Influential Women of K-Pop

Besides creating fictional stories that will likely never see the light of day, music has always been a hobby of mine. I love listening to all sorts and have never cared much about the genre. Rock, EDM, hip-hop; it didn’t matter. Say the genre and I can probably name a song from it I like. “If it sounds good, I like it,” has always been my motto.  

As a result, when I returned to Her Campus UK for my sophomore year, I knew I wanted my first article of the Fall 2020 semester to be about music. I didn’t want to do my usual album review (I personally think I’ve done too many of those for now), so after some productive brainstorming, I decided to plan a ‘segment’ of sorts: Influential Women in Music. 

To start us off, the first genre covered will be Korean Pop (commonly abbreviated as K-Pop). I have been following K-Pop artists since 2013, and during these seven years, I have noticed female artists are often not credited for how they have shaped the industry. While I’m not certain as to how many Her Campus UK readers are fans of K-Pop (or even familiar with the genre), I thought it would be neat to write an article on some influential women in the genre. 

So, without further ado, let me introduce you to five influential female artists of Korean Pop! While there are plenty of women who have helped shape the genre, these five I commonly hear about.

  1. 1. Kwon BoA

    First on our list is Kwon BoA, a renowned soloist under SM Entertainment, the largest entertainment company in South Korea. BoA debuted on August 25th, 2000 (at the age of thirteen!) with her debut studio album ID; Peace B, which achieved moderate success in South Korea. Unbeknownst to young BoA, however, she would come to be known as the “Queen of K-Pop” twenty years later. Since her debut, BoA has released eighteen studio albums, six compilation albums, and two extended plays. She has achieved success in both South Korea and Japan – in fact, her first two Japanese albums Listen to My Heart (2002) and Valenti (2003) were certified for one million copies by the Recording Industry Association of Japan. BoA also made her United States debut with the single “Eat You Up,” with her follow up album BoA (2009).

    What makes BoA so influential is how she was the first Korean artist to break through in Japan with the release of her debut Japanese studio album Listen to My Heart (2002). According to Robert Michael Poole in The Japan Times article “No constrictions on BoA’s ambitions,” BoA achieved her success in Japan when “South Korea lifted its restrictions on Japanese cultural imports, a hangover from World War II that had prevented Japanese films, music, cartoons and computer games from reaching South Korea’s shores.” Thanks to her efforts, other South Korean artists such as Kara, TVXQ, and Big Bang were able to achieve similar success.

  2. 2. Lee Hyori

    Second on our list is Lee Hyori, another soloist. Unlike BoA, she first debuted on May 22, 1998 as a member of the South Korean girl group Fin.K.L under DSP Media, and it wasn’t until August 13, 2003 that Hyori made her solo debut with studio album Stylish...E. According to the Music Industry of Korea, the album sold over 150,000 copies in 2003 and launched Hyori to superstar status in South Korea. In fact, the Korean Media labeled 2003 as “The Year of Hyori” due to her overwhelming presence in the news. Since then, the singer has released a total of six studio albums, selling over 400,000 albums and seven million digital singles in South Korea combined. 

    Recognized as one of South Korea’s leading “socialtainers” – a term for a celebrity invested in social issues – Hyori has been known for her charity work and speaking out for social causes. Her most prominent activism concerns animal welfare and animal rights. Hyori is reportedly a strict vegetarian and has donated to animal shelters throughout South Korea. In fact, according to the Korea Joongang Daily, Hyori donated 120 million won ($100,821) from a 2012 calendar featuring her and her adopted dog, Soonshim, which was released to promote the adoption of animals. In that same year, Hyori also released Closer, a photo-essay book which also features Soonshim and reveals her thoughts on animal rights and animal shelters, amongst other things. Due to Hyori’s starpower and influence, people who want to become interested in helping animals will have guidance of sorts thanks to her.

