clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A beginner’s guide to K-pop

Why you should be listening — and watching and dancing — to the vast, immersive landscape of Korean pop music.

Lisa and Rosé of Blackpink perform at Coachella in 2019.
Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Are your playlists getting a little stale? Looking for an excuse to expand your musical horizon in a new direction? If so, why not consider adding K-pop to your entertainment diet?

It’s a good idea, not only because K-pop is a bottomless abyss of catchy, fun music, but because there’s so many different types of media out there beyond just the songs themselves that you’ll likely never run out of content to consume.

If you’re thinking of getting into K-pop, there are a few things you’ll want to be aware — and wary — of. Many newcomers to K-pop have basic questions, like what makes K-pop so special? What’s an idol? What’s a fancam? And why should I care about all that dancing?

We have answers and insight, so let us aid your entry into the fantastic world of K-pop. We’ve also created a special 100-song playlist to introduce you to the K-pop essentials, the legends, and a few of our personal faves.

What is K-pop?

K-pop is short for Korean pop music, whether the music is part of Korea’s vast industrial entertainment complex, indie music, or anything in between.

The genre phenomenon as we most commonly recognize it — elaborate footwork, bold visuals, hummable hooks — began in 1992 with a single groundbreaking performance. That’s when the band Seo Taiji and Boys performed their hip-hop number “I Know” on a competitive talent show. The band didn’t win the competition that night — in fact, they finished last — but the song attracted a devoted group of listeners excited by the song’s unique blend of Western hip-hop with less intense traditional Korean pop. “I Know” topped the Korean music charts for 17 weeks and paved the way for the broader fusion of modern American pop music with traditional Korean pop music.

Seo Taiji’s sudden popularity set off the modern Korean pop industry’s three distinct historical eras, or “generations.” The first generation begins with Seo Taiji and other innovative bands, as well as the rise of Korean music studios and early idol groups in the late ’90s. (H.O.T. was one of those popular early groups, debuting their first single in 1996.)

First-generation K-pop artists were largely still working out the genre’s distinctive style, but from the beginning, their music contained a strong emphasis on catchy hooks and intense group dance performances.

The rise of idol groups, in particular, was a crucial step toward building modern K-Pop. Idol groups are built by Korean music studios, and consist of girl groups and boy groups — usually between four and nine members, though some groups can be even larger. Most groups have vocalists as well as rappers, and most non-ballad singles contain at least one rap break. Songs are usually engineered in studios and often feature seamless vocals and irrepressible earworm hooks, while K-pop idol group videos feature dazzling visuals and eye-catching video concepts.

The second generation was a crucial time for K-pop because it saw the first wave of true international recognition for artists and idol groups. Second-generation idol groups like Super Junior, DBSK, Wonder Girls, Brown Eyed Girls, Big Bang, Miss A, 2NE1, Girls Generation, f(X), T-ARA, Kara, Sistar, and Shinee all helped spread K-pop’s popularity worldwide throughout the early and mid-2000s, and all are still hugely influential today.

K-Pop’s newfound popularity in the US produced several memorable mainstream moments, like Stephen Colbert battling it out with solo artist Rain in 2007, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” breaking YouTube view count records in 2012, and Glee’s K-pop episode that same year.

The third generation of K-pop kicked off shortly thereafter, around 2013. The ongoing mainstreaming and globalization of K-pop is now led by hitmakers like BTS, Blackpink, Red Velvet, Twice, and Exo. These bands and others have all worked with a greater fusion of musical genres and styles beyond the usual “pop song with rap break” formula. It’s not unusual these days to see third-gen groups do world tours with US legs, and BTS alone has pushed many boundaries in its pursuit of mainstream US success, like its performances on Saturday Night Live, at Grand Central Station, and New Year’s Eve in Times Square. (The band is also planning a special livestreamed quarantine performance in June, which should be a unique experience.)

