SPIN: Inside Korea's Pop Factory
BoA - "Eat You Up" (2008)
By the time she dropped this, her first English single, in 2008, 25-year-old BoA (birth name: Kwon Boa) had been at it for nearly a decade — first as a teenaged SM trainee (got her start at 11), later as a K-pop pioneer whose polish as both performer and multilingual pop idol allowed her to conquer the supposedly impenetrable Japanese market (the second largest in the world).
Super Junior - "Sorry Sorry" (2009)
At the time that Super Junior unleashed this, their best-selling single to date, the boy band behemoth sported 11 members. That's more than the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync combined. "Sorry Sorry" is a spartan slab of hiccuping, high-wire Euro-pop (as is the SM way) that makes wonderful use of Auto-Tune and the word "shawty."
Girls Generation - "Run Devil Run" (2010)
You'll notice that, within the three-and-a-half-minute span of "Run Devil Run," we're only given a snippet of solo. It's highly orchestrated, high-fructose vocal layering of the highest order: nine voices, nine tentacles, absolutely no seams. This is stone-cold sass that — though it cribs pop pin-up signifiers stretching back 50 years — echoes a more disciplined (and chaste) re-imagining of the Pussycat Dolls.
2NE1 - "I Am the Best" (2011)
The stomping title hook sounds like "Neh-guh-ché Challa-GAH"; other big nonsense hook is the machine-gunned "bum-ratta-TATTA ta-tatta tah-tah." Then there's the froggie-reggae dancehall ("hot-hot-hot-hot FI-ya") and Alice Cooper ("billion dollar baby") references. Lyric plot: Hitting the city, taking no shit. World-class throat: CL.
Wonder Girls - "Be My Baby" (2011)
Persistent energy has been expended in attempting to break these ladies Stateside: In 2009, they toured with the Jonas Brothers; this year, they filmed a TV flick for TeenNick.
HyunA - "Bubble Pop!" (2011)
After opening with riffs out of Plastic Bertrand's Belgian bazooka-punk classic "Ca Plane Pour Moi," "Bubble Pop!" onomatopoeically fills its archetypal title's promise — 4minute member/Wonder Girls alumnus HyunA's flirty-coy "ooh-ooh oh-oh" breaths sound like bubbles popping.
Big Bang - "Bad Boy" (2012)
After an unfortunate marijuana scandal sidelined group leader G-Dragon for the better part of 2011, Big Bang made a triumphant return: onstage at talent agency YG's Family Concert in December and on-record with "Bad Boy," a piano-based R&Breeze that, like the rest of their recently released Alive LP, was penned entirely by GD. And though some might point to "Love Song" or "Tonight" as the group's finest hour, nothing they've has done as a unit up until now has approached the anti-gravity pop smarts to be heard in the Diplo-assisted GD&TOP collaboration "Knock Out."