Fans of Mnet's latest boy band are ready to crown ZB1 as the leader of K-pop’s fifth gen, and even the TV network has been touting them as the start of a new generation in the industry. It doesn't seem like a far-fetched moniker; the boy group was the first K-pop act to achieve over one million sales with a debut album (it's a savvy promo tactic in an oversaturated market of artists breaking sales records left and right), but others aren’t so convinced.
While the world typically thinks of generations by years, that isn’t the case in K-pop. A “generation” in K-pop is more akin to a movement within the industry: a seismic change in fan culture, or a paradigm shift in trends and marketing tactics. In that way the transition from one generation to the next isn't an instantaneous event but rather a gradual one. Right now, cuspy groups like ZB1, Xikers, BoyNextDoor, RIIZE, and even global superstars NewJeans exist in the nebulous space between K-pop's current fourth generation and fifth; think of them as 4.5, amid a sea change that has yet to settle.
But what will K-pop’s fifth generation — which certainly is on its way — look like and be defined by? To get a good clue, we need to understand the history of K-pop’s generations as a whole.
In the ultra-competitive world of modern fandom, it’s largely fans who help dictate the arrival of new generations, according to assistant professor Areum Jeong, an educator of Korean pop culture at Arizona State University. Shifts in fan culture often contribute to the definition of new generations as each era brings about changes in how fans engage with their favorite groups.
Fan culture in the first generation of K-pop, which emerged in the early 1990s through acts like Seo Taiji and Boys and later in the decade with idol groups like Shinhwa, H.O.T., and S.E.S., mostly centered around fan clubs, a significant aspect of the first gen just as they are today. However, these fan clubs were mostly offline affairs spread by word of mouth. Usually organized by the group's entertainment agency, they provided a platform for fans to connect, share information, and participate in special fan meetings and artist events.
"There was no internet, no cell phones, no laws about privacy," Jeong says. "Even idols' schedules and fan events were all distributed through a phone mailbox. You'd dial a number and you'd hear a voice message telling you, 'This is the schedule for this week. On Monday, H.O.T. will appear on this music program, on Tuesday, H.O.T. will appear on this TV show.' And that was the only way to get the news about their schedules." When fans joined H.O.T.'s official fan club, Club H.O.T., they had to physically go to their local bank to pay the membership fee.
Because the majority of first generation fandoms were extremely localized, international fans had nearly no opportunities to engage directly with idols or access constant information about them compared to today's globalized fan ecosystem; there was more distance between an artist and their fans. It also meant Gayo, or Korean pop music, prevailed purely as a domestic product. The term "K-pop" wasn't even coined in print until late 1999.
In the ultra-competitive world of modern fandom, it’s largely fans who help dictate the arrival of new generations.
The second generation of K-pop roughly spanned from the mid-2000s to the early 2010s and marked a significant evolution and transformation of the K-pop industry. During this era, K-pop experienced a surge in popularity both domestically and internationally as companies began targeting international fans by incorporating non-Korean members into groups. Groups like Girls' Generation, Super Junior, BIGBANG, 2NE1, Wonder Girls, and SHINee gained widespread recognition not only in Asia but also in the West. The rise of mp3s — and file-sharing programs like Napster, Limewire, and Korea's Soribada — and the dawn of social media platforms like Cyworld, a pre-Facebook microblogging platform, facilitated the expansion of K-pop and Hallyu culture into new markets, helping artists and companies find novel ways to communicate with fans.
“This is the generation where idol support culture started flourishing,” says Jeong. One early tactic found fans purchasing bus and subway advertisements for their favorite idols, essentially becoming grassroots marketing teams. (Now, fan-funded advertisements are commonplace and used to celebrate birthdays as well as lodge complaints at artists and companies.) But perhaps the most substantial shift came with the arrival of photocards and light sticks, two defining pillars of modern fan culture and the K-pop experience.
BIGBANG became the first group to have their own official light stick in 2006, a piece of merchandise that has since become part of a group's singular identity. And SM Entertainment released Girls' Generation's 2010 album Oh with a set of collectible member photocards, kicking off an entire ecosystem of buying, selling, trading, and collecting.
