How to Get Into K-Pop

Fascinated by the global phenomenon that is K-pop but overwhelmed by its scope? Here's what you need to know to appreciate the genre.

kpop groups, bts, twice, blackpink, txt
BTS, TOMORROW X TOGETHER, BLACKPINK, and Twice | Design by Mallory Rosten for Thrillist
BTS, TOMORROW X TOGETHER, BLACKPINK, and Twice | Design by Mallory Rosten for Thrillist

On June 10, just shy of their ninth anniversary as a band, South Korean megastars BTS released the career-spanning 48-song anthology PROOF, the band's sixth No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. It's the type of massive collection more often reserved for classic-rock bands well past their prime, coasting on radio royalties and greatest-hits record sales, not a band at the peak of their popularity, as BTS is. But BTS—who, shortly after PROOF dropped, announced they'd be taking a break to focus on solo projects, losing their label HYBE $1.7 billion due to a more dire-sounding mistranslation in the announcement video—is no ordinary band.

During the COVID era alone, BTS have put out several English-language singles, including "Dynamite" and "Butter," that broke YouTube records when they dropped; they held two iterations of BANGBANGCON, a streamable pay-per-view concert that drew 2.4 million viewers at its peak; and when in-person shows started up again, their Permission to Dance On Stage tour crossed new US box-office records, commanding $33.3 million and $35.9 million, respectively, from the four-night strings of shows in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and another $32.6 million from a one-day showing of their concert movie, Permission to Dance on Stage: Seoul. But this story isn't about the giant piles of cash BTS rakes in by simply existing—it's about understanding the sheer power of K-pop as multibillion-dollar global phenomenon. It's also a little nudge to look beyond BTS, if that's all you know, and discover the multitudes of other groups working hard to make their fans worldwide squeal with glee.

That said, it's worth noting how we think and talk about K-pop, especially in the midst of the Hallyu wave. Along with Squid Game, Parasite, and other South Korean pop-culture exports that have hit it big abroad in recent years, K-pop is hardly representative of all the music being made and beloved in the country—see: trot, indie, shoegaze, literally any other genre you could think of—but it has an outsized impact on the way the West perceives Korea. By breathlessly covering K-pop, English-speaking media has flattened the country's diverse taste as "South Korea is kind of losing control over its cultural narrative," as writer Regina Kim says in her story on this very shift for NBC's Think. "...It seems that just when much of the Korean public and the Korean diaspora have moved on from K-pop due to the surfeit of idol groups (about 200 to 400 of them have debuted in the past decade, and over 50 are debuting in this year alone), the rest of the world is clamoring for it," Kim reflects.

But even within K-pop, "its elements are so diverse that there’s bound to be something for everyone," Kim writes. No wonder it's become so profoundly massive on a global scale. Still, it never fails to surprise me when a North American fan of music that extends to the nichest genres has a blind spot when it comes to K-pop, often intimidated by its scope, the business itself, the history, and the fandoms. Yeah, they've heard of BTS, because who hasn't, but what about the rest of the K-pop industry? Who should they know? Where did K-pop come from? And what the hell does an "army" have to do with it?

We're answering these questions and more for still-baffled English speakers in this K-pop starter kit, which covers the basics but is by no means comprehensive. The hope is that you come out on the other side with a more holistic understanding of K-pop and an itch to dive in for yourself. And hey, maybe one day you too will be ARMY.

How K-pop went global

To understand how K-pop became a musical force (and because the American education system tends to treat anything that happened in Asia as a footnote to Eurocentric lessons), we need to start with a brief history lesson. In 1997, a financial crisis sent shock waves through most of Asia, "caused by a perfect storm of bad debt, lender panic, and regional contagion," writes Euny Hong in her 2014 book The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, and in response, "the Korean government negotiated a loan of up to $57 billion from the International Monetary Fund. (They ended up using only $19.5 billion.) The day they made the loan request was called the Day of National Humility."

