When I was on the Global team at The Motley Fool we had a wonderful intern named Chandler who had a list of “My five favorite…” on a range of topics including Korean pop music a.k.a. K-pop. I didn't care so much for the first, second and third but then Cheer Up! blew me away and I haven't looked back since! Thank you Chandler. There is so much great music coming out of Korea that it is hard to keep up with.
Why K-pop is different—and awesome
There are a handful of big entertainment companies and a bunch of smaller ones that hold auditions for those who think they can be a star and in practice, this means 13, 14, 15-year olds. (Here is the information page for JYP Entertainment's auditions for example. You can read in the original Korean if you wish though it is not strictly necessary to speak Korean.) Alternatively, one of the company scouts might spot you while shopping, think you have the look and personality they want and ask you to audition.
As I understand it, if a child is selected then they leave regular school and move into the company dormitory and will then spend the next few years training more or less full-time in singing and dance. There are constant evaluations and some will drop out. Trainees must behave appropriately in public, are told what to eat, have very limited contact with their families, or anyone else in the outside world and are not allowed to date – the myth created is that K-pop stars are desirable but yet somehow “available”. Indeed, the agreements have been called slave contracts and girls may be required to get cosmetic surgery!
Then in their late teens they will be assigned, or compete for, a place in a group – all girls or all boys – and they will debut. By then, after years of practice they should be amazing… but they are the only visible part. The company employs/contracts song writers, musicians, choreographers, hair stylists, mark-up artists, fashion designers and video/sound producers and technicians to make a complete “product“.
It is worth mentioning that the unblemished image created for K-pop idols means that the lyrics and the music vidoes are free from overt sexual overtones and as best I can tell from subtitles, no one swears. Performers and anyone else in the videos are fully clothed (though I will concede that skirts/dresses can be very short but they wear shorts for safety; it seems that even women showing belly buttons is a bit taboo in Korea). So, good clean fun.
Hopefully the song is a hit and the trainee becomes a star (fans will adore them but they are merely company employees and the company takes the money) but that can bring its own set of pressures, sometimes with tragic consequences as the suicide of SHINee singer Jonghyun demonstrates. More likely your catchy, beautifully executed song will get the interest of a small group of fans that will love it but most will never hear it and after a few years, the group will be disbanded. I make a point to listen to some of the lesser-known groups as some of their songs are as good as any and it is sad that they get so little recognition.
Interestingly, K-pop has a known starting point in the way that Rapper's Delight is for hip hop. In April 1992, 3-member Seo Taiji & Boys appeared on a talent show on MBC, one of Korea's TV networks performing a highly choreographed song that featured rapping. The judges were baffled and they came last. However the public loved it and the song was #1 in Korea for 17 weeks! The song: I know.
Where to start?
If K-pop is completely new to you, I suggest that you start with the following, each of which are mentioned again below. Click the "CC" (closed captions) button on YouTube since many have English subtitles but perhaps surprisingly, they aren't necessary to enjoy!
A song from the most popular boy band:
A song from, what was until recently, the most popular girl group:
(See BlackPink below for the currently most popular girl group.)
Not really standard K-pop as it is a solo act with no dancing but it is beautiful (more explanation below):
- A fantastic song from a girl group that even K-pop fans probably know of only dimly, if at all. A great example of why you shouldn't limit yourself to just the most popular and also of a great, really cheap music video:
Such a fun, bouncy song that tells a heart-warming story so you can't help smiling by the end! The music doesn't actually start until about 35 seconds in:
Peter's K-pop selection
(As of 12th June 2021)
I have to mention boy band BTS first because if you have heard of any K-pop group, it was almost certainly BTS as they are huge. They are unusual in that they write a lot of their material
- Boy With Luv (1.2 billion views as of 2021-05-22) I love their 2019 hit but that was the first song of theirs that I liked.
It is also well worth watching the “dance practice” video so you can see the whole performance start to finish. In fact, I often prefer the dance practice videos and the live performances to the music videos.
Indeed there is a huge sub-genre of dance covers and “KPop in public” performances where dance groups from around the world reproduce, or reinterpret, songs from popular groups. For Boy With Luv, I encourage you to check these out:
- 7 young men from Vietnam (over 9 million views!)
- a rotating cast of dance groups
- 5 Korean(?)) girls on top of a building
- a fabulous collaboration of 3 members each from 4 girls groups
…and so on.
