Thursday, April 08, 2010

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists Series: Introduction & Brief History

[Series Index]

It’s finally here – the much-anticipated 50 Most Influential K-Pop Artist Series.

This series will be about the influence on pop culture that K-pop artists had, not about who is the “greatest,” “most popular,” or “most innovative.” Of course an artist can be influential by being original, but originality alone is not the determinant of where a particular artist ranks. Rather, the rank of a particular artist will depend on the answer to this question: “How much influence did the artist(s) have on Korean pop culture?”

The influence can be both direct and indirect. The artist can be influential by being directly in the public consciousness for a decade, or by being influencing other artists who collectively changed the faces of Korean pop culture. In other words, this ranking has room for a short-lived innovator who was little known among Korean public, as long as the innovator influenced many other artists who in turn influenced Korean pop culture. This ranking also has room for a hugely popular K-pop artist whose music might be considered cheap and banal, as long as that popularity influenced Korean pop culture somehow.

Important part is that “influence” can be generated not simply from performing music, but also from other music-related activities. This is very significant for a number of people who are ranked, because they exerted influence on Korean pop culture as producers, composers, radio and TV show hosts, etc. However, for completely arbitrary reasons, the Korean limited the ranking to people who actually did some singing. (One can argue that the greatest Laker ever is the team owner Jerry Buss, but most people would think of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant first.)

Before we get into the actual rankings, some history lesson is in order because K-pop in the current form that is popular around the world (and therefore mostly known to AAK! readers) revolves around boy/girl bands. In fact, the word “K-pop” at this point may have come to mean only Korean boy/girl bands instead of Korean pop music in general. But for the purpose of this series, K-pop is used to mean “Korean popular music,” i.e. commercially recorded music for the purpose of being consumed by the general public, which would exclude Korean traditional music or classical music.

At any rate, K-pop is much, much more than boy/girl bands. It has a short but rich history that acutely reflects Korea’s modern history. In fact, the history of K-pop as a whole can be fascinating narrative of how cultural transplantations operate, and how creativity flowers even in the face of constricting forces – be it political, social, or commercial.

Brief History of K-Pop

K-Pop Genre Influence Chart

Here is what will be known as the Korean’s most important contribution to K-pop critique. Introducing… K-Pop Genre Influence Chart.

First, about the technical details. Each decade (except for 1960s) has three columns, which stands for “early,” “middle” and “late” decade. In other words, the first column under 1990s means “early 1990s.” There are 20 rows, which each row representing roughly 5 percent. So if “hard rock” in the late 1990s takes up two rows, it means that hard rock had about 10 percent influence out of all available Korean pop music at that time.

This chart is necessary in order to put a given artist’s place in history in perspective. The Korean can talk about the greatest Korean heavy metal band of the late 1980s, but what does that mean? How does the greatest Korean heavy metal band of the late 1980s compare to the greatest Korean rapper in early 2000s in terms of influence?

Of course, like everything else on this blog, this chart is arbitrary and capricious to the Korean’s whim. Everything on the chart is the Korean’s estimates and nothing scientific. Also, the six genres represented in the chart may be too broad and crude. For example, it does not include electronica/techno, and instead folds the genre into different broadly defined categories, mostly depending on the target audience.

BUT, that does not mean the chart is completely off the reservation. The Korean generally knows what he is talking about, and much thought and research (via Internet, books and asking the Korean’s friends) went into creating this chart. The Korean is confident that while people may quibble with details of the chart, the broad strokes of the chart are correct.

With the chart in front of us, let us dive into the brief history of K-pop by decade (with videos!), after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


The chart starts at late 1960s because there was no truly meaningful Korean “pop culture” to speak of previous to that time. But Korea did have pop singers previous to 1960s. In the 1920s, Korean traditional singers who were trained in pansori (판소리) would sing popular Japanese songs in Korean. This is generally considered the first Korean “pop song” in the strictest definition (i.e., commercially recorded music for the purpose of being consumed by the general public.) These singers include Do Wol-Saek (도월색), Kim San-Wol (김산월) and Yoon Shim-Deok (윤심덕). Such singers like Nam In-Su (남인수) or Baeknyeonseol (백년설) who were hugely popular during the 1930s and 40s.

