K-Pop Starter Kit: A Beginner’s Guide (Part One)

There have been dedicated K-pop fans all over the world for years, but it’s amazing just how much that number has increased recently. Though there’s a lot of focus on certain groups breaking into the American music industry, K-pop’s rising popularity isn’t just limited to the United States – it’s truly going global, and it’s awesome to see so many people joining the fun! When I first got into K-pop, it was totally new and unfamiliar territory. And while that was definitely exciting and fascinating, I remember it was also a little overwhelming. None of my friends liked it or even really knew of it, so I didn’t have anyone to talk about it with; I had to learn about cultural norms and industry practices on my own. So for my first official K-Pop Starter Kit post, I’m going to be the guide I wish I had five years ago! And I’ll introduce characteristics of K-pop that could be surprising yet interesting to newcomers.

If you’re reading my blog for the first time, hello and thanks for visiting! I’m an Asian-American woman who’s been a K-pop fan for 5+ years, and I also happen to work as a teacher in South Korea. I created this series as a beginner’s guide for people who just discovered K-pop and want to learn more, but any and all are of course welcome! This first month of my column is a basic introduction, and then I’ll start focusing on a specific topic for every month afterwards. If you want to know more details about my plans for the K-Pop Starter Kit, you can read my announcement post here.

There are actually a LOT of things that initially surprised me about K-pop, so I’m going to divide it all into two posts as neatly as I can. This first post will focus on the actual music and performance aspects of K-pop, as well as anything related to idols releasing and promoting new singles. Next time, I’ll talk more about the industry as a whole. (EDIT: I actually ended up having more material in my second post than expected, so I will add an additional third part about K-pop in relation to fans and the general public.) Also: since I’m American, this post will mostly compare K-pop to Western pop because I don’t have any other personal context. And I’m not an expert, either! I’m just really interested in pop culture because I used to want to work in entertainment – former musical theater kid/dancer/drama major/film school student – and these are based observations I’ve made over time. So please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments – I’d love to hear from you and get some other perspectives!

Things That Might Surprise K-pop Newcomers (Part 1)

K-pop isn’t just one specific style of music.

I joined the fandom at a time when many Americans thought that all K-pop sounded like “Gangnam Style,” so it’s definitely been amazing to witness the rise of groups like BTS and BLACKPINK over the past few years. It’s inspiring to see how globally loved they are. These superstars have shown the world that K-pop isn’t just one kind of sound, and that fact only becomes more apparent with every group or soloist you discover. K-pop songs can have any sound or vibe: cute and bubbly, trendy and chic, fun and quirky, powerful and edgy, smooth and sexy, glamorous and sophisticated, etc. The list goes on, and there really is something for everyone to enjoy. For example: my cousin barely even listens to Western pop, and he became a Red Velvet listener after I showed him a couple of their music videos. So, I truly believe that most people can get into K-pop – even on a casual listener level – once they find the right group or song to match their tastes.

TWICE’s synthwave bop “I Can’t Stop Me” and Monsta X’s fatally sexy “Love Killa” are just two examples of songs you can find in K-pop.

Though K-pop has a lot of different music to offer, it’s also a very trend-dependent industry at times. There are often periods where a certain sound becomes popular and then everyone ends up doing it. For example, last fall we got a ton of synthwave and synthpop inspired music. So because K-pop borrows so much from other styles, some people might say that it isn’t actually its own genre but rather “pop music sung in Korean.” While I understand that train of thought, I personally think it is a separate genre because it can be highly experimental in ways I haven’t seen or heard in other places (or at least in the West). Sometimes K-pop songs take certain aspects of a style and layer it in with a standard pop sound, and sometimes they just straight up mix a couple of genres together. Song structure can be all over the place, too; there have been many times where I couldn’t tell where a song was headed and just went along for the ride. So while there are some tracks that sound very similar to Western pop, there are also many that take risks and try some unconventional things – and that’s why K-pop can be so fascinating!

The first K-pop song I listened to (or more accurately, fully paid attention to) was “Just Right” by GOT7, and it caught my attention because it was definitely something I’d never heard before.

