A decade in K-Pop: 2010-2020

Beth Robson discusses the past ten years in K-Pop, and how the genre is taking over the Western music scene.

Beth Robson
10th December 2019
At the beginning of the decade the now cultural and international phenomena of K-Pop was still relatively unknown in the West. Yet to experience even Gangnam Style, global music fans could not have predicted the immense success Korean bands such as BTS or Blackpink would later on have, and how the genre ‘K-Pop’ would explode onto the Western music scene. 

2009 had been a very successful year for K-Pop in Asia; ‘Gee’ by Girls’ Generation had topped the charts for a record-breaking number of weeks and subsequently was the best selling song of the year; critics later going on to call it “arguably the most iconic K-Pop song of the past ten years” in 2015. With this, the craze for Korean media and music known as the Hallyu wave, was in full-throttle, and the demands for new and exciting music became even more prominent. As 2010 approached there was a distinctive change in production quality of music and music videos– becoming crisper and higher quality, and influences of the iconic 2010s electronic style and black influences beginning to permeate the genre.

A song that took Asia by storm, 'Gee' by Girls' Generation is arguably the most iconic K-Pop song of the 21st Century so far!

An underrated year in K-Pop in retrospect to the 2012 boom in international recognition for the genre, 2011 brought us some classic songs that are iconic to the decade like 'Goodbye Baby' by MissA, 'Hands Up' by 2PM, 'Mr Simple' by Super Junior, 'Bubble Pop' by Hyuna (truly iconic), and 'Roly Poly' by T-ARA. With a wide range in musical styles, the genre was starting to find its feet and a formula that would help bring national and worldwide recognition to its increasing number of artists and as a result, experimented with different sub-genres such as folk and disco. Now for 2012; arguably the catalyst and breakthrough year of the Hallyu wave spreading to the West. Of course you cannot mention 2012 in K-Pop without talking about 'Gangnam Style' by PSY which took the entire world by storm with it’s amusing dance, and catchy and simple chorus. Amassing one billion views in its first year of release (and the first ever YouTube video to reach such a milestone prompting YouTube to change how views were recorded), 'Gangnam Style' cemented itself and for the first time, K-Pop, on the Western music sphere. In the same year, Big Bang released 'Fantastic Baby' which has gone on to be one of the most recognisable K-Pop songs of all time.


Disco-inspired 'Roly Poly' by T-ARA was an instant hit in South Korea!

As 2013 arrived, the effects of 'Gangnam Style' could be seen across the genre as labels tried desperately to replicate the success of the song and appease their new Western listeners. It’s in this year where influences from R&B, hip-hop, and rap can really be heard in Korean music – even from labels that were in the past, very bubble-gum pop oriented like EXO with their song 'Growl' that deviated from SM Entertainments very uncontroversial, pop musical style. With this came international controversy with allegations of cultural appropriation from Black American culture; an unfortunate trend that still happens today. Despite this, the popularity of a fusion between pop and rap in Korean songs would go on to set the trend for the rest of the decade, and importantly would be the style of music future world-wide hit BTS (now newly debuted) would go on to adopt, and use to reach millions across the world.

"The top song of 2015 however went to 'Dope' by the now established BTS, whose fan base was becoming increasingly bigger with every comeback."

The heavily R&B and EDM influenced sound of K-Pop stayed relatively the same in 2014, but as 2015 progressed it soon became quite apparent that the cutesy girl-band concept was regaining its popularity after being stuck in the shadows of copious debuting boy bands. This was the year TWICE, lauded as the 'new Girls Generation', debuted with 'Like Ooh-Ahh' and although reaching only #10 on the Gaon Digital chart, was a success with international fans. The top song of 2015 however went to 'Dope' by the now established BTS, whose fan base was becoming increasingly bigger with every comeback. Their music video for the catchy tune epitomised 'fan service' and 17-year-old me (like many other young, female fans of K-Pop) was officially hooked!

BTS's 'Dope' is one of my favourite songs on the 2010s.

BTS's reign has continued since 2015 with them dominating the charts year-after-year with hits such as 'Fire' (2016), 'DNA' (2017), and 'IDOL' (2018). Since their debut in 2013, BTS have sold millions of copies of their albums and amassed billions of views on their music videos; at this point, if you haven't heard of BTS, you must have been living under a rock! Their R&B/Rap style of music has also set trends in the K-Pop industry with many other bands replicating the style, and labels trying to find their own versions of BTS to cash in on. As it currently stands, BTS looks to be dominating the genre for a long while yet.

"2019 has been, in my opinion, the year of girl groups and female soloists"

Aside from the overwhelming success of BTS, K-Pop still maintains a generally R&B/Rap and Electronic influence, however folk artists AKMU released their first EP 'Spring' (2016) which garnered immense critical approval, and female groups have become increasingly popular with the international successes of Blackpink, TWICE, (G)IDLE, and more. 2019 has been, in my opinion, the year of girl groups and female soloists with hit after hit from groups like TWICE, (G)IDLE, and Mamamoo, and soloists like Taeyeon, Chungha, and HwaSa. Regardless of BTS's success, the real champions of the decade are the girl groups (Please don't hunt me down Army's!).

EDIT (23/12/2019): Red Velvet's new song 'Psycho' is hands down my favourite song of the year - go stream it now!

One to watch: TWICE is set to be the next big girl group.

As the genre becomes more and more popular across the world, the 2020s look to be an interesting decade for K-Pop, fans, and South Korea. As sad as I am to watch my favourites like Girls Generation go their separate ways, I'm excited to see what 2020 brings in terms of talent and sound. Just as we could never have predicted the success of K-Pop in 2009, I wonder what the genre will look like in 10 years time!

Feature Image Credit: screenshot taken from BTS (방탄소년단) 'Boy With Luv' MV owned by BigHit Entertainment (made on Canva)

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