Following their return with the release of “No” earlier this year, CLC are about to prove their ascent towards being a top act in this latest generation of girl groups. With the release of their latest single “Me”, it’s a good time to take a look back at how the group has been under the radar for the bulk of their career, and the changes in concept that finally got them the attention they deserved.

In March 2015, Cube Entertainment debuted their first girl group in six years after building interest through months of pre-debut busking activities. CLC’s debut single “Pepe” perfectly showcased their unique, sassy take on the cute girl group look, while also highlighting their dance skills.

Looking at other debuting acts in 2015 suggests CLC was under a significant amount of pressure to garner attention. Twice, GFriend, and even Seventeen all debuted the same year, each with their own takes on the cute, fresh concept as well. “Pepe” offered a refreshing retro-esque spin to the tried and true archetype, but it’s clear Cube defaulted back to the traditional cute concept by the time their first comeback came around.

After their first year resulted in two EPs and low album sales, 2016 unfortunately followed a similar trajectory. Their single “High Heels” in February came with the announcement that two new members, Kwon Eun-bin and Elkie, would be joining the group. With Eun-bin being a then-former contestant on season 1 of Produce 101 hopes were high that she’d bring her fanbase with her, giving the group a much-needed boost. However, the new additions did little to turn the tide.

In terms of sound, “High Heels” and “No Oh Oh” felt like sub-par continuations of “Pepe”’s signature retro vibe; “No Oh Oh” in particular sounding like a poorly constructed 90s song. With other groups from their debut year having had achieved their first wins by this point, CLC’s future was looking fairly bleak. In addition to their lackluster releases, member Sorn was very transparent in how the group was feeling the pressure to succeed. In March 2016 Sorn posted a letter to her Facebook page apologizing for not winning any awards the past year and calling for fans to be accepting towards the new members.

As 2016 came to an end, Cube was in a rough spot. In June it was announced that 4Minute would be disbanding, with Hyuna being the sole member to renew her contract. Later on in the year Beast, now known as Highlight, decided to leave the company to start their own label. The departure of these flagship groups came as a major shock financially to the company, who had also recently debuted boy group Pentagon. These changes couldn’t have come at a worse time for CLC, who were in the midst of a drastic image change.

In January 2017, their single “Hobgoblin” revealed a complete change in direction from their previously bright image. Label-mate Hyuna is credited as a co-writer for the title track, and the girls shared during their comeback showcase that she was heavily involved in directing their hair, makeup, and expressions for the music video. Her influence was immediately evident: one couldn’t help but feel like it was a callback to 4Minute’s previous releases. The styling and choreography in particular were reminiscent of “Crazy” and “Hate”, the last singles that 4Minute released.

Prior to CLC’s concept change, K-Pop was going through a shift, particularly with girl groups. The disbandment of 2NE1, Kara, and 4Minute signaled a noticeable gap in diversity in terms of sound and image. Following their departures, Sistar and Wonder Girls proceeded to disband the year after, which only further widened that divide. While this resulted in Black Pink having a significant monopoly in the girl crush department, their inconsistent release schedule still left much to be desired amidst a sea of cute and/or school girl-themed releases.

Historically, it has been rare for girl groups to find much success in girl crush concepts. New groups typically debut with a softer, cuter image and then mature into sexier content later on. This strategy is aimed at attracting and maintaining male fans in order to boost sales, which also results in edgier releases not gaining as much attention. However, 2NE1 was able to completely reject this method by revolutionizing the girl crush concept’s confident energy throughout their career. By creating content that centered on female empowerment and realistic takes on love and relationships, 2NE1 were pioneers in a niche that previously didn’t receive much love from the public.

In the years that followed other acts delved into this theme, some — like (G)I-dle and Black Pink — making it what they’re known for, and others testing the waters with it through various singles, like GFriend with “Fingertip”. It’s a risky direction to take in an industry that typically follows the same formula with girl groups, but CLC is definitely the latest case of it being a risk worth taking.

After “Hobgoblin”, CLC continued to push their new sound with “Black Dress”. The song’s heavy electronic and synth beats were reminiscent of their last single, but ultimately it still felt like a move in the right direction. However, the music video exuded a more subtle type of sexiness compared to “Hobgoblin”’s in-your-face theme; even showcasing Eun-bin pole dancing. If nothing else, the release was a sign that the group was finally nailing down a sense of identity after three years.

The apex of their efforts finally came earlier this year with “No”. The sultry track delivers powerful female empowerment both lyrically and visually by saying “no” to typical markers of beauty. Their rejection of materialistic possessions such as handbags, lipstick, and high heels comes as a welcome change of pace from conventional girl crush anthems. For girl groups who delve into this concept once or twice it is normal to see them deliver on putting up a confident front, but failing to reach any real depth lyrically. Seeing CLC embody the concept in such an all-encompassing way definitely raised the bar.

Watching “No” for the first time, I couldn’t help but think of other girl groups who delivered meaningful lyrics in the past. Songs like “Ugly” by 2NE1, “I Like That” by Sistar, “Fxxk You” by Ga-in, and many others have paved the way for girl groups today to sing about subjects in a way they might not have been able to before. We’ve seen girl groups carry the torch this year with Itzy’s “Dalla Dalla” and Loona’s “Butterfly”, among others, and hopefully CLC will continue it with their upcoming release as well.

The power of “No” was reflected in a major way, earning the group their first career win on a music show and charting in the top 100 on Melon. The success of “No” signals CLC moving in a positive direction, arguably, for the first time in their career. It will certainly be interesting to see how Cube manages both of its girl groups despite them having similar concepts, but CLC has proven that they’re not out of the running just yet.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4], Twitter, Billboard, EToday, Naver. Images via Cube Entertainment)