This piece was originally published June 19, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018
When PSY’s “Gangnam Style” dropped in 2012, everything about it felt ephemeral. Funny enough to warrant attention yet unpredictable enough to sink its hooks, it lodged into the American psyche with the sensory magnetism of Beyoncé’s hand rotations in “Single Ladies.” With the globally accessible YouTube as its medium and social media as its fuel, the song coursed through the veins of popular culture like a meme: In a two-week span, you hadn’t just read about “Gangnam Style” in the newspaper culture section, your coworkers were showing it to you, your distant cousins had learned its signature gallop, your hairdresser was playing it in the salon.
Six years later, K-pop has broken into the American consciousness yet again, this time with the number one placement of BTS’s Love Yourself: Tear on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart. This is the first time a K-pop act has ever managed this feat, and yet, like the success of “Gangnam Style,” BTS’s breakthrough rings with the air of impossibility.
Look past the obvious aesthetic differences between BTS and PSY, and you’ll see that this is actually how K-pop is supposed to propagate. Like most other works in the genre, both “Gangnam Style” and BTS’s latest lead single, “Fake Love,” are built for virality, streamlined for sharing, and heavily influenced by worldwide cultural touchstones. The biggest difference is in the initial hook, and while PSY’s trappings of slapstick comedy and trendy dance moves helped him jump the international gap in 2012, BTS seems to have laid a more exhaustive groundwork. Its fan base, aptly dubbed the ARMY, is known widely for its dogged dedication to the group, and its unrelenting support has helped to inflate the band’s visibility even as the mainstream continues to view it as a niche act.
In the United States, the designation of “boy band” or “girl group” carries a colossal heft, and by default, groups of young men or women who sing and dance are often dismissed as teenybopper trash. This is, above all, reductive: Listen to Destiny’s Child at any point in their run or browse through any of The Beatles’ early catalog, and it should go without saying that even group pop acts can be as artistically viable as their solo counterparts.
To dismiss the group act as an institution based on what it looked like 20 years ago is to ignore the immense progress that international pop groups have made in the decades since they fell out of the mainstream. Americans don’t have much to hold onto as a frame of reference besides One Direction, but South Korea hasn’t stopped refining group pop since its first acts made their debuts in the early ’90s. In 2018, K-pop groups boast rappers that can stand toe-to-toe with the best American emcees, they wear clothes that would make A$AP Rocky look pedestrian, and they often perform songs written by American producers who find themselves newly invigorated by the genre’s flexibility. Hundreds of K-pop groups have already passed through the South Korean consciousness, and while it’s true that many of them tend to produce agreeable, run-of-the-mill comfort food, the same could be said of any average act in the history of music. For every Pusha T, there’s a G-Eazy. For every Carly Rae Jepsen, there’s a Meghan Trainor.
Apart from its heavy focus on groups, K-pop as a medium has itself developed a stereotype in the States as a sort of bizarro twist on American pop, an alien genre of hairspray, secondhand songwriting, assembly-line construction, and chintzy costumes that might make sense somewhere, but fail to translate here. The knee-jerk defense against that stereotype is to argue that K-pop has changed significantly since that image initially developed (it has), or to illustrate how the genre’s recent globalization has “made it better” when measured against the gold American standard. But that’s a base instinct; one that caters to exceptionalist attitudes and attempts to frame the value of foreign cultural output based on how well it aligns with domestic sensibilities.
There is a dire need for a critical mindset that evaluates foreign art based on what it is and doesn’t ignore it based on where it came from. Yes, BTS fans are overwhelmingly young, drawn in by the group’s slick grooming, and carefully tended to, but it shouldn’t be assumed that the group’s pretty faces and coordinated dance moves are all they have to offer. Besides, as Kanye West, Star Wars, and classic rock elitists never cease to demonstrate, it is profoundly unhelpful to judge the value of art based on the behavior or perceived taste of its most die-hard followers.
