Inside the Unrelenting Power of K-Pop: Your Guide to Everything From BTS and Beyond

It's a global phenomenon that transcends borders and language barriers—and it's time you got on board.

By Billy Nilles 29 Apr, 2019 8:25 PMTags

For the last two years, fans have watched as the Billboard Music Awards—an award show dictated by the venerated music publication's iconic charts, themselves dictated by (ostensibly) American music tastes—as the trophy for Top Social Artist has been handed over to an act that's recorded hardly anything in English.

A fan-voted category that once belonged to Justin Bieber, who won six straight years in a row, now seems to be firmly in the clutches of a septet out of South Korea who have been on the forefront of a global music revolution. We're talking, of course, about BTS.

For two years now, the group—comprised of RM, V, Suga, Jimin, Jin, J-Hope and Jungkook—has beaten out the likes of the Biebs, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez while standing as the lone K-Pop representative anywhere in the mix of nominees. But as the popularity of K-Pop across the globe has only grown exponentially, things are changing. And as the Hallyu, or Korean Wave, grows, the rising tide is beginning to, as they say, lift all boats.

Musicians Performing Live on Stage

Take this year's BBMAs, held Wednesday, May 1, for instance. For the first time ever, BTS isn't the only K-Pop group to have earned a Top Social Artist nomination. Though we'd be stunned if anyone was able to beat them—seriously the BTS Army is strong—it's the two other groups from their home country—EXO and GOT7—who we think might give them the best run for their money. (And as for the nominees from the world of Western music—Grande and Louis Tomlinson—well, it's certainly an honor to have just been nominated, we're guessing.)

Whatever happens with the Top Social Artist award on Wednesday, one thing is certain: BTS has helped usher in a global celebration of K-Pop, reminding everyone that music is a universal language that transcends all borders. So before you take a ride on the Hallyu, it's time to get acquainted with all the major players from BTS and beyond.


This septet—comprised of RM, Suga, Jimin, Jin, Jungkook, J-Hope, and V—formed in 2013 when they were just teenagers. Also known as the Bangtan Boys, BTS has become an acronym for Beyond the Scene. Comprised of three rappers and four singers, the group has helped change the sound of K-Pop by writing their own songs with lyrics that focus on personal and social commentary—something the very glossy and aspirational world of K-Pop used to expressly avoid. As result, they've become the biggest K-Pop in the world. With three consecutive No. 1 albums on the U.S. Billboard 200—making them the first and only Korean act to achieve such milestone—they've become the first group since The Beatles to earn three in less than one year. They've teamed with superstars like Nicki Minaj and Halsey, performed on SNL, and even spoken at the United Nations. 


This girl group quartet—comprised of Rose, Jennie, Lisa and Jisoo—has become the female equivalent of BTS on the global scene. After debuting in August 2016, they've become the highest-charting female K-pop act on both Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200. They've collaborated with Dua Lipa, appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Good Morning America, become the first K-pop girl group to grace the cover of Billboard, seen their music videos break YouTube records, and turned in an acclaimed set at the 2019 Coachella festival, making them the first K-pop girl group to perform there. (Epik High became the first group overall back when they performed in 2016.) For a taste of what they can do, look no further than their latest single, "Kill This Love," and its showstopping music video. You won't be disappointed.


One of the two groups giving BTS a run for their money at this year's BBMAs is this septet, comprised of JB, Mark, Jackson, Jinyoung, Youngjae, BamBam, and Youngyeom. Debuting in January 2014, they're a truly multinational, with members hailing from Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand and the United States. While they've yet to make as big a splash as BTS, they became the first Korean act to chart on Billboard's Artist 100—an all-encompassing chart that combines radio airplay, sales data, streaming data and social media activity to rank the top 100 artists in America each week—since PSY in April 2016, when they debuted at No. 45. For a taste of what they have to offer, look no further than their smooth, R&B-inflected "Lullaby," which is sitting pretty at over 76 million views on YouTube.


The other group to challenge BTS at the BBMAs is this boy band whose membership once swelled to 12 guys and two sub-groups, known as Exo-K and Exo-M, who performed in Korean and Mandarin, respectively. Since 2014, they've seen their numbers pared down to a more manageable nine, including Xiumin, Suho, Lay, Baekhyun, Chen, Chanyeol, D.O., Kai, and Sehun. When they arrived on the scene in 2012, they were given a wild backstory involving extraterrestrial origins and superpowers. Aside from the theatricality, they're known for an experimental sound, meaning no song sounds quite like the last. Their fifth studio album, Don't Mess Up My Tempo, was released in November 2018 and arrived at No. 23 on the Billboard 200, marking their highest debut yet. To get a glimpse of what they do best, check out the reggae-tinged "Ko Ko Bop." Trust us. But don't get too used to the current lineup when you do. With military service compulsory in South Korea, Xiumin will be enlist as an active soldier on May 7, meaning EXO will have to make do with just eight members for some time.

