Well, it was going to happen eventually. This week, we look at South Korea’s National Girl Group, Girls’ Generation (AKA So Nyuh Shi Dae) . Debuting in 2007 as fresh-faced teenagers with “Into The New World”, SNSD hit the big time with “Gee”, and from there have gone on to conquer Korea, and subsequently become the jewel in SM Entertainment‘s crown.
Regular readers will be familiar with how SNSD were the ones to introduce me to K-pop — but that was with the sleek “Run Devil Run”. Going through their older (and more aegyo) material, I realised that though these nine girls are kind of a sentimental favourite, I actually had little idea of their history and the context of their successes. So, to enlighten me on all things Soshi, I’ve roped in Natalie, Justin and Dana.
1. The group is famous for the “SNSD Effect”, which results in any advertiser featuring the girls in their campaigns to experience a massive increase in sales. What other ways have SNSD influenced the K-pop scene, and Korea in general?
Natalie: SNSD is packaged as nine flawless girls. In South Korea, they’re the ideal. They’re pretty, friendly, talented and surrounded by so much love and hype that it’s difficult to not be interested in them, especially for young girls (and women) who are expected by society to fit this ideal; so they want to be like SNSD, and as a result whatever SNSD touches becomes a must-have item, popular by association.
In 2011, I often heard about new groups trying to gain a standing in the industry by mimicking whatever it is that SNSD has that makes them superstars: multiple members, annoyingly catchy songs, slender legs, etc. Because SNSD’s popularity is so huge, it’s only natural for new groups and smaller companies to want to catch ahold of that “it” factor SNSD have in order to be successful. But aside from this, I know that SNSD is a trend-setter in the industry, being stylish and having cool, interesting concepts that few other groups match. A lot of K-pop groups go through the same cycle of aegyo concepts and dark concepts but the way SM styles SNSD is so much more eye-catching than your typical K-pop girl group – I’d love to raid SNSD’s closet.
And of course, SNSD are Hallyu stars. They’re beloved in Asia and out and have a huge, devoted fanbase that loves them to death. They’ve helped spread the Hallyu wave and continue to do so, gaining new fans left and right with their charm and good looks. SNSD helped change the K-pop industry by making it popular internationally (less so in some places than others). They’re not the only Hallyu stars but their contribution to the Hallyu wave can’t be overlooked – it certainly wouldn’t be as big as it is now without them.
Dana: There is no question that SNSD’s enormous success has influenced both the number of girl groups that have subsequently debuted and the way they are styled and marketed. In many ways, SNSD has set the standard for what can be considered “true” success in K-pop; I recall hearing a number of girls groups say upon their debut that their goal was to be “bigger than SNSD.”
But it’s more than what can be measured empirically. I think that SNSD, in their inadvertent role as trendsetters, have touched off a society-wide debate in and out of Korea about girl groups, gender politics, the Ajusshi-fan phenomenon, the image of women, and feminism. Not that I myself am a screaming feminist, but it’s hard to deny that SNSD has often been the target of a lot of criticism regarding their manner of dress and subordination to both men and the male gaze (not that either of those things are necessarily objective complaints or even the fault of the girls themselves). Though more and more girl groups today can be accused of catering to a kind of creepy male audience (coughChocolat‘slatestmusicvideocough), SNSD’s overwhelming popularity and the very fact that they were one of the groups that touched off the incredible sea of girl groups that we’ve seen since 2007 puts them at the center of this discussion.
Justin: SNSD is a not just a South Korean girl group that sells music; SNSD sells SNSD as a packaged whole, from their looks to their girlish personalities in variety shows. How does SNSD sell so well? SNSD came out when girl groups were just starting to emerge from their shells. Before SNSD came out, girl groups weren’t the best money investments. Sure we got groups like SES, Fin.K.L, and BabyVOX, but these girl groups were profitable rarities in a sea of failures. Because of the time when SNSD debuted, SNSD was able to establish themselves in the K-pop world, and it helped that SM was backing SNSD up.
The result was that SNSD became the “Number One Girl Group in Korea,” but what’s interesting is that SNSD became a competitor to boy groups as well. Historically it was usually boy groups that won all the big flashy awards, but SNSD has been winning awards left and right that otherwise would have went to another boy group, including Golden Disk Awards, Seoul Music Awards & Melon Music Awards, to name a few.
