Almost every SM Entertainment idol group faces criticism at debut of being unsuccessful or even “flops”.
In contrast, idol groups from YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment seem to be successful as soon as they debut, as shown by the astonishing debuts of WINNER, BLACKPINK and ITZY.
But that’s because SM idol groups take a while before they establish their identity and their longevity. For all SM groups, this typically requires that “breakout” song that launches them into the public eye, solidifies their fanbase and spurs interest in them.
While every SM group has had a critically acclaimed debut, it is this “breakout” song that truly initiates their unstoppable momentum towards success.
One popular song has the potential to turn listeners into loyal fans and can give a boost to a group like no other.
This is one of the reasons why every single SM group is successful, acclaimed and unique.
1. TVXQ – Hug (2004)
While most current fans will tend to associated TVXQ with “Mirotic”, their debut single “Hug” is credited with launching the original five-membered group into mainstream recognition. When it was first released, the song did not score highly on the charts, but sales increasingly picked up for the next few months until it became one of the best selling songs in 2004.
When TVXQ debuted, many of the most successful idol groups of the first generation, including SM’s first idol groups S.E.S. and H.O.T. had disbanded. The success of “Hug” was a sign that idol groups could capture public attention and album sales, as they dominate today.
“Hug” showcases the stunning harmonisation and complementary vocal tones that TVXQ would become famous for. Furthermore, it helped bring public recognition of the group that would help establish their fanbase.
2. Super Junior – Sorry Sorry (2009)
Although Heechul has said that performing this song makes him never want to apologise again, “Sorry Sorry” is Super Junior’s most digitally successful song and is considered a staple of K-Pop history.
This catchy earworm topped the music charts in South Korea for a whopping 36 consecutive weeks.
Furthermore, the song topped charts across Asia which helped solidify the Hallyu wave across Southeast Asia. “Sorry Sorry” helped expand Super Junior’s international fanbase and provided a gateway for those outside of Korea to engage with K-Pop.
3. Girls’ Generation – Gee (2009)
“Gee” is the quintessential K-Pop breakout song and its cultural significance across Asian diaspora still continues to this day. One of the first songs to go viral on YouTube, “Gee” helped to highlight the significance of the Internet and social media to K-Pop’s international success.
The saccharine and sweet image that the girls portrayed in “Gee” would only be the start of a diverse and successful discography.
For the group, this launched SNSD to international stardom as well as becoming the “nation’s girl group”. While Taeyeon may not be fond of this song, it won a Daesang for 2009 and topped the charts in Japan, foreshadowing the group’s continued success across Asia.
4. SHINee – Ring Ding Dong (2009)
If you’ve heard this song once, you’ll never get “Ring Ding Dong” or Jonghyun’s “Baby” out of your head.
The embodiment of an addicting song, this viral hit consolidated SHINee’s public popularity and marked an introduction to their experimental sound. The video also showcased SHINee’s flawless dancing and powerful vocals which garnered the group further attention.
This song topped charts across South Korea and Asia, further kicking off K-Pop’s international outreach.
5. f(x) – Electric Shock (2012)
f(x) were debuted as the experimental alternative to SNSD’s more mainstream sound. While f(x) showcased their quirky sound in their first few years, it was with “Electric Shock” where they cemented their niche, with a song that unusually compared the sensation of love to an electric shock.
This fusion of electro house and blaring synths establishes a fantastically unique sound that sets f(x) apart. The song was a domestic and international success and led f(x) to become the 3rd girl group to reach 100 million views on YouTube.
Furthermore, the accompanying EP was recognised for its cohesion and standout songs which would pave the way for the group to follow up on this with the “Holy Trinity” of albums – Pink Tape, Red Light and 4 Walls.
6. EXO – Growl (2013)
It might be impossible to believe now, but when EXO debuted in 2012, they were nicknamed “SM’s first flops” due to the perceived lack of public recognition. But the next year, EXO made a comeback with “Growl” which is the quintessential “breakout” song.
Named the “Song of the Year” at the 2013 Melon Music Awards, this song contributed to the album XOXO becoming to first to sell over one million copies since the early 2000s. Hence, Growl has been credited for singlehandedly revitalising physical album sales to levels thought impossible.
For the group, Growl consolidated EXO’s fanbase EXO-L’s and garnered public attention for the EXO’s soulful vocals and synchronised dancing.
7. Red Velvet – Red Flavor (2017)
Red Velvet aren’t known as the “Queens of Summer” for nothing! Red Velvet has been steady with its popularity growth for its first few years but it was with “Red Flavor” where this momentum was solidified as the group cemented itself as one of the most popular girl groups in South Korea.
“Red Flavor” had more than 2.5 million downloads, the highest of Red Velvet’s songs and has been described as a “summer anthem”. “Red Flavor” also highlighted the group’s beautiful harmonies and expanded on their “Red” concept.
The song also set the stage for Red Velvet’s first solo concert and for their critically acclaimed and successful album The Perfect Red Velvet which underscored their “Velvet” concept.
8. NCT U – Boss (2018)
NCT released “Boss” as the first song of their ambitious NCT 2018 project. The video serves as a great introduction to the experimental sound, stunning visuals and jaw-dropping choreography that distinguishes NCT.
Thanks to the momentum initiated by this song, the NCT 2018 project has turned out to be a success, turning casual listeners of NCT into full-on stans, impressed with the NCT’s talent and discography.
The international popularity of this song has helped set the stage for NCT to further its “global” concept with appearances and concerts across North America.