Living in America, I had never felt more global presence of K-Pop before. Until PSY brought “Gangnam Style” and made everyone dance on their own invisible horses, K-Pop playlist was my “guilty pleasure.”
Nowadays, I don’t hide away from the fact that I fairly enjoy listening to K-Pop. It’s part of my culture, and I adore these pretty-faced idols. It’s all thanks to PSY and especially, BTS, who helped the world to open their eyes and acknowledge K-pop as a real music genre.
With the recent news of BLACKPINK signing a contract with a major American label, Interscope Records, it reminded me of one girl group that tried to penetrate the Western music market way before everyone did, including both PSY and BTS. I don’t know how much of you guys remember, but if I were personally to give credit to a group for introducing K-Pop to the Western audience, it’s JYP’s one and only, the Wonder Girls.
It all started when the group released an English version of “Nobody,” the title track to their [The Wonder Years] Trilogy album in 2008.
Of course, previous artists, such as BoA and Rain, had also tried to break down the walls of Western hemisphere in the past, but the Wonder Girls were the first ones to publicly announce their entry to the foreign music market.
The results, at least the numerical ones, were not that bad. “Nobody” became the first K-Pop song to appear on Billboard’s Hot 100, placing itself at No. 76 on the chart. Later, the group joined the famous Jonas Brothers on their world tour in 2009 as the opening guests.
Moreover, they also collaborated with various American artists, such as FOREVER (formerly known as the School Gyrls) for their single “The DJ is Mine” in 2012. They even caught the attention of Akon, who agreed to feature in what became the group’s last track to promote in America, “Like Money.”
Despite their never-ending and honest work, the group’s attempt to penetrate the Western music market was ultimately marked as a failure. After releasing “Like Money” in 2012, they went into a 3-year hiatus, during which Sunye and Sohee announced their departure.
What caused this so-called “failure,” no one knows.
However, if I, as a person who very much enjoyed their music during their global promotions, were to give reasons why it was not a 100% success, I would list these 3.
Lack of Localization
When the Wonder Girls released an English version of “Nobody,” it was just a literal translation of its Korean counterpart. Nothing had changed except for the language, which was my first personal let-down from the group. People say “each language has its own genius,” meaning it’s impossible to directly translate one language into another while being mindful of the cultural differences.
For “Nobody,” JYP should have been more aware of the difference in the dating cultures of the two countries and adjust the lyrics accordingly.
Because they failed to do so, some parts of the lyrics appeared rather awkwardly, and the lack of in-depth vocabulary failed to convey the seriousness of the message this particular love song was trying to deliver. Add this on top of a music video that shows JYP taking a dump, and how do you expect anyone to take this seriously?
Same goes for the music video.
The music video starts with JYP performing his own track “Honey” with the Wonder Girls members in the back as his back-up singers. The song “Nobody” doesn’t event start until 2 minutes into the video.
This strategy worked in Korea, only because everyone already knew who JYP was and the fact that he is not the main figure in the music video. However, it was most likely that the Western people did not. They weren’t going to wait around for 2 minutes in order to maybe give this new genre a try. The music video needed an immediate impact, but it was nowhere to be found.
Concept Too Extreme
After “Nobody,” the Wonder Girls presented 3 more songs – “2 Different Tears” in 2010, and “The DJ is Mine” and “Like Money” in 2012. My second personal let-down from the group came from these music videos with concepts too extreme. “2DT” and “Like Money” both had settings where it either featured an extraterrestrial figure, or the members as robots. At the beginning of “2DT” music video, JYP himself explicitly says “an alien has entered this world … with a body shaped like a Pikachu.”
The extreme concept in these music videos take away too much attention of the public from the music. Instead of focusing on the music, their eyes all turn to looking at members chasing after a “Pikachu-shaped alien” with multi-colored hairstyles and make-up.
Consequently, the music video also made it very difficult for the audience to recognize the members, unless you played the video on repeat, taking notes down on who had what hair colors and other details.
For a rookie group trying to break a new market, a strong identification is a must. However, the members hide behind all the flashy concept and storyline, failing to mark their faces in the minds of their target audience.
Lack of Technology Compared to Present
Last reason for the Wonder Girls returning to their homeland after relatively unsuccessful promotions was not necessarily their fault. It was the lack of technology or communication methods of the past compared to the present.
BTS, who was recently crowned as the “Best Social Artist” at various American awards, was able to achieve this milestone partly thanks to YouTube and other social network platforms. Since before their debut, BTS actively communicated and shared the process of their debut and post-debut with their fans. This resulted in the strong bond between the artists and their fans, bringing them closer to work to receive such meaningful awards.
However, it was a different time for the Wonder Girls.
YouTube had just been established in 2005 and it was not a popular website until after the group had decided that North America was not an option for them. It was the same for all online platforms; Instagram was not even a thing and Facebook was just getting started.
Consequently, the communication between the Wonder Girls and their fans abroad halted every time the group went back to Korea. The global fans had to really put in time and effort into searching upcoming news of the group, which I personally think got too exhausting. Furthermore, there were not enough online contents to “dukjil” over, and people naturally lost their interest in the group.
People say the Wonder Girls trying to enter the Western music market too early in their career is what ultimately cost them their disbandment. Sunmi quickly departed from the group after the group’s first global promotions and later, Sunye and Sohee also departed.
While it wasn’t a complete success, I still applaud loudly the Wonder Girls for their brave attempts. And I believe that if they were granted the privileges of the present day technology advance and more, the girls would have had a better chance at wowing the Western hemisphere just like BTS did.
Thanks to our proud senior groups, such as the Wonder Girls, PSY, and BTS, many junior groups now have a better and easier chance to go abroad. They have shown the promising future of K-Pop, and I truly hope that the results keep getting better and better.
by. Dasol Kim
Disclaimer: The opinions or views contained in this article may not represent the opinions or views of Kpoplove, The Korea Daily, its employees, agents or affiliates.