How K-Pop’s Girl Groups Took Over The World
Twice made history under a lunar eclipse. As they danced the night away on stage at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles earlier this month, the supercharged moon above them gave way to a new beginning for its nine members, as they gear up for the next phase of their careers. Twice has often been referred to as South Korea’s national girl group, but after becoming the first K-pop girl group to headline its own stadium concerts in the United States, they are undeniable global icons. It’s a major feat for any artist to sell out a stadium-sized venue. For Twice, who debuted in 2015, it’s further proof of the group’s ability to drive ticket sales and generate substantial interest abroad — signaling a new era of girl group dominance in the West.
It’s no secret that for years K-pop boy groups have commanded the international market, regularly outpacing girl groups in album sales and tour announcements. The data speaks for itself. Of the 36 or so K-pop acts with world tours set for 2022, only four girl groups make the list: Twice, Dreamcatcher, (G)I-dle, and Brave Girls, who will embark on their first-ever U.S. tour this summer, 11 years into their career. These numbers fuel the notion that girl groups aren’t as profitable in the West, something Maria Sherman, culture writer and author of Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands From NKOTB to BTS, describes as a historical bias.
“Girl groups have always been viewed as less profitable than boy bands,” she tells NYLON. “The argument I have heard over the last few decades is that women don’t want to obsess over other women, which the popularity of women pop soloists in the last 20 years has completely proven to be false. If there is less money made, it’s because there is less money spent on supporting those girl groups in the first place.”Historically, the impact of girl groups in the pop arena can’t be overstated. In K-pop, female acts like The Korean Kittens and The Kim Sisters — who were the first Korean group to earn mainstream success in the United States in the 1960s — broke the ground BTS and Blackpink would later pave into a high-speed road decades later. In 2009, BoA became the first K-pop artist to release a fully English album; that same year, The Wonder Girls scored K-pop’s first-ever Billboard Hot 100 entry with “Nobody.”
Back home in Korea, women were also blazing new trails. Girls’ Generation’s bright, bubbly “Gee” was K-pop’s first viral hit and, at the time in 2009, its most-viewed video. And the reverberations of Girls’ Generation’s domestic popularity are still being felt today in the country, where girl groups are still dominating the charts. Brave Girls scored one of the biggest domestic hits of 2021 when their 2017 single “Rollin’” shot up the South Korean music charts after a fan-made edit went viral on YouTube. The song landed at No. 2 on the country’s year-end digital singles chart, illustrating a modern dichotomy between boy groups and girl groups: Girl groups often experience more domestic success.
“Normally, girl groups are regarded as the domestic ones and boy groups are regarded as the global ones,” explains Seoul-based music critic Young-dae Kim.
There are a lot of contributing factors to this. For one, girl group music is considered more public-friendly in that it’s easier to sing along with and its choreography is more accessible to a wider demographic of audiences. A look at some of the most-streamed songs on Melon, a popular streaming platform in South Korea, shows three girl groups currently in the top 10 including rookie girl group IVE’s “Love Dive” at No. 3. Because of their chart success, girl groups are given more opportunities to perform on various stages across South Korea and Asia, from university festivals to military bases and more regional events. Whereas boy groups have always been more focused on boosting album sales and building extremely loyal and increasingly international fandoms, girl groups prioritize their local fans. And more so than ever, they’re appealing to young women.
“The success and increasing popularity of K-pop girl groups, especially in Korea, is the impact of female fans,” says Jung-won Kim, a professor teaching Korean popular culture courses at Yonsei University in Seoul. From her experience as both an ethnomusicologist and longtime K-pop fan, Kim says the “solidarity and cooperation” among young Korean women to promote and support other girl groups, even if they’re not fans of those groups, is a recent phenomenon that signifies a larger marketing shift in the K-pop industry.
“The new generation of girl groups are definitely showing very different sides [than their predecessors],” she explains. “When Girls’ Generation debuted, they definitely targeted male fans. After that, they started to find their own voice.” It took a few years to get there for the nine members of the nation’s most formative girl group. After the chart-topping success of “Gee,” Girls’ Generation released a string of hits (“Genie,” “Run Devil Run,” “Hoot”) that spanned various genres. In 2010, Yuri earned the group’s first songwriting credit on the 2010 R&B ballad “It’s My Fault (Mistake).” It also marked a turning point: The members became more involved in the songwriting process, contributing ideas and suggestions for their concept looks and tour outfits.
Every bit of creative involvement led to a fuller, more realized image of modern womanhood, where the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself. Yet, it didn’t always translate internationally. While the members of Girls’ Generation were exercising more agency, they were never fully in control of their music or image. And while that’s OK if you’re a white teen pop star, that perception of K-pop artists as perfectly manufactured idols made it harder for them to break through in the West. Complex called them “faceless Korean fembots” in a 2009 article; The New Yorker published its “Factory Girls” piece in 2012, in which writer John Seabrook asks if Los Angeles-born Tiffany’s eye smile is learned or “natural.” In 2014, Vice ran an interview with the headline “K-Pop Phenomenon Girls’ Generation Want to Make Insecure Men Feel Better,” completely disregarding the group’s women-centric mission.
“The new generation of girl groups are definitely showing very different sides [than their predecessors].”
