What makes “K-pop” K-pop? In 2019, the term is typically applied to any act coming out of the South Korean pop music industry, but is often applied to describe multitudes of artists based out of that market, regardless of genre limitations. Since 2009, K-pop acts have been appearing on primary Billboard charts, and since 2013 there has been dedicated coverage of it on this site. But back in 1999, the word was previously unpublished in Billboard, according to Cho Hyun-jin, who says he brought the term to the magazine 20 years ago this week.
Cho, a distinguished professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, wrote for Billboard as a correspondent in South Korea in the late ’90s and early ’00s. According to his research, an article he wrote that was published in the Oct. 9, 1999 edition of the magazine titled “S. Korea To Allow Some Japanese Live Acts” was the first time the term “K-pop” appeared in Billboard.
The reference to “K-pop” appears in the final line of the article, which discussed South Korea lessening restrictions on Japanese acts performing in the country. “The rock-oriented J-pop scene is not what melody-oriented K-pop listeners are asking for,” said producer Kim Chang-Hwan at the time.
According to Cho, the inclusion of the term “K-pop” was a matter of translation: Kim used the term “gayo (??),” a Korean term for popular music. Cho brainstormed the idea with his editor to replace it with a more accessible term, and was inspired by the Korean soccer league, known as the K League. “Personally, I didn’t hear the term ‘K-pop’ before. It might have been used, I read some articles when I was working on my pieces that the word ‘K-pop’ was used by the music industry insiders. But to tell the truth, I never heard it personally.”
He also says it wasn’t inspired by the usage of “J-pop,” to describe Japanese popular music, a common idea behind the origins of the term “K-pop.” “I wasn’t really a big fan of J-pop or Japanese music,” he says with a laugh. “I was more, I guess still am, but I was more into mainstream rock and roll or straightforward hard rock stuff so I’m not really sure if the term ‘J-pop’ was in use.” J-pop became popularized in the early ‘90s.
Nowadays, the idea of “K-pop” is relatively fluid, and used as a catchall in English to refer to South Korean music scene, while in South Korea it more explicitly is used to refer to idol pop music. Back then, Cho similarly used it in a general way. “I was trying to define any pop music out of Korea,” he says. “[In] the late ‘90, the idol scene was nothing like what you see now. There was probably half a dozen of K-pop bands that were really active. But I guess the term ‘K-pop’ really started to define the agency-produced or managed idol bands, or sometimes solo acts. But once again back then, there weren’t too many idols around. Maybe there were a lot in training but not really around [then] that [had] released albums and were touring internationally or in Asia at least that you really could define them as K-pop acts. So it’s more of a broader term and I guess still these days, it has like double meanings. Usually you will refer to ‘K-pop’ as the idol bands but in general when you’re talking about Korean pop music, ‘K-pop’ is also used. A good example would be singer-rapper Psy who kind of opened up the doors for Korean K-pop idols, especially in the Western market. I mean he’s not really BTS or Seventeen, right? But everybody refers to Psy as a K-pop artist. So I guess it has double standards in that sense but yes, when I was starting, it was more of a broader term.”
At the time of his writing the article, the idea of “K-pop” was nonexistent, or at least negligible, according to Cho’s research. “I’ve been reading books and some theories [about] how the word ‘K-pop’ was starting to be used,” he says. “I guess starting in mid ‘90s, Japan was one of the first overseas markets where Korean pop acts were starting to gain attention and the Japanese music insiders wanted to label [it] somehow. And that’s when the term ‘K-pop’ was used, is what some theories and articles published. However, none of these articles or theories or thesis’ at least that I came across ever mentioned a specific article or advertisement or photograph or anything in print that contains the term ‘K-pop’ with a certain date and publication. It might be somewhere, it could be just me who never came across it but to my knowledge and my research. I never came across the word ‘K-pop’ before in any publication and still I haven’t so… I don’t know, some people might have been using the term. It’s just like rock and roll. Is it Alan Freed really [laughs] who coined the term? Some say ‘yes,’ some say ‘no.’ But he’s certainly the one who popularized the term when he was DJing in Cleveland and probably that’s why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ended up being established in the city of Cleveland so…”
But between Cho’s article and the following year, the term became more popular. The first time the term “K-pop” was used intentionally to describe the South Korean pop idol music scene in Billboard was about half a year later. An article tiled “Asian Acts Cross Cultural and National Boundaries” published on April 8, 2000 by former Asia bureau chief Steve McClure, the editor Cho had worked on the prior article with, used the term in reference to the rise in popularity of duo Clon and H.O.T — typically identified as the first formal K-pop boy band — in the Chinese market, and how South Korea’s government saw it as a way to boost awareness of the country in that region.
“Realizing ‘K-pop’s’ growing popularity in other Asian territories, Korea’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism recently sponsored the release of a series of special promotional albums on which local acts sing in Chinese, Japanese, and English to boost regional awareness of Korea’s rich music scene,” wrote McClure, showing that very little has changed since then; K-pop group’s regularly promote releases aimed at international markets, and South Korea’s government still regularly finances and promotes cultural events internationally as a way to boost the country’s soft power, though K-pop has fallen out of favor in China over Sino-Korean political tensions in recent years.
Twenty years since Cho brought the term to Billboard, K-pop’s impact is still felt and increasingly becoming more popularized. Where it goes from here is yet to be determined, but for the meantime “K-pop’ is most certainly here.