What do generally accepted Kings of K-pop Big Bang and BTS have in common aside from their reign? One, their debut wasn’t really the type that would make the public conclude that they would be the top acts of their generation. Two, their success was translated into both domestic and international markets. Curious to know what the third similarity is? Pretend you didn’t read the title and read on.

BIGBANG: The Kings of Second Generation K-Pop 

You would think that the biggest k-pop act pre-BTS would have had a huge debut, with the rest being history. But then, you would be wrong for a number of reasons. One, YG Entertainment at that time was not as big of a company as it is today. True, it had brand credibility as it was founded by Yang Hyunsuk of the iconic Korean music group Seo Taeji and the Boys, but in terms of financial standing, the company was far from its current status and reputation. The same is true with the company’s breakthrough group. The formation of the group, which was all showcased in the documentary Big Bang Documentary, had the nation recognize the group even before it debuted. Before their debut, not only did they all have to share a tiny room together (that had mice visiting them), but they barely had enough to eat after each day of hard practice and had little to no money to buy food. Even their practice room (if you would call it that as it was just the space where they practiced) where they prepared for their debut was poorly lit and dirty. 

But then, great and well-received music can come from poor conditions, right? Not the case for BIGBANG, as even though the company did take a huge gamble with their debut, the public reception of their first release was lukewarm by any standard. 30,000 copies sold for an EP is definitely characteristic of groups in nugu territory, much more a group that was to be the banner act of one of the Big 3 companies. 

The single albums that followed the debut release Bigbang Vol.1, Big Bang First Single and Big Bang Is V.I.P did not fare any better. It wasn’t until August 2007 when the fortunes of the group finally got reversed, when their first EP, Always was released, led by the single Lies. The song went on to sell 5,000,000 (that’s five million) copies and EP sales went over 101,000. Still not that stellar for the album’s sales figures, but the song’s hit status finally gave the group both the reputation as K-pop superstars and the financial success to back it up. With sold-out concert tours both at home and in Japan and a couple more chart-topping hits (Last Farewell and Haru Haru), it became undeniable that Big Bang had indeed, arrived. As YGE’s founder Yang Hyunsuk accurately pointed out in an interview, it wasn’t YG that made Big Bang. It was Big Bang that made YG.   

Wait, so Big Bang became the representatives of K-pop to the world, and when people (especially international fans) who followed the second generation of k-pop are asked for an example of a k-pop song, they would most likely answer Fantastic Baby or Bang Bang Bang. Which begs the reaction, “Wasn’t hallyu all about Sorry, Sorry and Mr. Simple?” Why has Big Bang overshadowed Super Junior’s legacy overseas? Why hasn’t Super Junior, despite having debuted earlier and having more members made a bigger impact than Big Bang? 

To this issue, things can be very well subjective. By all accounts, considering how many international ELFs are up to now still very active in following and promoting Super Junior and how SJ is still the more visible group after all these years, we can say that SJ is actually bigger than Big Bang. Even when we consider only objective factors like album sales and tickets sold/concert attendance, we can also conclude that SJ is more successful than BB and that BB only edges out SoJu in digital sales. But then, we can also argue that Super Junior just releases more albums and has done more concert tours than BB. After all, let’s not forget that Big Bang is a YG group, which proudly claims to “prioritize quality over quantity” (with the prime example being Lee Hi, who only released two full-length albums and one EP in her 7-year stay with YGE). But, we also have to remember that prior to debuting SJ, SM already had massive successes going as far as H.O.T, Shinhwa, and TVXQ. As mentioned earlier, YG hasn’t had a really successful track record prior to Big Bang, 

VIPs can also argue that perhaps the “bigger impact” of Big Bang on the Korean music landscape, especially when it comes to an international following has to do with image. Being the poster kids of YG Entertainment, Big Bang has always been seen as the cool ones, the ones who do everything with the trademark “YG swag”. Everybody wants to be dripping in sophistication, charisma, and elegance, dressed only in designer clothes and attending by-invitation-only events just like Big Bang. Even their fandom name alludes to that high-class exclusivity – VIPs. On the other hand, SuJu is very accessible, and fun, and doesn’t have even a considerable percentage of swag as BB has.  I mean, can you even imagine GD chasing Daesung or TOP crying over a cracked-open watermelon like what Siwon, Leeteuk, and Kangin did in the Mamacita MV? Heck, can you even imagine Big Bang performing Mamacita, complete with palm-hitting-the-temple choreography?  