In turn, while the first generation idol groups burned bright and fast — some of its biggest names, like H.O.T., only lasted several years — the second generation introduced ways for fans to become more engaged and for agencies to wield more power. As Jeong says, “The second gen is when idol groups as we know them today were born.”
For a while everything remained the status quo until a little group called BTS came along in 2013. “One of the things BTS did well is connect with fans on a daily basis,” Jeong says.
Using apps like Twitter, YouTube, and the now-defunct VLIVE, BTS fostered an intimate online relationship with their fans, lifting the veil of celebrity to invite people into their world — see their messy dorm, go inside the studio with them, and listen to their struggles. They were far from untouchable; they were real. This slice-of-life content is now a standard part of the industry leading to a defining trait of the third generation: parasocial relationships. (It’s not that this level of emotional attachment didn’t exist in previous generations, but social media and live-streaming apps have exacerbated it.)
The third generation also introduced a new era of audition programs on television, thanks to the success of Mnet’s Produce series which launched maga-popular acts like I.O.I. and Wanna One and blasted idols like Kang Daniel and Jeon Somi into the stratosphere of K-pop culture. On these shows, the emotional stakes are high for both contestants and viewers, who champion their favorite hopefuls all season by voting in real time and campaigning on social media. These support tactics create an even stronger tie between artist and fan, who will now do anything to make their idols happy.
“We call these consumers ‘prosumers,’” says Jeong. “Because they're kind of like being a producer and a consumer at the same time. It’s being a very active consumer, where you have a say or some sort of weight in deciding these [idols’] fates.” In the third generation, fans had the power. And it was groups like EXO, BTS, TWICE, and Blackpink — acts with massive and highly engaged fan bases — that reigned on the digital charts as streaming numbers gained even more importance.
Just mere years later, “prosuming” has only continued to evolve and grow more extreme post-pandemic, amid K-pop's fourth generation. As 2020 radically shifted large parts of the industry online, for the first time international fans have the opportunity to participate in fan events that put them face-to-face with their idols. Because of this, Jeong says, “bulk buying” albums and fan-created content have exploded.
“Usually, fans would only watch idols go live [on social media] or idol content, but now fans watch other fans,” she explains. “They have this sense of community with other fans.” Parasocial bonds can also form among fans. “There are also famous fans or known fans who have their own YouTube channels or social media following.”
And like a snake eating its own tail, K-pop companies are now trying to keep up with the demand by exponentially increasing international artist activity. “K-pop groups have been aggressively touring so much that Korean fans are starting to feel left out,” Jeong says. “Companies target international audiences because they know that they can't make it with just Korean or Chinese or Japanese fans.” South America, for example, has become an increasingly important market for the industry due to the sheer number of fans. Meanwhile aespa has already ventured into the metaverse, where there’s presumably an opportunity to sync with online universes.
So what’s the next frontier for K-pop’s fifth gen? Well, there are a few trends that could point to where it’s headed. NewJeans made waves when the quintet dropped their debut single "Attention" without a hint of promotion, a first-of-its-kind strategy from seasoned creative director Min Hee-jin. Could that signal a new marketing move in the future? “I love the way that they promote their stuff and their marketing, but I don't feel like they’re defining a whole new generation,” Jeong says.
A more compelling case study might be XG, a global girl group comprising Japanese members based in Korea who sing and rap in Korean, Japanese, and English. Their company XGALX used the K-pop system to develop the band — not unlike what JYP Entertainment and Republic Records are doing with their YouTube series America 2 Korea, an audition program in which young women from the U.S. compete to form a new girl group trained by JYPE in Seoul and managed by Republic.
At the same time, HYBE and Geffen Records are doing virtually the same thing with Dream Academy, a similar competition show that includes international contestants; within the first week of auditions, over 70,000 hopefuls applied.
Explaining the concept in a YouTube video, HYBE chairman Bang Shi-hyuk says, “I've dreamt of providing an opportunity to talented young people from all around the world to be members of a fabulous band based on K-pop methodology.”
It points to a reality in which the future of K-pop might not be K-pop at all.
Generation K is a column by writer Crystal Bell exploring the trends and issues affecting K-pop and its surrounding community.