SNSD also brought out a market that has not been really tapped into before: the boys’ market. Typically when people think of K-pop, they think of crazy fan girls along those lines, but many don’t think that guys can be just as SARANGHEYO crazy as well. SME pulled an ingenious move in debuting SNSD, and to cater to the broad range of men, from the preteens to the ajushhis. By having a generally liked image of the sweet girls next door image, SNSD is able to attract a broad audience which as a result brings in revenue. All their albums sell well, and they sell well digitally too. This gave SNSD an advantage — previously, especially with boy groups, idol groups will sell well physically, but would do poorly digitally (i.e. Super Junior). The realization that SNSD can succeed in both departments, along with the help of the Wonder Girls, changed how the K-pop scene worked.
SNSD is a text book example of how to have a girl group succeed, and other companies took notice of this, birthing a plethora of girl groups that try to emulate SNSD’s success. Granted, these girl groups may have some points of difference, but groups like SNSD, KARA and Wonder Girls have the advantage of being the first ( at least from 2007 onwards).
2. SNSD’s marketing strategy in the US seems to be to rely on big-name producers, rappers and DJs to pull them through — and have Tiffany constantly mention the Power of Nine. A recent interview saw the tentative announcement of an English album to be released this summer (key word being tentative), so more promotions seem to be on the horizon; if you could take matters into your own hands, how would you promote SNSD in the US — or in the West, in general?
Natalie: Oh, Tiffany. Her and her constant name dropping (like, people know who Teddy Riley is) and pats on the back. To be honest, SNSD’s Western promotions irk me, but that’s mostly because of their fans and interviews. Two performances and suddenly they’re America’s newest stars, is what the K-poposphere seems to think. But I’m getting off topic. Back to the question, I wouldn’t solely rely on producers and a few performances to make it in the US. The market is cutthroat – you need a strong image, something to stand out about you. SNSD sort of has that. They’re Asia’s Number One Girl Group – but there’s so many of them and they all look so similar that people will have a very difficult time differentiating the members. It doesn’t help that only two members speak fluent English (and sound like stereotypical Valley Girls while doing so). They won’t be able to connect to an American audience through interviews. Tiffany and Jessicacould but I would be worried about them being the frontmen of the group. Personally, Tiffany and Jessica annoy me more and more with every English interview they’re in. However, a really good song can do wonders. Who cares how many persons there are in a group or what they look like so long as they produce good music? But this also backfires on SNSD. “The Boys,” though some people do like it, isn’t a good enough song to break into the US market. And a lot of SNSD’s popularity and appeal resides in their appearance and performances. They won’t be able to perform constantly like they do in South Korea on music shows, they’ll need to rely on radio plays.
SNSD should go ahead with the new album — keep or lose Teddy Riley. He’s made good music in the past; don’t know what he was going for with “The Boys.” I think he still has potential to create good music that will appeal to the American public. But he’s not Timbaland – hardly anyone knows his name. That album would have to be amazingly good, like their Japanese album. With rumors of an English album going around, everyone’s been wanting remakes but I disagree. Several of SNSD’s hit songs, like “Tell Me Your Wish/Genie” and “Run Devil Run,” were bought from Western producers and according to what I’ve heard, SM can only distribute those songs in Asia. But even if this wasn’t true, I highly doubt a song like “Genie” or “Gee” would sit well with an American audience. “Gee” is bubble pop, stuff that generally appeals to adolescents. “Genie” is a good song but hardly the sort of song that independent young women would like to be singing. The lyrics in that song cater to men and the connotations that genies have (slavery, submission) won’t sit well with a Western audience. “Run Devil Run” would immediately bring Ke$ha to mind. So I say “No” on remakes. I would also promote them heavily – get them on the radio, get their name around Hollywood, get them interviews.
Justin: First thing that I would want to do is to find out: who are they targeting in America? In all businesses it’s important to know who your target market is, and for SNSD I don’t know who their American target audience is. If they are going for a younger target audience then they should go to Disney or Nickelodeon, but if they are trying to go for the sex appeal thing, then they would need to step it up because by American standards it’s weak.
