Written by Lara Cartujano
Today in history 20 years ago, a 13-year old named BoA Kwon made her debut and would change the game of the Korean music industry forever.
20 years. Let that sink in. A first-generation idol who has stood the test of time – crossing borders with her artistry, selling millions of records, paving the way and inspiring the future generation of idols – BoA Kwon has seen the Korean Wave evolve through the years, of which she is a vital component of, and she is still here.
For the Queen of K-Pop’s 20th anniversary, I found it hard to find an angle to write about because there is just so much that BoA has done in the past two decades. Then I was reminded of some tweets by younger K-Pop fans talking about what legacy has BoA left behind for K-Pop, understanding that BoA’s career is actually older than them. So I wrote this piece which showcases the 20 legendary things that BoA has accomplished in the past 20 years as a means to introduce BoA to the next generation of K-Pop fans, and also as a trip down memory lane for my fellow K-Pop fans who have been here before the genre became a global cultural force.
Here are the 20 legendary things that BoA did while you were probably babies:
1. Queen of SM Entertainment: BoA made her debut on 25 August 2000 when she was 13 years old
“If BoA wasn’t here, there would be no SM. Also I wouldn’t be a producer. Like a father and producer, it is like a dream to have met your daughter. Once, I sent BoA to New York for a vacation, and during that time she actually took singing and dancing lessons. The SM family only works harder because of how hard BoA works. I want to thank BoA who said she wanted to debut in the U.S. with me without any conditions.” –Lee Soo-man in 2008 at the Best of Asia, Bring on America Press Conference
As the story has been told countless times, BoA was recruited by SM Entertainment at 11 years old. Her debut album “ID; Peace B” was released on August 25, 2000 and went on to sell over 100,000 copies in Korea. Her live debut performance was on SBS Inkigayo.
SM Entertainment invested three billion won for her debut. With her subsequent success, she kept SM Entertainment afloat.
2. History Made: BoA’s successful Japan debut and the changing image of Korean Popular Music
Japan is the largest music market in Asia and the second largest in the world. In 2001 at just 14 years old, BoA made her debut in Japan on May 30, 2001. In 2002, she released her debut album, LISTEN TO MY HEART, which topped the Oricon Chart, making her the first Korean artist to do so. The album would go on to be a certified million-seller by the Recording Industry Association of Japan.
Here’s why it’s a big deal:
We have to make it clear that there were already Korean artists performing in Japan since the 1980s but it was limited to the enka genre. BoA is the first to have a mainstream breakthrough against the backdrop of icy Japan-Korea postwar relations which is why her feat was celebrated back in Korea.
In addition, according to a study by Hyunjoong (2009), “there is little doubt that that ‘K-Pop’ was invented by the Japanese music industry and was propagated by the Japanese media in its initial stages.” Prior to 2002, he says that Japan used to categorize Korean popular music as “world music,” “Asian Pop,” or even kankokukayo (韓國歌謠/Korean songs) in Japan during the 1980s-1990s and back home in Korea, “kayo” was the term used to refer to Korean popular songs.
Hyunjoong (2009) added that it was in 2002 onwards when the term K-Pop started to display an image “that is more friendly, more joyful, more compact, lighter and brighter.” BoA, who had her breakthrough in 2002, was instrumental in the evolving meanings and images attached to K-Pop.
3. Cultural Diplomacy: The 2002 FIFA World Cup, South Korea-Japan Summit, and APEC Summit
I’m still in 2002 because it was such a significant year for Japan-Korea relations. and BoA was at the right place at the right time. In 2002, Korea and Japan co-hosted the FIFA World Cup which warmed up the relations between the two countries and fostered cultural exchanges. During that time, BoA performed at the 2002 World Cup National Festival.
In June 2003, BoA was invited for the South Korea-Japan Summit Dinner Party held at Japan Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s residence in Tokyo as a “cultural envoy” who brings “Korea and Japan’s cultural ties together through her music.” Here she is sandwiched between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese PM Koizumi.
In 2005, BoA was also invited to perform in front of heads of states during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit.