The timing of the financial crisis was both frustrating and opportune: In the '80s, "all of Asia had benchmarked Japan as the nation to aspire to economically," Hong writes, and Korea—dead set on besting their oppressor of more than 600 years, most recently during the Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945—had finally begun to succeed until 1997 halted their economic success "after decades of concerted effort to pull itself out of poverty." But "if it were not for the crisis, there might never have been a Korean Wave," Hong writes. "Korea made some of its best decisions in the wake of the crisis. Its information technology, pop, drama, film, and video game industries as we know them today all arose out of a last-chance, long-shot gamble to get out of this hole."

That "gamble" was a national public-relations effort to market South Korea in "quite possibly the biggest national rebranding campaign in world history," Hong argues. The president at the time, Kim Dae-jung, called on Lee TH, head of the Korean branch of the massive PR firm Edelman, to spin the crisis as an investment opportunity for the rest of Asia and other countries, resulting in the book Korea: On Course and Open for Business, which effectively opened the country's doors to the rest of the world. Afterward, Kim allotted $50 million toward a Cultural Content Office fund—which has ballooned to $1 billion today under private-sector investment managers—specifically "earmarked just for the Korean pop-culture industry; it does not include the fine arts like museums, opera or ballet," Hong writes. The short of it: The Korean federal government generously funds its creative industries (unlike the US), going as far as having entire think tanks and labs to research the slickest cutting-edge technologies for stage performances.

Also in 1997, Korea's own MTV launched, called MNET. Initially government-funded, it was "instrumental in changing the Korean public’s view of the entertainment industry," Hong writes, changing music consumption from a "song-based product into a video-based one." It made such an impression that in 2012 "a staggering 4 percent of the population of South Korea auditioned for Superstar K, Korea’s biggest televised singing competition," Hong writes. "That’s 2.08 million would-be K-pop stars competing in a single year in a country with a population of 50 million."

Right around the time such a significant number of the population auditioned for Superstar K, YouTube became an important platform for musicians everywhere, and two crucial moments happened for K-pop that would officially become the point of no return for its worldwide hold: The group Wonder Girls, fresh off a 2009 tour with the Jonas Brothers, released 2010's English-language song "Nobody," the first K-pop song to hit the Billboard Hot 100; and in 2012, Psy released "Gangnam Style," the first YouTube video to surpass 1 billion views and held the record for most-watched music video for a good five years.

Psy, née Park Jae-sang, broke big in 2012—but he was "definitely not the conquering hero Korea wanted to lead its shock-and-awe cultural invasion," Hong writes. "Korea had been priming more conventional, beautiful K-pop bands… Koreans were not expecting that the man to bring Hallyu to the western stage would be the class clown of the Korean music world, a man who intentionally showed off his sweaty, hairy armpits and potato-shaped body, who made fart jokes in his songs, and whose outfits looked as though they were picked out by a Las Vegas stage magician."

The four generations of K-pop

Of course Psy was hardly the first K-pop idol—he was just most Americans' unlikely introduction to the genre. So who were the notable acts that came before Psy, and who were the ones to follow? First, it's important to establish that K-pop groups are lumped into different generations, each operating within relatively distinct cultural shifts even if the years spanning each generation are open for debate. We are indisputably, however, in K-pop's 4th generation. With that framework in mind, let's loosely standardize these generations and their hallmark idols.

1st gen (~1990–2000): The earliest iteration, the first-generation artists are the "pioneers of the genre," says Chesca Tan, Spotify's Senior Editor of K-Pop, Philippines. Tan points to the group Seo Taeji & Boys, who debuted in 1992. "Their sound blended western-style pop with Korean lyrics, which eclipsed the slower ballads that were popular in the country at that time," she says. "Think of New Kids on the Block back in the day, in terms of swagger and flair. Because of them, a huge slew of different groups with similar sounds started emerging, giving birth to 'Idol Culture.' During the idol explosion, entertainment agencies started recruiting more young talents and continuously produced groups with the same formula—a group of attractive and charismatic members with catchy hip-hop and pop tracks you could dance to."

