If you take a look at the music charts today, it's rare to see a Top 10 that isn't filled with glossy American popstars who just want to dance on the floor/party rock/put their hands up/raise their glass (I could keep on going) so sometimes it's healthy to take a look at things from the other side of the world. Over in South Korea, China and Japan it is very rare for any of the artists we take for granted to dominate the charts considering these countries are each filled with their own pop culture. Cracking the east Asian market is the equivalent of British musicians trying to crack America - near on impossible. You may think 'What's the point? I've never heard of any of these people and the only ones listening to them are those crazy asian kids who stay on chatrooms all day' but with a higher company revenue rate from digital sales that the USA plus South Korea becoming a huge base for homegrown talent (currently the 11th biggest music market in the world and gaining fast) as well as interest from American producers, it won't be long before the Popstars of East Asia become the Popstars of the World.
K-Pop or Korean Pop as is its full name, is perhaps the biggest musical genre in the Asian markets and it's startling to see how pop music is made here not to mention how good it is. Largely girlbands and boybands, they're trained from a very young age and nurtured in terms of singing, style and dance so when they do hit the big time they're fully fledged triple threats (plus many of them can pop-rap quite convincingly too). The girls generally fit one of two moulds - girly or sexy (but not in a 'look-little-girls-i'm-a-hooker' kinda way) - whilst the guys tend to be highly androgynous (which definitely isn't in the USA or UK mainstream mindset when it comes to male representation) and all of the videos are extreme high-gloss affairs with dynamite dance routines which would have bands like The Saturdays or One Direction quivering in fear. Most try to break into the Japanese market and sing whole albums in Japanese as well as their native Korean plus the ability to sing in english now the Western markets are in their sights. Fan culture is a huge huge thing in K-Pop and has been for years before everyone over here cottoned on to it - no, Lady GaGa's Little Monsters weren't the first big fan group with their own identity you silly sausage. GaGa is in fact one of the few to crack this market because she gets it; what some here feel is OTT and attention-seeking is totally normal for fans of K-Pop. With that in mind, let me give you a head's up - here's three girlbands and two boybands big in K-Pop you could very well be hearing more of in the future:
Perhaps the biggest girlband in the whole of K-Pop, Girls' Generation say more is more. Consisting of nine (NINE?? Yes, that's basically The Saturdays plus Little Mix all on stage at the same time in synchronised dance) members, which I won't list because it'll take a decade and I'd just end up resorting to describing them by their hairstyles, Girls' Generation or SNSD as their fans call them have been in the business since 2007 and their oldest member is still only 23 meaning they have years ahead of them. You want accolades? Ok then. Their single Gee is the longest running number one single on KBS Music Bank (think Korean Top of the Pops) whilst also being named the best song of the whole entire bloomin' decade by Melon, Korea's biggest music site. They have also smashed Japan, having the best selling K-Pop album there ever, and have performed their first English speaking single The Boys on Late Show with David Letterman in the USA. The Boys was produced by Teddy Riley who's previously worked with Michael Jackson, Usher and early 90's hip-hop group Blackstreet proving influencial members of the American music industry are sitting up and taking notice. Now the group is signed globally to Interscope in the USA and Polydor France amongst others. The Boys is much more contemporary for the band and you can tell they're adapting for the Western market but they have an extremely catchy back catalogue: Gee, their biggest hit, is hand-clapping super pop at its best, Run Devil Run is squelching beat fierceness (with a video that puts the Pussycat Dolls to shame) and Oh! sounds like something off the mega drive Sonic games. They're older, wiser and and ready to roll - Incoming SNSD. http://youtu.be/YFbyh0wzTS0
Let's go from the most popular girlband to perhaps the most popular boyband - BIGBANG (they love capitalisation in K-Pop). If they're not the most popular they certainly have the most hardcore fanbase, known as the VIPS, who helped vote them into the position of Best Worldwide Act at last year's MTV Europe Video Music Awards fending off competition from that little-known performer Britney Spears (and we know how crazy her fans can be - yes i'm looking at you Chris Crocker). Like Girls' Generation, they've experienced a change of style in recent years with their current incarnation (seen in the video for Fantastic Baby below) coming across like an anime punk version of Backstreet Boys' Backstreet's Back video with a whole lot of studs, coloured hair and bare chests. All five BIGBANG members have had successful solo careers on the side (each has had at least one number one single or album in South Korea) before recently coming back together with this new vision proving you can take a break successfully (Girls Aloud take note). Their most recent EP release Alive was the first K-Pop album sung in Korean to hit the Billboard 200 Albums chart recently as sees the guys try everything from the like-LMFAO-but-less-annoying Fantastic Baby to hip-hop inflected Bad Boy to some stood-on-a-rooftop boyband ballad-ness on Blue. If you're looking for something a bit more aligned with chart music of the moment have a gander at Tonight which could have been any of the big electro dance pop hits of last year only sang in Korean. Each of the members have their own strengths (member G-Dragon being an extremely accomplished producer/songwriter always helps) which means they can adapt chameleon like to whatever genre they want - a bonus if they want to crack the big western charts. http://youtu.be/AAbokV76tkU
