The Birth of Korean Cool, as the title of the book suggested, was meant to explain how the worldwide reverence for everything Korean came to be. Instead of a complete history of how the phenomenon unfolded, the book turned out to be a memoir of the author’s stay in Korea during her school days and her take on the western world’s obsession with Korean culture post Gangnam Style. As a result, a couple of decades of key events and artists that set the K-pop trends have been restricted to a few mentions in a single chapter. The book, though informative, has failed at doing justice to the biggest cultural export of the country.

The following is an effort to enlighten existing and future kpop fans on the artists and songs that shaped this vibrant music genre. Knowing the backstory to a good creative effort makes the audience appreciate it even better. Hopefully this write-up will have the same effect on patrons of Korean Media.

Seo Taiji and Boys – Nan Arayo

This rare footage is of Seo Taiji and Boys’ performing their debut song “Nan Arayo” in a show where new artists could promote their songs. Apparently, the judges in this particular episode gave the song the lowest score. But the song, despite this negative criticism, became a massive hit propelling the band to new levels of fandom. All of their 4 albums were chartbusters and influential to the point that their song “Come Back Home” actually made many runaway kids return home.

Apart from Seo Taiji attaining god level popularity, the band also had Yang Hyun Suk as one of the members (the tallest of the three). Yang Hyun Sook (aka Yang Goon or YG) is none other than the founder and CEO of YG Entertainment – One of the 3 biggest record labels in South Korea and the one that promotes artists such as Big Bang, 2NE1 and the man with the most views for a video on Youtube – PSY!

Nan Arayo was a milestone in Kpop history, paving way for western music to be accepted in the country and boy bands to flourish. Seo Taiji can be safely proclaimed as the father of Kpop.

Seo Taiji and Boys – Come Back Home:

This is the title song of their last album. The trio decided to split at this stage thinking that stopping at the peak of your career is far better than fading into obscurity after years of making music. Seo Taiji returned to making music after several years but focused on heavy metal. YG went on to start YG Entertainment. The third member, Lee Juno, is like Ringo Starr/George Harrison – Not much is discussed about him.

Seo Taiji special episode of Happy Together is a must watch for anyone interested in the history of the legend – recited by the legend himself.

S.E.S – I’m Your Girl

S.E.S was one the first commercially successful girl groups in Korea. They were one of the few to perform in the 1999 Seoul concert of Michael Jackson & Friends. ‘I’m your Girl’ was their biggest hit which, till date, is performed by other girl groups on special occasions.

DJ Doc – Run to you

This song, released in 2000, apparently, is still being played in clubs in South Korea. It’s no surprise given that the song is quite catchy. Apart from being the most played song in clubs, what’s interesting is that the lead dancer in this video was a girl named Park Ji-Young who at the time of the release of this video was struggling to make it big in showbiz. In spite of the song’s immense popularity she didn’t become famous. It was only after 9 years that she tasted fame as the leader of the girl group After School with the stage name ‘Kahi’.

Park Jin Young – Honey

Park Jin Young a.k.a JYP is the founder and CEO of JYP Entretainment which is one of the three biggest record labels in South Korea. Unlike the founding members of the other two record labels (all 3 founders are singers) JYP continues to make music. While S.M Entertainment and YG Entertainment have been successful in making their artists famous in South East Asia, JYP Entertainment artists have been able to cut across in the west. Notable bands and artists that JYP promotes include 2AM, 2PM, Miss A and the biggest star to emerge after Seo Taiji in South Korea – Rain

Rain – Rainism

Rain by far is the most successful artist to come out of Korea. Initially promoted by JYP, Jung Ji-Hoon a.k.a Rain gained fame as a singer and an actor in both TV and Films. His stint in TV serials gained him popularity in entire South East Asia. This fame got him noticed in the west which led him to play a lead role in a Hollywood film, Ninja Assassin.

TVXQ – Mirotic

TVXQ was one of the first bands from South Korea that was promoted and gained popularity in Japan. They gained such immense popularity that the fans also got involved in the dispute that came up when three of the band members wanted to leave SM Entertainment. TVXQ in fact is one of the few bands whose appeal across countries led to the ‘Korean Wave’ phenomenon.

Lexy – Ae song

Lexy is nowhere in the league of all the artists/bands mentioned here. But, this particular song has been included to get a glimpse of our Gangnam Style hero, Psy, before he became famous. This song was released in 2003, about 9 years before the release of ‘Gangnam Style’.

Lee Hyori – 10 Minutes

Lee Hyori was a member of Fin KL, a girl group famous for being the rivals of S.E.S. “10 Minutes” was a solo performance by Lee Hyori while still in the band. The song was a huge hit which won several prestigious awards and established her career as a solo artist. Debuted in 1998 and with performances till date, Lee Hyori can be considered as the Madonna equivalent for Kpop.

