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The Blackpink revolution: how the K-Pop girl group became a global obsession

Blackpink
Blackpink

This article has an estimated read time of nine minutes 

Lei Tan is a 22-year old high school graduate from the Philippines, and listens to Korean girl group Blackpink, “when I eat, when I’m in the bath, on the way to work, when I work out. Whatever I do, I am listening to Blackpink.” She doesn’t understand the lyrics – minimalist Korean rap layered over a pulsing clubhouse beat and offset by a simple, catchy hook – but she has a tattoo of one of the four female twentysomething band members, Lisa, on her waist, “to relieve stress.”

Jen, a 25 year old Blackpink fan and applications developer from California, last summer spent $500 on a single VIP ticket to see the band on their North American tour in New Jersey, alongside a further $1,000 on a plane ticket and a hotel. “Anything more than that though, I would have to re-evaluate,” she says, while Brook from London tells me he “can’t sleep at night” unless he watches several YouTube videos of bandmates Rosé, Lisa, Jennie and Jisoo, in succession.

Another “Blink”, as Blackpink’s staggeringly large global fandom has monikered itself, says he averages 73 YouTube videos of the band’s performances, reality TV series or interviews every day. “And that’s watching them beginning to end,” he adds.

“The level of effort from the fandom to support their idols is astounding,” says Jen. “The fandom culture is integral to K-Pop. It’s the reason it got so massive.”

Even the word massive feels like an understatement when talking about K-Pop in 2019. The catch-all genre, which originated back in the Fifties when South Korean trio The Kim Sisters sang American songs to US soldiers during the Korean War, has been a cornerstone of South Korea’s national identity for over a decade, and is now integral to their soft power.

K-Pop's biggest export

In fact, the cultural and economic potential of K-Pop, which is best described as a mash-up of Western genres including pop, hip-hop and electronic, was so anticipated that in 2003, President Roh Moo-hyun declared South Korea’s national objective to become one of “the world’s top five content powers”. In 2008, girl group Wonder Girls became the first K-Pop act to get a song into the Billboard 100, while in 2012, South Korean act Psy broke YouTube’s viewing record with his one-hit wonder Gangnam style, racking up so many views YouTube actually had to upgrade its counter.

It wasn’t until last year, however, that K-Pop’s international success became consistent, spearheaded by both seven-piece boy band BTS (who, as of Monday, became the first K-Pop group to headline Wembley Stadium, and whose recent album Love Yourself came the first K-Pop album to make it to number one in the US album charts), and their female counterparts Blackpink.

When the band debuted in 2016 with their first EP, Square One, the single, Whistle, went straight to number one in South Korea, while the video for Boombayah broke the record for the most-viewed debut music video by a Korean act. Most recently, their hit single Ddu Ddu Ddu, which they performed on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show in February, nabbed the record off BTS as Youtube’s most viewed video within 24 hours.

And it’s not just K-Pop records they’re breaking: in April, they became the first girl group since Destiny’s Child to top the US iTunes chart, and a month later, they became the first girl band since the Spice Girls to gross over $1 million from a single show. It seems that Blackpink’s catchphrase, "Blackpink is the revolution", might not be hyperbole after all.

Blackpink’s fandom, far from limited to home of K-Pop Seoul, stretches from Asia to Europe via America. “I saw a huge increase in American fans after Blackpink played Coachella in May,” says Sharon, the 17 year-old Korean admin of Blackpink’s largest Twitter fan page, who spends her free time after school translating articles, video interviews, Instagram captions and songs from Korean to English for Blinks.

“Sometimes a video can take me days, but it’s always fun, and Blackpink promotes Korea all around the world. During one of their concerts in Europe, Blackpink’s Rosé picked up the Korean flag and wore it around the stage. As a Korean, this made me feel proud,” she says. For Jen, who understands no Korean, listening to Blackpink has inspired her to pick up the language. “I don’t think we Westerners feel a minority in the fandom. You can feel the emotions in the songs, their body language – this is what stimulates discussion.”

But why, I ask Sharon, does K-Pop drive fans so wild, taking Stanning (the term used to describe extreme fan-devotion) to levels even Arianna Grande can’t command? “Although I’m not saying fans from other countries aren’t, fans in Korea are really loyal and spend a lot of time when it comes to quality. They spend a lot of time and money on projects for their favourite artists,” she says.

“Whenever they release music, the fandom goes beyond casual listening. They will buy and stream the heck out of the songs,” adds Jen. Another Blink fandom admin, a 20-year-old university student from Australia, tells me the Blinks often come together to raise money for the Blackpink girls on special occasions, such as sending them gifts on their birthday. “Their hard work and dedication inspires me to be a better version of myself,” she says.

One Blackpink fan was so protective of the band she began to quiz me on my favourite Blackpink songs before she answered my questions. “You don’t seem to know much about Blackpink,” she scolded, before warning: “Don’t disappoint us.”

Blackpink’s USP is their elaborate dance choreography, a part of performance which Western performers, with the exception of Beyoncé and Dua Lipa, left by the wayside after Nineties icons such as Britney Spears, Kylie and Madonna lost their shine (and flexibility). On stage, it allows the band to engage with Western fans who can’t connect with the lyrics.

