Kpop - The Beginner's Guide

Being a fan of kpop for almost two years now, I feel like I possess enough knowledge and insight to provide a simple guide for anyone who wishes to become a part of this community. I didn't really have anything like this to look up to when I first got into kpop, at least not anything that was not comletely biased, and so I would like to contribute my share of tips and tricks. I will try be as objective as possible, but I can't promise I won't sneak in any personal opinions at all.
So, let's get started!

1. What is kpop?
Now, this is a question that can be both answered very briefly or very tediously. The easy answer would be; Korean pop music. This you can probably tell from the name itself. However, the entire industry in which kpop exists and grows is also important to be familiar with, as it's vastly different from the west that most are used to.

The first thing you will notice is how the kpop idols prepare before their debut, which means the first single they release (along with a music video, music show, tv and radio promotions and a showcase). Idols are trainees under big entertainment companies for many years, practicing their skills in multiple areas. As an idol, you need to be well rounded, not only in music but in being able to promote yourself and establishing a character so that you'll be remembered. You'll also have to look physically attractive, often meaning loosing weight, building muscle (for guys), getting new haircuts and colors and even cosmetic surgery. A lot of money, time and hard work is invested in forming new groups, so you have to be at your best at every monthly evaluation to keep the interest and attention. It is very competetive, but it's also known to have a lot of good friendships formed during this period as well.

Even if you actually get to debut doesn't mean all the hard work is over and you can finally relax, because that's when all the real hardships begin. Being in a kpop group is stressful and tiresome, especially during promotion periods, where idols only get to sleep around 2-3 hours and barely eat anything. Still, you can't complain and look upset or angry, because it will ruin your image and people will think badly of you.

It's easy to ask oneself, why do people become idols if there's no many negative aspects to it?
Well, I'm not a kpop idol myself so I'm not exactly qualified to answer that question, but I can take a guess. I believe that at some point you reach that time in your career where everything suddenly starts to pay off. Some groups find instant success, whereas others battle for years without achieving any public recognition. Once you do though, I think you will have it a lot easier. Most new groups have constant combacks, releasing new material twice or even three times a year with no rest periods in between, but more established groups get to take months off or even years before returning. They also get to have their own concerts and even go on tours, performing in front of thousands of screaming fans, which I presume is quite a reward for them. Idols also have opportunities to write and compose their own songs, or have a go at acting or hosting.

A brief summary of kpop concludes; Trainees train for periods of time under companies before they get to debut, either on their own or in a group put together by the company. Everything needs to perfect, so they rarely ever rest and just keep practicing and promoting even after their debut. Groups usually have multiple comebacks when they're new to always stay in the spotlight, but if they're already popular they can take longer breaks.

2. What are the biggest names in kpop?
The two names you need to know as a kpop fan are YG and SM entertainment, as they are arguably the largest and most popular companies for idol groups in Korea (JYP used to be in there as well, but they have been doing quite badly recently).
YG was founded by Yang Hyun Suk, a member of the well known 90's trio Seo Taiji and The Boys, after the group had disbanded in 1996. It currently hosts two of the biggest acts in kpop today; Big Bang and 2ne1, as well as soloists Se7en, Psy, Lee Hi and hip hop trio Epik High.
SM was founded by former singer Lee Soo Man in 1995 and has been the agency for some of the most popular groups from its beginning all they way up to the present. H.O.T and S.E.S, a boy and girl group respectively, were huge names during the nineties, and their successors have been just as big. Names include BoA, TVXQ, Super Junior, Girl's Generation, f(x), SHINee and EXO. SM has also made a big name for itself and its artists in other Asian countries, specifically Japan and China.
Other big companies include Cube, Loen and JYP.

As for the groups themselves (some are mentioned above), the names you SHOULD know as a fan, whether you like them or not, are YG's Big Bang & 2ne1, SM's TVXQ, Super Junior & Girl's Generation, JYP's 2PM & Wonder Girls as well as DSP's Kara. These are all names that have played a big part in the industry and have had successful careers not only in Korea, but all over the world.
Here are the hits (that you also should know about) that are their most known and also the ones that had a major impact on the kpop industry at that time:

^^ This is the japanese version for the korean one is nowhere to be found, sadly.

Other popular groups (or soloists) not mentioned anywhere previously include:

  • Beast
  • Miss A
  • IU
  • Sistar
  • T-Ara (pre-scandal)
3. What do I do as a fan?
When you've discovered some bands that you like, the best way for you to feel more personally involved (apart from buying their music) is to try to watch them as much as you can to get to know the members better. A huge part of being a kpop fan is not only to show support by buying music, merchandise and going to concerts, but to feel like you are a part of the fandom and you know the group more intimately. I would like to point out that OBVIOUSLY you should keep your affections on a healthy level, and there is a line that should not be crossed. Remember, these idols are people too and have feelings just as you have, so show your respect and understand that you cannot control their life choices. This is exactly what Sasaengs do, and you do not want to become one of those, because they are just horrible. 

