History of Kpop

Disclaimer! We are by no means experts in the field of Kpop. We’re not Korean, and we’re really new to the whole scene.

But we got interested in the history of Kpop as we started to wonder where BTS’ influences came from. Also, if you branch out into other Kpop groups, you’ll see various acts labeled as being part of a specific generation – for example, BTS is sometimes called a “Third Generation” Kpop group. What does this mean?

Here are some of our summary notes if you’re a reader, not a watcher. But if you have time and are interested, we’d highly recommend these original YouTube videos from people who know a lot more about this subject than we do.

A Quick Overview

Earliest Days of Kpop – early 90s

Up until the 1980s, music in Korea was focused on folk music, ballads, and trot (sort of the lounge/country music of Korea). The arrival of the Olympics in 1988 meant that the government relaxed a lot of regulations regarding international travel and culture, and music from the outside world started to have an impact for the first time.

In 1992, Seo Taiji and Boys made their debut with the song “I Know” and a revolution started. Seo Taiji fused American-style hip-hop with catchy choruses and choreo meant to appeal to Korean audiences. They really created the whole style that we call “Kpop” today with their fusing of pop, rap, and hip hop and were instrumental to starting the Kpop movement. They were active until 1996 when they suddenly retired, saying they’d shown all they were able to show. (BTS performed a cover of their song “Come Back Home” at the 4th Muster and also performed alongside Seo Taiji at their 25th anniversary concert.)

But other music executives took notice of their popularity and ability to sweep awards shows, and founded the Kpop industry. In particular, business executive Lee Sooman founded SM Entertainment in 1991 and by 1996, had established a system of trainees, dorm-style schooling and housing, and the whole concept of the Kpop act that incorporated music training, dance training, and language training with visuals.

First Generation – mid 90s to early 2000s

The First Generation of Kpop is usually marked as starting in 1996 with the launch of hip hop group H.O.T. by SM, the first real “idol” group. SM went on to launch several other idol groups in this time period, despite the IMF Crisis of 1997 which caused a momentary setback in the pop music scene. The other two big music companies – JYP (founded by musician Park Jin-young) and YG (founded by ex-Seo Taiji and Boys member Yang Hyun-suk) – were both also launched at this time and by the year 2000 several of the iconic early Kpop acts were well established.

Big names from this era include SES, Shinwa (BTS did a famous cover of their song Perfect Man, and also covered their songs This Love and T.O.P.), Fin.kl, Sechs Kies, 1TYM, and g.o.d.

A quick side note about JYP, whose founder Park Jin-young is a musician in his own right. He’s quite a character in the Kpop industry, known for his bold outfits and overtly sexy dancing, and he still releases the odd track today and writes lots of songs for his artists. JYP and PD Bang of BigHit are old friends, and Bang worked as a producer and writer at JYP when it was first founded, before branching off to found his own company. JYP was super supportive of Bang Sihyuk at this time and even “gave” him a couple of the bands he had been working with closely at JYP as his first BigHit clients.

In the early 2000s, there was a bit of a lull in idol groups, and this period was bridged by three big solo acts. BOA was an SM artist who debuted at age 13 and since she was able to speak both Japanese and Chinese, she basically took all of Asia by storm, and continues to hold many sales and chart records for Famous Firsts. Rain was a dancer and soloist launched by JYP who had many big hits – see BTS covering his song Rainism. (Rain is still very active today and you can see him as a guest mentor on the TV show iLand that launched BTS little brother band Enhypen.) Se7en was YG’s soloist who made a big splash and dominated the Korean charts during this time.

Second Generation – mid 2000s to 2012

The Second Generation is when many big names launched their careers and is sometimes called the “golden generation.” It proved that the system started by SM in the mid-90s worked and could produce acts that ruled the charts. It also started key elements of modern day Kpop fandoms, such as light sticks and photocards.

This generation is often marked as starting in 2004 with the launch of TVXQ (Rising Sun, Mirotic, Catch Me, Balloons) by SM Entertainment, which dominated the charts in both Korea and Japan. (BTS covered the TVXQ song Something on a music show in 2014.) SM also launched famous groups like Super Junior (Sorry Sorry), Girls Generation (Kissing You, Baby Baby, Gee), Shinee (Replay, Ring Ding Ding, Don’t Call Me), and f(x)(Electric Shock) at this time, taking them up to the 2010s.

