Allkpop Blending breaking news, press releases and gossip, this New Jersey-based, English-language authority on K-pop launched in 2007 and quickly established a veritable monopoly on American K-pop coverage. Mashable named Allkpop the “Best Breaking News Site” of 2009 and a “Must-Follow Brand” of 2010 in their Open Web Awards.
BoA The 25-year-old anti-fashionista debuted in 2000 but shot to fame later, in Japan, where she is considered a major idol and established herself as a leading example of Hallyu, the international “Korean wave” of culture. BoA’s frustrated 2009 bid for American fame, “Eat You Up,” now stands as little more than a footnote to the success of “Gangnam Style.” But she abides in Asia, having just released her seventh Korean-language album, and she will make her Hollywood debut in 2013.
EXO Split-personality boy band that debuted this year: The 12 members are divided into the subgroups EXO-K and EXO-M, who sing in Korean and Mandarin, respectively. They plan to tour their respective countries before reuniting for huge cross-cultural concerts. They’re the most high-concept example of K-pop’s spreading cosmopolitanism: Members of various other K-pop groups grew up in the U.S. (as Howie Mandel discovered to his embarrassment), and 2PM’s Nichkhun is Thai-Chinese-American.
Fan rice The custom of donating rice to a favorite group or artist, who then pass it along to their chosen charities. To mark the launch of Big Bang’s 2012 world tour, fans gave 12.7 tons of the stuff. Each offering is typically decorated with colorful ribbons and messages. Indonesia’s tribute to Big Bang read like an incantation: “DON’T THINK TOO MUCH. JUST COME TO INDONESIA.”
Flower Boy Favored by young female fans, a term used to describe a male K-pop artist whose features and affect can be described as feminine. It does not necessarily refer to his sexual orientation. Akin to the androgyny of David Bowie et al that sent girls (and boys) into a sexual frenzy during the mania of ‘70s glam rock. In many ways, paternalism is still pervasive in East Asian culture, which often gives rise to the stereotype of the stoic male. Arguably, the feminized flower boy represents a man’s willingness to tap into his softer, more sensitive side. Whatever it is: boy, are they pretty!
Gangnam Posh district of Seoul populated by trust fund heirs, celebrities and the nouveau riche. 531 million people and counting have watched Psy’s cartoonish portrayal of a typical Gangnam resident (expensive cars, garish fashions … horses) in some very un-Gangnam locations (a playground, a tour bus, the subway). Even Beverly Hills can’t quite compare in its moneyed influence: The neighborhood mocked in “Gangnam Style” is an open-air vault of $84 billion in wealth—7% of South Korea’s entire GDP.
Gwiyeowo An informal term that essentially means “super cute.” (The Japawould say “kawaii.”) The term’s not limited to the world of K-pop, but suffice it to say that K-pop would not be the same without it. Often the term’s laid on the “maknae,” or “baby” member—male or female—of a group. Famous maknaes include the Wonder Girls’ Ahn Sohee, who is also known as “mandu” (dumpling), on account of her chipmunk cheeks.
Girls' Generation With distinctly cultivated personalities and a kaleidoscopic wardrobe, these nine women can’t be reduced to a single style, and they’re neither so cute as to be cloying nor so sexy as to stir a fuss. What they do have is hypnotic tunes and chorus-line dancing, plus Tiffany’s lethal eye smile. They’ve got South Korea, Japan and Bill Murray entranced. Surely the rest of the world will follow.
H.O.T. This boy band kick-started the youth-focused idol obsessions of today’s K-pop as teenagers in the ‘90s, when teen pop was exploding in America. (They disbanded for still undisclosed reasons in 2001.) Controversies around plagiarism and salty lyrics aside, the group is remembered for their synchronized energy and singles like “Candy,” “I Yah,” and the internationally-recognized “We Are The Future.”
Park Jin Young JYP has been a major force in K-pop since his early-’90s debut as a slick R&B singer. He has produced for American acts like Will Smith and Mase, but more importantly, in 1997 he created JYP Entertainment, a leading force in contemporary K-pop. With acts like the Wonder Girls and 2PM, JYP invests heavily in crossover appeal. (In 2009, the Wonder Girls hit the Billboard Hot 100, toured with the Jonas Brothers, and collaborated with Akon.) JYP was also behind Rain’s rise in K-pop.
Uhm Jung Hwa Elder stateswoman of K-pop who channels Madonna’s authority and Kylie Minogue’s knack for reinvention. From a fruitful acting career to a multimillion dollar fashion and lingerie line, she’s held the country captive since her debut as a sultry popster in the early 1990s. Her 2006 single “Come 2 Me” was a bold and wildly successful foray into electronica, inspiring women to adopt her iconic bob hairdo. Still minxy at 43, this Queen of K-pop shows no signs of relinquishing her reign.
