The K-Pop Beginner’s Guide: The Music

There are many reasons why fans around the world have come to love K-pop, like its exceptionally good-looking idols and memorable choreographies. What first drew my attention was the music, and it’s still the most important factor in deciding whether or not I like a given artist or group. But one of K-pop’s most defining factors is the inseparability of song, image, and performance. Albums and the promotions for a single are based around concepts, and a group almost reinvents itself with each new release. Certain visuals based on those concepts are forever tied to the songs with which they are paired, and the same is true for “point dances” or standout sections of the choreography. It’s nearly impossible to hum Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry” without rubbing your hands together, or to think of Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” without picturing fresh faces and colorful skinny jeans.

You can enjoy K-pop solely for the songs, but you can’t fully understand it by sound alone. That’s why this post will be full of music videos, and why what makes them great is more than the beats and melodies. My aim is to introduce you to the general essence of K-pop as a whole, and for me, the videos included here meet that goal, covering the bases of song, image, and performance.

  1. PSY “Gangnam Style

K-pop is much more than “Gangnam Style,” but it’s important to discuss. With this track, PSY did what many K-pop artists and their companies have been trying to do for almost a decade: he went global, and not just among those who were already K-pop fans. PSY is a good example of how K-pop can be fun, colorful, and so catchy that you don’t have to be fluent in Korean for it to stay in your head long after you’ve listened to it. “Gangnam Style” also represents the humorous, quirky side of K-pop, and it’s a reminder that the industry is filled with more than teenage and twenty-something idols.


  1. Girls’ Generation “Gee”

This is simply a classic. Before “Gangnam Style” swept the globe, this was YouTube’s most viewed K-pop video, and the one that made Girls’ Generation Korea’s representative girl group. K-pop girl groups tend to be categorized as either “cute” or “sexy,” and it can feel like very few fall beyond those boundaries. But Girls’ Generation has carved out their own place on the girl group spectrum by moving from relatively cute to a sophisticated, understated sexiness that doesn’t utilize the usual tactics of showing more skin or doing a deliberately provocative dance.

But this is about “Gee,” and “Gee” captures the essence of the cute girl group singing about love and the bubbly feelings that go with it. It’s not the first or last example of that, but it remains the best.


  1. Brown Eyed Girls “Abracadabra.”

If the hip swinging point dance seen here looks familiar, it’s likely because you’ve seen the version borrowed by PSY for his “Gentleman” video (where his female co-star is Ga In, a member of BEG). Either that, or you’ve spent a lot of time watching Korean variety shows from 2009 where it was referenced repeatedly. Brown Eyed Girls is recognized as one of the girl groups in the “sexy” sphere, but unlike some groups, BEG’s popularity is not a product of their sexiness alone. They are great performers with serious vocal talent, and member Miryo is one of the best idol rappers out there. Brown Eyed Girls is more than a sexy group, but they do the sexy concept better than anyone.


  1. 2NE1 “I Am the Best (내가제일잘나가)”

This female foursome is in a league of their own. 2NE1 is another girl group that doesn’t fit neatly into the “cute” or “sexy” boxes. If you had to pick a single word to describe them, “fierce” would probably be the most accurate choice, even though that still wouldn’t fully describe what this group is capable of pulling off. As this video’s sounds and visuals exude, 2NE1 is bold, sometimes brash, but always fun. K-pop often ventures into electronic and dance-pop territory, and “I Am the Best” takes that sound to new levels.


  1. BIGBANG “Fantastic Baby”

In terms of overall feel, “Fantastic Baby” is the guy group response to “I Am the Best.” BIGBANG are 2NE1’s labelmates, and it shows. Like 2NE1, BIGBANG is sonically and visually eye-popping, full of imagery that grabs your attention because it’s equal parts surprising, intriguing, and perhaps confusing. But BIGBANG and 2NE1 are great groups in their own right. If you ever need to feel excited or motivated for anything, or you just want to dance, “Fantastic Baby” is the song for you.


  1. Super Junior “Sorry Sorry”

Super Junior is one of K-pop’s megagroups. If Girls’ Generation’s nine-member lineup wasn’t intimidating enough, try SuJu on for size; at its peak, the group had thirteen active members. But don’t let the numbers deter you. Super Junior has had some great singles, and “Sorry Sorry” is still one of their best-known songs. It also has the point dance of all point dances with the hand rubbing from left to right and back again, a move so simple that your parents could do it. The song and video are slick and smooth without being overly flashy, making it a track that will still sound good for years to come.


  1. EXO “으르렁(Growl)”

There is so much to be said about EXO. They dominated the K-pop scene in 2013, and they’re still selling an abundance albums and concert tickets. Being from SM, EXO was well-known before this song, but “Growl” made them a household name in Korea for those beyond the teenage set. It marked my entrance into the EXO fandom, and it sounds like a combination of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” for the 21st century. SM is known for sticking its artists into bright box sets and using lots of close up shots, but this video departs from the company norm. The muted set and 360-degree one-take filming technique effectively showcase the remarkable choreography.


  1. CNBLUE “I’m Sorry”

CNBLUE is not a singing and dancing idol group. Instead, they are one of the few instrument-playing bands to be found in mainstream Korean music. They’re less “idol” and more “artist,” being more involved in creating their music than many of the others featured in this list. They emphasize performance not through dance, but in placing a priority on playing their instruments live whenever possible, and few can connect as well with a TV camera as frontman Yongwha. Brimming with talent, their singles are often poppy and funky, and “I’m Sorry” is no exception.


  1. TVXQ! “Mirotic – 주문”

Girl groups aren’t the only ones who can fall into the “sexy” concept category. Six years have passed since this song was first released, but it’s still covered by other groups in concerts and at year-end award shows. “Mirotic” is another example of a more subtle SM video, but that doesn’t make it boring. I have never been a big TVXQ fan, but I love this song. It’s not too little, it’s not too much, and it won’t be sounding dated anytime soon.


10. SHINee “Sherlock” (Dance Version)

As far as I’m concerned, SHINee are the best performers in K-pop. Possibly an arrogant and presumptuous claim to make, but I really do believe that. The complexity of their choreography, their vocal skill while executing it, and the way that the five members complement each other in terms of talent are astounding. Consummate professionals and kings of live performances, SHINee is one special group. If this video and the Sherlock live stages don’t convince you, I don’t know what will.


I realize that this list is very SM- and YG-skewed and that it covers neither first-generation K-pop nor the artists who make more rock- or rap-oriented music that also leaves its mark on the Korean music charts. This list is simply a starting point, and by no means intended to be exhaustive.

What are some other essential K-pop videos? If you have suggestions, leave them in the comments section.