Art + Culture
Korean Boy Bands 101: Old School Edition
The evolution of the contemporary Korean boy band, from Seo Taiji to Shinhwa.
In the Western world, the boy band phenomenon may be a thing of the past, beginning with New Kids on the Block in the 80s and reaching its peak with the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC in the late 90s. But in Asia, and most certainly in South Korea, the boy band is very much alive and well.
An ever-present fixture in the South Korean landscape, boy bands are arguably what has made, and makes, K-pop what it is today. Their perfectly coiffed members make girls smile, swoon, scream and stalk, all to delirious extents. Rocker mosh pits ain’t got nothing on a fan girl frenzy.
True as the band’s brother-like bonds and the sweat on their beloveds’ passionate brows, true as the blood flowing in those glowstick/balloon-wielding fists, lines are drawn and loyalties are sworn…
At least, until the group breaks up, and it’s time to move on to the next hottest thing. After all, a fan girl can only go for so long without a fix of her favorite flower boy.
Just as fascinating as any single boy band (or boy band member—you know you’ve been there too) though, is the stream and evolution of male groups in K-pop. I’ve decided to go way back with this playlist, like two decades back, which in total equates to approximately 5.3 generations. In an endeavor to navigate this abundant heritage in a somewhat orderly fashion, I’m a highlighting a notable song from each group and laying it out in chronological order to give you a better sense of how the K-pop groups interconnect and how the soundscape has changed over time. In that vein, I’ve also limited it largely to the top names in K-pop. What follows below may not necessarily signify the best artists or even their best songs, but it is a chronological roster of some of the most influential players in the K-pop scene.
Unfortunately, even with trying to keep things to the bare bones, the number of boy bands proved too much, and it was decided that it’d be best to make this a two-part playlist. We’re starting off with old school, so if you’d like to see what captured girls’ hearts back in the day or just want to do some reminiscing yourself, check out the playlist below while listening to the compilation on YouTube.
1. Seo Taiji & Boys (서태지 와 아이들) 1992–1996
A boy band or not a boy band? The status is disputable, but the impact of Seo Taiji is not. Hailed as the godfather of modern K-pop, main figure Seo Taiji seized the hearts and minds of Korean youth with his new-fangled sounds and socially-minded lyrics. He’s a veritable legend in the industry, whose worshipers include Se7en and Kim Hyun-joong. And those low-profile backup dancers/rappers are not completely discountable—you might recognize one of the “boys” as the founder and president of YG Entertainment. This is their debut hit, I Know (난 알아요):
2. Solid (솔리드) 1993–1997
The late 90s and early 2000s were the years when soul-influenced music was most popular in South Korea, and much of this is credited to the group who first introduced R&B into mainstream, Solid. Made up of three Korean American boys from Los Angeles, Solid also has a few fast-paced dance songs, but they’re still known and remembered for their smooth R&B crooning. Each of the members has stayed quite active in behind-the-scenes music roles, including Kim Jo Han who works as a vocal teacher to today’s K-pop stars and released a few solo albums, and Jae Chong, who produces for a slew of Mandopop as well as Korean singers. Holding the End of This Night (이 밤의 끝을 잡고) is widely considered their representative song:
3. H.O.T (에쵸티) 1996–2001
Korean entertainment companies love English acronyms like nobody’s business. H.O.T stands for High-five Of Teenagers and was SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man’s very profitable brainchild, created after polling high school students on their ideal music group. Very well the first big, modern pop boy band in South Korea, H.O.T had not only its share of fan girls but fan boys as well. Many younger idols were inspired by this group’s hits to enter the Korean music business. I present to you H.O.T’s trademark track, Candy:
4. Seschs Kies (젝스키스) 1997–2007
The name for Seschs Kies, a six-member boy band, came from the German words meaning “six crystals.” Formed under Daesung Entertainment, now DSP Media, they soon became known as H.O.T’s rivals. Since the establishing of this cross-label feud, DSP has earned a reputation for following in SM’s footsteps (you will see the pattern emerge as you go farther down the list). Here is Couple (커플), their most well-remembered song:
If you like this, also try: The Way of Man/Pom Saeng Pom Sa (사나이 가는 길/폼생폼사), Com’ Back (컴백). Note: It’s difficult to find English translations for this group, but they do have very loyal fans, as seen on this fan blog.
5. 1TYM (원타임) 1998–2005/present
Post-Jinusean and pre-Big Bang and Se7en, there was 1TYM, YG Entertainment’s version of a boy band. YG began with a focus on popularizing “real hip hop” in Korea, and this slant is evident in 1TYM’s music. Two of the group’s four members are originally from the United States, including the vocalist, Danny aka Taebin (태빈). The other Korean American, Teddy, is currently experiencing a lot of success as YG’s top producer behind many of Big Bang’s and 2NE1’s hits. He also wrote one of 1TYM’s catchiest rap tracks, Hot Ddeugeuh (Hot 뜨거; translations here):
6. Shinhwa (신화) 1998–present
This seven-member boy band is a little bit of an SM anomaly. They weren’t an instant hit and actually had to struggle for their success, which is rare because SM doesn’t let their creations struggle. Usually, if your first single isn’t a money-maker, you’re out. The experience fortified the bond among Shinhwa members, and they became the first big group under SM not to break up over contract issues, to take SM to court and to win. I’m not sure if Shinhwa is to be remembered for their music, but they’re memorable for a lot of other great things, their unfailing hilarity a close second to their tight-knit camaraderie. Here’s a track that embodies all their fun and silliness, Eusha Eusha (으샤! 으샤!):
7. g.o.d (지오디) 1999–2006
An acronym for “Groove Over Dose,” g.o.d was initially a joint venture between JYP and Sidus HQ, which can be read into here. Their music is melodic with catchy beats, and they enjoyed steady success from the outset, eventually reaching levels of popularity comparable with that of H.O.T and Seo Taiji. Their fourth album from 2001 is said to be the last album in Korea to sell over a million copies. I actually really like a lot of this group’s songs, and their debut track, To Mother (어머님 께), is still a relevant K-pop classic:
8. Fly to the Sky (플라이 투 더 스카이) 1999–2009
Fly to the Sky is probably SM’s strongest foray into the R&B genre. What’s nice about having a duo instead of a larger group is that each member has a legitimate musical role. In every song, Brian’s thinner clear voice and Hwanhee’s contrasting low vocals easily play off each other. Both get a fair amount of time to sing and no one’s forced or relegated to be the random rapper. Sea of Love was their first big commercial hit, coming from an album that included a song written by Brian McKnight and a masculinized image change:
9. Black Beat (블랙 비트) 2000–2007
Do you ever wonder what happens to those boy bands that don’t make it and happen to slip through the cracks of popularity? After all, surely not every group formed by a company can meet with raging success, no matter how hard the company executives attempt to predict and create what will enthrall the masses. Black Beat is one of SM’s failed bands, and, as mentioned with Shinhwa, there is little patience for financial failure in the entertainment field. Last I heard, the members of Black Beat became dance teachers in SM’s training schools, helping to raise the next possible big thing. Black Beat wasn’t bad, though—at the very least, no more than anyone else. Just the bad luck of the fickle business! Here’s a very pretty ballad of theirs, In the Sky:
And that is a wrap for Boy Bands Part 1, the old school segment. Please make sure to check in next week for the latter half of this playlist, as we move into the bands of the new millennium. You’ll find things getting a little shinier, a little more diverse, but just as fun-filled crazy!
Have we passed over your favorite Korean boy band or K-pop classic? Tell us who made you squeal and leave a link to the song in the comments below.