- Dynamite The first video to hit 100m views on youtube in 24 hours and perhaps not coincidentally, their first song in English.
- Butter BTS broke their own record with this song reaching 113 million views in 24 hours!
Someone at my old office (Dilene) gave me this list of her ten favorite songs. See if you like them:
- I need U
- Best of me
- Blood sweat & tears
- Boy in luv
Click on [CC] control to turn on subtitles. I found the lyrics disturbing, especially
“Hold tight on to me/before I jump on you.”.
- Not today
She told me that, "These ones are less upbeat but beautiful":
If there was a song in my head since mid-2015, it was probably one of theirs. They are wonderful! As with most K-pop, it is not serious music but it is so much fun! Three of the members are Japanese and one is from Taiwan which led to a diplomatic incident with China in 2016. Their songs all have bits of English in them, especially in the chorus, which is good marketing since it is everyone's second language no matter where you are in Asia. I think all the official music videos have English subtitles too.
- 2015-04-24 Cheer Up! (The last 20 seconds is odd and completely disconnected from the song; I have no idea why it is included.)
- 2016-05-02 Touchdown (live)
- 2016-05-07 Woo Hoo (live)
- 2016-06-30 Precious Love (live)
- 2016-07-14 Truth A dance practice video – the dance routines require so much precision and you can really see where all the practice time goes which is not evident in the actual music videos; they have to keep shifting positions so that the person singing is generally front and center.
- 2016-10-23 TT I don't especially like this song but I include it as it is their most popular with over 500 million views.
- 2017-02-19 Knock, Knock Possibly my favorite though it is hard to pick. Also the dance practice video.
- 2017-10-30 Likey The official music video has 450,942,423 views as of 2020-05-28 but this live performance is way more fun.
- 2017-12-11 Heart Shaker The video gets weird and disconcerting in a fun way at 2:27!
- 2017-12-21 Merry and Happy
- 2018-01-11 Candy Pop This one is in Japanese! The three Japanese members – Sana, Mina and Momo – had to learn Korean while they were trainng but for the Japanese songs, the other six members had to memorize their lines in a foreign language!
- 2018-02-18 Brand New Girl In Japanese.
- 2018-08-16 BDZ In Japanese) is not an outstanding song but I include it here for its strange video. It may or may not be a coincidence that the key words from the chorus happen to spell BTS.
- 2018-04-09 What is love?. For a severe cringeworthy moment, see well-rehearsed dance cover and skip forward to 1:51 where some older women join in and get in the way.
- 2018-05-21 Really Really This is a fun cover of the song by boy band Winner – see if you like the original better.
- 2018-07-09 Dance the night away
- 2018-11-05 Yes or Yes The official music video is weird whereas this very informal version, shot in vertical like an amateur, looks like a group of friends mucking around https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGT1uFe5Rls. Also worth seeing is the dance routine
- 2019-04-22 Fancy As noted above, there are a huge number of dance covers and videos posted under "Kpop in public" and this was a popular song to cover of which these are four notable examples:
2019-09-23: Feel Special.
This song comes after Mina had to withdraw from performing and her part starting at 1:30 addresses her crisis.
By way of comparison, check out Dahyun's emotional solo; I think the style is better suited to the lyrics of the song.
- 2019-10-29: Luv Me This is one of my favorite songs of theirs but unfortunately the live performance in Tokyo has been taken down, so you will have to make do with this fan music video (which is pretty good).
- 2019-12-23: A Christmas present from Nayeon as she covers Ariana Grande's Santa Tell Me
- 2020-06-01 More and More. I am not sure I like it but I included it here because it is their latest and it seems to be popular. Just not with me.
- 2020-06-18 Fanfare! This was a surprise as I had no idea that it was coming though that is usually the case for the Japanese releases and is a welcome return to bubble-gum pop. Bear in mind that only 3 of the 9 members speak Japanese so the other 6 had to just learn their lines phonetically. No English subtitles yet.
- 2020-05-13 Strawberry. This song was co-written by Chaeyoung and it took me a while to warm to it but now I love it.
- 2020-10-26 I can't stop me.
- 2021-04-20 Kura Kura for the Japanese market. Not a great song overall but it has a great chorus which prompted each of them to do a 30-second video such as this TikTok from Mina.
