It's no exaggeration to call them the very center of K-pop.
Fans find not only joy but also comfort from listening to their songs and buying their merchandise."
"Do you like any idol?"
"I like WOODZ. Even though it's his job to sing and dance on stage, when he does that he looks so happy and there are lots of fans who like him because they also want to feel like that. That's the same for me."
Ever since the genre emerged, K-pop has been quickly broadening its boundaries, and as the world experienced its distinctive features its infectious charm and choreography, it's no longer seen as a niche genre or sub-culture, but rather a genre for listeners around the world to enjoy.
With idol groups present for many years, people started to divide them into generations. Experts usually say that K-pop genealogy can be traced back to the mid-1990s. And although a line cannot be clearly drawn, the representative groups for each generation changed every five to ten years. From the groups that spurred on the very beginning of the K-pop wave to the most recent idols in the so-called "Fourth generation", let's dig deeper into the K-pop scene for each generation.
The mid to late 1990s saw the arrival of K-pop's first generation of stars.
Influenced by the group 'Seo Taiji and Boys', SM Entertainment's H.O.T. and S.E.S, along with DSP Media's Fin.K.L and SECHSKIES paved the way for artists to come up with Korea's own dance and hip-hop music.
"We could say this was a so-called K-pop test period without a proper management system or agencies. With no system in place individual producers brought ideas rather than know-how to create the environment. Lee Su-man played a key role and thanks to him, other producers emerged too. The reigning aesthetic during this generation was dubbed African-American style hip-hop music, on top of which other experimental music could be added."
After the first generation, the grand renaissance of the K-pop industry came.
The mid 2000s to the early 2010s could be considered the time when numerous pioneering acts helped shape today’s global K-pop industry and the Hallyu wave that followed.
Among them were TVXQ, SUPER JUNIOR, Girls' Generation, SHINee, 2NE1, Wonder Girls and so on.
Addictive, captivating melodies and choreography perfectly in sync, all of them fully supported by big entertainment production agencies.
It was enough to broaden the fandom boundaries.
Both first and second generation K-pop idol groups addressed similar themes in their music: boy groups would complain about the education system, while girl groups would talk about mellow and soft love stories.
However the biggest difference between the first and the second generations was the potential to expand the stardom in the global market.
"First generation idol such as H.O.T, S.E.S, SECHSKIES, although some of them made some international success in China or other parts of East Asia, basically they and their agencies did not really think international market as important part for their career. They were basically local musicians making music for local, Korean audience. But since the second generation they found the possibility their music becoming globally successful, so because of the Hallyu history because of the success of other Hallyu product such as Korean TV series or Korean film, the second generation idol and their entertainment agency thought more seriously that they could be the international stars."
Still however, the popularity of these groups remained within Asian borders, with Korean idols sweeping the charts mainly in East Asian countries such as China, Hong Kong and Japan, that is until a major boom turned the tide.
The third generation of idols made their debuts in the early 2010s.
BTS finally sprang on the scene and brought worldwide attention to the K-pop industry and pushed K-pop beyond Asian countries.
BTS, TWICE, BLACKPINK and MAMAMOO are the most well-known acts to come from this crop of artists, and their music styles have become more diverse as they are no longer just targeting local listeners.
The messages shared in their songs also started to change: telling their fans how important it is to love themselves, and encouraging listeners to be courageous.
Because the dawn right before the sun rises is the darkest
Even in the far future, never forget the you of right now
Wherever you are right now, you’re just taking a break
Don’t give up, you know
Don’t get too far away, tomorrow
The messages found in the lyrics was not the only change. How music is released, the length of albums, and even the way K-pop groups are promoted became very different through the years resulting in a heavier workload for idols in a constant cycle of releasing and promoting new music.
"Basically first and second generation idols would have to do a lot of promotion right up to and after the release of their follow-up song, which usually came a month after an album was released. But as time passed the number of songs on a full-length album went down from ten to five or six songs, , and idols started to release more singles or so-called EP mini-albums. Because the number of idols increased so much they constantly had to promote their music which meant shortening the gap between performances and album releases and appearing more often with singles."
Amid fierce competition among the large number of acts, not all idol groups got the chance to showcase their talents on major broadcasters.
This made them use more diverse channels to promote themselves, and come up with their own unique content.
YouTube was the easiest platform to do that, and Over-the-Top services including NETFLIX was another method used to reach fans.
Algorithms led fans of one K-kop act to other K-pop groups, creating a ripple effect that ensured fans around the world to keep a close eye on K-pop idols and the industry.
Against this backdrop, the fourth generation arrived.
In the early 2020s new idol groups such as ITZY, IVE, G-IDLE, TXT, aespa and ENHYPEN were unveiled.
Thanks to BTS who paved the way for idols to shine in global music market, fourth generation idols now consider themselves as global artists with the international audience in mind with everything they do.
"They are thinking about their identity as global, international pop star rather than only limited in local market and they also know that even before making their debut that they can get a chance to be known to international audience. K-pop has become a really global kind of genre which means that there are a lot more fans who are waiting for new music, new artist which means they are subscribing the new sites of new Kpop who will make debut this month or next month and from which entertainment agency."
Now with solid fandom and a concrete music base, idols are expanding musical diversity even more: from just dance music that was a major genre to more experimental genres.
This is more apparent now as many idols have their own professional composers among group members like for example Jeon So-yeon in G-IDLE, and bands now incorporate their own unique style rather than following what producers from agencies want them to be like.
Acts are also exploring totally new concepts like aespa, whose group identity is connected to avatars in the digital space so that each member can appear virtually in music videos and performances.
"From the first generation to the fourth. With the passage of time, the representative idol groups that swept the charts and enjoyed popularity have changed. Yet, K-pop idols a major part of an overhaul in Korea's arts and entertainment sector have consistently expanded their influence from the beginning. Now that K-pop is receiving worldwide attention from global fans, it won't come as a surprise to see more global superstars like BTS continuing that success. Kim Bo-kyoung, Arirang news."