By AUBREE STAMPER, Photo Editor 

It was recently announced that EXO and CL will rock the stage at the 2018 Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony on Feb. 25 and represent South Korea in front of the entire world. Many other Korean acts will make appearances and perform throughout the games as well–NCT 127, BTOB, B1A4, 2pm, Red Velvet, GFriend, Super Junior D&E–but what do you know about these iconic K-pop artists? Or K-pop in general?

South Korea has been in the news a lot lately, mostly because of tensions with North Korea but also because of the rise in popularity of Korean pop music, or K-pop. Along with Korean dramas, K-pop is one of South Korea’s biggest exports–also known as the “Hallyu Wave” which has made a splash all over the world.

These K-pop acts sell out arenas all over the world with their popularity–from Mexico to Brazil, America to Australia, Canada to the United Kingdom, and of course all corners of Asia.

K-pop is known for the highly synchronized dancing, the visually appealing performances, the insanely catchy songs, the talented, good-looking idols, and the large amount of members in each group.

K-pop is different from other pop scenes in many ways: For one, artists release several albums a year, which is a lot compared to Western artists. Second, K-pop fandoms have their own culture–from unique light sticks and fandom colors for each group, to unique fandom names (EXO-L, Army, VIP, ELF), to fanchants that shake stadiums. Instead of paparazzi, K-pop idols have “fansites”–fans that follow them around from schedule to schedule and provide the fandom with HQ photos of the members. Third, everything is high quality–the music, the performances, the physical albums (they come with posters, collectibles, photo cards, a photo-book and more).

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The industry that creates these groups is also unique to South Korea, where the system was founded, and is now being used in other countries. First, entertainment companies recruit talented young people and aggressively train them in singing, dancing, acting, variety, and language. Trainees get cut over time, then a final group is created and filled with the most talented teens in the company. This process is known for being extremely competitive, and has recently been broadcasted for everyone to see (Sixteen, Produce 101).

Even after a group debuts, they must work to pay back their company for the money that was spent training them (it costs over $1 million to produce a group). Only the top percentage of K-pop groups actually make money, meaning it’s not as glamorous of a career as one would think.

These days many foreign producers are behind the music and choreography in K-pop and groups are full of non-Korean members, so what makes K-pop Korean? Well, it is sung in Korean, and created and based in South Korea, then from there is exported all over the world. If you removed either of those factors, it’s not really K-pop anymore.

Although K-pop has been seeping into Western charts and TV’s only during the last decade, it has a rich history that goes all the way back to the 1990’s–and a number of key artists are responsible for the evolution of South Korea’s music industry. Here is a guide to the timeline of K-pop to get you ready for all of the great performances and appearances during the Pyeongchang Olympics!

1st Generation of K-pop artists: The 1990’s

These groups literally created “K-pop”; they set the standard for Korean pop music, started the Hallyu Wave, and even created today’s fandom culture. They’re the pioneers who are behind some of today’s biggest K-pop groups. 

  1. Seo Taiji and Boys:

    This group is credited with changing South Korea’s music industry forever after bringing styles of popular Western music like rap, techno, rock, and hip-hop to Korea and becoming extremely successful with it. Before this group, Korea’s popular music consisted of ballads, trot, and folk music. But for the first time ever, the country’s popular music was being influenced by the outside world; songs even used English in the lyrics and performances included wild outfits and choreographed dancing. This group challenged traditional societal norms and laid down the foundation for modern K-pop. (Also, member Yang Hyun-suk went on to start YG Entertainment and create groups like Big Bang, 2NE1, Winner, iKon, and Blackpink.)

  2. H.O.T.:

    SM Entertainment debuted H.O.T. in 1996 after Seo Taiji and Boys disbanded, making them one of the first idol groups in K-pop. Their music was centered around dance-pop and young female fans quickly caught on. The term “Hallyu” was first used with H.O.T. to describe their popularity outside of Korea (they attracted tens of thousands of fans in China and Japan). After seeing the immense success of the group, everyone tried to replicate their formula which is now the model used for all K-pop idol groups (Thanks Lee Soo-man!) Other hits by H.O.T. include “Line Up!” “Candy,” and “We Are The Future.” Member Kangta is now a director at SM alongside BoA. The group will also reunite on the show “Infinite Challenge” this month for the first time since their disbandment in 2001!

