Twenty First Century Girls – 2NE1

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Minzy, Dara, Bom and CL’s names are as well known to a generation of Asian kids as Sporty, Scary, Ginger, Baby and Posh Spice a couple of decades ago. The four of them make up 2NE1, one of Korea’s biggest girl-bands, and have millions upon millions of fans. Produced, marketed, trained and created by YG Entertainment, one of the Big Three entertainment groups in Korea, 2NE1 were launched as the female BIGBANG, a reference to the enormously successful boy band that’s fronted by fashion daredevil G-Dragon. Between them, BIGBANG and G-Dragon bring in about 75% of YG Entertainment’s revenue and 2NE1 was set up as a female headliner for the group, and presumably to win over fans from rival girl group Girls’ Generation from S.M. Entertainment.

Since their launch in 2009, 2NE1 has released two albums (with a third that’s due to be released soon in conjunction with their upcoming world tour) as well as dozens of digital singles and videos. Their style is deeply rooted in the YG Entertainment house tradition of upbeat R’n’B / hip-hop / pop with bold energetic choreography. It’s a style that works, especially when the visual component is added in. Edgy street fashion and urban beats stand out against many of their competitors and support the strong tradition of powerful music videos and live performance that K-Pop is known for.

Manufactured bands, or brands created by record labels, are by no means new to music, and some of them have gone on to become enduring favourites. But Korea takes the idea and inculcates a Fame meets Royal Ballet School mentality. Like most other K-Pop stars, the members of 2NE1 auditioned for YG Entertainment many years ago and were accepted into one of the world’s most rigorous in-house training academies for future pop stars. Each entertainment group has its own in-house training that can last years with 12 hour days, a no-dating policy and dormitories for the interns. Thousands of hours of singing, dancing, language studies and PR training turn them into potential pop stars, ready to be launched into the market. Despite that, some don’t make the cut. For instance, CL (Lee Chae Rin) was originally slated to become a solo artist, but it was decided at some stage that she would front 2NE1, and Bom (Park Bom) auditioned three times for YG Entertainment before finally being accepted. When interviewed, the girls of 2NE1 said that the hardest thing about the training was “waiting for a favourable time [to be launched]”.

Comparisons to all the other international girl bands are, therefore, hard to make. There is absolutely no doubt that the girls of 2NE1 are accomplished performers, singers and dancers, which is not something that can be said of many other manufactured bands. That, coupled with their polite demeanour, respectful attitude and work ethic have endeared them, and other K-Pop stars, not just to their teenage fans but also to their fans’ parents and grand-parents who admire the almost Confucian rigour invested in the final product. Their language training expands their fan base to include not only the vital Japanese market but South-East Asia (Dara was a celebrity and pop star in the Philippines long before she joined 2NE1), China and, as of the past few years, the all-important Western market. Madison Square Gardens in New York saw a deluge of sold-out K-Pop concerts last year and Latin America has the world’s fastest growing K-Pop fan base. One reason for this expansion is that Korea itself has a minuscule album sales market. Not only did sales of CDs drop by 70% in seven years but the cost of downloading a digital track is approximately $0.10, which is about 10% of a digital single in other markets. As a result, survival and success depends on foreign markets, merchandise and concerts.

2NE1 are also launching into the US market. A concert at the Los Angeles Nokia Theatre in 2012 introduced them and a long-rumoured collaboration with will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas has already yielded one single, ‘Gettin’ Dumb’. They even recently appeared on an episode of The Bachelor. They of course are by no means the first K-Pop band to land on US shores. Before them, Rain blew audiences away with his dance moves and has even managed to score himself a few Hollywood film roles. One vital component for their success is, of course, the sizeable Korean-American population in America. But the demand for K-Pop is far more universal. One look at 2NE1’s All Or Nothing Tour Facebook page confirms superfans from France, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Canada, Colombia and Italy.

Being a superfan of 2NE1 is no small matter. It’s not just putting up pictures of them up on your tumblr (although that surely happens). The official fan club for 2NE1 is called ‘The Blackjacks’ and the page is run by YG Entertainment. And you can’t just join, you have to apply to become a Blackjack during the application window and you have to pay a registration fee. But in return, you get private fan concerts, merchandise, ticket privileges and the chance to meet 2NE1. Fans in Japan can even apply to become Blackjack Nolza, a Japan-specific fan club.

Social media is, of course, the top marketing tool used by Korean music labels. 2NE1’s single ‘I Am The Best’ currently has over 85 million views on YouTube and their other hits aren’t far behind. The ability to enlist the aid of hundreds of thousands of Blackjacks to send a song to No. 1 is unparalleled. But, unlike many a Western band that’s temperamental, surly, perhaps even individualistic, 2NE1 and their cohorts work hard for the adoration. In addition to the ongoing training, they can be called on at any time to make a TV appearance, hold a mini-concert or take part in promotional campaigns, and there’ll be no fuss. Unlike the many egocentric pop stars who dominate the music industry, 2NE1 start their concerts on time and put so much energy into their shows, it’s almost exhausting to watch. Perhaps those stars could do with an injection of K-Pop professionalism.

Event: 2NE1 WORLD TOUR 2014 in HK Presented by ALCATEL ONETOUCH
Date: Saturday 22 March 2014
Time: 8:00 PM
Venue: AsiaWorld-Expo, Arena
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