In this day and age, thanks to the globilization of the "K-pop" music genre, a lot of young people are fans or at the very least very well-acquainted with Korean acts. I'm sure there are but a few people that are up-to-date with current trends and haven't heard of BTS or BLACKPINK.
But who came before these megastars? What transpired before Korean acts were able to travel back and forth from South Korea to the United States on a whim and sell out concert halls in the process?
While there are both men and women to be credited for making the first small steps to popularize K-pop outside South Korea, both solo acts and group acts, I'll be focusing on the girl group side of things.
In this handy, if I do say so myself, guide, I'll try to help newer K-pop audiences familiarize themselves with girl groups of the previous generation of K-pop artists, the one that peaked in 2008 and started exiting the stage around 2012 to make space for the next generation of talented ladies to grace the K-pop stage with their presence.
While certainly most of these groups are either inactive or completely disbanded, the mark they left in the industry is not one to be dismissed so easily just because they no longer regulary release new music (as groups, because many of them are still very succesful soloists). Many of this generation's girl groups are inspired by these ladies and some, if not all, have claimed themselves to be fans of at least one of these groups!
If all that wasn't enough to capture your attention, maybe the promise of stellar music and amazing stage presence will. Without further ado, here are the ladies who dominated South Korea, Japan, East Asia and beyond!
While very hard to imagine one being into K-pop and never having heard of the biggest girl group ever, I'll pretend that's the case and give them a proper introduction. Girls' Generation debuted in 2007 and while they gained some attention with "Into the new world" (at this point this song is basically synonymous to "feminism" in South Korea) and subsequent singles from their first, eponymous, Korean studio album, it wasn't until 2009 that the group really blew up and became what Koreans affectionately call "The Nation's Girl Group. The song featured above, "Gee", set the golden standard for how your average Korean girl group looks and sounds. Bubblegum pop and that cool and natural "girl next door" image is what characterizes Girls' Generation and their influence in the industry can be felt even today; just take a look at most of K-pop's girl groups, a lot of them fit the visuals and sound of "Gee". At their peak, Girls' Generation was comprised of nine members, Taeyeon, Yoona, Jessica, Tiffany, Seohyun, Yuri, Sooyoung, Hyoyeon and Sunny. Nowadays, Jessica is no longer a part of the group, but while Tiffany, Seohyun and Sooyoung chose to leave the company that Girls' Generation debuted under, they are still very much part of the group! Girls' Generation proved that girl groups can go head to head with boy groups and on many occassions even outperform them, something unheard of up until they hit the scene. They have succeeded in pretty much every field they tackled. At the peak of the Korean wave's influence in Japan, Girls' Generation were at the very front, becoming one of the most succesful Korean acts in Japanese territory and becoming the first Korean girl group to sell over a million units, with the release of their first Japanese studio album, also called "Girls' Generation".
Top Row, Left to Right: Taeyeon, Jessica, Sunny
Middle Row: Tiffany, Hyoyeon, Yuri
Bottom Row: Sooyoung, Yoona, Seohyun
Another very big name, 2NE1 is the exact opposite of an average K-girl group. In a time when Korean girl groups were almost expected to fit in either the "cute" or the "sexy" archetype, 2NE1 broke the mold and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for future groups to come. Being bold and outrageous and powerful was unheard of up until 2NE1 hit the stage back in 2009 with the quirky "Fire". They immediately became popular right after debuting and for many years they inspired many young girls to never fear of being different or not fitting in. Perhaps their most iconic song, "I Am the Best" is a song many people, both K-pop and non-K-pop fans have probably heard at least once. Though not longer active as a group, CL, Dara, Minzy and Bom were the four women that gave life to 2NE1. 2NE1's very existance proved that being traditionally beautiful and boasting a very cute or very sexy image are not necessary aspects to lead a group of women to success, and for that, I'm sure many women are grateful.
Clockwise: Dara, Minzy, CL, Bom
Bright colours, quirky dance moves and very distinct visuals. What more can one ask for? f(x) are another example of the "not your average girl group" type of group. Visually and musically they stand out a lot from the bunch. Though they didn't blow up right away, their talent and worth was formally recognised in 2011 with "Pinocchio (Danger)" and follow up smash hit "Hot Summer", from their first ever studio album and it's repackage respectively. Krystal, Amber, Sulli, Victoria and Luna were the five stars that first set foot on stage back in 2009 as f(x). Although Sulli is no longer a member, and while the other four haven't been active as a whole in a while, the group is stil very much together and once the time is right they assure us that they will return. f(x)'s cool image has earned them a very loyal fanbase, both in South Korea and internationally, that patiently awaits their glorious return to the music scene.
