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SM Entertainment and the Korean Pop Wave

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Around the turn of the millennium, Korean pop culture and entertainment started popping up everywhere in Asia. Korean Cinema saw a new renaissance with the domestic and regional popularity of movies like My Sassy Girl, Friend, and My Wife is a Gangster. The music industry ushered in a new generation of teen idols whose fame extended beyond Korea. Most significantly, Korean dramas invaded televisions across Asia, with series like Winter Sonata and Dae Jang Geum reaching an unprecedented level of Pan-Asian popularity. The fervor for Korean dramas and Korean television stars like Bae Yong Joon, Choi Ji Woo, and Lee Young Ae was so great, the phenomenon was dubbed the Korean Wave. Fast forward to 2010, Korean entertainment is still spreading its sphere of influence in Asia and beyond, but the focus is shifting away from Korean dramas. There's a new wave sweeping out of Korea, and this wave is led by K-pop.

The K-pop wave isn't content with just niche markets, dubbed soap operas, and Japanese fan meetings, not when domestic album sales are flagging and there's a world out there for the taking. We're now in a time when Rain can star in a Hollywood movie, Dong Bang Shin Ki can top the Oricon charts, Wonder Girls can tour with the Jonas Brothers, and Nobody and Sorry Sorry can be heard from every karaoke box in Asia. K-pop is more popular than ever in Asia, and thanks to the Internet and the proliferation of online social media, it's also traveled farther outside of Asia and inspired dedicated fanbases in every region imaginable. Standing at the forefront of this K-pop wave is entertainment juggernaut SM Entertainment.

Founded in 1995 by former singer Lee Soo Man, SM Entertainment has produced some of the biggest K-pop stars of the past decade including H.O.T, S.E.S, BoA, Shinhwa, Dong Bang Shin Ki, Super Junior, and Girls' Generation. Though K-pop's other two giants JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment also have their own formidable lineup of stars, as a talent label SM Entertainment is clearly the biggest player in K-pop. According to year-to-date domestic sales figures reported by the Hanteo chart in mid-August, SM Entertainment artists own the top seven best-selling albums of 2010 so far. SM does everything bigger - bigger groups, bigger stars, bigger sales, bigger fandoms, bigger controversies, bigger heartbreaks - and it's been doing it bigger and better than the rest for a while.

The H.O.T Era

Seo Tai Ji is K-pop's greatest music icon of the nineties, but while he influenced many, his style and success couldn't be emulated. Instead, the forerunners of K-pop as we know it now are the teen idols that emerged in the mid to late nineties, in particular H.O.T.

Formed in 1996, SM Entertainment's first group H.O.T was comprised of five teenage boys: Moon Hee Jun, Jang Woo Hyuk, Tony An, Kangta, and Lee Jae Won. Released in September 1996, the debut album We Hate All Kinds of Violence and hit single Candy launched the five teenagers to instant fame in Korea. The group's distinctive member lineup and infectious combination of dance, hip-hop, and teen pop announced a new force in Korean music, and their staggering success helped shift the center of mainstream music - both the artists and the audience - to the younger generation.

H.O.T not only released multiple million-selling albums and swept top awards, they set the standard for the groups that followed. Many of the characteristics typical of K-pop groups date back to the days of H.O.T. The group's name, read as letters not as a word, is an acronym for a phrase that makes little sense in English ("High-five of Teenagers"). The members were designated as rappers or vocalists, ensuring that rap would make an appearance in almost every song from the group and that hip-hop would be integrated into mainstream music in Korea in a way not heard elsewhere in Asia. One of the members, Tony, was discovered at an overseas audition, common scouting ground for agencies looking to form international pop groups. H.O.T was also the first K-pop group to set up an official fanclub and be identified with a fan support color. Even H.O.T's disbanding in 2001 after five years seems eerily like an oft-repeated precedent among pop groups.

H.O.T also found popularity outside of Korea during their reign at the top of K-pop. The group's fans numbered in the millions in China, and for their fourth album, they shot a short 3D movie Age of Peace that was shown in Japan. H.O.T still has a strong following throughout Asia today, especially in China where both Jang Woo Hyuk and Kangta have dedicated portions of their solo careers.

Of course, H.O.T was not alone in shaping the nineties K-pop boom at home and abroad. Groups like Sechs Kies, g.o.d, NRG, Turbo, and Click-B were all active during this time. SM Entertainment also produced a girl group, S.E.S, that was dubbed the female version of H.O.T. Formed by Eugene, Shoo, and Bada, S.E.S didn't reach the heights of H.O.T, but they were the top girl group of their day along with Fin.K.L and Baby V.O.X. Like most of the other idol groups of the late nineties though, S.E.S disbanded soon after H.O.T in 2002, and the members moved onto solo careers.

