Stray Kids: How K-Pop took over the global charts in 2023

Stray Kids attends SBS Music Awards at Inspire Arena in Jung-gu on December 25 , 2023 in Incheon, South Korea
Image caption,Eight-piece K-pop group Stray Kids will headline the BST Festival in London’s Hyde Park this summer

By Mark Savage

BBC Music Correspondent

Inevitably enough, Taylor Swift was the biggest-selling artist in the world last year – but new figures from the recording industry suggest that Western artists have lost their grip on the charts.

Four of the top 10 best-sellers came from South Korea, with bands such as Stray Kids and Seventeen outselling stars including Drake and The Weeknd.

Although none of the bands have broken the UK Top 40, they are responsible for millions of streams globally, as K-Pop continues its phenomenal growth.

In the 12 years since Psy’s Gangnam Style became an international hit, K-pop has continually expanded its reach – making impressive inroads in America’s typically impenetrable music industry.

The charge was led by boyband phenomenon BTS, whose high-concept anthems (with references to Carl Jung and Herman Hesse) found them topping the charts worldwide, even before their swerve into English-language pop on hits like Butter and Dynamite.


In 2019, they became the first K-Pop band to headline Wembley Stadium. Within two years, they were performing at the Grammys and collaborating with Coldplay.

Their female counterparts, Blackpink, have achieved similar levels of success – last year headlining both the Coachella festival in California, and London’s BST Hyde Park.

Their success can be chalked up cutting-edge pop-rap concoctions like Whistle, Ddu-du Ddu-du and Shut Down, that latter of which memorably samples Paganini’s second violin concerto.

But neither band featured in last year’s best-seller list: BTS are on hiatus while its members complete South Korea’s compulsory military service; while Blackpink spent the latter half of 2023 renegotiating their contracts with YG Entertainment – the media conglomerate that put the band together in 2016.

Image caption,BTS exemplify the high production values and intricate choreography of modern K-Pop

Entertainment companies like YG and Big Hit, which represents BTS, are a big driver of K-Pop’s success, putting their acts through gruelling auditions and years of training before they’re revealed to the public.

“If you were on an Olympic team you would have to be trained and we see no difference,” Chris Lee, head of SM Entertainment told The Guardian in 2022.

“If they want to be the best in the world, it takes a lot of work. They get media training. They study languages so that they can communicate with many different audiences. We teach them how to have good personalities.”

Last year, Blackpink singer Rosé told James Corden how arduous the training process could be.

“We wake up at like 9 to get ready, then we go at 11am and we practice all through 2am – we all come home at 2am, even on weekends,” the 26-year-old said of the six-year process, during which the then-teenagers were separated from their families.

“We weren’t really looking back to our homes or anything. We were just like, let’s survive this.”

But the success of K-Pop is down to more than military-grade pop bootcamps.

Stylistic detours

Stray Kids, in particular, have won an ardent fanbase for their dark and experimental albums, which fuse elements of hip-hop, dubstep, heavy metal, electro-clash and jittery dance pop.

The eight piece – Felix, Changbin, Lee Know, Han, Seungmin, I.N, Bang Chan and Hyunjin – are unusual in that they write most of their own material. And they take pride in the fact that their songs often take major stylistic and temporal detours.

“The goal is to continuously pioneer new [musical] subjects and to have our music be recognized as a ‘Stray Kids’ genre,” Changbin told Time Magazine., as it named the band one of its “Next Generation Leaders” last year.

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The group scored two US number one albums in 2023, and ended the year as the third biggest-selling act on the planet, according to the IFPI, which represents the global music industry.

One place above them (and one below Swift) came the boyband Seventeen – which boasts a whopping 13 members, all of whom are also involved in the writing and production process.

When the group released their 11th EP, Seventeenth Heaven, last year it attracted 5.2 million pre-orders, making it the most pre-ordered K-pop album in history.

Other big sellers last year included Tomorrow X Together, a boyband put together by the team behind BTS; and NewJeans, a group of teenage girls, who fuse the old-skool R&B sounds of TLC with playful, hooky melodies.

Image caption,NewJeans are one of South Korea’s biggest new pop groups (L-R): Hyein, Hanni, Minji, Haerin and Danielle

Unusually in the streaming era, these bands all generate huge CD sales – partly because they bundle discs with exclusive and collectible posters, stickers and lyric cards.

Many albums also come in multiple formats, with a different cover (and sometimes exclusive bonus tracks) dedicated to each specific member. Diehard fans try to collect them all.

That’s not to suggest their success is purely down to marketing: NewJeans’ breakout single SuperShy made multiple “best of the year” lists at the end of 2023, including those compiled by Rolling Stone, NME and Billboard Magazine.

And with BTS and Blackpink both expected to return with new music in 2024, K-Pop’s global domination can only grow from here.

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