Hello everyone, and welcome back to another SB Exchange! This week, I take a look at the Best New Band in the world, 2NE1.

Like a lot of things K-pop, I discovered 2NE1 through SHINee. See, when you google ‘Minho’, actor Lee Min-ho also turns up in the results, and it just so happens that he was in the music video for Dara’s beer commercial solo song “Kiss“.

Luckily, “I Am The Best” was released a week later, so I was able to recalibrate my perception of 2NE1 as I fully experienced the awesomeness of their badass girl-power concept.

What do our Seoulbeats writers think of this fast-rising girl group? This week, I quizzed Nabeela, Maddie, and Fannie.

Okay, how about we start off with one thing you like about 2NE1 and one thing you don’t.

Nabeela: One thing I really love about 2NE1 is their girl-power image. It’s something that has been consistent with them since their debut, and having spent so many years as a K-pop fan and witnessing countless concepts changes, I’ve come to appreciate consistency more and more. And while many argue that ‘oh this girl power image was something produced by a bunch of men to make money’ etc, etc, I call BS.

We’ve seen countless groups over time try the girl power, angst in stilettos concept and come up flat nearly every time. Look at SNSD‘s “Run Devil Run” and “The Boys“, Nine Muses’ “No Playboy“, Rania‘s “Dr. Feel Good“, Kara‘s “Lupin“– the list goes on and on. Girl power and sex appeal, sure they’re things you can sell if you’re instructed to do so; but with 2NE1, they don’t sell, they deliver their image. And that makes all the difference. So they may be all up in your face with how badass they are, and sure, it makes some of us uncomfortable.

But that makes them iconic, that’s something that makes them different. And that makes them worth remembering even if you don’t like them. I think that equates to success more than anything. Their image and their stage presence are the reasons 2NE1 has climbed to such high ranks of success within just 2 years of debut. Their first album made waves on the music scene, and that can’t be said for a lot of other female rookies today in K-pop.

One thing I don’t like about 2NE1 is their stage wardrobe, but only sometimes. I know Bom is known for being the goddess in the mini dress, but she looks uncomfortable sometimes when she tries to dance. Oftentimes the girls usually wear similar outfits each time they perform– Bom wears a tiny dress, CL wears a jacket and tights, Minzy wears a coat-thing of sorts, Dara is in something too masculine for her figure. And while I don’t mind their outfits, I would appreciate a little more differentiation more often, like when they performed “Go Away” on KBS Music Bank and they all wore coats. That was cool.

Other than that, I really have no other complaints about 2NE1.

Maddie: Although I wouldn’t consider myself a die-hard “Black Jack”, what I like most about 2NE1 is the attitude and level of passion they bring to their performances, especially CL and Minzy. CL is always on point and seems to have that “Don’t pull out a gun unless you plan to pull the trigger” type of attitude. When she’s on-stage (and this is evident even in the MVs), she intends to kill it. Whether it’s nailing her vocals or the choreography, she’s very focused and determined give nothing less than her best. Same goes for Minzy. While CL is the leader of the group and much is expected of her, Minzy matches her on-stage attitude and her love for dance is very evident so it’s great to see them dancing alongside each other.

Park Bom and Dara also show their own level of passion for performance. Although neither are as “amazing” dancers as CL and Minzy, Bom’s voice is powerful and the fact that she dances awkwardly in her signature mini dress can be tolerated. Dara may be considered the least talented of the group, but she always gives her all and is very enthusiastic during performances. Her determination to not only match the others, but do her part shows how passionate she is and that she’s very conscious of her role in the group.

Each one of these girls brings that determination and attitude which is very characteristic of their overall image. I feel that without this element they’d either be overlooked or categorized as just a girl group with attention worthy style.

One thing I don’t like about 2NE1 is that they seem second to Big Bang. They didn’t actually debut on their own but were introduced to the public via Big Bang with “Lollipop” which was a commercial campaign for LG Electronics. That their first appearance was on an advertisement with their more popular counterparts was a great marketing strategy yet gave the impression they couldn’t do it on their own. Their debut song “Fire” was very successful and their popularity as a group grew online but they still haven’t been able to shake off that association to Big Bang.

