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SM Town History 101: The Legend of K-Pop’s Brightest Stars

By Kyle   BoA. TVXQ! Super Junior. Girls’ Generation. SHINee. f(x). EXO. Red Velvet. NCT 127. NCT Dream. WayV. SuperM. These are undisputedly the biggest names in K-pop with fans...

By Kyle


BoA. TVXQ! Super Junior. Girls’ Generation. SHINee. f(x). EXO. Red Velvet. NCT 127. NCT Dream. WayV. SuperM. These are undisputedly the biggest names in K-pop with fans sprawling from Los Angeles all the way to Sydney. But before K-pop came to be the force it is today, where a music video or selfie is just an internet search away, Lee Soo Man had a singular vision to expand Korean popular music to not only Japan, China, and other Asian markets, but eventually worldwide. Originally founded as SM Studio in 1989, he changed the name to SM Entertainment in 1995 and quickly established itself as a leader of K-pop with early breakthrough acts H.O.T and S.E.S. The combination of music and artistry, and the signature, stylized SM sound completely revolutionized the music scene in South Korea and ushered in what is known as Hallyu, or “Korean Wave,” which was the outward expansion of Korean popular culture. Today, SM Town consists of a wide variety of singers and groups, all who have achieved significant and enduring success, and who’s impact to K-pop is still felt to this day. 


Making her debut at age 13 in 2000, BoA was SM’s first solo artist. She trained for two years taking vocal, dance, English, and Japanese lessons, which ultimately paid off when her Japanese-language album Listen To My Heart shot to #1 on the Oricon chart in 2002, a first for a Korean artist. A month later her second Korean album No.1 solidified her success, becoming the fourth best-selling record that year in South Korea. BoA went on to release a record-breaking six more consecutive #1 albums in Japan, three of which sold over a million copies, and even debuted in America with her self-titled English-language album in 2009. With nineteen studio albums and counting under her belt, BoA has long secured her title as “Queen of K-pop” and continues to be a pillar of SM today. 


TVXQ is a duo who made their debut in 2003 at a BoA & Britney Spears Christmas special. While their popularity surged early on in South Korea with their hit #1 second album Rising Sun, they had a tougher time breaking into the Japan market. It wasn’t until their sixteenth Japanese single “Purple Line” in early 2008 that they took a number one spot on the Oricon. TVXQ went on to release two more #1 Japanese singles that year, as well as their monumental fourth Korean album Mirotic, which was the best-selling album of 2008 and spawned the mega-hit “Mirotic,” regarded as a staple-song of K-pop. TVXQ has since released a whopping eight number one Japanese albums and thirteen number one Japanese singles, the most of any foreign artist to this day. 


Boy-group Super Junior followed in 2005 and went on to become the best-selling K-pop artist four years in a row. Their hit single “Sorry, Sorry” launched them into super stardom in 2009 with its infectious chorus and memorable choreography, while the members simultaneously became Korean variety show staples thanks to their comedic wits and charm. Their 2011 fifth album Mr. Simple swept the award shows that year, nabbing best record at the Golden Disc Awards, the Seoul Music Awards and the Mnet Asian Music Awards. With nine active members, Super Junior’s international popularity is widespread with huge followings in China, Japan, Europe, the United States and South America.


Eight-member group Girls’ Generation came along in 2007 and rose to fame in 2009 with their single “Gee,” which spent a record-breaking nine consecutive weeks at number one on Music Bank and became the best-selling single of 2009 and Melon’s most popular song of the decade. Their second studio album Oh! won the Golden Disc award for Album of the Year, making them the only female act to win the grand prize, and their third album The Boys was named the best-selling album of 2011 in South Korea. The group’s popularity only surged from there, as they expanded into the Japan market and released three number one albums on the Oricon chart, with their eponymous debut going on to sell over a million copies, both firsts for a non-Japanese girl group.   


