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Now that you’ve discovered K-pop, you’ve probably come to realize that it’s a realm of its own, complete with terms and phrases you may have never heard—and we’re not just talking about the Korean language.
Amid hundreds of idols and thousands of songs, there’s a learning curve if you want to get into more than just the music. K-pop is a culture, which is why we’ve written this beginner’s guide to help you get started.
An all-kill is when a group’s song or album simultaneously takes the top spot of all eight Korean music charts. While it’s expected of the top groups K-pop has to offer, for a rookie or newbie group to reach all-kill status is quite the accomplishment. The first all-kill is usually a good sign that a group is on the path to huge popularity.
Instiz compiles the rankings from the charts to give an overall view of how a song is doing.
If you tell someone you’re a K-pop fan, be prepared to answer the inevitable question, “Who’s your bias?” In a group, there may be anywhere between four and 13 members, but your bias is simply your favorite. Same goes for a “bias group”—it’s the group you love the most in K-pop.
Beware of the bias-wrecker also. It’s a common term K-pop fans use to describe the one member of the group who makes you question your love for your declared bias.
A comeback marks a K-pop group coming back with new music. It’s the equivalent of saying a group is releasing a new album, but instead K-pop fans say that a group is having a comeback. Idols work hard to prepare new comebacks for their fans, practicing choreography, recording, and filming the accompanying music video for months before the release. As such, they release teaser videos, photos, and album medleys, which is a compilation of 10-second previews of all the new songs on the album.
Comebacks often employ a concept, which dictates what kind of feel the song will give and what style will define the fashion. The concepts are most notable through the music videos and stage performances.
The Daesang award is one of the highest achievements a group or artist can achieve. Winning a Daesang focuses on the records released by artists that year and how many copies they sold, both physically and digitally. It is awarded at the two prominent Korean music award shows, the Golden Disk Awards and the Seoul Music Awards.
Idols with eye smiles often look happiest, and fans adore when they sport them. An eye smile happens when an idol’s eyes turn into tiny crescents when they laugh or express joy, looking like smiles themselves.
Behind every K-pop group is a dedicated fan club, big or small, and they play a vital role in a group’s success. When a group gets big enough, its fans earn an official fan club name and color. In Korea fans sometimes officially register with a group’s fan club, but it’s not necessary to do so to become a member. In fact, you don’t have to do anything to become a member of a fan club. As long as you enjoy or support a group, you can choose to identify with that fan club—from wherever in the world you are.
Fan colors are most important for the light sticks fans wave at concerts, which even have a unique design. To top it all off, fan clubs also practice fan chants, which they shout at concerts and performances. It can be anything from echoing a part of the lyrics to chanting all the members’ names in a music break, usually in age order.
At the end of each year, the three major Korean broadcasting companies—SBS, MBC, and KBS—host year-end festival shows of similar names. There’s the SBS Gayo Daejun, MBC Gayo Daejejun, and the KBS Gayo Daechukje. Each show is packed with special stages and performances. Stars perform renditions and remixes of their most popular songs from the year, and also form rare collaborations.
Korean culture values respect for elders, and as such, employs an honorifics system. You’ll hear K-pop stars use them with each other, and fans use them in regards to their idols. Here’s the breakdown: a male calls an older male “hyung” and an older female “noona.” For a female, she would call an older male “oppa” and an older female “unni.”
Since females comprise the overwhelming majority of K-pop fans, “oppa” is heard most often when a girl refers to one of her favorite idols. You’ll notice male stars call each other “hyung” on broadcasts all the time too.
In Korea all idols are celebrities, but not all celebrities are idols. Someone reaches idol status after training for years and successfully debuting either as a soloist or in a group. The word “idol” is probably most interchangeable with “K-pop star.”
Stars are often associated with the entertainment companies they come from, especially if it’s one of the “big three.” First up in the big three labels is JYP Entertainment, led by CEO Park Jinyoung. Park comes out with music of his own now and then and is notorious for whispering “JYP” at the beginning of all his artists’ songs.
