Koreans used to joke about being the “shrimp among whales” — stuck between the cultural behemoths of China and Japan.
Over the past decade, however, a massive Korean (Hallyu) wave of pop music exports appears to have subsumed the whales.
Newly crowned MTV Iggy 2011 Best New Band 2NE1 represent this global music phenomenon still relatively unknown in the West. An umbrella term for just about any musical style, hallmarks of K-pop include precision dancing, high production values, a motley array of acronyms for group names, and squeaky-clean all-boy/all-girl groups that feel like throwbacks to the late-’90s Disney NSync/Backstreet Boy factory. Only, somehow…better.
The K-pop wave is about to become a global tsunami, so let’s take a quick chronological look back at the decade that brought us to this point. Specifically through the acts that charted the course. The acts that didn’t just sell millions of records, they set milestones, paving the way every year for a bigger wave the next.
- #10 g..o.d. (1999)
- #9 BoA (2000 Korean debut, 2001 Japanese debut, 2009 English language debut)
- #8 Rain (2002)
- #7 Epik High (2003)
- #6 Big Bang (2006, comeback 2011)
A slim teenager, short hair scraped into a top knot, runs frantically down narrow labyrinthian alleyways to a pounding percussive rhythm of korean drums and possibly even South Asian tabla. He flattens against a wall to catch his breath. He turns his head. A gun cocks off-screen. “Big Bang” — the words freeze on-screen to the sound of a gunshot. (That’s just the opening 20 seconds of “Lies,” off the group’s debut EP Always.) It doesn’t take much to see why Big Bang is so enormously popular among K-pop fans. Combine frontman G-Dragon’s brash bad boy style with lead vocalist Taeyang and underground rapper T.O.P. Add two rubber-limbed dancers, Daesung and Seungri. You don’t even need to shake it. Since 2006 Big Bang’s set trends from dance moves to hairstyles, effortlessly trading hip hop cornrows for preppy-punk faux hawks without losing an ounce of insouciant charm. The quintet took 2 years off to pursue solo music and acting projects, and returned in 2011 with the EP Tonight, which promptly racked up over $6 million sales in less than a week. They brought their comeback year to a close by nabbing the 2011 MTV Europe Music Award winner for “Best Worldwide Act.” Yes, they’re back with a bullet.
- #5 TVXQ/DBSK (2003)
- #4 Wonder Girls (2007)
- #3 Girls Generation/SNSD (2007)
- #2 2NE1 (2009)
- #1 Miss A (2010)
Rocking outlandish wigs and a brash attitude in songs like “I Am the Best” and“Ugly,” 2NE1 revolutionized the image of female idols, and by 2011 rode atop the Hallyu wave all the way to the title of MTV Iggy’s Best New Band in World.CL, Minzy, Bom, and Dara are known as the fiercest ladies of K-pop for a reason. And we’ve been counting those reasons for so long, explanations seem superfluous at this point. Dive into an article on 2NE1, watch their electrifying music videos, and meet their superfans. No matter what you do, one fact is inescapable: 2NE1 is the promise of K-pop crossover made flesh, the tsunami about to shatter the pop culture landscape as we know it.