Top to Bottom: Victoria, Amber, Luna, Sulli, Krystal
I'm sure many of you know Suzy, and you should, because she's awesome, but no, this is not the "Suzy" group. A group of four very capable and talented dancers, this Korean / Chinese group immediately set all eyes on them when they made their very succesful debut in 2010 with "Bad Girl Good Girl". miss A may have a considerably smaller discography comapred to their contemporary groups but in this case no, size doesn't matter at all as all of their albums, EPs and singles, released both in Korean and Mandarin Chinese, are very solid works worth listening to. Before eventually disanding, miss A was comprised of Suzy, Jia, Fei and Min. Four very talented dancers with a sexy but also bold and independent image were the key aspect to miss A's success. While many claim that their company's overpromotion of Suzy while the other three members were left with very little to do as individual idols is what lead to miss A's eventual disbandment, there's no denying that all four of them helped in the group's success and their efforst and contribution's to the group are very much appreciated and acknowledged.
Clockwise: Jia, Suzy, Min, Fei
Another group whose image as a whole was relatively obscured by the overpromotion of a single member instead of the entire group. Regardless of this fault cretaed by none other than the company responsible for their management, you'll find no other flaws in 4Minute. Making another really strong debut in 2009 (you'll notice that 09's generation all became extremely popular, it was a good year,) 4Minute debuted with "Hot Issue" and they remained a very hot issue ever since. The group was always consistent in their success (despite HyunA's solo career often taking priority over group activities,) reaching a whole new high in their populrity in 2013. This was arguably their best year as, instead of HyunA releasing her next solo that year, the company deceided to have them return as a group instead! HyunA, Sohyun, Jihyun, Gayoon and Jiyoon kept 4Minute alive and kicking from 2009 to 2016. 4Minute were almost always sexy but with a unique fierceness and power in their performances. At times they even tried more emotional and cutesy concepts but, again, they gave them their own unique "4Minute" essence.
Top to Bottom: Jihyun, Gayoon, Jiyoon, HyunA, Sohyun
Very few people can withstand the power of the "Summer Queens" of K-pop! SISTAR's trademark catchy music coupled with their sensual attire and performances were the key to their success. Combined with Girls' Generation and 2NE1, at their peak, they were what Koreans called the "Insurmountable Wall", a testament to their power and also second generation's power in general. Their distinct style gained them their first fans at the end of their first year of activity, with the release of "How Dare You", but it wasn't until 2011 with "So Cool" that they properly blew up. Bora, Hyolyn, Soyou and Dasom made sure that their sexy and cool image was there to stay, and starting in the summer of 2012, with the release of their first "summer special" EP they became closely ascociated with summer songs. In fact many fans of K-pop, but not necessarily SISTAR's fans as well, say summers feel lonely ever since their disbandemnt.
Clockwise: Hyolyn, Dasom, Soyou, Bora
A very clear symbol in the K-pop community that hard work and dedication can overcome any scandal caused by petty rumours. Another group of the class of 2009, T-ara took South Korea by storm right at the end of their first year of activities with the crazy addictive "Bo Peep Bo Peep". You'll often hear fans call Jiyeon, Hyomin, Eunjung, Qri, Soyeon and Boram (there were other members over the years, but these are the "main" ones) the "chameleons" of K-pop as they have tried virtually every concept during their career. T-ara are a group that became very succesful very quickly, being amongst the top five Korean girl groups at their peak, but were also plagued by the infamous bullying scandal for a large portion of their career, which also resulted in a considerable result of loss of popularity. The fact that they are still here however proves that they are not ready to give up yet, and although there's no news of an album coming any time soon, the members, all six of them, assure us that their story as T-ara is not yet over. Also worth mentioning how T-ara is very well received in China. Their songs, even solo songs, always chart really high and usually even top China's music charts. At the peak of the Korean wave's influence in Japan they were also among the three most prominent Korean girl groups active in Japan.
Top Row, Left to Right: Boram, Qri, Soyeon
Bottom Row: Eunjung, Hyomin, Jiyeon
Few words can describe the wonder that is Korea's "Retro Queens"! Before Girls' Generation claimed the crown as Korea's No. 1 girl group, said title was held by Wonder Girls. The extremely succesful "Tell Me" placed them right in the middle of the spotlight. Subsequent releases further boosted their popularity with "Nobody" helping them reach their peak. Their destiny however had them travel all the way to the United States in 2009 to become the first ever Korean act to chart on Billboard's Hot 100! It's worth mentioning that all this happened way before PSY and "Gangnam Style" could become viral with the help of social media. The internet was a thing back then too, yes, but it didn't have the power it does now. While never active as a six-membered group, Sunmi, Yeeun, Sohee, Hyerim, Yubin and Sunye were the "core" members. Despite many younger K-pop fans discrediting Wonder Girls' success in the United States, as it pales in comparison to that of BTS, it's no secret that their advance in the American music market was a very important first step for later generations' full-scale world domination. Wonder Girls were among the first Korean acts that laid the groundwork for later artists to succeed in the US. "Nobody", their American tours, their asociation with American acts like the Jonas Brothers and Akon, their Nickelodeon movie and their promised American studio album that never came were in many ways the Western world's first contact with K-pop. Though the group never broke through into the mainstream American scene, which is something the members' themselves never cared for (Sunmi hated being away from home so much that she eventually left the group while they were in the US and only came back after they returned for good in S. Korea,) the time they spent in America is something that eventually helped them in their lives. Yeeun, Hyerim and Yubin were all allowed to experiment in writing lyrics and producing music, and Sunye met her husband while away from home.