4. Asia’s Star: BoA pioneers the Korean Wave in Japan and the Japanese Wave in Korea
While it is true that BoA’s songs released in Japan are in Japanese, for us fans who have been watching her TV guesting and performances, and also based on the study by Kwak (2010), the Japanese media has always been “presented BoA in terms of her nationality and the relationship between Korea and Japan. From the beginning, she was introduced as a singer from Korea, and whenever she appeared in a talk show, she was a source of information about Korea and Korean culture. In addition, presenting herself as a Korean girl who likes Japan, she could be understood as a symbol of reconciliation between the two countries.”
Kwak (2010) asserts further that “while she can be regarded as the start of the Korean Wave in Japan, she is at the same, time the start of the Japanese Wave in Korea. Her success drew the attention of Korean media and audiences to the Japanese pop music industry and reduced people’s emotional distance to Japanese popular culture.” BoA’s Japanese label, AVEX, was also able to release records in South Korea which once had a ban for records with “Japanese vocals.”
This is BoA’s first guesting on the Japanese program HEY! HEY! HEY! where they talked about her being a Korean girl who likes Japanese culture, especially Japanese food:
5. How BoA’s activities influenced change in the Korean music industry
Her activities and success in Japan have influenced the evolution of the Korean music industry. Today, seeing K-Pop idols release songs sung in the target country’s language seem to be the norm but in the early 2000s, only BoA was doing it massively across Asia (she has also released her songs in Mandarin), leading to some studies refer to her as the first pan-Asian pop idol. Following these promotions, A-listers in Korea have tried making a debut in Japan, as well, with Japanese songs. Kwak (2010) also said that “BoA’s success encouraged many would-be musicians to first make a debut in Japan and take advantage of the career later when they debut in Korea” with Younha as a case in point. Add to this was the rising Korean media attraction to trends and news in Japan (Kwak, 2010), and also the flow of Korean people flying to Japan to attend her concerts.
For live performances, in her Win Win (2012) guesting, BoA shared that idols back in the day can lip-sync so they can literally “fly on stage” if they want to. Coming from that set-up, BoA was challenged in Japan because she had to perform live while dancing to intense choreography. For her first Japan live tour, she went overseas to train under a coach who made her run in the studio while singing as part of the training. When she returned to South Korea, BoA came back as a more powerful live performer, her brand of performing has been emulated by the next generation of idols. She also claimed that she is the first SM artist to have a live band during concerts, a practice she has also brought from her Japan activities.
This is one of her most memorable live performances in Korea. In 2005 at the M.Net Korean Music Festival (the predecessor of the M.Net Asian Music Awards), she performed her iconic hit Girls On Top while not feeling well and fainted after performing, but was able to return just in time to receive her Best Female Artist award.
6. Setting the Standard: The Korean Cultural Production Model and Molding Asia’s Star
After adopting America’s pluralist model and Japan’s cultural production, co-production, concept trade, localizations strategies, and the idol system, the Korean cultural production practice evolved into “constructing an appearance and feeling of Asianness into the cultural content to present an Asian face in the image of the product,” wherein language use and cultural proximity become essential factors “to present regional consumers with a sense of familiarity and pleasure” (Siriyuvasak, 2010). Thus, Hallyu singers become the product of content collaboration between two or more cultural corporations across the region. BoA is said to be a great example of this as she has reached “Asian Star” status due to her singing using second or third languages (Siriyuvasak, 2010).
It has already been published several times that SM Entertainment’s strategy in creating all these trans-Asian and eventually global connections and molding of their idols into international stars, particularly BoA, has become the standard in K-Pop and has been emulated by other labels.
7. The Korean Government recognizes her as a Hallyu Icon
Aside from being a cultural diplomacy icon, BoA has received awards from the Korean government for her efforts as a Hallyu Icon. Some of these are:
- The Annual Hallyu Award in 2007 from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism
- Young Contemporary Artist Award in 2007 from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism
- The President’s Award for Korean Popular Culture and Arts in 2016
Early in 2020, the Korean Government also started a Thank You Campaign for their frontliners on Instagram. The first person the Korean Government tagged to do the campaign was, ya know it, @boakwon.
