Girls Generation set the K-pop standards for music and beauty : It's Been a Minute To celebrate their 15th anniversary, the K-pop group Girls' Generation put out their newest album, 'Forever 1.' Today, we're taking a look back at their career and how they changed the standards for K-pop through music, choreography and beauty. Their impact doesn't stop at that — Girls' Generation's debut song is now being used to change the world, just not in the way they planned. Guest host Elise Hu discusses their legacy with music critic Tamar Herman and Korean film and culture scholar Michelle Cho.

How Girls' Generation shaped K-pop as we know it

How Girls' Generation shaped K-pop as we know it

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Girls' Generation performs onstage during the Tencent K-pop Live Music at WAPOP Hall in Seoul, South Korea on August 31, 2015. The Chosunilbo JNS/Multi-Bits/Getty Images hide caption

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The Chosunilbo JNS/Multi-Bits/Getty Images

Girls' Generation performs onstage during the Tencent K-pop Live Music at WAPOP Hall in Seoul, South Korea on August 31, 2015.

The Chosunilbo JNS/Multi-Bits/Getty Images

15 years later, the K-pop group Girls' Generation is still making music and remains iconic in the industry. Since they came onto the scene, the then 9-member group (Taeyeon, Sunny, Tiffany, Hyoyeon, Yuri, Sooyoung, Yoona, Seohyun and Jessica) laid the groundwork for many subsequent K-pop groups and even protest movements. Guest host Elise Hu discusses their legacy with culture writer and longtime K-pop fan Tamar Herman and Korean film and culture scholar Michelle Cho.

Y0u can listen to the full episode at the top of the page, on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

On their best-selling hit

HERMAN: The one [song] that everybody associates them with is probably Gee. Gee is a song that starts off really sweet, has a spoken intro, and then it just kind of goes off. It's fun, it's catchy, it's upbeat. It also showed the members' distinctive vocals. The dance has you making a capital G with your fingers. There were a lot of visual and dance elements that were very trendy and eye-catching.

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K-Pop in general, the singles are seen as an audiovisual experience; you're not supposed to experience it without one another. It's kind of like a musical. So a music video for Girls' Generation almost always has something that's very distinct about it. So you think of Gee and you think of colored skinny jeans.

On the timing of their stardom

CHO: They reflected what was going on in the industry. What came before 2006 to 2007 was an industry that had successes but wasn't systematizing a production model. But the second generation of K-Pop idols, which Girls' Generation is said to be [the vanguard] of, the industry starts to systematize, taking young hopefuls and putting them through idol school.

The other thing that was happening was a redefinition of idols as aspirational but also performers that are responsive to fans with a more accessible image. This is influenced by the J-pop industry, where idols are people you can go see and shake their hands and talk to them. Actual contact in real-life is built into [Girls' Generation's] schedules.

On redefining girl groups

HERMAN: [Girls' Generation] debuted in 2007, which is around the start of YouTube's global expansion, and they're not the only K-Pop girl group from that era who really got a boost from it. They were the first nine-member K-Pop girl group, [and as part of that,] everybody could find someone that they relate to.

On the criticism of K-pop idols being "factory-made"

CHO: I think that K-Pop can get unfairly criticized for that perception that K-Pop idols are these empty shells and that nothing they do is authentic. I think the reason why they're targeted can range from nefarious stereotypes about Asian bodies being duplicitous or foreign or inscrutable. Or it can be the attachment people have to an idea of artistic authenticity that's usually only expected or applied to the western genius. Often male artists are assumed to be totally authentic and transparent and they're not doing any kind of performance whatsoever, and that's clearly a fantasy and not true! So I think expecting to be entertained by celebrities without any artifice – that they're just being themselves – is kind of a silly expectation. Every performer is performing, so I don't know why you would suddenly have misgivings about how performative performance is when you're looking at K-Pop.

On their debut song becoming a protest anthem

CHO: This originates with a protest that occurred at Ewha Women's University in 2016. Students were really upset at the way that the administration had made changes to requirements and programs, and they thought that they should be heard as students and as stakeholders. A group of about 300 students assembled, and they were facing down the riot police sent there to remove them. There were over a thousand police confronting this much smaller group of women. And they start singing [Into the New World].

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This protest in 2016 led to the candlelight movement that ousted the president, and it was initiated by these young women. The [protest] songs that you would be singing are coming from figures that are often not taken seriously. That's why this song, and girl group songs in general, have become an important tool for establishing solidarity in protest movements across Asia.

On whether Girls' Generation is empowering when embodying narrow beauty standards

HERMAN: I think it's complicated. K-pop is kind of representative of societal norms. I'm not saying this in a bad way, but I think it's very telling that in Girls' Generation there are three members (Yuri, Yoona and Seohyun) known together as the Bermuda Triangle because they all look so similar.

From a visual aspect, there was just an article from BuzzFeed that was looking at eating disorder relationships among K-Pop fans and how there's a big community of fans formed around this. These beauty standards should not even be considered for the average person, because that's not our day-to-day life.

Also you have to remember that most of these K-Pop groups, male or female, they're not the ones making the decisions about what they look like or what they're singing. So there's a hierarchical background to all of this. It's really terribly not empowering. But a few years ago, I spoke to one of the Girls' Generation members, Tiffany, and she always has had a reputation that she loves pink. She's very girlish and she said, 'People told me, you're getting older, you should stop wearing hair bows.' And I was just like, 'Oh, I guess I should... But I don't want to... it's almost like I don't want to grow up. But also it's kind of like I'm grown up, I can do whatever I want.'

[Tiffany] also was talking about how she used to go into meetings and just be like, 'Oh, I guess I can't say anything.' And then she realized at a certain point, 'No, wait, we're the ones in front of the cameras and we're the stars. We should be leading our own direction.'

On the significance of Girls' Generation still (mostly) being together 15 years later

K-pop girl group Girls' Generation performs during concert "SMTOWN LIVE 2022" in Suwon, South Korea, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/ Heo Ran HEO RAN/REUTERS hide caption

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HEO RAN/REUTERS

K-pop girl group Girls' Generation performs during concert "SMTOWN LIVE 2022" in Suwon, South Korea, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/ Heo Ran

HEO RAN/REUTERS

HERMAN: The fact that Girls' Generation has grown into their thirties together from teenagers is almost shocking. It just doesn't happen. If you consider the counterparts who debuted with them, most of them are inactive. In [South] Korea, the K-Pop scene, there are contracts where time span is usually seven years. So Girls' Generation did have to go through that when it was the seven-year period, that's when Jessica left the group. So there's been this dedication to their brand beyond the initial stage already.

I think being able to arrive on the scene, still stay relevant in an industry and set the pace for so many other things. Not every K-Pop group's name ends up being prophetic, but it really does feel like it was Girls' Generation for this long while.

This episode was produced by Janet Woojeong Lee, with engineering support from Hannah Gluvna and Neal Rauch. It was edited by Jessica Placzek. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at IBAM@npr.org.