“Thousands of fans were calling our name at the venue, and almost everyone memorized the Korean lyrics of our songs, which was amazing and overwhelming,” RM, leader of the boy band BTS, described one of their first performances outside Asia. That was in the mid-2010s, when he realized that K-pop had gone international. Now, hallyu, or the Korean Wave, has flooded the world. And BTS is just one of its many ripples.
If you're one of the many who got into BTS in quarantine, went through their discography, and now want more, then this guide is for you. It travels through the many phases and faces of K-pop, told musically through some of its most popular tracks. But before all that, a little history lesson. So, as Girls’ Generation says in “I Got A Boy,” “Sijakhae bolkka (Shall we begin)?”
Most agree that it all started with Seo Taiji & Boys, a three-member group made up of Seo Taiji, Lee Juno, and Yang Hyun-suk (Who would go on to establish YG Entertainment). The now multibillion-dollar industry has a definitive beginning that traces back to April 11, 1992 — the day Seo Taiji & Boys performed their debut song, “I Know,” on national television for the first time. Blending trendy Western new jack swing sounds and choreography with Korean lyrics, the trio’s debut started a new era in South Korean music. By the time the group disbanded in 1996, the first generation of K-pop was well on its way.
These were groups that followed Seo Taiji & Boys’ footsteps in terms of music and dance style. K-pop labels SM Entertainment and DSP Media created their own boy bands, H.O.T and Sechs Kies, and fans of the two groups sparked a rivalry that fueled the companies’ popularity. They were quickly followed by girl groups — SM’s S.E.S and DSP’s Fin.K.L. Eventually, soloists became popular and new agencies came into play. There’s SM’s BoA, JYP’s Rain, and YG’s Se7en. These artists are still popular today, and the companies that groomed them are now known as the Big 3.
Already massively popular domestically, K-pop slowly went global in the early 2000s. First, the now “Queen of K-pop” BoA helped K-pop expand to China and Japan. Then K-pop world tours began in the early 2010s, in the second generation, the era of Girls' Generation, Super Junior, TVXQ, 2NE1, and BIGBANG. This was also the time idols started interacting more with supporters through fan meetings, and frequent social media updates on Twitter, Cyworld, and forum-like “fan cafes.” Reality shows like “Girls’ Generation Goes to School” and “Star Life Theater” also shared K-pop groups’ off-stage lives to fans, creating a more personal connection. This generation was pure pop, yet very experimental. Think: the Wonder Girls international hit “Nobody.” In 2012, PSY’s viral hit “Gangnam Style” dropped, pushing K-pop further into the international spotlight.
Fan engagement only intensified with the rise of social media in the mid 2010s, when third generation groups like BTS, EXO, GOT7, Red Velvet, and BLACKPINK debuted. As live-streaming became popular, idols were even closer to fans. Around this time, groups were also formed in reality shows, like SEVENTEEN, MONSTA X, iKON, TWICE, Stray Kids, and WINNER.
Now in the fourth generation, acts like ITZY, LOONA, TXT, æspa and ENHYPEN were all created with an international audience in mind. Members of SM’s Super M, for example, were handpicked from the label’s existing groups, specifically to tap global fans.
Below are playlists sorted according to mood, to get you started on your K-pop journey. Of course, K-pop is more than just songs. There’s the production, the merch, and the fandoms. But music is at the core and a great place to start.
So you want to get into… bubbly K-pop?
Aegyo is a Korean term that roughly means “to act cute.” It’s a common genre in K-pop, especially with idols. Boy bands and girl groups act cute on variety shows, as seen in “What do I do?,” “Be Mine,” and “Yam Yam Song,” all composed and written by Oh My Girl’s Hyojung for Korean variety show Weekly Idol.
Then there are the bright, sparkly, jumpy songs that get you drunk on serotonin. These usually have addictive hooks that leave you chanting, like “Likey, likey, likey” on TWICE’s song titled, you guessed it, “Likey.” They’re also likely what most people think K-pop sounds like.
While these songs often have sweet, bubbly lyrics, they could also have deeper meanings. “Likey,” for example, is about unrealistic beauty standards and desperately wanting to get social media likes. “I hold my breath to pull up the zipper, tighten the waist again // Cheer me up, I’m done dressing up baby,” the lyrics go.
Though they’re influenced by various genres, a lot of K-pop artists still have at least an ounce of cuteness in their songs. It could be a love letter like Fin.K.L’s “To My Boyfriend” and BTS’ “Boy With Luv,” or a motivational ode to happy moments like IU’s “Good Day” and TWICE’s “Cheer Up.”
Playlist: “Cheer Up” - TWICE / “To My Boyfriend” - Fin.K.L / “Likey” - TWICE / “Crown” - TXT / “Good Day” - IU / “Hi High” - Loona / “Oh My” - SEVENTEEN / “Roly Poly'' - T-ARA / “Boy With Luv” - BTS ft. Halsey / “Replay” - SHINee / “Just Right” - GOT7 / “Get Cool” - Stray Kids / “Hold” - WINNER
So you want to get into… hype K-pop?
