By Alexis Hodoyan-Gastelum
On any given day, fans of K-pop groups rally on Twitter to get their faves noticed. Whether that’s trending hashtags to get them onto social media charts or to win actual awards, you can’t escape their passionate presence on your timeline. And though social media has always been an integral part of K-pop fandom, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that K-pop stan Twitter became a force to be reckoned with. K-pop groups regularly dominate Billboard’s social chart, and now even brands stan Loona. But in order to get to that place in the digital space, a lot of ground had to be broken, and it can be traced back to exactly 10 years ago.
In terms of Hallyu (Korean pop culture) history, 2009 was an iconic year. Some would even argue it was a more impactful era in terms of K-pop reaching audiences outside of Korea than 2012’s “Gangnam Style.” According to an unpublished survey collected by Korea Creative Content Agency USA in 2014, the majority of K-pop fans in the States (39.5 percent) started consuming K-pop earlier than 2009, as opposed to 26.8 percent between 2012 and 2013. PSY might have turned himself into a viral phenomenon, but 2009 was a launch pad for a lot of what K-pop is today.
2009 is distinguished by K-pop classics like Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” and Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra,” as well as the debuts of staple groups like 2NE1 and f(x). The Wonder Girls became the first Korean act to break onto Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart with an English-language version of their 2008 hit “Nobody," released just a day before they joined the Jonas Brothers on tour in the U.S. Similarly, Hallyu legend BoA’s self-titled U.S. release appeared on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
The Wonder Girls attend the Teen Choice Awards in 2009
The year also marked a pivotal time in the internet age, which helped the globalization of Korean music. By 2009, YouTube and social media platforms had already started making K-pop content like music videos and choreography videos more accessible to consumers. This accelerated the spread of information — and dance crazes — to the world. One of the first male acts to set off a dance craze on social media was veteran K-pop group Super Junior with their 2009 mega hit “Sorry, Sorry.”
Released first as a digital single and soon followed by an album of the same name and the music video on March 12, "Sorry, Sorry" not only catapulted Super Junior to Hallyu stardom, but it revolutionized K-pop itself.
Right from the start, the song says what it’s all about: dance. Packed with a repetitive chorus, chant-like hooks, and auto-tuned vocals, “Sorry, Sorry” utilized the pop formula of the day to perfection and delivered an earworm. The album debuted at No. 1 on one of South Korea’s most important music charts, and the song topped the charts too. It also reached No. 1 in other countries like Taiwan and Thailand, and it landed in the Top 10 in the Philippines. In Taiwan, “Sorry, Sorry” spent 36 consecutive weeks at No. 1. For a lot of older K-pop fans, "Sorry, Sorry" was an entry point, thanks to the countless flash mobs — a very 2009 trend — and dance covers uploaded online from Malaysia to Indonesia to even a prison in the Philippines.
Sorry, Sorry signaled Super Junior’s coming of age, not only sound-wise, but conceptually. Their sleeker, more sophisticated neutral color palette showed a more mature side to the SM Entertainment group, who made their debut in 2005. They shifted away from the visual kei-inspired concept of previous songs like “Don’t Don” and “U” — a major trend at the time — and instead embraced an aesthetic that would inspire the next decade of K-pop. The focus on the choreography highlighted Super Junior’s strengths in numbers, which helped popularize the idea of larger-sized male groups (think ZE:A, SEVENTEEN, and The Boyz). Not to mention, the virality of a point dance had been something representative of girl groups at the time, but after “Sorry, Sorry,” male groups like SHINee (“Ring Ding Dong”) and 2PM (“Again and Again”) followed suit.
And Super Junior were pioneers in other ways as well. They were the first K-pop group to feature a Chinese national in its ranks, and though he constantly ran into setbacks for being a foreigner and eventually left the group, Hankyung (who now goes by his Chinese name Han Geng) opened doors for all non-Koreans in the idol industry today.
Super Junior attend the 20th Golden Melody Awards in Taipei in June 2009
Following the steps of their labelmate BoA, who single-handedly opened a path for K-pop in Japan, Super Junior spearheaded K-pop in the Chinese market. They dedicated a specific sub-unit, Super Junior-M, to actively promote in China and sing in Mandarin, adding Zhou Mi and Henry (both ethnically Chinese) to their ranks. Thanks to hits like “Sorry, Sorry” and follow ups like “Bonamana” and “Mr. Simple,” Super Junior dominated the Asian market and even made strides of their own in the West. The group was the first Korean act to win a Teen Choice Award in 2015 for Choice International Artist, and their fans, known as ELF, also won the fandom award. But perhaps more importantly, just last year on their 13th year as a group, Super Junior once again proved they are trailblazers in the global music industry by collaborating with Latinx artists Leslie Grace and Play-N-Skillz on the English-Spanish-Korean banger “Lo Siento” — and with Reik on “Otra Vez” — becoming the first Korean act to enter Latin Billboard charts twice.
