Essential K-pop Boy Bands by Donnia Harrington
Last week, South Korean boy group BTS (also known as Bangtan Boys) performed on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, a high energy and animated performance that more than justified the endless chants and applause from the audience of fans. While there have been some K-pop groups that have scratched the surface of Western entertainment, BTS is the group who has achieved the most, performing and winning awards at shows such as the Billboard Music Awards (the first Korean group to do so) and embarking on a sold-out World tour.
What is it about K-pop that’s so captivating? Good music, striking choreography, and charismatic members are good places to start. There are many factors but the fans really propel and support their favorite groups through thick and thin. BTS is only one of many K-pop groups that have a devoted fanbase, and the groups before them have helped to pave the way for their well-deserved Western success.
For the sake of time, we’ll focus on five boy groups (BTS included) who have left a significant impact on the music industry to serve as a quick but effective introduction into the world of Korean pop.
BTS (Bangtan Boys)
With their constant sold-out shows and record-breaking albums, BTS is taking over (or has already taken over) the world. Their latest two albums, Love Yourself: Tear and Love Yourself: Answer both debuted at the top of the US Billboard 200, making them the first K-pop group to ever reach number one on the chart and the highest charting Asian act to date. Even before their Western takeover, they were highly successful since their 2013 debut, winning Best New Artist at several Korean-based music awards shows.
Like their performance on The Tonight Show, their dance choreography is always top-notch and syncs perfectly while they sing. One of their most popular music videos is “Dope,” which is known for showcasing their tremendous talent in combining dance with pop and hip-hop themed tunes.
The seven-member group has seemingly been on top of the game since the beginning and they’re not going away anytime soon. Just last year, Guinness World Records announced that the group earned a spot in their 2018 edition for “having the world’s most Twitter engagements for a music group.” That isn’t hard to believe when any mention of BTS on Twitter from official pages such as Billboard or Rolling Stone gains well over 50,000 retweets. On their Twitter page, which has over 16 million followers, they get on average 200,000 retweets.
And if you didn’t think their influence was strong enough, they recently spoke at the UN General Assembly on matters impacting youth. South Korean president Moon Jae-in congratulated them—one of many congratulations Jae-in has given the group over the years.
Check out their latest album, Love Yourself: Answer, below:
BIGBANG is often cited for paving the way for not only BTS, but all current K-pop groups when it comes to exposure and mainstream success. A smaller group with five members, BIGBANG has been around for over a decade and, throughout their career, they’ve released eight albums, experimented with a variety of genres and even have a documentary film that centers on their 2015 world tour, which eventually became the most attended tour headlined by a Korean group in history.
“Fantastic Baby” is the song that propelled the group to mainstream recognition, a mostly EDM-inspired track that shows how creative and catchy they can get when they combine pop, rap and electronica. The song was featured in Glee and was also included in the trailer for Pitch Perfect 2. When describing the song’s lasting influence, Billboard stated that “‘Fantastic Baby’ was the first song to cross international boundaries with its then-groundbreaking EDM style” and that it “took K-Pop to a whole new level.”
BIGBANG has remained a consistent force in the music industry, even when they’re not together: in accordance to South Korea’s mandatory military service requirement, all men between the ages of 18 and 35 must enlist in the military for two years. Since 2017, each member of the group has started their service and they’re all actively on duty but as a farewell gift to the fans, they released the single “Flower Road” in March 2018. The song topped all of South Korea’s domestic music charts within two hours of its release and was the fastest song by a Korean artist to reach one million copies sold in QQ Music, China’s largest music streaming platform. “Flower Road” also topped Billboard’s World Digital Songs in less than a week.
It’ll be a few years before the group is able to reunite to make new music, but from the chart-topping success of their farewell song, they don’t have to worry.
Check out their 2017 album, Made, below:
While BIGBANG has been labeled the “Kings of K-Pop,” SHINee are known as the “Princes of K-Pop.” Like most boy groups, their sound spans a wide range of genres, but they’re known for their contemporary R&B sound. Each singer has their own distinct voice, which has earned the group the reputation of being one of the best live vocal groups in K-pop. Outside of their diverse range of music, they’ve become fashion icons, their influence called the “SHINee Trend” among students and young adults.
