If you’re one of the millions of people who couldn’t get "Gangnam Style" out of your head in 2013, know that that’s only the beginning. South Korean pop culture is the fastest growing export from Asia, and leading the way is K-pop (Korean pop music), an infectious genre of catchy tunes with hypnotizing music videos. It's taken most of Asia—and parts of the West—by storm. South Korean pop music first began in the '60s, during the country’s economic bloom. Early stars of the genre include The Kim Sisters, whose fame in South Korea eventually brought them stateside to become the first Asian group to release an album in the U.S. Heavily influenced by American culture, K-pop underwent a hippie folk-pop movement in the ’70s and a period of synth-adorned power ballads in the ’80s. But in the ’90s, the genre began to resemble the K-pop we know today: colorful, catchy, highly choreographed, and full of beautiful people.
Make no mistake, today’s K-pop industry takes cues from ‘60s Motown, where image is every bit as important as the music. The biggest K-pop record labels in South Korea—like S.M. Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment—operate bootcamp-style training schools where aspiring stars work on improving their vocal and dancing skills and groom their camera-ready image. It may sound hardcore, but the results are undeniable: the biggest K-pop stars today—from the five-piece boy band Big Bang to the eight-strong Girls' Generation to the hip-hop quartet 2NE1—are bona fide superstars who leave mass hysteria in their wake.