K-pop underwent a bit of an identity crisis in 2023. This year saw the formation of “K-pop without the 'K'” groups as the K-pop formula invaded the Western music market and megastars like BTS's Jung Kook release albums with a slew of collabs with Western artists and English-language singles. Lowkey beats and mellower sounds took over the scene, thanks to hits from NewJeans, FiftyFifty, and AKMU. And even anticipated new boy groups like RIIZE, BoyNextDoor, and ZeroBaseOne debuted with chiller vibes, halting the defining “noise music” trend of the past few years. One thing’s for sure: the sound of K-pop is changing.
Still, the more things change the more things stay the same, and K-pop remains the ever-dominating cultural force from music to fashion. As the fifth generation approaches, Generation K writer Crystal Bell reflects on — and gives awards to — all the songs, trends, and viral moments that made 2023 such a crucial year for K-pop.
IVE has always served an untouchable cool that’s propelled them to the top of South Korea's music charts. On debut studio album, I'VE IVE, the sextet unleashes a bolder side while doubling down on the “sparkling pop served with a petulant pout” formula that made them so irresistible.
Grounded by a punchy horn loop you will either find addictive or grating, NewJeans’s “ETA” was the cheating boyfriend anthem of the year, combining Baltimore club, funk, and house to create an alchemy of teenage urgency laced with melancholia. "Boys be always lying," Minji sings — and she's so valid for that.
The most essential element of a successful debut is charisma and the confident rookie quartet Kiss of Life had that in spades. Their July entrance, “Shhh,” channeled early Ariana Grande and highlighted Julie, Natty, Belle, and Haneul's impeccable group chemistry. Bonus points to Belle for hitting that whistle note live.
After parting ways with YG Entertainment’s boy group TREASURE last year, Bang Yedam returned with his solo EP, Only One, a self-produced collection of yearning and shimmering pop-R&B that showed he’s better off solo.
An anthemic serotonin boost, “Fighting” is a testament to the fact that no one has more fun doing this K-pop thing than SEVENTEEN's most delightful unit, BooSeokSoon.
Best Jersey Club Samples
In 2023, K-pop wildly embraced the bass and breaks of club music so much so we had to rank them:
Best Rock Remix
Obviously, K-pop's designated rock stars Stray Kids takes this title with its electrifying rock version of “LALALALA,” a track that only exists to be played live.
Best Music Video
The music video for (G)I-DLE's campy “Queencard” pulls inspiration from Mean Girls and White Chicks — mid-aught satirical comedies that are in on the joke — for a visual that drips in rhinestones and pink, while also being a razor-sharp takedown of the celebrity culture that defined the decade.
Most Addictive Hook
NingNing's “Oh my God” and Winter's “You know, I'm savage,” are undeniably ad-lib classics, but it's the earworm-y hook on “Drama” that had me singing “drama-ma-ma-ma” to myself all. day. long.
Most Extreme Live Performance
With 13 members, SEVENTEEN already looks imposing when they're on stage. Add 28 more dancers and that's a small army. For “Super,” they literally utilized every inch of the stage to tell the story of a Chinese mythological character with unrivaled energy and power.
Most Un-TikTokable Choreography
This noisy non-single made us remember SM’s new boy group RIIZE, which is clearly composed of members with impeccable dance skills and spry, young knee joints.
Blonde had a moment in 2023. Here’s who did it best:
- Jang Wonyoung's (short-lived but impactful) blonde era
- Hanni’s blonde hime cut at Gucci SS24
- Hyunjin’s perfect shade of blonde
Best Airport Outfit
Only a true Renaissance man like SEVENTEEN’s Vernon can effortlessly pull off jorts with knee-high motorcycle boots — a look that is forever seared into my brain.
TWICE's Mina twerked to Ariana Grande's “Seven Rings.” None of those words are in the Bible but maybe they should be.
Most Fanservice-y TikTok Collab
Throughout his 16-year K-pop career, Taemin has birthed dozens of sons (slinky boys with devilish smiles who move like water). This year’s “Guilty” challenge put those beautiful boys to the test and no one understood the assignment like Stray Kids' Hyunjin, who matched Taemin's masterful sensuality beat for beat. Please, the people are desperate for more.
Best Fansign Exchange
NCT's Mark Lee doesn't know how to make eggs but he understood the art of the virtual fancall by being 100% his gullible self.
Most Tired Meme
Everybody and their 엄마 is tired of this meme, which was started by Stray Kids rapper and King of Dad Jokes himself, Changbin. A take on NewJeans’ “OMG,”it combined the hook of the song (“Oh my, oh my God”) with the Korean word for mother (“eomma”). To his credit, he's got everyone out here from IU to (G)I-DLE's Miyeon shouting out their moms.
Most Promising “K-Pop Without A K” Group
As the first of the K-pop-meets-West groups appeared this year, KATSEYE stood out among the rest with a group composition that feels ahead of the times and a stylishness that’s impressive for pre-trainees.
Most Painful Enlistment
So many of K-pop's finest men were called to serve this year, but Kai's enlistment struck a particular nerve because of its abruptness. Mr. Rover left us at the peak of his power with nothing but this Kentastic fancam to help soften the blow. There are still 419 days until his discharge but who's counting?
Generation K is a column by writer Crystal Bell exploring the trends and issues affecting K-pop and its surrounding community.
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