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

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You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Elise Hu. And today we're getting into K-pop - specifically, a girl group that set the standard for the genre and the industry.


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing in Korean). Ho-ho-holiday. Ho-ho-holiday.

HU: Girls' Generation - we're talking about Girls' Generation.


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing) I'm feeling good (singing in Korean).

HU: Girls' Generation debuted in 2007 and remains one of the most beloved, prominent K-pop groups in South Korea and arguably the world. They've released more than 20 singles and seven albums with songs in many languages. They've toured around the world, headlining sold-out concerts. And last month, they returned from a five-year hiatus with a 15-year anniversary album, "Forever 1."


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing in Korean). We are one. (Singing in Korean). Just like a love bomb...

TAMAR HERMAN: Not every K-pop group's name ends up being prophetic, but it really does feel like it was kind of girls' generation for this long while.

HU: That's culture writer and K-pop stan Tamar Herman, who is going to unpack their music and charm. And later this episode, we'll talk about the girls' impact and their cultural legacy with Korean pop culture scholar Michelle Cho.

MICHELLE CHO: It's the perfect group of its time, and they have this timeless appeal.

HU: Before we dive in, for listeners who aren't familiar with Girls' Generation, I asked Tamar to walk us through their greatest hit of all time.

HERMAN: I think the one that everybody associates them with is probably "Gee." So "Gee" is a song that starts off really sweet. It has a spoken intro...


GIRLS' GENERATION: Uh-huh. Listen boy. My first love story...

HERMAN: ...And then it just kind of goes off.


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing) Gee, gee, gee, gee, baby, baby, baby. Gee, gee, gee, gee, baby, baby, baby.

HERMAN: It also showed the members' distinct vocals. So each member has her own - you know, there's a lot of back and forth between duets, or the especially strong vocalists have their own power belting moments.


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing in Korean).

HERMAN: The dance has you making a capital G with your fingers, and people really caught onto it.


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing) Oh, yeah. (Singing in Korean). Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

HERMAN: If you looked under the definition of bubblegum pop, you'd probably find a bunch of their songs - like, not all their songs 'cause they have a lot of variety in their music, but they are quintessential upbeat pop stars for most of their singles. And then you have to, like, look into their B-sides to hear their gorgeous ballads and harmonizing.


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing in Korean).

HERMAN: And then as they got older, it incorporated more fierceness or more genre differentiation.


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing) You better run, run, run, run, run. (Singing in Korean).

HERMAN: And because they were such a success, like, it didn't really - I want to say it didn't matter if they created something that was so different. It was because fans were excited for something so different.

HU: So their songs are catchy, they get stuck in your head as earworms, but the visuals and the choreography that accompany the songs also kind of get stuck in your head, right? They really perfected this audio-visual concept.

HERMAN: So K-pop in general - the singles are kind of seen as an audio-visual experience. You're not supposed to necessarily experience it without one another. It's kind of like a musical. So a music video for Girls' Generation - almost always, all their singles have something that's very distinct about it. So you think of "Gee," and you think of colored skinny jeans. You think of "Genie," you think of uniforms. You think of "I Got A Boy," you literally can think of them, like, throwing a baseball hat at the camera.


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing) I got a boy (singing in Korean). I got a boy (singing in Korean). I got a boy, handsome boy, (singing in Korean).

HU: They have a certain kind of magic together, even though so many other girl groups debuted around the same time. And who's responsible for that?

HERMAN: I think, I mean, it's a lot of parts. A lot of things are just kind of the magic happening. Girls' Generation was really lucky just by the era that they were active in because they 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 - the way that they were promoting on social media and through digital platforms as they were developing. Maybe it's because, you know, they were the first nine-member - they were, like, the first almost double-digit K-pop girl group.

HU: Oh, yeah.

HERMAN: Everybody could find someone that they relate to or somebody that, like, has this sort of, like, skill that, like - you could put this member on, like, a dance show or this one on a makeup show, or this one could do fashion or something. Or this - three of you can act or something. Like, they were always somewhere. One of my first memories of when I started really being a fan and kind of recognizing them as, like, a group was I watched an episode of a variety show called "Intimate Note," and I just remember, like, these were nine girls having fun.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Korean).

HERMAN: The show was meant to kind of settle scores or, like, make a group closer. So they were, like sharing, you know, like, very G-rated tea between the members.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Korean.)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Korean).

HERMAN: I don't like how this one sleeps, or you make your food too salty or, like, just random, funny things.

HU: (Laughter).

HERMAN: This is, like, very random, but I went to a really small high school, and there were only nine girls in my grade, so seeing a girl group - and the youngest member, Seohyun, is my age. We're both 1991. So, like, it was very relatable to me. Like, these were girls - like, obviously they're celebrities, but, like, it felt very relatable to me on a personal level. And then, like, throughout the years, you know, the hits just kept on coming, and their career just kept on getting bigger. And I'm always like, oh, I grew up with them.