Meanwhile, YG launched the influential band Big Bang, led by rapper, composer, and producer G-Dragon. Big Bang showed that hip-hop had a strong audience in Korea, and also followed more in the Seo Taiji mold, in that the band members wrote and created their own music. Their hits include songs like Lies, Last Farewell, Haru Haru, Red Sunset, Loser, and Bang Bang Bang. YG also had the girl group 2NE1 (Fire, Lonely, I am the Best) in this era. YG also launched another key band in this era – Epik High, a hip-hop act with a unique sound and powerful, poetic lyrics that were a huge influence on young BTS, especially SUGA.

Over at JYP, girl group Wonder Girls had a big hit with Nobody, which they performed on American TV and made the Billboard top 100 chart – both firsts for a Kpop act. JYP also launched the well-known boy groups 2AM and 2PM.

Third Generation – 2012 to late 2018/early 2019

There isn’t an official line between the Second and Third Generation, but a good place to mark the beginning is 2012. By 2012, several other Kpop acts had launched – some of our faves include BtoB, VIXX, Nuest, Sistar, APink, and AOA.

Block B had also debuted in 2011, and we’d just like to a quick moment to say that their format – with leader Zico writing and producing their own hip-hop songs, similar to Epik High and Big Bang – was a clear stepping stone in the development of the BTS concept. (Block B is the act that BTS “battles” at the 2014 MAMA awards, and if you don’t know anything about them, please watch this awesome video that will definitely turn you into a stan.)

But 2012 saw a major shift in two ways. First, Gangnam Style by PSY was released and became a world-wide smash sensation. That introduced the whole idea of Kpop to the world, and while PSY was a long-time performer in Korea and not really part of the Kpop scene, it brought a lot of new international attention to Korean music.

Second, EXO debuted over at SM. EXO completely dominated awards shows in the early 2010s and their fandom was the first to really blow up as massively dedicated, organized, and motivated, especially online. EXO’s hits include songs like Monster, Growl, Love Shot, Tempo, and Call Me Baby. SM Entertainment also experimented with the concept of subunits at this time, breaking EXO into smaller groups for different projects targeted at different markets – an idea that they’ve continued to make work with follow-up group NCT. The original EXO members are still active today but mostly with solo and subunit projects as they work on completing their military service.

EXO and PSY showed that having an international audience was both possible, and required for massive, lasting success. A big difference with the Third Generation acts is that they learned to build huge international audiences by leveraging social media, and started to infiltrate English speaking countries for the first time – now, having at least one English speaking member is a must. But it also started the division between “idol” and “artist” and had some in the music industry questioning whether these groups could really be called musicians, or were simply good looking dancers and performers. Regardless, there was a sudden huge interest among teens in becoming an idol, and several reality competition shows sprung up to help sort out the flood of trainees and create new bands with a pre-built, pre-debut fan base – and also expand the trainee base to potential idols from other countries, too.

All that led up to the debut of BTS in 2013. Although they were one among many groups at the start, by the mid-2010s, they were without question the dominant group of the Third Generation, in terms of sales, international charts, and awards. In terms of style and the way the band works, you can see Seo Taiji, Epik High, Big Bang, and Block B as their major influences from previous generations – but BTS also pushed Kpop to new musical places, introducing concepts like the Bangtan Universe, the Love Yourself theme, and pushing their genre to encompass just about every kind of music out there. They worked very hard on their advanced choreo that resulted in attention-grabbing performances right from debut, especially for a hip-hop band. They also made fantastic use of social media and reality programming to showcase the members and invite fans around the globe to really bond with the boys on a personal level.

Bonus: Learn about the history of BTS and their pre-debut activities, individually and as a group, here.

The explosive growth in BTS’ fanbase worldwide created a whole new player in the music industry market – HYBE Entertainment – which is now a monolith not just in creating Kpop bands, but in developing new ways to interact with fans online, from digital concerts to live streaming platforms to online sales storefronts. BTS changed the whole Kpop industry, both musically as they had a much stronger hand in the composition and themes of their music than many other acts, and business-wise, as they learned how to expand and leverage an international market. It’s pretty safe to say that BTS is the defining act of this generation.

