BTS just completed a feat no other Korean Artist has done, a #1 song on The Billboard Hot 100 list with Dynamite. As someone who’s been a fan of Kpop for nearly 25 years, this is something no one could have imagined in the mid 90’s, that KPop would become a global phenomenon and gain acceptance in the American Pop Music Scene. All credit to BTS and of course the BTS Army for their amazing achievements this year. I can’t help but point out that part of this success also lies with the KPop Trailblazers, the First Gen Idols that initially broke down language barriers and started the Korean Hallyu Wave. Would we have seen artists like BTS, Blackpink on the Billboard charts if it weren’t for the original idols that made KPop accessible to non-Koreans like myself? Let’s take some time to appreciate these original idols. Which ones should you know about? Let’s list a few…we’ll introduce you to a few each article.
High Five Of Teenagers (ok, the name never made sense to me either, so they were always just H.O.T to me). They were one of the first KPop groups created by Lee Soo Man (founder of SM Entertainment-home to some of your current favorite idols like Red Velvet). I was introduced to H.O.T by a friend in junior year of HS (yes, dating myself here). H.O.T debuted in 1996 with Warriors Descendant, a song that initially gave the group a tough image, a statement on how they would take over the Kpop charts. This was shortly followed by their iconic top charting song, Candy. A true test to see if a song is a classic is to see if it is available at your noraebang (karaoke room). The answer here is definitely a yes! Several idol groups have paid tribute to H.O.T with performances of Candy (Big Bang & ONEUS being just a few). H.O.T challenged the conservative Korean Gayo broadcasts at the time with their dyed hair (considered inappropriate then, they had to cover up using handkerchiefs/beanies during performances). This has eventually gone away. Can you even imagine seeing your favorite idols now without dyed hair?
Sechs Kies (젝스기스) debuted in 1997 with School Anthem. Followed by their breakout track Pom Saeng Pom Sah. They were considered to be H.O.T’s rivals at the time (DSP created them specifically to rival H.O.T on the charts), adding to the ever growing popularity of KPop. Two huge factions at the time? H.O.T fans & Sechs Kies fans, and then there were a few like me that were fans of both. Happy to say now it’s commonplace to STAN multiple groups (because why should you have to choose just 1?). Their iconic song? Couple. A remake was even done recently but I’m still a fan of the original version. You may have seen Eun Ji-Won before in Korean variety shows. Go Ji-Young? Recognize him? He was on Return of Superman with his son.
A smaller version of Sech Kies is still releasing songs/performing under YG Entertainment.
What about the girl groups you say? Haven’t forgotten about these trailblazers either.
S.E.S (an acronym for their names, Sea, Eugene, Shoo) also are considered a first Gen Idol Group. They debuted in 1997 with I’m Your Girl. What guy wasn’t in love with Eugene? Who didn’t know that dance? Did you know the rap of this song even featured Eric and Andy from Shinhwa (another group I’ll introduce later)? S.E.S eventually stretched their popularity to America (even filming the video for Love in NY-opening the floodgates of KPop videos filmed in the States). They would also take KPop to Japan, starting a trend of idols that would release Japanese singles/albums as well (TVXQ, BTS, Twice all have released Japanese tracks along with countless others). Do we have S.E.S to thank for this? Definitely a yes for me. Their success outside of Korea, made it more attractive for other labels to also market their artists in foreign countries/languages.
Fine Killing Liberty Yet again another group created by DSP to compete against another massively popular SM Entertainment group. Fin.K.L debuted in 1998 with Blue Rain which featured Ok Ju Hyun’s powerful vocals. This group was filled with eventual stars, Lee Hyori of course being the most notable one. Lee Hyori would become one of the most iconic solo female artists in KPop. Sung Yuri & Lee Jin have gone on to have successful careers in acting as well. Their start was of course with Fin.K.L. An iconic song, Forever Love. Lee Hyori’s line here that solidified her popularity, 항상 나의 곁에 있어 줘.
Their lasting presence in the Korean media shows how much they were loved during the height of their success and the overall impact they made. It also set a precedent for Idols that they could break away from their groups to achieve solo success. Lee Hyori would become one of the most iconic solo female artists in KPop.
As you can see these artists broke down barriers like strict broadcasting rules for how Idols dressed/hairstyles, broke down language barriers by branching out and recording in other language like Japanese. They were the first ones to create fan clubs (and yes I was a part of the H.O.T one). Imagine where BTS would be without the BTS Army. They also proved Idols could be successful outside of KPop as well, by making their way onto variety shows (Moon Hee Jun, Lee Hyori & Eun Ji Won) and Korean dramas (Sung Yuri & Lee Jin). They also set the stage for the break away artists to emerge from these Idol groups. Undoubtedly, Lee Hyori’s success has inspired other Idols to attempt solo projects.
Hope you enjoyed learning a little bit more about the artists that helped pave the way for your current idols. Interested in learning more? Check out our future articles. Leave in the comments any you’d like me to feature.