groups include hip-hop, school days, cute, girl crush, sexy and retro.
H is for Hallyu
K-Pop is just one part of the hallyu (Korean wave), a term that’s been used since 1999 to encompass all of Korea’s cultural exports, including television dramas and films.
I is for idol
K-pop stars are known as idols, and often start training in an agency from a young age having been scouted or auditioned. Unlike western celebrities, idols are expected to behave impeccably on stage and off, which includes no dating. They can be penniless for years as their agency recoups the cost of training and debuting, but there are hugely lucrative opportunities from advertising deals and sponsorships. Older groups (10+ years active), such as Bigbang, SHINee, Girls’ Generation, Shinwha and Sechs Kies, remain popular, while the most talked-about current groups include Twice, Wanna One, EXO and BTS.
J is for Japan
Agencies continue to heavily court this cash-rich market, re-recording songs or releasing original material for specifically for Japanese audiences.
K is for K-pop
K-pop in its modern form began in 1992 with Seo Taiji and Boys (one of whom was Yang Hyun-suk, who went on to form YG Entertainment) – they rattled the public with their sociopolitical lyrics and musicality that was indebted to new jack swing and the Beastie Boys. K-pop is often broken down into generations, although the time brackets for each are hotly contested, making it debatable whether we’re in the third or fourth generation of idols.
L is for legal issues
Some of the most widely covered cases are idols trying to extricate themselves from iron-clad contracts, with some cases dragging on for years. Meanwhile, Korean law allows for people to be sued for defamatory comments even if they are true, so agencies often threaten anti-fans who post negative comments online with legal action.
M is for MV
A good MV (music video) is just as important as a good song in K-pop and making a standard video doesn’t leave much change from $100,000. MVs deemed expensive cost more than $200,000, while there’s even a couple that ran to US$1m. Some of the best producers are Lumpens, VM Project Architecture, Zanybros, Digipedi, Tigercave and Studio Naive.
P is for producers
Agencies frequently sign producers and songwriters such as Bumzu (Pledis), Teddy Park (YG) or Kenzie (SM) to work exclusively on their acts, but there are plenty of independent Korean creatives and a significant international presence on K-pop records, such as Brits LDN Noise, Swedes Caesar & Loui and Andreas Öberg, and Americans such as Kevin Randolph, Davey Nate, and the LA-based collective Devine-Channel. Some of the best known Koreans include Shinsadong Tiger, Primary, Slow Rabbit, Pdogg, Brave Brothers, Sweetune and Black Eyed Pilseung.
R is for rookies
All new groups are known as rookies, and the consensus is that you remain a rookie for around two years. The term monster rookie is used for groups (usually from bigger agencies) who find significant early success, such as NCT, Gfriend and Blackpink. When smaller agencies debut an act, they are frequently referred to as “nugu groups”; nugu is Korean for “who”, but also used to describe someone as a nobody.
S is for sasaeng
Sasaengs are the obsessed fans who have been known to break into idols’ houses, put recording devices in hotel rooms, pay off staff at phone or flight companies for an star’s number or book seats next to their bias (favourite member) and crash private events, such as weddings.
T is for training
The legendary idol-training system is a gruelling schedule of, primarily, vocal and dance lessons. A pre-dawn start and witching-hour finish is routine. Three years is an average training period, but this can be as long as eight years. R&B singer G.Soul holds the record for the longest training period, an endurance-testing 15 years.
V is for V Live
A broadcasting app and website that idol groups use to communicate in real time with fans, as well as load prerecorded shows. V Live records every broadcast, so that they or the fans can add subtitles afterwards, helping international fans stay connected.
W is for world tour
That many K-pop self-proclaimed “world tours” tend to exclude half the world is a long-running fan joke. The consistent focus has been on Asia and North America but, in recent years, K-pop’s ever-growing popularity has seen more tours play Australia, Europe and South America, where there’s been huge surges of interest.
X is for xenophobia
Like everywhere else, racism is a significant issue in Korea, and prejudice is often rife in the entertainment industry. Blackface is still used on mainstream comedy skit shows; appropriation of black culture, including gestures, language and hair, can be seen regularly in K-pop (and groups including Block B, Big Bang, EXO, GOT7 and 4Minute have all encountered international criticism for doing so); while darker skin is also seen as a negative trait, with companies, fans and media whitewashing idol images (making them appear lighter skinned than they are in reality).
Y is for YouTube
Agencies and Korean broadcast companies make heavy use of YouTube, but the platform is a goldmine of fan-made content: compilation videos, playlists, subtitled content (lyrics, idol reality and variety shows), vlogs/reactions, fancams from concerts and appearances and ripped Korea-only shows. Without these, K-pop’s global expansion would have been far slower.
Z is for zany
Being a little crazy helps. Appearing on Korea’s popular variety shows is a great way of raising an idol’s profile as well as that of their group, but these are tough gigs that require quick wit, charm and a willingness to get involved in anything-goes situations. Idols with “4D” (eccentric or sassy) personalities do especially well, like BTS’s V, Exid’s Hani, GOT7’s Jackson, and Super Junior’s Hee-chul. Knowing Brothers, Running Man, Weekly Idol and Netflix’s new original Busted are just some of the shows to watch.