Still, it’s admittedly naive to expect any K-pop newcomer to enjoy the medium without some sort of primer or easing-in. Like introducing a corn-fed college kid to spicy curry or a New York Times food writer to boba, there’s an unfamiliarity to K-pop that can present a significant challenge to the uninitiated. The best you can do is give a newcomer “the good shit,” or at least “the more immediately palatable shit,” and hope their taste is open enough to appreciate it. With that in mind, we humbly present this hour-long survey of K-pop sights and sounds, along with a few influences that make them easier to understand and digest in context.
Red Velvet, “Bad Boy” (2018)
There is no argument for K-pop more exhaustive than “Bad Boy,” the latest single from K-pop record label SM Entertainment’s it-group, Red Velvet. With its ice-cold synth riffs, silken sliding bass lines, and seductive vocals, the song boasts the immediate charisma of a Jeremih track, with lyrics that bait and switch the initial spark of attraction with a rigged game of cat-and-mouse. “The way you talk like you don’t care, I like that,” Joy sings, only for Wendy to flip the script later in the song: “I’m sure you’re confused, you can’t even imagine / You can try to escape but there’s not a single crack to go through.”
Then there’s the video, a neon and crimson-toned Pulp Fiction-inspired spectacle that features shots of the group sitting at round tables and dancing in eerie formations like a Balenciaga coven. With production by R&B outfit The Stereotypes—the masterminds behind Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s new jack swing throwback “Finesse”—Bad Boy is similarly daring in its commitment to old-school musicality, without the pastiche affectations that made the Mars track digestible in the States.
Girls’ Generation, “I Got A Boy” (2013)
As far as legacies are concerned, few groups have left as significant a mark on K-pop as Girls’ Generation. In 2009, their now-classic “Gee” set the new standard for bubblegum K-pop with an earworm so catchy that it single-handedly gained the genre a foothold in the Japanese market. “I Got A Boy,” from the group’s 2013 album of the same name, re-envisioned the group as a means to encapsulate all of popular culture in as tight a space as possible. As a multi-tiered epic that spans hip-hop, power balladry, sassy diva pop, and EDM, the song celebrates the many shades of what it’s like to “have a boy,” from the longing that precedes an encounter, to the thrill of infatuation, to the drama of the chase. This is a joint effort, and each of Girls’ Generation’s nine members tags in at just the right time to broaden the song’s scope. If solo artists like Adele are masters of contextualizing emotions with their own personal experiences, Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy” succeeds by using the power of the collective to encompass a wider array of ideas. Constructing complex, layered, baton-passing song structures is rare in American pop, where the average song typically boasts around four melodies to K-pop’s eight or 10.
Seo Taiji and Boys, “Come Back Home” (1995)
Despite the name, K-pop often falls outside the purview of what we’d call “pop music” altogether. Take Seo Taiji And Boys, the direct progenitors of the genre, who could hardly be considered a pop act at all. On their fourth and final studio album, Seo Taiji And Boys IV, no sound is off limits, and the group slides from the distortion pedal-driven Smashing Pumpkins nod of “Sad Pain” to the glistening quiet storm of “Good Bye.” But with the Cypress Hill-inspired gangsta rap track “Come Back Home,” Seo Taiji And Boys left such a deep mark on the Korean cultural consciousness that it helped make rap a cornerstone of nearly every K-pop act to follow. The group’s defiant verses, which vibrate with “rage toward this society,” feel especially vital today when paired with the rise of BTS, another eclectic, hip-hop-oriented, socially conscious group that released its own angst-ridden cover of “Come Back Home” in 2017.
BTS, “Dope” (2015)
Nowhere is BTS’s social commentary presented as clearly as in “Dope,” off its 2015 album, The Most Beautiful Moment In Life, Part 1. Outwardly, the song is a braggadocious paean to hard work, a quintessential hip-hop “started from the bottom” narrative. But it’s in the verses that BTS complicates the consequences of its years-long grind. “Even if our youth rots in the studio / Thanks to that, we’re closer to success,” Suga raps—it’s a sentiment that would be tempting to take at face value if he hadn’t released a solo track about his own struggles with depression. Later on the track, with his signature snarl, the group’s leader, RM, raps, “Given up on three? Given up on five? I like the number six, how about giving up on six?” He’s playing on the idea of South Korea’s sampo sedae, or “giving-up-three generation,” which has sacrificed courtship, marriage, and childbirth to cope with social and economic pressures. The wordplay might be Korea-specific, but generational conflict is as globally resonant as pop itself, and it’s of no small significance that BTS has tackled the issue on nearly every album it’s released to date.