8. MTV Asia Awards 2004: Most Influential Asian Artist and Favorite Korean Artist
I want to talk about this specific event in music history because BoA’s appearance here was high key iconic as she represented both South Korea and Japan. She won the Favorite Artist – Korea award here and performed “Rock With You” with her rock band labelmate The TRAX. After her performance, she was taken by surprise when Vanness Wu presented her the Most Influential Asian Artist Award notably “for crossing borders with her music.”
For me, this is her most iconic performance as a Hallyu icon as she was code-switching in Korean and Japanese through it all, while she delivered her Thank You speech in English.
Check out the iconic performance and surprise award below. I think this is the only video left in YouTube so I just want to make it clear that this event was held in Singapore, not China.
9. BoA is Korea’s OG Global Star
SM Entertainment has always promoted BoA as a “world/international/global star” from the start, highlighting her fluency in Korean, Japanese, and English. With that said, she has been rubbing elbows and collaborating with global superstars even at an early age. Some of which include:
Flying Without Wings collaboration with Westlife:
BoA interviewing Ricky Martin in English:
Meeting Britney Spears during the BoA & Britney Special Showcase in Seoul in 2003:
BoA at Cannes Film Festival in 2006
10. K-Pop Ambassador: International media attention before social media
Before social media, BoA’s superstardom in Asia has attracted the attention of international media, some of which were:
2002: BoA graced the cover of France’s Le Monde as an icon of cultural exchange between Japan and South Korea.
2006: CNN Talk Asia:
Watch her English interview here in 2002 where she was introduced as an international singing star. Her English has greatly improved over the years.
11. Korea’s best-selling female solo artist
In 2005, BoA was awarded by the World Music Awards as Korea’s best-selling artist. At present, BoA remains as Korea’s best-selling female solo artist with more than 10 million albums sold, and several awards in South Korea and overseas to show for it.
12. The youngest Daesang winner in K-Pop history
After her successful promotions in Japan, BoA returned to Korea with her sophomore album “NO.1” (2002). It would go on to be an iconic and massive hit, earning her, her first Daesang/Grand Prize Award, at the age of 16 years old.
She would go on to win the coveted Daesang again in 2004 for another iconic record of hers, “My Name.”
In recent years, BoA won the Daesang in 2015 for her first self-produced Korean album, “Kiss My Lips” at the Seoul Music Awards. Kiss My Lips is not her first time to self-produce a record, though. To date, she has more than 80 songs written, composed, and produced (in both Japanese and Korean). She started writing and composing her own songs since age 15.
13. Tickets for her Korean Concerts were sold out in seconds; 15th-anniversary concert at the Sejong Center
Despite being in the business for so long, BoA only held her first solo concert in Korea on her 13th year with BoA Special Live 2013 – Here I Am. This concert was only a night-only concert but tickets sold out so fast another day was added.
Tickets for her 15th anniversary concert, 2015 Special Live: NOWNESS, were also sold out in less than a minute. Let us also not forget that her 15th Anniversary concert was held at the The Sejong Center, a venue that is known for being picky with their rental process. It is a venue so symbolic that houses only national artists. BoA is the first female pop star to perform in this venue.
14. BoA’s Guerilla Concert was the biggest Guerilla Concert held by a female artist
BoA’s Guerilla Concert in 2002 attracted more than 12,000 people, making it the biggest one that was held by a female artist.
15. Her records in Japan are still undefeated
BoA is only one of three female artists to have seven consecutive albums (six studio albums, one best-of album) since debut to top Japan’s Oricon Chart. She shares this record with two of Japan’s biggest female pop royalties: Ayumi Hamasaki and Utada Hikaru – now that’s a #QueensOnly Thing. This also makes her the foreign act with the longest streak of number one albums in Japan.
Until now, she is the best-selling female Korean artist in Japan and holds the record for having the best-selling album by a Korean artist with VALENTI selling 1,249,197 copies in Japan alone.
