Essential K-pop Girl Groups by Donnia Harrington
Last week’s introduction to K-pop centered on prominent boy groups who’ve had an impact on the industry, now it’s the ladies’ turn: just like BTS, BIGBANG and more, girl groups in South Korea have broken records both on their home turf and abroad and have reached the mainstream of Western media. Here are five K-pop girl groups who have changed the music industry.
2NE1 (pronounced 21 or “To Anyone”) was—and still is—one of the most iconic girl groups in the K-pop industry. After debuting in a collaboration song with BIGBANG in 2009 (who were already well established with audiences since their debut three years earlier), they released their first self-titled EP, 2NE1, that topped the charts in South Korea. Their fame continued to skyrocket with the release of their first studio album, To Anyone, and their second self-titled EP.
“I Am the Best” is the song that garnered the attention of Western listeners. The electro/R&B-inspired single from their second EP debuted at number four on the Gaon Digital Chart before quickly rising to number one. By the end of the year, the song was one of the best-selling songs of 2011 in South Korea and won Song of the Year at the Mnet Asian Music Awards.
Three years later, the song was featured in a commercial for Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 and that boosted the four-member group to mainstream fame overseas. After the commercial, “I Am the Best” topped Billboard’s World Digital Songs chart and received radio airplay in America despite never being officially released in the country. The continuing popularity of “I Am the Best” led to the song being included in video game Dance Central 3, becoming the first K-pop song to be in the series and it was featured on So You Think You Can Dance season ten. The music video for the song is also the most popular for the group, with over 200 million views. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, lead singer CL performed the song during the closing ceremony, joining fellow K-pop group EXO as “representatives of K-pop.”
Outside of Korean albums, 2NE1 also released Japanese-language albums that were just as successful in Japan as their Korean albums were at home. All of their Korean albums peaked at number one on the South Korean charts and nine of their singles reached the top spot as well. Despite the overwhelming success of the group, solo projects and a lengthy hiatus led to the group’s breakup in 2016. They released a final song, “Good Bye” in 2017 which topped Billboard’s World Digital Songs chart. With over 66 million records sold and widely considered among the best of K-pop groups, they are one the best-selling girl groups of all time and their impact is undeniable even after disbandment.
Check out their last studio album:
Eight-member group Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD) started out with modest success before elevating to the marquis status they currently enjoy. Their first self-titled album reached number 16 on Gaon and was the second best-selling album of November 2017 in South Korea. It wasn’t until two years later with the release of their EP, Gee, and same name single that they found high success.
Music Bank is a leading South Korean music program where artists promote their singles and, at the end of the week, winners are announced based on the amount of points they receive. A week after “Gee” was released, the song topped Music Bank for a record-breaking nine consecutive weeks and had eight consecutive wins. The single won nearly all major Song of the Year awards for which it was nominated, including the Golden Disc Awards (think the Grammys for K-pop) and the Melon Music Awards. Melon’s online website for reporting music named “Gee” the “Song of the decade.”
“Gee” is not only Girls’ Generation most recognizable song, but it’s also considered a K-pop classic. The song was a critical part of the Korean Wave where South Korean music increased to Global popularity. “Gee” is almost always included in lists of most popular K-pop songs and Billboard declared that “Gee” was “arguably the most iconic K-pop song in the past ten years.” The music video for the song was also a huge success with nearly 217 million views on YouTube. Years later, the song’s impact is still strong: in 2016, “Gee” was voted the top K-pop girl group song of the past 20 years according to South Korean music industry experts writing for research magazine Dong-a Ilbo.
Outside of “Gee,” Girls’ Generation has had major success in Japan; their debut Japanese album topped the Japanese Oricon Albums Chart and became the first album by a non-Japanese group to be certified “Million” (or Diamond) Recording Industry Association of Japan. They are the first non-Japanese group to have three number one singles in Japan and the only Korean group to have three record breaking concert tours in Japan.
Their third studio album, I Got a Boy, included the single “I Got a Boy” which won Video of the Year at the YouTube Music Awards, beating Justin Bieber and fellow Korean act Psy (“Gangnam Style”). Originally a nine-member group, Girls’ Generation decreased to eight when singer Jessica left due to conflict with SM Entertainment and working around the group’s schedule. The group continued to release albums to the same success, but in 2017, three additional members decided not to renew their contracts with SM. The future of Girls’ Generation is up in the air but their impact and success in the music industry is eternal.
Check out their latest single, “Lil’ Touch” below:
f(x) is known for their eclectic approach, experimenting with different styles while still maintaining an electric-genre sound. Like Girls’ Generation, they’re a part of SM Entertainment—former SNSD member Jessica and f(x) member Krystal are sisters and they trained in the company together before debuting in their respective groups. Their debut album, Pinocchio, topped Gaon charts after attracting the attention of audiences with their first EP, Nu ABO, that was released a year prior.
