When you think of K-pop record breakers, BTS or BlackPink will probably spring to mind; two cultural behemoths that have infiltrated their world with their polished dance breaks and uplifting lyrics. These bands might be considered ambassadors of the genre, the moment when the world began to truly pay attention to the Korean wave. In 2023 though, there are some new Gen-Z kids on the block, and the future is looking even brighter.
With their eponymous record, Harin, Hanni, Danielle, Minji and Hyein – AKA NewJeans – have become the first artists in South Korea since 1997 to surpass sales of one million copies for a debut album, and with ‘Ditto’ specifically, they have released the most streamed song by a female K-pop act on US Spotify, taking the title from BlackPink. If you’ve been on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Weibo or even Facebook in the last few weeks, there is every chance that you have heard a trending background snippet of ‘Ditto’, ‘Attention’ or ‘Hype Boy’, or found yourself subconsciously mimicking the choreography for ‘OMG’. Hey, if it’s good enough for Rina Sawayama and the actual Mayor of Seoul, it’s good enough for us.
As we all know, the K-pop machine is constantly pumping out new idol groups, each with their own concepts and styles. So what is it about NewJeans that has captured people’s attention so readily? The simple answer is that they’re just very good, very early on: immaculate choreography, great singing, and a close-knit relationship with fans of around their age, the Bunnies. But the more complex answer is that they genuinely appear to be bringing something different; in a genre of music that has sometimes gotten stuck in the same trap-pop sounds, NewJeans are bringing in more of an R&B sensibility, tapping into both wistful nostalgia and anxious coming-of-age.
Where debut single ‘Attention’ felt like classic 90s girl group R&B, ‘Ditto’ is a skittering take on Baltimore dance, the kind of ‘cool’, imaginative sound that even non-K-pop fans can’t help but covet. Teamed with their Harjuku-meets-Hondae Y2K street looks and scribbled schoolgirl visuals, they’re Tammy Girl for the TikTok generation, championing a kind of dreamy creativity and storytelling. The pragmatic side of their creative direction also offers serious business logic; NewJeans may only be aged 14 to 18, but in older members Hanni and Danielle, they have two Australians in their rank and have therefore been able to unlock both Korean and English-speaking press opportunities with an ease and earliness that other K-pop groups may not have, increasing their global visibility and appeal. If you’re really into them, you can even sign up to their bespoke social networking app, Phoning, where the girls share exclusive photos, voice notes and everyday teenage ponderings.
With the double a-side of ‘OMG’ and ‘Ditto’ especially, NewJeans worldbuilding appears to have levelled up significantly from their debut only seven months ago. You’ll all have seen the choreography for ‘OMG’ by now, but if you’re the sort of stan who loves easter eggs and high concepts, then the music video goes even deeper. Situated inside what appears to be some kind of psychiatric facility, the band worked with director Shin Woo-Seok to illustrate a kind of para-socialism between idols and fans, nodding to themes of insanity, anxiety and isolation. ‘Ditto’ does similar, but inside a school, shot on a camcorder for a disorientating, vaguely sinister feel. This kind of complexity is a lot for a rookie group to pull off, but emblematic of significant shifts in K-pop, where idols are far more outspoken about working conditions and far more likely to express lyrics that nod to darkness as well as joy. For young listeners coming of age in the pandemic era, NewJeans seem to offer a kind of honest comfort, splitting the difference between hope and reality.
As with any hugely successful new artist, there is always some controversy. Some fans have expressed concerns about the more sexualised end of NewJeans aesthetic; with its suggestive innuendos, the early single ‘Cookie’ offers lyrics that feel pretty jarring with their young age; “Keep looking at my cookie…one bite isn’t enough.” Even though bosses insist that it was genuinely inspired by the band baking sweet treats for their fans, there is something to critique in the pattern that big K-pop companies have for debuting incredibly young idols, working them hard and giving them a ‘mature’ sound and style that they aren’t quite yet old enough to fully own in an age-appropriate way. With ‘Omg’ and ‘Ditto’ though, NewJeans do at least seem to be moving towards more accessible expressions of crushes and friendship, with choreography that is fun and a little bit silly rather than sexy. As anyone who has attempted to do Hanni’s now iconic ‘Gorilla’ move in the ‘OMG’ chorus (or the conga line that comes later), the playful goofiness is a successful balance to some of the more ‘grown’ aesthetics of their debut. Given that NewJeans have only been around for under a year, they are very much still in the testing phase, working out what translates from their training era into the public eye.
With their new ambassadorship for Seoul city, not to mention deals with Chanel and LG, NewJeans have great potential to bring K-pop into an exciting new age. Stats doing the rounds on Twitter suggest that their specific fandom is trending at about 90% female — as a rare genre that really celebrates passionate female fandom as its driving force, this has positive implications for all kinds of music, recognising that young women deserve to be marketed to in an authentic, non-patronising way. It’s influencing the bands themselves too; the strength of fourth-generation K-pop groups is that they are normally formed of talented all-rounders rather than one special star, allowing fans to love and relate to the members in a truly equal, sisterly way.
Between NewJeans, StayC, Le Serrafim and Aespa, the debut groups of the past year are arguably amongst some of K-pop’s strongest ever, really understanding what it means to connect with an audience and show some real personality. As NewJeans bunny supremacy unfolds, the real winner is us as listeners; who knows how far this exciting new era of female dominance can go?