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Most Coherent List of K-pop Generations

An objective approach to Korean Popular Music Generations for bands, groups, and solo acts.

ᜌᜓᜃᜒ (Yuki | 雪亮)

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There are many proposals on how to divide K-pop into different generations, unfortunately most are subjective. While there is nothing wrong with a subjective approach, we need to have something we can all, or most, can agree on—at least as a common basis or starting point. Allow me to present YourOnly.One’s objective approach to K-pop Generations, the only one you will ever need.

For an objective approach in K-pop Generations, we should avoid using any criteria that we can not fix or draw a line. Some examples are: (a) the use of social media platforms; (b) fashion style; (c) dance choreography; and (d) music genre. Instead of using these, we can use the simplest of all: calendar year.

How long is a generation?

To define this, we have to ask these questions.

When did modern K-pop started?

Fortunately this is well-documented: it started in 1992 with the first ever boy group called Seo Taiji & Boys (서태지와 아이들). Their experimentation with different styles and genres of music and integration of foreign musical elements helped reshape and modernize South Korea’s contemporary music scene. 1

When did the 1st Generation end?

The next step is identifying when the 1st Generation of modern K-pop music ended. This is tricky because we can easily fall into a subjective approach. To help avoid this, let’s define what a “generation” is.

One definition of a “generation” is “people within a delineated population who experience the same significant events within a given period of time”, according to Jane Pilcher’s paper entitled Mannheim’s Sociology of Generations: An undervalued legacy published in The British Journal of Sociology in September 1994. This is a common method in defining a generation, examples are: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Z, and Millennials; and not everyone agrees as to when each generation starts and ends.

Let’s find another method we can use.

The notion of generation is widely used in the everyday world to make sense of differences between age groupings in society and to locate individual selves and other persons within historical time. We speak, for example, of ‘my generation’ and of ’the older generation’. We describe those who grew up in, say, the 1960s, as belonging to ’the sixties generation’. We speak of ‘a few generations ago’, ‘a new generation’ and of ’the generation gap’.

Mannheim’s Sociology of Generations: An Undervalued Legacy. The British Journal of Sociology, 45(3), 481–495., Jane Pilcher

It is also generally accepted that a generation is between 20–30 years, and it is shorter in certain cases like in console gaming generations and MMORPG generations. But there is one thing that we can safely use and that is calendar years. As was mentioned above, we describe those who grew up in, say, the 1960s, as belonging to ’the sixties generation’. This is a good basis because it is fixed to ten (10) calendar years.

If so, then the 1st Generation of K-pop music ended in 2001.

How about the .5 generations?

The .5 generations simply exist because of subjective criteria. A K-pop act debuted in a period wherein they clearly fall into a particular subjective criteria for an earlier generation and into another subjective criteria for the next generation. Since we are not using these criteria, we do not have .5 generations.

However, we can probably consider the borderline debuts as .5 generations. For example, K-pop acts which debuted in the years 2021 and 2022 can be considered as 3.5 generation, squeezed between the 3rd Generation and the 4th Generation. These acts can fall in either generations but any acts which debuted prior to 2021 and after 2022 clearly belongs to the 3rd and 4th respectively.

If you prefer this approach, there is no harm in it. Think of it as “when did the 3rd millennium start, was it in the year 2000 or was it in 2001?” But for this purpose of this list, we are not listing separately the “border year” debuts.

The Generations of K-pop Music

With me so far? Based on the above, here are the K-pop music acts per generation:

(EXTRA) Border Years: 2001–2002

Around 2001 to 2002, the K-pop music industry slowed down and many groups from the 1st Generation went on hiatus and later disbanded. It was not until 2003 that it started to pick-up again thanks to the continued efforts of solo acts from 1st Generation BoA and Jang Na Ra; and 2nd Generation Gummy and Se7en. By 2004 and 2005 we have seen the resurgence of K-pop groups which was re-ignited by TVXQ!, SS501, and Super Junior.

(EXTRA) Border Years: 2011–2012

In 2009 and 2010, we have seen the best girl groups in the likes of 2NE1, T-ara, f(x), SISTAR, miss A, and Girl’s Day, to mention a few. The following year, 2011, marked the end of the 2nd Generation of K-pop music with Block B and Apink. The 3rd Generation of K-pop started in 2012 with a bang. This was the year when EXO debuted and in 2013 BTS followed.

(EXTRA) Border Years: 2021–2022

These are the border years where there are a lot of disagreements: when did the 3rd Generation end and the 4th Generation start?

Some fans claim that groups like NCT, who debuted in 2016, are 4th Generation but groups which debuted in the same year like I.O.I, gu9udan, and BLΛƆKPIИK are still 3rd Generation acts. Moving to 2018, IZ*ONE and (G)I-DLE are 3rd Generation but Stray Kids and LOOΠΔ are 4th Generation. It continues on in 2019 and 2020, some K-pop acts, be it a group or solo, are 3rd Generation while some of those who debuted in the same year are 4th Generation. In yet another list, they claim that the 4th Generation of K-pop started in 2018 but they tagged LOOΠΔ as a 2016 girl group in the 4th generation.

It does not end there, boy groups and girl groups have different start and end years for each generation because of all the subjective criteria being used, while the solo acts are largely ignored or just lumped to whichever generation they fit.

None of it makes any sense. This is why a calendar year-based list is the best option to put order into chaos that is K-pop Generations.

This means that the 3rd Generation of K-pop music [acts] ended on December 31, 2021 and the 4th Generation started on January 1, 2022. The last to debut as a 3rd Generation K-pop was IVE and the first 4th Generation debut are GOT the beat (a subgroup of supergroup Girls On Top) and newcomer group Kep1er (hailing from the talent competition Girls Planet 999).

Coincidence?

Is setting the K-pop Generations on 10 calendar years the right thing to do? It probably is. Consider the following …

Every generation was practically led by a boy group:

  • 1st Generation:

    • Seo Taiji & Boys (1992-04-11)
    • Deux (1993-04-23)
    • Solid (1993-12-15)
  • 2nd Generation:

    • TVXQ! (2004-01-14)
    • SS501 (2005-06-22)
    • Super Junior (2005-09-11)
  • 3rd Generation:

    • EXO (2012-04-08)
    • BTS (2013-06-12)
    • GOT7 (2014-01-16)

But by January 1, 2022, when the 4th Generation of K-pop music [acts] started, a major change happened. It was opened by a supergroup of women who GOT the beat:

  • BoA (2000-08-25) (1st Generation)
  • Taeyeon and Hyoyeon of Girls’ Generation (2007-08-05) (2nd Generation)
  • Seulgi and Wendy of Red Velvet (2014-08-01) (3rd Generation)
  • Karina and Winter of æspa (2020-11-17) (3rd Generation).

Which was quickly followed with the debut of Kep1er two days later on January 3, 2022.

If each generation of K-pop music is set into 10 calendar years, a beautiful story emerges. K-pop, whether we like it or not, is a story of group acts. While girl groups were popular the scene was still dominated by boy groups for three generations. With GOT the beat opening the 4th Generation of K-pop music, then quickly followed by newcomer Kep1er, girl groups are now on the forefront and for the first time they will define a generation.

The 4th Generation is set to become the true Girls’ Generation and Everyday is Girl’s Day. 2NE1 out there, it is time to set the Fire and Clap Your Hands. For hereon we will see TWICE the Happiness as we see more Dream Girls in Wonderland blooming along the Flower Way.

We know it is your Sweet Dream that you are our Only One, and ladies, in Every Heart you are still our No.1.

How You Like That?



  1. Wikipedia: K-pop  ↩︎

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