Ministry of Culture Government agency that spends billions of won promoting K-pop. Lately, concerned that the hallyu (“Korean wave” of culture) may turn out to be a fad, it’s been focusing on longer-term infrastructure and development, including an arena-sized Seoul concert hall announced several months ago. The Ministry also controls the Korean Media Ratings Board, which can hand down fines and even jail sentences for music videos distributed without ratings. In August, the Ratings Board extended this law to YouTube, because so many videos went viral there after getting barred from South Korean TV.
Rain Initially rejected by companies for his distinctive looks, this JYP Entertainment artist parlayed a role in the 2004 Korean drama “Full House” into a hugely successful album, It’s Raining, and a tour that included two concerts at Madison Square Garden. Of course, it was parts in American movies and worldwide endorsement deals that cemented his status as a global superstar—and helped redefine himself as one of the world’s most beautiful people according to conventional standards.
Teddy Riley Riley had mixed success as one of the first American producers to focus on K-pop. He founded the rookie girl group Rania, who were explicitly positioned to break down cultural barriers between Asia and America, releasing Korean and English versions of “Dr. Feel Good”—a track whose sexual lyrics and choreography then had to be toned down. (Riley also considered adding an African-American member to the group.) After parting ways with Rania, he produced Girls’ Generation’s first international single “The Boys”—and ran afoul of Wonder Girls fans, a notable misstep given the mutual support K-pop groups like to emphasize.
Sasaeng Fans K-pop lovers whose obsessions morph into a freaky lifestyle centered around breaking into their idols’ homes, taking their clothes, leaking their schedules, stealing their personal information and generally acting stalk-y, sometimes even dropping out of school to focus on it. Stars have been assaulted, and fans hurt by overwhelmed celebrities. There are even expensive taxi services that help Sasaeng fans chase acts on the go.
Jeremy Scott This music-inspired designer, who made a name for himself cozying up with the likes of M.I.A., Bjork, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj, is also a household name in East Asia thanks to his collaborations with the likes of Big Bang, Lee Hyori and Girls’ Generation. 2NE1 may be his ultimate muse: In 2011, they launched an Adidas shoe together, and in 2012, Scott designed for the group’s international tour.
Super Junior This boy band—which debuted with a rotating lineup, locked in 13 members, then spun off numerous sub-units—has broken ground for K-pop in the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan (where they were the first Korean group with a Top 10 song), and they are cited as a key force in the international Korean wave of culture known as Hallyu. Recently, Super Junior became the first male group to surpass 40 million YouTube views on a single music video and performed at Madison Square Garden.
Tablo One-third of underground-turned-mainstream rap group Epik High who was at the center of one of K-pop’s oddest scandals. Tablo, born Daniel Armand Lee, was accused of falsifying the degree he earned from Stanford University. The charge derailed the young rapper’s career, as Tablo receded from the public eye amidst negative press, even death threats. After a yearlong investigation, the police confirmed Tablo’s academic record and charged the responsible parties with criminal defamation. Making street cred out of his extra credit, Tablo is in the midst of launching a comeback, one fueled with vitriol Eminem would envy.
Seo Taiji A godfather of modern K-pop. In his early days with key ‘90s group the Boys, Seo adroitly combined chiptune and late-80’s American hip hop, but that group met an untimely end, and he retired to the U.S. for several years. Since resurfacing in 2000, Seo has indulged his love of nu metal and alternative rock, and is saluted as a “president” of the culture.
Trainees South Korea’s famous entertainment agencies harvest these talented children through auditions, scouts and from television, putting them through training programs that range from short and sweet (Yenny of Wonder Girls put in three months with JYP) to unbelievably long and grueling (Jo Kwon claims to have devoted “2,567 days” to training with the same company) in order to best set them up for their all-important debuts. Little’s known about the exact process (trainees are forbidden from talking about it), but reports say the chosen spend 12 or more hours a day on schoolwork, singing and dancing rehearsals, and training beyond music. And of course, not everyone makes the cut.
Uncle Fans Term, often used derogatorily, referring to older male fans of the youthful, female-led K-pop genre. Derived from the word “ahjussi,” which loosely translates as an elder male family friend who is affectionately called “uncle.” Obsessive male stans over 30 are typically relegated to the “uncle fan” subgroup, one that carries with it, deserved or not, a strong whiff of “To Catch a Predator”-esque sexual perversity.
YG Entertainment Founded in 1996 by former Boys member Yang Hyun-suk, YG dominates R&B- and hip hop-influenced K-pop. Big Bang, 2NE1, Tablo, Se7en, and none other than PSY himself owe it all to this label. YG’s idols are held to the same sanitary standards as any in Korea, but they’ve got a hip hop swagger all the same, with Euro-dance beats kicking in the populist appeal.
Illustrations by Shannon O'Neill/Popdust