And so in 1996, out came the boy band H.O.T. (aka Highfive of Teenagers), considered to be the first K-pop idol group, put together by the company SM Entertainment. Around the same time, more groups would debut and become the cornerstones of first-gen K-pop: Sechs Kies, S.E.S., Fin.K.L (whose member, Lee Hyori, recently hosted a reality show streaming on Netflix, Hyori's Bed & Breakfast, where strangers come and stay at her gorgeous estate on Jeju Island), Shinhwa, Click-B, g.o.d., Chakra, and BoA.

2nd gen (~2000–2010): The idea of cultivating idols took hold in K-pop's second generation, following the 1997 financial crisis that laid the groundwork for groups to be marketed globally through international tours (see: Wonder Girls and the JoBros). "In the 2000s, K-pop started to become more commercialized and became one of the country’s most profitable industries," Tan says. "This also marked the expansion of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, across Asia and beyond. Idols started going on world tours and visiting their fans outside of Korea."

And then there was the YouTube of it all—"the platform that was crucial for the spread of the genre," Tan says. "A lot of artists in the latter part of this generation (some call them generation 2.5), used this opportunity to reach fans outside of Korea." Here is where we get Psy, as well as more of the groups Westerners might be familiar with: TVXQ, BIGBANG, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, plus SHINee, f(x), 2NE1 (who did a surprise reunion at this year's Coachella), Miss A, and others.

3rd gen (~2010–2017): "While the second generation started putting more importance on reaching their fans outside of Korea, the third generation might be the ones who mastered it," Tan says. "The use of international social media platforms"—Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc.—"became a must for these artists to reach their fans." It's in this generation that BTS debuts in 2013, and their accessibility and "the idea that they are so easy to talk to and so easy to reach," Tan says, is what helped propel them to early stardom. "At the same time, companies started to become more open to different origins and ethnicities in hopes to appeal to audiences in other markets," Tan adds. "So artists like GOT7, TWICE, EXO, and BLACKPINK highlight their Thai, Japanese, and Chinese members to reach a wider audience."

In this shift toward bridging fans and artists, there was also a more dedicated interest in developing groups' concepts. "The genre saw a huge growth in the quality of not just the songs, but also in the choreography, music videos, merch, and more," Tan says. During the third generation, we also see groups like ​​SEVENTEEN, MONSTA X, NCT (and their subunits, NCT 127, NCT DREAM, and WayV), and Wanna One debut.

4th gen (~2017–present): Full throttle into the present, the fourth-generation groups are getting "more and more creative with their choreography and storytelling, Tan says, "and more than being 'manufactured,' they're now given the liberty to write and produce their own music." Tan points to groups like Stray Kids and ATEEZ, who "take pride in having self-written songs." Beyond those two groups, we also have TOMORROW X TOGETHER, ITZY, LOONA, ENHYPHEN, Aespa, and tons more breaking out, thanks in part to platforms like TikTok that turn clips of their songs into viral sensations. "Constant presence is key," Tan says, "and having a song appear on the charts is also a very important milestone. The fans are actively looking at Spotify’s global charts, Billboard, and local Korean platforms to drive conversation and brag about their favorite artist’s achievements."

How a K-pop band gets made

All this talk about debuts and concepts and talent agencies and recruiting may sound wild to westerners when our exposure to a mainstream artist's path to celebrity sounds something like "a music exec discovered her singing in a dive bar, and the rest is history." For as infamously grueling as the K-pop trainee system can be, at least it's more transparent than the pop-star factory of America, which obfuscates truths about a singer already having a foot in the door because of a famous family member or years of intensive behind-the-scenes work in favor of simpler narratives about having fantastic luck. "The bands are prefabricated and treated like a consumer product right from the beginning," Hong writes. "Music producers create a product design for the band they want, right down to the precise look, sound, and marketing campaign, before they even audition members."

Sure, there are plenty of stories about how an idol ended up being recruited that are regurgitated in TikTok videos or online roundups—for example, BTS' V accompanied his friend to an audition without the intention of trying out and got recruited instead; NCT's Taeyong went to an audition because the company bought him toast. But the very basics for how a K-pop group gets made looks like this: hopeful teenagers audition for companies, then one of said companies offers said teenager a contract, and the newly signed trainee will put in untold hours of singing and dancing lessons to hopefully one day debut with a group. Because simply "dancing well isn’t enough," Hong attests. "K-pop band members must dance in perfect sync, like clockwork. And in order to achieve that, you have to put the band together while they’re still young and hold off their debut until they've learned to act as one."

