Zerobaseone, the breakout success from Mnet K-pop survival show Boys Planet, has been dubbed as the “5th generation boy group”. This means the start of something new and the end of an era.
The 5th generation of K-pop means a whole new wave of groups and idols, often distinct from its preceding generation with their style and sound and their potential to change the scene’s landscape. Alongside Zerobaseone, groups like SM Entertainment’s Riize and YG Entertainment’s BabyMonster have also been categorized into the 5th generation.
While previous generations of K-pop groups still continue to gain popularity and cement their legacy, there’s a whole new roster of acts to watch out for.
But, what exactly are K-pop generations? South Korean K-pop critic webzine Idology explained it best with notable examples. Basically, each generation is like an era of K-pop artists who belong to their milieu as seen in the trends they set and follow.
Although K-pop groups have their respective contributions to the genre and bring something different to the table, the problem lies in the tendency of fans to bring up a sort of generational debt. They end up comparing the success of groups from different timelines, i.e. “Group A walked so Group B could run.”
Every era is important as impact never skips a generation. In the spirit of a new beginning, Billboard Philippines recounts the most influential South Korean idol groups that have come, gone, and continue to conquer, and how they came to inspire the next generation of K-pop artists.
The first generation marked the birth of K-pop, giving birth to groups like H.O.T., Sechs Kies, S.E.S., and Fin.K.L. It pioneered fan culture and established genre conventions that continue to be practiced even today.
Seo Taiji and Boys, which included Seo Taiji, Yang Hyun-suk, and Lee Juno, experimented with Western music genres to push for rap and social themes in the Korean music industry. The boy band was a critical and commercial success as seen in their back-to-back Grand Prizes at the Seoul Music Awards in 1992 and 1993, as well as being featured by Billboard in 1996 for making four of the best-selling albums in South Korea.
The second generation is where K-pop began to take off. It saw the debut of large groups with upward of 7 members each, catering to both the local market with self-produced Korean songs and variety content, as well as the global market with Western stage names and occasional English lyrics.
SM Entertainment labelmates Super Junior and Girls’ Generation each debuted with 12 and 9 members, respectively, offering fans a wide selection to choose their “bias” from. YG Entertainment’s BIGBANG and 2NE1 regularly made their own landmark releases like “Lies” and “Goodbye.” JYP Entertainment’s Wonder Girls paved the way for the next generations’ rise to global markets with “Nobody,” which was only cemented by PSY with the record-breaking “Gangnam Style.”
The third generation is the one that brought K-pop to international heights. It ended the supremacy of K-pop’s “Big 3” entertainment companies (SM, YG, and JYP), popularized Korean survival shows, highlighted valuable endorsements, emphasized record-breaking culture, demanded greater English fluency, and saw increased collaborations with Western artists.
The latter two have been the biggest pop groups in music today. Blackpink secured high-profile endorsement deals with luxury fashion brands and highly publicized collaborations with the likes of Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, and Dua Lipa. While BTS made K-pop history by receiving two Grammy nominations between 2021 and 2023 for their work like “Dynamite” and “Butter,” even becoming the first Korean act to win the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Global Recording Artist of the Year award.
The fourth generation is challenging traditions and stretching the boundaries of K-pop as a sort of experimental batch. It incentivized distinct concepts, clear musical identity, self-direction, social media promotion, and genre innovation. Known as a generation of girl groups, the fourth generation set trends and records simultaneously.
Itzy was the first K-pop girl group to achieve a “Rookie Grand Slam” by winning all the new artist awards in South Korea’s major award-giving bodies. Aespa have been a best-selling K-pop girl group since its debut with millions of physical sales and even won Song of the Year awards for “Next Level.” Girl groups with unconventional concepts like G-Idle, Ive, and NewJeans all take turns topping the local music charts for months with hits like “Queencard,” “Love Dive,” and “Ditto.”
The fifth generation, which includes Zerobaseone, Riize, and BabyMonster, is still coming into its own. This is actually normal as generational trends can be observed at any point in that era.
For instance, NewJeans only debuted in their era’s tail end but nonetheless contributed to the fourth generation’s identity. Based on qualities prioritized in the formation of the latest K-pop groups, the fifth generation will prioritize English fluency, well-rounded talents, social media presence, removal of fixed group roles, and original concepts.