3. S.E.S.:

These girls debuted in 1996 also from SM alongside H.O.T. and were one of the first successful girl groups in South Korea. They were also the first K-pop group to debut in Japan and sing in Japanese. Some of their hits include “I’m Your Girl,” “Oh, My Love!” “Dreams Come True,” and “I Love You.” Not only did they make popular music, but they started fashion trends and hairstyle trends too. The groups best-selling album Love was released in 1999 and sold a whopping 762,000 copies!

4. SechsKies:

This group debuted in 1997 and were one of the most popular boy groups of the 90’s with H.O.T. as their biggest rival (the rivalry is spotlighted in the hit drama “Reply 1997”). They are credited for fueling idol fandom culture which began in the 90’s as well. Some of their hits include “Couple,” “School Anthem,” and “Road Fighter.” The group recently reunited for an album and tour in 2016, and a 20th anniversary album and tour in 2017 which were both extremely successful!


Meaning “myth” or “legend” in Korean, these guys are exactly that–legends. They debuted from SM Entertainment in 1998 and are the longest-running group in the history of K-pop. Even after they left SM in 2003, the group continued their success which had never happened before. Their dancing style was often compared to U.S. boy bands N’Sync and Backstreet Boys which you can see in the video. Some of their hits include “Only One,” “Hey, Come on!” “Wild Eyes,” and “Perfect Man.” Shinhwa has toured all over Asia and have released 18 albums as of 2016.

*Other notable artists from this generation include DJ DOC, Roo’ra, Baby V.O.X., Turbo, Fin.K.L., Fly to the Sky, g.o.d., and more!

2nd Generation of K-pop artists: The 2000’s

This generation of K-pop is credited for the Hallyu Wave–their success was unprecedented and the world began to fall in love with Korean music and culture because of these artists.

  1. PSY:

    Even though he’s not an idol, this singer is essential in a list of K-pop’s most influential figures. You definitely heard of PSY after “Gangnam Style” took over the world in 2012, but the singer has almost 20 years of great music and performances under his belt. With his help, K-pop was exposed to world through the mainstream media and it’s no doubt he is South Korea’s pride and joy. Hyuna, the female idol from 4Minute who featured in “Gangnam Style,” also saw great success at the time with her songs “Bubble Pop” and “Ice Cream.” (Hyuna also has tons of great music and is the icon of sexy in South Korea.) Check out some of PSY’s best songs in the video!

  2. BoA:

    Also known as the “Queen of K-pop,” BoA debuted when she was only 13-years-old. Not only does she have a beautiful voice, but she’s one of the best dancers in K-pop too. For the last 18 years the singer has been producing hits in South Korea, China, and Japan and is a best-selling artist (in Japan she has done 12 nation-wide tours and has sold millions of albums). BoA even debuted in the U.S. in 2008 and performed with Britney Spears in 2003. Some of her most popular pop hits include “No. 1,” “Valenti,” “My Name,” and “Only One.” Now BoA is also an actress, a director of SM Entertainment, and was the national producer representative on Produce 101 season 2.

  3. Rain:

    Rain is an all-around Hallyu star from music to movies and dramas. His career skyrocketed in 2004 with the album It’s Raining which sold 1 million copies throughout Asia. That same year, he starred in the hit drama “Full House” which was also popular all throughout Asia. Time named the singer one of the “100 Most Influential People Who Shape Our World.” The next year, he beat out Stephan Colbert on an online poll by Time. This prompted Colbert to make a parody of Rain’s music video and Rain even guested on his show, “The Colbert Report.” The singer even toured the U.S. successfully including a sold out concert at Madison Square Garden. In 2008 and 2009, Rain starred in two Hollywood movies and became the first Korean to win an award from MTV. A true Hallyu star!