Three of her albums are also in the Top 5 Highest Overall First Week Sales by a Korean
musician in Japan with VALENTI (2003) occupying the top spot with 615,218 copies sold. In third place is BEST OF SOUL (2005) selling 489,067, and fifth place goes to LOVE & HONESTY (2004) with 296,781 copies sold.
For performing six years in a row (2002-2007), BoA remains as the longest-running foreign act who performed at the prestigious NHK Red and White Song (Kouhaku Uta Gassen).
Released in 2004, her Christmas single in Japan, “Meri Kuri,” is a timeless classic that always appears back in the charts during Christmas season.
16. The first Korean artist to enter the US Billboard 200
In 2009, BoA released her debut album, BoA, in the United States of America. It ranked 127 in the US Billboard 200, making her the first Korean artist to enter the chart. While younger K-Pop groups now can easily top the Billboard 200, at that time wherein social media was at its infancy, entering the chart at the time was still considered a significant achievement for the Korean music industry.
BoA came back in the U.S. to perform at her dream venue, Madison Square Garden, as part of SMTOWN.
17. BoA’s IDENTITY album hit number one in the Philippines
Of course I just had to add something about the Philippines. In 2010, Universal Records released BoA’s 7th Japan studio album IDENTITY in the Philippines. I know this because we were part of that launch. We held a launch party at Music One, Greenbelt 3 back then and by the end of the day, BoA’s album hit number one on Music One’s sales chart. Good times.
18. The OG Girl Crush: Her music inspired an entire generation of idols
The ladies of Girls’ Generation (especially Tiffany), Red Velvet’s Irene, f(x)’s Luna, Ailee, SHINee’s Key, SISTAR’s Hyorin, are just some of the many artists who have cited BoA as their inspiration and role model.
Fun fact: For TVXQ! Changmin, it was his mom who’s a BoA fan. When he was scouted by SM’s agents and told his mom about it, his mom replied, “Do I get to meet BoA?”
19. She acts, too!
BoA has also tried her hand in acting, appearing in dramas and films, most notably her first Hollywood film, Make Your Move, which she starred in with Dancing with the Stars’ Derek Hough.
Back in Korea in 2013, she was the lead actress in the KBS Drama Waiting for Love which earned her the Excellence Award Actress in a One-act Drama/Special from KBS Awards and also the Best New Actress award from the Korea Drama Awards.
20. Producer, Coach, Creative Director of SM
As a veteran artist in the industry, it’s BoA’s turn now to discover younger generation of idols. She appeared as a judge on the reality competition show K-Pop Star (2011–2013), as a host and representative nation’s producer for the second season of Produce 101 (2017), and as a coach for the third season of The Voice of Korea (2020) wherein the season’s winner was her mentee.
In her home turf at SM Entertainment, she has been appointed as a Creative Director since 2014 who is in charge of the mental care of their (younger) artists.
I can go on and on about how amazing BoA is but I hope that covers some of her most notable contributions to the Korean music industry and the Korean Wave. At present, SM Entertainment is paying tribute to her with the Our Beloved BoA project on SM STATION. Please give it a go, it’s on YouTube and Spotify, and discover for yourselves why BoA is still our number one.
Kwak, Sunyoung. “Between the Korean Wave and the Japanese Wave – BoA and the East Asian Culture Flow – ”. Matters of Communication, Singapore, 2010. International Communication Association, 2015. Print.
Shin, Hyunjoong. “Reconsidering Transnational Cultural Flows of Popular Music in East Asia:
Transbordering Musicians in Japan and Korea Searching for ‘Asia’”. Korean Studies, Volume 33, 2009. Print.
Siriyuvasak, Ubonrat. “The Culture Industry and Asianization: The new ‘imagined’ inter-Asia economy.” Pop Culture Formations across East Asia. Edited by Doobo Shim, Ariel Heryanto, Ubonrat Siriyuvasak. Seoul: Jimoondang, 2010. Print.
About the Writer: Lara Danielle Cartujano specializes on Northeast Asia Studies and is one of the founders of BoA Philippines. She grew up with BoA’s music and has been lucky enough to have watched the Queen of K-Pop in concert four times (including a front row seat) in this lifetime.