The Classical Age. The Dark Times. The Renaissance. European history prior to modern times can be broken down into these 3 distinct periods. Civilization flourished during the Classical Age, receded during the Dark Times, and then experienced a rebirth during the Renaissance.
The evolution of modern K-pop can be seen in distinct eras as well. The industry began flourishing in 2008 and experienced tremendous growth in the years to come. 2014 marked K-pop’s decline as the industry was plagued with scandal. 2015, however, saw the industry rise from the ashes of the past year like a majestic phoenix.
“Renaissance” is the French word for “rebirth”. An important aspect to the success of 2015 was the rebirth of older groups that made major comebacks this year. Big Bang was one of these major comebacks. Over a 4-month period, the group released its “MADE” series of singles. Each song became an instant hit and experienced both commercial and critical success. Hype never wavered thanks to an ambitious release schedule that kept the hits coming at a consistent rate. Expectations were high for Big Bang’s comeback, but the reality was even better than anyone could imagine.
The Wonder Girls made a surprise comeback this year with the release of “Reboot”, its first album in 3 years. Keeping true to the title, “Reboot” sees the group reinvent itself as a 4-piece band from the 80s. Rarely has a K-pop album stuck to a concept so consistently. Every track sounded like it came from a different era, while at the same time sounding new and fresh, allowing the girls to showcase its ability to reinvigorate the old. The album will stand out as one of the strongest pieces of work in recent memory.
In 2014, major groups experienced internal strife that led to many idols leaving, especially those hailing from SM Entertainment. EXO has lost 25% of its members (Kris, Luhan and Tao). f(x) lost Sulli. Girls’ Generation lost Jessica. With people dropping like flies, the ability of these groups to recover and return to their former, untarnished glory came into question. However, each group proved that the loss of a member didn’t mean a loss in its abilities to create good music. In fact, f(x)’s “4 walls” is its strongest album to date, showing that not only were they able to recover from its loss, but took the opportunity to adapt, and evolved into something greater than its former glory.
The Rise of the Rookie
While many established acts experience a rebirth, 2015 gave birth to a wave of new groups that are poised to become the new generation of top idols. So many new groups debut every year that no one even hears about, and rarely do the ones that catch the public’s attention make a real, profound impact on the industry. This wasn’t the case in 2015. This year saw the highest concentration of new groups that could become the new top-tier group since the first years of the modern K-pop age.
The most obvious choice to become the new top-tier group is Red Velvet. Although it technically debuted in 2014, this year saw the group’s line up finalize, and its popularity soar. The group’s first mini album was released on March 18. “Ice Cream Cake” was the winner of many music programs. This was followed by the release of the group’s first full-length album “The Red” which stands out as one of the strongest albums of the year. Again, the group swept the charts and won many music programs, performing more like seasoned veterans than rookies that have only been around for a year.
EXID also debuted prior to 2015, but this year was its breakout year as well. The group won its first music program on January 8 with its hit “Up & Down”. 2 other songs, “Ah Yeah” and “Hot Pink”, would later go on to win music programs this year, marking the first time a girl group has had 3 number 1 songs in the course of a year since 2NE1 in 2011. EXID is only the 6th group to accomplish this feat, putting it among an ultra-exclusive group of top idols. While other major groups’ popularity have already plateaued, EXID’s is still rising.
Way before even debuting, iKON was making waves in the industry. The group has been hailed as the next Big Bang, and when it made its long-awaited debut earlier this year, it was clear that this group not only had the potential to compete with its seniors, but was already on their level. Debuts are rarely ever the strongest work an artist puts out, so with its debut being so strong, only greater things can be expected in the future.
Other notable acts to make it big in 2015 include SEVENTEEN, OH MY GIRL, TWICE, GFRIEND, Monsta X, Day6, and more. In fact, there are too many notable new acts in 2015 to talk about them all individually in this article. The important thing to note is this year will be an important one as older groups begin to fall in popularity and new ones begin to rise. This year’s crop of rookies is the strongest in almost a decade, and the rebirth of the industry will depend on what they bring to the table in the years to come.
Emphasis on Artistry
While many groups had strong years in 2015, the really winner was artistry. The K-pop industry has always been able to manufacture groups and singles that appeal to the masses. It’s the reason why the Hallyu wave exists in the first place. The music has always been catchy, but 2015 stands apart from years past by transcending the single and raising the level of artistry exhibited by an artist’s body of work.
The strongest example of an elevated level of artistry came from Ga In and her album “hawwah”. The singer has always stood out for her bold musical direction, but this year the singer’s modern day Eve concept showed that she’s not only a fantastic singer, but also a true artist. While “hawwah” is of course filled with great music, it is much more than that. It is the story of a woman owning her sexuality and being unashamed of it. It is a feminist statement against the idea that women should be pure and clean. It is a reaction against the conservative, religious population of South Korea. Ga In positioned herself at the forefront of an artistic awaking, and many others followed suit.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the K-pop industry in years past was how albums always felt like a showcase for a couple good songs surrounded by a bunch of filler tracks. This decreased sharply in 2015. Many, if not most, albums were worth listening to all the way through instead of just a few select tracks. This renewed focus on the body of work greatly increased the overall quality of music. One of the reasons this year was such a strong year for K-pop was simply because there just more of it.
2014 was such a dismissal year for K-pop that anything that followed it was bound to look like a great improvement. 2015, however, was a strong year in comparison to any time in K-pop history. Pay attention to what happened this year because 2015 set the course for the future of the industry. A new era in K-pop has begun. May the K-pop Renaissance continue to flourish.
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