To feel more involved with the group and fandom, my recommendation is to watch them in variety shows. Most groups have had one or more TV-shows revolved around them, where some just follow their everyday doings and others have special themes and orientations. For a few laughs, I highly recommend the show Sesame Player, which has featured INFINITE, Mblaq and B1A4. If you are into more sweet stuff with lots of heartwarming moments you should sit down and watch Hello Baby, which have different groups care for one or more young children (ages 5 and under) for a period of time. Participants include Sistar, SHINee, Girl's Generation, Mblaq, B1A4, Boyfriend and T-ara. You can follow your idol's everyday life in MTV Diary, which have groups carrying a camera around and recording themselves. Another popular recurring variety show surrounding idol groups is Idol Army which have had Super Junior, 2PM, FT Island, Kara and Mblaq (once again) as hosts. Apart from these shows, there are ones that aren't recurring and are built around one group and them only. 

Being a fan also means you will watch lots of interviews, backstage footage, live music shows that go on 5 times a week (that gives out trophies to the winners that are selected through different scoring systems) and even events such as Idol Star Athletic Championship, an event created solely for idols where they compete in sports to see who comes out on top. Different non-kpop related shows also have idol specials that feature idols from many different groups. 
Maybe you will also try to learn the words to the songs, the fanchants or the choreography if you're feeling brave. I know there are a bunch of talented fans who even make english versions of their favorite songs!

4. What does ..... mean?
You WILL come across these words or phrases in the kpop world, and some of them are a bit hard to translate into english. For a lot of them, you have to know a bit about the koran culture to understand their meanings. 
In Korea, your age matters like nothing else. Everyone asks everyone about their ages, and this is not something they do to be rude, they have to know so they'll know how to adress you. There are two types of speech; formal and informal. You speak formal language towards those older than you and those who posess a higher ranking (your boss, teacher etc) and informal language towards those younger than you and the same age. But you have to be even more careful if someone is born the same year as you, but in the beginning of the year (January, February and sometimes March) and you're not, because then they will be considered older than you and you'll have to use formal speech towards them. 
These are some common words used to address each other formally:

Oppa - What girls call their older guyfriends (also used to describe their biological older brothers)
Unni - What girls call their older girlfriends (also used to describe their biological older sisters)
Hyung - What guys call their older guyfriends (also used to describe their biological older brothers)
Noona  - What guys call their older girlfriends (also used to describe their biological older sisters)
Dongsaeng - Used by both sexes to describe younger friends or siblings (gender neutral)

These are the words most used between members of groups, where they either call each other only by that, or add the names in front of it. 

Sunbae - Used to refer to people having been in the same workplace (also includes school) as you for a longer amount of time. 
Hoobae - Used to refer to people having been in the same workplace (also includes school) as you for a shorter amount of time. 

These words are used between actors, singers, hosts and idols in the entertainment i the entertainment industry, as well as in companies and schools.

The word aegyo will also pop up here and there, especially if the concept for a specific group is to be very cute and innocent. Aegyo means cuteness, in a simplified way. When you possess a lot of this, you are very cute and smiley in an almost childlike way. This is a marketing techuniqe used mostly by girls (guys too, at times) to appeal to older fans of the opposite sex, who find it adorable even when performed by young women in their early twenties. Being innocent and naive also plays a lot into the stereotypical female gender role in Korea, but that is a discussion for another time.

Every group or community of people will have a maknae, meaning the youngest member. As age is as important as it is in Korea, there is a separate word for the youngest because that role is very important. As a maknae you will be expected to have lots of aegyo to show, and you have to be obidient and follow orders. Maknaes are usually in charge of cleaning, cooking and doing housework that older members don't want to do. Of course it's not always like this, but it's what you can expect. One privilege of being the maknae though, is that you most likely will be doted upon and taken care of more. 

Last but not least you have the word bias, which probably is more self-explanatory. You call your favorite member of a certain group your bias, meaning you are biased towards them and therefore love everything they do. You will also do your best to defend your bias, which have resulted in a lot of delusional fans that never admit that their favorites did anything wrong. 
You may also have your ultimate bias, which is that one person that sits at the very top of your list and is your favorite out of all your favorite groups (mine being TVXQ's Yunho). 

5. Now you're set to go!
That was probably everything I found necessary to know when entering this world of wonder. I had to learn a lot of these things on my own, so if I am to any help to anyone I'll be a happy girl! If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I'll try to answer as best as I can. 
Good luck :)