The dominant music form in that era is what is broadly called trot (트로트), represented with orange in the chart. Trot is a Japanese adaptation of Foxtrot, a dance form popular in the United States in the 1920s. Trot has a distinctive 1-2 beat that you can clearly hear underlying the song, presented the video below. (Among Koreans, trot is also derisively called ppong-jjak (뽕짝), which is an onomatopoeia mimicking the 1-2 beat.) The song is by Lee Meeja, called Lady Camellia (동백아가씨) – one of the most popular Korean trot songs ever.

Korea gained independence from the Imperial Japan’s rule in 1945, and underwent the devastating Korean War shortly afterward. Understandably, pop culture in Korea – what meager form of it there was prior to 1950s – was at a standstill for the better part of 1950s. But the American involvement in Korean War would go on to serve as a massive influence on Korean pop culture.


Elvis Presley popularized rock n’ roll in the late 1950s, and the same craze would eventually reach Korea in the form of USO tours for the American GIs stationed in Korea. Many Korean pop artists cut their teeth by playing for American soldiers stationed in Korea, and playing undercard in USO tours. Eventually, Korean pop artists began to develop popular rock music with a distinctive Korean flair. Here is an example of such song: Woman in the Rain (빗속의 여인) by Shin Joong-Hyeon (신중현), which is arguably Korea’s first rock song.

However, as the chart indicates, the dominance of trot will stay on for quite some time.

Rock music of 1960s is marked green in the chart, and labeled as “folk rock”. This is really a misnomer, because “folk rock” is a name that was coined in the 1970s to indicate the hippie-influenced, Beatles-like rock music, characterized by unadorned guitar sound. However, because Korean rock music in the 1960s did not really have its own name, the Korean labeled it with the trend that the 1960s Korean rock music eventually led to – especially because simply calling it “rock” would be misleading.


The Beatles and America’s hippie culture made its way to Korea, and just as well – because Korea in the 1970s had plenty to rebel against. The generation that was born after Korea’s independence and came of age in the 1970s made folk rock increasingly popular. Here is an example of a popular folk rock song: Morning Dew (아침이슬) by Kim Min-Gi (김민기), sung by another folk rock legend Yang Hee-Eun (양희은):

However, the gradual enrichment of Korean pop culture would come to an abrupt halt in mid-1970s. As the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship solidified its rule, it began cracking down on pop music that it considered “rebellious.” Many famous rockers were sent to prison with trumped up, half-true charges of “disturbing societal morals.” All albums had to be reviewed by the government prior to their release, and certain songs and albums were banned. Many non-Korean music was also banned. (This practice continued until 1996.) All albums also had to include at least one “wholesome song” (건전가요) that, for the most part, was a fatuous ode to Korea’s (and by extension the dictatorship’s) greatness. (This truly absurd practice continued until 1987.)

Many singers caved in and neutered their songs of any social content, and regressed into only singing dumb love songs. Some few, however, continued to resist and went so far as to release albums on their own without going through the government review, in the face of arrest and torture. Their songs would go on to become the anthems of resistance for those who fought against the dictatorship.


1970s ended with Park Chung-Hee’s death, but his dictatorship was swiftly replaced by another, which engaged in an oppression that was no less restrictive.

In the early 1980s, the continued softening of folk rock led to its logical conclusion and the birth of a new genre – what Koreans refer to as “ballad” (marked as yellow in the chart.) Ballad is a brand of soft rock/jazz/R&B that relies on simple tunes and, admittedly, a good singing voice. But ballad is more often made distinctive by its saccharine lyrics, singing almost exclusively about love in the mindless, desperate, Korean-drama-sort of way. Although this song was released in 1990, here is an archetypical example: You, Reflected in a Smile (미소 속에 비친 그대) by Shin Seung-Hoon (신승훈).