The complete opposite of the previous playlist, this is where all the smirky savagery lies. For instance, ITZY’s “Wannabe,” and 2NE1’s timeless hit “I Am The Best” scream self confidence. The more you sing along to the lyrics, the more you feel like a boss yourself.
Other groups that embrace this concept include MONSTA X, (G)I-DLE, BLACKPINK, and BTS. Rappers from these groups usually release solo work, like 2NE1 rapper CL’s single, “The Baddest Female,” BIGBANG rapper G-Dragon’s album, One Of A Kind, and MONSTA X rapper I.M’s upcoming solo mini-album Duality.
Playlist: “Hard Carry” - GOT7 / “Lion” - (G)I-DLE / “Wannabe” - ITZY / “Bang Bang Bang” - BIGBANG / “Boss” - NCT U / “I Am The Best” - 2NE1 / “Hip” - MAMAMOO / “Kill This Love” - BLACKPINK / “Bad Boy” - Red Velvet / “Mr. Simple” - Super Junior / “So Cool” - SISTAR / “Superman” - Super Junior / “Don't Call Me” - SHINee
So you want to get into… emotional K-pop?
The slower side of K-pop takes on ballads and R&B, and focuses on vocals. In some cases, with high notes at ear-piercing decibels. These songs don’t simply hit you in the feels, they crush you. And they’re some of the most iconic in artists’ discographies, often sung to commemorate an emotional event or end a concert.
Artists under SM Entertainment, for example, usually come together in joint events to sing the H.O.T classic “Hope.” There’s Girls’ Generation’s debut song “Into The New World,” and BoA’s “No. 1.” BTS’ has “Spring Day,” dubbed as the “queen” of their discography.
If you’re well on your way to falling into a certain fandom — be it BTS’ ARMY or Red Velvet’s ReVeluv — you’ll certainly have an emotional attachment to these songs. K-pop groups often have songs purely dedicated to their supporters as a “thank you” for sticking around. Just like fans crying along with their idols when EXO performs “Promise (EXO 2014),” you might want some tissues when you listen to these.
Playlist: “It's Okay” - BTOB / “Hope” - H.O.T / “Psycho” - Red Velvet / “Into The New World” - Girls' Generation / “Spring Day” - BTS / “I Miss You” - MAMAMOO / “To Mother” - g.o.d / “Promise (EXO 2014)” - EXO / “No. 1” - BoA / “Breathe” - Lee Hi / “Empty” - WINNER / “Answer” - ATEEZ / “LONELY” - SISTAR / “Eyes Nose Lips” - Taeyang (BIGBANG)
So you want to get into… dance K-pop?
This is the genre most influenced by EDM and dance music. So if you could imagine songs like BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby,” Chungha’s “Stay Tonight,” and BLACKPINK’s debut song “Boombayah,” played in a club, that’s why. Lyrically, these songs are usually empowering, making them addictive pick-me-ups on any day. K-pop is never complete without choreography but they’re most obvious here, where dance breaks are a highlight.
Playlist: “Boombayah” - BLACKPINK / “Step” - KARA / “Stay Tonight” - Chungha / “I Got A Boy” - Girls' Generation / “Dynamite” - BTS / “Miroh” - Stray Kids / “Sorry Sorry” - Super Junior / “Blue Hour” - TXT / “Fantastic Baby” - BIGBANG / “Really Really” - WINNER / “Hands Up” - 2PM / “Hot Issue” - 4Minute / “('Cause) I'm Your Girl” - S.E.S
So you want to get into… fusion K-pop?
While we’ve tried to categorize these playlists, the truth is, K-pop has a lot of gray areas, blurring the boundaries of languages and genres. Most groups have multiple influences and this is reflected in their discography.
Seo Taiji & Boys were known for experimenting with different styles and making wacky, unexpected fusions. They mixed hip-hop and traditional music in “Hayeoga,” took on heavy metal in “Classroom Idea,” and combined techno and gangsta rap in “Come Back Home.” This has reverberated to the K-pop generations that followed. BoA’s “Hurricane Venus” combines electronic music with a sassy dance-pop chorus, while 2NE1 slayed the unique combination of reggae, hip hop, and dubstep for “Come Back Home.”
Playlist: “Idol” - BTS / “Bae Bae” - BIGBANG / “Something” - TVXQ / “Zimzalabim” - Red Velvet / “Ring Ding Dong” - SHINee / “Cherry Bomb” - NCT 127 / “Perfect Man” - SHINHWA / “Dive” - iKON / “Hurricane Venus” - BoA / “Why So Lonely” - Wonder Girls / “Come Back Home” - 2NE1 / “One More Time” - Super Junior ft. Reik