K-Pop 101: The 10 Most Significant K-pop Idols of the 2000s
Get to Know the Groundbreaking Acts of the Korean Wave
Koreans used to joke about being the "shrimp among whales" -- stuck between the cultural behemoths of China and Japan.
Over the past decade, however, a massive Korean (Hallyu) wave of pop music exports appears to have subsumed the whales.
Newly crowned MTV Iggy 2011 Best New Band 2NE1 represent this global music phenomenon, despite the fact that it's still relatively unknown in the West. An umbrella term for just about any musical style, hallmarks of K-pop include precision dancing, high production values, a motley array of acronyms for group names, and squeaky-clean all-boy/all-girl groups that feel like throwbacks to the late-'90s Disney NSync/Backstreet Boy factory. Only, somehow...better.
The K-pop wave is about to become a global tsunami, so let's take a quick chronological look back at the decade that brought us to this point. Specifically through the acts that charted the course. The acts that didn't just sell millions of records, they set milestones, paving the way every year for a bigger wave the next.
PLEASE NOTE: Bands are ordered chronologically from the oldest to the newest. Not ranked from least to most significant.
(Feature image: crowds outside MTV's Times Square Studios to cheer "MTV World Presents Rain -- Live in Times Square" on February 3, 2006. Photo: Getty) Let's start with
#10 g..o.d. (1999)
#10 g..o.d. (1999)
Groove Over Dose (abbreviated lowercase to g.o.d. to avoid confusion with any deity) technically debuted in 1999, but any discussion of the past decade has to begin here. The 5-member male idol group's first single, the earnestly sweet ballad "To Mother," connected little girls, teenage boys, AND their moms together in one giant "aww."
Rapidly releasing an album every year until 2005, g.o.d. preferred substance over flash, angelic singing, and heartfelt lyrics about choosing your own path, childhood sweethearts, and the trials and pleasures of ordinary life. All this in tandem with an adorably goofy charm (best seen in 2000's "Observation") and an elastic ability to swing at any genre thrown at them carried the group to multi-platinum sales. The Hallyu wave had arrived. Next #9 BoA (2000 Korean debut, 2001 Japanese debut, 2009 English language debut)
#9 BoA (2000 Korean debut, 2001 Japanese debut, 2009 English language debut)
The "Queen of K-pop." BoA (aka Beat of Angel), was the first K-pop artist to break into the insular Japanese market and has since sold over 60 million albums worldwide. She was also one of, if not the, first K-pop artists specifically designed for pan-Asian popularity -- trained to learn Japanese in preparation for her successful Japanese debut, she prefigured the "Gateway to Stardom of Asia" groups like Super Junior.
Although frequently compared to Britney Spears during her heyday (Britney's, not BoA's) for the same can't-stop-watching-her charisma, BoA is frankly a much better dancer. Watch her first English language single, 2008's "Eat You Up" for a glimpse of K-pop royalty. Next #8 Rain (2002)
#8 Rain (2002)
Time Magazine's 2006 "100 Most Influential People." People Magazine's 2007 "100 Most Beautiful People." A faux rivalry with Stephen Colbert culminating in a dance-off and the satirical comic's K-pop homage, "I'm Singing in Korean." Cast by the Wachowski Brothers in Speed Racer and Ninja Assassin. Winning an MTV Movie award for Ninja Assassin. Rain set new benchmarks in Western exposure for a K-pop star, injected K-pop into mainstream US pop consciousness like no one else before him.
Interestingly, the man whose abs can crush grapes was initially considered too odd-looking for K-pop idolatry. His heavy-lidded "tiger eyes" paved the way for the distinctive features of later K-pop stars like 2NE1.
At this point his other accomplishments threaten to overshadow his music career, but for the uninitiated, one look at "It's Raining" should be enough to convince. Sadly, Rain entered his compulsory military service in the Korean army last month.
(Did you know MTV World, MTV Iggy’s parent division, present Rain to the US audiences on February 3, 2006 with a live taping at the MTV Times Square studios? It was his first appearance in the US.)
Read more: "The Reign of Rain"
Next #7 Epik High (2003)
#7 Epik High (2003)
Proof positive that there's more to K-pop besides alluring faces and sexy dances. This hip hop trio (Tablo, Mithra, DJ Tukutz) writes, records, and produces its own tracks -- going so far as to abandon the security of a management company in favor of creating an independent record label. Their 4th album Remapping The Human Soul tackled religion, sexual crimes, and war...and promptly got the band blacklisted (if not outright banned) from most Korean channels.
Rapping in English and Korean, Epik High harkens back to the golden age of '90s backpacker hip hop -- unfussy elegant production, clever lyrics, wordplay, smooth flow, and a socially conscious outlook. Tablo's recent solo album Fever's End hit #1 on US and Canadian iTunes charts soon after its November 2011 release. This is just the beginning. As we discovered in 2009, this eloquent, original, endlessly fascinating rapper always has more to say about the world around him.
Read more: "Tablo Uncut"
Next #6 TVXQ/DBSK (2003)
#6 TVXQ/DBSK (2003)
Through all time and across all regional boundaries, certain male stars possessed the uncanny ability to foment shrieking, sobbing, mass hysteria in pre-pubescent girls. Just as Justin Beiber inspires devotion among gum-chewing tweeners from Long Island to Nebraska and beyond, the 5 members of TVXQ (known as Dongbangshinki in Korean) are worshipped by the Cassiopeias --the Guinness record setting largest official fan club in the world.