Wonder Girls – Tell Me

The importance for simple dance steps that people could imitate and enjoy dancing to the song was highlighted with the breakthrough hit, “Tell Me” by Wonder girls. The simple dance steps and the catchy tune made fans not only dance to it but record them dancing and upload the videos. The same phenomenon that happened at a mass scale with “Little Apple” by Chopstick Brothers.

Wonder girls – Nobody

“Tell Me” and several other songs made Wonder girls the most popular girl group in the entire South East Asian region. It was around this time when Kpop slowly started gaining popularity in US. Sighting a potential, JYP started promotion Wonder girls in US with their new single “Nobody”. The song had a Korean as well as English version. However, the band failed to make it big in USA. This was in spite of them touring with Jonas Brothers.

SNSD – Gee

In 2009, while Wonder girls were busy trying their luck in US, the home market was swept away by SNSD, otherwise called Girls Generation, with their hit song “Gee”. Though it was not their debut single, this song can be considered the starting point for the SNSD madness that shows no signs of fading out even now. The band has been delivering hits one after the other for years. Run Devil Run, Oh! and Genie to name a few.

Super Junior – Sorry Sorry

This 12 member boy band, apart from delivering hit songs also entertained people across TV, Radio and movies. Some of the members were radio djs, some were actors and some were featured regularly on Variety shows. This helped the band get extensive media coverage without putting any effort on marketing. The other agencies noticing this have started training their artists to be proficient in fields other than music. One of the largest boy bands (12!) with several hits, there is a boy band yet to emerge to overtake them in terms of popularity.

Big Bang – Lies

The most popular boy band to come out of YG Entertainment is Big Bang. With both G-Dragon and Taeyang having successful solo acts, Big Bang is sort of a Supergroup. Called the “Nation’s Boy Band”, they are the only ones that can match up to Super Junior in terms of popularity.

Hyuna – Change

Hyuna initially debuted as a member of Wonder Girls but then dropped out due to personal reasons. After a few years she ended up as a member of the girl group 4minute. But her claim to fame has been the song “Change” which established her career as a solo artist. Unlike Lee Hyori, Hyuna continues to perform both as a solo artist and as a member of 4minute.

Psy – Gangnam Style

To quote LOTR, Gangman Style is the “One song to sway them all”. People find Kpop boy bands weird. Girl group songs have created a Youtube economy of “Reacting-to” videos in which the songs are made fun of. But this was not the case with Gangnam Style. The song was universally accepted without any negative criticism. There were hardly any English lyrics, yet the song played in clubs and parties all over the world. The song was famous for the randomness in the video, funny (and simple) dance steps and of course tune. What people didn’t know were the cameos of a couple of the biggest celebrities in Korea. The goofy guy in the yellow suit was Yu Jae-Suk – the ‘MC of the Nation’ and the girl in the subway was Hyuna, who was already a big star in the home market and also happened to be from a different agency (Psy – YG Entrtainment, Hyuna – Cube Entertainment). Gangnam Style, which doesn’t resemble a run-of-the-mill kpop song in any manner, made the western world curious about the genre that was topping the charts in all of South East Asia.

Gangnam Style meme

Hyuna – Bubble Pop

What JYP Entertainment couldn’t achieve in US with Wonder girls, Cube Entretainment did it with this song. The music video for Bubble Pop went viral and she became more than just the girl dancing in Gangnam Style. Eventually her fame led her song “Red” to be rated at #5 among the Rolling Stone’s Top Ten videos of 2014

T-ara – Roly Poly

If there ever was a girl group that came closest to beating SNSD at its game, it was T-ARA. The 6 member group launched with a bang in 2009 and delivered hit after hit for a couple of years. ‘Roly Poly’ was their biggest hit which became the most downloaded song in 2011.

SNSD – I Got a Boy

And here is the answer from SNSD to the looming competition and the onset of fading popularity. If ‘Gee’ set them on their journey to be the most popular girl group for the longest period, ‘I Got a Boy’ was a trendsetter for Kpop as a whole. The sudden shifts in music genres within one song, is something that is blatantly copied by other bands nowadays. EXID – Up & Down is a classic example. ‘I Got a Boy’ even secured the Video of the Year award in US. The fact that one can find Caucasian Ajusshis in the audience going mad for this song’s live performances is proof that Kpop has officially started its onslaught in the rest of the world.

The starting point as a source for this entire write-up has been Korean Variety Shows. This led to checking Wikipedia and Youtube for more information. As a result, this write-up might not be entirely accurate. If you have somehow reached till here and still reading, please feel free to suggest corrections and/or additions.

Now feast yourself to the ultimate Kpop playlist which includes all of the songs mentioned here and also many other popular ones. The playlist has a lot of live performances since the fanchants make the videos much more entertaining and the screams will tell you how popular these songs are. Enjoy and Hwaiting! Music
The Birth of Korean Cool, as the title of the book suggested, was meant to explain how the worldwide reverence for everything Korean came to be. Instead of a complete history of how the phenomenon unfolded, the book turned out to be a memoir of the author’s stay in...