Of the five H.O.T members, Kangta is the only one that is still with SM Entertainment today. Other than his career as a solo artist, he has also acted in TV dramas in Korea and China, and formed limited-time project groups with Shin Hye Sung and Lee Ji Hoon (Group S), as well as F4's Vanness Wu (Kangta & Vanness).

Shinhwa and Fly to the Sky

After H.O.T's disbanding, SM Entertainment shifted attention to the two male groups that had debuted in H.O.T's shadow, Shinhwa and Fly to the Sky. Debuting in 1998, Shinhwa was split into three vocalists (Shin Hye Sung, Lee Min Woo, Kim Dong Wan) and three rappers (Eric Mun, Jun Jin, Andy), all of whom would come to be well known individually because of their strong personalities and talents, which were often put on amusing display on variety shows.

Shinhwa recorded strong sales with their first three albums from 1998 to 2000, but their major breakthrough came with their fourth album Hey, Come On! in 2001, and the following year's Perfect Man. These two albums greatly elevated their profile in Asia, and the group even recorded a Mandarin version of Perfect Man for overseas release. Hitting the five-year mark, Shinhwa left SM Entertainment in 2003, but they've stayed together and still remain K-pop's longest-running boy band. Both as a group or as actors and solo artists, Shinhwa has maintained steady popularity throughout Asia in the past decade.

SM debuted another teen group right before the turn of the millennium, the duo Fly to the Sky formed by Hwanhee and Brian Joo. Like Shinhwa, Fly to the Sky pulled in solid sales and newcomer awards from 1999 to 2001 with their first two albums, but they didn't yet have a strong enough image or musical style to take their popularity to the next level. The duo found their groove in 2002 with their hit third album Sea of Love, which also saw them transition to R&B and a more mature image as singers rather than idols. After leaving SM in 2004, the duo stayed together long enough to celebrate their tenth anniversary in 2009 before parting ways for solo careers.

BoA, from Korea to the World

Known more for producing pop groups, SM Entertainment has groomed very few artists as solo acts, but you only need one to win them all. Discovered by SM at the age of 11, BoA went through two years of intense training and made her debut in 2000 with ID; Peace B. The album was only a moderate seller, but it was more than enough to mark the 13-year-old phenom as the next big star in not only Korea, but indeed all of Asia.

SM collaborated with another music giant, avex trax, for BoA's foray into the Japanese market. Having immersed herself in the local language and culture, BoA made her Japan debut in 2001 with the Japanese version of ID; Peace B, and climbed the charts with every successive single that followed. In spring 2002, she became the first Korean artist to reach number one on the Oricon chart with her first Japanese album Listen To My Heart. Success followed her home where she sold another half million copies of her second Korean album, No. 1. In a mere month's time, BoA had topped the charts in both Japan and Korea, confirming her status as one of Asia's top artists at the tender age of 15.

More breakthroughs would follow. BoA was the first Korean artist to be invited to Kohaku Uta Gassen, NHK's prestigious annual countdown show. Her second Japanese album Valenti in 2003 became a million-seller, another first for a Korean artist; she would repeat the feat in 2005 with her compilation album Best of Soul. To date, she's had six consecutive studio albums top the Oricon weekly chart, a record second only to Hamasaki Ayumi. Unlike other Korean stars that became famous in Japan in the early oughties, BoA is usually not associated with the Korean Wave. Her mastery of the Japanese language and immersion in the Japanese music industry established her as a true J-pop artist, rather than a foreign artist in Japan. On top of her K-pop and J-pop careers, BoA also made occasional ventures into the Chinese market, including recording Mandarin versions of her title songs for the overseas releases of My Name and Girls on Top.

Having sold over 20 million records worldwide, BoA challenged the last frontier in 2008 and 2009, the US market. She unveiled her US debut single Eat You Up in late 2008, followed by a self-titled English album in 2009. She made some charts and some noise, but not enough for her debut to register in America. Her English album was far from a failure, however, coming as it did in a busy year that also saw her drop multiple Japanese releases on top of promoting in the US. If anything, BoA's American debut simply added another laurel to the multilingual diva's unparalleled career.

In August 2010 on the eve of her tenth anniversary, BoA made her K-pop comeback with her sixth album Hurricane Venus, her first Korean release in five years. In ten years' time, the cute teen sensation has grown up into one of Asia's few true divas, with albums in three languages under her belt. And she's still only 23 years old.