“When I walked in as a 15-year-old girl saying ‘I want to be an artist,’ nobody took that seriously,” Girls Generation member Tiffany told Zach Sang in 2018. “I just hope that when they look at a K-pop idol [now], more people will see somebody that’s passionate about music and wanting to tell a story.”
The emergence of 2NE1 in 2009 further pushed the limits of what a girl group could be in the Western imagination. The fierce foursome from YG Entertainment blazed its own trail with unrivaled bravado and swagger, staying true to themselves as they helped push K-pop to new global heights. In 2012, 2NE1 became the first Korean girl group to hold a solo arena show in the United States, performing in custom looks from Jeremy Scott. While the group’s confident 2011 banger “I Am the Best” was its breakthrough moment — even Emma Stone couldn’t evade its spell — songs like “Ugly” and “Lonely,” vulnerable musings on self-worth and insecurities, endeared 2NE1 to an entire generation of women.
“I can’t help but think that if they weren’t total bad*sses, challenging the saccharine sweet groups that came before them, pioneering the ‘girl crush’ idea for lack of a better term, I’m unsure they’d have the same kind of resonance,” Sherman says. “In the West, we’ve always liked our girl groups to have some message of empowerment, even if it is one that is codified and commercialized. 2NE1 taught women to believe in themselves, and that is something U.S. audiences have always wanted.”
Young-dae Kim agrees that this is why 2NE1, rather than Wonder Girls or Girls’ Generation, had a stronger foothold in the U.S. market. “And Blackpink changed the game,” he adds, noting how YG Entertainment’s million-selling superstars — Jennie, Jisoo, Rosé, and Lisa — have completely conquered the world and changed the direction of the girl group image. “Now, companies are making girl groups with this idea of the post-Blackpink phenomenon.”
That phenomenon is an emphasis on an assertive sense of femininity — pretty and savage, bold and beautiful. The new wave of girl groups that debuted in K-pop’s third generation, Red Velvet, Mamamoo, and Blackpink, all embody those qualities and were created with a different demographic in mind. Largely, “more Western [and] more women,” says Young-dae Kim. As international K-pop music and culture festivals like KCON, which started in 2012, helped introduce Western audiences to more female acts, even groups designed to appeal to domestic K-pop fans and the lucrative Japanese market, like Twice and GFriend, gradually changed their music and aesthetics over time with different fandoms in mind.
“As girl groups became popularized in the K-pop community and started to build female fandoms, their focus is more on the mid-20s, late 20s, and early 30s female demographic,” Young-dae Kim says. “That’s the biggest reason why the music and image have changed. A lot of people still think girl groups are made for boys, but that’s not true. Their biggest fans are always women. In Korea, [it’s about] feminism and girl crush and the need for more alpha girl attitude.”
In 2022, groups like Twice and Red Velvet are selling more albums than ever before, and the latest generation of cool girls — Ive, STAYC, Aespa, Itzy, Kep1er, Nmixx, Le Sserafim, and self-producing artists like (G)I-dle — are breaking sales records, racing up the charts, and already courting diverse global fandoms. They’re singing about self-love and empowerment with unassailable confidence and ferocity, proving that there’s more than one way to be a strong woman in today’s K-pop landscape.
STAYC, who recently made their U.S. debut on the KCON stage in Chicago with a cover of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U,” is one such group whose plucky attitudes and catchy melodies resonate with young women around the globe. “They don’t purposefully act like an alpha girl or a strong, Blackpink-type,” Young-dae Kim says. “But everyone knows. Everyone can feel that they’re charming yet strong, independent girls.” According to Jung-won Kim, STAYC’s popularity began among teenage girls. The group’s latest album, Young-Luv.com, sold over 153,000 copies in its first week, making it the seventh biggest girl group release of 2022.
In a pop ecosystem that loves to put female artists in boxes, K-pop girl groups are often unfairly defined in the West by a singular concept: sweet or sexy, muses or warriors. In reality, girl groups are infinitely more adaptable and can embrace a full spectrum of concepts. “Boy groups are about unity and showing the same concept over and over,” Jung-won Kim says. “Girl groups are freer in showcasing different images.”
“With more resources and support, K-pop girl groups can move from being viewed as a ‘novelty’ to an unfortunately exoticizing U.S. marketplace, to a pillar of the music industry, globally.”
As Blackpink is demonstrating, there are more opportunities from fashion and brand deals, to performing on more mainstream stages. Blackpink’s landmark Coachella set in 2019 shattered any lingering “factory girl” sentiment, paving the way for both 2NE1 and Aespa to make Coachella debuts at this year’s festival.
But this is only the first step. For these girl groups to find sustainable success stateside, “they need to be supported here, like some of the major boy bands,” Sherman says. “They need to perform here regularly; they need to do consistent U.S. press; they need to appear on our television and radio programs; they need to reflect the beliefs of the young people who will want to see themselves reflected in their music. Most of this is already being accomplished. But with more resources and support, K-pop girl groups can move from being viewed as a ‘novelty’ to an unfortunately exoticizing U.S. marketplace, to a pillar of the music industry, globally.”
After two nights at the Banc of California Stadium, Twice made their way to New York, where they performed their English single “The Feels” on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Utilizing the entire set and moving seamlessly from one formation to the next, they had their charisma on full display for a live studio audience full of tourists and fans. “You have stolen my heart,” they sang, knowing that not before long, they’ll steal yours too.