Twice, “TT” (2016)
Twice is not the group that tries to reinvent itself with every album. It is not the group that wants to change the world with the power of music. Twice is the group that bounces up and down giddily, that stares longingly into the camera whenever its members aren’t smiling, that expresses cutesy disappointment by typing a crying emoticon, TT, into the chat bar. In a K-pop world where every group is trying to carve out some kind of unique space for itself musically or aesthetically, there’s a sort of hammed-up specificity to Twice’s role in the scene that’s easy to appreciate: It wants to be the new girl group archetype, and with songs as tightly crafted as “TT,” it’s no wonder how it’s been able to accomplish just that.
Sistar, “Shake It” (2015)
As a result of K-pop groups’ grueling and consistent release schedules, the genre rumbles along with the regularity of a Swiss movement watch. One of the most important milestones in K-pop’s yearly cycle is the onset of summer, a prime release window for decadent, youthful bops. But while most groups treat summer as an opportunity to explore lighter concepts, the four-piece girl group Sistar turned the season into a domain all its own, dropping summer hit after summer hit for nearly half a decade. “Shake It,” from the group’s third mini-album of the same name, radiates with sun-drenched, carefree optimism, and is structurally engineered to elicit maximum joy. Swelling pre-choruses climb their way to monstrous hooks, and the track beams with excitement thanks to an electrifying vocal performance from the group’s main singer, Hyolyn. Sistar might have disbanded in 2017, but seasonal songs have a way of coming back around (see: Mariah Carey), and “Shake It” hasn’t lost any of its potency in the years since its release.
Sunmi, “Gashina” (2017)
Although the K-pop industry is dominated by group acts, the genre also boasts it share of successful soloists. To wit, Wonder Girls alumna Lee Sun-mi has proven herself to be such all-around talent that she can stand on her own. Released in 2017, “Gashina” is a bitter and empowering breakup anthem that opens with Sunmi “getting weaker” as she wriggles in the throes of post-breakup anxiety. But her self-doubt gives way to righteous incredulity with a lyrical centerpiece that falls just before the chorus: “Why are you leaving the pretty me here?” In Korean, the line is a double entendre that evokes the thorns of a flower and a somewhat derogatory term for women, but Sunmi relishes her contempt as she mimes the act of shooting a revolver at arm’s length. Choreographed by K-pop mainstay Lia Kim, the move helped turn “Gashina” into an instant phenomenon and a prime example of solo divadom’s influence in K-pop.
NCT U, “Baby Don’t Stop” (2018)
In 2016, SM Entertainment CEO Lee Soo-man introduced “Neo Culture Technology”—better known by NCT—as a modular pop group that could include a theoretically infinite number of members in a theoretically infinite number of subgroup configurations. The idea was a gimmick, but a fascinating one nevertheless: If a group could be built to morph along artistic trends, maybe its music and visuals could do the same. In reality, what resulted was an unwieldy deluge of NCT-associated subgroups that, aside from the youth-oriented group NCT Dream, didn’t do much to differentiate themselves from one another.
Performed by just two members of the seven-member NCT subunit called NCT U, “Baby Don’t Stop” is uncharacteristically exhaustive in its realization: unlike most spinoff duets, it hasn’t been dumbed-down or relegated to a B-side curiosity. Instead, the song is a sensuous R&B jam that’s been daringly stripped down to its component parts. The track’s synth hits flutter above its heavy bass bedding with a radiant simplicity that evokes LCD Soundsystem. The video, which alternates between black-and-white exterior sequences and overexposed interior shots, tosses the lean and exposed bodies of members Ten and Taeyong against backdrops of vacant Ukrainian architecture—seamlessly reconciling its boy band trappings with arthouse sensibilities. It’s difficult to imagine where a production like this might otherwise fit in the context of a more rigidly structured K-pop boy band, and if NCT’s obscure scattering of subgroups makes the group seem unapproachable or arcane, “Baby Don’t Stop” is a counterweight; a case study in the project’s favor that suggests maybe SM Entertainment is onto something.
