“K-Pop” and “Oklahoma” are two words you don’t really think of in the same breath. But one of the 56 artists competing on the Monday (March 21) night series premiere of NBC’s American Song Contest just might change that — AleXa, a K-Pop artist from Tulsa, Okla. Born to a South Korean mother and an American father, she first learned about K-Pop in 2008, through one of her best friends.
“The first group I ever saw was Super Junior – they’re a huge senior group in the K-Pop industry, but my gateway was SHINee,” AleXa tells Billboard. “I’ve been hooked ever since.” She moved to Korea in the first quarter of 2018 and competed on two reality shows, Rising Star and Produce 48. She signed with ZB, a label owned by South Korean video production company Zanybros. Her first single, “Bomb,” was released on Oct. 21, 2019. “It was right before the pandemic hit,” she says. Two more singles followed: “ReviveR” and “Tattoo.” After living in South Korea for four years, AleXa returned to the U.S. this year to compete in American Song Contest.
“My manager is Swedish, so when we received the invitation to audition, we thought, ‘Yes, this is iconic.’ It’s literally Eurovision, but now we’re spreading it to America. It was just a wonderful opportunity and I was so excited to take it.”
AleXa knew about Eurovision from watching videos online by past winners like ABBA and Måneskin, though she has never seen a full broadcast. She did watch the 2022 edition of Melodifestivalen, the Swedish heat to pick the country’s song for Eurovision, because Moa (Cazzi Opeia) Carlebecker, one of the writers of her ASC entry “Wonderland,” was competing as an artist and she facilitated AleXa’s entry into ASC. “It helped that I had worked with Cazzi. Then all of these wonderful creatives came together and the song was presented to us. I fell in love with it immediately and we knew we had to go with that song.”
Swedish hitmaker Andreas Carlsson (“I Want It That Way,” Backstreet Boys; “Waking Up in Vegas,” Katy Perry; “Bye Bye Bye,” *NSYNC) became involved with American Song Contest through his friends Peter Settman, Christer Bjorkman and Anders Lenhoff, who sold the idea of an American version of the Eurovision Song Contest to NBC. He has co-written seven of the 56 entries for season one, including “Wonderland.”
“Being close to both the Swedish and Korean K-Pop community, I found the song after listening to hundreds of submissions from my personal network,” Carlsson tells Billboard. “As AleXa could possibly be the first American K-Pop sensation, the song had to appeal to American audiences without alienating her Korean fans. There is a specific formula to K-Pop that must be considered when creating the song. I eventually ended up as a co-writer on the song as it had to be a bit more westernized. Then writer Bekuh Boom came into the mix with some brilliant topline ideas and everyone felt we had something special. Sometimes it takes a lot of chefs to serve up something extraordinary.”
Those chefs include songwriters Albin Nordqvist, Ellen Berg and Carlebecker. “We originally wrote ‘Wonderland’ for the Korean market, where we have been working regularly for years,” Nordqvist tells Billboard. “We weren’t aware of the existence of American Song Contest at that time. Andreas reached out because he was asked to find songs for the already established AleXa, who was known to us since Moa and Ellen had already written songs for her. Andreas helped us adapt the melodies, lyrics and arrangement for the U.S. market, together with American writer Bekuh Boom. Andreas and Bekuh are familiar with both the U.S. and Korean markets.”
Asked why Swedish songwriters have had so much success in K-Pop, Carlebacker and Berg told Billboard in a statement, “We believe it’s a mix of several reasons such as socio-economic factors like education being free in Sweden. Learning to play an instrument, singing in a choir, learning about music production and song writing, performing and playing in a band is encouraged from a very young age. Having the opportunity to truly focus on your art and creativity, without having to pay for an expensive education, makes it easier to dedicate your time and effort to pursue an international music career. The Swedish specialty for creating highly addictive rhymes and pop melodies (which are very important in K-Pop) might be a magic ingredient, on top of that we are meticulous, hard-working, have great work ethics and always strive to deliver songs of the highest quality possible.”
Since Carlebecker had just competed herself in Melodifestivalen, Billboard wanted to know what advice she would give to AleXa before her performance tonight in American Song Contest. “I would tell AleXa to have fun and enjoy every single moment of this crazy experience,” the writer who performs as Cazzi Opeia responded. “With a competition like this comes a lot of pressure and she will probably be nervous, but at the same time it will be so much fun. The whole thing is over extremely fast, so enjoy every step of the way and remember to take it all in. Don’t think about the show as a competition, just focus on your vocal performance and your dance routines, and you will be fine. The American Song Contest is a fantastic TV show and will be a memory for life.”
The only American songwriter on “Wonderland,” Bekuh Boom has written for Jordin Sparks, Blackpink and Jennifer Lopez. She toplined AleXa’s entry, meaning she wrote lyrics and melody, except for the bridge. Talking to Billboard about American Song Contest, she said, “I’m very excited to see people’s reaction to the show. I hope it shines more light on the songs and their meaning and I think we’re getting to a place where more people are caring about not just the song but the people and meaning behind it. I hope this shift will start to translate in the way songwriters specifically are treated and compensated in the future and it’s exciting to have artists and songwriters shining together. I’m very excited for AleXa and wish her all the best.”
As for AleXa, she let Billboard know what she would tell viewers about her American Song Contest performance. “Expect the unexpected. My song is a pop-infused urban track, paying homage to Latin beats but definitely bringing the K-Pop element to the sound and visuals. I hope that people feel the energy and the fun that I have onstage. I’m just really proud of representing Oklahoma and the K-Pop community.”
Finally, we had to ask AleXa the most important question of all: what happens when she’s in a room where people say her name out loud? “The funny thing about that is I personally have [an Amazon device] and my parents have one as well, so any time we’re doing a FaceTime call and I say my stage name or my folks say my stage name, Alexa says, ‘Sorry, I didn’t get that.’ And we just say, ‘Stop, we weren’t talking to you.'”