When Stray Kids won the Best K-Pop award at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards in September, the South Korean boy band didn’t seem to believe it. Group leader Bang Chan pointed to himself and mouthed, “Us?” before walking up on stage alongside his bandmates HAN, Changbin, Hyunjin, Seungmin, I.N, Lee Know, and Felix.
While most K-pop groups are carefully constructed and rigorously trained in private before their debut, Stray Kids, who range in age from 22 to 26, had a more unconventional start: on a Korean reality TV show, also called Stray Kids, in 2017. But it wasn’t a straight-ahead singing competition, as one might assume. Record label JYP Entertainment, the industry giant behind groups like 2PM and TWICE, had rounded up the aspiring musicians —including a former back-up dancer for BTS and an would-be Australian Korean idol who had been trying to make it in K-pop for several years— and subjected them to a series of televised challenges as part of idol training, before the group made their official debut in 2018.
The band’s grungier headbanging anthems, which incorporate rock, EDM, and even industrial leanings, were initially criticized for being too noisy and eclectic compared to their glossier K-pop contemporaries. Yet instead of shifting gears to pander to expectations for Korean boy groups, Stray Kids embraced their distinct sound.
“The goal is to continuously pioneer new [musical] subjects and to have our music be recognized as a ‘Stray Kids’ genre,” says Changbin.
Straying from expectations became a recipe for global success. The group’s March 2022 EP, Oddinary, topped the Billboard 200—making Stray Kids one of only three K-pop acts (including BTS and Super M) to lead the all-genre chart.
While JYP Entertainment’s alliance with Republic Records has played a large part in Stray Kids’ international success, the group also enjoys the support of its global fanbase, known as STAY. The differences the group once worried would render them stragglers in the K-pop industry have placed Stray Kids at its forefront.
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