The History of Kpop, Chapter 5: H.O.T, BoA, and the Rise of the Idols

Excerpts from
The History, Development, and Future of Kpop and the Korean Music Industry
By: Hannah Waitt


Last week on “The History of Kpop,” we discussed how Lee Soo Man laid the foundations of the modern idol training system after losing a great deal of time and money on his first artist, Hyun Jinyoung. As a result of this failure, Lee Soo Man founded SM Entertainment with the goal to debut artists that were not only talented, but also obedient.

To achieve his first big success, Lee looked to his target audience, teenagers, to create the biggest act in Korean pop music. Lee carried out a survey in which teenage girls described what they wanted from their idols, which, as it turns out, was relatively simple: they wanted exceptionally good-looking group members who could also sing and dance. With this seemingly obvious but then-profound knowledge, Lee Soo Man held auditions not just in Korea, but in the United States and Japan as well, combing through thousands of audition tapes in order to find the boys that would most accurately fit their future fans’ idealized images of them.

If a young man passed the auditions, they were brought to SM to be trained extensively not just in singing and dancing, but also in facial expressions, public behavior, attitude, and personality development. In other words, they were taught not just how to sing and dance like a star, but how to look, live, and act like one. It was in this way that H.O.T (High-five Of Teenagers) was formed and took Korea by storm.


H.O.T was, for lack of a better comparison, the Korean equivalent of the Backstreet Boys. Armed with their youth, chiseled bodies, handsome faces, charming personalities, and extensive vocal and dance talent (much of which they could thank the SM Academy system for), the five members of H.O.T sent the teenage girls of Korea into a frenzy. They were irresistible and the numbers reflected it, their debut album selilng 1.5 million copies, 800,000 of which were bought within the first 100 days of its release in 1996. H.O.T went on to release four more new albums, two live albums, a greatest hits package, and a movie, selling over 12 million albums domestically, as well as singles and albums all over the Asian continent. Despite their eventual disbandment in 2001, H.O.T had proven a crucial point: Lee Soo Man’s new star creation system worked.

H.O.T were important because they were the first of many K-pop idol stars that were successfully manufactured by SM Entertainment’s training system, SM Academy. A new term, “idol,” became popular among the public, and was used to describe the result of this new pop star manufacturing system. The term itself, which is used frequently today, indicates something more than just a singer or even a pop star. As the very word “idol” suggests, these singers were worshipped by their fans, who admired them not just for their vocal and dance talent, but also for their seemingly god-like images of perfection.

HOT | moonROK

Image courtesy of SM Entertainment

The success of H.O.T was thus a crucial signal to Lee Soo Man, as well as to his aspiring competitors, that through the right methods, he had the ability to create ultra-celebrities and to profit immensely from them. This realization resulted in the evolution of both the Korean music industry and Korean entertainment companies into their present state and structure.

H.O.T’s commercial success also spurred Lee Soo Man to continue cranking out idol stars, debuting a very popular three-member girl group called S.E.S in 1997, another equally popular boy group called Shinhwa in 1998, and a duo called Fly to the Sky in 1999. As Lee perfected his star creation system, he saw more and more success, but also more and more competition as companies like JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment began manufacturing their own idols as well.

Furthermore, Lee began to realize just how small the Korean music market really was, with just $300 million worth of sales in 2000 compared to neighboring Japan’s whopping $6.4 billion and the United States’ $14 billion in music sales that same year. The increased competition for a stake in the relatively small Korean music market combined with the prospect of penetrating a larger foreign market led Lee Soo Man to turn his vision for his next idol outwards from Korea.

H.O.T may have been the first Korean idols, but Kwon BoA, who debuted as a thirteen-year-old in 2000, was the first truly international idol. While SM’s previous groups enjoyed some popularity in Asian countries outside of Korea, BoA was an absolute star overseas.

In his goal to breach international markets, Lee intensified his star academy system to include foreign language and culture education. BoA, who dropped out of school and was thus fully dedicated to SM and unprecedented in her level of training, was made to study Japanese intensively and even sent to Japan for long periods of time in order to achieve fluency through immersion in the language. During her training BoA was shaping up to be SM’s first international superstar, and she did not disappoint.

Her first Japanese album, Listen to My Heart, was released in 2002, selling one million copies and debuting at number one on the Oricon chart, the Japanese equivalent of the American Billboard chart. BoA became the first non-Japanese Asian singer to sell more than 1 million albums, and effectively rose to greater prominence in Japan than she had in Korea, her 2000 debut album at home selling only about 220,000 copies. Since her debut, all of BoA’s Korean albums (except for the first) have gone number one, and six of her seven total Japanese albums have all gone number one on the Oricon chart.


It was thus that BoA became an idol star of yet unseen magnitude in Asia, again reinforcing the efficiency and the methodology behind SM Entertainment’s idol creation process. However, BoA’s success, like H.O.T’s, meant the further intensification of the entertainment company academy system and raised expectations for the quality of its pop star output. No longer was it enough for a star to be able to sing in just Korean – they had to be able to perform in at least two more languages, Japanese and Chinese or English.

As success for entertainment companies became increasingly dependent upon foreign-market penetration, they began altering their production systems to cater to international audiences, and this is a topic that we will discuss in later chapters in our “The History of Kpop” series. In next week’s chapter, we will see how Korea brought its domestic music industry to the brink of extinction, only to be resurrected in full force.



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  1. PeaceofMind05 8 years ago
    BoA really worked hard and made a mark in kpop history. I admire the girl (obviously). Anyway, these pieces on the history of kpop are really fascinating. I can’t wait to read the next piece.
  2. […] The History of Kpop, Chapter 5: H.O.T, BoA, and the Rise of the Idols […]

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