The K-Pop we know today can be traced back to the early 1990s, and while that might not seem like too long ago, much has changed in the past 20-30 years. For one thing, the term “K-Pop” didn’t become popularized until the 2000s. Up until then, K-Pop was referred to as Gayo (가요), which is also used to describe domestic pop music in Korea. Here are 8 more ways K-Pop has changed over time!
1. Lightsticks used to be balloons
Fans of the show Reply 1997 may be familiar with this change. Way back in the early days of K-Pop, fans used to wave colored balloons in the air as a way to represent and support their favourite group. Over the years, balloons made way for generic lightsticks, which evolved into the more personalized, battery-powered LED lightsticks of today.
BIGBANG is said to be one of the first, if not the first, K-Pop group to have received their own official lightstick.
2. Before Twitter there was Cyworld
One of the biggest changes in K-Pop is the evolution of the internet and social media. Way back when, idols used Korean sites like me2day, UFO Town, and Cyworld. Cyworld was one of the first social network tools…and it drove a lot of international fans a little crazy. You could only join if you had a Korean resident registration number.
3. Accessing K-Pop content was 10x more complicated than it is now
Before iTunes and Spotify, the world of music downloading was like the wild west: chaotic, complicated, and a little bit dangerous. For live streaming, many fans used a program like TVAnts to watch Korean channels live. Unfortunately, software like this broadcasted in extremely low quality. Even worse, it was riddled with viruses.
Trying to download the latest bops was a true challenge. Music files had to be ripped from CDs then uploaded to international forums. If a kind stranger across the world didn’t upload your bias group’s content then, well, you probably weren’t getting it.
Downloading videos was a true test of patience. It involved downloading, splitting, and piecing everything back together. Step 1: Learn to use Korean file download software like Clubbox to get access to videos faster.
Step 2: Download several parts of one show from websites like Megaupload or Mediafire, to speed up the download times. The internet used to be a lot slower than it is now.
Step 3: Join the parts with yet another program, like HJ Split.
4. Idols used to be very mysterious and private
EXO-Ls often poke fun at the “mysterious” concept EXO has failed to abide by, but back in the days of H.O.T, Fin.K.L, and S.E.S, this celebrity mystique was a very real way of life. Idols kept their private lives so far removed from the public eye that people were convinced that, unlike ordinary people, idols didn’t even poop!
Most of today’s idols have thrown that mystique out the window. Now they invite fans into their daily lives via reality shows, home tours, and live broadcasts. Idols have become more relatable and personally connected with their fandoms.
5. Idols groups weren’t as long-lived as they are now
One of the most surprising changed to K-Pop may be the longevity of its groups. Even the most popular groups formed in the 90s typically disbanded or became inactive after 2-5 years. For H.O.T it was 5 years, for Fin.K.L 7, for S.E.S 5, and for Sechs Kies it was only 3 (until their 2016 reunion).
Now, most successful K-Pop groups stick around for a minimum of 7 years, and many continue to renew their contracts after this.
6. Being an idol was considered “low class”
In the 1990s, becoming an idol was considered a “low class” job in Korean society. Most parents were steadfastly against their children becoming professional K-Pop artists.
This began to change in the 2000s when the love and demand for K-Pop culture began to really take off. Now, instead of barring their children from becoming idols, many parents do everything they can to help their children break into the industry.
7. Subtitles? Hahaha…Ha.
Back in the day, international K-Pop fans had two choices: learn Korean or…learn Korean. Up until the 2000s, subtitles were extremely difficult to find, especially for lesser known groups who lacked dedicated subtitling teams.
It didn’t help that many Korean channels didn’t have official YouTube accounts and would try to copyright claim all videos of their shows off YouTube. As a result, fan-organized subbing teams had to use weird symbols in the titles to hide the videos from copyright infringement.
8. Dating wasn’t allowed. Ever.
Although many of today’s idols still abide by dating bans and experience dating scandals, it’s nothing comparing to dating in the 90s. 90s’ idols had to have secret agent level skills if they wanted to risk dating.
Since most idols were not allowed to have phones, they had to ask staff to secretly deliver their messages. Or, they had to use more creative methods, like hiding notes in vending machines, or taping their contact info under soda cans!
In a 2010 interview, H.O.T. Tony’s said that dating had extreme consequences in his idol days. Instead of being congratulated, idols would be “threatened with acid”. In 2011, g.o.d Danny revealed that idols’ images and private lives were so strictly regulated that “in order to exchange numbers, you had to pull a 007 mission”.