Now these girls have just released their fourth EP (full length albums are few and far between in K-Pop) coinciding with new single/video campaign Volume Up which body-pops whole heartedly into the current trend for saxophone backlines as seen used by Katy Perry (T.G.I.F), Lady GaGa (The Edge of Glory) and Alexandra Stan (Mr Saxobeat) and is perhaps the most accessible K-Pop i've heard since I started listening around. The video is a super slick but equally sexy affair (perhaps even racy for K-Pop girlbands what with all the girl-on-girl grinding going on), I am in love with the bang on-trend gilded baroque blue/orange/gold outfits - major style points plus they're an extremely young band (youngest member So Hyun is just 17) spawning at a time where K-Pop is on the verge of going global so to me this all spells exciting. The fact they're consistently in the Korean Top 10 as well as last year winning the award for Kpop New Artist at the Billboard Japan Music Awards only creates a sense of expectation around this girlband. HyunA seems to be taking the lead here and definitely has a strong presence (you'll know which one I mean when you see the video), not to mention a previous solo EP (which is well worth a look if only for the stupidly infectious dubstep-influenced Bubble Pop). Previous songs aren't as good as Volume Up in my opinion but the rock-tinged Ready Go and Mirror Mirror are pre-cursors to their potential and beyond and I can't wait to see where they go next. http://youtu.be/qsWl1--Niyg
If you're looking for a more conventional boyband MBLAQ fit the brief, being relatively new on the scene like 4MINUTE. Mentored by K-Pop legend Rain (who you may have seen in the film Ninja Assassin, but probably not), this team of five guys are making waves in K-Pop and have been particularly successful in the Japanese market with their singles releases. Songs to look up include Mona Lisa, a latin tinged uptempo with some interesting man-skirt outfits in the video, the extremely 90's sounding ballad Scribble and recent comeback single It's War which features a startling 5 minute video involving assassins, choreographed fight scenes and an actual cinematic storyline unseen in most pop music videos these days. Yeah sure it'd never get pass our TV censors what with the blood and death and that but it's certainly interesting to watch. The song itself is a marching drum, piano filled, strings laden affair which sounds like a much grander version of Blue's I Can from last year. They're also regular guests on the Asian Reality TV show circuit (not as much a statement of terribleness that it would be if attributed to a UK or American act) and are continually providing music for TV and film soundtracks. With a toughening up of image and a couple of hits on Billboard's new K-Pop Chart in the USA under their belt (the fact they have a chart dedicated to it suggests how much its grown in the public consciousness), MBLAQ seem to be going from strength to strength. http://youtu.be/7pZMwohe4jo
Last but definitely not least, the multi-award winning 2NE1 are the hot ticket right now in K-Pop. A blend of all the different shades of girlband - they're girly cute, hip-hop tough and R&B sassy all in the space of the same video - these four girls have already had ten number ones in the Korean charts in the space of the last three years and are on the cusp of an American breakthrough under Will.I.Am's management and production which could see them be the first major breakthrough for K-Pop. In my eyes that partnership makes total sense as the girls' delivery, especially in spoken-rap-esque sections, sounds incredibly similar to the Black Eyed Peas and Fergie's solo stuff. Scream (the most recent single in Japan) flits from Hi-NRG pop pre-choruses to rap sections and an extremely good early Destiny's Child-lite groove breakdown, I Am The Best is femme-pop empowerment at its best which nabs the 'Woo Yeah' drum line from Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock's It Takes Two (which BEP sampled for Rock That Body) and Can't Nobody is auto-tune squizzey beats with a fierce attitude and a infectious refrain. Style is a huge thing for 2NE1; top-end fashion designer Jeremy Scott is good friends with the band and his clothes can frequently be seen in their music videos (he works extensively in the realm of Pop Art surreal kookiness masterminding the infamous air steward PVC dress for Britney Spears - Toxic as well as outfits for Katy Perry, Lady GaGa and M.I.A.). Literally on the brink of releasing their first English-speaking single, aptly entitled Take The World On according to industry insiders, 2NE1 have major support behind them so it may not be long before K-Pop will be wanting them back before they get totally adopted into the USA or UK music scenes. http://youtu.be/qhexxlYYqAc