The Korean Wave & K-POP
Idolism and the Rise of K-POP (대중가요)
The Korean Pop explosion in Western society and contemporary music is a relatively new phenomenon, but the genre’s inception can be traced back to the Korean War. During the 50s, North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. In 1951 they burned Seoul, displacing millions of South Koreans, including Sue Kim, her sister Ai-Ja, and their cousin Mia Lee, who moved to the United States. Their exposure to American Pop helped establish themselves as The Kim Sisters.
The trio would perform soulful renditions of American Pop for GIs, earning them fame in the States. They appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show 22 times and became the first Korean singers to have a song top the Billboards .
The Kim Sisters arguably laid the foundation for contemporary K-pop superstars and Idol culture. However, it wasn’t until the late 80s and 90s, when South Korea underwent a political transformation and a new artistic movement took shape, that the K-pop we know today was born. This wave would be known as Hallyu (한류) or the Korean New Wave.
Hallyu (한류) is a Chinese term that translates to “Korean Wave.” It is a collective term for the cultural phenomenon of Korean Pop culture, encompassing everything from film, music, games, and cuisine.
During this time, the country became a melting pot of Western culture. Filmmakers like Bong-Joon Ho, Park Chan-wook, Park Kwang-su, and Jang Sun-woo shaped Korean cinema, borrowing from Western films and subverting them to fit the current political climate.
Musically, a similar process would happen as rap, jazz, electronic, hip-hop, and rock found its way into the country. South Korean artists took inspiration from these genres and created something distinctly theirs. The postmodern movement would become mainstream on April 11, 1992, when a hip-hop trio called Seo Taiji and the Boys took the stage for the first time.
They were innovators, subverting popular American music and fusing it with Korean roots, adding extensive hip-hop choreography, and ultimately becoming the first contemporary K-Pop group.
As this new wave exploded globally, three powerhouse music studios began cultivating groups that would later be known as Idols. Through auditions and years of grooming within an intense studio culture, these groups started dominating Korean music. However, there is a dark and incredibly toxic side of Idol life. Idols are generally exploited by their studio, systematically told how to dress, what songs to perform, how to eat, and forbidden to have a personal life.
It was within this environment that a visionary music producer named Bang Si-hyuk quietly began building a different kind of studio — admiring singers who could express their personalities in their music — he began to create a new wave of Idols, not groomed by big studios, but real people who were sincere and genuine. Big Hit Entertainment was born, and Bang began cultivating the bands that would become Bangtan Boys (BTS) and Tomorrow X Together (TXT).
The Rise of BTS and SUGA
Bang’s vision for BTS was not to build a boy band, but rather a crew that supported each other centered around one talented underground rapper - Kim Nam-joon (김남준), known by his stage name, RM. The mission of the group, according to RM, was “[coming] together with a common dream to write, dance, and produce music that reflects our musical backgrounds as well as our life values of acceptance, vulnerability, and being successful” .
Before their debut, BTS maintained a traditional “schoolboy” appearance (typical male K-pop Idol group standard), only to contradict this cultivated image by releasing their hard-style homage to old-school rap, single No More Dream.
This song was a rebellious rejection of Korean traditionalism, an ode to teen apathy, and a message that they would talk openly about their struggles and anxieties (a stark contrast to the polished image of Generation 1 Idols). This was just the beginning of their story, and the early days of BTS were met with eye-rolling, not an earned hip-hop image. No More Dreams was a learning moment for the band, and they needed to prove their message was genuine.
As the crew figured out how to communicate their open, blunt, and honest lyrics, they teamed up with Seo Taiji for a cover called Come Back Home. This would be the start of BTS owning their underdog persona, playing into Kim Nam-joon (김남준) and Min Yoon-gi (민윤기), also known as SUGA, or Agust D’s roots. Both were underground rappers and arguably the voices of BTS.
The song would lead into a three-album series called The Most Beautiful Moment in Life. BTS had found the formula for imbuing their musical style and personal beliefs, and this album was well-reviewed, offering a glimpse of the future for the crew. They would release I NEED U and DOPE in 2015, showcasing their personalized step away from hip-hop and towards R&B. In addition, the world was shown BTS’s in-your-face dance style.
As the years passed, BTS would release hit after hit, and their fans became known as the ARMY. They are well-organized, loyal, and helped propel the group’s record-breaking numbers. In 2019, BTS sold out four world tours, including a landmark concert at the Rose Bowl.
Overall, the band has redefined what it means to be an Idol, speaking up to leaders around the world and being a voice for change. Their music has positively impacted contemporary society, even reaching as far as the White House and Joe Biden, where SUGA and BTS addressed the issues of Asian inclusion, representation, and anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination .
SUGA has recently taken the stage for his first solo world tour - SUGA | Agust D TOUR “D-DAY,” offering his unique rapping style and message to the world.
The Newest Generation of K-POP, Tomorrow X Together
Arguably one of the world's most fascinating Korean pop groups right now, TXT is winning over hearts with their unashamedly awkward, lovesick, coming-of-age narrative. They consistently talk about friendship, love, heartbreak, and where they are in their lives, something that younger generations can latch onto.
TXT won the “Rookie Grand Slam” award at the 2019 Seoul Music Awards and got their first music show within eight days of debuting. The band has picked up so much momentum that they are headlining Lollapalooza this year!
TXT formed five years ago, and they have amassed a reputation as Gen-Z's K-pop of choice. Assembled by Big Hit Entertainment, they’ve stunned listeners with songs like Devil By The Window and Sugar Rush Ride. Tomorrow X Together, like most K-pop bands, has a nickname for their fans: they are called MOA (모아) or Moment of Alwaysness .
K-pop fans have enjoyed watching this carefree band evolve over the years, and with every world tour, we get to see their dreams come true. Experience the latest chapter when TXT Act: Sweet Mirage Live from LA comes to theaters nationwide May 28.
From its early roots to international acclaim, Korean Pop has evolved over the years, finding its way into the hearts of listeners. Experience the growth of this genre when TXT Act: Sweet Mirage Live from LA and BTS’s SUGA Agust D D-Day tour come to theaters nationwide.
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