Gods Rising from the East

After Shinhwa's dramatic departure, SM unleashed another group that would surpass them all: Dong Bang Shin Ki. From the very beginning, SM had big plans for Dong Bang Shin Ki, abbreviated as TVXQ. The group's hanja name meaning "Rising Gods of the East" is anything but modest, and they've lived up to the title more than anyone could have imagined.

Dong Bang Shin Ki was conceptualized a bit differently than other teen idol groups of the time. Because of the group's strong vocals across the board, members Micky (Park Yoo Chun), Hero (Kim Jae Joong), U-Know (Jung Yun Ho), Xiah (Kim Jun Su), and Max (Shim Chang Min) were all considered "main vocalists", and their singing abilities were displayed right away with their first single Hug released in January 2004. The group often performed ballads live in a cappella, while also amassing fans and tearing up charts with perfectly pop dance tracks and the requisite concept changes from single to single.

By their third album O - Jung.Ban.Hap, the best-selling record of 2006, TVXQ had undeniably reached the pinnacle of K-pop. The group claimed the largest fan club in the world at approximately 800,000 members, and it's no exaggeration to say that Dong Bang Shin Ki fans cover every corner of the globe. Despite all that TVXQ has achieved in Korea, what really sets the group apart is what they've achieved abroad, in particular Japan. With Dong Bang Shin Ki's global success, they've arguably surpassed even the legacy of H.O.T.

In 2005, they made their Japanese debut with the single Stay with Me Tonight under the name Tohoshinki. Though top stars in Korea, TVXQ was merely one of many artists trying to make it in the huge Japanese market, and even with the support of avex, the journey was not easy. With Johnny's Entertainment having an iron hold over the boy band market, TVXQ was presented as a "dance and vocal group" in Japan rather than idols, working their way up from small lives to the Tokyo Dome.

After O - Jung.Ban.Hap, the group shifted their focus almost completely to Japan, releasing a daunting 16 Japanese singles and two albums in 2007 and 2008. Their efforts paid off in a big way, as their popularity grew steadily among mainstream J-pop listeners. In January 2008, they reached Oricon's number one spot for the first time with Purple Line. They continued the number one streak with their next four singles (excluding the special "Trick" singles), setting a record for foreign artists.

In that same year, they also put out their fourth Korean record Mirotic, whose overwhelming preorder sales turned the album into the year's top seller before it was even released. TVXQ ended a phenomenal 2008 with their Kohaku debut. By this time, TVXQ, like BoA, had moved beyond the foreign artist label, and become one of the top-selling artists in J-pop. Their 2009 album The Secret Code sold over 300,000 copies, and the compilation Best Selection 2010, their last release before stopping group activities, has sold over half a million.

Super Junior, Strength in Numbers

With TVXQ splitting their time between Korea and Japan, SM introduced another group in 2005, Super Junior 05. Comprised of a whopping 12 members, the band was originally conceived as a rotating-membership unit, with plans for a different "Super Junior 06" lineup the following year. The group's great popularity after the release of their first album, however, prompted SM to rethink their plans. Much to the relief of fans, in 2006 Super Junior became an official group, with one more member added (the youngest, Kyu Hyun) to bring the count to 13. As K-pop's biggest group, Super Junior vaunted to the top with the hit single U, and they've stayed there ever since.

Super Junior's smorgasbord of vastly different talents and personalities opened up whole new possibilities. Like in most groups, there were some members better known for singing (Kyu Hyun, Ryeo Wook, Ye Sung), dancing (Dong Hae, Eun Hyuk, Han Geng, Shin Dong), and rapping (Ki Bum, Eun Hyuk). But Super Junior's deep lineup also included actors (Ki Bum, Hee Chul, Si Won) and talkers who quickly emerged as new-generation emcees (Lee Teuk, Kang In, Hee Chul, Shin Dong). The group's hosting and variety show prowess, in particular, created an image different than the typical idols. Super Junior is also the first group to debut with a foreign member, Han Geng, starting a precedent that is now quite common in K-pop.

Super Junior's strength in numbers made them a formidable force that grew with every album. The releases of Don't Don, Sorry Sorry, and their most recent Bonamana were all big events in K-pop. Sorry Sorry, in particularly, launched the super-sized boy band to a new level of fame in Asia. Other than group and individual activities, Super Junior have also formed sub-units targeting different musical styles. K.R.Y (Kyu Hyun, Ryeo Wook, Ye Sung), the first Super Junior unit introduced, is a ballad group, while Super Junior T (Lee Teuk, Hee Chul, Sung Min, Eun Hyuk, Shin Dong, Kang In) tackles trot and Super Junior Happy (Lee Teuk, Ye Sung, Sung Min, Eun Hyuk, Shin Dong, Kang In) makes, er, happy music.

