/ 5 October 2012

The A to Z of K-pop

Psy's Gangnam Style.
Psy's Gangnam Style.

His quirky dance steps and unforgettable sing-along chorus have given us the smash pop hit of the year. By the weekend, Psy, the podgy antihero behind the Gangnam Style phenomenon, is expected to make history by becoming the first Korean to reach number one on the British charts, having already risen to the top of the iTunes download charts in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Other South Korean artists may have mixed feelings about the astounding success of Gangnam Style. Riding the crest of the "Hallyu" wave that has already swept across much of East Asia, the highly stylised, impeccably sculptured boy and girl bands made the leap to the US and Europe the hard way.

Then along comes a chubby 34-year-old armed with a catchy tune, an endearing, if hopelessly daft, dance and becomes an overnight viral sensation. In the space of a few weeks, Psy has made Gangnam Stylists out of everyone, from Britney Spears to the US Navy.

His words – surely unintelligible to most of the people behind the 290-million views his YouTube video has attracted – have been pored over for what they say about the shallowness of modern South Korean society. One Guardian columnist wondered whether Psy, rather than breaking the K-pop mould, had reinforced stereotypes of socially challenged, middle-aged East Asian men.

Other K-pop artists might feel aggrieved by his rapid, effortless rise, appearances on the US TV chat show circuit and myriad copycat routines. But they also have reason to be grateful to Psy, also known as Park Jae-sang. He has shoved open the door for other Korean pop artists hoping to turn regional stardom into international success. Some have already penetrated the US market and most are household names in Japan, but few register among music fans in the UK. Who, then, should one be looking out for to take up Psy's mantle?

2NE1 – "to anyone" or "twenty-one" – "were born to crack the West", according to Mio Scobie, overseas editor of Us Weekly magazine and a self-confessed K-pop addict. Their appeal lies in their refusal to be bound to the musical style of other K-pop girl groups. Unlike their saccharine Japanese counterparts, 2NE1 do not attempt to hide their sexuality, but balance it with an "assertiveness" that Scobie likens to the Spice Girls "minus the bad singing". Will.i.am is producing their debut US album so "be prepared for a hip-hop-infused electro feast to soon dominate the airwaves".

Big Bang
Big Bang, stablemates of 2NE1 at the hugely successful label YG Entertainment, owe nothing to the accessible charm and androgynous features of your typical boy band. Each of the five members has his own individual look and their musical range is equally eclectic, covering R&B, hip-hop, house, electro and pop. Having conquered Korea and Japan, the band went on to win best worldwide act in the Asia-Pacific category at the 2011 MTV Europe music awards and their YouTube channel has received more than 400-million views.

Girls' Generation
This girl group have matched their stunning physical presence – they have perhaps the longest legs in K-pop – with a string of hits and recognition across Asia and, more recently, the US. They were the "juggernaut leading the Korean Wave across Asia, the embodiment of the ultra-slick choreography and catchy pop songs that earned K-pop its reputation", said Robert Poole, chief executive of Something Drastic, a Tokyo-based Asian music promoter. In less than five years, the nine-member group have amassed sales of more than 30-million digital singles and 4.4-million albums. Girls' Generation exemplify the global ambition of K-pop's wily promoters: their 2011 single The Boys was released in Korean, Japanese and, for the first time, English. This year they became the first Korean act to perform on The Late Show with David Letterman.

The clue to U-Kiss's ambition is in their name: Ubiquitous Korean International Idol Super Star. They are considered the underdogs of the Korean boy band scene, but their following overseas is "something else", according to Scobie. Their fans, known as KissMes, have turned to social media to spread the group's name, resulting in concerts in France, Thailand, the US, Colombia and Cambodia. If, as some expect, they make it in the US, chat show appearances should not be a problem: several members of the band speak English, including AJ, who recently took time off to study at Columbia University. Their new single, Stop Girl, released this month, was recorded in Korean and English and is being promoted in 10 countries, including the US, China and Japan.

These relative newcomers to the K-pop scene have already made one comeback since their debut in 2010. "In a sea of bubblegum-cute popsters, Sistar stand out for their cool and sexy image," said Scobie. The band's eagerly awaited summer single, Loving U, immediately topped major online music charts in South Korea, although they have yet to have much of an effect internationally. That could all change soon, though: the group's lead singer, Hyorin, has been likened to Beyoncé for her husky voice, incredible range and soulful contributions to songs that, unusually perhaps for this genre, deal as much with falling out of love as with falling in love. The group were the centre of controversy when their saucy "butt dance" for How Dare You was banned on South Korean TV.

The six-member boy band came in for some unkind press coverage when they debuted in 2009. South Korean media pointed out that the members had all had solo careers or been part of other, unsuccessful, groups. Despite their status as a "recycled" act, Beast set about proving their doubters wrong with a combination of self-belief and sheer hard work. Past failures aside, Beast are a talented bunch. They wrote all the songs on their newest album, Midnight Sun. Their summer smash hit Beautiful Night coincided with a successful world tour. The single, said Scobie, "wouldn't feel out of place in a London nightclub".

Wonder Girls
They are veterans of K-pop, having made their debut in 2007 and racking up a string of hits since. Their foray into the US market was a resounding success when they became the first Korean group to make it on to the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2009, the year they also supported the Jonas Brothers on tour. This year, Wonder Girls collaborated with the rapper Akon on Like Money and appeared in an eponymously titled movie on the Nickelodeon TV network. Rumour has it that next year will bring more collaborations with US artists and possibly their own reality-TV show. Their 2009 hit, Nobody, was the first K-pop song to get radio airplay in the US.

Super Junior
The group have been around since 2005, so some members are about to reach the ripe old age of 30 – normally grounds for retirement in the youth-obsessed world of K-pop. Yet far from going gracefully, the boy band continue to churn out hits with unforgettable hooks and their photos still adorn the walls of teenagers' bedrooms across Asia. The band's

10 members specialise in high-energy dance routines and addictive choruses. Their 2012 summer EP, Sexy, Free and Single debuted on the iTunes top 10 pop albums chart at number one in Japan and number six in the US and also earned top 10 places in France, Australia and Canada. Their world tour this year included a sellout concert in Paris.

These are the alpha males of the K-pop world, but with a twist. The proud owners of impressive six-packs, 2PM do sensitive Boys II Men-style harmonies just as well as their edgier rap repertoire. Heartbreak is the thread that runs through most of their music, but they have been known to produce a catchy party anthem or two. The band comprise Korean, Korean-American and Thai members, most of whom speak English, and the agency that looks after Mariah Carey, Kanye West and Justin Bieber represents them in the US. They are about to embark on a global tour, performing at venues in Europe, North America and Asia. – © Guardian News & Media 2012