Like all great pop music, K-pop transcends language barriers. K-pop artists frequently release songs in multiple languages, including Japanese, Chinese, and English, and lyrics often feature snatches of English and other languages. And because the musical themes are so catchy, non-Korean speakers find songs easy to sing or hum along to, even if they don’t know the words.

Modern K-pop is, at its heart, just like every other form of modern pop music. It includes a wide variety of artists performing a vast variety of musical styles, subgenres, and influences — everything from folk and punk to hip-hop and traditional Korean music. Korean pop artists range from indie musicians to adorable one-off duets between studio artists, to stirring experimental art like Lim Kim’s “Yellow”:

However, while “K-pop” is an easy shorthand for “Korean pop music,” what most people in the US think of as “Korean pop music” is the specific sub-mode of idol pop, which has become the most popular form of exported Korean music. From here on in, when we use “K-pop,” we’re going to be talking mostly about Korean idol groups, their music, and their surrounding complex, grueling studio cultures.

What’s an idol and how is an idol group unique?

The closest US equivalent to the Korean idol is probably the idea of “the Disney kid.” Megastars like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Selena Gomez all grew up appearing on Disney Channel productions while Disney groomed them to break out into a much bigger music scene. In Korea, this type of star-grooming system is spread across the entire industry, and such stars are known as idols.

When they’re usually still children and pre-teens, singers, dancers, and rappers audition for Korean music studios to become trainees. If a music studio selects a talented performer to be a trainee for a professional group, they will spend years studying singing, dancing, rapping, and acting. They’ll learn how to perform onstage, handle live events, and become a carefully polished celebrity — all for the sole purpose of joining an idol group.

When combined with the heavy social pressure of Korean life, idol culture can be mentally grueling for the idols themselves. The industry is notoriously exploitative, and studio life is grueling to the point that it can easily cross over to abusive; performers are regularly signed to long-term, intensely strict contracts, which used to be known as “slave contracts.” And while these aspects of the industry have dramatically improved in recent years, other ongoing issues include the exploitation and harassment of women, racist cultural appropriation, and the continuing fallout from a recent widespread scandal involving drug abuse, sexual violence, and sexual assault by several idol group members, including Big Bang’s Seungri.

But the genre’s third generation has also seen the industry rapidly changing and progressing for the better. Recent years have seen black members joining K-pop groups, as well as the debut of South Korea’s first openly gay idol. Some groups, like KARD, are — gasp! — even co-ed.

Group roles

Just as there are divisions between idol group eras, there are divisions within idol groups. Often idol groups can seem dauntingly large, with some groups having more than 20 members. But their size makes sense when you consider just how much activity a band has to do, both onstage and off. Larger groups can more easily divide the labor of singing and dancing among themselves, and often bands will be broken into sub-groups, with different subunits performing for different audiences. Exo, for example, consists of two subunits: one that performs and sings primarily in Korean, and one that performs and sings primarily in Chinese.

Group roles can be nebulous; they can shift over time or involve multiple people, and some groups eschew individuated roles altogether. But each role a member plays helps a group shape its identity, and knowing what each member’s main responsibility is can help you understand how a group functions and what members’ relationships are to each other. Knowing things like who the assigned rap, vocal, and dance line members are can also help you follow videos more easily. More on that in a moment.

Below are the roles you’ll start to recognize in K-pop groups:

The leader: This member is considered the primary mentor for the other band members, as well as the de facto spokesperson for the group in media appearances and interviews. Because of the importance that seniority and experience play in Korean culture, the leader is usually one of the oldest members.

The “visual:” The visual is considered one of the most attractive group members. Sometimes instead of having one visual, a band will have a “visual line,” though fans might debate who the visual members actually are.

The “face”: This is a nebulous role, usually interchangeable with the leader or the visual and often changing from album to album — someone who’s charming enough to represent the group at public events and to the world at large.

