New Year’s 2018 is just a few days away, and it will be greeting a very different K-pop than its predecessor did at the start of 2017, coming after these past 12 months saw the waning of an older generation of Korean acts and the rise of younger groups to the top tiers of the music scene. The changeover is only natural, but at a time when some K-pop acts have proved able to exceed expectations and maintain their careers longer than ever, the shock to the system that was 2017 will resonate with the industry for quite a while moving forward.
The earliest loss of 2017 was one of the most shocking, when Wonder Girls, a group that had seen major successes in the late ‘00s and was the first K-pop act to break into the Hot 100, called it quits. The team, then a quartet, had reinvented itself in 2015 with the band-focused Reboot, and had similarly impressed in 2016 with their single “Why So Lonely?” One of a handful of K-pop girl groups to reach the 10-year mark, the breakup came as a surprise to many and came on the heels of 2NE1, another prominent girl group, disbanding in the last weeks of 2017.
But that pair wouldn’t be the last female acts to say farewell to fans in 2017–both Wonder Girls and 2NE1 released a final goodbye song this year– as contract terms for many girl groups were up in 2017. On Wednesday, miss A became the latest act to call it quits this year. Their split, which came two years after their last album, reaffirmed in the final days of the year that change is in the air for the K-pop industry, with 2017 ringing the death knells of a generation of Korean acts that saw widespread fame in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s.
While male K-pop acts are able to maintain strong fan armies over several years, ensuring that they can find success later on in their career even if their fame doesn’t remain at its peak, female groups and artists, both in Korea and around the world, struggle to maintain their followings after reaching their peak popularity, and the youth oriented K-pop scene is not kind to female acts. Sistar, known for their immensely popular addictive summer dance tracks, disbanded upon coming to the seven-year mark of their contracts, showing that even one of the most popular female acts don’t see a future together: each of Sistar‘s singles since 2011 topped Korean music charts, and they topped the K-pop Hot 100 four times between its inception and temporary demise in 2013.
But, regardless of gender, few of the surviving names from that generation have remained untouched this year: whereas Wonder Girls and BIGBANG each released new music in 2016 and seemed to exceed their lifespan expectations, but the former has since disbanded and the latter is about to go on hiatus as members fulfill their mandatory military service. BIGBANG will also have to address a member’s legal and mental health issues if it is ever to release new music following the quintet’s return to civilian life. Others, like Super Junior and SHINee, also saw members embroiled in legal issues that hurt their public image, while girl groups like Girls’ Generation, T-Ara, and AOA all saw departures, leaving their future as a unit up in the air. Boy bands Teen Top, INFINITE, and U-KISS also each saw one member leave, and tragedy struck the K-pop world last week when SHINee lost member Jonghyun to suicide, which shook the industry to its core.
But while few acts have gone unscathed, the older generation isn’t completely absent from the K-pop field: Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, Highlight, the rebranded group formerly known as Beast, and several other more senior acts saw albums hit the top 10 of the World Albums chart; Highlight in particular was able to solidify its new identity in Korea, where several of its singles topped charts. Former Wonder Girls’ member Sunmi also rose to the top of Korea’s music scene through the success of her single “Gashina,” one of several female soloists to gain renown in a year that has been unkind to female girl groups.
And though it may be an end of an era for some, the K-pop scene is like a phoenix that is reborn every few years, and on the opposite side, it was the best year for some K-pop groups formed within the past five years, with BTS undeniably coming out on top in their fourth year. Breaking boundaries and records, the septet has changed the face of K-pop internationally, while Red Velvet, Nu’Est (as Nu’Est W), and Winner each solidified their identities with a variety of chart topping hits; EXO, and TWICE, similarly continued their solid runs with multiple new albums this year. And even newer acts have done well, with Wanna One absolutely dominating much of the second half of 2017.
While some older fan faves may have had a bad year due to lack of extended longevity in the industry, the ebb and flow of careers is natural, and K-pop is far from losing its momentum. Instead, despite the changes and losses, expectations for Korean music are higher than ever before as 2018 approaches thanks to the increased international interest in the industry in 2017.