Because there is no sharp break between folk rock and ballad, it is difficult to say exactly when – or who – made the first jump into ballad. It is more the case that some folk rock singers had a few songs in their albums that were ballad-like, and eventually some artists began to engage exclusively in ballad. What is clear, however, is that by late 1980s, ballad came to be the most dominant force in Korean pop music, and the dominance lasted until early 1990s. Although its influence faded in recent times in such a way that few current K-pop artists can be labeled as “ballad singers,” many K-pop artists to this day include one or two tracks of ballad-like songs in their albums.

Waves and waves of democratization protests finally made the dictatorship capitulate, and in 1987 Korea had the first free election in decades (or ever, depending on who you ask.) Many of the most oppressive measures restricting artistic freedom were abolished. Consequently, Korean pop music began to experience more variety from the tired triumvirate of trot-folk rock-ballad. Hard rock such as heavy metal (indicated in blue in the chart) began to emerge, and generic dance music (indicated in pink in the chart) based on pretty faces and catchy tunes – influenced by Michael Jackson – began to take root as well.


One can make a strong argument that 1990s represented the golden age of K-pop. Freed from political oppression, the artists were finally exploring their creativity in many different genres. The stultifying commercialization of the 2000s was yet to come.

The twin pillars of “traditional” Korean pop music – trot and folk rock – nearly disappeared in 1990s. Trot was considered antiquated and struggled to produce a younger generation of artists that replaced the old. Folk rock transformed into either ballad or hard rock, and its form as it existed in 1970s was nearly gone.

Ballad continued its strong run all the way into mid-1990s, but the zeitgeist of 1990s is characterized by dance music. This song – I Know (난 알아요) by Seo Taiji (서태지) – marked the beginning of revolution:

Also significant is the emergence of rap and hip-hop in the 1990s (marked in red in the chart.) In all, by late 1990s Korean pop scene came to resemble its American counterpart – abundance of dance music, heart-tugging soft rock for some, rock and rap here and there.


The artistic scene of the 2000s did not necessarily change dramatically from 1990s. What did change dramatically, however, is what happened behind the scenes. For lack of a better word, music business in Korea became “corporate.” As it became apparent that there is big money to be made in music business, the process for discovering, evaluating, packaging and presenting talent has become standardized and commercialized. The leaders of management companies like SM Entertainment or JYP Entertainment were considered serious businessmen instead of free-flowing artists. Instead of merely guessing (or doing what they want, which is worse for business,) they gauged what people wanted in a sophisticated manner and packaged their talent accordingly. The result is something like this: Nobody by Wonder Girls.

With the backing of capital, these management companies were able to venture outside of Korea for the first time. And so, “K-pop” (in the narrower sense of the word) was born. New talents were shaped and molded specifically with the aim of appealing to non-Korean audience. For example, BoA (produced by SM Entertainment) was sent to Japan at age 12 so that she may learn Japanese; she later released albums in both Korean and Japanese, and topped the charts in both countries. Similarly produced K-pop artists would come to dominate Asian pop culture.

But innovative music lived on in Korea. Public’s taste grew and diversified, and groundbreaking bands like Clazziquai would peacefully co-exist with the likes of Girls’ Generation and 2PM. Especially as the generations who grew up with the unsophisticated music of the 1970s and 80s continued to consume culture – unlike their parents, who never truly grew up with any music – older K-pop songs would experience a renaissance, and significant K-pop artists of that era are receiving well-deserved retrospective on their achievements.

Now that we have gained some perspective, the next part of the series will get into the rankings.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. 신중현 is the best...I shake my head at what "mainstream" Korean pop music is now. Too corporate and pre-packaged, too image-conscious, too much auto-tuned singing, not enough "spirit" or "heart" or emotion in the music anymore.

    I can't wait for the rest of the series!

  2. Haha, is that tiny bump for trot in the mid 2000s the debut of 장윤정? And the tiny bump for folk rock in the late 2000s the debut of 장기하와 얼굴들?