The dance lines, vocal lines, and rap lines: The dance line consists of members who are usually the lead dancers whenever there’s complicated choreography afoot. The vocalists usually have the hardest or most interesting vocal parts, and the rappers get to shine in the rap breaks. Often the dance lines and vocal lines — all the members who share these roles — will perform together in a song as a mini-subset within the larger ensemble.

The maknae and hyung/unnie lines: Maknae and hyung (male) or unnie (female) refer to the most junior and senior members of a group, respectively. Junior members, or the maknae line, are often paired and spoken of together, while their senior hyungs or unnies get referred to as a group of mentors to whom they pay their respect.

Concepts, eras, debuts, and comebacks (plus: rapid hair evolutions)

Concept, or the image a band is presenting, is a huge, well, concept in K-pop. A band can have an overall aesthetic, or it could have a theme or aesthetic that changes from album to album. In some cases, it might even have both. See, for example, the undeniably aegyo, or “cute,” group Girls Generation switching from coy dolls in “Gee” to bad girls in “Run Devil Run” — remaining cute even when they’re “pretending” not to be.

Because bands are still often tied to concepts that coincide with specific albums, these various albums will often comprise different “eras” in a band’s history, with each era often reflecting a different style or aesthetic phase for the band. But as the number of K-pop bands and artists has exploded, many bands have become known more for their individual personality as a unit than for dramatically shifting between concepts. For example, Blackpink loudly markets itself as a group of empowered modern women, known in K-pop as the “girl crush” concept. This framing allows it to play with the duality indicated by its name, Blackpink — and it does, quite frequently.

(These aesthetic shifts contribute to the perpetual question many new fans have about why K-pop idols change their dramatic hair colors so frequently: Their overall look and style, which is usually carefully managed by their studios, changes as part of the evolution in concept from album to album — and their hair color is a deliberately orchestrated part of that change.)

The shifting album concepts of K-pop groups often go hand in hand with their dramatic comebacks. Unlike in the US, where a band makes a comeback after many years, in Korea a band can make a dramatic “comeback” just by putting out a new album. In fact, in K-pop, every new album marks a band’s big comeback, even if it never actually went away, and fans treat every new music release as a celebratory return. The visual and aesthetic make-overs that groups undergo from album to album help foster this idea: out with the old era, in with the new.

K-pop is all about the dancing

You don’t just listen to K-pop, you watch it. Dance is probably the most important aspect of a K-pop performance. And that’s saying a lot, because as we’ve already established, K-pop is well-known for its super-catchy music, its flashy videos, and its artists’ elaborate conceptual aesthetics. The dancing is what unifies all of these elements, and K-pop idols train for years to become the best dancers they can be. Some will even spend several years training overseas with successful American choreographers and instructors before their official debuts.

Choreography is so important to K-pop that individual moments within a dance routine frequently become well-known outside of the songs they’re attached to. These are called “point dances,” and they anchor the rest of the routine and stand out as the highlight move every fan wants to perform. For example: One of the earliest and still among the best-known of these is the “arrogant dance” from Brown Eyed Girls’ 2009 hit “Abracadabra” — a simple sway with crossed arms that’s been parodied and copied countless times since.

Even broken down to its simplest components, a stylized K-pop dance move is leagues ahead of, say, the awkward bro hopping of NSYNC, which — shockingly! — is the most recent popular English-language boy band we could find that was also known for its choreography. Rather, K-pop dance tends to be a broad fusion of many dance styles, especially hip-hop, club, and jazz dance. As K-pop has become more physically and visually complex over the years, dancers have been expected to do more and more challenging choreography, and the importance of a singular dance move has dwindled in favor of the overall routine. This trend happened largely thanks to Shinee’s 2009 and 2010 singles “Ring Ding Dong” and “Lucifer” — both iconic second-gen dance performances made up of point dances that each ushered in new eras of complex K-pop choreography.