Second, I would put out original songs that catered even more to Americans. It makes sense that if you are going to debut in America, you are going to try to understand what works in America. What might work in Korea (i.e. variety shows) might not work as much in America, so SNSD needs to understand that, and work with that mentality.
And lastly, I would cut the (c)rap. As a personal thing, if you can’t rap, then just avoid it at all costs. It seems nowadays every K-pop song has a rap part, and majority of the times the rap part is not needed. SNSD is not any different. We know that SNSD cannot rap, and should not rap. SNSD has been successful without rapping, so they should not bring rap into this.
Dana: Honestly, my strategy would be to pack the girls’ bags, put them on a plane, and send them straight back to Korea. I already wrote about it in detail, but I have a strong aversion to K-pop’s expansion in the West/US. I just think that SNSD, as a musical artist, concept, brand, what-have-you, makes very little sense and has very little appeal outside of Korea.
But since you asked, I’ll try to forget that that news of SNSD’s anticipated English album made me die a little inside and pretend that I am very invested in their American success. First off, while I am totally all about the Power of Nine (and I actually almost bought one of those “Beyond 9” sweatshirts that they were selling in Korea last year), I think it as an absolutely terrible idea in the US. As much as I don’t really like the idea of subgroups, I don’t think it would be a bad idea in SNSD’s case, especially if the subgroups had clearly defined plans-of-attack, so to speak, regarding their approach to the Western market. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: SNSD, I love you girls thiiiiis much, but some of you just…can’t sing. Or speak English terribly well. The latter may be fixable, but the former has kind of been a problem that has plagued you since debut. Western audiences aren’t going to fall in love with your personalities through variety shows (or even through interviews, since your English is still a bit problematic), so your music has to sell itself on its own merit, and I’m just not convinced that it can do that. Because some of you just…can’t sing.
Smaller groups might be a little more digestible to the American audience that thinks “there’s like 50 of them,” and they’d have the advantage of being able to better cater to the individual members’ strengths by producing/promoting different songs. I’m not saying that SNSD has to forever split down the middle, or even promote separately for that matter. What I think would be most effective would be a scenario where SNSD releases one English album that features both songs sung by the subgroups and some songs in which all members are featured. If/when they promote in the US, they can still do so together; it’s just that not all members would be performing all the songs all the time.
And since I suggested subgroups, here’s how I’d design it: on SNSD Team A (I can’t think of a name right now), I’d put Taeyeon, Tiffany, Sunny, and Seohyun; SNSD Team B would be comprised of Jessica, Yuri, Hyoyeon, Yoona, and Sooyoung. Ideally, Team A’s songs would have greater emphasis on vocals, while Team B’s songs would emphasize dance/performance (the reason Jessica is on Team B is that there has to be SOME vocal compensation, though I suppose Jessica and Seohyun could be interchangeable).
4. I know the term “5 year curse”crops up often, but how long more do you think SNSD will last? Though there are now female idols in their late 20s and even early 30s, can you see SNSD joining their ranks as a group?
Natalie: I actually think SNSD could turn into legends – at least in South Korea. Being leaders of the Hallyu wave, I can see SNSD going down in Korean music history as a group that fundamentally changed K-pop and spread it internationally. And with their popularity, I see them lasting a little while longer yet. They’re still young and hot and the Hallyu wave hasn’t died yet, so my guess would be that SNSD has two or three years left in the industry. I can picture them gradually losing popularity over time, other girl groups becoming popular as SNSD grows stale with age and predictability. Internationally, I don’t expect much. I see K-pop’s popularity dying out in the west and with it SNSD’s recognition.The only group I can think of that’s still active in their late twenties is Brown Eyed Girls and those ladies transcend idoldom, so they’re in a completely different situation than SNSD. SNSD are idols to the T and despite their popularity now I expect them to wane in popularity as time goes on, getting to an age where they’re no longer young enough to stir up people’s interests and falling to the wayside. Where they will go after that is anyone’s guess – acting?
Justin: I think SNSD will be together for a little while but not for too long. The game is simple: if you make profit and everyone is happy, then all is well; but once one or both of those two things fade away, then bye bye.