To sum it up, Big Bang’s reign in k-pop can be perfectly summarized as the YG machinery in perfect operation. As mentioned above, even during the early years of YG and Big Bang, image and perception are #1. So, in a way, both Big Bang and Super Junior were very effective in securing their rightful places in the k-pop world: As Super Junior is the more accessible group, they are the “Kings of Hallyu” responsible for introducing millions to the eccentric world of k-pop and once you’ve gotten immersed in the world, you’ll be caught breathless at the neverending supply of swag by Big Bang, whose aspirational image easily made them the “Kings of K-pop” of the second generation. 

We’re calling this a draw.

BTS: The Global (K-)Pop Phenomenon

Just like Big Bang, the world’s biggest pop act these days didn’t have a particularly rosy debut. BTS was never in nugu territory from the start, but their first releases from 2 Cool 4 Skool to the next ones, Dark & Wild did not give the Bangtan Boys that breakthrough. Thus, even though songs like No More Dream, Boy in Luv, N.O, Just One Day, and Danger were noticed by both casual fans and music critics as songs with a lot of substance as they reflect the issues of the youth today, they weren’t exactly radio chart-friendly material that could have propelled the boys to the level of being household names. 

Alas, in 2015, a good number of factors combined to give the boys both domestic and international success. BTS started releasing “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” album series that contained songs  I Need You and Run, which finally allowed the boys to penetrate the top 10 of Korean music charts. Also included in the first TMBMIL EP was Dope, a song that only peaked at #44 in Korea, but started the international breakthrough for the band. To be clear, Dope performed as well as I Need You in the Billboard World Digital Song Sales chart, peaking at number 3, but it sure was the song that made the international audience take notice of the group. 

Not the song per se, but the MV, where the group presented that dance in the chorus with razor-sharp precision, wearing the same white shirts, black pants, and ties. That just blew the mind of hundreds of YouTube reactors who got silenced every time it was time for that chorus. I mean, with the rich history of “boy bands” from New Kids on the Block to 5 Seconds of Summer, nobody, and I mean nobody has given the world a choreographed performance so clean and so tight! As much as you can argue these American reactors haven’t seen an Infinite performance, that Dope MV was so powerful that it propelled content creators on YouTube to not just react to the video, but also learn the choreography and actually do dance covers. 

Now, if you’re being strict that group “breakthroughs” can only happen with chart-topping songs, Bangtan’s international breakthrough finally came in 2016, when Fire took the top spot on the World Digital Song Sales chart. But by this time, YouTube content creators (this was pre-Tiktok, so at that time YouTube power was supreme) had lapped up everything and anything BTS releases, securing the group’s international fanbase. Which begs the question: Although BTS already broke through the Korean market in 2015, was it 2016 when they actually dominated? And by dominate, I mean dominate the Korean market.

Let us remember that by the end of 2016, the Korean public was already thinking of which group will be taking Big Bang’s place as the reigning kings as the members take their leave from the entertainment industry to fulfill their military duties. And by that time, it was almost as if BTS with their sudden national and international success was already on an express route to assume the throne Big Bang was to vacate soon. 

