Theoretically Speaking, S4:E9:

What Makes K-Pop, K-Pop ? – Part 1


Well, the “K” stands for “Korean.”

And “pop” is short for “Popular.”

So “K-pop” is: “Korean Popular Music.

There. That was easy. I guess we’re done here. Last one out, turn off the lights and lock up.
{…As is now becoming a familiar response: backstage, we hear tell-tale whimpering…}

Yes, Goodboy, I know. That trick didn’t work last week, either.

We strive for detail.
And, the occasional Dreambone.
I’m just saying.

OK, here we go. Throughout this I’ll use “Korea” to mean South Korea. I don’t know what original music is like in North Korea but I’d bet five bucks that Kim Jong Un has the #1 song every week.

The Far East Network was a series of radio stations run by the U.S. Military for the troops in Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere in east Asia, starting in WWII.

When the U.S. entered the conflict on the Korean peninsula, the Far East Network went there, too, eventually setting up nine stations to cover as much territory as possible.

Unlike in Japan, however, the native Koreans didn’t really listen to it. Or maybe they did, but it had no effect on their music. While the Japanese incorporated American jazz, country, and rock & roll into their music, Korea just didn’t.

Through the 1950s and 60s, the big pop genre in Korea was trot.

While it gets its name from the foxtrot, it has little else to do with western music. The closest similar genre we might be familiar with could be the stereotypical lounge singer.

Trot is milquetoast, melodic but repetitive, and conscientiously inoffensive. It doesn’t seem to have been affected by The Beatles or any part of the swinging sixties.

In the 1970s, folk started creeping its way into trot, and the 80s had a lot of ballads. Still, trot was the big genre. There was no rock or rap, in part because there was little exposure to them, and in part because they require a sense of rebellion and rebellion wasn’t allowed.

President Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979 and General Chun Doo-hwan seized power. He put the country under martial law in 1980. There isn’t a lot of mainstream creativity under repressive regimes.

However, Korea’s growing technological and manufacturing economy necessarily meant there was more contact with the west.

Student protests forced Chun out of office and the constitution was amended in 1986 to have direct presidential elections. 

Just prior to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the travel ban was lifted, first for honeymooners and later for everyone else. Censorship laws were somewhat relaxed, too.

People who wanted to hear music from the outside world were able to track it down, and soon the nightclubs in Seoul were playing Michael Jackson and early hip hop.

We can start to see the seeds of K-pop in bands like Sobangcha around this time. They were a three member group and had a boy band vibe. However, their dances were simple and didn’t incorporate hip hop, and their music was still based on trot.

Jeong Hyeon-Cheol wasn’t into trot and wasn’t part of the mainstream.

He played bass in Sinawe, Korea’s first metal band. He wasn’t an original member and the band continued long after he left in 1991.

Still a teenager, he learned MIDI programming and how to use the new digital audio workstations.

For the new group he wanted to create, he used the name Seo Taiji.

He started writing his own music and experimenting with different genres including American style rap. He wanted to add hip hop choreography and approached a dancer named Yang Hyun-suk for lessons. Yang liked Seo’s music so much that he asked to join the group and got Lee Juno, one of the best dancers in the country, to join, too. 

They honed their act and named themselves Seo Taiji And Boys. Some translations have it as Seo Taiji And Kids.

And then came April 11, 1992.

It’s not often we can say a genre started on a particular day, but April 11, 1992 is seen as the start of K-pop.

Seo Taiji And Boys had their first appearance on Korean television that evening. They performed a song they called “Nan Arayo,” which means “I Know.” It’s a break-up song.

“Nan Arayo” sounds quaint now. But its new jack swing beat and Flavor Flav sample were completely new at the time. It was edgy and rebellious. As with anything new, it had its critics. The TV program they appeared on was a talent show and the judges, mostly older people, weren’t impressed. They ranked Seo Taiji And Boys in last place. 

Teenagers thought differently. “Nan Arayo” went to #1 and stayed there for 17 weeks. Their self-titled debut album sold 1.5 million copies in a month. Their introduction of rap, electronica, reggae, rock, and metal, and lyrics criticizing society, into pop music inspired thousands of musicians to follow suit.

Korea’s music industry had always marketed music towards people in their 30s and 40s. You know, people with jobs and money. Seo made music for young people. Once teenagers heard someone raging against the machine, well, trot wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

The music industry caught on and started making music for youngsters.

Major corporations – like LG, Hyundai, Samsung, and others – saw the potential and started their own labels as money making ventures.

Despite disapproval by older generations, or maybe helped along by it, the band’s second album, “Seo Taiji And Boys II,” was the first in Korean chart history to sell two million units.

That’s remarkable in a country of only 44 million at the time. 

Seo’s lyrics got more pointed.

A song on their “Seo Taiji And Boys III” album, “Kyoshil Idea” which means “Classroom Idea,” talked about how the education system put unreasonable expectations and pressure on kids.