At the band’s first London gig last month to 12,500 fans at Wembley, periods of silence fell as fans were hypnotized by their meticulously planned footwork, the addictive hooks synchronised with a ‘point dance’ step, which is used to describe a succession of simple dances repeated several times throughout one song. The idea is that fans can learn and copy the moves easily – another way in which fan engagement can transcend the lyrical language barrier.

Blackpink’s influence has now begun to shape Western nightlife, too, with several K-POP club nights and dance groups take place in London. Louise Quan, who founded the city’s Love K-Pop Dance club last summer, says that her classes have spiked in attendance as of this year, and her Blackpink and BTS classes will often sell out. “The attendees, mostly women aged between 13 and 30, are incredibly diverse: British, English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Italian...the list goes on,” she says. “It signifies how universal K-Pop music and the K-Pop dance cover culture is.”

“I love the passion and effort they put into their songs, and the quality they put into their aesthetic and visuals is astonishing,” says Sharon, echoing the sentiments of every Blink I speak to. With most major Western stars mostly relying on elaborate set pieces, features and sweet talking the audience rather than a planned and rehearsed show (at her O2 show in March, Nicki Minaj barely did more than flick her hair, while Drake spent great chunks of his O2 show off-stage altogether, and did One Direction ever do more than shuffle?), it’s a treat for fans to feel their idols truly want to impress them.

In fact, so earnest is Blackpink’s desire to give back to their audience that at their Wembley show, where thousands of fans held up £29 pink, heart-shaped lightsticks and sang the band’s hits half an hour before the show began, the band played scores of YouTube clips of fans singing and dancing to their music on the big screens. Even the non-believers (middle-aged journalists sitting cynically at the back), couldn’t help but melt.

When Jennie then sweetly told the crowd that, ‘You look really nice! I’m totally going to go home and study your looks tonight’, no doubt many wished more of pop’s royalty had such manners. “They are so kind,” a 23-year-old fan from Indonesia tells me. “They always make sure to do autograph signings, and they also once gave us all homemade macaroons and Hera makeup products.”

Singers Lisa and Jennie Kim 

Of course, cynics will say such charm is all part of the master plan. After all, the birth of Blackpink might be the most strategised success story in pop history.

Jisoo, Lisa, Rosé and Jennie were all strangers to each before they met in Seoul, 2010, to take part in a grueling recruitment process hosted by one of South Korea’s three leading talent agencies, YG Entertainment (which also serves as a label and management company), for which K-Pop stars are not so much found, as made.

Along with 20 other aspiring singers, the four women, aged between 16 and 20, shared a dormitory, woke every morning between five and six AM and, for 12 hours every day, seven days a week, practised the art of fame. For each activity, from singing and rapping to dancing, each recruit would be graded either A, B or C on a monthly basis by YG’s founder, former K-Pop boy band member and record producer Yang Hyun-Suk.

“Somebody would come in with a piece of paper and stick it on a wall, and it would say who did best, who did worst, who’s going home,” Jennie told Billboard earlier this month. A strict diet was a given from day one, as were the rules: no dating, no drinking, no days off. According to K-Pop expert Hannah Waites, botox and a nose job are as flippantly ascribed to K-Pop stars-in-the-making as a new haircut.

Do fans ever worry their idols have been manufactured by YG? After all, the women have no official writing credits on any of their songs, and K-Pop has been criticised for promoting its female stars as overtly passive and commodified, feeding into damaging Western stereotypes of the meek Asian female.  

On Reddit, many fans criticise the band’s ‘fake’ baby voices in their popular reality TV series Blackpink House, which aired last summer. The show had the four girls sharing a two bedroom pink-doored house in Hongdae for 100 days, and cast an intimate lens on their daily activities, from messing around on Snapchat in their pyjamas before bed, to baking cakes, shopping, eating out and rehearsing for their tour.

“I think YG is trying to catch the uncle fans by making them talk like that,” one fan posits on a Reddit forum. “2NE1 [one of the first K-Pop girl bands from the Nineties] mostly had a female fanbase, but Uncle fans bring more money. It’s just YG being a freaking perv. People like it when girl groups are innocent virgins.” Another fan agrees: “It makes me wonder about Blackpink like...what is Blackpink really like? I feel like I’ve never seen even close to their true personalities.”

According to academic Ae Jin Han and her thesis The Aesthetics of Cuteness in Korean Pop Music, the training K-Pop bands like Blackpink went through will have included honing their ‘aegyo’, a Korean term referring to a “cute display of affection” expressed via mannerisms, gestures and language.

A specific ‘aegyo’ style will have been ascribed to each band member and personalised according to their individual image within the group. “For instance,” says Lei, “Jisoo is the responsible unnie [Korean for older sister] that always takes care of the girls...Jennie looks cold and savage but in reality she’s so soft and sweet, Rosé is a ball of sunshine who loves her food, and Lisa, the youngest of them all, is such a monster on stage but off stage she’s such a baby.” Trawl through fan appreciation accounts or on the band’s YouTube interviews, and the majority of comments revolve around “how cute” one of the girls is and which one is their favourite “baby”.

“No, they’re never fake,” assures Sharon. “It’s one of the reasons I love them. They’re actually really transparent. You can see on camera what they feel; they cry when they’re sad.” Others fans don’t see a problem with the ‘aegyo’ even if it is fake, arguing that performing artists are professionally required to put on an act. Admittedly, when Blinks debate the issue among themselves on social media, it’s always the haters that lose face. 

And besides, was there ever a revolution without a little strife?