I.O.I, “Very Very Very” (2016)
As the product of a popular music reality show called Produce 101, the 11-member I.O.I was a grab bag of talent that would ultimately become a sort of year-long preview for the next generation of girl groups. Not only did a large portion of I.O.I’s members move onto other acts when the group disbanded, but “Very Very Very,” the hyperactive lead single from the group’s second album, works well as an introduction to the typical girl group sensibilities of today. With its Lisa Frank color scheme, repetitive structure, and requisite youthful charm, the song comes with all the standard components for commercial success. Its slight deviation from the form—every girl group single needs one of those, too—is the song’s relentless drum and bass shuffle, which distills the sensation of a crush into high-dosage pop MDMA.
Loona, “Heart Attack” (2017)
Every K-pop debut has an origin story, and the rollout of Blockberry Creative’s 12-piece girl group Loona (stylized LOOΠΔ) has been the genre’s most sprawling saga to date. Instead of launching the group as a single unit, Loona reverse-engineered the formula, with each member releasing solo singles and subgroup projects in the lead-up to the group’s joint debut. “Heart Attack,” the late-2017 debut from Loona’s Chuu, is an unrequited love song that reconciles crowd-pleasing chord progressions with off-kilter visual references that come across without a hint of subtlety whatsoever. Magritte’s The Son Of Man is channeled, as is Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Match Girl.” Ham-fistedness aside, the idea flips K-pop convention on its head by giving Chuu a comprehensive micro-universe of her own. Instead of envisioning the K-pop group as a meritocracy where only the most talented or charismatic members get solo opportunities, Loona presents every member as a distinct personality first, and a part of the group second.
EXID, “Up & Down” (2017)
Not every K-pop group sees popularity at its debut—most tend to fizzle out altogether, and EXID looked like it might be one of those groups when it released the skronky “Up & Down” in 2015. After a release met with only minor commercial success, the song made headlines when a fan-shot video of the member Hani performing the song unexpectedly went viral, skyrocketing the track to chart success three months after its release. EXID has gone on to become one of K-pop’s top girl groups, but the song stands as a testament to the genre’s fickle inner workings that can often make or break a group.
Exo, “Call Me Baby” (2015)
Before BTS, the undisputed kings of K-pop were Exo, and “Call Me Baby” is a glorious example of what a K-pop boy band is capable of when firing on all cylinders. Released as the title track of the group’s second studio album, the song is an explicit callback to the sounds and images presented by ’90s boy bands like NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys. With production by the seminal new jack swing producer Teddy Riley, known for his work with Michael Jackson, Keith Sweat, and Usher, it’s a virtuosic piece of pop pageantry, updated for its 2015 audience and blown up to monstrous proportions. The comeback performance of the song on the Korean Music program M Countdown is an enthralling technical feat where fashion, intricate staging, shiny chrome art direction, and expert movement unite. As the lead single from a group that had just reached the point of superstardom, “Call Me Baby” was a direct challenge to its predecessors and an ambitious argument for boy band performance as a cultural event.
Exo, “Ko Ko Bop” (2017)
Time moves fast in the world of K-pop, and even though Exo’s “Ko Ko Bop” was released only two years after “Call Me Baby,” the song gleams with a level of poise that only the genre’s most seasoned veterans can muster. It’s not that Exo is old; the group simply has nothing left to prove. With a reggae guitar line as its centerpiece and a post-chorus EDM breakdown that exists only to remind us of how good these guys are at dancing, “Ko Ko Bop” is tight and effortless: a perfect summertime treat.
