A similarly daunting task stares down at us in this week’s installment of How to Collect Korean Pop Music: the girl groups. To our advantage, this means something far more up Rainy’s alley, which means we don’t have to rack our heads thinking of acts worth putting here. (Let this be an apology to the people who told us we missed out on a critical boy group, TVXQ, who are arguably the K-pop scene’s first boy group to amass the following we’d later see with Super Junior and Exo. Yes, we know, we know.)
Our disclaimer from last week’s installment on boy groups somewhat stands: genres are also a somewhat fluid thing when it comes to girl groups. But not as much, though. Save for Cherry Filter, an all-girl rock group that have been active since 1997, most girl groups focus on R&B or electro sounds. The most obvious differences here lie in the looks and concepts of the groups: some go futuristic, some go aegyo (what you’d call “cute”; what the Japanese’d call “kawaii”) and some go varying degrees of sexy and sultry. Fans will have different preferences; there’s a wide range on offer. Just remember, it’s not all cutesy.
We begin with 2NE1 for obvious reasons: their rapper, CL, just released a solo debut this weekend. Oh, and there’s the whole Sandara Park thing, too. It says something about the popularity of K-pop in the Philippines that people have not squared in on 2NE1 alone, solely because Dara is part of the group. But let us say this: she’s lucky to have gotten a break with the group. South Korean labels tend to train their talents at an early age; Dara, of course, got her start as an actress in her teens, after winning the ABS-CBN talent search Star Circle Quest in part because we were so into Asians at the time. Dara caught the eye of YG Entertainment when she was 20 – not usual practice in the scene – and signed a contract with the group three years later.
But we digress. It’s easy to call 2NE1 the female equivalent to their label mates Big Bang (and we did a couple of weeks ago, sort of) but while the group’s sound and image veers towards the edgy, they have played up their fiercely independent feel throughout their career. (A trawl through their other members – CL, Bom, Minzy – suggests a pretty strong caliber of talent that can stand up on its own.) After the success of their 2009 debut single “I Don’t Care”, the girls have pushed their concept with their follow-up singles – the defiant “I Am The Best”, the dubstep flavored “Come Back Home” – with that reliable template of in-your-face (to an extent) production and strong personalities.
Brown Eyed Girls is one of the scene’s veterans, having debuted in 2006 as an R&B group. But their third album, 2009’s Sound G, saw a shift towards a more aggressive sound, and a more provocative image – just look at the music video for “Abracadabra”, which is arguably the progenitor to Psy’s wildly successful “Gentleman”. (Yes, Gain is the girl in the latter music video.) It was a huge success, and firmly planted BEG as one of the leading girl groups of the scene. And, well, it paved the way for really provocative choreography. See, say, Stellar’s “Vibrato”. But with BEG now just releasing that not-subtle-at-all “Warm Hole”, well…
Of course there are a lot of other veterans still making waves in the K-pop scene. You most likely know the Wonder Girls from “Nobody”, one of the first K-pop songs to break through in the Philippines; they’ve just made a highly anticipated (and completely 80s-influenced) comeback, albeit as a four-piece. While not as popular, Secret have made the most of their shifting sound, culminating in their release last year of mini album Secret Summer. But one group – one now inactive – paved the way for all of them: S.E.S.
S.E.S. was founded in 1997 and is arguably the first popular Korean girl group. The success of their first album, I’m Your Girl, and particularly the promotion around it, set the template for how girl groups plied their trade: the three members’ individual personalities and talents were emphasized, and the focus on a concept – the cutesy, TLC-lite “I’m Your Girl” was followed by the spacey “Dreams Come True”. The shift towards a more mature image, though, on their 1999 release Love propelled them to the top.
Despite splitting up in 2002, S.E.S. inspired the creation of many other girl groups. Fin.K.L, founded in 1998, was also highly popular during the time, before falling out of the radar in 2002. (The group has not officially disbanded, but its members have their own solo careers now.) Baby Vox’s 1999 single “Get Up” was also a massive hit. Those three girls groups would be the first sent to war, so to speak, as the hallyu wave began to take hold. Watching those videos in 2015, however, is giving us some pretty strong 90s feels. Obviously the labels began to embrace more of the electro sounds sweeping Europe, and later, the United States, in the decade and a half that followed.
Now K-pop girl groups are more sexy than cutesy, but APink has gone to buck the trend. Well, they aren’t exactly cutesy. Call them as more of a throwback to the late 90s, with a more innocent image for girl groups. It’s a template they set from their 2011 debut “I Don’t Know”: the meadows, the seas, the suggested purity. If you’re used to the more sexy look of K-pop girl groups these days, APink might take some getting used to, but it actually gets comfortable once you get settled down. (“Hush” is a bit of an exception. A bit. A bit.)
Of course there are a lot of groups that trade more on the aegyo image. Orange Caramel, a subunit of After School, is often compared to Japanese group Perfume; their look is elaborate and quite conceptual. There’s Laboum (who we still can’t agree on). There’s CLC. There’s 2eyes’ “Pippi”, a bit of a departure from their earlier singles. And then, on the extreme end, there’s the quirky side of K-pop. Crayon Pop‘s aegyo on hyperdrive; their subunit, Strawberry Milk, is the same, only in many shades of pink.
Finally, we shift to f(x), who is arguably an underrated, underappreciated girl group. Despite being an S.M. Entertainment – they were founded in 2009 – there’s still no official fan base name. But they’re a pretty good group: strong songs, even stronger dancing (both in choreography and execution), and the interesting decision in having Amber be the “designated guy” in the group. Also, you’d notice that they use the made-up word “mysteric” a lot.
Oh, and they’re one of those few K-pop acts that have gotten some hipster love from the United States: they’re the first K-pop act to perform at SXSW in 2013. There’s this energy they have that doesn’t shine through as much as it should because of their underrated status. The KBS show Music Bank has this thing where two acts cover each other songs: f(x) did a pretty mean job with 4Minute’s “Mirror Mirror”. The other act, well…
Additional listening: Another underrated act is EXID, who went viral because of a fancam video featuring their maknae, Hani. (Although we don’t know why this went viral.) Girl’s Day was a bit of a flop during their debut, but went big after the release of their song “Expectation” in 2013. We’ve written about AoA a bunch of times, mostly Rainy ranting about why they had to be sexy in order to become popular. (Proof that they could do better: their debut, “Elvis”, partly had a band concept.) Miss A is worth a watch for their very strong debut, “Bad Girl Good Girl”, and their even stronger debut, “Good-bye Baby”. Finally, well, Niko is compelled to put Mamamoo in the mix, because he likes that group so much.
Extra credit: We mentioned Exo being split into two groups for promotional purposes last week. That’s quite a common thing in K-pop: members of some groups are spun off into separate groups, either to promote them separately under a different concept, or to test new ideas out. Say, Orange Caramel, which is composed of After School’s three newer members, were spun off in a highly conceptual group, partly to highlight those three newer members. Collaborations are also a common thing between K-pop acts: some are just one-song affairs, but others are built with the intention of a continuing line of projects, like Trouble Maker (born of BEAST’s Hyunseung and 4Minute’s HyunA, both acts under Cube Entertainment) and Hi Suhyun (composed of YG Entertainment’s Lee Hi and Lee Suhyun, from Akdong Musician). (This can also be called “project groups”.) And, of course, members can go solo, the same way established solo performers can be part of even more successful groups. [NB/SY]
[Next week: not every K-pop act has numbers – we shift our attention to the solo and duo acts.]