The following is an article written by Jeff Yang for San Franciso Chronicle. Although kinda late considering it’s been more than a month since Wonder Girls left the States, it’s an interesting in-depth article about our Wonder Girls.
Powered by catchy grooves, an all-out marketing frenzy and a wildly addictive Internet dance craze, the teenage divas known as the Wonder Girls have become Korea’s biggest pop phenomenon. But can they make it big in America?
New York — Shoulder, shoulder, hip, hip, shoulder, shoulder, hip, hip. Elbow, knee kick, step and point. The choreography is deceptively simple; the results, surprisingly addictive. So much so, in fact, that even the progenitors of the dance craze admit to being shocked at how far the phenomenon has traveled. “Everybody loves the ‘Tell Me’ dance,” laughs Sun Mi, 15, as bandmate Yoo Bin, 19, explains the dance’s secret: “Each movement is easy, but when you put it together it looks impressive.”
Sun Mi and Yoo Bin, together with 18-year-olds Sun Ye and Ye Eun and 15-year-old So Hee, are the Wonder Girls, a charming quintet who are South Korea’s hottest pop princesses, and have been so ever since September 2007, when their single “Tell Me” and its accompanying dance steps became a verifiable pop-culture phenomenon across Asia.
A quick YouTube search reveals the breadth and persistence of the “Tell Me” juggernaut: The site contains literally thousands of fan-made clips, featuring celebrities, schoolgirls, toddlers, drag queens, flight attendants, pro basketball players, and even uniformed traffic cops, all grooving in lockstep to the song’s catchy retro-electronic beats. The Girls’ particular favorite? A video of the dance being performed by a squad of enlisted South Korean soldiers. “It was very funny seeing them do it,” says 18-year-old Ye Eun. “But I have to admit, they were pretty good.”
The success of “Tell Me” turned the Girls into gold. In Korea, they can be seen on television and heard on the radio daily, every other cellphone rings with a snippet of their peppy melodies, and they pitch a wide array of sponsored products, from Vita 500 energy drink to Baskin-Robbins ice cream. But, as Jimmy Jung, CEO of the Girls’ production company, JYP Entertainment, recently noted to Billboard magazine, that still makes them a big fish in a very small pond. “We have to look at foreign markets,” said Jung. “Within the next two years, we’re expecting to be making up to 40 percent of our income overseas.”
Photo Gallery (Photos by JYPE)
The Cute One: 15-year-old So Hee is nicknamed “mandoo,” the Korean word for dumpling, due to her round face and puffy cheeks.
The Strange One: 15-year-old Sun Mi is lovingly called the “Four Dimensional Alien” for her propensity to blurt out weird thoughts.
The Funky One: 19-year-old Yoo Bin, the group’s rapper, combines streetwise self-assurance and a goofy sense of humor.
The Leader: 18-year-old Sun Ye, confident, articulate … and in need of some sleep!
The Big Sister: 18-year-old Ye Eun looks after the crew — but her calm demeanor hides a quirky side.
Girls on film: The Wonder Girls, all together now.
Girls with glasses: … Don’t get passes? The Wonder Girls beg to differ.
The world’s biggest market for entertainment — at least until China catches up in a few dozen years — is, of course, the United States. Unfortunately, past crossover attempts by top Asian stars, like Hong Kong’s Coco Lee and Japan’s Hikaru Utada, have been, to say the least, disappointing — a fact that Wonder Girl producer and founder/creative engine of JYP Entertainment Jin Young Park, ascribes to the artists “losing their color” when they make the transpacific leap. “They just give themselves to a random producer, and their music comes out just like any other American singer,” says Park. “And that’s not who they are.”
But while that was certainly the case with Lee, who unconvincingly tried to transform herself from saccharine Cantopopster to urban dominatrix in her 1999 U.S. debut, “Just No Other Way,” Utada’s 2004 English-language American release, “Exodus,” was a continuation of her musical modus operandi, as can be seen from the fact that, in her native Japan, it charted for 20 straight weeks and sold over 1.35 million units. In the United States, with absolutely no promotional support from her American label, Island, it sold just 30,000.
This suggests that the problem has less to do with artistic choices or cultural disconnects than with a more fundamental barrier. Simply put, the U.S. music industry has cultivated a fixed set of musical genres and built an entrenched assortment of archetypes, marketing concepts and promotional channels around them. And while music execs are quick to deny it, all of them tacitly or overtly incorporate fundamental expectations around race. “Urban” is black and, begrudgingly, Latino; “rock” and “country” are white; “adult contemporary” is, too — unless you call it “smooth jazz,” in which case it’s black (but very, very light skinned). The only genre that “looks Asian” to a typical industry insider is classical, and then, only if you’re talking about instrumental music.