HU: This women part is interesting in the fact that they call themselves Girls' Generation because...


HU: ...It's complex whether they are actually empowering for women, especially because they do tend to follow, at least visually, a very narrow standard for how women should look, at the very least. So where do you come down on whether Girls' Generation is empowering?

HERMAN: I think it's a complicated thing. You know, I'm not saying this in a bad way, but I think it's very telling that, in Girls' Generation, there are three members who are known together as the Bermuda Triangle 'cause they all look so similar. 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. And I think that's really telling that there is a community of fans formed around these beauty standards that the average person should not even be considering because that's not our day-to-day life. Like, celebritydom (ph) is a totally different path than most of us. We have to remember that most of these K-pop groups - they're not the ones making the decisions about what they look like or what they're singing for many years of their career, if ever. So there's always kind of the hierarchical background to all of this. Like, 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 very good reputation that she loves pink. She's very girlish. And she said, you know, people told me, like, you're getting older. You should stop wearing hair bows. And I was just like, oh, I guess I should. And she's like, but I don't want to. And I thought, like, 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.

HU: Right. I have agency. Yeah.

HERMAN: Yeah. So I think - and, like, she also was talking about how, like, 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, like, no, wait. We're the stars. We should be leading our own direction. So I don't want to, like, shade anyone in either direction, but I do want to caution that K-pop beauty standards are not our beauty standard. Like, I don't want anyone to be like, I need to look exactly like...

HU: Yeah.

HERMAN: ...The members of Girls' Generation because you're beautiful in your own way.

HU: You wrote a piece about the significance of the group still making music 15 years later. Why is it such a big deal?

HERMAN: Unity as a team is something that you don't usually see with girl groups. Girl groups break up. Girl groups stop working when they're not girls anymore. Like, the fact that Girls' Generation has grown into kind of their 30s together from teenagehood (ph) is almost shocking. It just doesn't happen. So Girls' Generation are really - like, if you consider the counterparts who debuted with them, most of them are inactive. In Korea, the K-pop scene - there are contracts, obviously, that - and the time span is usually seven years. So that means, like, that most counterparts in the industry are more or less disappearing after seven years or have to refigure, you know, their direction or something.

HU: Right.

HERMAN: So Girls' Generation did have to go through that. Like, I remember when it was the seven-year period. That's when former member Jessica left the group. So they've been, you know, kind of this dedication to their brand beyond the initial stage already. So I think just being able to arrive on the scene and still stay relevant in an industry and set up the pace for so many other things - not every K-pop group's name ends up kind of being prophetic, but it really does feel like it was kind of Girls' Generation for this long while.

HU: That was Tamar Herman, senior culture writer at the South China Morning Post and the author of "BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears." When we come back, we unpack the mythical K-pop manual. I love this. Stick around.


HU: Our next guest is Michelle Cho. She's an assistant professor of Korean pop culture and cinema at the University of Toronto. To start us off, I asked her, what about Girls' Generation makes them the representative girl group of K-pop?

CHO: I think it's a couple of things. It's really about the time period in which they debuted and how they reflected what was going on in the industry. What comes before, let's say, 2006, 7 is an industry that has lots of successes but is not really systematizing a production model and a way of thinking about audience. But the second generation of K-pop idols which, you know, Girls' Generation is said to be a part of, like, a really leading part of...

HU: The vanguard. Yes.

CHO: The vanguard - exactly. The industry starts to really systematize, you know, taking young hopefuls and putting them through a kind of idol school and having all of the elements of their training and production of songs and content in-house. That's really what SM pioneered. The other thing that was happening at this time is redefinition of idols as both these aspirational images that you might look up to but then also as performers that are responsive to fans and have a more accessible image. This is really influenced by the J-pop industry and the idea of, idols are people that you can go see often, like, face to face and shake their hand and talk to them.

HU: Yeah, yeah.

CHO: That kind of thing. And that kind of actual contact in real life is built into the scheduling. Also, the K-pop industry is so very influenced by American hybridization of other types of aesthetics and musical styles, it is something that I think is very familiar to the ears and eyes of American audiences.

HU: So if I'm hearing this right, what is defining about the second generation of K-pop, which Girls' Generation is sort of central to, is that SM Entertainment and these big agencies really start cooking with gas. Things are systemized. SM also oversees more current groups like Red Velvet, Super Junior.

CHO: Yeah.

HU: To what extent do you credit Girls' Generation's meteoric and sort of genre-defining success...

CHO: Yes.

HU: ...To SM Entertainment, to its management?

CHO: I think that Lee Soo-man, the Svengali figure behind SM Entertainment, takes a lot of credit for the success of K-pop more broadly because he points to the fact that the way the industry works is really the way that SM works. He really thinks of what he's doing as this industrial production model. Just like in other kinds of industries, you might have a manual somewhere.

