K-Pop 101: Your Essential Starter Pack to the Captivating World of Korean Pop

Korean culture is everywhere these days, whether it’s television (Squid Game, Beef), movies (Unlocked, Parasite), food (kimchi, bibimbap), or of course, music (K-pop). In many ways, K-pop has had the biggest impact on world culture, dominating our playlists, dance clubs, radio airplay, and more.

But what is K-pop music, really? We break down the history, the biggest names, the essential hits, and more.

K-Pop Defined

First, it’s a good idea to understand what the term “K-pop” means. It refers to Korean popular music, so it can encompass a whole range of styles. So what is K-pop music? Rock, hip-hop, and R&B can all be considered K-pop. Even so, the most popular and common form in the K-pop genre is the music produced by groups of performers, sometimes numbering as many as ten or even twenty or more, typically divided by gender, who stage highly choreographed dance routines while they sing and rap. The performers are often called “idols,” and idol culture refers to the performers and the fans who obsess over them.

Early Rumblings in K-Pop History

The ’90s were the beginning of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave which brought Korean pop culture to the rest of the world. In 1992, the newly-formed music group Seotaiji and Boys released their debut single, “I Know.” The song was the first to include rap in Korean, and in just a month had sold 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone. In 1996, Lee Soo-man, a record producer and former musician, formed the five-member boy band H.O.T. under the banner of his entertainment company, SM Entertainment. H.O.T. (an acronym for Highfive of Teenagers) set the model for K-pop groups that followed, with a modern, highly-produced sound incorporating synthesizers, electronic beats, and rap, with choreographed dance routines for accompaniment. By the early 2000s, BoA, a female singer, had established herself both in South Korea and Japan, while another five-member boy band from SM Entertainment called TVXQ! broke through with their third album, O, making them a big part of K-pop’s origin story. In South Korea and Japan, at least, K-pop was on its way.

International Breakout

As the new millennium dawned, K-pop mainly remained a South Korean and Japanese phenomenon, but in 2012, rapper Psy released “Gangnam Style.” The song — about the trendy Gangnam district in Seoul — became an international sensation, reaching number two on the American charts and number one in the UK, France, Germany, and over two dozen more. K-pop had broken through internationally.

One year later, BTS debuted with their single album, 2 Cool 4 Skool, full of popular K-pop songs. The boy band’s single “Mic Drop” had cracked the US Top 40, topping out at number 28 (and number one in Japan). Their sixth studio album, Love Yourself: Tear, debuted at number one in America, the first K-pop album to top the US charts. Today, BTS is the highest-selling South Korean music group of all time.

Now, K-pop is bigger than ever. In 2018, the four-member girl group Blackpink released their second EP, Square Up, which debuted at number 40 on the US charts, the highest position ever for a K-pop girl group. On top of that, their collaboration with Selena Gomez, the single “Ice Cream” hit number 13, the first K-pop girl group single to reach the Top 20. By 2023, Blackpink headlined the taste-making Coachella Music & Arts Festival in the southern California desert to rave reviews, and K-pop’s takeover of US culture was complete.

Essential K-Pop Performers

To understand any genre of music, becoming familiar with the genre’s top artists is key. K-pop lovers will always have different ideas on the best K-pop bands and the greatest singers and rappers, but we think all of them will at least be familiar with these influential artists. Check them out on our K-pop channel.

BTS

We don’t have to explain why BTS is huge. If you’re still not obsessed, check out their 2014 release, Skool Luv Affair, to get a sense of their formative years. Then listen to 2020’s Map of the Soul: 7 – The Journey to get a sense of their development, with themes growing from the teenage frustrations found in their earlier work to broader, more spiritual themes of the later record. While BTS is currently on hiatus as the members fulfill their South Korean military service obligations, a comeback is planned for 2025.

Blackpink

The biggest K-pop band in the world currently, with appearances that continue to blow people away. Fans who can’t get enough can see them headlining BST Hyde Park in London along with other music heavyweights like Bruce Springsteen, Guns N’ Roses, and Lana Del Rey in summer 2023. Listen for hits like “BOOMBAYAH” and “WHISTLE.”

Girls Generation

Currently an eight-member group, these girls released their first single, “Into the New World,” back in 2007. Within a few years, they were dominating the music scene in South Korea and Japan and are widely credited as the most successful girl group in the region. Their status is unrivaled at home, and we can’t wait to see them break into the global mainstream.

BigBang

A key influence in establishing K-pop’s international popularity, this boy band became the first group to have a Korean-language recording to chart on Billboard’s Hot 200 with their 2012 EP, Alive. Blending soulful acoustic guitars with more synth-based, EDM- and hip-hop-based sounds gives BigBang a broader range than many bands. Check out their most recent single, “Still Life,” which shot to the top ten in an array of Asian markets, including Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan, and hit number one on the Billboard digital sales chart.

BoA

K-pop isn’t just about boy and girl bands. BoA is a solo singer and has often been called the “Queen of K-pop” for her worldwide success and accomplishments. She released her debut album, ID: Peace B, when she was only 13 and has been going strong since. She’s also multilingual, allowing her to release albums in Japanese, Korean, and English. While early works played up her youth, her more recent songs show increased maturity and depth.

Key Tunes

Get a taste of K-pop with Deezer’s playlists that show off the many styles and sounds of K-pop. Be sure to check out “K-Pop Essentials” playlist and songs like “Can’t Nobody” by 2NE1 and “Stereotype” by STAYC, and “Playlist K-Pop” for songs like “Moonlight” by Agust D and “God’s Menu” by Stray Kids.

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