When artists cross these color boundaries, labels simply throw their hands up in frustration; not being equipped to develop unique development strategies for talents that don’t fit these convenient boxes, they simply sweep them into a generic bin marked “novelty.”
But there’s never been a better time for the Plexiglas wall dividing Asia’s music industry from the U.S. market to be smashed. And that, of course, explains why the Girls were in the States last month. Having publicly committed himself to the tough goal of winning American hearts, minds and wallets, Park, Korea’s most successful music producer, is pulling out all the stops. From JYP Entertainment’s U.S. headquarters — a poshly renovated midtown Manhattan townhouse — he’s been courting and building collaborative partnerships with American rap/R&B stars like R. Kelly, Outkast’s Big Boi and Lil’ Jon. At the end of February, the latter even co-hosted Park’s press conference to kick off JYP Entertainment’s “nationwide talent search and concert tour,” which hopes to bring top Asian talent to a full slate of “major U.S. cities” in 2008, including Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, and yes, San Francisco, with the eventual goal of turning it into an annual, Lollapalooza-style showcase for Asian and Asian American talent. (Only two dates, New York and Los Angeles, have so far taken place because parallel commitments in Korea have made routing talent back and forth a somewhat dynamic process, but JYP Entertainment says that the rest of the dates will be scheduled shortly.)
Park himself is this year’s official tour headliner — he began his career as one of Korea’s biggest dance/R&B stars, and still sells out Seoul arenas — but the Wonder Girls are undeniably its hottest ticket. After all, the appeal of five cute, perky dance machines singing delirious bubblegum pop has always transcended language and demographic. “Tell Me” went to No. 1 in Thailand, a country with essentially zero Korean-language speakers; YouTube boasts “Tell Me” fan videos originating in places as far-flung as France and the Philippines.
Which means that, in JYP’s campaign to break into the United States, the Girls are something of a secret weapon. Their viral popularity has already spread to unexpectedly high places here: Last month, during a press conference about YouTube’s recent expansion into South Korea, cofounder and Chief Technical Officer Steve Chen made the confession that Wonder Girl fan vids were his among his favorite clips on the site.
It’s March 6, around 11:30 a.m, and I’m sitting in the conference room of the boutique AKA Hotel in Manhattan, stealing some of the Girls’ scarce free time for an interview. As they file into the room, bobbing polite bows and shaking my hand, they look game, but tired. They were up until the wee hours shooting segments for their self-titled MTV Korea reality series, and the morning has already featured intensive dance and acting lessons, as well as whirlwind packing for the Los Angeles-bound flight they’re boarding that afternoon. “It’s hard,” admits Sun Ye, the group’s leader and informal spokesperson. “But it’s such a special privilege just to have the chance to work as entertainers, and that gives us the will to go on, despite not having much downtime — and no vacations! I do feel sad that I don’t get to sleep as much these days.”
The breakneck pace and brutal hours do take their toll: One of the group’s original members, Hyun A, succumbed to fainting spells and chronic gastroenteritis, and was finally removed by her parents for the sake of her health. But the rest shares Sun Ye’s matter-of-fact attitude toward their workload. After all, it’s what they’ve trained to do for a big chunk of their lives. Each of them (with the exception of Yoo Bin, who joined after the surprise departure of Hyun A) has spent years as an enrollee at the JYP Academy, an institution that Park founded to shape raw talent into all-around entertainers.
The Academy isn’t just an instructional program — it’s a way of life. “I only sign kids 15 and younger, and most of them train with me a minimum of four to seven years before they’re ready to be released,” says Park. “If we pick you to be a trainee, we pay for your housing, your schooling, your personal allowance. You learn singing, dancing, acting and how to deal with the media. And we hire the best tutors to help you become bilingual — every one of my trainees speaks at least two languages, Korean and either English or Chinese.”
Trainees live together in JYP dormitories, separate from their families, and follow a grueling schedule, attending their regular schools in the morning and learning performance skills in the afternoon and evening. Discipline can also be harsh. Park reminisces about one of his biggest successes, the multifaceted pop idol known as Rain. Though Rain recently left JYP Entertainment to found his own management company, he spent nine years under the JYP wing, four years as an Academy trainee, and five more as a full-fledged superstar.