  4. TVXQ:

    “Dong Bang Shin Ki” meaning “Rising Gods of the East” debuted in 2003 and were SM’s first successful boy group of the 2000’s after H.O.T. and Shinhwa. Their music has mainly rock and R&B roots, and the group has always had a very manly image. Some of their hits include “Hug,” “Rising Sun,” “Catch Me,” and “Something.” In 2008 their song “Mirotic” and the album of the same name took over South Korean charts and won them their second Golden Disk Award for Album of the Year. “Mirotic” is no doubt one of the most iconic songs in K-pop history, and it will definitely get under your skin! TVXQ have also garnered remarkable success in Japan where their recent tour “The Begin Again Tour” is expected to attract over 1 million attendees (it’s already attracted 786,500). Even though three members left in 2009 and created the group JYJ, TVXQ is still going strong. The members Yunho and Changmin finished their mandatory military service last year and are reportedly making a come back in March!

  5. Super Junior:

    This group contains some of the funniest idols in K-pop and are known as the kings of variety because of that. But they have also released some of the best-selling and most iconic electro-pop songs in K-pop, like “Mr. Simple,” “Sexy, Free and Single,” “Bonamana,” and of course, “Sorry, Sorry.” When they debuted in 2005 with 13 members, it was something that hadn’t been done before. These days it’s common for groups to have 10+ members, thanks to SUJU. The group has also debuted many different units–K.R.Y, Super Junior-T, Super Junior-M (which is very successful in the Chinese market), Super Junior-Happy, and Super Junior D&E–which was also a first in K-pop. When they aren’t releasing music, you can find the members hosting South Korea’s hottest TV shows, such as Heechul on the popular show “Knowing Brother.”

  6. Big Bang:

    This group is undoubtedly the most popular K-pop group not only in South Korea, but in the world. They’ve been in the forefront of fashion, art, and music since they debuted under YG Entertainment in 2006. “Haru Haru,” “Lollipop,” and “Lies” are some early hip-hop hits that shot them into stardom. But 2012’s “Fantastic Baby” and 2015’s “Bang Bang Bang” are the groups most legendary hits. Big Bang has proven to be popular among all age groups in South Korea and have sold out stadiums all over the world–North America, South America, Asia, Australia, and Europe. ALL members have released great solo albums too, which are just as successful as the group’s albums. Leader G-Dragon is the most followed Korean celebrity on Instagram and a fashion icon, while T.O.P is the most unfollowed celebrity (you’ll know why if you follow him). Sadly, the members have started their military enlistments, but we recently celebrated the wedding of member Taeyang to actress Min Hyo-rin!

  7. Wonder Girls:

    These girls debuted under JYP Entertainment in 2007 and their song “Tell Me” exploded in popularity in South Korea and the rest of Asia. Everyone had caught the “Tell Me virus” and couldn’t stop dancing the song’s catchy choreography. Their next hit “Nobody” also topped charts and had everyone addicted to its dance which won the girls Grand-Prize awards for Artist and Song of the Year. The Wonder Girls even found success in America, where they opened for the Jonas Brothers and had their own reality show on MTV. They were the first K-pop group to ever enter the Billboard Hot 100 chart and in 2012 they released a song featuring Akon titled “Like Money.” Even though the group disbanded in 2017, Sunmi–who successfully debuted as a soloist in 2013 with “24 Hours” and in 2014 with “Full Moon”–has been topping charts with her solo music. First with “Gashina” which had everyone falling in love with her sexiness and copying her enchanting hand-gun dance, and more recently with “Heroine.”