There’s a lot more English in songs than you might expect.

This one might not seem too surprising, since several K-pop groups release different language versions of their songs and some are even dropping singles that are fully in English. But this is actually not a new phenomenon – English words and phrases have been randomly sprinkled throughout K-pop tracks for years now. In fact, it’s pretty rare to hear a K-pop song that DOESN’T have any English in it. Right now, I can only think of two examples off the top of my head out of dozens of singles. (They’re “Rough” by GFriend and “Shangri-La” by VIXX, if you’re curious.) English lyrics in K-pop can seem kind of random or even nonsensical at times, especially if you’re listening to an older song. But honestly, that’s just part of the charm! No one’s expecting perfect English grammar because we know most of the songwriters and lyricists don’t speak it fluently – plus it’s pretty clear that they’re mostly looking for trendy words, slang, and/or things that sound cool. We native speakers might have a (good-natured) laugh over certain English lyrics sometimes, but we’ll still happily sing along to them at concerts.

NCT Dream’s new song “Hot Sauce” has a lot of English in it, especially in the chorus. In general, NCT songs use a lot of English because they have members who are native speakers as well as a large number of Western fans.

There’s also some form of rap in pretty much everything.

(Please note that depending on how much you like rap, you might not consider K-pop rap to be the same thing.) K-pop draws a lot of its inspiration from Western music, particularly hip hop, and rap is something the industry really latched onto. Nearly all K-pop groups have at least one designated rapper, and it’s pretty much been that way since the beginning. I don’t regularly listen to first generation music (late 90s-early 00s), so I can’t say much about what rap was like then. But a lot of rap in second generation music (mid/late 00s-early 10s) could probably be more accurately classified as “talk-singing.” That was the trend up until maybe five(ish) years ago when the third generation took over, and now there are many idols who are quite serious about it and write their own lyrics. Several groups – especially boy groups – even rely heavily on their rappers in many of their singles. But honestly, at least 90% of K-pop songs will have rap in there somewhere.

K-pop songs can either feature a lot of rap like ITZY’s “In the Morning” or sprinkle some lines and verses throughout like Oh My Girl’s “Dun Dun Dance” – but rap will almost always make an appearance no matter what the genre of the single. (There are plenty of songs that have more Western-style rap, but I wanted to illustrate how it’s so common it can pop up anywhere.)

Idols and groups aren’t necessarily involved in creating their music (though this is slowly changing).

When I became interested in K-pop in 2016, not many groups were actively participating in making their songs. There were some, but it wasn’t a particularly common occurrence. This is probably because idols usually don’t have complete creative control over their music, and they often have to defer to their companies for major decisions. (I’ll talk more about K-pop agencies in my next post.) However, the mid 2010s brought the rise of self-producing boy groups like BTS, GOT7, SEVENTEEN, iKON, and more. Their popularity started shifting the norm, and now plenty of K-pop albums feature idols as songwriters and producers – mostly on B-sides, but sometimes on title tracks as well. Writing lyrics is the most common way idols participate in song production (especially for girl groups), but many compose music and a handful take part in arrangement. Some are even the designated songwriter and/or producer for the group and work on title tracks, like (G)I-DLE’s Soyeon. Fans tend to love when their favorite idols help create music for their group, so hopefully we’ll get to see even more self-produced singles in the coming years!

BTS has been heavily involved in writing and producing their music since their debut in 2013, and they’re probably the group with the most creative freedom in K-pop right now. Their meaningful and relatable songs are a major reason why they’ve become so beloved around the world.

Nearly every K-pop song has a carefully choreographed dance routine.

As a dancer, this is honestly what that really drew me to K-pop. Dance is a cornerstone of the industry, and debuts and comebacks – and sometimes B-sides – come with their own personalized choreographies. (Unless the group or soloist decides to do a ballad, which is not as common). Dancing has become even more of an essential skill in the current generation of idols, and every group performance you watch will feature the members seamlessly moving through numerous formations while looking impossibly synchronized the whole time. These routines are carefully designed to be entertaining and memorable from beginning to end, and they often emphasize a “key point” or “highlight” that will help them stand out from the rest. It’s kind of like how TikTok creators make dances that go viral when everyone does them, except K-pop has been at this for a couple of decades. If a dance is truly popular, people will remember it for years – some older idols can still clearly recall choreography from hit songs in the 90s. Younger idols also frequently perform covers of senior artists’ songs, especially for big end-of-year award shows and festivals.

