K-Pop girl group BLACKPINK’s debut Korean-language LP, aptly titled THE ALBUM, broke the record for first week sales by a Korean girl group, selling 590k records in a single day and surpassing 1 million pre-orders. Forbes even projects the album securing it a No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 charts. With four unique deluxe version of the album available, as well as about three dozen digital album bundles available online, the group is poised to take home the most pure sales of the week, fully cementing K-Pop as a bona fide western phenomenon and not just a passing trend.
BLACKPINK have lit the west on fire in the last two years. In 2019, their music video for single “Kill This Love” set the record for most music video views within 24 hours of release, with subsequent singles “How You Like That,” “Ice Cream,” and “Lovesick Girls” each smashing that record one after the other. They have even become the first Korean music group with two billion-viewed music videos. With only a handful of releases, BLACKPINK is really on top of the world.
This is not the first time K-Pop has inched its way to western audiences in a major way. Surely we all remember Psy’s 2012 megahit “Gangnam Style,” which itself became the very first YouTube video to surpass a billion views. It seemed like the genre was hitting it big in the English speaking world, but in reality, it ended up laying dormant for a while here, not reaching the cultural climax many thought it would. That is until the recent overtaking of acts like BLACKPINK and BTS in the last few years. It seems that right now the western K-Pop takeover is invading for real this time, and there’s good reason for that.
Ever since One Direction hit their stride about a decade ago, the phenomenon of boybands and girl groups has been resurging in a major way. Maybe that is why Psy remained a one-and-a-half hit wonder (who remembers “Gentleman?”); just a case of wrong place wrong time. Now, every genre has a boyband: they’ve always been ubiquitous in pop-rock, but The 1975 is arguably the first to really exude the same sort of “The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show” fandom energy since Maroon 5 in the early 2000s. Even the world of rap has spawned its own viral boyband in the form of the “first internet band” BROCKHAMPTON.
Relatedly, girl groups like Little Mix and Fifth Harmony have intensified the trend; a harkening back to the manufactured pop groups of the Star Search and original X-Factor days. Even The Pussycat Dolls, whose lead singer Nicole Scherzinger herself came from Popstars, even reunited this year, and if that’s not an indicator of a trend back from the dead than what is? Many K-Pop groups themselves come from reality competition shows. BLACKPINK is simply the next in line. That is not to belittle the group or K-Pop as a whole; the collective did not become famous for nothing.
In 2019, The MTV Music Video Awards announced the new category “Best K-Pop Video,” proving the genre’s newfound omnipresence. However, many rightly felt that delegating K-Pop to its own category segmented it from the rest of the music industry, when in truth it should be naturally integrated with the rest of the categories; surely that would indicate even more overt cultural acceptance. In truth it was likely separated because of the fear that adding K-Pop videos to main categories would spell too many wins for them, but the point is that that VMA controversy was a progenitor of sorts in the music industry to the last half decades’ massive call for more cultural integration and sensitivity. K-Pop’s western explosion is simply a product of that, and BLACKPINK is credibly a new equivalent to the 90’s girl group invasion in UK and US with groups like the Spice Girls and Destiney’s Child.
Perhaps the simplest, yet not quite obvious answer to the K-Pop conquering is the fact that many of the most successful groups in the West sing and rap in English. In the last two years or so, many A-list music stars have been getting in on the action, with Halsey even winning the aforementioned inaugural Best K-Pop Video alongside BTS for “Boy With Luv.” Even Lady Gaga gave BLACKPINK a call to include them on promotional single “Sour Candy.”
Which brings us back to BLACKPINK. The girl group, believe it or not, is not the biggest K-Pop group in their home country, though certainly one of. One of the several reasons they have likely hit it so big in the west particularly is their frequent collaborations with English-speaking heavy hitters like Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa, and most recently Cardi B. Their tendency to sing and rap frequently in English helps as well, and is presumably what attracted many of these stars to collaborate in the first place. Three of THE ALBUM’s eight tracks are after all, entirely in English. That said, incorporating English into K-Pop is certainly not limited to BLACKPINK.
What’s funny about BLACKPINK particularly is that the reviews for THE ALBUM have actually been quite lukewarm. The predominant opinion amongst critics seems to be that the LP displays nothing new to K-Pop or pop music as a whole. But more than that, critics seem to agree that the group’s imagery is incongruent with the current times. BLACKPINK’s crisp and clean appearance is so far removed from both current general music trends and the public opinion about 2020 that it almost seems off how big they are. It could easy come across as old-fashion to present yourself so invulnerable and perfect without acknowledging flaws, leaving room to improvise, or acting down to Earth. American critics argue that BLACKPINK by default seem to ignore the problems of the world, which to some comes across as disingenuous (BTS raised money for Black Lives Matter at least, they might argue).
But that’s hardly fair. Not every group needs to set the world on fire politically, and if no source of entertainment offers that much needed escapism then we would surely be longing for one that does. Even more so, that crisp and perfectionist style is, simply put, what is most popular in K-Pop, and if we really want to display cultural awareness then it is certainly not our place to burst through their door and demand to be accommodated with our own musical preferences.
With that in mind, there are dozens of other groups out there that could just as easy make the same splash in the English-speaking world, so here’s a mini-roundup of a few other K-Pop artists that we should be sharing BLACKPINK and BTS’ spotlight with:
One of the fastest rising stars of K-Pop, Stray Kids were formed on a reality competition show of the same name, and debuted back in March 2018 with EP I am NOT. Since then, they have absolutely blown up in terms of Twitter mentions, leading to their first LP release, Go Live, back in July. Lead single “God’s Menu” is currently sitting pretty on YouTube at over 128 million views.
If BLACKPINK’s “DUU-DU DDU-DU” is anything to go off of, the practice of naming songs after singalong onomatopoeia is par for the course in K-Pop. Newcomers cignature are not exception, with a debut single “Nun Nu Nan Na” that’s arguably even more catchy than the aforementioned BLACKPINK tune. Catch their debut EP Listen and Speak, pleased earlier this year.
Another group of remarkably fast-risers, IZ*ONE has dominated the online scene, with their newest music video and single “Beware” racking up over 1.7 million views in just a day since release. Formed through reality show Produce 48 (noticing a pattern?), the group has released six widely well-received EP’s (three of which are in Japanese, another somewhat common practice), and one LP, which broke the record for single day sales by a girl group in South Korea.
Yet another band created by reality television (in this case YG Treasure Box), Treasure had one of the most hotly anticipated debuts in K-Pop’s recent memory (as tends to be the case with many reality show-based groups). Just look at their music video for single “I Love You” which garnered over 25 million views in just two weeks. With no full studio albums released yet, the group is set up for nothing but success.
It’s funny how a group that debuted in 2019 could be one of the more established groups on a list like this, but that’s K-Pop for you: their stars rise fast. Like Treasure, they have yet to release a full album, but if their last two no. 1 EPs, It’z ME and Not Shy are any indication of success, it seems they hardly need one.