It wasn’t until the release of their second studio album, Pink Tape, that they garnered international and Western attention. The album was highly anticipated in South Korea. While K-pop groups tend to release studio albums every year or two, Pink Tape took over two years but the wait was well worth it. Pink Tape was critically acclaimed and successful, topping Gaon and, for the first time, reached number one on the Billboard World Albums Chart.
Their single “Rum Pum Pum Pum” was a major hit for the group as the song topped the Billboard K-pop Hot 100 chart, which was their first number one on the Billboard Korea charts. The song even reached 21 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart for new musical artists. Billboard Magazine went on to rank “Rum Pum Pum Pum” number 59 on their list of 100 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time.
During the same year, f(x) made history when they became the first K-pop act to perform at South by Southwest (or SXSW) in 2013. The festival is known for combining popular music, film and interactive media and has grown rapidly with each annual festival.
Unfortunately, conflicts with the company and maintaining a solo career led to member Sulli departing the group in 2015. Her last album with f(x) was Red Light, which topped Gaon’s charts. Since her departure, the group released 4 Walls – The 4th Album in October 2015. The album peaked at number one on Gaon and Billboard’s US World Albums but, despite the consistent success, fans haven’t seen an album or EP release from f(x) since 4 Walls – The 4th Album. It’s unknown when or if they’ll release anything new in the future.
Check out their latest album, 4 Walls – The 4th Album, below:
Before K-pop stars debut in the industry, they are trainees under the company with whom they are affiliated. Depending on circumstances, they can spend as long as ten years training before they are officially announced in a group or are able to switch from group to group. 4Minute was formed under similar circumstances: before the five-member group debuted, music label Cube Entertainment announced that Hyuna, a member of the seven-member girl group Wonder Girls, would join 4Minute, giving the group the rare boost with which most groups never start.
4Minute released two EPs and one Japanese album before the release of their first Korean studio album, 4Minutes Left. The album was a moderate success, both the album and its singles reached the top five of Korea’s Gaon charts. It wasn’t until the release of their fourth EP, Name Is 4Minute, did they garner more attention. The EP featured the single, “What’s Your Name?”, which became their most successful single after reaching number one on Gaon and eventually becoming one of the best singles of the year.
This success continued with their next EP, 4Minute World, and Crazy, the latter of which reached number one on the Billboard World Albums Chart. The self-titled lead single from Crazy was a major success online; the music video for the song reached 100 million views on YouTube in November 2017, making 4Minute the sixth K-pop girl group to reach that many views. 4Minute also became the first girl group from neither of the Big Three music companies in South Korea (SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment) to achieve this milestone.
4Minute’s last project was another EP, Act. 7, released in 2016. The album reached top five on Gaon and the U.S. World Albums. Later that year, the group officially announced their disbandment due to conflict of interest for each of the members. Since their disbandment, all of the members have continued on pursue solo careers within music, film and television.
Check out 2015’s Crazy below:
Most of the girl groups listed before have disbanded or have had members leave. These are groups that have been together for years, almost a decade or even more for some, and despite not being together anymore, their impact paved the way for new artists. BLACKPINK was formed under YG Entertainment, the same company behind 2NE1, a highly-anticipated debut due to YG’s dominance in the music industry and the fact that the group would become YG’s first girl group to debut under the company since 2NE1’s debut in 2006. Because of this, BLACKPINK was instantly labelled YG’s new version of 2NE1 before their official debut.
The four-member group debuted in 2016 with two EDM/R&B-inspired singles, “Boombayah” and “Whistle,” the latter of which becoming their first number one song in South Korea. “Boombayah” topped the Billboard World Digital Songs chart and the music video for the song set the record for the most-viewed debut music video for a K-pop group on YouTube. “Boombayah” has almost 387 million views on YouTube while “Whistle” has over 200 million.
During first year of their debut, they won New Artist of the Year at both the Golden Disc Awards and the Seoul Music Awards. Their first two singles were included in their self-titled debut Japanese EP in 2017. That EP debuted at number one on Japan’s Oricon chart, becoming the one of three foreign artists to reach first place with a debut release. Although they debuted in 2016, their Korean EP didn’t release until June of this year. The EP reached number one on Gaon and its leading single, “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” made history when it became the highest-charting female K-pop song on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at 55. The EP also peaked at 40 on the Billboard 200, making them the only K-pop girl group to chart that high.
“Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” surpassed “Boombayah’s” views on YouTube by over 20 million. As of today, the music video has over 400 million views and, when it was released, it only took 69 days for the music video to reach 300 million views, making BLACKPINK the first K-pop group reach that many views so quickly.
BLACKPINK is the only female K-pop group to have four number one singles on Billboard’s World Digital Song chart and they’re just getting started. The group is not even three years old and, despite not releasing a studio album yet, they’ve achieved what can take years for many K-pop groups to accomplish.
Check out their latest release, Square Up, below:
Donnia Harrington has been writing critically about film for over three years. Her work has been published on FlickSided, Audiences Everywhere and ComicBook Debate. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys foreign cinema, female-centered video games, Korean music and Scandinavian crime novels. Check out some of her other contributions to soulhead.