Following the absolutely well received OH!Press Retrospective on K-pop artists seeking western validation, I thought it in proper taste to spend my Easter revisiting the subject by looking at how said validation can actually be achieved. Now, I was at loss on how to tackle this. There were many things going through my mind:
- Should I focus on marketing tactics?
- Maybe I should focus on fan and company response…
- Or maybe, I should focus on the western market itself?
These were the things that I found myself ruminating over and at some point (maybe last week), I concluded that the answer lies in point number three – or part of it. I needed to look at westerners view how Asian entertainment to see how foreign artists can adapt to the situation and make the most of the western market.
Here’s the thing, however: we already know how westerners view anything not in English. They think it’s weird. So, with that absolutely accurate generalization out of the way, it’s time to tackle the meat of the problem. If westerners think Asian entertainment is weird, how should we properly introduce them to the strange world that is K-pop?
With this in mind, I have taken it upon myself to properly introduce westerners to the behemoth that is Korean Entertainment. This retrospective of mine will stand heads and shoulders above the rest as the one-true authority on the subject at hand!
The True List of K-pop Artists You Really Need to Know About
So many western publications have released lists on which K-pop artists a new fan must listen to. There’s nothing wrong about those lists…except that they are terribly researched and seldom look at the whole picture. Here, I will try to break it down in a manner than can be easily understood.
Here, then, is an annoyingly thorough list of all the K-pop artists you must know about and why you should like them:
- The Popular Girl Groups
K-pop is very heavy with its focus on groups and bands. As such, there are literally dozens of groups that debut each year. Of those, only a handful make it big. Presently, there are five girl groups that stand above the rest. As many other articles will tell you all about their songs, I am here to show you things that you may not have known about:
Twice is the Nation’s Girl Group. Or rather, we think they are as there is another group to be mentioned later than still has the hearts of the public. Therefore, the only reason you may want to pay attention to Twice is to brag about their achievements and massive sales (there is such an abundance of achievements that it will take me two other articles to list them here). Caring about their discography is not really that important. When something goes mainstream, you don’t care for its quality; you care for its marketability. If you want to care about the quality of their music, then you must consider not becoming their fan.
Red Velvet is a good option for those wanting to pretend to care about music quality. If you find yourself lamenting about how pop music is all the same and how there is a pressing need for ‘new and unique’ groups, then this is the group to follow. Red Velvet is definitely unique: most of their songs are absolutely bizarre. It is hard to name a Red Velvet song that was universally loved from the get go. That is the key though: you will love that they are divisive. This allows you to say ‘get better taste’ with authority when someone questions your musical leanings. Do not fret, however, for Red Velvet are very well received by Korean critics. If you are an elitist and you think Twice’s music is ‘too elementary’, then Red Velvet is the perfect choice since they are Twice’s current competitor and the #2 girl group in South Korea.
Mamamoo is a good group to follow for people who want to care about talent. They are very talented singers. They’ve also got a passable rapper and their dancers are not too shabby. If Red Velvet is too pop for your tastes, then the Jazz and Retro inspired Mamamoo may tickle your fancy. They are quirky, so that’s nice. They may have scandals in the past, but who doesn’t? Besides, you won’t be following them for their morality but for their ‘sexy girl-crush’ music!
Black Pink is the best group for those who consider themselves true elitists. This is also the best group for someone wanting to listen to an artist whose music is very similar to western tastes. One of the benefits in liking Black Pink is that they are ‘hip hop’ and ‘not like other cutesy girl groups’. If you happen to already listen to K-pop but like boy groups, this is the group for you. Just be aware that they literally only have 5 songs since debuting almost two years ago. But you can always listen to 2NE1, an older group that serves as a great substitute.
Gfriend is last. They used to be the top trend, but things happened – that I really do not care to go into – and they lost some steam. If neither of the aforementioned groups pleases you, then you may want to try Gfriend. Just be aware that differentiating their discography is a challenge that awaits you.
- The Popular Boy Groups
You cannot have popular girl groups without the same for the opposite gender. While the girl group sphere has a good number monopolizing the public’s interests, only three boy groups are worth getting into:
BTS is the current top group (not just for boys but overall). They have seven very dorky members and their music is as western as it gets. BTS came from a small company but made it big against all odds, so that’s something to brag about. They have a pretty solid discography, but who cares about that in the midst of all their achievements.
