On July 25, an international pop music mega-star will swoop down upon American Airlines Arena. He’s sold millions of albums and drawn countless screaming fans to his side, and it’s likely you’ve never even heard of him. His name is G-Dragon, and he’s the most popular singer in South Korea.
It might seem perplexing that an artist from a tiny East Asian nation, one that doesn’t even rave about nuclear weapons, could draw enough people to fill the AAA. The reason, as it turns out, has as much to do with politics as music. In the late '90s, South Korea began to aggressively subsidize its entertainment industry in an attempt to compete with Japan and the United States as a cultural exporter. Along with film and television dramas, the nation flooded money into pop music, funding enormous labels that created dozens of pop groups and drew from the latest international trends in music. By every measure, K-pop and the Hallyu — "Korean Wave" — succeeded in increasing Korean global stature, but they also resulted in some of most exciting popular music being made today.
Before this wave smacks into Miami during G-Dragon’s show, here are a few songs to help you understand what all the fuss is about.
Girls Generation, "Gee" (2009)
Let's start with the best. This is the alpha and omega of K-pop, the most infectious, joyous piece of pop pleasure the country will ever produce. This song will get you into K-pop, and no matter how deep down the K-hole you go, you’ll never find anything better. It wouldn’t even be exaggeration to call it one of the best pop songs of all time. Explaining the appeal of this song is almost pointless. It’s simply the platonic ideal of a bubblegum pop song, too cheerful and energetic to hate. You smile every time you hear it. It’s happiness. It’s first love.
Bigbang, "Bang Bang Bang" (2015)
Girls Generation may have the best song, but Bigbang is the undisputed king of K-pop. They are not subtle about it — the band's symbol, which you’ll see at any show by them or one of their members, is a golden crown. If you want to know what the Hallyu is all about, it’s right here in one of the behemoth group’s bombastic videos: insane costumes, dynamic dancing, and production values that match, even surpass, those of their Western competitors. And this isn't even their best song — the group has a massive back catalog, having been active since 2006.
Hyuna, "Bubble Pop!" (2011)
It’s an accepted fact that K-pop broke into the rest of the world with “Gangnam Style” in 2012, but the genre was making inroads into the West even before Psy galloped onto the scene. With “Bubble Pop!,” Psy’s video costar Hyuna made it onto Spin magazine’s Best Songs of 2011 list at number nine, topping Fleet Foxes, Britney Spears, and the combined might of Jay-Z and Kanye West. The dubstep-influenced jam later became the first song by a Korean female solo artist to reach 100 million views on YouTube.
G-Dragon, "Coup d'Etat" (2013)
G-Dragon isn’t simply the biggest star in K-pop, but the most. For his 2013 solo album Coup d’Etat, the ambitious provocateur reached across the globe in search of talent, gaining features from Missy Eliot and Sky Ferreira, and recruiting Diplo and Baauer to assist on the title track’s production. It certainly got him noticed in the West, with positive reviews from MTV and the New York Times. Pitchfork, in a rare appraisal of a foreign pop album, was less kind. Issuing a score of 6.1, Cordan Goble called the album “an intriguing listen, if not an important one.” Decide for yourself whether he's right or wrong.
Ga-In feat. Bumkey, "Fxxk U" (2014)
With an English four-letter word in the chorus, this may be one of the only Korean songs too profane even for American airwaves. Ga-In’s steamy, sordid video for “Fxxk U” tells a tale of a domestic struggle turned bloody, less in line with the country’s bubblegum pop and more with the violent cinema of homegrown directors like Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) and Kim Ki-duk (Moebius, Pieta). In conservative South Korea, the song was called “unfit for broadcast” by broadcasters SBS. And who knows what the American reaction might have been? Regardless, you have to respect Ga-In’s courage — there hasn’t been a song like this since.
Taeyang , “Eyes, Nose, Lips” (2014)
Unlike his more flamboyant Bigbang bandmate G-Dragon, Taeyang likes to keep things suave and sensual. Taking influence from North American singers such as Frank Ocean and the Weeknd, he’s considered Korea’s most prominent R&B star thanks to romantic songs such as “Wedding Dress” and this piano ballad, his first number one on the Gaon charts. Even if you can’t understand the lyrics, you can feel the passion in his voice as you stare at his shirtless torso in the video. No wonder he’s been called the Korean Justin Timberlake — he’s bringing sexy back more effortlessly than ever before.
f(x), "Four Walls"
By far, the most refreshing quality of Korea’s pop industry is its willingness to experiment. Take this breezy, club-ready track from girl band f(x), which somehow preceded the recent tropical house trend by a year and fused it with UK garage. It’s also somewhat of a personal statement: Originally a five-piece group, f(x) nearly broke up in 2014 after one of the members abruptly quit. The remaining quartet persevered, reconvening the following year with this spectacular tune. It’s all in the hook: “Love is four walls.” The four members of f(x) are the walls, and they’re holding up the house.
SHINee, "Sherlock (Clue + Note)"
Boy bands are a dime a dozen in the Korean music industry, to the point that labels often convene multiple versions of the same band to sing in different languages. SHINee isn’t one of them, but the band has been recognized as one of the most trendsetting, risk-taking groups in the game. Take this flamboyant, experimental track, with its unconventional rhythm, trumpet hits, and doo-wop harmonies. If “Sherlock” inspires you to search for clues of your own, try this sketch from SNL Korea. If you can understand even a single reference, you’ll be well on your way to understanding K-pop.
Blackpink, "Playing With Fire"
One of the newest groups burning up the charts is also one of the most intriguing. Of its four members, only one was raised in Korea; the others were plucked from obscurity in Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand. In a milestone for label YG Entertainment, Blackpink features the label’s first non-Korean hire. The group’s relative diversity may have something to do with its international appeal — it recently became the first K-pop group to debut on the Canadian Hot 100, with “Playing With Fire.” Or it could be that Blackpink's music is an extension of what K-pop has always been: extremely fun.
BTS, "Blood Sweat & Tears"
K-pop’s ugliest moment in the West came earlier this year when boy band BTS won Best Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards, pulling an upset over the likes of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. As many celebrated what was seen as an achievement for international representation in American music, others engaged in open racism on Twitter, wondering, “Who are these Asians?” When you see something as ambitious as the group’s video for “Blood Sweat & Tears,” of course, you understand how they could have won. It might as well be a message to the American music industry: Korea is here, and it’s here to stay.
Bonus: G-Dragon, "Untitled, 2014"
G-Dragon's latest single is a simple, spare piano ballad off an album where he uses his own name for the title, Kwon Ji Yong. Upon its release earlier this year, it instantly topped all the charts in Korea, an achievement known as a "Perfect All-Kill." After years in the game, all it takes for this mega-star to soar above the competition is piano and vocal.
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