fandom culture

Biases, comebacks, fan chants: A beginner’s guide to the K-pop vocabulary

Ysa Abad

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Biases, comebacks, fan chants: A beginner’s guide to the K-pop vocabulary
What's a maknae? How do you get street-cast? Who is your ult? Learn these K-pop terms and more!

MANILA, Philippines – Getting into K-pop is like entering a whole new world. Aside from the cultural and language differences, there are also others nuances to K-pop that newbies might not be familiar with. 

How do I choose my bias (and, uh, what’s a bias to begin with)? Where do I sign up for fandom membership (and how would that make me different from fans who did not sign up for one)? When should I use my lightstick? What’s the difference between a mini-album and a repackaged version? Why are they having a comeback when they just had one three months ago? 

Every question almost always leads to another question, so navigating the world of K-pop can be pretty overwhelming.  But don’t fret, because we attempted to make things easier for you!

Hopefully, by the end of this beginner’s guide to the K-pop vocabulary, you can easily pick who your “ults” and “wreckers” are!

First things first: What is K-pop?

Contrary to popular belief, K-pop doesn’t refer to a specific music genre. It’s a term that’s primarily associated with music that originates in South Korea. Meaning, songs from South Korea that are of different genres, may it be from pop, hip-hop, soul, rock, EDM, jazz, retro, and indie, all fall under the K-pop category. 

Yup, K-pop doesn’t just sound like PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” And while K-pop, in general, is known for its visually-pleasing aesthetics and catchy rhythm, its wide range of artists offer a variety of styles.

Also, it’s not only the boy and girl groups that contribute to K-pop. There’s no denying that we often think of BTS, BLACKPINK, EXO, TWICE, SEVENTEEN, and more groups when it comes to K-pop. But bands, rappers, and soloists also exist.

Debuts and generations of idols

Collectively, K-pop artists are called idols. 

But before they become an idol, they all start as trainees. South Korean entertainment agencies have different methods in looking for their potential idols. Usually, they host worldwide auditions, wherein only those who’ve passed their singing or dancing tests are accepted as trainees. While most idols audition to become trainees, some are street-cast by agencies.

Street-casting is the process wherein agents of entertainment companies look for potential idols based on their attractiveness. As compared to the auditions which test the trainees’ performance skills, street-casting solely relies on how beautiful or handsome a potential idol is. 

Once they’re officially trainees, they’re expected to undergo a series of lessons to enhance their skills. This includes basic lessons in singing, dancing, and rapping, but some agencies also do media, language, and personality training to ensure the well-roundedness of their idol groups. 

Trainees vary in age, with some as young as 10 years old, while others became trainees while they’re in high school. Their nationality can also vary. While most are of South Korean descent, there are also several foreign idols who have debuted in K-pop. SEVENTEEN’s Jun and Minghao are Chinese, and BLACKPINK’s Lisa and GOT7’s BamBam are Thai, for example. 

But being a trainee doesn’t necessarily guarantee their chances of debuting. They are usually evaluated every once in a while, and if the agency is not happy with their progress, there’s a chance that they’ll be kicked out of the company. 

It’s usually the agency executives who decide which of the trainees are already fit for debut. Debut refers to when a K-pop act is officially launched to the public. Most of the time, agencies launch their K-pop agencies through a debut album. Sometimes, agencies also release documentary shows to accompany the debut album as a way to chronicle the acts’ training days leading to their debut.

However, some K-pop groups are formed not through the label’s decisions. Recently, idol survival shows have been popular in South Korea, wherein groups are formed through worldwide voting and producers’ picks. K-pop groups TWICE and ENHYPEN are some of the groups that were formed through this kind of process. 

The year a specific K-pop act debuted also indicates which generation of K-pop idols they’re part of. 

The South Korean entertainment industry says that they’re currently in the fourth generation, with the first generation beginning as early as the 1990s. Among the most popular first-gen idols are H.O.T, S.E.S, Seo Taiji and Boys, and Turbo.

