Torch Songs: A K-Pop Primer for Olympic Listening

Posted February 7, 2018 6:44 p.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2018 7:00 p.m. EST

The last time the Olympics came to South Korea, in 1988, Korean pop music was awash in soft-focus ballads, a gentle and demure version of the sounds that were taking hold elsewhere in the world. This year, the country is hosting the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and is greeting it with a vastly evolved approach to pop music and culture.

South Korea’s prime export is K-pop, the umbrella term used to describe the ecstatic, vibrant, outrageously polished and often hyperreal version of pop music that dominates the country’s music industry, thanks to entertainment conglomerates that aggressively recruit and train young talent. The genre is known for pinpoint precision, flamboyant fashion and smoothed-over borrowings from American rhythm and blues and hip-hop that, taken in total, have amounted to the creation of a style and sound that’s unmistakable, and without global peer. Along with K-drama and various other youth-driven pop culture offsprings, it’s become essential to South Korea’s global image.

K-pop will reportedly have a limited presence at the Olympics opening ceremony on Friday, which will feature performances from Ha Hyun Woo of the indie rock band Guckkasten, Ahn Ji Young of the K-pop duo Bolbbalgan4 and Jeon In Kwon of the long-running Korean rock band Deulgukhwa.

It will, however, be more prominently featured at the closing ceremony on Feb. 25, with performances by CL, who got her start in the essential girl group 2NE1, and the boy band EXO. Other K-pop performances — including a reunion of the boy band 2PM — are scheduled for events throughout the games. And last month, North Korean singer Hyon Song-wol led a delegation of North Korean officials to the South to prepare for the cultural performances that will be a part of the events.

Here are 10 songs spanning 2 1/2 decades of K-pop history, an incomplete and highly abridged history of the genre from its most serious to its most colorful.

— Seo Taiji and Boys, 'Nan Arayo’ (1992)

A new jack swing anthem from the group widely credited with beginning the innovations that would eventually lead to what is now understood as K-pop. “Nan Arayo” has it all: tender soul harmonies, rat-tat-tat drum machine beats, a Flavor Flav sample and a video that sets hip-hop dance routines to a hard-rock guitar riff.

— H.O.T., 'Candy’ (1996)

Just as the Backstreet Boys were honing the idea of the contemporary boy band in the United States, H.O.T. was establishing the rules in South Korea: chipper melodies and coordinated outfits you could see from space. Though the group was known for tackling serious topics in its music, this early single was delightful fluff.

— Diva, 'Yo Yo’ (1999)

A midcareer hit from Diva, which made its mark as one of the first successful female rap outfits in the country. By this point, the trio’s music was polished, and some of the bite of its early singles had been quelled, but “Yo Yo” still had verve and snap.

— g.o.d., 'Lies’ (2000)

By the turn of the millennium, boy bands were the currency of K-pop, but g.o.d. imbued that structure with dignity and emotional grounding. “Lies” is one of the group’s biggest singles, a throbbing ballad with a slow-burn music video that’s unerringly sad.

— Rain, 'It’s Raining’ (2004)

A solo idol emerging from an era of boy bands, Rain was magnetic, an impressive singer and a liquid dancer. “It’s Raining” was one of several chart-topping hits he had in the 2000s, a tightly controlled mix of Michael Jackson-influenced pop, club music, R&B and rock theatrics.

— BoA, 'Everlasting’ (2006)

Since getting discovered at a talent search at the age of 11, BoA has become one of the most durable and versatile K-pop stars, dabbling in R&B, rock, pop and more. This is one of her more conventional songs, a tortured ballad that showcases her plaintive voice.

— Girls’ Generation, 'Gee’ (2009)

There can be a saccharine sweetness to K-pop, and bubble gum is an aesthetic the genre doesn’t shy away from. This is often found in its purest form in girl groups. In the last decade, few have been more popular or influential than Girls’ Generation. The aerobic “Gee” is one of its early hits.

— 2NE1, 'I Am the Best’ (2011)

A postcard from the moment when K-pop, which had been reliably indebted to other countries’ sounds, was beginning to embrace excess as its own style. The girl group 2NE1 was a potent force, almost ruthlessly modern, and “I Am the Best” encapsulated its high-grade attitude.

— G-Dragon, 'Crayon’ (2012)

Witness K-pop as postmodern theater. G-Dragon — a member of the essential boy band BigBang — is one of the great pop synthesizers of the 2010s, and also a key figure in tethering K-pop to high fashion. “Crayon” is like Southern hip-hop on creatine, brought to the racetrack, then struck by lightning.

— BTS, 'DNA’ (2017)

Peak hypercolor pop from the current boy band kings. BTS has had the most significant crossover into the American mainstream of any K-pop artist, having collaborated with Desiigner and Steve Aoki, and won a Billboard Music Award last year, a first for a Korean act.