- 2021-06-09 Alcohol Free A bit of a departure for Twice as it has a Latin vibe to it and I am still not sure if I like it but it may yet get stuck in my head. Music groups with several years of success can either keep doing the same thing forever but that may get boring and they lose their audience… or they can try new musical directions but then they risk losing their audience. This is the single from the album Taste of Love and I've not listened to the other tracks yet. Will update this list soon.
- 2021-06-27 Me! Actually, this is just Tzuyu doing a cover of Taylor's Swift's song but I love it! It is just the sort of catchy, upbeat song that drew me to Twice in the beginning. Also pleasing to see is that Tzuyu appears to have found her self-confidence as in many videos she appears to shy from attention. She should feel confident given all that she has achieved, notably in this video, singing in English. As a bonus, there is a delightful video of “big sisters” Momo and Nayeon seeing it for the first time.
2021-10-10 The Feels Their first English-language song! This got them on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America though apparently the hosts of the latter didn't get it. Their loss. Their loss I think it is one of their best. Also noteworthy:
- choreography video 1 with a static camera
- choreography video 2 with moving camera (31 million views as of 2021-11-17!)
- hilarious “random unit dance”, a variation on the “relay dances” that are often made in K-pop to make use of the vertical video format. They manage to incorporate a very Asian way of making decisions. If you only watch one video, watch this one!
2021-11-10 Scientist A hypnotic song, I loved it from the first listen. As far as I know, this is the first time that Mina has been the opening singer. Some of the comments note that it is in a lower register and that Momo (starting at 2:04) is singing in her natural range and she has such a beautiful, sultry voice. This song is released as part of their Formula of Love album. Associated videos:
- choreography video 1, noteable becaues because Jeongyeon is in it. Like Mina before her, she's had to take time off because she was suffering anxiety attacks. At the end they show an earlier take where Tzuyu forgets the next move; I can feel her soul being crushed. She is the youngest in the group and I suspect that she rarely smiles in performances because she is concentrating so hard on getting her part right.
- choreography video 2 with moving camera
2021-12-19 Snowman, Mina's Melody Project, a cover of Sia's original.
“Please don't cry no tears now, it's Christmas, baby.”
How can we when Mina sings this? She is so sweet, so vulnerable, so precious.
I also draw to your attention to another fabulous cover by a Black man with a gorgeous voice. I have listened to both covers over and over trying not to cry. It has been a fabulous year for us fans.
Girls Generation a.k.a SNSD
An earlier nine-member girl group who I'm sure were the model for Twice. Indeed Girls Generation dressed up as flight attendants (twice!) and later Twice did the same which led to accusations of copying though the idea was not new.
(From Big Bang.)
I believe Big Bang were the biggest K-pop group before BTS but I have yet to find any of their songs that I really like. Two of members have done significant solo work since but the band had to break up because the members had to do their military service.
However, I have to mention that one of the other members, Seungri who was part owner of the Burning Sun nightclub, was in a major sex scandal which implicated others in the K-pop industry; it is not clear why that band member is not currently in prison.
Eyes, Nose, Lips This song about lost love is not K-pop in the normal sense of happy & bouncy but it is iconic. There are three different versions to see:
- the music video with English subtitles and also Romanized Korean so you can sing along. Don't be surprised by the low number of views as the actual music video has a 174 million views at the time of writing. I gather this video was somewhat controversial at the time because he appears shirtless—but he has a great body! If the comments to the video are to believed, he is married to the woman he broke up with and then wrote this song for her.
- A beautiful concert performance
- The best duet ever! Seriously, this is amazing. Even more incredible is that they only had an hour or so to practice before filming. Apparently the format of the show is that people send in video of them singing a famous song and when they get that idol on the show, they select from the best videos sent in and let them sing together. The young woman had been on another talent show before but that was her only previous exposure.
- Wake Me Up
(Also from Big Bang)
He and Taeyang started as trainees when they were 12! I have to include two versions:
Although he is famous for the novelty song Gangnam Style (now 3.6 billion views at the time of writing!) but he is a serious entertainer. He does a lovely thoughtful song that has two very differnt versions…
She was in a from the cleverly named 2NE1 and released Don't cry as a solo effort.
- Russian roulette
- Ice cream cake
- Power Up. While we are here, I'll mention that I get more joy than I should watching this video of Twice members cheering on Red Velvet! Someone in the comments suggests that Nayeon should be the president of ReVeluv, the Red Velvet fan club!