This worried the government and parents, who were also spooked by the band’s dreadlocks and clothes. Older folks thought Seo was a bad influence and there was a rumor that he was a satanist.

Another rumor – stop me if you’ve heard this before – was that there were dark messages in the music that could be heard by playing the records backwards.

…You are my candy, girl…” reversed =

He used his popularity and independence from any agency to criticize the government and refused for his music to be censored. That’s why one song on their fourth album had no vocals at all.

The Public Performance Ethics Committee had the power to order songs changed and/or prevent them from being released at all. They objected to a Seo song called “Regret Of The Times” that included the lines:

Gone is the era of honest people…. I wish for a new world that’ll overturn everything….

I hope I can avenge the grudge in my heart.”

“Regret of the Times” (시대유감)
Seo Taiji And Boys – #1, Korean Music Chart, OCTOBER 1995

The grudge was related to several incidents that showed the government’s incompetence and coldheartedness.

In 1994, a bridge collapsed killing 32 people. The next year, a department store fell in upon itself, killing over 500.

Both were due to poor construction and maintenance. These weren’t the government’s only failures.

Seo refused to change his lyrics and put it on the album as an instrumental. Fans quickly understood why. The committee was shocked by the number of angry letters they received. In response, they tried to remove all Seo Taiji And Boys records from the market, which led to public protests in the streets. Even older people made their objections known.

After 60 years of doing so, the committee stopped pre-screening music before its release. In celebration, Seo released an EP of “Regret Of The Times” with the lyrics intact.

He had outsmarted them.

This is part of the reason Seo Taiji is called “the president of culture.”

Not only did he help introduce western music to Korea, he refused to be bullied into silence.

He stood up against government interference in art and called out their corruption and incompetence. Maybe not single-handedly, but Seo Taiji And Boys made it possible for Koreans to speak their minds.

However, the pressure was getting to him. Seo decided to break up the band while recording that fourth album, which surprised Yang and Lee, though they were good enough at business to not announce the decision until after the album cycle. It sold 2.6 million copies. Then they released a statement saying that they’d done all they could and it was up to the audience to continue their work of making the world more fair.

Chaos ensued. Students didn’t go to school. There were street protests and suicide attempts. That’s how big a deal Seo Taiji and Boys were in Korea in 1996.

Seo took a couple years off before starting a solo career. Yang and Lee each started record labels and Yang’s YG Entertainment now represents some of the biggest K-pop acts. 

Not only were teenagers quick to buy K-pop records, they were quick to start K-pop groups.

They weren’t the only ones. Entertainment agencies began putting acts together.

The first to break through was SM Entertainment’s band H.O.T. It’s spelled “hot” but pronounced as individual letters which stand for “Highfive Of Teenagers.” (Remember, kids, when you name your band: you may outgrow it. The members of Sonic Youth are in their 60s and 70s now.) 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for:
The Beach Octogenarians!

SM’s founder, Lee Soo-man, saw the results of a poll of teenagers about what qualities they like in singing groups.

Once he understood that, he found five good looking boys who could sing, rap, and dance, and named them H.O.T. With their bright clothing, ever-changing hairstyles, and semi-rebellious lyrics, they were the first huge manufactured K-pop band.

However, the idol training system that’s now in place was in its infancy in the 90s.

H.O.T. and other bands may have been put together by corporations, but they didn’t have years of training under their belts. That’s why the dance moves don’t look quite as sharp as we see in current acts.

You might remember from the J-pop article that Japanese talent agencies train idols how to sing, dance, and perform. Japanese fans can watch an idol’s improvement over time. There are similar agencies in Korea except the idols don’t often perform in public until they’re deemed ready. Korean fans generally see only the finished product, and look forward to an idol’s “debut.” Having a good debut is crucial for the rest of their career.

In 1997, the Asian financial crisis put an end to all the labels and agencies started by corporations who knew nothing about music or the music business. Samsung, Daewoo, and the others lost money and closed their music divisions.

The labels and agencies started by musicians and others with industry backgrounds survived.

Following the crisis, they prospered and are still around today. SM, YG, DSP, JYP, and all the others that seem to like acronyms.

The years from Seo Taiji and Boys TV appearance to 2003 is known as the First Generation of K-pop.

It’s characterized by the influence of American pop and hip hop, sweetly romantic and/or rebellious lyrics, colorful outfits and hair, and the simultaneous rise of independent artists and manufactured groups that mimic those artists.

The training system was just being created.

While I didn’t think this would be a two-parter, we’ll cover the remaining three generations in a future installment.

계속 지켜봐 주세요.

Suggested Listening Full YouTube Playlist

Last Night


Regret Of The Times
Seo Taiji And Boys


Baby V.O.X.

School Byeolgok


Love You, Noona
Yoo Seung-jun


Skyblue Dream
Park Jiyoon


Dreams Come True

To My Boyfriend


One Candle


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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:

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Famed Member
June 9, 2023 9:23 am

Fascinating to learn that Seo Taiji wasn’t just another prefabricated teen-idol type of popstar. It sounds like he had real courage and conviction.

