BTS topped the charts across the world, Blackpink broke records on YouTube and Twice made history on their groundbreaking tour of Japan. The ‘Burning Sun’ sex abuse and corruption scandal, the deaths of singers Sulli, Goo Hara, and Cha In-ha, and vote rigging, cast a shadow over bands’ successes
K-pop was in a strange place at the end of the previous decade. Its biggest artists, such as Rain, BoA and Wonder Girls showed potential to take the sound global, but there was a disconnect between the excitement for the music in Asia and the rest of the world.
Fast forward to 2019 and the K-pop scene is at an all-time high in terms of commercial success and global interest, with this past year being perhaps the industry’s biggest to date.
From the boundaries pushed internationally to the darkness that seeped into the pop-culture consciousness, 2019 was a significant year for K-pop as it moved forward with a new-found rush of interest while reckoning with a series of tragedies and scandals.
These were some of the biggest developments in K-pop during 2019.
Superstars shine brighter
BTS’ roll-call of achievements grew in 2019 as the boy band broke new ground for South Korean artists. Early in the year, they took part in the world’s most prestigious music awards ceremony as presenters at the 61st Grammy Awards, a moment of critical visibility for South Korean artists.
Two months later, BTS would release their new EP Map of the Soul: Persona, ahead of a well-received performance on Saturday Night Live (the American TV show has the ability to boost or ruin careers).
They broke records on YouTube with the video to the single Boy With Luv (scoring 78 million views in its first 24 hours of release – that is close to 1,000 views per second), and reached No 1 on the charts in countries such as South Korea, the US (where it tied a Billboard-chart record previously set by The Beatles), the UK, Australia, and Argentina.
BTS reinforced their global dominance by winning two awards at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards and undertaking a stadium world tour; their “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” concerts sold out venues such as London’s Wembley Stadium and Seoul’s Olympic Stadium. They ended the year on a high note, winning eight awards at the Mnet Asian Music Awards ceremony in Nagoya, Japan, on December 4.
Girl band Blackpink made waves in 2019 with a welcome debut at the Coachella music festival in the US on the same weekend that BTS played Saturday Night Live, giving K-pop its most high-profile week in America to date.
Blackpink also undertook a major world tour and broke records on YouTube with their Kill This Love music video. Fellow girl group Twice made history as the first K-pop girl group to undertake a Japanese dome tour.
The most unexpected success may have been that of SuperM, the “supergroup” of boy band members from SM Entertainment acts Shinee, EXO, NCT and WayV. Announced in the summer as a first-of-its-kind, US-focused partnership between the K-pop agency and Capitol Music Group, the band defied expectations with a No 1 album in America and an arena tour that included Madison Square Garden in New York.
While the means used to get the band’s album ranked as the biggest seller in America caused controversy, there was no doubt SuperM captivated the pop world.
A new generation prepares to rise
A new crop of promising superstars made their debuts in 2019.
Daniel Kang – a stand-out member of the sensational-but-temporary boy band Wanna One – became CEO of his Konnect Entertainment label; his debut album Color on Me broke records for solo artists in South Korea.
The post-Wanna One excitement continued with exciting new boy bands such as AB6IX (one of the top-selling rookie acts in K-pop this year, featuring former Wanna One members Lee Dae-hwi and Park Woo-jin) and CIX (a message-driven quintet featuring Bae Jin-young), and new solo stars.
Big Hit Entertainment, the promoters behind BTS, diversified its roster with the launch of boy band Tomorrow X Together, who showcased a more tender image. The group had a hit debut album and generated interest across the world.
Itzy was the stand-out new female act this year, and continue JYP Entertainment’s strong history of girl groups, following acts such as Wonder Girls, Miss A and Twice. The quintet became an overnight sensation with empowering singles such as Dalla Dalla and Icy, and toured Asia and America.
Groups such as Ityzy, Blackpink, G)I-dle and Everglow show the promise of powerful K-pop girl groups.
The darkness comes to light
The K-pop world was rocked by a the multifaceted “Burning Sun” scandal, named after a Seoul nightclub co-owned by Seungri, a former member of the boy band BigBang. The club was at the epicentre of one of the biggest scandals to hit not just K-pop but South Korean society.
Involving sexual assault, prostitution, hidden-camera footage, drug use, police corruption and tax evasion, it captivated and baffled a world that seemed unable to reconcile K-pop’s squeaky-clean image with this raft of crimes.
The fallout from the scandal has been major, and there is more to come. Seungri retired from BigBang after being charged in connection with prostitution. Singer Jung Joon-young was sentenced to six years in prison after admitting to filming women in sexual and compromising acts without their permission, and sharing the footage in chat rooms. Choi Jong-hoon, former guitarist and keyboardist in K-pop rock band FT Island, was sentenced to five years in jail for sharing illegal photos, illegally filming and sharing pornographic videos, and bribing police offers to cover up gang rape and drink-driving incidents.
The scandal also led to the exit of YG Entertainment CEO Yang Hyun-suk. The 49-year-old stepped down after allegations of drug use, providing prostitution services, tax evasion and having corrupt relationships with police.
The music industry faced embarrassment after the revelation that it had rigged results of TV singing competitions Produce 48 and Produce X 101. South Korean authorities found that the winners had been chosen from the start, despite viewers paying to vote for their favourites.
News of the rigged vote, and the backlash which followed, put at risk the careers of popular girl group IZ*One and boy band X1, which are made up of contestants on the two shows.
The were changes to the line-ups of many bands this year. Super Junior announced long-time member Kangin would leave the group following years of controversy over assaults and drink-driving; B.I departed boy band iKon after allegations he had attempted to purchase banned drugs marijuana and LSD; Hwall left The Boyz over long-term health issues, Woojin departed Stray Kids for reasons unknown, and Wonho left the internationally known group Monsta X following a series of accusations about his past, including that he was in debt.
Tragedies, but hope for the future
The saddest K-pop stories concerned the deaths of singers Sulli, 25, Goo Hara, 28, and Cha In-ha, 27. Former girl group members Sulli and Goo were suspected to have taken their own lives after years of dealing with online cyberbullying and malicious comments from South Korea’s hypercritical fans. Cha In-ha, a budding actor, had not faced public criticism and the circumstances of his death on December 3 are still not known.
Their deaths highlight the need for the industry to recognise the extreme stress its stars deal with and to provide resources to head off the risk of more deaths.
Slowly but surely, change has been coming to the industry. Groups such as BTS, Twice, Stray Kids and Ateez have tried to tackle the stigma in South Korea about discussing mental health by speaking about the issue in interviews and through their lyrics.
Earlier this year Twice revealed that band member Mina was suffering from anxiety and stage insecurity, and would be sitting out the group’s tour. More recently, former Wonder Girls member HyunA shared on social media how she has been dealing with depression, panic disorders, and a fainting condition.
While K-pop is dealing with growing pains – and there are probably more to come – perhaps in 2020 fans will be celebrating the global accomplishments of its superstars rather than mourning its victims and reeling at its scandals.