HU: This mythical K-pop manual. I'm super-fascinated by it. Apparently it has the perfect K-pop measurements for everything - like, the perfect amount of rain to splash on the idol on stage or this specific triangle dance formation and what does so well about it.

CHO: I mean, yeah. So there are two ways that I would contextualize this. Lee Soo-man came of age in a period of time in which South Korea itself was in the process of enacting this miraculous comeback from the ashes of the Korean War.

HU: Right.

CHO: And how did it do that? It did that by focusing on and targeting particular economic sectors in which to pour a lot of resources and then doing that again with different sectors, right? It started with steel production and shipbuilding, and then it moved to small consumer goods. Then it moved to electronics. Then it moved to cars, right? It makes sense that someone who has internalized those ideas would think about popular culture in the same way.

HU: And it worked, arguably.

CHO: Yeah. I mean, arguably, yes. But I think there are plenty of people who will also say you can't think about culture in that way. It certainly helps to have financial resources to pay people well and to be able to have the best, like, really nice costuming and set design or equipment in the recording studio - yes, all of that. But whether or not that's going to resonate with the audience is kind of out of your hands, right?

HU: Right. It invites a lot of critique, often, of K-pop - that these folks aren't authentic musicians - aren't authentic artists. Where do you come down on that?

CHO: Hmm. I think that K-pop can get unfairly criticized for that perception that K-pop idols are nothing but sort of these empty shells, and so nothing that they do is authentic. And I think that the reason why they're targeted can range from more nefarious stereotypes...

HU: Sure.

CHO: ...About Asian bodies being always duplicitous or foreign or inscrutable, and sometimes it can be an idea of artistic authenticity that's usually only expected or applied to the Western genius, right? Often, male artists are assumed to be, you know, 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 that the expectation that the celebrities that we expect to be entertained by are also supposed to be completely without any...

HU: Artifice? Yeah.

CHO: ...Artifice, exactly - that they're just being themselves. You know, it's kind of a silly expectation if you drill down a tiny bit. So every performer is performing, you know?

HU: (Laughter).

CHO: And so, yeah, I don't know why you would suddenly have misgivings about how performative performance is when you're looking at K-pop.


HU: Coming up, how Girls' Generation's debut song has been brought into protest movements across Asia. Stay with us.


HU: Michelle, before I let you go, one observation that we've made is the prominence of Girls' Generation's songs in protests and at demonstrations these days.

CHO: Yes.

HU: Its first song, "Into The New World," has become basically a protest anthem in South Korea. Why is that? Because K-pop is notoriously apolitical.

CHO: Yeah. So this actually originates with a protest that occurred at Ewha Womans University in 2016. And students there were really upset at the way that the administration had made some decisions about changing certain requirements and changing certain programs. A group of students were assembled there, and there were about, you know, 300 or so. When they were facing down the riot police who were there to remove them - and I think that there were over a thousand police confronting this much smaller group of girls, right?

HU: They were so outnumbered. Right.

CHO: Yes. Yes.

HU: Because the cops are conscripted. They're just - like, they have to be there and...

CHO: Yes. Exactly. So they started singing this song.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in Korean).

CHO: They are kind of in unison - this voice of young womanhood.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in Korean).

CHO: And it's a really moving moment. And it kind of makes you think about, oh, this is, again, a girls' generation. This is a generation of young women. The sounds and songs that they have in common are coming from K-pop. The lyrics are really interesting because it's kind of this song about youth and facing challenges and going bravely forth into the world.


GIRLS' GENERATION: (Singing in Korean).

CHO: It's a set of lyrics that you might not think a group like Girls' Generation would be singing at this moment, but there's this idea in the K-pop industry about the promise of youth...

HU: Yeah.

CHO: ...And, you know, the transition from youth to adulthood. This has been a longstanding set of themes in the K-pop industry because it is this youth culture.

HU: Yeah.

CHO: I mean, this protest in 2016 - it actually led to the candlelight movement...

HU: And the ouster of the president. Right.

CHO: Yes, exactly. It was initiated by these young women. And also, I think there's this appeal of this concept of being underestimated. And so the songs that you would be singing are coming from figures that are often not taken seriously, but then showing the authorities that actually you are empowered. That's why this song and girl group songs in general have become, you know, an important tool for establishing solidarity in protest movements across the Asian region.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing in Korean).


HU: And that's all for today's show. Many thanks to our guests, Tamar Herman and Michelle Cho. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE lovingly produced by Janet Woojeong Lee, with engineering support from Neal Rauch. It was edited by Jessica Placzek. And don't forget - this Friday, we'll be back with another episode with me in the host chair. I'm Elise Hu. Talk soon, y'all.


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