Korean Pop – or Kpop for short – has gone from earning millions to billions in just over a decade. After all, Kpop’s impact on the global cultural landscape is undeniable. With their innovative sounds and captivating aesthetics, it is slowly crossing into the mainstream. But where is it going exactly? And how did Kpop even begin?
Over the years, the Kpop industry has been thriving and growing in size day by day, with new groups constantly emerging with new concepts and looks. To keep the Kpop scene as organized as possible, fans have come up with the idea of dividing the various groups into generations – four, to be precise. It’s tough to pinpoint the exact beginning of a new generation (and which groups belong to which category), and every fan seems to have a different opinion on the matter. Nevertheless, a new generation is said to have started when fans decide there has been a definite shift in the mainstream sound within Kpop. So far, this has happened four times over the course of three decades. But will it happen a fifth time?
Here’s the breakdown of Kpop’s four generations throughout the years, as well as an answer to the burning question – where is Kpop going?
It began in the early 1990s and lasted up to the beginning of the 2000s, but its influence can still be seen today.
The first generation of Kpop groups may not be as known amongst newer fans of the genre, and that needs to change asap. It began in the early 1990s and lasted up to the beginning of the 2000s, but its influence can still be seen today.
The pioneer of this era is the group Seo Taiji and Boys, whose debut song I KNOW completely changed the musical landscape of South Korea. In the track, they combined elements of Western-style pop and hip-hop – such as the choreography – with the Korean language. This style was a breakthrough for the industry and laid the foundation for a whole new genre which would be better known later as ‘Kpop’.
Another important group of this era is H.O.T., who adopted a similar sound as Seo Taiji and Boys, and are credited as being the first idol group. The group was formed by SM Entertainment, who brought us many Kpop icons, such as the soloist BoA, who debuted in 2000.
The second generation began in 2003, and it’s said to have ended sometime between 2009 and 2010. This era greatly increased the scope of Kpop’s success on a global scale. The style captured the hearts of many across Asia, Australia, and North America, as the Hallyu or Korean wave began its worldwide journey.
The most well-known icons of the generation are the groups TVXQ, Girls’ Generation, Bigbang, Wonder Girls, 2ne1, Super Junior and SHINee, and the soloist IU. Girls’ Generation is particularly worth mentioning, as they were (and are) the biggest idol group Kpop has ever seen, having left their footprint on the cultural landscape of South Korea (e.g. their song Into The New World is still considered an anthem of the youthful revolution).
Moreover, this generation saw the solidification to icon-status of the Big 3, aka the three biggest Kpop companies – YG Entertainment (Bigbang and 2ne1), JYP Entertainment (Wonder Girls’ label), and SM Entertainment (home to TVXQ, Girls’ Generation, Super Junior and SHINee).
The third generation is said to have started in 2011, but it is not clear when (and if) it ended – some say 2018, while others think it is still ongoing. The biggest names from this generation are also big names of the global music scene, being popular on a worldwide scale and known by non-Kpop fans as well – i.e. BTS, BLACKPINK, EXO, TWICE, Red Velvet, and GOT7.
The new era borrows elements from the previous generations, as the sound is still a combination of Western and Korean music. However, different musical genres (other than pop) have been introduced into the mix, particularly EDM and rock. Also, the face of Kpop has changed – companies are now open to debuting members of different origins and nationalities, whereas before idols were mostly purely Korean. The former change can mainly be attributed to the fact that Kpop has now become mainstream in countries outside of South Korea, particularly in South & East Asia. In fact, there are now multiple idols in the industry who were born in Thailand, Japan and China (e.g. Lisa from BLACKPINK, Momo from TWICE, and Chenle from NCT).
It is unclear when the fourth – and current – Kpop generation started, but it is usually said to have begun sometime between 2018 and 2019, when a new sound made its way into the genre. This new musical style is called experimental – or noise music, as nicknamed by fans – and it’s characterized by multiple layers of heavy production within each song. Moreover, the current focus of each group appears to be choreographies, which are getting increasingly artsy and complex, while vocals are being overshadowed.
The pioneers of this sound are NCT, whose signature noise style has become the blueprint for the entire generation. There are plenty of other groups who are joining the experimental bandwagon, but the ones who appear to be leading the era are ITZY, LOONA, Stray Kids and TOMORROW X TOGETHER.
The Road Ahead
You may be asking yourself – what’s next for Kpop? If you are, trust me – you are not the only one.
Plenty of fans are now beginning to wonder where Kpop is heading, and whether it will continue to gain fame, or if it will begin to lose momentum. However, just by looking at the current situation of the industry, the most likely answer is both.
Kpop as a genre is continuously gaining recognition, whereas none of the current groups are setting themselves apart from the overall scenario. For instance, BTS and BLACKPINK managed to become popular individually and make a name for themselves, yet no other group has been able to follow in their footsteps so far.
This is mainly due to the fact that Kpop has now become oversaturated. That is, so many groups are now debuting causing the industry to become so crowded, it is no longer possible for singular acts to have momentum. There isn’t a concept or sound that hasn’t been tried before, and there isn’t room for innovation either. Thus, groups just end up looking like carbon copies of one another, and will probably not be able to make much of a long-lasting impact on the industry.
Nonetheless, Kpop as a genre is definitely getting bigger, not only in South & East Asia, but in various Western countries as well. But does that mean it can be considered mainstream in the West? Not really. The Western music industry is US-centered – it is generally open to songs in English and Spanish, as they are the main languages spoken there. In fact, if you look at the most successful Kpop songs on the Western market, you will notice they have a high percentage of English in their lyrics (e.g. Dynamite by BTS). On the other hand, non-Dynamite Kpop songs get zero radio play, and are not well-accepted by the general public. The audience there is used to lyrics they can understand – thus, the rest is not easily consumed. Additionally, xenophobia and racism are still rampant in the West, so music performed by artists of color in an unknown language is still sadly inconceivable to a lot of people.
Moreover, it is harder for Kpop to thrive in countries that already have a distinctive popular culture scene, such as the US and other Western countries, which all primarily consume North American media. This principle affects South Asia as well, where Kpop has not been able to break the market despite the geographical proximity, because the cultural landscape there is already owned by Bollywood. In contrast, Kpop has been able to thrive in Thailand, Japan, and China because of the cultural similarities with South Korea.
All great empires must fall, and for Kpop the countdown might have begun.
Nevertheless, I am still merely a fan, and even though I can make conjectures, I (sadly) can’t foresee the future. Who knows – maybe a group will come in and sweep us all off our feet, conquering the global market once and for all! Although, I wouldn’t bet money on it. Kpop is bound to someday reach its peak and then slowly die out, and that may be sooner rather than later. All great empires must fall, and for Kpop the countdown might have begun.
Cover: Emma Chiaratti