K-pop stars: the lowdown on South Korean pop

Psy's hit, Gangnam Style, has taken the genre to the top of western charts – if it's new to you, here are the names to drop and videos to watch

His quirky dance steps and unforgettable sing-a-long chorus have given us the smash pop hit of the year. By the weekend, Psy, the podgy antihero behind the Gangnam Style phenomenon, is expected to make history by becoming the first Korean to reach No 1 in the UK charts, having already risen to the top of the iTunes download charts here and in the US.

Other South Korean artists may have mixed feelings about the astounding success of Gangnam Style. Riding the crest of the "Hallyu" wave that has already swept across much of east Asia, the highly stylised, impeccably sculptured boy and girl bands made the leap to the US and Europe the hard way.

Then along comes a chubby 34-year-old armed with a catchy tune, an endearing, if hopelessly daft, dance, and becomes an overnight viral sensation. In the space of a few weeks, Psy has made Gangnam Stylists out of everyone, from Britney Spears to the US navy.

His words – surely unintelligible to most of the people behind the 290mn views his YouTube video has attracted – have been pored over for what they say about the shallowness of modern South Korean society. One Guardian columnist wondered if Psy, rather than breaking the K-pop mould, had reinforced stereotypes of socially challenged, middle-aged east Asian men.

Other K-pop artists might feel aggrieved at his rapid, effortless rise, appearances on the US TV chatshow circuit and myriad copycat routines. But they also have reason to be grateful to Psy, aka Park Jae-sang. He has shoved open the door for other Korean pop artists hoping to turn regional stardom into international success. Some have already penetrated the US market, and most are household names in Japan, but few register among British music fans. Who, then, should we be looking out for to take up Psy's mantle?


2NE1 – "to anyone" or "twenty one"– were born to crack the west," according to Mio Scobie, overseas editor of Us Weekly magazine and a self-confessed K-pop addict. Their appeal lies in their refusal to be bound to the musical style of other K-pop girl groups. Unlike their saccharine Japanese counterparts 2NE1 don't attempt to hide their sexuality, but balance it with an "assertiveness" that Scobie likens to the Spice Girls, "minus the bad singing". Will.i.am is producing their debut US album, so, Scobie adds, "be prepared for a hip-hop infused electro feast to soon dominate the airwaves".

Big Bang

Big Bang, stablemates of 2NE1 at the hugely successful label YG Entertainment, owe nothing to the accessible charm and androgynous features of your typical boyband. Each of the five members has his own individual look, and their musical range is equally eclectic, covering R&B, hip-hop, house, electro and pop. Having conquered Korea and Japan (where they were named "Korean group Japanese fans want to see most") the band went on to win best worldwide act in the Asia-Pacific category at the 2011 MTV Europe music awards, and their YouTube channel has received more than 400m views. Big Bang are now on their first world tour, taking in 25 cities in 16 countries.

Girls' Generation

This girl group have matched their stunning physical presence – they have perhaps the longest legs in K-pop – with a string of hits and recognition across Asia and, more recently, the US. They were the "juggernaut leading the Korean Wave across Asia, the embodiment of the ultra-slick choreography and catchy pop songs that earned K-pop its reputation", says Robert Poole, chief executive of SomethingDrastic, a Tokyo-based Asian music promoter. In less than five years, the nine-member group have amassed sales of more than 30m digital singles and 4.4m albums. Girls' Generation exemplify the global ambition of K-pop's wily promoters: their 2011 single The Boys was released in Korean, Japanese and, for the first time, English. This year they became the first Korean act to perform on The Late Show With David Letterman, and the first on syndicated TV in the US. In 2011 they earned more than US$88m for their label, SM Entertainment, and are expected to earn double that this year.


The clue to U-Kiss's ambition is in their name: Ubiquitous Korean International Idol SuperStar. They are considered the underdogs of the Korean boyband scene, but their following overseas is "something else", according to Scobie. Their fans, known as KissMe's, have turned to social media to spread the group's name, resulting in concerts in France, Thailand, the US, Colombia and Cambodia. Like many of their K-pop contemporaries, U-Kiss have a loyal following in Japan. If, as some expect, they make it in the US, chatshow appearances shouldn't be a problem: several members of the band speak English, including AJ, who recently took time off to study at Columbia University. Their new single, Stop Girl, released this month, was recorded in Korean and English, and is being promoted in 10 countries, including the US, China and Japan.


These relative newcomers to the K-pop scene have already made one comeback since their debut in 2010. "In a sea of bubblegum-cute popsters, Sistar stand out for their cool and sexy image," says Scobie. The band's eagerly awaited summer single, Loving U, immediately topped major online music charts in South Korea, although they have yet to make much of an impact internationally. That could all change soon, though: the group's lead singer, Hyorin, has been likened to Beyoncé for her husky voice, incredible range and soulful contributions to songs that, unusually perhaps for this genre, deal as much with falling out of love as falling in love. The group were the centre of controversy when their saucy "butt dance" for How Dare You was banned on South Korean TV.


The six-member boyband came in for some unkind press coverage when they debuted in 2009. South Korean media pointed out that the members had all had solo careers or been part of other, unsuccessful, groups. Despite their status as a "recycled" act, Beast set about proving their doubters wrong with a combination of self-belief and sheer hard work. Past failures aside, Beast are a talented bunch. They wrote all of the songs on their newest album, Midnight Sun. Their summer smash hit, Beautiful Night coincided with a successful world tour. The single, says Scobie, "wouldn't feel out of place in a London nightclub".

Wonder Girls

They are veterans of K-pop, having made their debut in 2007 and racking up a string of hits since. Their foray into the US market was a resounding success when they became the first Korean group to make it on to the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2009, the year they also supported the Jonas Brothers on tour. This year, Wonder Girls collaborated with the rapper Akon on Like Money, and appeared in an eponymously titled movie on the Nickelodeon TV network. Rumour has it that next year will bring more collaborations with US artists and possibly their own reality TV show. Their 2009 hit, Nobody, was the first K-pop song to get radio airplay in the US and one that every K-pop fan knows off by heart.

Super Junior

The group have been around since 2005, so some members are about to reach the ripe old age of 30 – normally grounds for retirement in the youth-obsessed world of K-pop. Yet far from going gracefully, the boyband continue to churn out hits with unforgettable hooks, and their photos still adorn the walls of teenagers' bedrooms across Asia. The band's 10 members specialise in high-energy dance routines and addictive choruses. Their 2012 summer EP, Sexy, Free & Single debuted on the iTunes top 10 pop albums chart at No 1 in Japan and No 6 in the US, and also earned top 10 places in France, Australia and Canada. Their world tour this year included a sellout concert in Paris.


These are the alpha males of the K-pop world, but with a twist. The proud owners of impressive six-packs, 2PM do sensitive Boys II Men-style harmonies just as well as their edgier rap repertoire. Heartbreak is the thread that runs through most of their music, but they have been known to produce a catchy party anthem or two. The band comprise Korean, Korean-American and Thai members, most of whom speak English, and are represented in the US by the same agency that looks after Mariah Carey, Kanye West and Justin Bieber. They are about to embark on a global tour, performing at venues in Europe, North America and Asia.


Justin McCurry in Tokyo

The GuardianTramp

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