Top Row, Left to Right: Yeeun, Sunye, Sunmi
Bottom Row: Sohee, Yubin, Hyerim
The second most powerful of the "holy trinity" of Korean girl groups active in Japan, KARA made a large ammount of Japanese fans fall for them! Their Japanese success is not all they got however. While they were off to a rocky start, as their debut Korean studio album and image were very reminiscent of 1st Generation stars Fin.K.L, after a line-up change and a 180-degree turn in their image, KARA started becoming a lot more well-received. Success started with "Honey" but they really took off later the same year (2009) with "Mister"! Out of a total of three line-ups, the most succesful one included Hara, Nicole, Jiyoung, Seungyeon and Gyuri. While both KARA and Girls' Generation were very popular in Japan, KARA's popularity differed because there was more demand for them in Japan than in Korea (at their peak they were the fifth most popular girl group in Korea but second most popular in Japan, sometimes even surpassing Japanese groups on the charts!) This notion is further reinfored by the fact that most of the members, following the group's disbandment, are mostly active in Japan rather than Korea, with Jiyoung even being permanently stationed in Japan and working exclusively in that country.
Left to Right: Gyuri, Seungyeon, Nicole, Hara, Jiyoung
It's really hard for After School's fans not to proclaim them the best dancers in K-pop as they always train really hard, for whole months even, to present awesome choreographies, ranging from playing the drums as a marching band, to tap dancing to even pole dancing! After School were for many years K-pop's first and only group to feature a "rotating line-up". That means that members joined and left the group regulary. Some fans however will claim that this was simply a fancy way for their company to hide the hard time hey had in managing the group and failing to keep all members satisfied and paid long enough for them to not leave the group. Nevertheless, After School claimed the first spot on the charts in 2009 with "Because of You" but never really managed to replicate that level of success. They always charted relatively high but never did as well as they did with "Because of You". This can certainly be attributed to their ever changing line-up as Korean fans are known to prefer a steady and consistent line-up in a group over an ever-chaning one. Japan on the other hand loves that and that made them famous there! A total of eleven ladies, all great dancers in their own accord, have at one point been members of the group, but the most "stable" line-up of all included Nana, Juyeon, Lizzy, Raina, Kaeun, Jung-A, E-Young and U-ie. While it's hard to mention After School without also mentioning the really unfair management of the group by their company, that even now refuses to give fans closure by admitting that the group is no longer active, despite the members themselves stating otherwise, their relentless hard work and awesome list of songs that the group created over the years should always be the main focus when talking about the group.
Top Row, Left to Right: Jung-A, Juyeon, U-ie, Raina
Bottom Row: Nana, Lizzy, E-Young, Kaeun
Brown Eyed Girls
The last in this list of girl groups we are all really thankful for is also the one that has been in the game for the longest time! With over twelve years of activity, Brown Eyed Girls debuted all the way back in 2006, at a time when groups of the first generation of K-pop were slowly going away and the second generation was getting ready to debut. In this, slightly awkward, transitional phase, Brown Eyed Girls stepped in with a very bold and mature look. Critics loved them from day one, but it took a little longer for the public to do so as well, gaining their first number-one hit in 2008, with the release of "L.O.V.E". Their big breakthrough however came in the form of "Abracadabra", a year after gaining the public's favour. By 2009 there were many groups that had established themselves are "cute" groups. On the other hand, many of the rookies debutting that year opted for a more independent and aggressive approach. This left Brown Eyed Girls with the opportunity to don a sexy image, as there wasn't much competition in that field. This ultimately worked in favour of B.E.G. who initially shocked but eventually captivated fans with "Abracadabra", a song with a concept way ahead of it's time for Korea's conservative standards that were even stricted in 2009. Gain, Narsha, JeA and Miryo are in many ways K-pop's true feminist icons, and with a new album in the works, they're sure not giving up any time soon.
Clockwise: Miryo, Gain, Narsha, JeA
Bold, independent, feminine. The second generation of girl groups stood out so much because they changed so many things that were considered unnatural or excessive up until they stepped in and broke many stereotypes surrounding women in South Korea and, by extent, the reast of East Asia as well. They may no longer be household names when it comes to K-pop fans, but even if they don't necessarily know who they are now, all the things they did while at the peak of their careers have helped the groups younger audiences idolize now realize their dreams. And for that alone, we should always be thankful to them.
Thanks for reading~
As a final step of this guide, you could check a YouTube playlist, featuring many trademark hits by all of these amazing ladies here!