I was not paying attention to Red Velvet and so I was shocked to learn in May 2021 that Wendy fell 2.5m/8ft off a stage during a rehearsal on Christmas Day 2019 and sustained serious injuries. She was in hospital for 2 months and didn't reappear with the group until New Year's Day this year. Knowing this, it is sad to listen to two songs she released in April 2021:
Joy (from Red Velvet)
- Hello This song is a bop! You can't avoid smiling.
Although I had mild interest in some of their early work, I don't particularly enjoy their recent songs but I am including them here because they are so popular – DDU-DU DDU-DU now has 1.1 billion views!
They released How you like that on 2020-06-26 and it set a new record on YouTube of 86.3 million views in the first 24 hours! However, it does not appeal to me – they seem too much like American wrappers – though I do appreciate the Arabic(?) vibe at 1:12.
I don't pay much attention to the boy bands but this one caught my attention because they are so good! These guys should be way more famous than they are!
The official music video for Breathless is OK but they really shine on the dance practice video. Keep your eye on the guy in the red and white shirt. In the comments:
Lazy Ace Dia2 years ago
I'm not (usually) gay but Rocky makes me feel things
I'm fine with this
xxPotato Queenxx 6 months ago
Lazy Ace Dia GO HOME ROCKY IS MINE
- Blue Flame
- The girl in Astro's music video for Breathless is Yoo-jung and reading the comments I saw that she was a member of Weki Meki. At the time, they had released Crush which has this music video but again, they are best seen in the dance practice. Great song!
- One of my all-time favorite K-pop songs! True valentine (dance practice)
- Do whatever you want (dance practice)
- Dazzle Dazzle
It is also worth mentioning that they are an 8-member group whereas almost all K-pop groups have an odd number of members. Having an odd number means that the person singing can be front and center with the other members symmetrically arranged on either side but with an even number they have to be more creative – which sometimes means hiding one member behind that person at the front and center.
- Really, Really and also the dance practice
- Hands Up. The group somehow lost three members and FNC Entertainment gave no explanation which naturally upset their fans. The entry for the company on Wikipedia claims that FNC stands for “fish 'n' cake”: The name is based on the miracle of feeding the multitude using only five loaves and the two fish. This is because Han Sung-ho is a devout Christian, he uses the name to hope for more miracles happen for the company.
However I am baffled why they have produced so little material in the years since. In 2019 there was just a 5-song mini-album Newtro – and one of those songs was an instrumental and the single Woowa failed to chart. The girls are presumably under contract and cannot leave to resume their studies or pursue other employment and MBK Entertainment is presumably still housing and feeding them – and I hope continuing to train them. They released Hug U in mid-2020 but almost a year later, it has only 412,000 views. The final scene looks like they are taking one final photo before they disband. Maybe they have and can get on with their lives without being shackled to a mediocre entertainment company.
Cuteness overload ahead! The Gwiyomi song. How can this have just 167,000 views? To be fair, it is a derivative of this this. They had more success with WiFi a song that to me sounds similar to Momoland's hugely successful Bboom Bboom (see below). By the time they arrived at Bbyong they had lost 4 members and gained 2.
Oh My Girl
Not bouncy and happy at all but arresting, even mildly disturbing: Oh My God
GWSN a.k.a. Girls in the Park
Bazooka! (Thanks Stephanie!)
I don't particularly like any of their songs that I know of but I am including them here because of them attempting their dance routine while blindfolded!
The company behind them, S.M. Entertainment, is one the big four entertainment companies in South Korea so they can nurture their trainees, create high-quality videos and run effective promotion. This is apparently their first new girl group in 6 years so these 4 young women must be outstanding.
- Black Mamba Their debut single has 148 million views after 6 months!
- Next Level For anyone that knows about video production, I am intrigued by the spaceship module at 0:24—did they make a real, physical thing to show for 1 second in the video, or is it computer generated? Either way, it is impressive.
…and so much more!
I feel I've only scratched the surface and there are new songs and new groups coming out all the time. Other groups I've come across - and this is just the girl groups: A.O.A, APink, BerryGood, Bvndit, CLC, cignature, Dreamcatcher, DreamNote, Exid, Everglow, Fromis_9, f(x), Gugudan, Hwa Sa, I.O.I, Itzy (stablemate of Twice and successful partly because of it), I.Z. One, Kara, La Boum, Lovelyz, Orange Caramel, Pledis, Pristin, Purplebeck, S.I.S., UNI.T, WJSN (not to be confused with GWSN!).