EXO used to be the top group until BTS came out of nowhere. They had 12 members upon debut but a bunch left and one of them is not there as much these days so many people are not sure if he’s still a member of the group. They are the first K-pop group to break a million sales in over a decade – thus reviving the physical market. But they are not as popular as BTS in the west. Western validation is a real thing – deny it all you want – and EXO isn’t getting it anytime soon so don’t hold your breath on them surpassing BTS in America. Other than that, they have handsome members….
Wanna One is the last of the top boy groups. They were formed in the popular show Produce 101. Unlike BTS and EXO, their discography is quite average so you might want to forget about liking them for their musicality. They do, however, have a massive amount of achievements so there’s that. Like EXO, there are lot of members. Unlike EXO, however, all the members will leave the group at the same time. They will probably disband in a year or so – proceed at your own risk!
There are other groups like Seventeen, VIXX, GOT7 but honestly, who cares about them?
- The Old Generation Groups
The only reason you might want to follow an Older Generation group is to complain about how K-pop was so much better 10 years ago. There are many older generation groups to follow but you should really only look into the mainstream ones: Big Bang, SNSD, 2NE1, Wonder Girls, 2PM, f(x), SHINee, Super Junior, etc. With the exception of Big Bang and SNSD (to some extent), none of the older generation groups are rivaling the newer ones in terms of sales and achievements. They do have good music…in general.
- The ‘Nugus’
These groups are the very opposite of popular. No one knows them, so listing them here would be quite ironic. At any rate, any unknown group that maybe 5 or 6 people know about counts here. They sometimes have good music. Even if they don’t, you might want to follow them just so you can complain about how they deserve more popularity than the popular groups.
- R&B Soloists
There are many types of soloists in Korea, but people only care about the R&B ones that are consistently topping charts. Those are Heize, Dean, Crush, and Zion T. That’s about it.
Now that I have introduced you to the artists worth knowing, I must let you know about the fan culture – aka, what you must do to become a fan. There isn’t much involved except:
- Watching your artist of choice’s music videos on YouTube religiously. This is not as time consuming as you think; you only have to watch the video once, delete your history, refresh the page, or exit the tab, and then watch it again until you see that the view count has increased substantially.
- Buy physical albums on international sites. Sometimes, you may have to buy multiple copies and versions. It depends entirely on your sanity at the moment of purchase.
- Participate in fanwars.
The last part is the most important part of fan culture and is one of the sole reasons for you joining the K-pop fandom. Fanwars define interactions between fandoms – both positive and negative. You will either be fighting in one or watching two rivals go at it. It is really not that serious. Some fanwars last forever, but that is only restricted to fandoms of popular artists – for example: SNSD vs. 2NE, BTS vs. EXO, Twice vs. everyone, and so forth. For reference, think of a fanwar between Directioneers and Beliebers; multiply that by 10 and that is the amount of entertainment you may expect to receive.
Charts and sales play a major role in fanwars. In fact, most fanwars are about which group sold more when. This only works for popular groups, though. No one wants to fight about groups selling only 500 copies. Digital sales are also a source of major competition between girl group fans – this is also how we determine who is the Nation’s Girl Group (aka the top dog).
Local and International Recognition
There are many ways for artists to receive recognition locally and internationally. Award shows are the main form of recognition. However, if you decide to follow an unpopular group then you might as well skip this section.
For those of you who follow the top groups, there are many awards shows to fight about. MAMA is the most popular one but also the worst out of all of them. MMA is slightly better and sometimes has really nice performances – not better than MAMA, though. Shows like GDA, Gaon Chart Awards and SMA are nice for a bit, until people go back to talking about MAMA and MMA. KMAs are by far the best and the fairest of all of them, but there’s nothing to brag about here since most mainstream artists don’t do well here.
A lot of useless polls exist over the internet but they are, honestly, not worth your time. You are better off voting for your favorite artist to win #1 on M-Countdown than take part in an online poll.
Some Sort of Conclusion
The goal of this was to show potential western fans that there’s more to K-pop than most western publications say. There’s a lot going on within the industry and the fandom that you do not know about. I hope that with this, very well written and explained article, you may think better of finally crossing over from the totally disappointing western media and becoming a dedicated follower of the most supreme form of entertainment there is.