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The History of K-pop Stars

Letter R symbolizes Rolling Korea

Rolling Korea

In 2012 Psy’s Gangnam Style unexpectedly became a global hit. Who hasn’t heard of this song that made headlines worldwide and created many big flash mobs? And if you somehow managed to not have heard of Psy, you would have heard of BTS or at least listened to one of their most popular songs, even if it was unintentional. But what happened in Korean popular music before Psy and BTS? Let me give you a short summary.

Even though there were Korean artists that even appeared in American TV shows before, the most commonly named beginning of Korean popular culture as we know it today is the group Seotaeji and Boys (kor.: 서태지와 아이들) that debuted in 1992. They defined K-pop, as we still know it today, as a group that dances, sings, and raps. Four years later, the boy group H.O.T. (kor.: 에이치오티) was formed by SM Entertainment and started the K-Pop Idol trend. H.O.T.s popular song Candy recently became a hit again, as the group NCT Dream (kor.: 엔시티 드림) covered the song on their special winter album. Seotaeji and Boys and H.O.T. are part of what we call today the first generation of K-Pop groups, but neither are still active today.

In contrast to the Japanese music market, the Korean market had to expand internationally. The Korean population is relatively small compared to the Japanese, so the domestic consumer market was not big enough. SM Entertainments’ answer to this problem was the promotion of the Korean singer BoA in 2001 exclusively for the Japanese market.

After the disbandment of H.O.T. in 2001, SM Entertainment formed another group in 2003 called TVXQ (short for Tong Vfang Xien Qi, chin.: 東方神起, kor.: 동방신기). They started as a five-member group and are still active today as a duo. This group belongs to the so-called second generation of K-pop groups. Other popular groups that are still active today from this generation are Super Junior (kor.: 슈퍼주니어), HIGHLIGHT (kor.: 하이라이트), and Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD, which is short for the Korean name Sonyeo Sidae, 소녀시대).


The third generation of K-Pop groups has the biggest fanbases worldwide; these groups were extensively marketed overseas. For example, the boy groups EXO (kor.: 엑소) and NCT (kor.: 엔시티) were even formed with Chinese subgroups to reach the Chinese market. Other famous groups from this generation include BTS (kor.: 방탄소년단), Blackpink (kor.: 블랙핑크), Twice (kor.: 트와이스), Red Velvet (kor.: 레드벨벳), Seventeen (kor.: 세븐틴), and GOT7 (kor.: 갓세븐). All groups that debuted in and after 2018 are considered the fourth generation. These include SM Entertainments æspa (kor.: 에스파) as well as the just recently debuted group from HYBE called New Jeans (kor.: 뉴진스).


I couldn’t cover every K-pop band on the blog. K-pop bands that you watch and listen to are just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, many K-pop bands come and go every year without a public spotlight. Yet, more and more challenges to become the next K-pop star.