  3. 3. After School

    Now we begin to look at the influential girl groups from South Korea. To start us off is After School, a group which consisted of the following members through their six year run: Nana, Soyung, Bekah, Kahi, Jooyeon, Jungah, Uee, Lizzy, Kaeun, Raina, and E-Young. After School made their debut on January 15, 2009 with the release of their single album New Schoolgirl and since then had released three studio albums, eight single albums total, and eight promotional singles. With the release of “Because of You” on November 25, 2009, After School became a prominent force in the South Korean music industry. The song became an instant commercial and critical success, becoming the best selling song in December 2009 and eventually one of the best selling K-Pop singles of all time. Future singles such as “Bang!,” “Shampoo,” and “First Love” further cemented their place in the industry, and while After School has not been active as a group since 2015, their legacy will never be forgotten. 

    What made After School stand out amongst their peers was their unique concepts, their most prominent being the admission and graduation concept given by their company. A well-known concept in Japanese pop, this is a rotation system where members come and go as they please. In short, not all members debuted at the same time. Besides their graduation concept, After School also gained attention for their unique live performances and incorporating a variety of performance styles into their songs. These include the drums (“Bang!”), tap dancing (“Let’s Step Up”), and pole dancing (“First Love”).

  4. 4. 2NE1

    Our next group on the list is 2NE1 (who are personally my favorite Korean girl group). A quartet which consisted of members Bom, CL, Dara, and Minzy, 2NE1, debuted on July 8, 2009 with their self-titled extended play. Since then, they have released three studio albums, three extended plays total, and twenty-five singles total. On the Gaon Digital Chart, they achieved nine number one hits with the following singles: “Try to Follow Me,” “Go Away,” “Lonely,” “I Am the Best,” “Ugly,” “I Love You,” “Falling in Love,” Missing You,” and “Come Back Home.” At the peak of their popularity, 2NE1 were one of the most successful girl groups in South Korea, reportedly selling 66.5 million records and receiving a plethora of awards and nominations. 

    According to a 2010 article from KBS Global, what made 2NE1 stand out amongst their peers was their “unique and edgier style.” Their earlier stage outfits were known to be flashy and extravagant to match their dance and electro-pop sound, the women exuding confidence and independence in their style. Their signature hit “I Am the Best” showcases this with lyrics such as “I refuse to be compared / I’m telling you the truth / If we’re talking about my value / I’m a billion dollar baby” and chants of “I am the best!” in the chorus. Amongst girl groups of the time, 2NE1 were seen as a breath of fresh air and a force to be reckoned with, and while the group were on a two-year long hiatus from 2014 to 2016 before their eventual disbandment, their legacy and success in the South Korean music industry will not be forgotten.

  5. 5. Girls' Generation

    Last but not least, we cannot leave out Girls Generation. Originally, Girls’ Generation consisted of nine members: Taeyeon, Sunny, Tiffany, Hyoyeon, Yuri, Sooyoung, Yoona, Seohyun, and Jessica; however, the latter left on September 29, 2014. Dubbed as the “Nation’s Girl Group” due to the numerous accolades they have acquired over the years, Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD from their Korean name ‘Sonyeo Sidae’) debuted in 2007 under SM Entertainment with the single “Into the New World.” It wasn’t until the release of their 2009 single “Gee,” however, that the group achieved great success in their home country. During the next couple of years, Girls’ Generation released the singles “Genie,” “Oh!”, and “Run Devil Run” to further cement their place in the South Korean music industry. Oh!, their second Korean studio album, even won Album of the Year at the Golden Disc Awards. As of 2020, they are the only female act to win this prize. 

    Girls’ Generation are seen as prominent figures in South Korea, even outside of the music industry. According to MediaUs, Girls’ Generation were credited as the leading female group who shifted the public’s focus back to female idols due to the industry’s influx of male idol groups from 2002 to 2007. Numerous girl groups and soloists of newer generations have been inspired by them, including Apink, GFriend, and more. Their debut single “Into the New World” has also become a cultural staple in South Korea, being featured in peaceful protests around the country and often being covered at survival and award shows. While Girls’ Generation have been on hiatus as a group since 2017 to focus on solo endeavors, their starpower and influence has never left South Korea, making their title as “The Nation’s Girl Group” one that could never be replicated.