Fannie: One thing that I like about 2NE1 is the girls actually know how to perform to an audience. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Sadly, however, it’s something that I think a lot of groups in K-pop simply aren’t trained to do. Their job is to go up on stage, go through the motions of their choreography, mouth the words to their song, strike a finishing pose, and they’re done. There’s hardly any interaction with the audience during a performance — indeed, there’s rarely any acknowledgement of them either, unless it’s at a super intimate private concert. When 2NE1 performs, you can sense that the girls really try to feed off of the energy of their fans and respond. They perform for the audience, rather than the camera, which is a characteristic I particularly admire for YG artists.

One thing that I don’t like about 2NE1… is that the girls sometimes get swallowed up in their style. I love the fact that 2NE1 is out there to blaze new paths with unconventional fashion statements (and that they really were the first group to do so on such a large scale), but sometimes it seems like it’s the clothes that are wearing the girls, instead of the other way around. Another concern I have is that lately, the group’s sound and/or Teddy has begun to stagnate. It hasn’t by any means taken a turn for the bad, but neither has it significantly grown. I can only hope that in the next year, they’ll begin to take bigger steps to branch out of their comfort zone (while still holding onto their roots).

A lot of people attribute 2NE1’s success to its unique concept, while others link it to its association with BIGBANG and YG. While I feel there are links between them, what would you say is the most important factor to 2NE1’s success?

Nabeela: Apart from their unique image, I think 2NE1’s success comes from YG’s marketing strategies. 2NE1 is not often seen on variety, nor do they crank out sounds every month. The girls spend a lot of time with their music, whether it’s promoting it on music shows or developing it behind the scenes, and that extra time with their music really shows with their music quality.

Also, I think more so than anybody else, Teddy is another huge reason as to why 2NE1 has reached so much success. He’s very experimental with his beats sometimes, and even collaborates with idols while they’re in the studio to produce the sound best for them. So now we not only have iconic image, but also iconic sound. He’s got great musical sense, for what’s hot in Korea and what’s hot on an international scale, and that is in an ace in the hole. Without Teddy, 2NE1 would probably sound like every other girl group out on the scene or would be putting out Korean remakes of Eurotrash and Ke$ha. But thankfully, that is not the case.

Maddie: In my opinion, the most important factor to 2NE1’s success is their appealing sound and image. That their first appearance was in a commercial with Big Bang is just that. The success that they’ve achieved afterwards was earned, not handed to them. Big Bang may have brought them in but they had to prove themselves and show what they had to offer as a group. They trained for 4 years prior to debuting with “Fire” which had both a distinct sound and an original image. Their hip hop/pop image and outrageous style has been constant since their debut therefore can be considered a legitimate part of who they are as a group and not just another K-pop gimmick. This, along with their attitude and passion as a group, is what’s attributed to their success, especially with their growing international popularity which was mainly due to their online exposure (i.e. MTV Iggy Best New Band Award). They’ll continue to be associated with Big Bang and, of course, with YG, but it’s obvious these girls can stand on their own.

Fannie: The most important factor to 2NE1’s success is that they try to set trends, rather than to follow them. They end up influencing the industry with their own work, rather than being influenced by what seems to be working for others (something that I wish that Secret could have internalized before it was too late). It’s also important that 2NE1 has a signature sound. When you hear a 2NE1 song, you never mistake it for being a song that could have been sung by someone else.