Biases, comebacks, fan chants: A beginner’s guide to the K-pop vocabulary

The second-gen idols, who debuted throughout the mid-2000s, are known to have brought on the first Hallyu wave, the term coined when K-pop was starting to get international recognition. Some groups from this generation include TVXQ, Super Junior, 2NE1, Wonder Girls, Sistar, Girls’ Generation, f(x), SHINee, and INFINITE.

Meanwhile, third-gen idols are said to have debuted starting around 2013. Groups like BTS, BLACKPINK, EXO, TWICE, SEVENTEEN, Red Velvet, and WINNER fall under this category and have huge international followings. Fourth-generation idols, in turn, are acts who made their debut around 2020. This includes rookie groups like ENHYPEN, aespa, and kep1er. 

Sub-units and sunbaes

Every idol in each K-pop group has a specific position that was assigned by their companies. They’re either a vocalist, rapper, or dancer. And depending on the number of members in a group, the roles would be divided into another category: main, lead, lead, and sub. But whatever assigned position they may have, all idols are still expected to do well in all three – singing, dancing, and rapping. 

Aside from their performance positions, some idols also have different roles in their respective K-pop groups. 

  • Leader: This member leads the group, and is considered the spokesperson of the group, especially during media appearances and interviews. Usually, it’s the oldest member in each group who becomes the leader. However, several groups like BTS, TWICE, NCT127, WINNER, 2NE1, and ENHYPEN have younger members as their leader. 
  • Visual: This member is considered to be one of the most attractive in the group. 
  • Maknae: This member is the youngest among the group. 

These specific roles in each K-pop group also often dictate their sub-units. Sub-units are smaller units formed within a group. In some acts, they can either be official side projects, like GIRLS’ Generations – OH!GG, Red Velvet’s Irene & Seulgi, and EXO’s-CBX, or permanent fixtures like SEVENTEEN’s vocal, hip-hop, and performance unit.

Biases, comebacks, fan chants: A beginner’s guide to the K-pop vocabulary

Side project sub-units often release their own albums and have separate activities from their full-group activities, while these permanent sub-units have tracks in their group albums which showcase each unit’s style. 

K-pop fans should also be familiar with the terms sunbae and hoobae. It’s not exactly unique to K-pop since it refers to seniority, whether in age, stature, or experience. Sunbae is the term used for those who are older, or on a higher status, while hoobae is for those who are younger, and have lesser experience. Usually, the comfortability of interaction between idols of different groups depends on whether they’re sunbae or hoobae. Hoobae idols tend to use formal speech when speaking to their sunbae idols.

Comebacks and bias list

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about K-pop is how active these acts are! Compared to Western artists, who often have long stretches of time between their album releases, most K-pop acts often make comebacks at least twice a year. 

Comebacks refer to the period that they release new music, whether it be through a full album, digital single, or EP. Comeback season is usually the busiest for both artists (and fans), as its promotional cycle includes jam-packed activities. 

Prior to the comeback date, acts regularly drop various previews like concept photos, videos, track lists, highlight medleys, and teasers. On comeback day, they usually hold press conferences before the release of the album, or comeback shows, where acts perform their recently released single for the first time. After that, they’ll spend the next two weeks to a month promoting the new release by performing on different music show broadcasts, appearing on radio and variety shows, and doing interviews. 

Music show broadcasts are also not ordinary broadcasts, as it serves as a live competition for performing idols. An act can win a music show broadcast depending on an act’s album sales, music site streams, points from live performances, and rankings in fan votings. 

Two comebacks per year is the most common among K-pop acts. In 2021, TWICE had their 10th EP Taste of Love in June and made a comeback in October with their third full-length album Formula of Love. SEVENTEEN also released two EPs in 2021, Your Choice in June and Attacca in October. 

