“@YouTube WHO THE FUCK IS GIRLS GENERATION?!?!?!?”
This was one of many similar tweets posted on November 3 after Korean girl group Girls’ Generation won the biggest award at the inaugural YouTube Music Awards. The people who tweeted things like this probably aren’t aware that Korean popular music, or K-pop, is one of the fastest growing music industries on the planet. And just like western popular music, K-pop isn’t any one thing: K-pop artists range from dance, trap, or rock to jazz-pop, country-pop, and tons of other styles. If you also happen to be one of the uninitiated, this brief summary of 2013 K-pop may be a good place for you to start.
The very first thing I did in 2013 was watch the new Girls’ Generation music video. I woke up after a night of watching Ryan Seacrest, checked my phone, and saw that the nine-piece girl group had released the music video for their newest song, “I Got a Boy”. The song was unlike anything I had ever heard. With tempo changes, key changes, machine-gun rapping, ecstatic singing, and loud, in-your-face synths, it immediately became my new favorite song and remains my song of the year. The now iconic video is the one that caused such anger and confusion for kids on Twitter targeted at the YouTube Music Awards when it won for Video of the Year. But it’s clear to see why it won. Music videos are essential to K-pop’s life outside of Korea, because you’ll rarely hear K-pop on western radio and most groups and artists aren’t on Spotify here. So the video is the primary way K-pop songs spread, and with “I Got a Boy”, Girls’ Generation set the bar high for 2013 videos.
Of course, we can’t talk about K-pop music videos without mentioning PSY. You may remember “Gangnam Style”, which is the most viewed video on YouTube of all time. But he also has the most viewed video of 2013: his cookie-cutter follow-up, “Gentleman”. The song isn’t as good, but the video is even better and features my favorite K-pop singer, Ga-in. Where “Gangnam Style” had the horse dance, “Gentleman” has the hip dance. The dance move is actually very famous in the K-pop world. It comes from Brown Eyed Girls’ 2009 music video for “Abracadabra”. (Brown Eyed Girls are a four-piece K-pop girl group that features Ga-in and was one of the first of the modern K-pop girl groups; they also released an album this year, and although there are some great disco songs on it, the lead single “Kill Bill”, complete with a Tarantino-style video, was not as strong as their singles usually are.) PSY may seem like a goofy novelty act to many in the west, but he’s actually been around in K-pop since his number one hit in 2001, Bird”. He is also something of an outlier because, unlike most K-pop artists, PSY writes and produces his own music.
Another major figure who does that is G-Dragon: Originally a member of boy band BIGBANG, G-Dragon has gone solo and become K-pop’s true auteur. In April, he released the video for his trap masterpiece “미치GO”, which is as bizarre and eccentric as the song itself. At the second annual KCON, an L.A.-based convention for K-pop fans that drew over 20,000 people this year, G-Dragon premiered a new collaboration with legendary rapper Missy Elliot. The song appears on his sophomore album released this year, Coup d’Etat, alongside collaborations with Diplo, Baauer, Sky Ferriera, and others. The album shows off his skills as a dynamic rapper and singer who is not just competent, but innovative in a number of styles.
In June, Girl’s Day released the video for their single “Female President”, which finds a girl convincing herself to make the first move with a guy because South Korea has a female president. In the chorus, Yura raps, “What’s the problem? If a girl kisses first, does she get arrested, or what?” Although the group released an album earlier in the year, “Female President” is a much stronger and more notable single than most of their previous work. In July, girl group f(x) released their album Pink Tape, featuring the incredible lead single “Rum Pum Pum Pum”. The group had previously been featured in a Funny or Die sketch in April with Anna Kendrick, teaching the American actress how to be in a K-pop group. The summer also saw the release of a double album by boy band SHINee, which shows off the guys’ strong vocals and dense, stylistically eclectic arrangements.
But nothing shook things up this summer quite like Crayon Pop. The five-piece girl group is a bit left-of-center and had failed to gain traction with their first few singles in 2012. But with , “Bar Bar Bar”, they became a new sensation. The song and video are bratty, obnoxious, and totally awesome. Its hallyu style is so extreme it can convincingly be taken as satire. But one thing that’s certain is that it’s going to get stuck in your head and annoy you probably forever.
More recently, singer IU released one of my favorite albums of the year, Modern Times. IU is known for her beautiful soprano voice and her adventurous music, and Modern Times does not fail to deliver on either end. Her previous singles “Good Day” and “You and I” embraced the cheesiest qualities of disco pop and made them sound fresh and sincere. And with her new album, the singer-songwriter focuses on jazz-pop styles, using elements of cabaret and musical theater, gypsy jazz, and bossa nova throughout the 12 songs. It’s bold and risky, but extremely successful, musically and commercially—her theatrical single “The Red Shoes” reached number one in Korea and the K-pop charts in the U.S.
Notable this year is the absence of girl group Wonder Girls. After 2012’s successful “Like This” and the English-language collaboration with Akon, “Like Money”, Wonder Girls went on hiatus for 2013 when it was announced that leader SunYe would be getting married. 2013 also saw a disappointing year from 2NE1, another popular girl group. With the various mediocre singles they put out this year, 2NE1 failed to pick up the proper momentum of a full album release, and the best music from the group was actually CL’s solo rap song “The Baddest Female.”
If 2013 has proved anything, it’s that K-pop’s relationship with the west could be much more than a passing fad like “Gangnam Style”. The success of the genre has even inspired British girl group Little Mix to release a Korean language version of their song “Wings”. In 2013, K-pop has not only accounted for some of the best pop music of 2013, but it has made a big impact on the west as well, evidenced by Girls’ Generation’s win at the YouTube Music Awards, “Gentleman” being the most viewed video of the year on YouTube, the success of KCON, and sold-out arena shows across America.