In addition, 2NE1’s concept is very consistent, which has resulted in a very solid and recognizable identity for the group. I feel like for a lot of the other bipolar girl groups that completely reinvent and contradict themselves from concept to concept (from innocent schoolgirls, to cat-girls, to Native Americans, to leather-clad seductresses, to cheerleaders, to retro pin-up girls, etc. you get the picture) I’m just confused by now as to which persona should be designated as the true persona of the group. For 2NE1, we pretty much get the same four girls, not donning costumes to take on new identities, but instead, showing us all sides of themselves and who they are. We get to see the same four girls’ confidence in “Fire” and “I Am The Best”, their strength in the face of hurt in “I Don’t Care“, their melancholy in “Lonely” and “It Hurts“, and their insecurity in “Ugly“. These are all very universal messages. The projection of 2NE1 (after all, they ARE an image, even if a consistent one) never changes its essence; rather than reincarnating into a spectrum of different physical forms (which is what other girl groups do) we get to see different internal facets of its one existence instead.

At the Best New Band concert in NYC, the ladies performed ‘Fire’, ‘Can’t Nobody’, ‘Lonely’ and ‘I Am The Best’. Do you think these were most representative of their talent? What songs would you have liked to see them perform?

Nabeela: I would have preferred “I Don’t Care” and “Clap Your Hands“, but I think all the songs represent 2NE1 so if I’m choosing, I’m just choosing favorites. To me the MTV Iggy concert was fun to watch regardless, I just wish the girls spoke to the crowd a little bit more.

Maddie: Although didn’t get the opportunity to see them live (long line outside the MTV studio), I did see their performance on MTV’s screen in Times Square and heard the show via live-stream on my phone. Considering that I felt jealous of those who were lucky enough to enjoy the craziness inside (not just because it was freezing outdoors), I would say that the songs chosen were representative of their talent. Being that the songs have been very popular on YouTube, their audience (both indoors and outdoors) was hyped and singing along meaning that they were both familiar with them and anticipated hearing them live. I was satisfied with the song list.

Fannie: I feel like it was a decent mix of songs — “Fire” is definitely the one song that is pretty much synonymous with 2NE1, they were able to slow down and showcase their vocals in “Lonely”, and “I Am The Best” was a great song to end on because it oh-so-appropriate for the award they were getting. I WOULD have liked to see them perform the English version of “Can’t Nobody” instead of the Korean one. Not only is the English version of the song much better (in my humble opinion), but it also would have allowed the girls to prove their English abilities to their foreign audience.

With increasing global presence, it seems that success in the USA with their upcoming English album is becoming more a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’. While this topic has been discussed endlessly, I wanted to ask what success for 2NE1 in this regard means for the rest of the K-pop industry; I mean, 2NE1 are very unique from other groups (especially girl groups) — what do you think will happen when people become interested in 2NE1 and decide to look up other K-pop groups?

Nabeela: To me, 2NE1 always seemed to be the best cross over potential. Their music is already very western in the sense that they utilize the message of girl power instead of the concept of girl power and plus they make use of acoustics and guitars as well as plenty of addicting beats and bases that are all over American mainstream right now. Success for the 2NE1 in America would really put a lot of idols in their place, I think. So many have tried and are still trying to break into the American market. But actual, tangible success would mean the group and their entertainment company would be seen as a lot more progressive in international music, and most likely they’d reach some sort of super idoldom status back home in Korea.

I couldn’t say what would happen if a curious fan decided to look up Korean pop stars other than 2NE1. The K-pop world is so unpredictable. Right now we may see 2NE1 as one in a million, but should 2NE1 reach international success, there is no doubt that every group in Korea would make attempts to emulate their image and their style in hopes of reaching similar success.

So who really knows what fan would find in that particular situation. I couldn’t tell you.

Maddie: When people begin to search and begin to become more familiar with other groups, I feel that they’ll see what else K-pop has to offer. I don’t feel the other existing girl groups will copy 2NE1’s image to a tee but maybe they’ll be influenced by them. Of course, other groups have tried to make it in the West and it hasn’t really worked. It’s 2NE1’s sound and how much it’s influenced by western music that has gotten them this far and will continue to aid them in reaching the west. They may just be the ones to open the door for other groups with similar sounds and an opportunity for others to experiment.

