It’s hard to imagine a time when Korean pop-culture wasn’t known and adored worldwide. But before the artists killing it on the international stage today, there was another generation of stars who introduced K-Pop to the wider world. 2nd gen idols: leaders of the Hallyu wave!
The term Hallyu wave describes the rise in global popularity of Korean music and culture. It’s often used to refer to the “golden age” of K-Pop when the expansion of international interest was at its peak. This was largely driven by the emergence of 2nd gen idol groups who were gathering fans not just in their own country but also overseas.
These groups were everywhere from variety shows to radio broadcasts, brand endorsements, and beyond. Their fame began to spread throughout Asia and far beyond, not just for their music, but their personalities and ability to entertain. Although these are all things we’re used to now, back then, it was much more difficult to gain exposure as sites like YouTube weren’t as universally used. Plus, the only English subtitles available were fan-made, if you could find them.
Paving The Way For K-Pop
If they paved the way, there was another era of idols who laid the foundations. They were following the success of the 1st generation of idol groups (like Shinwa, S.E.S, and g.o.d), who strongly shaped the sound and style of popular Korean music. As well as the huge popularity of solo artists such as BoA and Rain who were already topping the charts in countries across Asia. These performers also defined the meaning of fandom in South Korea, and their supporters were some of the first to be as die-hard as they are today. Only think of camping outside a record store to buy all the albums you could carry instead of streaming on 48 different platforms.
The 2nd generation started in 2003, but there’s some debate about when it ended. We’ve gone with 2009 as after that point, the growth of the industry meant more groups were debuting, and the enduring popularity of older bands meant the generational divide wasn’t so clear. Many groups fit the style of the 2nd gen but debuted later, such as Teen Top, Miss A, Infinite, and Sistar.
Unfortunately, some of our favorite 2nd gen idol groups have disbanded (sob), but many of them are still going strong today! In fact, over the last couple of weeks, Super Junior celebrated their 15th anniversary, and SHINee celebrated Minho’s return from military service. So whether you’re a classic stan or newbie to the K-Pop scene, jump into a simpler time with these 2nd gen groups.
The group, widely considered to be the founders of the 2nd generation of idols TVXQ!, originally debuted as five members and are still producing hits as a duo to this day. In fact, we once sat beside a fan at an SMTown concert, who went especially to see them! The other three members formed the group JYJ, and Junsu and Jaejoong are successful solo artists in their own right.
Super Junior (2005)
Kings of the Hallyu wave, Super Junior are popular worldwide and have huge fanbases all across Asia and South America. They catapulted onto the world’s stage with ‘Sorry Sorry,’ probably the most recognizable Korean song until ‘Gangnam Style.’ The group is just as well known for their careers as entertainers who bring their chaotic charm wherever they go.
If SuJu are the Kings of Hallyu, BIGBANG are definitely the Kings of K-Pop! What separated them from other groups at that time was their raw musicality and involvement in producing their own songs. This unique drive and confidence made them trendsetters in the industry and turned their relatively small company, YG Entertainment, into a market leader.
Brown Eyed Girls (2006)
This talented quartet debuted as an R&B group with a focus on their powerful vocals. But their breakout hit ‘Abracadabra’ is an electronic-pop number with an iconic dance to match (so iconic it’s been sampled by PSY). It’s a testament to their range as performers that they have successfully taken on so many genres, a trend the members follow in their solo careers.
F.T. Island (2007)
F.T. Island were pioneers of the K-Pop/rock genre, fusing classic band staples like playing their own instruments with the stylings of an idol group. Their music can’t be put into a single box either, spanning emotional ballads, rock, and retro bokgo. If that wasn’t enough, lead singer Hongki has also appeared in many K-dramas like A Korean Odyssey.
Girls’ Generation (2007)
Whoever named Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD) did a perfect job, as they became the representative Korean girl group of 2nd gen idols. In an industry dominated by boy bands and following in the footsteps of labelmate BoA, they broke into the domestic market with Into The New World and then rose to international fame following the release of Gee.
KARA had a more modest debut but managed to grow through adversity and member changes. Their breakout hit ‘Mister’ with its catchy hip dance led to opportunities for the members on variety shows and advertising campaigns. They saw particular success in Japan, with the Japanese version of the track becoming the first by a girl group to reach two million downloads.
Wonder Girls (2007)
Wonder Girls also had their fair share of member changes, but luckily each lineup was as wonderful as the last. Their impressive roster has included Sunye, Ahn Sohee (who stars in Train To Busan), Yeeun (now Ha:tfelt), Hyerim, Yubin, Sunmi, and Hyuna! Proving there’s nothing they couldn’t do, the group released an all-English album and held concerts across the USA.
2AM were formed in a way that was just as popular then as it is today: a good old fashioned survival show! Hot Blood aired on Mnet and documented the grueling daily lives of JYP trainees as they prepared for their debut. The four members were selected for their vocal talents, which they showcase in their signature ballads and emotional mid-tempo tracks.
At the end of Hot Blood, the project group One Day was split into two parts: morning and evening. Chosen for their dancing abilities and powerful stage presence, 2PM were the other side of the coin to 2AM. They debuted with seven members and popularized the “beast idol” concept with their masculine image, something which set them apart from the usual “flower boy” trend.
Once known as the Princes of K-Pop, SHINee have grown into extraordinary artists in every way imaginable. Their incredibly catchy song ‘Ring Ding Dong’ set the group up for international success, charting all over Asia and beyond. Showcasing their perfectly synchronized dancing, it was the best introduction to K-Pop for many. No wonder even former US President Barrack Obama is a Shawol!
It has to be said that YG knows how to create a top-quality girl group (even if they don’t know how to treat them) and 2NE1 is just that. With a name that means both “Twenty One” and “To Anyone” they brought girl power into the 21st century. Their high-energy electronic and hip-hop music shows off their edge, while their softer R&B tracks highlight their unique voices.
Hyuna gets a special mention for making it onto this list twice! After leaving Wonder Girls in 2007, she re-debuted as part of the quintet 4Minute. They stood out for their “girl crush” image and unapologetically sexy concepts which were repeatedly banned from broadcasting stations. This was a battle of expression they fought so the next generation didn’t have to.
After School (2009)
Another group with several member changes was After School. They were one of the first to introduce a “graduation” system where older members would naturally leave and new ones would be introduced. Founding member Kahi helped to design their diverse and creative performances. While Raina, Nana, and Lizzy formed the sub-unit Orange Caramel which gained popularity for its fun and colorful concepts.
f(x) were one-of-a-kind even among groups with an experimental, electro-pop sound. They were not only popular with the public but also received critical recognition for their music. Their album Pink Tape rose to number one on both Billboard’s K-Pop Hot 100 and World Albums charts. It was also the only Korean album to make Fuse’s “41 Best Albums of 2013!”
Don’t worry! We know there are many more artists who each shaped the industry in their own way; T-ara, U-KISS, B2ST and Secret, to name but a few. Since we couldn’t fit them all into this article, we’ve created a playlist of 2nd Gen K-Pop Bops just for you!
So which 2nd gen idol group is your favorite? Did you rediscover any forgotten gems? Or are you still vibing to these tracks on the regular? Let us know in the comments below, @TheHoneyPOP on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. And you can also socialize with other K-Pop lovers on our Discord server: The Hive!
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