Who are these companies manufacturing K-pop bands? Any fan can list at least a few of the agencies, in part because each aims for a certain vibe from their artists, and because it's not unlike being a fan of tastemaking labels like Sub-Pop or Dischord Records. For K-pop groups, their companies serve as labels, managers, mentors, chaperones, teachers, and more, all to ensure their investment. "A Korean record label will spend five to seven years grooming a future K-pop star," Hong writes. The former "Big 3" of entertainment agencies—SM Entertainment (Girls’ Generation, EXO, SHINee, Red Velvet, NCT), YG Entertainment (BLACKPINK, BIG BANG, iKON, TREASURE), and JYP Entertainment (TWICE, Stray Kids, ITZY, 2PM)—has more recently expanded to the "Big 4" to make room for HYBE, formerly Big Hit, home of BTS, TOMORROW X TOGETHER, SEVENTEEN, ENHYPHEN, and their first girl group, LE SSERAFIM.

Where to dive in with K-pop

With this new, elementary understanding of K-pop, the next question is, of course: Who should you start listening to?

Nurul Husniyah, Spotify's senior editor of K-pop, Singapore & Malaysia, recognizes "how easy it is to get sucked into a black hole of content, comebacks, and merchandise, and to be completely overwhelmed by all of it. When starting your K-pop journey, focus on one aspect at a time; don’t try to consume everything at once." At the same time, Husniyah recommends the boy band SEVENTEEN, who are touring the United States in August. "Not only are there 13 members to choose your bias [or favorite member] from, they are also really synchronized and they have a diverse discography."

"Any artist from the fourth generation is a great way to start learning about K-pop," Tan adds, who also notes that the top five most-streamed K-pop artists on Spotify are BTS, BLACKPINK, TWICE, Stray Kids, and TOMORROW X TOGETHER. "From aespa, to ITZY, to ENHYPEN, fourth-generation groups also go above and beyond when it comes to performances and their stages, so you cannot help but be drawn in. They’re also very active on social media, so you can very easily get to know the artists beyond their music."

It doesn't take long after stepping into the K-pop universe to encounter each group's fandom, which is one of K-pop's "defining traits," Tan says. "Being a fan of K-pop means more than just being a fan of an artist. It’s being a part of a very active community that constantly celebrates and promotes the artists it loves, and at the same time builds long-lasting friendships between the fans." This is the reason that BTS shouts out ARMY, its official fandom name, whenever they can and dedicated an entire disc of PROOF to them. Like any intense fan community, they can be mobilized for wonderful things—in 2020, ARMY raised $1 million for Black Lives Matter—and they can turn toxic, or even dangerous, in the case of sasaengs, obsessive fans who have stalked idols.

But fan-made content about favorite groups or a funny thing their favorite member did one time is abundant. If the One Direction fanbase trailblazed online fan communities via Tumblr and Twitter posts full of GIFs, memes, and supercuts, then K-pop stans have mastered the formula. It's like Harry Styles idol worship multiplied by X, with X being the number of members in any given group. I'm getting dangerously close here to starting a K-pop glossary to explain what "bias," "bias wrecker," "maknae," "rap lines," etc., are, but for now, all you really need to know is that K-pop fans love being K-pop fans, and why wouldn't they? Idols are lab-designed to be fawned over, and with their own group TikTok accounts, live videos where they're eating and chatting with fans, troves of performance footage, music videos, behind-the-scenes training clips, and talk-show appearances, the groups leave a conspicuous internet breadcrumb trail designed to suck you in. Once you start clicking around K-pop Twitter or TikTok, the algorithm reacts; it won't be long until your feeds are populated with fancams from performances or roundups of idols' audition stories. When that happens, you've reached the event horizon: You're on the precipice of being a full-blown K-pop stan, friend. Let the Hallyu Wave sweep you away.

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Leanne Butkovic is a senior entertainment editor at Thrillist, on Twitter @leanbutk.