What other bands are rocking the Third Generation? For girl groups, there’s Blackpink (How You Like That, DuuDuDuuDu, Kill This Love, BoomBayah), Twice (Fancy, Cheer Up, The Feels), and Red Velvet (Russian Roulette, Psycho, Queendom). In boy acts, there’s NCT, Seventeen, The Boyz, GoT7, MonstaX, Day6, The Rose, and SF9. There’s also IU – a super charming and delightful soloist known as Korea’s little sister and the Nation’s Singer, with many huge hits like Eight, Celebrity, Love Poem, and more.

Fourth Generation – 2019 to 2022

The Fourth Generation refers to idols who grew up watching BTS and wanted to be just like them. These groups often have international members that have helped them build a bigger audience outside Korea than they have in Korea itself, and speaking English or other international languages is almost a must for all 4th gen band members.

A good guideline for the Fourth Generation starting point might be late 2018/early 2019. While BTS was crushing it worldwide with their Love Yourself era albums and international stadium tour, dozens of other groups were debuting and fighting to become the “next BTS.” Many 4th gen acts follow the “BTS format” which includes having their own reality show, lots of live interaction with international fans online, and introducing larger “universe” style storylines.

Defining names in Fourth Generation boy groups include TXT, Stray Kids, Ateez, Enhypen, and p1Harmony (Yeonjun of TXT often refers to himself as the “Fourth Generation IT Boy”). But the 4th gen is even more well-known for its total girl-group domination – acts like aespa, ITZY, IVE, (G)I-dle, Le Sserafim, NewJeans, and NMIXX. There’s also SuperM – another innovative idea from SM Entertainment, where one or two members from several of their biggest groups united to form one super group.

Many of the younger 4th gen bands debuted after the COVID-19 shutdown happened, and spent the first couple of years post-debut never performing for live audiences; all their first big performances were online in front of mostly empty chairs. But on the flip side, they learned to master social media, and became experts at launching a comeback exclusively online – an interesting skill that has resulted in a whole new way for Kpop acts to do business worldwide. The Fourth Generation bands showed that it’s possible to have a thriving career and a loyal, engaged fan base without ever having to leave home – and indeed, can reach more fans more effectively than ever before using digital meetings and online concerts with bigger audiences than any one stadium could hold.

Fifth Generation – 2023 to today

Recently, the Fifth Generation seems to have begun as the world of Kpop shifts again.

Things started to change in late 2022 with the shakeup in management and ownership at the biggest Kpop company, SM. Founder Lee Soomin was ousted, and his large share of the company was sold, partially to HYBE and partially to social media company Kakao. Meanwhile, HYBE itself bought Scooter Braun’s American music company, Ithaca Holdings, for $1 billion. Both companies pivoted into a more international focus, including a wider range of entertainment offerings, not just music.

Back in Korea, many more music labels were launched and the sheer number of companies exploded – not to mention international companies moving into the space, such as the Japanese music company Avex, which launched its own “Kpop” act made up of Japanese girls, XG, in 2022. In 2023, many of the older labels joined the 5th generation by launching baby versions of their most famous third gen acts, such as BabyMonster at YG stepping into Blackpink’s shoes, TWS following in the footsteps of Seventeen at Pledis, BoyNextDoor being launched by Zico of Block B at KOZ, and RIIZE coming up behind NCT at SM. Musically, fifth generation is heavier on pure pop, and hip-hop and rap have taken a back seat, at least for now. Recording in all-English is common, and many 5th gen acts don’t have the traditional roles of vocalist / rapper / dancer / visual, or even a defined leader; everyone dances and sings and looks amazing in equal parts.

Hallmarks of the 5th Generation so far include cooperative projects between smaller labels – such as the massively popular band ZEROBASEONE formed on the reality show Boys Planet; “Kpop” acts created via worldwide auditions, such as HYBE America’s Dream Academy; and a strong focus on choreo over vocals (to the point where it’s no longer unusual to see a band lip synching on music show appearances, due to the difficulty of the choreography, and title tracks are routinely less than 3 minutes long now to make a full track’s worth of intense choreo possible).

Internationally, big brands have discovered the buying power of Kpop fans. Modelling campaigns for endorsements – especially by upscale fashion brands, makeup and skin care lines, and electronics – are a given, even for the newest of bands, and 4th and 5th gen acts are being courted by large music festivals who know a Kpop headliner will pull in the numbers.

As Kpop gets more and more international, topping charts in countries worldwide and showing up in ads all over the globe, it is more accessible and more mainstream than ever. Will it lose its qualities of sincerity, passion, and a truly unique sound? Or will it pull the rest of the pop world into the Kpop sound? Time will tell!