Fannie: I think it’s premature to claim in any way that the girls are guaranteed a success in the US, but I do agree that they have the best odds out of all the idol groups at the moment. What I think is particularly great about this crossover is that 2NE1 doesn’t necessarily need to reinvent themselves for the American market, they just need to be able to do what they’ve been doing all along, just in a different language. There are aspects of the group that I think would work great in the US (overall sound and image, relative fluency in English, being backed and already recognized by some pretty influential figures), while there are other aspects that I think could be worked on (Bom and Dara’s shaky lives, extremely PC and shallow interview answers — this works GREAT in Korea but not in the US/UK).

If 2NE1 were to succeed, I do think that it would be beneficial to the K-pop industry. Naturally, new fans of 2NE1 would start looking into K-pop and exploring other groups. I don’t think there would be a negative reaction to the groups themselves though, honestly. Non-initiated people in the US have already more or less been exposed to Asian pop culture in some form (due to Youtube and the previous import of Japanese animanga/video game culture) and so they are already prepared to expect the kawaii/aegyo-style girls and pretty boys, and if they’re willing to make it past that, there’s a good chance that they’ll keep on exploring. I think, though, that while K-pop may draw in a newer and bigger audience, it still won’t ever make it mainstream. I mean, just look at anime. It’s been shown on American TV (on Cartoon Network, for example) for a number of years, but it is definitely still only a niche thing.

One thing that I do hope for is that existing K-pop fans have the sense enough to not engage in obnoxious behavior and alienate the mainstream American audience from K-pop (before even giving it a chance) by trying to force shove their favorite artists down everyone’s throats without caring whether they like it or not. We often blame the companies and Korean media for lacking the humble touch and doing the ridiculous trumpeting of the Hallyu wave, but the hardcore international fans aren’t much better, themselves. It would be sad if K-pop garnered haters not because of the idols themselves, but because of the fans (the way that the Beliebers did for Justin Bieber). Sadly, knowing what K-pop fan culture has evolved into these days, it may already be too late. I already see this kind of thing happening even WITHOUT an actual success of a crossover group to the US. Sigh.

And now for something different; on a radio interview, some male idols were asked which member of 2NE1 they would bring with them to a deserted island (G-Dragon’s answer takes the cake). Which member would you take with you, and why?

Nabeela: I don’t know…..a deserted island? I’m not really sure about their survival skills. Maybe Dara, because she’s fairly optimistic and is rather skinny, so she probably doesn’t eat much. More food for me!

Maddie: I don’t know about taking any of the members to a deserted island but if I were to be stranded on an island I would prefer it to be with CL. She seems to have the right attitude for survival and is reliable.

Fannie: I would bring CL, because she always seems so calm and collected, and would probably be able to get me out of any sort of sticky situation. The girl is a natural born leader– I mean she’s seven years younger than Dara and Bom but she’s obviously the most responsible and mature member of the group. Minzy would probably be dancing the whole time instead of trying to help us get off the island. Bom would eat all the coconuts within the first 5 minutes, and then the two of us would probably starve to death (although she would keep me highly entertained while doing so). And I’d probably lose sight of Dara because her hair would blend in with the palm trees. That would be basically akin to being stranded on a deserted island, alone.

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As to 2NE1 itself: for me, everything comes back to the group’s sound. Even their styling and other visual aspects, which could be seen as mere window dressing, are actually an extension of their music. It’s like a flowering plant: everyone appreciates the blooms, but they are only able to exist due to the presence of the plant’s roots; if you were to pick off the flowers, or even got rid of every part of the plant above the ground and left only the roots, sure the roots will survive—but what purpose does it have without anything to nourish and anchor?

There are some artists whose music is able to exist without any accoutrements, but I don’t feel like 2NE1’s music is like that. The roots are the group’s sound, from which everything else (like image) grows, and while these other things need to be maintained, the sound is most important- that is what is keeping 2NE1 as a whole alive, and as long as they continue to nurture and care for this, their roots, they will continue to, simply, be the best.

What are your thoughts on 2NE1?

(SBS, MTVK, kpoplists)