Dubbed "Kings of the Hallyu Wave" by the press, TVXQ surged from one chart-topper to the next as countries succumbed before their tidal charm. Then, tragedy struck. In 2009, 3 members (Jaejoong, Yoochun and Junsu) filed an injunction against their Korean agency, SM Entertainment, contesting the validity of their contracts. The agency's stock fell 10% when the courts granted the injunction. While the legal battle still rages (12,000 members of the fan club independently sued the agency!) the 3 litigants formed the JYJ and the 2 remaning members, Yunho and Changmin, regrouped as a duo to release the foot-stomping pop gem "Keep Your Head Down" earlier this year.
Whether you choose to follow the drama with a bucket of popcorn or dance blissfully around your bedroom to the music, it's win-win either way with TVXQ.
Next #5 Big Bang (2006, comeback 2011)
#5 Big Bang (2006, comeback 2011)
A slim teenager, short hair scraped into a top knot, runs frantically down narrow labyrinthian alleyways to a pounding percussive rhythm of korean drums and possibly even South Asian tabla. He flattens against a wall to catch his breath. He turns his head. A gun cocks off-screen. "Big Bang" -- the words freeze on-screen to the sound of a gunshot.
(That's just the opening 20 seconds of "Lies," off the group's debut EP Always.)
It doesn't take much to see why Big Bang is so enormously popular among K-pop fans. Combine frontman G-Dragon's brash bad boy style with lead vocalist Taeyang and underground rapper T.O.P. Add two rubber-limbed dancers, Daesung and Seungri. You don't even need to shake it. Since 2006 Big Bang's set trends from dance moves to hairstyles, effortlessly trading hip hop cornrows for preppy-punk faux hawks without losing an ounce of insouciant charm.
The quintet took 2 years off to pursue solo music and acting projects, and returned in 2011 with the EP Tonight, which promptly racked up over $6 million sales in less than a week. They brought their comeback year to a close by nabbing the 2011 MTV Europe Music Award for "Best Worldwide Act." Yes, they're back with a bullet.
Next #4 Wonder Girls (2007)
#4 Wonder Girls (2007)
Sporting retro chic outfits, sing-along harmonies, and an easy, sunny likeability, this five-member all-girl group is a throwback to the golden age of '60s Motown girl groups like the Ronettes or the Crystals. Down to their very own Phil Spector in the form of producer/manager/singer-songwriter Jin-Young Park (aka the JYP of JYP Entertainment).
By 2009, the Wonder Girls bore the heavy expectation of being the first kpop group to properly crossover into the mainstream upon their slender shoulders. Riding the stuttering chorus of "Tell Me" and infectious hand claps of "Nobody," they opened for the Jonas Brothers on the US (not Asian!) leg of a world tour and even received powerhouse gossip blogger Perez Hilton's sweaty stamp of approval.
Unfortunately, it was all a little too soon. Mainstream America ignored them, and the K-pop world backlash when they didn't make it was crushing and not a little mean.
In late 2011, the Wonder Girls returned with a lineup change and a teaser video for theWonder World album showcasing a grittier new look and a bass-heavy, distorted synth sound. Thankfully, the teaser was a bit deceptive. Songs like "Be My Baby" may show the girls in black and white and all grown up, but the finger-snap melodies remain.
See more: Wonder Girls
Next #3 Girls Generation/SNSD (2007)
#3 Girls Generation/SNSD (2007)
Apparently 2007 was a banner year for girl groups since it spawned both the Wonder Girls and Girls Generation. While the former is significant for leading the overground Hallyu vanguard, the latter (known as So Nyeo Shi Dae in Korean, abbreviated to SNSD) created a new business template for K-pop groups to come by saturating all media.
Boasting nine squeaky clean members in varying shades of adorable, Girl's Generation was introduced to the K-pop world into a series of carefully plotted and well-timed moves: a documentary on the girls' pre-debut creation, singles that the girls rehearsed in the documentary, spin-off projects, reality shows, acting gigs, photobooks, philanthropy...this hydra-headed idol group is inescapable, least of all on music charts where they perch at #1 with every new track.
Just how big is SNSD? They recently signed to Interscope Records, and Michael Jackson's legendary producer Teddy Riley wrote, composed, and arranged their latest single "The Boys." At this rate, expect to see their twinkling faces on cereal boxes by 2012. Next #2 2NE1 (2009)
#2 2NE1 (2009)
Rocking outlandish wigs and a brash attitude in songs like "I Am the Best" and "Ugly," 2NE1 revolutionized the image of female idols, and by 2011 rode atop the Hallyu wave all the way to the title of MTV Iggy's Best New Band in World. CL, Minzy, Bom, and Dara are known as the fiercest ladies of K-pop for a reason. And we've been counting those reasons for so long, explanations seem superfluous at this point. Dive into an article on 2NE1, watch their electrifying music videos, and meet their superfans.
No matter what you do, one fact is inescapable: 2NE1 is the promise of K-pop crossover made flesh, the tsunami about to shatter the pop culture landscape as we know it.
See more: 2NE1
Next #1 miss A (2010)
#1 miss A (2010)
While 2NE1 fans would happily closeout the decade at 2009, one last group squeezed into this list. miss A, another fearsome foursome, slammed K-pop fans upside the head with the aggressively tough (and titillating, if we're being honest) "Bad Girl Good Girl" debut track. They may not be as out-there creative as 2NE1 with their softer, more melodious sound, but miss A won comparisons to older and more experienced groups right off the bat. Half Chinese (Fei and Jia) and half Korean (Min and Suzy), miss A already established a beachhead in the Chinese market, and with songs like "Breathe" and "Good Bye Baby" showcasing the girls' range, they've got the potential to follow 2NE1's global appeal.
Go behind the K-pop scenes in K-pop Uncovered, MTV Iggy's 2009 special report. More Lists