From BTS to BLACKPINK: How K-pop Took Over the Music World

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 
From left to right, Rosé, Jennie, Lisa and Jisoo of K-pop girl group BLACKPINK, from South Korea, perform onstage at the 2022 MTV VMAs, Aug. 28, 2022, at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for MTV/Paramount Global

Although living in the same house with a 13-year-old girl roughly triples your chances of having heard of K-pop — also known as Korean idol music — no matter where on Earth you live, K-pop is king. One of the most popular types of music on the planet these days, South Korea has been turning out K-pop since the 1990s, but it has only made its way to Western ears in the past decade. So, what does K-pop stand for and who are the K-pop music idols?

Blending an alphabet soup of musical styles, sleek dance routines, character building, elaborate music videos and fan-engagement turned up to 11, K-pop creates an immersive experience that defies description, but it helps to imagine the experience of going clubbing at Walt Disney World.


K-pop Is More About Korean Culture Than Music Genre

K-pop is a multi-billion-dollar industry and one of South Korea's most significant cultural exports. The production companies that make it are selling music, sure, but K-pop isn't a musical genre in the classical sense — it has more to do with the country it came from than a category of music.

Although most K-pop lyrics are in Korean, the styles of music drawn upon by the different groups can vary widely: Some K-pop groups offer straight pop music, while others have more of a hip-hop influence or are doing a disco-electronic-dance fusion thing.


What you can say about K-pop in general is that whatever genres it's emulating, the listener is going to experience something frenetic, high-concept and heavily produced. And whether the group is imitating Missy Elliot or ABBA, it's also giving a deep dive into Korean culture.

The Making of a K-pop Idol

Built on the boy band model, K-pop groups entail as few as three and as many as 23 or more members — generally either all-male or all-female, although there are some co-ed groups. K-pop is a fast-paced industry where artists often turn out an album every three to five months.

K-pop stars, called idols, are generally very young — teenagers or in their early 20s. This means kids have to get started early if they're going to make it in the industry, and the process of becoming a K-pop idol is pretty harrowing.


The ins and outs of the K-pop idol training and production system is a heavily fortified industry secret, but the basic path of a fully fledged K-pop idol starts with auditions, with most hopefuls starting the process at around 10 years old. It's not unusual to attend dozens of auditions before being picked up by an entertainment agency.

Jeon Jung-kook and BTS perform during the opening event of the FIFA Football World Cup 2022, Nov. 20, 2022, in Al Khor, Qatar.
Jun Qian ATP Images/Getty Images

After being selected based on looks and stage presence, as well as raw talent in singing and dancing, trainees spend an average of three years in an intensive training program where they practice in gender-segregated studios until late at night, sometimes after a full day at school. Often, however, trainees leave school all together to focus solely on their K-pop idol aspirations.

After a few years of grueling work, trainees are evaluated, and if they pass, they might be selected to debut as part of a new K-pop group.


The History and Evolution of K-pop

Popular music has been produced in Korea since the 1950s, but the 1990s saw the first wave of Korean-language pop music that drew from western R&B and hip-hop traditions. In fact, many critics agree that K-pop was born April 11, 1992, when the boy band Seo Taiji and Boys first performed "Nan Arayo (I Know)" on South Korean television.

The song was a huge hit and, soon after, the South Korean K-pop idol industry was born, with entertainment companies bringing together talent to form groups.


K-pop group Seo Taiji and Boys perform at the 8th Golden Disk Awards (Korea Visual and Records Grand Prize Awards) in 1993 in Seoul, South Korea.
JTBC PLUS/ImaZinS Editorial

"Gangnum Style" Broke South Korean Pop Music Wide Open

By the mid-2000s, this idol culture in South Korean popular music had become a well-oiled machine, which led to some K-pop hits escaping Korea and becoming popular in other parts of the world.

In 2008, girl group Wonder Girls' hit "Nobody" was the first K-pop song ever on the Billboard Hot 100. A year later, K-pop solo act SE7EN collaborated with American artist Lil' Kim on "Girls."


But possibly the most memorable K-pop breakout was Psy's 2012 international hit "Gangnam Style," which had K-pop fans all over the world doing a dance where you pretend to ride a tiny pony. It also proved that an international K-pop idol music hit didn't necessarily require English lyrics.


BTS Turned Bubblegum Pop Into a Korean Wave

Then BTS came along, and with it the Korean Wave broke across the world.

Possibly the most popular group on the planet, this seven-member boy band has built an ultra-dedicated (and protective) fanbase called the BTS ARMY.


Not only have they taken the American media by storm, they've paid a diplomatic visit to the White House, and addressed the United Nations. With the popularity of BTS outside of South Korea has come an increased interest in everything Korean, from skin care to television dramas.

Other acts, like the K-pop girl group BLACKPINK, have also become wildly popular outside of Korea, and the trend is showing no signs of slowing down. New groups and K-pop idols might soon be able to train and debut outside South Korea and become just as popular abroad as in the country where it all started.