Shinee also popularized the K-pop dance practice video genre, which shows the band rehearsing their own moves from their popular music videos, breaking them down into smaller, digestible parts. These days, it’s standard practice to release a dance practice video. This is partly so fans can learn the dance and join in, but it’s also to promote the groups as hard-working, dedicated, and talented — and, crucially, relatable. They’re in the rehearsal room, sweating it out just like the rest of us. Some singles also feature a “performance video,” which is basically just the dance performance of the official music video — to further emphasize the dancing.

How to watch a K-pop dance video

We know there’s always a lot of dancing happening in any K-pop song, but what makes the dancing so special may not always be easy to parse. A friend of mine recently complained to me that BTS’s recent “kinetic manifesto” dance film for its February single, “On,” was boring because, to them, it mostly consisted of members standing around waiting to dance. I understand aspects of this complaint: This dance film for “On” (the official music video was released later) does contain quite a few moments when people walk dramatically toward the camera without actually dancing. But the video is also staged around the band’s vocal, rap, and dance lines, so the members’ placements are strategic.

Typically, how much dancing a K-pop routine has depends on how large a group is. Bands with fewer members will either be dancing the whole time or alternating solos while serving as back-up dancers for the members with solos. (Blackpink’s “Kill This Love” is a good example.) Often, groups and solo performers will also utilize back-up dancers.

Most K-pop dance routines often work around a pattern of separation/unification, keeping group members apart until a dramatic moment, when they come together to dance in unison. In the dance film of “On,” this staging also mirrors the theme of the official “On” music video, which sees a ragtag band of outsiders journeying together to a new land. The choreography is likewise a journey of thematic staging — it leads up to its chorus both visually and musically by slowly piecing together the band even as it deconstructs the divisions between their roles.

BTS tends to favor big, anthemic numbers, so this kind of big, dramatic group staging fits the band’s aesthetic. But this principle of thematic division and unification also works for smaller or very different bands and artists than the glitzy BTS. Take Chungha’s recent single “Stay Tonight.” In the song’s recently released dance video, we can see how clearly the choreography shifts along with the song’s different emotional beats. Chungha also divides her backup dancers by gender and uses the groupings to represent different elements of the dancing.

It all leads up to the great moment at 3:08 when, after inviting the camera to become part of the staging itself, she abruptly pushes it away and takes herself out of the tableau altogether, leaving only her backup dancers, finally all dancing in unison.

These two dances couldn’t be more different, but they both reflect the complexity of staging a K-pop routine, as well as the way dance underpins every other aspect of a K-pop performance, from the practical to the aesthetic.

Live performances and competition are huge parts of K-pop culture

In Korea, idol groups live or die not just by how well their albums sell but by how well they do in live performances. Idols are constantly on television. They’re frequently competing on talent shows, where they will often create special live components for performances that you don’t get elsewhere. One of my fave examples is After School’s special live-only drum line for their 2010 song “Bang:”

Fans and critics take a K-pop group’s success on live competitive television very seriously, as a way of measuring their progress and advancement as a group. It’s always a big deal when a group wins a weekly TV competition for the first time, and the song they win with usually becomes a hit. Increasingly, though, TV is evolving away from showcasing existing idol groups, as audition reality shows like Produce 101 focus instead on finding or creating new K-pop groups all on their own. Some studios form temporary groups comprised of competitors who do well on the talent shows, which release one or two singles and then disband. Other competitors have gone on to become breakout pop stars.

In Korea, industry charts, rankings, and metrics also play huge roles in measuring groups’ success. Because it’s seen as vital for groups to place well in song charts and sales charts, international K-pop fans heavily emphasize buying, streaming, playing, and promoting their idols’ music. This is a way to show support for their favorite idols, these ardent fans argue, and they’ll often blame the laziness of fellow fans if their favorite group’s album or song fails to chart well.

If that sounds intense, that’s because it is. Your level of fandom is up to you, and if casually enjoying K-pop music is where your fandom begins and ends, that’s absolutely fine — wonderful, even. But K-pop fandom can be extremely interactive, so if you want to pursue a deeper level of fannishness, there are many ways to do so with varying degrees of devotion.