  3. A film that, in part, captures some of the issues with the repression of the arts under the dictatorship in the 1970's is GoGo70, a biopic about the soul-rock group The Devils.

    There's also a really interesting documentary about the birth of Korean punk out there, featuring Crying Nut as well as a lot of the Club Drug bands of the late 1990's. It's called Our Nation: a Korean Punk Rock Community.

  4. I think it would have been nice if you had mentioned DBSK (Dong Bang Shin Ki), since even though they are a boy band manufactured by SM Entertainment, they can actually sing.

  5. Korean,

    Interesting post. I wasn't aware of some of the socio-political undercurrents involved with Korean pop music back in the day.

    My impression of some of the current music, much more so mainstream than indie, is that the emotion and overall creative expression are often over the top. I remember that some of the first Korean music videos I watched back in 2006 (when I first came here) were stunning...and I don't mean that in a good way. However, I feel that a lot of what we see know is the result of years of social repression. Some of my Korean friends and students have suggested the same thing to me.

    Looking forward to part two.

  6. Fascinating. Look forward to Part II. Does anybody know where that Punk Rock documentary can be found?

  7. It brought a smile to my face when you mentioned Clazziquai. It's so nice to have them and their music stand out next to all the re-hashed k-pop you see now a days.

  8. Of boy bands, I only like Big Bang. Everything else is kind of...ehhh.... But I can only take so much of that genre in English, too.

  9. "The Kim Sisters" were probably the original hallyu artists. They came to the states in the late 50s' and performed over 20 times on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and headlined in Vegas throughout the 60s' earning $13,000.00 per week (lot of money back then).

    Cho Yong Pil is also a legend in his own time. In 1993 his concert in Busan drew one million fans.

    Kim Hyun Sik is another legend from the 80s'. His tortured life and early demise only elevated his status as a tormented singer.

    Tiger JK is considered the forefather of Korean hip-hop. Born and raised in the States, he brought the the urban sound to Korea.

  10. To those who read Korean, there is a 59-part (yes, fifty-nine) series of autobiographical articles by Shin Joong-hyun in Hankook Ilbo from 2003: 나의 이력서 - 락의 대부 신중현.

    So, the Korean, where is your series, your readers are waiting! ;)

  11. I think the rise of the corporations happened in the late 1990's, When HOT, SES, and FinKL hit the scene, as well as all those other groups that tried to copy them like babyvox and roora and whatever else there was.

    Sure there was a shift toward corporations (cough)exploiting children (cough) developing talent in younger musicians in the 2000's.

    Depending on how you look at it, the "golden age" of K-pop is either now (as it is now popular Asia-wide), or the "golden age" could be placed right where you placed it, starting in 1993 and ending around 1997, when it got all corporate.

  12. I really enjoyed reading your blog, it gave me info into the history of Korean music.

    And I need your opinion on Interracial Relationships:

  13. I am looking for a music video that might not be really main stream. The time period is late 1990 to early 2000. It is a pop band by 3 girls (NOT ses or kiss) The music video started out with one girl riding a old classic motorcycle with a side car ( And the song is sorta fast. One of a girl in there has a crazy straight long black hair. That is as much as i can remember, Please help me find that song. Thanks

  14. Hi... I don't personally remember a mv with a motorcycle and a sidecar, however... 3 girl pop group from about a dead ago... Maybe, finkl or babyvox if u know for sure it's not ses.

  15. @guea-yea: it might be swi.t, a defunct group from YG entertainment (whose [former] member Eun Ju is now the baby mama to Yang Hyun Suk, the CEO/founder of YG). swi.t (pronounced "sweetie") was both r&b/pop (kind of akin to Destiny's Child in USA). Here is a video by them:

    also, another girl group comes to mind that I saw in a Korean tween magazine once and kept around for a long time (bought around 2005), and one of them had hair that I would also describe as "crazy straight long black hair". the other two members had short hair and long cornrows. I wish I still had this magazine to identify the name but I've thrown it out. I just went through this list at wikipedia ( but this magazine was before Hallyu and I feel as if they only had fifteen minutes of fame anyway.


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