  8. Girls’ Generation:

    A.k.a the actual QUEENS of K-pop who just celebrated their 10-year anniversary, which is a huge feat for a girl group! After “Gee” melted everyones hearts in 2009, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t know the name “Girls’ Generation.” Their reign continued with “Genie,” “Oh!” and “Run Devil Run,” but they became the best-selling artists of 2011 with the album The Boys which won them the digital Grand-Prize at the Golden Disk and Seoul Music Awards. Then in 2013, they had the second best-selling album of the year with I Got A Boy. The group also successfully released music in Japan and the U.S. and performed on the Late Show with David Letterman and Live! With Kelly. Oh and they beat Justin Bieber for a YouTube Music Video award. All SNSD members are extremely successful in their solo careers, but the group’s leader Taeyeon has released several amazing albums since 2015 and is one of the most popular soloists in K-pop. In a male-dominated music industry, Girls’ Generation showed that they were a force to be reckoned with.

  9. SHINee:

    As SHINee are about to celebrate their 10-year anniversary in April, everyone can agree that they left a huge mark on K-pop. SHINee are known for being some of the best performers–their intricate dances are always on point, their fashion is always ahead of its time, their stage presence is electrifying, and their live vocals are the best in the industry. They set trends in all areas like music, dance, and fashion. Some of their biggest songs include “Replay,” “Everybody,” “Sherlock,” “Ring Ding Dong,” and “Lucifer.” All of the members have also been successful in solo music and in acting. In a speech in 2017, Obama even mentioned that young Americans are learning Korean to be able to “keep up with SHINee.” Although tragedy struck when lead vocalist Jonghyun took his own life in December, the remaining four members have decided to continue on as SHINee for their fans and for Jonghyun.

  10. 2NE1:

    With 66.5 million record sales, this group is one of the best selling girl groups of all time (in the world, not just in K-pop). They debuted from YG Entertainment in 2009 and put out a range of hits like “Lollipop” with Big Bang, “Fire,” “I Don’t Care,” “Come Back Home,” and “I am the Best.” 2NE1 is known for being popular not only in Asia, but in the West as well. In 2014 the group appeared on “The Bachelor” and “America’s Next Top Model.” They’ve released several songs in English and often worked with of the Black Eyed Peas. In 2014 their album Crush became the highest charting and best-selling K-pop album in America, was named by Fuse TV as one of the best albums of the year, and was named the best K-pop album of the year by Billboard. The group is now disbanded, but leader CL is taking on the West (and the Olympics Closing Ceremony) and has released several songs in America like “Doctor Pepper,” “Lifted,” and “All In.”

*Other notable artists from this generation include SG Wannabe, Epik High, T-ara, Kara, After School, F.T. Island, 4Minute, IU, 2pm, 2am, Brown Eyed Girls, Miss A, f(x), Girl’s Day, Beast, Infinite, Sistar, CNBLUE, Secret, Nine Muses, and more!

3rd Generation of K-pop artists: The 2010’s

After the success of K-pop in the 2000’s, the industry began to accelerate and 50-100 groups were being produced every year, making the competition even more intense. These are the biggest groups in K-pop today who start trends, go viral, set new standards, and continue to spread K-pop to every corner of the earth.

  1. EXO:

    EXO debuted in 2012 under SM Entertainment with 12 members, originally as EXO-K (promoting in Korea) and EXO-M (promoting in China). Although three Chinese members left the group, they still release their albums in Korean and Chinese. EXO’s hit song “Growl” shook the nation in 2013 and the group’s first full-length album XOXO sold 1 million copies within six months–something that hadn’t been done in 12 years. Five years later, and EXO are now quadruple million sellers and are the best-selling artists in South Korea of ALL TIME with over eight-million physical albums sold! Some of their hits include “Overdose,” “Call Me Baby,” “Monster,” and “Kokobop.” EXO have also won the most Grand-Prize awards–24–in K-pop history and have over 100 music show wins. As they enter their 7th year together, they show no signs of slowing down, and will even be performing at the Olympics closing ceremony on Feb. 25! (Hopefully we’ll hear their hit anthem “Power”!)