“When I found Rain, he was just a kid, and he’d failed in 18 auditions for other production companies,” says Park. “Everyone saw him and said, ‘He can’t sing.’ But I saw his personality, his charisma, and felt that he had great potential. And so I signed him, and put him in my training program. After two years, he said, ‘JY, I want to quit. I’m never going to make it — I don’t know why you think I can sing.’ I was so mad, I made him go into the studio and kneel on his knees. An hour later, I went in and said, ‘Get up. Why would you think of quitting on me when I’m not quitting on you?'”
Two years later, Rain debuted as a singer, dancer and actor, and became an almost instant sensation. “The kids who have the passion and work ethic to survive my program, when they come out, they’re like Special Forces,” says Park. “They’re the Marines — they can go into a market and blow away everyone. That’s why my rate of success is so high. I’ve had 27 No. 1 songs as a producer and performer. I’ve had 19 No. 1 albums. I have six artists who’ve hit No. 1, all trained in my academy. I’ll invest $500,000 in these kids, and out of 10, maybe one or two will hit it big. But those two successes will go on to make $10 to $20 million a year.”
The other advantage of rearing pop stars from childhood, notes Park, is that they’re less likely to run into the kinds of legal and emotional problems that American stars have famously encountered. “You look at someone like Britney Spears,” says Park. “Well, I’d never sign her. If I’d trained her for four to seven years, I would have realized what kind of person she was and released her. Sun Ye, she’ll never be in any kind of mess: I saw her grow up for seven years, and I know she’ll always be that same sweet girl. Just like Rain. None of my artists gets into those kinds of messes — no fights, no DUIs, no sex scandals, not in 11 years. Because we believe people are our proud product — not the songs they sing or the movies they make. That’s our business model: We build great people, and the people succeed for us.”
The girls agree, though they point out another side to the story as well: “Well, as far as drugs or alcohol, it’s not really a temptation, because we just don’t have the time,” says Ye Eun. “I mean, we’re so busy that we wouldn’t have time to indulge in those kinds of things even if we wanted to.”
The Girls’ are likely to get busier. Though their presence in America was originally seen as a support role to the fledgling artists Park hopes to launch as full-fledged American transplants – pixieish b-girl Min, sweet-voiced singer-songwriter J.Lim and urban balladeer G-Soul – the Girls have quickly become the focus of industry buzz. Despite their limited English, they’ve been approached by labels, producers and studios eager to talk music deals, a reality TV series, and even a “Flight of the Conchords”-esque feature mockumentary, exploring the Girls’ fictionalized origins and migration to America. All officially unofficial, of course, because the Girls still have high school and college to complete in Korea; nothing beyond “discussions” has been admitted to by anyone.
But assuming these discussions come to fruition, no artist is better positioned today than the Wonder Girls to break the chain of Asian crossover failures, for three reasons.
First of all, they’re a group, not a solo act. Groups are modular and merchandisable; if you don’t feel a connection with one member, there are always the others that might strike your fancy, and the aggregate package — the logo, the branding, the aesthetic — has an identity that’s bigger than any of its components.
Secondly, they’re pure bubblegum pop — a musical form that by definition has most of its cultural wrinkles pressed out, removing the baggage of authenticity that exists in genres like rock, rap and R&B. Pure pop promises nothing but escapist fun; it’s why Abba and Ace of Base and the Vengaboys and t.A.T.u. passed muster in the United States, despite questionable (and in some cases, only phonetic) command of English.
And finally, the Girls are a laser-guided missile aimed at perhaps the most abundantly ripe crossover market in America today: Tween-age boys and girls. This is a generation that’s grown up on Nintendo and Naruto, Pucca and Pocky and Pokemon, and for them, distance makes the heart grow fonder: The farther away the origins of a product, brand or phenomenon, the cooler they think it is. Throw in the fact that the Wonder Girls are already virally entrenched in most of their preferred channels of media — YouTube, blogs, and file sharing services — and the possibilities seem endless.
But do the girls even want to make the big jump? Leader Sun Ye says yes. “We always dream big, because dreaming big is important,” she says. “We wanted to come here to get the feeling of what America is like before making any thoughts about debuting here. But now we’ve thought about it!”
So Hee agrees. “Everyone always talks about America, why they want to come here, and now, having been here myself, I understand why,” she says.
“We’ve gained some confidence,” Sun Mi chimes in. “It feels like it’s definitely not impossible.”
To which Ye Eun adds solemnly, “Our goal is the world!” and then, in perfect English, “Impossible is nothing!” — striking an appropriately Adidas-esque pose. The girls break up in laughter.
Get ready, America. It’s a Wonder Girl world. We just live in it.