For longtime fans of K-pop, the explosion of BTS’ popularity has been nothing short of delightful. Anyone following them from their first single (No More Dream) knows that every atom of their glory has been earned with blood, sweat and tears (pun intended).
However, there’s a whole wide and magnificent world of K-pop that lies beyond BTS. If you’re a new fan whose first brush with the genre has been via BTS, know that you are in for a lifetime of musical (and visual) treats if you dive just a little bit deeper.
In every realm of human activity, there are a number of female trailblazers who step into a field and transform it. K-pop is no exception. Multitudes of magnificent female artists have contributed to making it the unique and captivating cultural behemoth it is today.
This article will look at five of them, with the intention of introducing these icons to Indian listeners. Indian K-pop stans deserve amazing music, and these hitmakers deserve your love.
Bo-ah Kwon AKA BoA is not just a Kpop Queen; she is the first one. She debuted at age 13 under SM Entertainment (the first and one of the biggest Kpop agencies in existence), and was basically at the helm of what came to be known as the “hallyu wave”.
BoA’s success went far beyond Korea. Her talent was worshipped in her homeland, but she also became a massive star in Japan (one of Kpop’s first foreign markets). Her 2002 album Listen to My Heart was the first by a Korean artist to top the Oricon charts, opening the door for K-pop and hip-hop’s reception and celebration beyond its country of origin.
Her American debut, the single Eat You Up (2008) charted at #8 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart. She dropped her self-titled English album in 2009 and charted on the Billboard 200 – the first Korean artist to do so. The same year, she headlined the San Francisco Pride Festival alongside Solange Knowles and The Cliks.
BoA doesn’t just have fans among us mere mortals; numerous Kpop idols (including TVXQ and SHINee’s Key) have confessed to being her fan.
Other than this, she is known as a strict taskmaster who settles for nothing but the best (especially from herself) and simultaneously deeply caring of younger artists in the industry.
Girl group Mamamoo’s main vocalist gets a fair bit of hate, most of it for reasons that make little sense. According to fans, it’s because she doesn’t have the physique expected of female idols (petite), her sexy demeanour or because her skin is darker than one commonly sees among idols.
Disclaimer: Please note that this information has been collected from fan forums, K-pop-related sites and sites like Quora. Correct me if I am wrong about this, Mamamoo stans.
Mamamoo has certainly courted controversy with a few instances of inappropriate behaviour (read here), including a massive faux pas by Hwasa herself. They received backlash, and have apologised. But the hate directed individually towards Hwasa seems to go beyond the rightful criticism of socio-cultural insensitivity.
Nonetheless, Hwasa is also one of the most unique idols in K-pop, in terms of aesthetics, concepts and vocal prowess. Her biggest hit Maria (titled after her baptismal name) features truly profound lyrics about the derision she receives. Despite the catchy electro-dance bop, the words are a window into the mind of a public figure who feels burned and burned out from the negativity that comes with the limelight.
Among female K-pop idols, Hwasa is definitely one of the most interesting. She’s got a gorgeous voice, habitually disrupts stereotypes attached to her gender and industry, and definitely embodies the Je ne sais quoi or X-factor that catapults an entertainer into a star.
When Lee Chae-rin AKA CL debuted with 2NE1 in 2009, K-pop girl groups were still primarily rolling out bubblegum pop with uber-cute concepts. Then came YG Entertainment with four firecrackers who threw the sexy-yet-demure formula to the heap and epitomized a word that wasn’t even part of the pop culture parlance at the time: swagger.
2NE1 had it all: charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. They weren’t shy, cute or hesitant: they were majestic, assertive and uplifting. They declared unflinchingly “I am the Best”, lamented that they were “Ugly” and generally embodied the term “Fire”. They endowed K-pop with novel modes of artists expression, and they did so while being led by CL.
CL was one of the first female rappers to gain widespread acclaim in mainstream K-pop. She oozed dominance, whether on stage or in music videos. Her uniquely grainy vocals drew attention, and made her impossible to ignore.
While she has never been part of the underground scene, either in Korea or the US, CL’s verses and aesthetics broke barriers for what women could do in K-pop. YG Entertainment definitely pushed some serious limits with 2NE1, and this idol rapper is one of the reasons that women are now spittin bars and standing their ground in the genre and the industry.
There’s no one like Queen Hyuna. For the longest time, she has been associated with sensual magnetism, provocative choreographies and a trademark twinkle-in-the-eye sexiness that no one else has mastered quite like her.
Hyuna’s career is clustered with forever-hits. She has been part of two iconic girl groups – Wonder Girls and 4Minute – and then moved on to a solo career with raging success. No K-pop fan has forgotten the addictive bop of Bubble Pop (girl power but cute), Babe (condemning the K-pop industry’s tendency mash childlike innocence and sex appeal in adult female artists), or Red (an absurdist declaration of loneliness). Her enduring relationship with labelmate Hyojong is also one of K-pop’s romantic victories; this isn’t an industry known for accepting idol romance with much kindness.
She also exudes a rare breed of honesty. Hyuna has been upfront about her depression and panic disorder as well as vasovagal syncope (which causes fainting spells due to emotional stress). Behind her it girl bounce, she has revealed herself as vulnerable, relatable and utterly human.
Sunmi debuted with the legendary Wonder Girls, took over K-pop and went on to become one of the genre’s top soloists. A few examples of her triumphs would be:
- Her best known single Gashina, produced by former K-hiphop god Teddy Park. It debuted at #2 on the Gaon Digital Chart, went to #1, the following week, and was declared the third best k-pop song of 2017 by Billboard.
- Her lead single Siren from the album Warning received an all-kill on six Korean music charts in 2018.
- Her album Warning was declared the third best K-pop album of 2018 by Billboard and Bravo.
- Her song Addict was named the eighth best K-pop b-side of 2018 by MTV.
At this point, all Sunmi does is win. While she hasn’t released much lately (except for cool Instagram posts of Legos and fashion shoots), Sunmi’s music has made an indelible mark on K-pop. No one is forgetting her anytime soon.
Now, before you come for us for not including Blackpink in the list….Blackpink is the obvious choice. We all stan them by now, okay?
New year, new beginnings, new music, right? After the dumpster fire that 2020 has been for most people, we can all use a scintillating playlist or two to keep our faces to the sun. For amateur K-pop enthusiasts, delightful tunes abound among the five artists in this piece.
Better start streaming.