K-pop is old enough for us to recognize that it has a bonafide history, and the way we divide up that history affects the way we see K-pop.
Some scholars place K-pop within a larger history of Korean popular music. In the article “Mapping K-pop Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange,” Keith Howard begins a theorization of the K-pop music industry with an overview that begins in Korea’s colonial period. Similarly, John Lie contextualizes the exploration of K-pop within the development of music stretching back to the Choson era. These moves provide some legitimacy to K-pop based on its proximity to what some may view as more substantial forms of culture found earlier in Korea’s history.
However, K-pop is a distinct mode of Korean popular music, distinct in its production, sound and global reach. Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim argue that “Despite the Western influences that have morphed Korean popular music into an expression unrecognizable from the standpoint of traditional music, K-pop has undeniably clear origins.” In addition, media have recognized that K-pop has gone through different phases throughout its almost 30-year (and counting) run. Their attempts to periodize K-pop suggests that it is worthy of a history of its own. At the same time, such attempts are also largely defined by “idol” groups, which skews our understanding of K-pop’s past when it fails to include other genres.
Nearly everyone agrees on first-generation K-pop, beginning with the debut of Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992 and ending in 2002 with the disbandment of several of the first K-pop groups. Both a staff reporter for KPopStarz and TAKE-KR list Seo Taiji, H.O.T, Turbo, Sechs Kies, g.o.d. and Fly to the Sky as part of first-generation. TAKE-KR adds Shinhwa and KPoPStarz includes BoA. At the same time, both publications overlook several genres within early K-pop, including Korean hip-hop acts like 1TYM, R&B groups like 4MEN, bands such as Jaurim and Nell and solo artists like Park Hyo Shin, Wheesung and Rain. Such lists tend to be “idol”-centric, but in fact, there is much overlap and influence among these artists under the large K-pop umbrella.
There remains a level of consensus for second-generation K-pop, which runs from 2003 to 2009. Articles from KPopStarz and TAKE-KR both list TVXQ, BigBang, SS501, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, 2NE1, BEAST, f(x), UKISS, 2AM, 2PM as part of second-generation K-pop. KPopStarz includes Epik High and several girl groups, including TARA, KARA, After School, 4Minute, Brown Eyed Girls and Secret. TAKE-KR includes MBLAQ and the bands FT. Island and CN Blue. Second-generation K-pop did produce a different variety of “idol” groups. It also continued to produce solo artists, such as Lee Hyori, Kim Tae Woo and Se7en, as well as several significant hip-hop groups, including Dynamic Duo, Supreme Team and Mighty Mouth.
There is much dissent for subsequent generations of K-pop. TAKE-KR identifies two more generations: EXP Generation (2010-2014), which includes BTS, EXO, Miss A, GOT7, Red Velvet and Mamamoo, and the XFMR Generation (2015-present), which includes Day6, Ikon, Seventeen, Twice and BlackPink. KPopStarz counts EXO, BlackPink, BTS, GOT7, Red Velvet, Ikon and Winner as part of a third generation that runs from 2011-2018. Again, the periodization does not include other genres.
Why does it matter? It matters because how we talk about K-pop shapes the perception of K-pop. As a mode of popular music, K-pop already suffers from the perception that it is trendy, faddish and disposable. Despite many predictions of its demise, not only has K-pop remained, it has developed over time. When the media talks about K-pop, it tends to focus on the popular “idol” groups of the moment, rather than putting those groups in the context of K-pop history or putting them in relation to other contemporary groups in different genres. We can only understand K-pop if we contextualize it within a comprehensive history. That history does not have to go back to the beginning of recorded music or popular music in Korea in order to recognize that K-pop has a legitimate trajectory of development.
Howard, Keith. “Mapping K-pop’s Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange.” Korea Observer 45.3 (2014): 389-414.
Lie, John. “What is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity.” Korea Observer 43.3 (2012): 339-363.
Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010).” East Asia 2013,DOI 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.
Staff Reporter. “Generations of K-pop.” KPopStarz. 14 Jun 2019. https://www.kpopstarz.com/articles/289260/20190614/generations-of-kpop.htm (4 Feb 2020).
“TAKE-KR K-pop Generations Chart.” TAKE-KR. 4 May 2019. https://www.take-kr.com/take-kr-magazines-k-pop-generations-chart/ (4 Feb 2020).
K-pop Was Not Born Last Night by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.