Though multiple K-pop acts can sell out stateside concerts in 2018, back in 2008 when girl group Wonder Girls released “Nobody,” South Korea’s music scene was just starting to gain prominence in the country. Over the next year, the song would become a phenomenon that propelled the act’s international aspirations and eventually made history when an English version of it became the first K-pop song to appear on the Hot 100.
Released on Sept. 22, 2008, the retro-inspired pop single came out at a time when K-pop was only just starting to make an impact outside of Asia. A lot has changed over the past 10 years, and the single was an integral part of making K-pop what it is today: Wonder Girls became the first Korean act to appear on the Hot 100 with the English variant of “Nobody” when the song debuted at No. 76 on the chart dated Oct. 16, 2008. It would take three more years for Psy to become the next Korean artist to appear on it with “Gangnam Style” in 2012, and to this day only three other acts — CL, BTS, and BlackPink — have broken into the Hot 100, with a total of 11 songs.
As the first song to show that K-pop could truly compete on the Hot 100, Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” was created amid the perfect storm, when both the group and Korean music were on the ascent internationally. Their 2007 single “Tell Me” was one of the first viral K-pop hits, racking up millions of views from around the world on the then-burgeoning video streaming platform YouTube. It was followed by the success of their song “So Hot,” released earlier in 2008, and Wonder Girls were a household name throughout Asia by the time “Nobody” came out. Its infectious, sleekly produced disco- and clap-driven pop sound combined with easy-to-learn choreography primed it for virality — and for foreign exportation.
After becoming one of the biggest hits in South Korea in 2008, “Nobody” was recreated in English in 2009, Chinese in 2010 and Japanese in 2012. But it wasn’t just the song’s success on its own that led to it charting: K-pop as a genre had grown exponentially in the United States in 2008 and 2009, with YouTube’s growth helping more people than ever before interact with Korean music. That year saw hits from Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, 2NE1, BIGBANG and many others gain international prominence, and when Wonder Girls became the latest to release English-language music, it was received enthusiastically. “Nobody” ended up making history on the Hot 100 in October, coming shortly after BoA’s self-titled English album became the first album by a K-pop star to debut on the Billboard 200 in April. The dual chartings proved that K-pop’s appeal had viability to grab attention in the U.S, and Wonder Girls made a dedicated attempt to become the first K-pop group to truly break into the U.S scene.
Their dedicated attempt at making it in the stateside market took place over several years, and included them touring with the Jonas Brothers and working with the likes of Akon. Despite exerting much time and effort, the girl group’s career in the U.S. never really found its way and, between focusing on a lot of time in the States and lineup changes, Wonder Girls lost their pacing in Asia. As they rode the success of “Nobody,” acts like Girls’ Generation and 2NE1 rose to dominance in the K-pop scene despite how far beyond the crowd the Wonder Girls had once been.
“Nobody” was followed by a few singles that did well in South Korea, but it would take until the time the group rebranded as a four-member, band-oriented team in 2015 for them to reignite their career with the release of the songs “I Feel You” and “Why So Lonely,” which rejuvenated their sonic legacy ahead of the group’s disbandment last year. The Girls who had been on top throughout the late ‘00s became a cautionary tale, and no other K-pop act has ever since tried to do what they attempted; rather than bringing artists to live and tour extensively in the States, it’s now the norm for Korean artists to spend short periods of time there, holding concerts and doing some promotional appearances before heading back to Asia.
While it was a double-edged sword for the group on a professional level, “Nobody” undeniably impacted K-pop’s path in the decade since its release. It made the improbable seem possible, and rather than looming over the industry like a taunt, the Hot 100 singles chart became a goal. K-pop’s presence in the U.S. has increased exponentially, to the point that it’s no longer a question of who or how a Korean artist will be the next to appear on the Hot 100, but when.
The song also set a precedent for what it would take to move into the U.S, which was tailoring the viral-ready K-pop sound to the local market, much as Korean artists do to break into the Japanese and Chinese markets. That’s been the case for the past decade, resulting in several acts putting out English-language variants of their hits. Things are changing slowly now that the music charts in the States are becoming more open to other languages, and both BTS and BlackPink have showed it’s not necessary for K-pop groups to sing in English, but it’s still a common practice; popular girl group Red Velvet re-released their hit “Bad Boy” in English as a B-side earlier this year.
“You know I still love you baby, and it’ll never change,” says rapper Yubin at the start of “Nobody.” Though the Wonder Girls are no longer together and K-pop’s changed a lot over the past decade, their 2008 single’s impact is undeniable on the world of K-pop and how the U.S. interacts with international music.