Biases, comebacks, fan chants: A beginner’s guide to the K-pop vocabulary

EPs, or extended plays, are also called mini-albums, meaning they only have around five to eight songs, while full-length albums have around 12 or more. But K-pop acts can also make their comebacks or debuts with single or double albums, meaning the album will only have one or two tracks. Or they can also release a repackaged version. Repackaged albums are when a previously released album (usually an EP) is rereleased, but this time, with additional songs. The additional songs will then be the new title track that the acts will use to promote. 

Oftentimes, it’s during this comeback season that fans would joke that their bias list is changing, especially since most comebacks often have a different concept than the last and fans are treated to their idol’s new aesthetic.

But what exactly is a bias list? Bias refers to the fan’s favorite member in a certain group. How to pick a bias? Well, that really depends on the fan. One can choose the member that they find most attractive, funny, talented, or whatnot. Having a bias doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not a fan of the other group members, though. And sticking to one can be hard, which is why others have a bias list. Then there are, of course, the wreckers. Bias-wreckers are the members who you do not consider to be your bias, but in one way or another, always catches your attention. 

Ults,” short for “ultimate,” meanwhile, is a term used to refer to the group or member that is on the top of a fan’s bias list. For example, one can be a fan of several K-pop groups, but they only consider BTS as their “ults.”

Fanchants, lightsticks, and memberships:

Another thing about K-pop is that it’s highly-personalized. For example, most K-pop artists will likely have the following:

  • Catchphrase: K-pop groups usually have a phrase they use to introduce themselves (ex: EXO’s “We are One,” SEVENTEEN’s “Say the name!”)
  • Fandom names: Idols, whether groups or soloists, also usually give names for their fans (ex: Army for BTS fans, ONCE for TWICE fans)
  • Fandom colors: K-pop acts also have specific colors to represent themselves and their fans. Most of the time, their merchandise will primarily be in this color. (ex: Purple for BTS, Pearl Aqua for SHINee)
  • Fanchants: Almost all title tracks of K-pop acts have an official fanchant. Usually provided by the agency or made by a fanbase, fanchants are chants that are usually used to cheer the idols on while performing. It often involves repeating a catchy phrase from the song and shouting all the members’ names in succession at some point. 
  • Fancams: Fancams refer to the closeup videos of an idol while they’re performing. Usually, it focuses on a specific member and follows that member throughout the performance, meaning fans will be able to watch them the whole time while performing. 
  • Lightsticks: The amount of merchandise in K-pop is no joke. But among them, it’s the lightstick that is the most popular. It’s designed like a flashlight and stick, but with more embellishments, and are often used by fans during concerts. 
Biases, comebacks, fan chants: A beginner’s guide to the K-pop vocabulary

See, being a K-pop fan is no joke. And while anyone can be a fan of any group, there are also those who are part of the idol’s official fan clubs. Interested fans could sign up for membership for these fan clubs during the period of recruitment that was announced by the agency, and it usually involves membership fees that need to be renewed annually. Members of the official fan club have access to exclusive updates and discounts on some merchandise, and are also given membership kits. 

Sasaengs and disbandments

But it’s not all fun and rainbows in the K-pop fandom. Among the possible heartbreaks of a fan is the disbandment of their favorite K-pop groups. Usually, most groups sign seven-year contracts, but it’s not often that all members of a certain group will renew their contracts, which often lead to lineup changes or total disbandment. Idols can also be subjected to scandals like dating controversies, bullying, and drug usage accusations. 

Sometimes, these scandals are also made by an idol’s sasaengs or antis. Sasaengs, which means literal stalkers, refer to the fans who are obsessed with their idols. Their obsessive behavior can go as far as trailing idols 24/7, purchasing their personal information, and breaking into hotel rooms. Opposite the spectrum is the antis, who are vocal in their dislike (like throwing hate and insults on social media). Some harsh cases lead to violence and the harassment of idols. 

Intense, right? But as long as fans know their limits in showing their appreciation for their idols, then best believe that the fandom’s collective experience will always be fun and positive. – 

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