Due to mandatory military enlistments, departures, and other issues, Super Junior’s lineup has been changing for the better part of a decade. The act’s current active members are Leeteuk (real name Park Jeong-su), Kim Heechul, Yesung (Kim Jong-woon), Shindong (Shin Dong-hee), Eunhyuk (Lee Hyuk-jae), Lee Donghae, Choi Siwon, and Kim Ryeowook. Once Cho Kyuhyun wraps up his service in May, Super Junior will have a fixed lineup active for the first time in 10 years.
Nowadays, "Sorry, Sorry" is almost like a rite of passage for newer groups, with everyone from EXO to SEVENTEEN to NCT, and even BTS, GFRIEND, and TWICE — together with Leeteuk, who's become a favorite on Korean variety shows — covering it. The song is also a frequent pick on competition shows like Produce 101, where all but two members of the winning “Sorry, Sorry” team ended up debuting in the popular temporary group Wanna One.
To celebrate 10 years of Sorry, Sorry and its lasting impact on K-pop today, let’s take a look at some of the standout tracks that made that album so iconic.
The song that started it all. Whether it’s the catchy melody, the ddan-ddan-ddans, or the continued use of "shawty" and "sorry," good luck getting "Sorry, Sorry" out of your head. And when you pair it with an equally memorable “point dance” of rubbing your hands in an apologetic manner, it’s no surprise that every K-pop stan on YouTube — and in the idol industry — has this song and its choreography on lock.
Produced by SM Entertainment’s in-house producer Yoo Young-jin (Red Velvet’s “Bad Boy,” NCT U’s “Boss”), Super Junior changed up their sound for this single. After exploring alternative rock, they went for an R&B and funk-infused dance track, a trait that would come to characterize the group for years.
Following up “Sorry, Sorry” with something just as good must’ve been difficult or even impossible to fathom, but Super Junior pulled through. Two months after “Sorry, Sorry,” the group dropped the album’s second single “It’s You.” Written and produced by E-Tribe (Girls’ Generation’s “Gee,” Loona’s “love4eva”), “It’s You” is a more mellow approach for a dance and contemporary R&B song than “Sorry, Sorry.” It features a clapping beat, a haunting repetition of the phrase “it’s you” in Korean, and a balanced harmony of the members’ voices. The track also marked an important era in Super Junior history, since it was the last single to feature all 13 members of the core group in a music video (Hankyung left the group by the end of the year and Kibum went on a permanent hiatus). Upon release, “It’s You” reached No. 1 on South Korea’s then most popular social media platform, Cyworld.
"It’s You" has been revamped recently and the group — whose members are all well into their 30s — now perform it at their concerts with new lace blindfolds, which they take off mid-chorus and use as a prop. And though it still sounds distinctly 2009, the song has aged beautifully.
"Why I Like You"
There’s always that one song on an album that fans wish was a promotional single but unfortunately isn’t. On Sorry, Sorry said track is “Why I Like You.” Though performed as a b-side together with “Sorry, Sorry” on music shows, it deserved way more attention. Super Junior are the kings of, among many things, the dance-ballad, and “Why I Like You” is their crown jewel within that genre.
Before EDM took over, laser synths on a pop-R&B hybrid were everything in K-pop. And “Monster,” with its dark, Timbaland-like moody production, perfectly encapsulated the sound of an era. It’s a major throwback sonically, but “Monster” is undoubtedly an underrated deep cut.
"Heartquake (feat. TVXQ!’s U-know Yunho & Micky Yoochun)"
One of the group’s many sub-units is Super Junior-K.R.Y., which stands for Kyuhyun, Ryeowook, and Yesung, who are the group’s main vocalists. On Sorry, Sorry, the trio were given their own song that featured their SM labelmates U-know Yunho and Micky Yoochun, then both part of TVXQ! "Heartquake" is a mid-tempo heartbreak ballad with a hip-hop influence thanks to U-know Yunho and Micky Yoochun self-written rap verses.