Super Junior’s 2009 song “Sorry Sorry” became a smash hit thanks to its catchy melody and popular choreography. It’s so iconic that the group still performs it regularly over a decade later (video on left). Many idols have covered “Sorry Sorry” over the course of the years, most recently in a dance challenge with Super Junior themselves on music show M! Countdown (video on right).

Each member in a K-pop group has a specific role to play.

All K-pop idols in groups are assigned one of three positions by their companies: vocalist, rapper, or dancer. (Dancers still sing and/or rap, but usually their main job is to highlight the choreography.) Each of these roles is also further divided into three categories: main, lead, and sub. While this is oversimplifying it a bit, the “main” position is basically whoever’s the most skilled in that area. For example, a main vocalist is usually recognized as the strongest singer in the group. The “lead” position can be confusing since there isn’t always much difference from a “main” – it’s kind of like comparing an A student with an A+ student. But typically, they have similar responsibilities and help support the “main.” How many “main” and “lead” positions there are depends on the size of the group: smaller groups will generally have one “main” and then one or two “leads” in each role, while groups with a lot of members might have more. There are some other positions that aren’t related to music, but I’ll introduce them later because I’m planning on expanding this into a monthly topic for this series.

It’s also pretty common for idols to have more than one position, meaning that someone can be a “lead” in one area and a “main” in another. There are many different combinations of roles that idols can have, so each group ends up having a slightly different dynamic and distribution of talents. For example, let’s look at how things work with the members of BLACKPINK (music-wise):

BLACKPINK: Lisa (top left), Jennie (top center), Rosé (top right), and Jisoo (sitting)

  • Vocals: Rosé is the main vocalist, while Jisoo and Jennie are the lead vocalists. Lisa usually has a few singing parts, so she’d be considered a sub-vocalist.
  • Rap: Technically, Jennie’s the main rapper and Lisa’s the lead rapper. Personally, I think these positions might have reversed over the years because Jennie doesn’t always rap in BLACKPINK’s singles (while Lisa does). But in this group’s specific case, there’s not that much difference between main and lead raper.
  • Dance: Lisa is the main dancer. In bigger groups of six or more people, there will usually be two or three idols who are recognized for their dance skills. But if the group is on the smaller side, most of the focus goes to one person – especially in Lisa’s case, because many see her as one of the best dancers in K-pop. BLACKPINK does have a lead dancer in Rosé, but she usually gets more attention for her singing.

Most K-pop artists release new music multiple times a year.

In the West, we’re used to waiting long stretches of time between artists’ releases – sometimes a year, but often two or more. When our favorites do drop a new album, there are usually multiple singles on it that they’ll promote for a while. Mega-famous artists can probably get a whole year’s worth of promotion out of one album. In K-pop, it’s almost the exact opposite. It’s a fast-paced industry that very much lives in the present, and it’s quite hard for groups to become famous with the Korean general public. (More about this in the next post.) As a result, groups often make “comebacks” at least twice a year to stay fresh in people’s minds. While they do occasionally release full albums, it’s more likely that they’ll drop EPs or just do a digital single instead. They also spend the entire promotion cycle focusing on the title track, though they may occasionally perform a B-side.

Note that two comebacks a year is just what’s most common; not everyone necessarily does it that way. Younger groups have to work especially hard to build a fan-base, so they could release new music three or even four times a year. Meanwhile, more established groups and senior artists can often get away with one comeback a year because they have large fandoms and supplement their income through individual activities like acting or MCing. However, going over a year without a comeback for no obvious reason – like male idols fulfilling military service – can make fans worry because it could signal problems with the company or an impending disbandment.

