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What’s the Deal With K-Pop? 20 Essential Songs for Newbies and Skeptics

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Image credit: Republic of Korea/Flickr

Just a few months ago, I wrote this in a previous WhatNerd article:

I don’t like K-pop. There, I said it. Despite being Korean by blood, I’ve never quite bought into any Korean pop culture. […] I have no idea how K-Pop exploded into a global phenomenon.

Now I’m a full-blown K-pop addict and I have no idea how I got here. As it turns out, there’s a lot to love about K-pop, and a lot of people—including myself just a few months ago—have a lot of unfair misconceptions about what K-pop entails and why it’s growing so popular worldwide.

So what makes K-pop so different than, say, Western pop?

Production is off the charts. The K-pop industry is serious business, and a lot of time and money is poured into every production. Compared to Western pop, K-pop media is on a completely different level. The music videos are insanely creative, the choreographies are mind-blowing, the music itself is catchy as hell, and the promotional efforts leave Western pop in the dust. K-pop is Western pop on steroids: commercialized to such an absurd degree that the results are qualitatively unfamiliar.

Engineered for addiction. The Korean media agencies know what they’re doing—they have decades of intense experience under their belts—and they’re a lot more intentional in what they produce. Sure, Western pop artists aim to create what sells, but K-pop agencies have entire groups dedicated to “testing the waters” to see what kinds of music will be received well, then similar songs are created and given to the bigger groups to perform, which turn into smash hits. Every aspect of K-pop—from the melodies to the beats, from the member visuals to the dance choreographies—are meticulously created for maximum addictive draw.

Greater willingness to experiment. In Western pop, each artist and band is expected to have its own “sound.” They might evolve over time, but the general assumption is that a pop punk band will always produce pop punk songs, and an R&B artist should stick to R&B songs. Not so with K-pop, where groups take on certain “concepts” for certain albums—or even for single tracks. Two songs on the same album can sound radically different, and a group’s concept in 2020 could be the polar opposite of what they are in 2019. This willingness to experiment results in a wider variety of music styles, despite the fact that K-pop is heavily commercialized (“manufactured”). As a result, I find K-pop to be far less cookie cutter than Western pop, surprisingly enough.

K-pop idols are multi-talented. There are multi-talented artists in Western pop, but they’re the exception rather than the norm. K-pop artists are expected to be multi-talented: singers, dancers, modeling, acting, and more. Unlike in Western pop, where singers are scouted and singing is all they need to do, K-pop rookies must go through many years of “training” with one of the many K-pop media agencies before they’re allowed to “debut.” This rigorous system is ethically controversial, but there’s no question that it produces results; it all feeds back into K-pop’s insane production quality.

But I think the most important takeaway is that K-pop itself isn’t really a genre; it simply describes Korean music in pop culture, where each individual song can exhibit all kinds of different musical genres. To say “I love K-pop!” doesn’t mean much anymore, given the massive variety of styles within K-pop itself.

Here are some examples of the best K-pop on offer, spanning a wide range of styles and concepts.

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1. “Piri” by Dreamcatcher

Style: Pop rock

2. “Female President” by Girl’s Day

Style: Pop rock

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3. “Peek-A-Boo” by Red Velvet

Style: Electropop

4. “Chococo” by Gugudan

Style: Electropop

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5. “I Love You” by 2NE1

Style: Synthpop

6. “Monster” by EXO

Style: Trap pop

7. “Growl” by EXO

Style: R&B

8. “April Fools” by Jimin Park

Style: R&B

9. “Decalcomanie” by Mamamoo

Style: R&B

10. “Romeo and Juliet” by Clazziquai

Style: Jazz pop

11. “Circle’s Dream” by Subin

Style: Indie pop

12. “Miniskirt” by AOA

Style: Groove pop

13. “#LoveMe” by Melody Day

Style: Groove pop

14. “History” by EXO-K

Style: Dance-pop

15. “The Chaser” by Infinite

Style: Dance-pop

16. “Love Scenario” by iKON

Style: Soft pop

17. “Dinosaur” by AKMU

Style: Soft pop

18. “Heart Shaker” by Twice

Style: Bubblegum pop

19. “Echo” by Oh My Girl

Style: Bubblegum pop

20. “3 Strike Out” by Laboum

Style: Bubblegum pop

What’s your favorite K-pop song, if you have one? Let me know in the comments! I’m always down to check out what else is out there. I’m still a K-pop noob, after all!

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