The reports of K-pop's fifth generation arrival are greatly exaggerated

We're clearly amid the 4.5th gen, but people are trying to rush us out of it

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While I was at KCON, I kept hearing people talk about how the newest Mnet-produced group, ZEROBASEONE (ZB1), are the part of the fifth generation K-pop group.

Entertainment companies and media entities have been proclaiming the arrival of the fifth generation of K-pop for a minute now, primarily revolving around a series of boy bands debuting this year.

I have news for all of you… We are still in the fourth generation of K-pop, which began around 2018-2019.

We’re probably around the 4.5 marker, but if you care, as I sort of do, about the demarcation of what makes a K-pop generation and what doesn’t, it’s pretty clear we’re on the verge of a new generation, but not there yet.

People are trying to rush us ahead for marketing purposes, but we’re in a period of transition, not a new beginning.

Regina George "Stop trying to make the fifth gen happen" meme inspired by mean girls

What does this all mean? If you’re a casual reader interested in K-pop because it’s trendy and not an overzealous K-pop fan like yours truly, you may not know what K-pop generations are, so a brief explainer…

K-pop as we know it began in the late 1990s, and there have been a series of eras that have defined the music industry. Typically, until around the early 2000s we were operating in the first generation, the second generation took off in the late 2000s, and the third generation arrived in the mid 2010s. There’s usually been some overlap, and generation demarcations are rarely precise. But by general consensus, we are now in the 4th generation and soon to be, but not yet, shifting into the fifth generation.

A lot of people have different definitions of what makes a K-pop generation. The most popular definition, though one I’ve never been satisfied with, is the nature of music. To others, it’s based around the artists coming out of different entertainment companies, because if the biggest players are all getting competitive around new acts, it’s likely a sign there’s a shift in the winds. To me, it’s pretty straightforward: generational change in K-pop is based on technological advancements.

“What, the, actual, fuck, Tamar?” you’re probably thinking to yourself if you care about what does or doesn’t make a K-pop generation.

This is not a typical explanation of K-pop gen demarcations, and yet it makes the most sense to me.

First gen: analog/broadcast (localized to Asia)

Second gen: digital content/start of YouTube (Begins global growth)

Third Gen: Era of social media and digital streaming platforms (DSPs) (Global growth takes off)

Fourth Gen: Shortform video (ie Tiktok/Reels), direct engagement (ie Bubble/LYSN/Weverse) with artists, world tours, and creative IP content are defining features. The corona-19 pandemic is also a major influencer, but is totally different than other generations so not comparable.

We Are Here.

Fifth Gen: TBD, but based on how people are talking, it’s probably going to be more AI/VR/Metaverse-focused, and more integration into international music markets in different ways than we’ve seen prior.

This video of SNSD has nothing to do with the article, it just showed up while I was on YouTube after writing this, because obviously the Internet Knows All. I don’t even think these are the funniest Girls’ Generation clips, to be honest, but it’s fun to see what fans think wouldn’t fly nowadays.

Why does this all matter?

It doesn’t, really. Generational dividers are just handy for people when discussing phenomena, the same way we have Millenial versus Gen Z and now Gen Alpha conversations.  We use them because we’re humans and we like classifying things so our brains can compute concepts, create categories, and follow developments over time in a linear fashion. They explain trends, business decisions, and do mean something, but labels are also just labels, so just because I’m sitting here saying we’re not in the fifth gen yet… please don’t take it too seriously.

Why are people rushing into the fifth gen?

Based on where I’m sitting, there’s two big issues going on here.

Firstly, everyone wants to be the start of something. Nobody wants to be the tailend of a generational wave, it just means you’re stuck in between. Which is why we usually get point five K-pop generations, which is why I would say we’re more in the four point five generation at the moment.

Secondly, most of the firmly self-proclaimed, or PR-proclaimed, fifth generation K-pop groups are boy bands. Boy bands have not by and large dominated in the fourth generation. There are many who have been succesful, but while the first, second, and third generations were pretty heavily dominated by stars across both gender’s aisles, as we approach the tailend of the fourth gen, men are clearly not doing well regarding the general public aside from a handful, most of whom were early fourth gen, not late fourth gen. To attempt to set themselves aside from the rest, I believe many groups nowadays are hoping to shuck aside the stigma of the moment of boy bands not doing well, and herald themselves as the arrival of a new era.

Even among girl groups, there’s a heavy push to market K-pop in western markets via “global” groups, and we’re seeing many of them, namely upcoming ones from Hybe and JYP, focus on this in collaboration with American music labels. I know some people think this heralds a new generation, but it’s honestly nothing new, we saw the same thing happen with SuperM, it’s just the gender focus has changed. I don’t think we’ve seen enough yet to make me really think it’s a brand new generation, more like a sign of the times.

