The next few weeks promise to be exciting with the return of two of the leading girl groups in the industry– SNSD and 2NE1— to promote almost simultaneously, something that has not been seen since 2009. Which, come to think of it, was about half a decade ago. Media hype and rivalry aside, both groups displayed why exactly they are considered industry leaders with their respective comebacks, where we see two very different types of the “Girl Group” in terms of concept and styling.
Let’s rewind for a moment back to 2009, when both groups shot to fame, one to “nation’s girl group” status, and the other as “that fierce new girl group.” SNSD gave us the iconic image of skinny jeans in a rainbow of colours with “Gee,” and the resurgence of the popularity of the uniform look with “Tell Me Your Wish.” It is almost impossible to think of “Fire” era 2NE1 without remembering Dara’s palm-tree hair and the gamut of looks the group ran through, from hip-hop to Space Age to plain outrageous. While the hit songs shall remain embedded in K-pop’s aural consciousness for years to come, another way where both groups have had great impact in the industry is in the styling they have inspired in numerous junior groups in recent years.
Back to 2014. In the early months of the year, both the industry and its audience were beginning to show fatigue from the repetitiveness of the sexy concepts shown in the slew of January and February comebacks. It’s long been discussed how girl groups are stuck with the options of “cute” or “sexy” with a few outliers which usually fall along the lines of “fierce hip-hop” or “wacky fun.” In all, the girl group scene was crying out for a change, and with the arrival of March came both SNSD and 2NE1’s comebacks. Now that the dust has settled from the excitement, how have both groups brought something new and refreshing, style-wise, to the table?
For SNSD, the suit-and-tie look in their “MR MR” MV has to be one of their best looks as a group in recent times. Forget the hot mess that was their styling in “I Got A Boy,” SNSD has returned to what they know best with a synchronized, uniform look while also reflecting their growing maturity as a group by forgoing the marine or cheerleader or police uniforms for a classic, yet feminine, take on the suit. Not that this look has not been done before — in fact, it is a pretty popular style that pops up from time to time — but given the current inclination towards “black, sheer and strategically revealing,” SNSD is a well-timed reminder that trends come and go, but style, mixed with a dash of confidence, is forever.
Not that this look will catch on immediately, at least not if other groups want to be accused of copying SNSD, but looking at how long the hot-pants-long-boots trend stuck around after the trifecta of “Oh,” “Hoot,” and “Mr Taxi,” this suit-and-tie look is bound to return in the near future.
In that sense, SNSD represents the epitome of the current mainstream K-pop girl group in that they are the barometer by which the majority of later girl groups will measure themselves up against. To actively make that comparison would most likely invite backlash on the rookie group that dared to do so– groups like Dal Shabet and CHI CHI have received flak for being the “second SNSD” and promising to “overtake SNSD,” respectively. Another interesting observation is how SNSD has inspired several lookalike groups across the region as well, such as Taiwan’s Super 7 and China’s Idol Girls.
Of course, SNSD is SNSD and the other groups are their own, but it remains that a huge number of groups will aspire to follow the SNSD model in order to gain success. Synchronized dancing, uniforms, songs with catchy hooks all characterize SNSD’s rise to fame, and it figures that they have provided a blueprint for their hoobaes to follow. After all, to buck against the trend and be different either requires a very strong, purposefully different company culture a la YG and 2NE1, or ultimate commitment to a certain gimmick, like Crayon Pop and their helmets.
On the other hand, for 2NE1, fashion faux pas tend to happen when avant-garde crosses the line to bizarre. Although it really is too early to say, it is heartening to see the group slowly move away from the “CL wears something avant-garde, Bom wears a micro-mini, Dara wears the quirky outfit, and Minzy is in some combination of blazer and pants” combination that characterized their earlier days. In addition to the rich jewel tones of “I Love You,” the beautifully gothic setting in “It Hurts,” or the subdued palette of “Missing You,” one of 2NE1’s best style achievements so far is making use of their fashion (especially Dara’s) to highlight the difference between the bleakness of a dystopian world and the virtual paradise in “Come Back Home.” Otherwise, 2NE1 remains very much 2NE1 styling-wise; despite the wide range of looks and outfits the group has gone through over the years, they have remained very much stylistically consistent to the “2NE1” image, rather than adhering to a particular cute or sexy concept.
The number of 2NE1-inspired groups has also been growing in recent years. EXID‘s leader and once-an-underground-rapper LE has attracted many comparisons to CL, especially in their debut MV “Whoz That Girl.” The debut of groups like GODDESS, Delight, and GI in the past two years indicate that more girl groups are attempting to break out of the “cute or sexy” box and be different. At this rate, the industry might soon be inundated with 2NE1 lookalikes within the next five years, and what seemed fresh and original in 2009 is not going to be so in 2019.
Overall, though, still more groups follow the SNSD model rather than the 2NE1 one. Not because 2NE1 is in any way lacking in industry influence, but truthfully, it is much easier to follow mainstream fashions, of which certain elements are watered-down from 2NE1’s style, than to attempt to catch up with the range and type of outfits the group wears.
In that sense 2NE1 remains uniquely 2NE1, which is presumably why they appeal to such a significant portion of their fanbase. However, in the end, they ultimately represent another facet of the entire package that is the K-pop girl group rather than being an entirely new type of girl group, which is not to diminish the group’s significance in the industry in any way. In fact, to be able to even be markedly different in the sea of genericness that characterises a huge part of K-pop is an achievement in itself.
In the end, SNSD and 2NE1 remain at the top of the girl group game because, as of now, no one else is able to do what they do in a way that is bigger and better. Have they brought any game-changers to the industry with their respective comebacks? Currently, it is too early to tell. But what can be said for certain is that they have brought a breath of much-needed fresh air (and some exciting head-to-head rivalry) to K-pop.
(Images via YG Entertainment, SM Entertainment, KW Entertainment, Complex)