From BTS to BLACKPINK, learn the ins and outs of South Korea's most popular music genre.
Western awareness of K-Pop music has come a long way since Gangnam Style first went viral on YouTube, but if the 2019 Grammy Awards were your first time hearing of BTS you have some catching up to do.
No worries, though! We got you covered. Allow us to take you on a journey into the musical genre that's taking over the world.
What is K-Pop?
K-Pop stands for Korean pop, a broad genre encompassing pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, and electronic music. The genre dates back to the 90s, during which similarly styled South Korean pop music was referred to as "Gayo." The movement was largely influenced by the group Seo Taiji and Boys, formed in 1992, who began experimenting with different styles and genres within their mainstream pop music. But it wouldn't be until the 2000s that the genre now known as "K-Pop" would fully come into its own.
In the same way, the songs blend many genres into one, K-Pop is a holistic experience. In spite of massive radio play, the actual songs are inseparable from their music videos, their dance numbers, and the personalities of their various group members. In K-Pop culture, fashion, choreography, and fandom are just as important as the music, so to fully understand the genre, you need to recognize its moving parts.
And what better way to do that than by checking out K-Pop's biggest group…
BTS (also known as the Bangtan Boys) is easily the most popular K-Pop group in history. While other K-Pop groups experience wild success, none can even approach the levels of BTS, especially on an international level. Their fandom is so huge that they've broken multiple records formerly held by the likes of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. They also have the most Twitter engagement in history.
In many ways, BTS is the quintessential ideal of a K-Pop boy band. They're so popular they've been called the modern-day Beatles, and as such, we can use them as a case study to understand the intricacies of the genre.
While some K-Pop stars are solo artists, most major acts are groups, usually put together by one of three major agencies – YJ Entertainment, SM Entertainment, or JYP Entertainment. These agencies are essentially all-in-one management firms for their artists, serving as record labels, talent agencies, concert producers, and event managers. Most commonly, the same agency will discover young talent, train them, group them, debut them, and foster their careers.
Competition is fierce within the K-Pop industry, and the artists who ultimately make it into major groups need to be multi-talented singers and dancers. They also need to synergize well with other group members. Of course, each member has an area of expertise.
RM (Rap Monster)
The group's leader, RM, lives up to his namesake. He's a talented rapper in his own right and was the first member of the group to release his own mixtape.
Suga also got his start in the underground rap scene and is especially well known for his rhyme speed.
J-Hope initially focused on dancing, but since joining the group, he's begun rapping and songwriting too.
Having formerly attended art school to focus on modern dance, Jimin is considered by many to be the best dancer in the group. He's also the lead vocalist, or the best singer in the group aside from the main vocalist.
Known by his fans as "Worldwide Handsome," Jin is a sub-vocalist (or supportive vocalist).
Another one of the group's sub-vocalists, V is renowned for his smooth voice.
The "Maknae," or youngest member of the group, Jungkook is the main vocalist (best vocalist) and a constant presence onstage.
Dancing is a huge part of K-Pop. The groups perform stylized dance routines in both their music videos and live performances. In fact, the dance routines are so important that groups like BTS oftentimes release "dance practice" videos so fans can watch their rehearsals.
Here's BTS's dance practice video for their hit song "IDOL."
[CHOREOGRAPHY] BTS (방탄소년단) 'IDOL' Dance Practice www.youtube.com
As you can tell, the dance routines are fast, technical, and high-energy. Unlike a lot of Western boy bands, dancing isn't a secondary or tertiary concern. To pull off routines like these, K-Pop groups like BTS need to be at the top of their physical game.
K-Pop is, above all else, an aesthetic art form. Music videos tend to be incredibly colorful and, artists are known for frequently changing their styles and outfits, allowing them to popularize new looks and fashions.
For instance, in their "Blood Sweat" music video, BTS donned fancy jackets and ascots, along with platinum blonde hair.
Then in "Fake Love," they adopted an artsy street punk vibe with lots of torn denim.
Finally, "Idol" shows an entirely fresh aesthetic with loud, bright suits and full bright hair to match.
The aesthetic choices translate throughout entire music videos, making each song look and feel incredibly distinct.
We can talk about K-Pop music all day, but there's no better way to learn about it than to experience it for yourself. At this point, you're familiar with BTS, and you've seen the dance practice and aesthetics behind "Idol." So let's see how it all comes together.
BTS (방탄소년단) 'IDOL' Official MV www.youtube.com
As we said, words can't adequately prepare you for that―all the costumes, set changes, dance sequences, and energy pulsating throughout the video. It's not just great to listen to. It's great to watch. K-Pop is a full-on sensory experience. The craziest part is that each song offers something unique.
Other Groups to Watch
As amazing as BTS is, they're not the only K-Pop band. The genre has lots of other great acts too, so let's check a few of them out.
BLACKPINK - '뚜두뚜두 (DDU-DU DDU-DU)' M/V www.youtube.com
The 4-woman girl group, BLACKPINK, is currently one of the biggest names in K-Pop. The music video for their hit song, "DDU-DU DDU-DU," provides a great example of elaborate set pieces, fashionable outfits, catchy music, and fun dance segments.
BIGBANG - FANTASTIC BABY M/V www.youtube.com
One of the most influential boy bands in K-Pop, BIGBANG's 2012 hit "FANTASTIC BABY" received unprecedented international airplay and is largely responsible for the genre's international spread. Its EDM style was considered groundbreaking at the time it came out and the hook―"Fantastic baby"―is arguably the most famous line of English in a K-Pop song.
TWICE "LIKEY" M/V www.youtube.com
On the more poppy side of K-pop, Twice's "Likey" is the pinnacle of the cutesy girl group aesthetic famous in Korea. The bright colors and high school setting do a great job appealing to the target demographic of teens and young adults. And the focus on fashion and makeup connect exceptionally well with female fans.
K-Pop has a diverse, exciting, stylish culture full of diehard fans and groundbreaking music. Now that you've been introduced, we hope you'll enjoy the multitude of great songs the genre has to offer. But even if you don't like the music, here's something everyone can appreciate.
HE'S JUST A LITTLE BUNNY UWUUUUUU
BTS's Jungkook is the most adorable human to ever live and is basically an anthropomorphic bunny rabbit. If that's not enough to make you love K-Pop, we don't know what is.
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The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.
Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.
"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."
This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.
Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality
Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.
But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?
Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?
When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.
After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.
Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.
Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.
Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.
For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.
Twitter just released their official list of the most-active music fan bases this week, and you might be surprised by who made the cut.
This is yet another big victory for Girls' Generation, who are already the most-viewed girl group on YouTube.
Besides Girls' Generation, K-pop boy band BIGBANG came in at No. 18 thanks to the efforts of their VIPs.