Girls' Generation

This girl group has been around, in some shape or form, since their 2007 debut. Initially embracing an electropop and bubblegum pop sound, they've become more experimental over the years, incorporating EDM, hip hop and R&B into their sound. Their first bit of Western attention came in 2013 when the titular single off their album I Got a Boy won Video of the Year at the inaugural YouTube Music Awards. In 2017, Billboard named them the Best K-pop Girl Group of the Past Decade. Their future, however, is up in the air as three of their eight members—Tiffany, Sooyoung and Seohyun, decided not to renew their contracts with SM Entertainment, the company that founded GG, to pursue acting or solo music careers. In August 2018, a subgroup made up of the five remaining members (Sunny, Taeyeon, Yoona, Yuri and Hyoyeon) was formed. Oh!GG released their debut single album, Lil' Touch in September. For a taste of classic GG, look no further than their breakthrough hit, "Gee."

Monsta X

The members of this septet were handpicked by Korean fans on the reality show—or survival show, as it's referred to in South Korea—No.Mercy. Comprised of Shownu, Wonho, Minhyuk, Kihyun, Hyungwon, Joohoney, and I.M., Monsta X's name has a double meaning of "monsters conquering the K-pop scene" and "my star" (taking a cue from "mon," the French word for "my"). Thanks to their suggestive choreography, they've become the mature alternative to much of K-pop's more youthful boy bands. Thanks to an appearance at December's KIIS-FM Jingle Ball, where they became the first K-pop band to perform) and an English language collab with Steve Aoki in March, they seem poised to break big in America in 2019. Check out "Play It Cool" to prepare yourself.


This eight-member guy group, comprised of Hongjoong, Seonghwa, Yunho, Yeosang, San, Mingi, Wooyoung, and Jongho, only released their debut album in October 2018 after a YouTube series chronicled their training in Los Angeles. While their name sounds like a reference to a decade no member was alive during, it actually stands for "A TEEnager Z," which is better than the original moniker of KQ Fellaz, named after their label KQ Entertainment. While they've yet to make any major noise on the charts, their first ever tour, with dates in Brooklyn, Chicago, L.A., London, Paris and 10 more major Western cities, has completely sold out. Check out "Say My Name" to see them in all their tightly-choreographed glory. 


Despite their name, this group only has 13 members in it, each divided into three sub-units with areas of specialization: Hip-Hop, Vocal and Performance. Prior to their debut with a live showcase in May 2015, the members appeared in regular live broadcasts of a show called Seventeen TV, which showed them in training. With a reputation as a "self-producing" idol group, meaning their actively involved in the songwriting process, they've managed become major players in the American K-pop scene in little time and despite making any noise on the charts. Only two years into their career, they were named closers—a spot usually reserved for the most popular performers—for one night of KCON 2017 LA, a K-pop fan convention held in Los Angeles. To marvel at 13 people dancing perfectly in sync, look no further than the music video for their slinky single "Home."


This quintet, one of the most influential acts to shape the K-pop industry since their debut in 2006, has become one of the biggest-selling boy bands in the world, outselling the Backstreet Boys and the Jackson Five with over 140 million records worldwide and counting. They were the first Korean artists to enter Forbers' Celebrity 100 and the 30 under 30 list of most influential musicians in the world, in 2016 and 2017, respectively. They also faced a bit of controversy in early 2019 when Seungri retired from the entertainment industry amidst allegations of his involvement in a prostitution ring, forcing the group to become a quartet. 


This 12-member girl group debuted in 2016 with its members split up into three sub-groups. All 12 vocalists didn't come together to reach their "maximum potential" until 2018 with the release of their first EP, [++]. To see them all in action, check out the video for their undeniably catchy (and oddly capitalized) lead single "favOriTe."


More K-pop royalty here, this quintet-turned-quartet has been dubbed the Princes of K-pop for their impact their music has made in their native country. Debuting in 2008 with a contemporary R&B sound, they've been known to experiments with genres including funk rock, hip hop and EDM. In 2011, they performed at Abbey Road Studios in London, making them the first Asian artists to ever perform there. In December 2017, they faced a bit of tragedy when original member Jonghyun died of an apparent suicide. Despite regrouping and touring as a quartet following their loss, it appears that SHINee fans will have to say goodbye to the group for some time as three of the four remaining members—Onew, Key, and Minho—have enlisted for their mandatory military service since December 2018. They'll always have the group's lone member Taemin and his solo work to fall back on, however. 

Red Velvet

This quintet, comprised of Seulgi, Irene, Wendy, Joy, and Yeri, celebrate the duality that exists in all women. They record music that celebrates either their "red" side—bright, youthful, predominantly pop—or their "velvet" side, which is more mature and primarily R&B. Their debut single "Happiness" arrived in August 2014 and featured production from Chad Hugo of The Neptunes. By 2015, their video for "Dumb Dumb" was the only non-English language entry on Rolling Stone's list of 10 Best Music Videos of the year and in 2019, they became the first K-pop girl group to hold a North American tour in three years. This year, they were also tapped by Ellie Goulding and Diplo for a remix of their track "Close to Me," in which they contribute Korean lyrics to the song.


NCT is K-pop's grand experiment. Why? Because NCT isn't actually one band. Rather, it's an umbrella name for a group of boy bands, under the concept of having an unlimited number of members divided into sub-units based in various cities worldwide. As of January 19, NCT consists of a whopping 18 members, divided into NCT U, NCT 127 (the longitude of Seoul, where this group is based), NCT Dream (the youth-focused group whose members age out at 18) and NCT WayV (based in China). As for what NCT stand for? That's be Neo Culture Technology. The group has only once had each of its members team up on the same project, NCT 2018 Empathy, released in March of last year. To see them all in action, check out the ambitious video for "Black on Black."