But then, there was EXO

EXO had everything going for them – the backing of the industry’s biggest entertainment company, a fanbase that is bordering on fanatic, charismatic personalities, Chinese members that quit the group that all the more swayed public sympathy to their favor, and something that their SME sunbaes Super Junior did not (arguably) – a stronger and more “aspirational” discography that made fans take them more seriously compared to Leeteuk and co, With songs like Growl, Call Me Baby, and Love Me Right, girls swooned at them, while boys wanted to be like them. Definitely a huge difference compared to songs like Cooking? Cooking, Rokuko, SPY, and Mamacita of Super Junior, which although were also huge hits, are not particularly songs people would regularly want on their playlists. 

Thus, when BTS started the year on and with Fire and EXO replied with one hit after another – Lucky One, Monster, Lotto, and Dancing King, it was a full-on battle for supremacy reminiscent of the iconic rivalries k-pop such as H.O.T and Sechkies, Fin.KL and S.E.S, and Girls’ Generation versus 2NE1 (notice that one side is always an SME group?). ARMY and EXO-L (at least domestic during this period)  were claiming victory, with EXO-Ls seeing the finish line in sight. 

Then, in October, BTS released Blood, Sweat, and Tears and moved straight to numero uno. As expected, EXO retaliated with… a ballad. Alas, this is to be expected since EXO has made it somewhat a tradition to release ballads before the year’s end, starting from Miracles in December and has continued with December 2014, and Sing for You. So, for 2016, it was For Life. Still, a very strong release that showcases the group’s superior vocal line. But to pit it against Blood, Sweat and Tears? 2016 was a “monster” year (pun intended) for EXO, but as a popular perception goes, it’s the stronger finish gets remembered more. In this case, Blood, Sweat, and Tears definitely trumped For Life. 

But it’s okay, since 2017 was fast approaching and EXO released Ko Ko Bop to counter BTS’ super strong start with a somewhat Uno reverse move – releasing a ballad entitled Spring Day. True, they coupled it days later with the darker Not Today to balance the very soft, heartbreaking tone of Spring Day, but it just so happened that Spring Day just resonated so much with the Korean public, as what Miracles in December did in 2013, when EXO-Ls somehow had the feeling they would need a miracle a year later, when the Chinese members started quitting from the group. But somehow, Ko Ko Bop was released in July, which gave BTS more room to extend their dominance they started in October 2016 with BS&T, Moreover, SM coupled Ko Ko Bop with the rather cartoon-ish Power, which revived the EXO debut concept of every member having his own superpower. Just when they needed successive releases of strong material to counter BTS, EXO went the Super Junior “not taking everything so seriously” road. 

And then, the annual December release. While Universe by the end of the year still

Charted high, it seemed that the public didn’t really see this as a special event, as they have already expected the annual ballad release on December, so there was nothing that exciting about it. On the other hand, BTS capped the year with the bright and overly radio-friendly DNA and an international collaboration with DJ Steve Aoki remixing their song Mic Drop. By this time, it became apparent that EXO was slowly starting to fade away from being SM’s center of attention (To NCT? To Red Velvet? We will never know), as it took almost a whole year for the group to come back with Tempo. We’ll never know why that comeback took so long, but by that time it was obvious that SM already saw EXO as a “legacy” group that can survive with one or two comebacks in a year. And with that, it was also as if the red carpet was laid ahead for BTS. 

And now, many argue that the current domination of another K-pop group starting with the letter B, Blackpink, was also once threatened by another SM group, Red Velvet. But then, others argue that it was more of a BP versus Twice battle if only JYP didn’t cause their group to self-sabotage and give way to ITZY. And then, there are those who speculate that it is actually another SM group that has been slowly but surely threatening Blackpink dominance internationally with successive #1 singles and even having similar activities like endorsements of international high-end fashion brands, performing in Coachella, and having the same number of members. 

So now, the burning question is, are the current queens of K-pop ready to play with fire and take things to the next level? One thing’s for sure: SM never takes things sitting down, so we are definitely on to exciting times ahead in the world of Korean pop music!

Featured image: BIGBANG – 뱅뱅뱅 (BANG BANG BANG) M/V. Source: BIGBANG, YouTube.