YouTube’s most-watched Korean pop music video, Girls’ Generation’s “Gee,” has earned 74,000,000 American views alone, even though most mainstream U.S. music fans have never heard of it. The song and video – a calculated, colorful, choreographed affair that sees the nine-member girl group smiling and winking for the camera in flirty outfits as they change formations and soloists without a hitch – epitomize how Korean pop music (K-Pop for short) has been able to break language barriers and captivate a passionate U.S. audience. More recently, acts have begun turning the interest into profitable American tour stops and announcing plans to officially release music stateside. And as if to officially christen the genre’s U.S. crossover potential as an internet phenomenon, Google will host a multi-act K-Pop concert at their California headquarters, which will be livestreamed on their YouTube Presents channel.
In the past, popular Korean acts (like BoA and Se7en) made unsuccessful American debuts likely due to the fact that they were molded by American record labels to be presented in a way they saw best to break into the notoriously difficult market.
Yet K-pop has garnered a strong following without the help of any major American backing. K-Pop is a mixture of trendy Western music and high-energy Japanese pop (J-Pop), which preys on listeners’ heads with repeated hooks, sometimes in English. It embraces genre fusion with both singing and rap, and emphasizes performance and strong visuals.
Never very racy, K-pop could easily slide into America’s Top 40 market if correctly targeted at children and teenagers. The following are the 10 acts most likely to successfully crossover to America – as long as they’re allowed to keep the same sounds and concepts that made them popular in Asia.
By Jeff Benjamin
One of South Korea’s most notable acts, 2NE1 stands out for the wide array of sounds heard in their latest EP that includes the club banger “I Am The Best,” the slick electro-pop/hip-hop “Hate You,” and the emotionally charged “Ugly.” 2NE1’s genre-hopping and large personalities bring Nicki Minaj’s rap/singing approach to mind. Without any push into the U.S., the group caught the eye of will.i.am, who signed on to work on their American debut rumored to be released later this year. Listeners can get a sample of what a will.i.am/2NE1 production sounds like with the track “Take On The World,” currently being used for a promotional video for Intel. The foursome’s fierce fashion even caught the eye of designer Jeremy Scott who has styled for the group. Several of the members have strong English skills, and the group won the award for “Best New Band In The World” for MTV Iggy, an MTV initiative that showcases music from all over the world.
Girls’ Generation have proven to be one of the top acts in Asia topping the charts in both South Korea and Japan. The nine-member group recently unveiled their first international single titled “The Boys” produced by Teddy Riley (who worked with Michael Jackson) and released in English, Japanese, and Korean versions. The group tested the waters for their U.S. debut (The Boys EP released in January on Interscope) by performing “The Boys” on major television shows like The Late Show with David Lettermanand Live! With Kelly. A sub-unit consisting of three members, called Girls’ Generation TTS (also known as Taetiseo), recently became the highest-charting K-Pop act on the Billboard 200 with their EP Twinkle at Number 126. With concepts that range from adorable (see Korean single “Oh!”) to sexy (check out Japanese single “Mr. Taxi”), Girls’ Generation has both a versatility and coherence that define their broad appeal.
Despite a nearly two-year hiatus, boy band BIGBANG continues to be one of K-Pop’s most established and popular groups. Before their comeback this year, BIGBANG made a statement at the 2011 MTV European Music Awards by winning “Best Worldwide Act.” The award was voted on by fans and saw the group beating out Britney Spears and other popular artists from all regions. The group reemerged with their Alive EP, which included mid-tempo R&B-influenced ballads like “Blue” and high-energy bangers like “Fantastic Baby.” The set charted on the Billboard 200 at Number 150 despite no physical release or active promotion in America. BIGBANG members G-Dragon and T.O.P in particular have caught the eyes of super-producer Diplo (who produced a track for their duo project titled “Knock Out”) and British pop singer Pixie Lott (who features them on the track “Dancing On My Own”for the Japanese release of her second album).
The five-member Wonder Girls stands as one of the few Korean acts to have a single chart on the Billboard Hot 100 with English-language single “Nobody.” The track peaked at Number 76 in 2007 following their opening for a Jonas Brothers tour as well as performances on “Wendy Williams” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” The group is serious about their American advancement, living in New York and absorbing American culture while taking a break from Asian promotions. Wonder Girls also had their own Teen Nick movie special this year that produced the dubstep-inspired single “DJ Is Mine” featuring School Gyrls. For their English music, popular songwriters Claude Kelly (Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson), Wynter Gordon (Jennifer Lopez, Mary J Blige), and even Nick Jonas have all been confirmed to be working with the group.
Originally introduced as a Korean version of the Pussycat Dolls, After School stands out for their live performances. In one promotion cycle, the entire group learned a drum-line routine for single “Bang!,” and turned to complicated tap dance for Korean track “Let’s Step Up.” As electro-pop dance ballads, tracks like “Shampoo” and “Because Of You” epitomize the genre-blending of K-pop. After School was also the very first winner of the Billboard Japan award for K-Pop New Artist of the Year. With a unique graduation system that keeps the line-up changing (similar to the way the Pussycat Doll brand works), the group can stay relevant and fresh. It’s unclear if any of the current members (nine girls are in the group at press time) can speak fluent English, but with the shifting membership, if an American debut was eyed it would make sense for their label to recruit English-speaking members.
While BIGBANG represent the established boy bands of South Korea, Beast embody a new wave of boy bands shaking things up. The group puts a special emphasis on their vocals, heard in singles like “Fiction.” Interestingly, its membership is comprised of members who were either kicked out of other popular groups or those that never launched. Their music videos (including tracks like “Shock”and “Beautiful”) already boast millions of views and several members have proven their English skills.
Ailee is a New Jersey native who made her way to the South Korean spotlight via reality television. She was mentored by a veteran K-Pop artist, Wheesung, in a special episode of the show “Singer and Trainee” where she came in first place covering Beyonce’s “Halo.”Her debut single “Heaven,” a huge, long-lasting hit in South Korea, is actually similar to “Halo,” with big R&B beats amid both soft and powerful vocals. Ailee’s knowledge of both American and Korean culture puts good odds on her crossover potential.
High-energy female group Sistar may have gotten one of the best platforms for U.S. attention when they earned the inaugural Number One for the launch of Billboard’s new Korea K-Pop Hot 100 chart. The single “So Cool” was produced by one of the biggest Korean production teams, Brave Brothers, who could be equated to RedOne in America with their dance/pop productions (see also “How Dare You”). Sistar and Brave Brothers also recently released the sassy new single “Alone.” The group performed (along with Beast and SHINee) at Billboard’s K-Pop Masters Concert in Las Vegas this year where member Dasom interacted with the audience in English.
With the recent success of boy bands like One Direction and The Wanted, it would be foolish not to take a group like SHINee as serious contenders for American crossover. The quintet has released catchy Korean electro-pop singles including “Ring Ding Dong”and “Lucifer.”; recent single “Sherlock” not only showcases their emphasis on captivating hooks, but also recalls the vocal stylings of the Jackson 5. “Sherlock” in particular is notable in any genre as a “hybrid remix,” mashing up two different tracks from their latest EP, tracks “Clue” and “Note”. Several members can also speak English.
This four-member girl group has a versatile sound, from the earworm “Good-bye Baby” to sexy tracks “Touch” and “Lips.” miss A released an English buzz single titled “Love Alone,” hooking up with German producer Fuego (who co-produced Jason DeRulo’s “Whatcha Say” and Chris Brown’s “Turn Up The Music”). The track shows an understanding of current American pop music, and the group sounds right at home.