Big Bang, “Bang Bang Bang” (2016)
Big Bang’s “Bang Bang Bang” is the kind of track that seems specifically designed to shock. How else would one react to G-Dragon’s demented screeching of “Ppangya! Ppangya! Ppangya!” or the late beat switch that raises the stakes on a song that was already set on Valhalla? Tacky, inventive, garish, disgusting, strange, sexy, awful—“Bang Bang Bang” is all of these things. Big Bang’s members are maximalists in the most unrepentant sense of the word, and while the images they present are all familiar, there’s a perverse brilliance to the way the group presents them without context or reason, like an exquisite corpse of pop signifiers. This is, of course, the point: Big Bang sees pop culture as a playground for visual gluttony, and the group’s endless trove of excess inspired a generation of K-pop acts to follow.
F(x), “4 Walls” (2015)
If you’ve heard of F(x) before, it’s because it’s been framed in the U.S. as a sort of K-pop anomaly: a big-label girl group that cleverly attuned itself to global music trends in a way that made it more critically approachable. The group played the part flawlessly, and its 2013 album, Pink Tape, is one of K-pop’s most inventive documents to date. Two years later, following the departure of group member Sulli, fans feared that F(x) might be on the verge of fading away. Instead, the group rolled along as a four-piece ensemble and took the roster change as a cue to diversify its sound in the 2015 follow-up 4 Walls. The album’s title track taps into deep house sounds with a refreshing ease that’s further fleshed out in the live performances: Ditching the flashier palettes of the group’s past comebacks for more muted pastel and primary tones, “4 Walls” captures an experienced K-pop group at its best.
Shinee, “Good Evening” (2018)
When the suicide of Shinee’s Kim Jong-hyun shook the K-pop world late last year, it was easy to wonder how, or even if, his death might manifest in the group’s future work. With “Good Evening,” its first Korean single since Jong-hyun’s passing, Shinee looks lost for perhaps the first time in its storied 10-year history. Renowned for precise movement and coordination, each member spends the better part of the choreography pacing about the stage, standing still only to stare at fixed points in space and deliver each line with a sort of anesthetic clarity. All of this is offset by the song’s vibrant art direction, which evokes light and weightlessness even as the lyrics depict wanderers searching for one another in the darkness. “I can feel we’re looking at each other through this door,” Kim Ki-bum sighs during the song’s bridge. Warped by sorrow, “Good Evening” explores the state of grief when it’s no longer helpful to contemplate the “whys” and “what-ifs.” Loss is universal, but Shinee deals with it in a way that feels at once familiar and exclusive to K-pop as a form: Instead of trying to decipher or encapsulate the moment, the group members allow themselves to wander in it, together.
BTS, “Intro: Singularity” (2018)
The voice of BTS member Kim Taehyung, known in the group as V, falls far from any conceivable pop archetype to date. It’s clouded, it’s breathy, and it contorts into an almost comical howl when he sings above a certain volume. Before the release of his first solo track, “Stigma,” on BTS’s 2016 album, Wings, V’s vocals were often layered into the ensemble or stretched to a tenor range that didn’t quite stand out in the context of the group.
It’s funny, then, that V’s latest solo outing, “Singularity” from BTS’s latest album Love Yourself: Tear, seems so fixated on the voice as a source of pain, a reverberating echo across a delicate layer of ice. “I buried my voice for you,” V sings over the song’s lush, bass-driven R&B production. “Tell me if my voice isn’t real.” The disjointed stream-of-consciousness lyrics reveal fleeting ideas about loss and identity, but they glimmer and dissipate like shapes in a kaleidoscope.
Every work of art comes immersed in context, but one of K-pop’s most commonly shared ambitions is to try and create its own. In keeping with that ambition, BTS’s catalog has sought to assemble a vast range of media—animated videos, candid glimpses, ballads, travel essays, SoundCloud rap, overarching narratives, comedy—as shards that might enrich the whole of its oeuvre. This doesn’t automatically elevate the work, but it’s a globally accessible model that imbues every song with weight beyond what’s initially presented. To the first-time BTS listener, “Singularity” is an abstract meditation on a theme, a neo-soul curiosity, a loose string begging to be pulled. The joy of exploring a K-pop group like BTS is pulling that thread in relief, only to discover that it won’t ever fully unravel.