SHINee is a five-member boy group who debuted in 2008 with their R&B infused single “Replay.” Colloquially dubbed the “Princes of K-pop,” it was their single “Ring Ding Dong” a year later that catapulted them to stardom all across Asia with its indelible Afro-electro beat and impossibly catchy hook. In 2012 the group released their fourth EP Sherlock, which went on to become the fifth best-selling album of that year. Its title track, “Sherlock (Clue + Note), described as a hybrid remix of two separate songs, was named one of the greatest boy band songs of all time by Rolling Stone calling it the pinnacle of K-pop’s innovative and experimental sound. 


f(x) is a multinational girl group who debuted in 2009 with the digital single “La Cha Ta.” Branching out from their more mainstream pop contemporaries, f(x) has a unique, electropop/EDM-defined sound which garnered them a great deal of attention internationally. They were the first K-pop act to perform at the SXSW music festival in Texas, and their critically acclaimed second studio album Pink Tape was not only the sole Korean album featured on US music channel Fuse’s Best Albums of 2013, but it was crowned “Best K-pop Album of the 2010s” by Billboard – an impressive feat. Domestically f(x) has also performed well, their first three albums produced three number one singles on South Korea’s Gaon Digital Chart, and their #2 single “Hot Summer” went on to become one of the most successful singles of 2011, selling nearly 3 million copies. 


Boy band EXO is arguably one of the most influential and popular groups of the decade. Consisting of nine members they’ve recorded albums in Korean, Chinese and Japanese. Their breakthrough 2013 album XOXO and accompanying single “Growl” was a critical and commercial success, selling over a million copies – the first Korean artist to do so in twelve years. Their sixth studio effort, Don’t Mess Up My Tempo, became their highest-charting album on the US Billboard 200 debuting at number 23, as well as their best-selling album in South Korea with almost 2 million copies sold. Among their numerous accolades, EXO has won five consecutive Album of the Year awards at the Mnet Asian Music Awards, and even performed at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics.


Quintet girl group Red Velvet was formed in 2014 with two distinct musical concepts. Their “red” side gravitates towards upbeat, energetic dance pop while their “velvet” side carries a ‘90s-tinged r&b tone. Of their two studio albums, one repackage album, one compilation and nine extended plays, eleven have topped South Korea’s Gaon Albums Chart. Their summer anthem singles “Red Flavor” and “Power Up” hit number one on the Gaon Digital Chart, and their two Japanese-language mini albums #Cookie Jar and Sappy both charted within the top five on the Oricon Albums Chart. Internationally Red Velvet has been recognized as one of the most popular K-pop groups today by Time and Billboard, with Spotify naming them the fifth most streamed Korean artist this year. 


Perhaps the most ambitious of SMTOWN’s artists is NCT. Their unique concept entails having unlimited members spread out into different subunits based in various cities worldwide. Debuting with their rotational unit NCT U in 2016, the group has since gone on to form Seoul-based NCT 127, youth concept NCT Dream, and Chinese faction WayV. Each have achieved numerous successes, with NCT 127 selling over a million copies of their second full-length album Neo Zone, which charted within the top five on the US Billboard 200 chart. NCT Dream’s third EP We Boom was one of the top 10 best physical sellers of 2019 in South Korea, and their Japanese compilation album The Dream debuted atop the Oricon Weekly Albums Chart. WayV took home the Best New Artist Award at the 2019 Mnet Asian Music Awards, and their English-language single “Love Talk” charted at number three on the Billboard World Digital Song Sales and number two on China’s QQ Music Weekly Digital Sales Chart.


SuperM is SMTOWN’s newest group. Comprised of seven different members from SHINee, EXO, NCT 127 and WayV, they are SM’s first supergroup. They made history last year when their debut self-titled EP entered the Billboard 200 at number one – the second K-pop group to do so, and the first to achieve it upon their debut release. Lead single “Jopping” was coincidingly picked as one of the 25 best K-pop songs of the year by Billboard’s Critics. Even more impressive, they were the first artist to hold an online-exclusive concert, part of SM Entertainment’s Beyond LIVE concert series, in which they performed to an audience of over 75,000 real-time viewers from over 109 countries. SuperM’s impressive foray into the not only the United States, but globally, is yet another milestone achievement for SMTOWN as the expansion of Korean culture continues.


SuperM’s first full-length album Super One is available now to order. Choose from five unique versions, each including 15 tracks, a 104-page photobook, an ID card and holder, a postcard, a folded poster, and two photocards. Be sure to browse the new SuperM x MARVEL collection as well, with everything from graphic tees to coloring paper. Just another impressive outreach from SM’s mightiest heroes!



*All opinions stated are the author’s own

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