Fandom and the dramatic side of K-pop

With the constant proliferation of content, media appearances, and live performances, there’s plenty of fun and entertainment to be found in K-pop fandom. Some of the most common aspects of fan culture involve the intense interactivity between idols and their fans.

Fanchants: One of the most common things you’ll notice if you watch a lot of live K-pop performances is the hordes of fans reciting chants in the background alongside the performers, in rhythmic counterpoint to the song itself. These fanchants are created and spread throughout the fanbase for a particular band, so that fans in live studio audiences and at concerts can shout them during musical intros and choruses as a show of unity and support for their idols.

Fanchants are easy to learn thanks to guides on YouTube that teach listeners which parts to recite when. The chants frequently respond to or echo the lyrics to the specific song itself, but they’re often also just things like the name of the band, or the individual names of group members. Pour one out for the “carats,” a.k.a. the fanbase for the 13-member band Seventeen, which regularly manages to squeeze the names of all 13 members into just two or three measures for its fanchants:

Fancams: This term has been getting misapplied across social media to refer to any type of fan edit of a live performance, but that’s not what a fancam is, at least in the classic sense. See, individual members of a group always have their own ride-or-die sub-fandom, and those fans want as much content about their individual favorite idol as they can get. Thus, the fancam was born. Fancams are closeups filmed by fans in the audience that focus just on a specific member or subset of members in a group. Fancams allow fans to follow their favorite idol the whole time during a performance, even if the main cameras are on a different part of the stage. That may not sound like a big deal, but fancams are a huge part of K-pop fan culture.

Stans, sasaengs, and antis: A “stan” is shorthand for a stalker fan, and it’s usually used ironically by fans as both a noun and a verb. That is, you might say “I’m an Exo stan” and also “I stan Twice.” You’ll also see “Stan Twitter” referred to in the same way that people refer to “Film Twitter,” “Book Twitter,” et al. Stans are, despite their violent namesake, mostly the good kind of obsessive fan — perhaps a little needy and obnoxious, but mostly well-behaved. A “sasaeng,” on the other hand, is much worse. In Korea, they’re often considered to be literal stalkers — the kinds of obsessed fans who’ll look up personal information about idols in order to harass them.

At the other end of the obsessive curve are “antis.” Anti-fandom, in general, is a growing problem within fan culture, as it essentially involves people who’ve made it their life’s passion to crusade against some aspect of fandom that they don’t like. But the concept of people identifying as anti-fans, or antis, originates within K-pop, where some fans identify themselves as anti-fans of idols they dislike, often leading to bitter harassment of both the idols and their fans. At their most extreme, antis have violently harassed and even attempted to kill Korean idols, but those occasions are thankfully rare. Mostly, antis content themselves by insulting their least favorite idols and groups on social media.

As all this conflict implies, there’s a lot of drama within K-pop fandom. Because the pressure for groups to chart well and display substantial progress is so high, fan communities are likewise extremely competitive with each other. Some fans will pit individual members of groups against one another, while others will campaign for their favorite group to receive better treatment from a studio if they feel the studio isn’t giving the group enough love and support. K-pop fandom on social media tends to structure itself around self-starting crusades and campaigns as fans seek new ways and methods to help their favorite idol group become the best.

That atmosphere can be daunting, but most of K-pop fandom’s causes are heartwarming and inspiring — like when thousands of fans donated their refunded concert tickets to support pandemic relief. It’s an undeniably exciting environment once you’re inside of it. And as K-pop continues to gain in popularity worldwide, the genre, along with its vibrant fandom, will undoubtedly keep growing and evolving. The music and the quality of the videos and their artistic elements likewise seem to just keep getting better. So there’s probably never been a better time to dive in and see just how fun the world of K-pop can be.

What do you say — shall we dance?

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.