I could be wrong, and all these groups could really be the start of the new era, but there hasn’t been enough musical, stylistic, or technological developments or experimentation that make me think any current new rookie groups are intensely divergent from the fourth gen.

If anything, we may see less the fifth gen of K-pop, and more the end of South Korea’s idol scene as a singularity, but rather one integrated into America’s industry for a time, which will definitely be very interesting but I don’t think it has the same meaning as a new K-pop generation.

Which begs the question… are we nearing the end of K-pop as its own entity if what makes it unique gets swallowed up into globalized music markets? I don’t think so, but I do have some thoughts, for another time…

We’re already engaging with metaverse content. Why is it not the fifth gen yet?

There’s always some overlap, which is why we end up in these .5 eras. We’re in an era of transition, I believe, between the 4th and 5th gen, which makes us firmly in K-pop’s 4.5 generation. The topmost fourth gen groups are still very active, and peaking if not already peaked in popularity, but they’re not quite ready to give up their crown yet.

I once argued with someone that the .5’s are silly, and we should just admit we’ve had like 8, 9, generations already, but that became too confusing, so we’re stuck with these transitory eras that we can all recognize are bringing change but aren’t quite definitely there yet.

To attempt to set themselves aside from the rest, I believe many groups nowadays are hoping to shuck aside the stigma of the moment of boy bands not doing well, and herald themselves as the arrival of a new era.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this, and look like a clown.

Maybe we firmly are in the 5th generation just because people say we are. But based on witnessing now the second gen turn into the third and that one turn into the fourth… It doesn’t feel like the wind of change is here quite yet. This may very well be because the current situation with females simply dominating, and it’s warping perception and timelines. But I do truly think people are trying to rush into a new era where boy bands are thriving again and the metaverse are dominant and we’re just not there yet.

But I guess history will look back and let me know.

What do you think about the fifth or 4.5 gen?

What I’m reading

Really appreciate that Ryo from  engaged with my piece on challenging bias as a journalist covering this scene, which as we all know is full of Biases.

“Being a good fan to me also doesn’t differ much from being a good music critic. It means listening to your favorites’ work with intent, investing quality time to sit with what they put out,” wrote Ryo. “I don’t think the degree of familiarity with an artist’s full catalog necessarily determines the level of devotion or coverage, but a valuable evaluation comes from genuine appreciation of the work and the contexts that inform it. A good fan knows when their favorites are hitting their stride, and they can recognize that they are capable of more. Whichever the case, they keep their response to the work honest.”

I also got caught up in my feels about RM’s birthday message. His prose is always lovely to read, whether he’s writing in Korean or English, and honestly I kind of would love to read a book of poetry or essays by him. Anyhow… as someone who also gets quite uncomfortable when contemplating her upcoming September birthday and spent a lot of this morning In My Feels, it’s very evocative to hear where he is as he leaves his 20s behind.

What I’m listening to

It was really rainy these past few days in New York City, so I got very heavily into the feels of V’s Rainy Days, and let it set the mood.

It’s not new, but I also spent the weekend listening to Bibi’s Lowlife Princess album from last year, which is exceptional. Something about being stuck at home in the rain with my thoughts put me in the Bibi mood, ready to fight.

Spent this morning listening to Key’s new EP, and it feels like he definitely listened to Beyoncé’s Renaissance album a lot while working on Good & Great.

I recently rediscovered Stray Kids’ Any while spending a day listening to all their albums from start to finish out of curiosity to hear how the group’s developed. It was an amazing experience, to be honest, and maybe I’ll redo that for another artist and write it up for this newsletter, it was a really fun exercise.

This song is just so much fun, I can’t believe I didn’t fall in love with it immediately upon its release. I’m glad I rediscovered it and have now internalized it, since I feel like I can do anything while listening to it.

What I’m watching

I’m on a variety show kick, which I’d say happens maybe once a quarter for me, so please send recommendations! I’ve been watching Seventeen’s GoSe, and also watched the Hulu/Disney+ NCT 127 The Lost Boys series.

From NCT 127, I expected a full-blown documentary and that wasn’t the case, so it’s interesting to see the narrative. I’m not sure what I think quite yet. I need to mull over it a bit more, because each episode, each member’s portion even, felt like a totally different story. It was a very unique approach, and I felt quite impacted by some of the stories and the way the filmmakers approached them, but I kind of wish the whole thing was a lot longer, at least double the length, to explore some narratives that were approached but never went in-depth.