1 of 1 is probably their most innovative project to date. The album was an homage to 90s themed-music that served as a modern take on retro music. Like the fashion icons they are, they took their public appearances when promoting the album to the next level with bold primary colors to match the aesthetic of their new sound. The music video for “1 of 1” shows how dedicated to the craft the group is to presenting a faithful homage and their live performance of the song only amplifies their status as one of the most powerful voices in the Korean music industry.
Originally a five-member group, SHINee lost a member when lead singer Jonghyun committed suicide in December 2017. His death shocked the World, and served as a painful reminder of how the topic of mental health remains a taboo subject in South Korea, therefore many with depression suffer alone. Since his death, Jonghyun’s family started a charity foundation in his name to help struggling artists and SHINee released a new album in September 2018, The Story of Light Epilogue – The 6th Album.
Their single “Our Page” was dedicated to Jonghyun, with the lyrics—written by all four members—focusing on honoring him and his impact in their lives. “The beautiful words you left behind/They become a poem, a song,” and “Voices fly to the place where you are/We know it will reach you” are only a few of the lyrics that they use to craft a letter of appreciation for their late friend.
Check out their latest album, The Story of Light Epilogue – The 6th Album, below:
EXO is a nine-person group consisting of both South Korean and Chinese members. Like every group listed before, they combine a variety of genres for a creative mash up of music but because of the number of Chinese members in the group, they release and perform music in both Korean and Mandarin.
Each of their albums and extended plays get a Korean and Chinese version and they almost always debut alongside each other—for example Ex’Act, their third studio album, took the first two spots on the Gaon Album Chart (think South Korea’s Billboard 200), with the Korean version ranking number one while the Chinese version was number two. The song that reached significant mainstream attention from Ex’Act is “Monster,” the vaporwave/R&B-inspired song became their first number one on the Billboard World Digital Charts and the music video became their first to reach over 200 million views on YouTube.
EXO also has the distinction of splitting their group into three subgroups—EXO CBX, EXO-K and EXO-M, a trend that has increased since the inception of theirs. EXO CBX was their first official subgroup and EXO-K and EXO-M were created for Korean and Mandarin-language performances. Their single “Overdose” is a great example of how the group is able to still deliver a catchy and effective performance with the same lyrics, only in a different language.
EXO originally debuted with 12 members, but three left due to conflict with their company, SM Entertainment. Each of the former members—Luhan, Kris and Tao—sued SM for issues with their contract but this hasn’t stopped the remaining nine. Just this year, EXO performed at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang as “representatives of K-pop.” Their performance received widespread recognition and for their achievements, they were each awarded with a commemorative medal.
Check out their latest album, COUNTDOWN, below:
Got7 is the youngest group on this list, the seven-member band debuted in 2014 with their EP Got It? which reached number one on Billboard’s World Albums Chart. Every group dances and follows a practiced choreography, but Got7 has gained attention for incorporating martial arts tricking—an unlikely combination of backflips and breakdancing—into their performances.
Watching martial arts tricking in a music video is one thing, but seeing it live is another experience entirely and shows the level of physical skill that goes into doing backflips while performing a song. While the move has become a known trademark for the group, it’s still amazing to see alongside their live shows.
Most recently, Got7 has released their third album called Present: You this month. Their first single, “Lullaby,” has four versions in Korean, English, Chinese and Spanish—a rare first for the latter. Present: You topped the Gaon Album Chart and debuted at number three for Billboard’s World Albums Chart. This isn’t the first time that the group has ventured into different languages for their songs; when they first debuted, they signed with Sony Music Entertainment Japan to release their debut Japanese single “Around the World.”
With the huge success of BTS and further recognition of Korean pop music, it’ll be interesting to see if Got7’s newest album receives interest from curious eyes looking to discover what it is that makes K-pop so fascinating.
Check out their latest album, Present: You, below:
Donnia Harrington has been writing critically about film for over three years. Her work has been published on FlickSided, Audiences Everywhere and ComicBook Debate. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys foreign cinema, female-centered video games, Korean music and Scandinavian crime novels. Check out some of her other contributions to soulhead.