From a personal perspective, I think SNSD should not be together for a long time because people need to grow on their own. I think SNSD can pull an SES or BabyVOX. Even though those two groups broke up, they are still friends with each other, and I’d rather have SNSD go on that route than SNSD to be together for a long time and have the members get sick of each other due to the lack of freedom and privacy.
Dana: I think SNSD has a few more years left (provided their foray into the West doesn’t totally bankrupt SM), though I’d say that they are kind of sunk if their style of music doesn’t evolve with their age or maturity. There were some hidden gems on The Boys album, but I actually didn’t purchase more than half of it because I just couldn’t deal with their sound. They’ve got to release more mature music, or it’s over. I swear, if they ever release another song that sounds even vaguely like “Vitamin,” “My J,” or “Say Yes” (personally, Jessica and Tiffany’s English intro to this song makes me want to headdesk for the rest of forever), I might just throw away my SNSD socks and change my ringtone from “Genie” to something else.
As far as continuing to promote as a group, I think that SNSD is in for a natural and progressive disintegration. I think that as the members grow older, they will slowly branch off and continue to focus more and more on solo activities/solo careers, but I’m also pretty sure (or maybe just hopeful) that every once in a while, they’ll show up somewhere as a group to do something or perform. There’s not a terribly strong precedent for this (when was the last time Fin.K.L or SES did anything really significant as a group?), but I think SNSD’s dedicated fan base will make it profitable and enjoyable for the girls to come together every so often for even a small promotional activity.
The notion of SNSD being one of the first groups specifically marketed towards the male market is intriguing. I’m sure earlier girl groups had their fair share of male fans as well, but SM have been the most successful in mixing the (initial) girl-next-door image with catering to the male gaze (seriously, high kicks straight at the camera? In miniskirts??) My inner feminist cringes at these things, but seeing much more explicit appeals to the male gaze mean that my response to SNSD is somewhat dulled — though I refuse to watch “Oh!” and the Korean “Genie” MVs.
But, for me, SNSD’s charm is twofold. Firstly, their personalities — it’s not so much the nuances of their individual characters than the dichotomy between their onstage and offstage personas, where they are like goddesses one minute, and dorky kids the next. While the fact that they would act like normal people shouldn’t be that strange an idea, it somehow is to me, and it’s generally a trait seen in a lot of the performers I like. Secondly, (and this is worse than the personalities thing) is the fact that there are nine of them. One of my main motivations for finishing that “Run Devil Run” music video the first time was to find out just how many people were singing that song. I hadn’t seen so many people in a pop group since SClub7 — it was a change from my usual fare, and interested me enough to check out more of SNSD’s material, which essentially opened me up to the world of K-pop.
This third reason is also why I disagree with Dana’s subgroup idea, especially for US promotions. Nine is SNSD’s thing, it’s their point of differentiation in the Korean market, and with the Wonder Girls (and possibly 2NE1) also homing in on the US music industry, it will be their key characteristic in there too. SM already knows this — hence all the nine-talk from spokeswoman Tiffany. I think the proposed album will more likely be an EP, which I this is more sensible. Hopefully, it will have some good songs; I suspect that they will have rap, but outsource it to actual rappers like they did with their maxi single. Ideally though, before they release their EP they will feature in someone’s song, like in a David Guetta creation, which will go on to become a big hit, so that when their EP comes along, there is more relevant hype surrounding them other than “they’re big in Asia”.
As to how long SNSD will stay together, I felt that there had been a sufficient enough shift in Korean culture that would enable SNSD to stay intact for a longer period of time, and actually mature in their music style. But considering that their cuter material will always be more popular, a change in style would not augur well. Also, a big key to SNSD’s success is that, put simply, guys want them — and their desirablility seems to be tied to their single status. If the members wished to pursue romantic relationships, they would most likely not be able to do it while in SNSD. I think the best solution for SNSD is if SM just put them on the back burner a la CSJH The Grace: members could pursue individual activities while still keeping the SNSD name without the “ex-member” tag, and every now and then they could release material, either with all nine, or in different combinations of some members (like Dana and Sunday’s “One More Chance”). When this would happen though, is anyone’s guess — the SNSD’s US campaign could end up like CSJH’s Japan venture, triggering a hiatus, or we could have a natural progression over time. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
What are your thoughts on SNSD? And if you could form a SNSD subgroup, who would be in it, and what would the concept be?