Words by Blanca Méndez
The landscape of K-pop is defined by rosters of artists long enough to make your head spin and new ones debuting daily, not to mention fans dedicated enough to put Beliebers to shame. It can be pretty a intimidating world to enter. What with distinguishing between Girls’ Generation and Girl’s Day and 2AM and 2PM and, on top of that, a pretty steep language barrier for anyone who don’t speak Korean, knowing where to start might be the hardest part.
The first thing you should know: K-pop is not a genre, so comparing the smooth ballads of 2AM to the slick mix of hip-hop and R&B of 2PM, would be a mistake. K-pop spans genres to include everything from hip-hop and R&B to disco and swing and is just as much about the music as it is about the fashion and choreography. It’s a whole package, an audiovisual experience. But don’t be overwhelmed.
Here are some of the coolest people from across the spectrum of K-pop to point you in the right direction. It’s addictive so don’t be surprised if your singing and rapping along in Korean before the end of this list.
Known for their onomatopoeic songs and killer choreography, the ladies of f(x) have established themselves as the best of the best in the dance-pop arena of K-pop. Their recently released album, Pink Tape, a collection of songs about first loves which features a lead single comparing first love to wisdom teeth, hit #1 on the Billboard World Albums chart. The group recently performed some of the songs at KCON in Los Angeles, and earlier this year were the first K-pop group to perform at SXSW. Individually, they keep busy, too. Krystal currently stars in the SBS drama, Heirs, alongside k-drama favorites Lee Min Ho and Park Shin Hye, Luna played Gabriella in the Korean stage production of High School Musical this summer, Sulli and Victoria both acted in dramas last year (Sulli in SBS’s To the Beautiful You and Victoria in the Taiwanese drama When Love Walked In), and Amber hosts the variety program Show Champion with T-ara’s Eunjung.
They just debuted this year, but rookie group Ladies’ Code has already made a name for themselves with their two mini albums Code#01 Bad Girl and Code#02 Pretty Pretty. Leader Ashley, who gained pre-Ladies’ Code internet fame with dance covers on YouTube, is one of the most captivating and charismatic k-pop group leaders in recent memory and standout vocalist Sojung, who competed on The Voice Korea, has impressive range and powerful delivery. Aside from having some of the best voices in the game, Ladies’ Code also has some of the coolest looking videos. From their ’50s-inspired “Bad Girl” debut to the ultra creepy “Hate You” and the vibrant and playful “Pretty Pretty,” the girls are standing out in all the right ways. Plus, their latest, “Pretty Pretty” isn’t just nice to look at, with lyrics like “my face is sexy and my personality is cool too,” it’s a self-esteem jam great for anyone in need of a confidence boost.
Though the group formed last year, it wasn’t until this year that Crayon Pop really hit their stride. Their summer hit “Bar Bar Bar,” a refreshing punk cheerleader chant to cheer on the masses (not just the football team), might be the catchiest song of the year. The accompanying video shows the group in a cross between cheerleader and drum major uniforms doing peppy choreography in a carnival setting. It’s Crayon Pop’s energizing music and ability to get silly (and sometimes downright weird) that makes them so charming and sets them apart from other groups.
Seven-member hip-hop idol group Bangtan Boys (or BTS) debuted this summer and they are definitely ones to watch. In the footsteps of groups like B.A.P and Block B, BTS steers darker, more aggressive than most boy bands. “N.O” is the impressive first single from the group’s debut album O!RUL8,2? The angry and menacing track speaks out against the pressures to live up to others’ (particularly adults’) ideas of success and encourages listeners to rebel against societal expectations to follow their own dreams. Not bad for a rookie group.
Arguably the single coolest person in K-pop (and maybe in all of music), G-Dragon’s influence cannot be denied. Since his beginnings with boy band Big Bang, it’s been clear that G-Dragon is one of a kind. Singer-rapper-songwriter-producer-dancer-even model, G-Dragon dominates every level of the industry like no other. His singing has bite, his rapping has an effortless cool, and his stage and screen presence are unmatched. Not only is he important musically, his risks with fashion have made him a style icon. Now with his latest release, Coup D’Etat, G-Dragon is poised for world domination.
K-drama fans may know him as A.N.Jell’s adorably clueless drummer, Jeremy, from the megahit You’re Beautiful, but before he was a drama dreamboat, Lee Hongki was lead singer of pop rock band F.T. Island. With the band he became known for his heartfelt vocals and edgy style. The studded headband from the “I Wish” video is now iconic and his manicured nails led to a book deal. Lee Hongki Nail Book, written with nail artist Kim Soo Jung, recently hit shelves and quickly became a bestseller. The book features designs he’s rocked in the past, including stars, skulls, and the F.T. Island logo. Fun fact: he credits f(x)’s Sulli with getting him into nail art.
Ever since signing with SM Entertainment at age 15, producer Young-hu Kim has been churning out hits for some of the biggest stars in k-pop, including Girls’ Generation, BoA, and Shinwha. His raver-at-heart’s affinity for dance music put SM ahead of the curve before the EDM wave and has helped them maintain an edge with their artists. He now lives in Los Angeles where he founded production and artist development company XP EDM and is also one half of the duo Ghostkick with L.A. DJ/producer Jovan Rangel. Even though he’s now doing his own thing, the producer still works with SM and even produced “Runaway” for SHINee’s latest album.
Dancer and choreographer Rino Nakasone learned to dance by dancing along to videos of Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and TLC. She went on to form part of Beat Freaks, the runners up of the third season of America’s Best Dance Crew and has shared the stage with artists like Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani. Now she creates choreography for k-pop groups like SHINee, f(x), and Super Junior. One of her most inspired choreographies can be seen in SHINee’s video for “Lucifer,” in which the boys of SHINee execute the swift, precise moves flawlessly.
Seo Hyun Seung
Because it is the package which most clearly depicts an artist’s concept, music videos are of the utmost importance in K-pop. Artists usually have a concept that is developed with their label (G.I.’s tomboy concept, for example) and they also have concepts for each album (like f(x)’s first loves concept for Pink Tape). These concepts tie everything together, from the music to the artists’ looks to the album art and especially the music videos. One of the most accomplished music video directors is Seo Hyun Seung, who has directed stunning and innovative videos for big names like G-Dragon and 2NE1. Perhaps his most memorable work was with Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby,” which is at nearly 85 million views on YouTube.
Kathleen Kye, Kim Jae-hyun, Park Seunggun
Responsible for dressing some of the most stylish stars in K-pop, these three designers have cornered the market on cool. Kathleen Kye’s label KYE plays with fabrics and silhouettes, Kim Jae-hyun of Lucky Chouette creates whimsical, yet wearable designs, and Park Seunggun of pushButton is bold, but sophisticated. All three designers are worn by Lee Hyori in her video for “Bad Girls.” (The yellow, black, and white faux fur coat is from pushButton’s Fall 2013 collection, the transparent biker jacket is from KYE S/S 2013, and the yellow neoprene peplum top and matching skirt are from Lucky Chouette.) Honorable mention to label Steve J and Yoni P. While their designs are not worn by Lee Hyori in the video, Yoni P makes a cameo as the designer label-obsessed teacher.