  2. BTS:

    Even if you don’t know much about K-pop, you’ve probably heard of BTS or have at least seen them on your TV recently. BTS debuted in 2013 and excel in rap, dance, and hip-hop. After gaining momentum in 2015 with “Dope,” the group soared to new heights after the release of their album Wings and the single “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” in 2016. This led to a BBMA win for Top Social Artist and performances at the AMA’s and Dick Clark’s New Years Special in 2017. They proved the importance of social media in K-pop and recently all groups have been joining in. Their album Love Yourself: Her with the single “DNA” was the best-selling album of 2017 and in total, they surpassed 2 million albums sold last year! They are the first K-pop group after EXO to be able to sell 1 million albums and have been sweeping all of the Grand-Prize awards recently too! Everyone is excited to see how far this group will go and what barriers they’ll break down next.

  3. Red Velvet:

    There is no other group in all of K-pop like Red Velvet, they are truly one of the most versatile and unique groups in the scene. They are split into two personas: the “Red” persona which is innocent, fun, and bright, and the “Velvet” persona which is mature, seductive, and alluring. The girls have shown their Red persona off with hits like “Dumb Dumb,” “Russian Roulette,” and “Red Flavor” all of which have received tons of love from all over the world. Recent hits like “Peek-A-Boo” and “Bad Boy” and 2015’s “Automatic” show off the mature side of the group that fans love. After TWICE, Red Velvet is the second most popular girl group in terms of sales and downloads. We’re all still upset that the summer bop “Red Flavor” didn’t win 2017’s Song of the Year, but the girls have taken home a large number of awards home nonetheless!

  4. TWICE:

    TWICE is definitely South Korea’s favorite girl group at the moment! The group was created through a survival reality show in 2015 by JYP Entertainment and debuted with the zombie-killing song “Like Ooh-Ahh.” They have Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese members making them a very multinational group. They specialize in the bubblegum-pop sound that’s unique to the K-pop genre. The nine girls release hit after hit, and every single music video they’ve released has easily passed 100 million views. TWICE was also the best-selling girl group in 2016 and 2017, and have the best selling album for a girl group of all time! From “Cheer Up” to “TT” to “Likey” you can’t escape their cuteness and explosive charms. TWICE is not only dominating South Korea, but also Japan recently where they have been breaking records left and right.

  5. Blackpink:

    When YG Entertainment announced in 2016 that they would be debuting their first girl group since 2NE1 in 2009, K-pop fans couldn’t contain their excitement. Although it’s only been a year and a half since they debuted and they have only 5 songs (“Boombayah,” “Whistle,” “Playing With Fire,” “Stay,” and “As if it’s Your Last”) they are already one of the top girl groups in K-pop. They are known for their edgy style, their unique vocals, and their talented rappers. The four girls are also recognized for their next level beauty, fashion, and international appeal. 3 out of the 4 members are even fluent in English–Rose is from Australia, Jennie studied in New Zealand, and Lisa is from Thailand, but Jisoo is very good at it too! Fans are dying for at least a mini-album from this group soon, hopefully 2018 will be the year!

  6. I.O.I/Wanna One:

    In 2016, after the success of JYP’s “Sixteen,” Mnet launched a reality show with a new system for creating idol groups. With the help of the public, 101 trainees from 46 different companies competed for only 11 spots in a new girl group. The video above caught attention everywhere and was the girls’ very first performance. The show was met with immediate success and the result, the girl group I.O.I, became one of the most popular and successful girl groups of 2016. Their popular songs include “Dream Girls,” “Whatta Man,” and “Very Very Very.” Sadly, the group’s contract was only for one year and after 2016, the group had to disband. Now the girls have debuted in different groups including Gugudan, DIA, Weki Meki, Cosmic Girls, and Pristin, while Somi, Sohye, and Chungha are solo artists for now (Go check out Chungha’s newest album Offset).