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
June 9, 2023 10:23 am

I found the concept of the idol system so disturbing in the J-Pop column, and I imagine there will be more of the same in the 2nd part of the K-Pop column. Is there any movement in either Korea or Japan to dismantle the system? Are people generally aware of the abuses in the system or do they not care as long as the hits hit and idols are cute?

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
June 9, 2023 11:16 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Far be it from me to look askance at Japan and Korea for their idol systems when we have far worse problems on our own shores.

Rural hospitals everywhere in the US are closing their doors because we have a STUPID for-profit healthcare system. Now people in rural areas have to drive hours just to get a spider bite, broken arm or fever of unknown provenance investigated. Basically every country in the world can see as plain as day how messed up our healthcare system is, and they wonder why WE don’t do anything about it.

So, the idol system — while extremely fucked up in its own way — has its own motivations, and the people in those countries have their own blind spots.

JJ Live At Leeds
Famed Member
June 9, 2023 11:29 am

Having a quick listen to some of those 90s tracks in particular they don’t really sound any different from any number of western boy and girl groups of the time. The uniformity of their looks in the photos is striking as well. Whereas last weeks J-Pop choices seem more like they’re from a while other world, especially visually. Though, we’ve only dealt with the 1st generation so maybe that will change.

Fascinating stuff as ever to hear the backstory behind what has gone from a niche concern outside South Korea to selling western culture back to us.

I’d heard the terms K-Pop and J-Pop but the first time I came across them properly was the time I spent in Sydney in 2005. Spotting a small record store in the city centre I was always up for a bit of browsing. Except I walked in to find myself the only ‘westerner’ and the store entirely stocked with K-Pop. A quick scan of the shelves told me i was out of depth so i swiftly left. There’s a sizeable Korean population in Sydney and they have to get their fix somewhere.

Famed Member
June 9, 2023 12:45 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Do you have the trip already booked, or is it a bucket list item?

My favorite foods in Australia were sushi and Thai food. Everywhere I ate sushi, it was fantastic – we can get close to the same here in Philly, but the lows….ugh.

Best Pad Thai I ever ate was in Sydney.

Famed Member
June 9, 2023 12:05 pm

VDog, you continue to raise the bar each week with these entries. This was incredibly educational, and I appreciate you making the continued effort to broaden our musical tastes. I admit, I’m pretty clueless on a lot of the Asian Pop, especially K-Pop, so this was an excellent primer.

So, South Korea in the early 90s faced the same fall of humanity crises with music like America went through in the late 50s with Elvis et al. No doubt every culture in the world has faced a similar seismic shift in youth, it’s just some regime’s have been more successful with their oppressive fear unfortunately. That would be a very interesting book or documentary, tracing the evolution of youth culture worldwide via music.

Much obliged for your continued service to us readers, Professor VDog. Nom-nom-nom!!!

Famed Member
June 9, 2023 12:28 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

We love you, too.

Famed Member
Online Now
June 11, 2023 11:39 am
Reply to  mt58

 💕  🐕  💕 

Last edited 5 months ago by LinkCrawford
Famed Member
June 10, 2023 2:52 pm

“The TV show [Seo Taiji and Boys] appeared on was a talent show and the judges, mostly older people, weren’t impressed.”

This part reminded me of LL Cool J’s historic appearance on SNL. I’m pretty sure LL was the first hip hop artist to be on American TV. Or as Dave would put it, making their network television debut. Give Lorne Michaels credit, even though he gave him one song. LL took a chance and performed “Go Cut Creator Go”, instead of the audience-friendly “I Need Love”. From LL’s vantage point, he must’ve seen a lot of confused people. That’s why at the 3:26 mark you hear the rapper tell the DJ they don’t get it.

These Korean judges had to contend with hip hop and synchronized dancing…at the same time. It was just too much modernity for them to handle.

That audience. Their heads aren’t moving.

At least there were a few game people from the SNL crowd who waved their hands in the air.

Famed Member
June 10, 2023 10:58 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I was a kid when “Planet Rock” came out. I knew hip-hop was here to stay. A passing fad, the older generation said. Now the shoe is on the other foot. The staying power of K-Pop continues to floor me. It’s not Menudo. But when the guys from BTS get older, will they disband, learn how to play guitar and release solo albums, or be replaced, like how Frank Black reminds us on “I Heard Ramona Sing”?

Famed Member
June 10, 2023 8:08 pm
Famed Member
June 10, 2023 10:59 pm
Reply to  Aaron3000

Kurt Cobain had a sense of humor. He would have loved this.

Noble Member
June 12, 2023 12:24 am

> Remember, kids, when you name your band: you may outgrow it.

Or at least have a backup explanation ready. Lil Wayne wasn’t a kid anymore in the 2000s, but at least he was still short.

Famed Member
June 12, 2023 5:41 pm
Reply to  PeiNews

Ralph Macchio is “The Karate Man” in The Karate Kid III.

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