YG’s rookie boy group TREASURE did four different promotion cycles in the first six months of their career (which is a LOT):

Comebacks follow a detailed promotional schedule.

K-pop artists announce their comeback date several weeks to a month in advance. In the time leading up to the release, they regularly drop various previews: concept photos and videos, track lists, highlight medleys, music video teasers, etc. On comeback day, the album and the music video for the title track become available at a specific time (usually 6 PM KST). It’s also pretty standard to hold a press conference and/or a “comeback show” where the idols perform their new single for the first time. After that, they’ll spend anywhere from two weeks to over a month heavily promoting their comeback. Various Korean TV channels have weekly music show broadcasts where currently promoting artists can perform; each week has a winner based on various criteria like sales, streams, and fan votes. Idols also frequently appear on radio shows, variety shows, and online segments to talk about their new music and make entertaining content for fans.

Here’s an example of the kind of teaser schedule that K-pop artists often release after they announce their comeback date. This one is for NU’EST’s recent comeback in April (“Inside Out”).

K-pop places a heavy emphasis on visuals and how things look.

K-pop is a music industry, but it’s most definitely not just about the music. While appearances are usually important in many fields related to entertainment, they’re extra essential in K-pop – so much so that each group has a designated “visual” member who best fits Korean beauty standards and will hopefully attract a lot of media attention for it. So when a group has a comeback, their agency puts a lot of thought into how it sounds AND how it looks. If you’ve seen any K-pop music videos, you’ll know that they’re usually super high-quality with expensive production design and effects. Groups will also wear a range of different coordinated outfits during their many different performances. And even the album itself will be filled with merchandise like photobooks and photocards. So the title track and the album are just one part of the whole comeback, because fans will also eagerly anticipate the performances, the music video, the outfits and styling, etc.

Though they sadly just disbanded, popular project group IZ*ONE is a great example of how much importance K-pop places on aesthetics. (And not just in terms of their physical looks, though they’re all of course stunning.) Their music videos were visual masterpieces, their choreographies were beautiful and eye-catching, and their outfits were always gorgeous.

Many comebacks revolve around a concept.

In K-pop, concepts are usually themes that can be easily expressed through music and aesthetics: “cute,” “sexy,” “dark,” “retro,” “powerful,” “girl crush,” etc. Sometimes, a company will choose a specific one for their group’s comeback and make sure all of its various elements match accordingly. For example, a cute concept for a girl group could include a sugary sweet song, bubbly and bright choreography, and a thoroughly pastel color palette from the music video to the clothes. Up until a few years ago, it was normal for groups to regularly change concepts every comeback or so. It was a way of keeping things fresh, and it also showed idols’ versatility and how well they could adapt to different styles. While many groups still do this to a degree, it’s also becoming more common to choose a specific image/sound and build their brand experimenting with variations of that.

Red Velvet is well-known for having a varied discography and excelling at many different concepts. Their latest full-group comebacks were the sweet summer song “Umpah Umpah” and the glamorous R&B bop “Psycho” – just a few months apart, but almost polar opposites in both style and aesthetic.

NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here.

IMAGE CREDITS: Elle Magazine (BLACKPINK – original article here), HYBE (BTS “Butter” teaser image), Off the Record Entertainment (IZ*ONE “Panorama” teaser image), Pledis Entertainment (NU’EST “Inside Out” teaser image), YG Entertainment (TREASURE “My Treasure” teaser image)

VIDEO CREDITS: YouTube, JYP Entertainment (“Just Right” by GOT7 / “I Can’t Stop Me” by TWICE / “In the Morning” by ITZY), 룰루랄라 뮤직-Lululala Music (Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry” performance in 2019), MNET (“Sorry Sorry” MCD Dance Challenge video), Of the Record Entertainment (“Panorama” by IZ*ONE), SM Entertainment ( “Umpah Umpah” and “Psycho” by Red Velvet / “Hot Sauce” by NCT Dream), Starship Entertainment (“Love Killa” by Monsta X), and WM Entertainment (“Dun Dun Dance” by Oh My Girl)

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