After the success of I.O.I, Mnet launched Produce 101 Season 2 in 2017, this time with 101 male trainees competing for the 11 spots of a new boy group. The competitors included members of the already-debuted groups NU’EST, HOTSHOT, and Topp dogg, giving them anther chance at success. The result of the show was the group Wanna One, and their success far surpassed that of their female counterparts, I.O.I. In 2017, Wanna One’s debut mini-album and it’s repackage with the singles “Energetic” and “Burn It Up” surpassed 1 million copies sold making them the third best-selling artist of the year behind EXO and BTS. Also making them join EXO and BTS as the only new generation groups to be able to achieve this feat. Even though their contracts are for 2 years (longer than I.O.I’s 1 year contracts) fans are already protesting for a contract extension. Big things are coming for this group in 2018!


WINNER was formed in 2013 when they won a reality survival program through YG Entertainment, and officially debuted in 2014 in Korea and Japan. They were the first boy group to debut from YG since Big Bang eight years prior, which made everyone extremely excited and they won all the Best New Artist awards that year. The group’s music is very catchy and chill which makes everyone so addicted to it. The group’s rapper and producer Mino competed on the popular show “Show me the Money” in 2015 and finished as the runner-up (he has a lot of great solo music too). Their 2016 album EXIT:E and the title track “Sentimental” were very successful, receiving an All-Kill on Korean charts and topping Billboard’s World Albums Chart and the Heatseekers chart too. But their 2017 album Fate Number For was their most successful to date; the title song “Really Really” became the first boy group song to surpass 100 million streams! (Another great song that didn’t get any Song of the Year awards!) Some other great songs include “Love Me Love Me,” “Island,” “Empty,” and “Fool.”

8. Seventeen:

Seventeen debuted from Pledis Entertainment in 2015 with 13 members. The group is split into three units: a vocal unit, a hip-hop unit, and a dance unit. With so many members you might think it’d be messy on stage, but this group has some crazy tight synchronization which is difficult to achieve! Seventeen is very well know for their unique choreography; it’s extremely detailed and even theatric at times. The members also produce songs, write lyrics, and choreograph their dances as well. Some of their hits include “Adore U,” “Mansae,” “Very Nice,” “Boomboom,” “Clap,” and “Don’t Wanna Cry” (I heard this song every where I went in Seoul). Although the group is young, they’ve already completed a world tour, Asian tour, and all of their albums sell fast and top charts. The group just released a special album titled Director’s Cut, and the title song “Thanks” topped iTunes charts in 29 countries!

9. NCT– U, 127, Dream:

SM Entertainment is doing something with NCT that has never been done before. So far 3 different NCT units have debuted since 2016 with different members, and SM just announced that the group will make a comeback soon with all 18 members–making them the largest group in K-pop. Different units will debut in different countries with different concepts and members are supposed to be able to move around freely between the units. NCT contains Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, American, and Canadian members–the most diverse and multi-national group in K-pop. They have already shown mind-blowing performances and have proven to be strong not only in vocals but also in rap with Mark and Taeyong–something SM groups usually don’t focus on. Some of their popular songs include “The 7th Sense,” “Fire Truck,” “Chewing Gum,” “Limitless,” “My First and Last,” and “Cherry Bomb.” It’ll be interesting to see where NCT goes and the precedents that they’ll set for idol groups in the future.

*Other notable artists from this generation include APink, Ailee, Block B, VIXX, AOA, EXID, B.A.P., NU’EST, GOT7, Mamamoo, GFriend, Monsta X, iKon, DAY6, K.A.R.D, Bolbbalgan4, LOONA and more!

South Korea also has a flourishing rap/hip-hop scene that the popular show “Show Me the Money” helped propel into the mainstream spotlight. Some notable K-HH artists include Jay Park and his label AOMG, Dean, Zico, Simon Dominic, Yoon Mirae, Tablo, Jessi, Zion.T, Crush, Heize, BewhY, Kisum, and more!

All of these artists are on Spotify and iTunes if you want to check them out! Don’t forget to catch EXO and CL’s performances at the Olympics Closing Ceremony on Feb. 25!

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  1. This article is flawless. Hands down the best one i’ve read of all time about kpop. Thank you soooo much for that, congratulations for Aubree Stamper and the michigan journal!

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