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

K-pop is a global phenomenon that has transcended borders and language barriers—and it's time you got on board.

By Billy Nilles Oct 17, 2020 2:00 PMTags
Watch: Justin Bieber Explains Why BTS' "Dynamite" Is Such a Big Deal

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

A fan-voted category that once belonged to Justin Bieber, who won six 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 their first two years, the group—comprised of RM, V, Suga, Jimin, Jin, J-Hope and Jungkook—had 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 have changed. And as the Hallyu—or Korean Wave—grows, the rising tide is beginning to, as the saying goes, lift all boats.

Musicians Performing Live on Stage

Beginning at the 2019 ceremony, BTS ceded their title as the lone K-pop group to have earned a Top Social Artist nomination. Though no one has been able to beat them yet—seriously, the BTS Army is strong—they've faced stiff competition in the category by fellow South Korean acts EXO and GOT7 this year, as well as last. (And as for the nominees from the world of Western music—Grande and Billie Eilish—well, it's certainly an honor to have just been nominated.)

Outside of the microcosm that is the BBMAs, however, one thing is clear: BTS has helped usher in a global celebration of K-pop, reminding everyone that music is a universal language that transcends all borders. In just the month of October alone, fans of the genre have had projects from five acts to look forward to, including the highly-anticipated debut album from BLACKPINK on Oct. 2, with the latest from BTS expected at the end of November.

In other words, there's never been a better time to take a ride on the Hallyu. If you're late to the party, don't worry. Allow us to get you 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. Made up 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 four consecutive No. 1 albums on the U.S. Billboard 200—making them the first and only Korean act to achieve that 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. And with "Dynamite," their first all-English song, they finally achieved a long sought-after goal and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.


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 the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts. They've collaborated with Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga and Cardi B, 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, as 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 "Lovesick Girls"—their latest single off their debut LP, The Album—and its showstopping music video. You won't be disappointed.


One of the two groups to give BTS a run for their Top Social Artist money at this year's Billboard Music Awards is this septet, comprised of JB, Mark, Jackson, Jinyoung, Youngjae, BamBam, and Youngyeom. Debuting in January 2014, they're 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 110 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." The album also served as their last as a group of nine. With military service compulsory in South Korea, Xiumin and D.O. had to sit out of 2019's Obsession, while Lay only performed on the Chinese version. As a sextet, the album peaked at No. 182 on the Billboard 200.

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 album, Lil' Touch, that 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. After a 2018 appearance at KIIS-FM Jingle Ball, where they became the first K-pop band to perform; an English-language collab with Steve Aoki in March 2019; and the sudden departure of Wonho that October, they broke big with the release of All About Luv in February 2020. Their first all-English album gave them their first entry on the Billboard 200 chart, peaking at No. 5.


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, completely sold out in 2019. 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 they're 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." New album Semicolon drops Oct. 19, 2020.


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." Their third EP, [12:00], arrived Oct. 19, 2020.


More K-pop royalty here, this quintet-turned-quartet has been dubbed the Princes of K-pop for the impact their music has made in their native country. Debuting in 2008 with a contemporary R&B sound, they've been known to experiment 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 suffered a 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—enlisted for their mandatory military service in December 2018. They'll always have the group's lone member Taemin and his further endeavors 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. That same year, they were also tapped by Ellie Goulding and Diplo for a remix of their track "Close to Me," contributing 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 press time, NCT consists of a whopping 23 members, divided into NCT U (a group with members that are constantly fluctuating based on who fits the particular project), NCT 127 (the longitude of Seoul, where this group is based), NCT Dream (the youth-focused group whose members age out at 18) and WayV (based in China). As for what NCT stands for? That's Neo Culture Technology. The group first had all of its members team up on the same project in 2018 when NCT 2018 Empathy was released. On Oct. 12, they released their latest all-hands-on-deck project, NCT 2020 Resonance Pt. 1. The album featured all 21 members of NCT 127, NCT Dream and WayV, as well as newcomers yet to be sorted, Shotaro and Sungchan. To see some of them in action, check out the ambitious video for "Make a Wish (Birthday Song)."


This group is very new to the scene, only formed by SM Entertainment in 2019, but each of the seven members arrived with a built-in fanbase as they'd all previously been a part of another boy band. Taemin came from SHINee, Baekhyun and Kai from EXO, Taeyong and Mark from NCT 127, and Ten and Lucas from WayV. Their status as the Avengers of K-Pop helped their self-titled debut EP enter the Billboard 200 at No. 1, a first for any Asian artist on their first at-bat. In September 2020, they dropped their first full-length album, Super One, and a merch collaboration with Marvel.


The other new kids on the scene, the quintet comprised of Soobin, Yeonjun, Beomgyu, Taehyun and Huening Kai made their debut in 2019 with EP The Dream Chapter: Star. It entered the Billboard 200 at No. 140, an impressive feat for true newcomers. They've since released a full-length album and a second EP, with their third on the way. minisode1: Blue Hour drops Oct. 26, 2020.

(Originally published on April 29, 2019 at 1:25 p.m. PT.)

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