JYP’s most prominent artists include Got7, Twice, 2PM, 2AM, Wonder Girls, Miss A, and Day6. Together they make up “JYP Nation.”
KCON is the annual Korean music and culture convention that began right here in America. In 2012 Los Angeles held the first KCON festival, and since then has held one every summer. Many different K-pop stars travel from Seoul to attend. They hold fan engagements and perform their newest music at sold-out arena concerts. KCON also boasts a diverse convention floor, where Korean companies can hold booths and give out promotional freebies.
In the last five years, KCON has expanded internationally. In addition to L.A., in 2015 KCON was held in New York City; Saitama, Japan; and Jeju, South Korea. In 2016 the festival added Abu Dhabi; Paris; and Chiba, Japan.
In a group of stars, one among them is declared the leader. Many times the oldest member is the leader, but not always. If not the oldest, then the most versatile member may earn the title. Leadership qualities include speaking multiple languages or having the longest training period.
Leaders act as the spokesperson for the group. They initiate group introductions and give acceptance speeches when their group wins an award. Opposite the leader is the group’s youngest member, known as the “maknae.”
In Korea there are four major music shows and two smaller ones where idols promote new songs by performing live. The most popular shows include M!Countdown, Music Bank, Music Core, and Inkigayo, which air from Thursday to Sunday. The Show and Show Champion are the other two, which airs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, respectively.
When searching for music show performances on YouTube, you may have noticed a random-looking string of numbers in the title. That would be none other than the airing date. If you want to find a specific stage, you can include the date for a better search. Be aware that it’s in Korean format however, which lists the year, then the month, then the date. So if you wanted a performance from Aug. 30, 2016, you would type “160830”.
A simple definition of the term would be a “citizen of the net.” In K-pop there’s netizens and there’s K-netizens, the former being any international fan online and the latter being Korean fans online. While netizens show their support online through many different campaigns such as trending Twitter hashtags or rallying other fans to rack up views on groups’ music videos, some also earn a bad reputation on different K-pop news outlets.
Netizens are notorious for commenting about or critiquing idols and can sometimes be toxic. They discuss topics such as idols’ weight and appearances, talent, plastic surgery, dating rumors, or scandals, among others.
Also known as “Original Soundtrack,” an OST refers to songs written specifically for a Korean drama. Stars often lend their voices for drama OSTs, which can help with the promotion of a show. Since idols regularly take acting roles in dramas, they sometimes participate in the soundtracks too. It’s also common for a member of a group to sing on the OST while another member acts in the drama. For example, in this summer’s drama Scarlet Heart: Ryeo, Baekhyun of Exo plays a supporting role and sings “For You” with fellow members Chen and Xiumin for the OST.
With every title track comes new choreography, and within that choreography is a point dance. This is the most prominent move of the choreography, usually performed at the beginning of the chorus. When stars are promoting new music, they often teach the point dance to their fans.
Considering K-pop is a much wider genre than it used to be, there is now an endless stream of songs and bands to listen to. Some recommendations to get you going on your K-pop journey:
- Boy bands: Big Bang, TVXQ, Super Junior, Exo, Shinee, Beast, Got7, 2PM, BTS, Infinite, CN Blue, Teen Top
- Girl groups: 2NE1, Girl’s Generation, f(x), Apink, Wonder Girls, Sistar, 4Minute, Red Velvet, Mamamoo, AOA
- Rookie groups: NCT, Seventeen, Monsta X, Twice, Gfriend, Blackpink, iKon
- Soloists: BoA, Psy, Dean, Ailee, Rain, IU, K. Will
Just head on over to YouTube and let the autoplay work its magic.
Running Man is a popular Korean variety show that’s hosted by a fixed cast of six men and one woman. Among the cast members is South Korea’s “MC of the nation” Yoo Jaesuk; actor and “giraffe” Lee Kwangsoo; and the famous Monday Couple, Gary and Song Jihyo.
