Defining K-pop’s version of “girl crush” presents a logistical challenge because it has such a dynamic meaning. The term could refer to a group’s overarching concept (think girl group powerhouse 2NE1), a more ephemeral song concept (like Girls’ Generation’s sassy kiss-off “You Think”) or even an individual girl group member (TWICE’s short-haired Jeongyeon). There isn’t really a specific sound to “girl crush” -- it functions more as a descriptor of both visuals and message, to varying degrees. (As with the Western counterpart of the term, the romantic implications of the word “crush” tend to be overlooked, veering into the “gal pals” variety of LGBTQ erasure.)
Still, a song will hardly qualify for the label if it sounds too cute and bubblegum. The concept goes harder as idols morph into badass, tomboyish and occasionally sexy women. But it often boils down to “you know it when you see it.”
There are the usual sartorial signifiers: sports jerseys, fishnets, menswear, Doc Martens and dark color schemes. Basically, anything that conveys the image of ferocity, stepping outside the expectations of hyperfemininity. But, ultimately, “girl crush” concepts amount to more abstract ideas of relatability, aspiration and female empowerment.
It’s hard to say when the exact concept of girl crush arrived in Korea, but precedents can be traced back to the 1990s, with pop singer Lee Sang-eun (also known as Lee Tzsche). “She’s really a tomboy,” says Dr. Suk-Young Kim, author of K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance and professor at University of California, Los Angeles. “I thought it was really curious because we’d never seen anything like that before. Teen pop stars in the ‘90s before [K-pop originators] Seo Taiji and Boys came along, they were all IU types — these soft-spoken girls with a pretty face. And she was so different.”
The concept became much more developed by second-generation acts (who debuted between the mid-2000s to early 2010s) -- particularly 2NE1, 4Minute, miss A, Brown Eyed Girls and f(x). Although all five groups have wildly different discographies, they each managed to package an aspirational version of womanhood that was both individualistic and fashion-forward.
2NE1’s 2011 hit “I Am the Best” is one of the most iconic girl crush concepts on many levels. It’s a boastful banger directed at women with attitude to spare. The abrasive styling choices -- baseball bats! studded leather jackets! gravity-defying haircuts! -- are emblematic of 2NE1’s cartoonish fashion, which often bucked the male gaze. The quartet even acknowledges their appeal to female fans in the lyrics as Bom sings, “Girls are following me.”
Fast-forward to 2018, and there was no shortage of girl crushes in K-pop. The concept always makes an appearance in a handful of songs every year -- but this year saw over 20 acts transform into fierce divas. (G)I-DLE have been, well, crushing it as the latest monster rookies with their hard-hitting debut “LATATA.” Mamamoo, CLC and Girls’ Generation subunit Oh!GG returned to the concept. More versatile groups like gugudan, Pristin V and Red Velvet tried it on for the first time.