The most significant Super Junior unit though is its Chinese spin-off, Super Junior M. With a Chinese member in the group, Super Junior has had a foot in the Chinese market since their debut. In 2008, SM made a full-fledged foray into Chinese music with the formation of Super Junior M comprised of Han Geng, Si Won, Ryeo Wook, Dong Hae, Kyu Hyun, plus two additional new members, Chinese-Canadian Henry Lau and Mainland native Zhou Mi. The addition of two non-Super Junior members into Super Junior M created a good deal of controversy among Super Junior's famously dedicated fanbase, but the project went ahead with the members spending significant time promoting and performing in China. Most fans were won over by the time they released their first mini-album Super Girl which garnered the group a Golden Melody nomination.

Other than Super Junior M, SM also debuted Chinese female artist Zhang Li Yin in 2006. The young R&B singer's Korean single Timeless won her the Best New Solo Artist award at the Asian Music Awards, a first for a foreign artist. After making her mark in Korea, she released her first Chinese album I Will two years later.

Girls' Generation, 9 Times the Charm

What works once, works twice for SM with the formation of the "female version of Super Junior", Girls' Generation. Debuting in 2007 to great anticipation, the cute, super-sized girl group clocked in at "only" nine members - Tae Yeon, Yoon A, Soo Young, Hyo Yeon, Yuri, Tiffany, Jessica, Sunny, and Seo Hyun - but that was more than enough to set the K-pop world aflame.

Girls' Generation attracted both passionate fans and passionate detractors during their first year, but the whole of Korea soon fell under their spell when the girls released their first mini-album Gee in January 2009. The ultra-catchy Gee was just about the soundtrack of 2009, topping the chart for nine consecutive weeks on KBS's Music Bank. After Gee, everything Girls' Generation did was golden, as the girls followed up with hit after hit - and turned seemingly every male artist in Korea into a fan as well!

In September 2010, Girls' Generation is embarking on a new page of their career with the release of their debut Japan single, a Japanese cover of their K-pop hit Genie. It's a crowded time for Korean girl groups in Japan, but Girls' Generation has nine very strong reasons for why they might be the ones to break through first.

The Contemporary Idol Bands

The K-pop marketing machine is so strong, newcomers no longer debut as newcomers but as stars. Thanks to pre-debut reality programs, CMs, and long teaser campaigns, a rookie group might already have a fan club before they ever take stage. SHINee, however, debuted rather suddenly in May of 2008, making an instant splash with talent rather than gimmick. Described as a contemporary band, the group comprised of five members - Onew, Jong Hyun, Key, Min Ho, and Tae Min - all of whom were under the age of 20. The members' young ages, distinctive fashion, charismatic vocals, and timely debut single "Noona Is So Pretty (Replay)" turned them into instant favorites, especially among the older sister "noona" crowd. SHINee swept the newcomer awards in 2008, and made good on their promise to be trendsetters in music and fashion with subsequent hits like Juliette, Ring Ding Dong, and most recently, Lucifer.

If Girls' Generation is the female version of Super Junior, then f(x) is arguably the female version of SHINee. Debuting in 2009 with the sweet and catchy Lachata and Chu, f(x) features a rather unique lineup: Chinese leader Victoria, former child actress Sulli, power vocalist Luna, tomboyish Taiwanese-American rapper Amber, and Jessica's younger sister, Krystal. Like SHINee, f(x) exudes a fresh, young, and contemporary appeal that sets them apart from other pop groups of the moment.

We All Live in SMTOWN

Individually, SM Entertainment artists are already an impressive force both at home and abroad. Together, they become SM Town, the name used for the project albums and concert tours featuring all SM Entertainment artists. After a break from the annual concert in 2009, this year SM Town is back on track with its first ever World Tour. BoA, Kangta, Max, U-Know, Super Junior, Girls' Generation, SHINee, Zhang Li Yin, and f(x), as well as rock band Trax, underrated girl group Cheon Sang Ji Hee The Grace, and other SM artists like Go Ara and Lee Yeon Hee are all participating in various legs of the tour. Other than Seoul, SM Town Live '10 is traveling to Tokyo, Shanghai, and Los Angeles, marking the first time SM Town has been held outside of Asia. If the great fan fervor for the Los Angeles concert on September 4 is any indication, SM Town may soon be popping up everywhere on the world map.

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Published September 4, 2010

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