K-pop idols often guest on this popular show to participate in various challenges with the regular Running Man crew. One of the show’s most well-known games (simply known as the name tag chase game) was one where members wore Velcro name tags on their backs and split up into two teams. The objective was to eliminate the other team’s members by ripping off their name tags.
Next in the set of big three is SM Entertainment, which is also the biggest company in the industry. The label’s founder, Lee Sooman, served as one of the most key players in expanding the K-pop industry and spreading the “Hallyu wave”—a term used to describe the Korean pop-culture global takeover. The first hit groups of K-pop from the ’90s like H.O.T., S.E.S., and Shinhwa, originated from SM.
Today’s popular SM artists include TVXQ, Super Junior, Girl’s Generation, Shinee, f(x), Exo, Red Velvet, and NCT. Together they make up “SM Town.”
Before becoming a star, a K-pop idol must first be a trainee. K-pop has a reputation for producing picture-perfect pop stars, and its rigorous trainee program is the reason why. Most stars join a company as a trainee as early as 12 years old, learning how to sing, dance, and speak new languages—especially foreign trainees who must study Korean.
The training period transforms talented kids into flawless idols, but it’s also one of the most harsh and demanding programs out there.
Much like you have a bias, you may also have an ultimate bias. The ultimate bias is the king or queen of your bias list. The scope reaches out to the whole K-pop genre rather than just one specific group.
Relatively new to K-pop is the V app, which is a platform for idols to livestream to their fans, available on iTunes and Google Play. Some V app appearances are scheduled, but sometimes idols just turn it on at random to share what they’re up to. Since launching last year, the app has become a hit among both idols and fans.
V is free to download and free to watch, though there is some premium content available for purchase as well. Since the broadcasts are online, you can tune in via desktop or mobile, and navigating the channels will help you find content from your favorite groups. English subtitles are also added fairly quickly, making it easily accessible for international fans.
Besides singing, dancing, and modeling, idols are expected to have exceptional variety skills, and what better place to showcase them than on the variety show Weekly Idol? The show guarantees a good laugh and a chance for idols to show off their personalities. Weekly Idol features hilarious segments like “Random Play Dance,” where idols have to pick up the choreography at any point in a song and execute it perfectly. They also participate in various challenges where they’re rewarded with highly coveted, premium Korean beef or punished with embarrassing actions like writing their names with their butts.
If you’re trying to learn the members of a group or figure out who your bias is, Weekly Idol is highly recommended.
For some reason, male idol groups prepare cross-dressing stages all the time. Stars pick a popular girl group song, get custom-made outfits, and learn the choreography. Sometimes they even sing the high-pitched songs themselves, and the manlier the idol, the funnier it is. It’s actually not uncommon at all, and groups usually do this for special concerts or music programs as a treat for fans. Although there is still a heavy social stigma around homosexuality and transgender topics, cross-dressing idols aren’t seen as strange and are enjoyed by many.
YG Entertainment is spearheaded by founder Yang Hyunsuk. While SM was responsible for growing the K-pop genre, YG hosts the K-pop artists who have found the most international fame.
Many of the names from YG are globally recognized, like Psy, Big Bang, and 2NE1. Also under the YG label include Epik High, Akdong Musician, iKon, Winner, Lee Hi, and Blackpink. Collectively they make up “YG Family.”
Zion.T is one of YG’s soloists, and the singer is a hip-hop and R&B artist. He dabbles into K-pop every now and then though by featuring in songs of popular idols, including Shinee’s “Jonghyun” and Infinite’s “Dongwoo” and “Hoya.”
If you’re looking to get into Korea’s hip hop and R&B music scene, Zion.T is a great gateway artist. You’ll find him collaborating with some of the genre’s biggest names or having them work with him on his own music. He helps foster the close-knit circle of Korean hip-hop, comprised of artists like Crush, Dok2, Gaeko, Primary, Dynamic Duo, and Beenzino, to name a few.
Sherry Tucci is a fandom reporter who specializes in Korean pop culture and anime. In addition to her work at the Daily Dot, her reporting has appeared in the Daily Texan.