In the past five years, South Korea has looked to its girl groups to be the ones to break into America’s pop scene. Barring PSY‘s unexpected breakthrough with “Gangnam Style” — which many fans still don’t deem a “K-pop” breakthrough — a Korean group still hasn’t penetrated the scene in a meaningful way, despite fan bases that rival (and at times proven to be stronger than) One Direction, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Will a K-pop girl group ever become a U.S. phenomenon?
Let’s examine the recent history. Things looked bright when Wonder Girls sent the English version of their massive Korean hit “Nobody” to No. 76 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2009, after snagging a touring slot with the Jonas Brothers, promoting on shows like So You Think You Can Dance and The Wendy Williams Show and starring in a movie on TeenNick. In 2011, Girls’ Generation signed a U.S. deal with Interscope Records and performed on a handful of American talk shows. Last year, SPICA hit the L.A. club scene to promote their brilliantly funky “I Did It.” Unlike “Gangnam Style,” these songs were delivered entirely in English; like “Gangnam Style,” most of them were bursting with hooks that would work at American pop radio.
None of these promotional opportunities made much of a lasting impact compared to those groups’ popularity in the East, and in retrospective, it’s not hard to figure out why — these groups felt a need to cater to the Western audience by changing what made people love them in the first place. Wonder Girls’ signature old-school sound oozed out of “Nobody,” but the group was turned into Auto-tuned robot queens for their follow-up English single, the Akon-assisted “Like Money.” Girls’ Generation was famous for huge pop hooks and bright concepts, but their English debut single “The Boys” was a dated-sounding, chant-heavy joint that saw the squeaky-clean ninesome singing about “getting it in.” Arguably, SPICA showcased their unique colors best, but their lack of success could have been chalked up to apparently little funds or too little time spent in America after a somewhat cheap-looking music video (for SPICA’s standards) and only one major TV performance.
But taking a deeper look at the unique case of 2NE1 — a four-member Korean girl group who by no means have “made it” in the U.S. but have a strong shot at doing so — gives hope to how a girl group could ultimately take over America.
Like their rivals, 2NE1 slowly but surely grew an international audience, and when it came time to visit America, the group went about it in a highly calculated way. Rather than hit the ground running with an English-language single, 2NE1 brought their Korean hits to U.S. grounds on their 2012 New Evolution Global Tour, taking time to giving in-depth interviews to an array of media outlets, including MTV, Pitchfork, The Wall Street Journal and Billboard. Each opportunity showcased CL, Minzy, Dara and Bom in their signature looks, talking about what made them unique instead of how they could ease into the U.S. landscape. Prime opportunities like a synch in a Microsoft commercial and a cameo in The Bachelor further put 2NE1 — and not an Americanized version of 2NE1, but the badass female quartet that wowed millions already — in reach for Western audiences.
Last March, 2NE1’s Crush album debuted at No. 61 on the Billboard 200, marking the highest-charting Korean album in America ever. The album moved 5,000 copies in the week ending March 2, 2014, according to Nielsen Music — not a huge number, but enough to mark the biggest first week sales for a K-pop album, and in only four days of sales instead of a full week (the album’s sales stand at 10,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen Music).
Meaningful interactions and opportunities to showcase what makes K-pop girl groups unique will be key in seeing an act like 2NE1 achieve any chart feats that don’t carry the “for a K-pop group” caveat. There’s a reason Girls’ Generation has topped Forbes Korea‘s annual “Power Celebrity” list for multiple years. Nine girls is a lot to take in, but the strongest groups shine when every member has something to offer and those unique abilities are all used to their full potential, which Girls’ Generation has figured out how to do with a lineup big enough to fill out a major league batting order.
The Spice Girls had five separate spices. TLC had “T,” “L” and “C.” Girl groups like Little Mix and Fifth Harmony are just now establishing their various group personalities to casual pop fans. K-pop can find U.S. success by presenting a cohesive unit with personalities that can be easily elucidated, and resonate in their already magnetic performances (witness “I Got a Boy,” “Volume Up,” or “Shampoo”).
If they really want it, it’s there for them, but there’s got to be a lot of work to prove that U.S. music fans should pay attention to a full group of K-pop females like 2NE1 or Girls’ Generation. Sometimes, it’s as simple as making the right single selection. If Girls’ Generation had hit America with a full-fledged, bright-and bubbly single (say, the effervescent “Beep Beep”) as their radio track over something like “The Boys,” would more U.S. listeners know who they are? It’s at least worth thinking about.