Korean pop, typically referred to as K-pop, is an expanding and growing in popularity music genre originating – as you might have guessed – in South Korea. In 2012, PSY's "Gangnam Style" exploded all over the globe and introduced many to the world of K-pop.
But K-pop has existed for over 15 years now, and one could argue that "Gangnam Style" is not that representative of the industry anyway. The "Hallyu Wave", as the spread of Korean pop culture is often referred to, mesmerizes people with its talented, sophisticated, and tireless artists and ever-developing creativity year after year.
For readers who are not familiar with the unique features of the K-pop industry, a good place for introduction is to talk about the structure of the K-pop music business.
Most K-pop artists are either all-male or all-female groups, made up of anywhere from two to fifteen (in rare cases even more!) members. Groups and solo performers work under labels typically referred to as "entertainment companies" where they audition and train for years before debuting.
Some of the biggest entertainment companies in K-pop are SM Ent. (with groups like SNSD, EXO, SHINee, f(x)), YG Entertainment (BIGBANG, 2NE1, AKMU, PSY), Big Hit Ent. (Bangtan Boys), JYP Ent. (GOT7, miss A, TWICE, Jay Park), Woolim Ent. (INFINITE, Lovelyz). Most of them are founded and run by former artists. Entertainment companies know how to appeal to a large audience but still produce quality music, as well as how to best take advantage of the newest technological innovations and trends.
A common concern among fans are the long hours artists spend training and practicing, the strict expectations for looks imposed on them and the alleged "slave contracts" they sign with their companies. It is also commonly alleged that many (especially female) trainees are forced to perform sexual favors in order to be allowed to debut.
In no particular order, here are some of the biggest reasons why K-pop artists deserve all the respect.
They spend years and years training
Entertainment companies hold national and global auditions almost every year and recruit people from all over the world, though the majority of artists are still from Korea. When people sign with a company, they become its "trainees" and are also often referred to as "rookies."
Some of the current SM Ent rookies
Some artists become trainees when they are as young as 13 years old. They balance school and long hours of training. It isn't uncommon for artists to put off pursuing higher education degrees in order to focus on their careers, but many continue to work on those even after becoming popular idols.
Trainees often have to be away from their families for extended periods of time and devote most of their time on training. Some artists train for years before they can debut; one of the most popular K-pop artists, G-Dragon, trained for 11 years; EXO's Suho trained for seven years and 2NE1's Minzy trained for five.
Artists come up with unique concepts for every new release
One of the most pronounced unique things about K-pop is the sophistication and creativity that goes into each new release or "comeback". Comebacks are typically themed, with everything about them - from teasers, to music videos, outfits and stage performances - being based around a specific concept.
Sometimes concepts are as simple as wearing suits while performing and looking mighty fine, such as SHINee in this Japanese release from this year.
Other times, the concept of the comeback involves costume changes and props, and the stage for live performances is changed around it entirely. As the industry becomes more and more competitive, groups often tend to try to come up with more and more creative concepts.
Girl groups also usually have to come out with considerably more elaborate concepts in order to receive the same amount of recognition as guy groups. Some examples include Red Velvet's "Ice Cream Cake" and BTS's "Dope".
New releases every year, sometimes several times in a year
K-pop artists usually have comebacks every year by releasing either an EP usually called a "mini-album" or by coming out with a full album. Often times, if an album's sales soar above a certain number, the artist will release a "repackaged" version which includes several new songs and an entirely new concept which involves another cycle of promotion.
Every comeback involves numerous performances on live and recorded music and variety shows as well as appearances and interviews over the course of several months. The intense comeback activities sometimes coincide with an artist's tour, and so they have to balance promotional events as well as travelling for live concerts.
Some artists (usually younger groups) sometimes release more than one album in an year. Releases might include holiday album editions, EPs in other languages or simply full-album releases. For example, this year BTS released two full-length studio albums, and GOT7 released two full-length studio albums and a repackaged version.
Senior groups whose careers have been going on for more than 5-6 years tend to begin focusing more on solo activities and might not necessarily release new music every year.
An example is BIGBANG who released their album MADE this summer. It was their first release as a group since 2012. The album featured 8 songs and was released in four portions with two songs and music videos coming out every month and featuring separate promotional activities.
2NE1 had been completely silent about any group activities until they appeared together for the first time in over a year and a half at the 2015 MAMA Awards and performed in a spectacular return.
One of the most integral and characteristic parts of K-pop is dance. All title tracks (with the exception of some ballads) feature brand new choreography to match the song. Many other album songs have choreography which is performed at concerts as well.
With the growth of the industry and of competition, artists often have to perform more and more intense choreography, with K-pop being one of the genres with the highest dance intensity.
Typically, groups have designated main dancers - members whose specialty is dance and that is what they trained hardest for. Nevertheless, all members perform the choreography to all songs and are expected to perfect their dancing abilities. Some groups such as EXID, BTS, Orange Caramel and GOT7 are famous for their incredible dancing skills.
Some artists are skilled in different dancing styles as well, such as EXO's Kai who brings his interest in ballet into the group's performances too.
Performing in various languages
Although it sounds illogical for Korean pop to be released and performed in other languages, most artists usually release their music in languages other than Korean too. Most commonly, those are Japanese and Mandarin.
Some groups even have separate sub-units that perform in different languages and record their music in two or more languages. This often means that artists have to memorize lyrics in a language they don't necessarily speak. In addition, most groups always have at least one member who is fluent in another language, be it English, Mandarin, Japanese or others.
At one point or another in the career, most K-pop artists star in some type of TV drama or movie. Some artists have great acting skills, and their careers eventually feature about as much acting as music.
Others appear in productions almost only because of the subtle expectation that has built up around K-pop artists becoming actors. Filming separate productions often takes place at the same time as the artists' commitments in music, which splits their time even further.
They might be very far from home
Many K-pop artists are not Korean and their families live in another country, sometimes all the way across the globe. These artists usually have had to move to Korea and spend huge amounts of time away from home, adapting to a new country, language, expectations and culture, all while training.
Entertainment companies often treat foreign members unfairly, leading to many cases of them leaving their groups and suing their companies (SM Ent has had four such cases so far). Some popular non-Korean idols are f(x)'s Amber (Taiwanese-American), GOT7's Bambam (Thai), Jackson (from Hong Kong) and Mark (Taiwanese-American), EXO's Lay (Chinese) and Cross Gene's Takuya (Japanese).
Really darn good music
Whether or not you enjoy K-pop is, of course, up to one's individual taste in music. However, K-pop is a unique genre with numerous variations and countless incredibly talented artists.
Hosting my own K-pop radio show gave me a chance to explore many more K-pop artists than I normally listen to and showed me the fantastic diversity in K-pop music. There's gotta be an artist for you as well!
Everyone is so good looking!
K-pop artists have an infinite variety of styles, looks and images, and they're all so good looking!