Almost two months after a portly 34-year-old armed with a catchy chorus and a comical line in choreography soared to the top of the British pop charts, the world doesn’t appear to have had its fill of Gangnam Style.
Psy, the Korean rapper whose viral video sensation (the YouTube view count stands at 738 million and rising) spawned myriad copycat videos by everyone from the US navy to pupils at Eton, became the first Korean artist to gain household-name status outside K-pop’s main hunting ground of Asia.
It now seems certain that he has blazed a trail. Girls’ Generation , a nine-member Korean girl group who had racked up millions of sales throughout east Asia long before Psy made “air” horseriding socially acceptable, are poised to release their first album recorded entirely in English.
Tentatively due for release next year by Lady Gaga’s label, Interscope, the album will mark the group’s first serious effort to court English-speaking music fans. The women, all aged between 21 and 23, are the obvious choice to take up Psy’s mantle in the UK, where artists who sell millions of albums in Korea and Japan are known only to a small number of K-pop devotees.
Since their debut in 2007 with Into The New World, the highly polished band with a penchant for unfeasibly tailored hotpants, have been at the apex of Hallyu, the wave of Korean pop culture that has cracked even the famously tricky Japanese market, the second-biggest in the world after the US.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Girls’ Generation are doing this,” said Steve McClure, the Tokyo-based executive editor of McClure’s Asia Music News. “The South Korean market is limited, so winning over new fans overseas has always been part of the K-pop strategy. The fact that they are riding on the coat tails of Psy is just pure luck – it has just made it easier than it might have been without him.”
The group’s biggest overseas success to date has come in Japan – which is responsible for about 80% of K-pop’s total revenues – where they immediately stood out among their saccharine counterparts from the world of J-pop. After a string of hits and awards spawned by their breakthrough 2009 hit, few K-pop watchers expected to wait long before Girls’ Generation turned their attention to the English-language market.
They have overcome the language barrier with ease. Two of their five studio albums were released in Japanese, three of the singers were born and raised in the US and all are comfortable speaking English, which made for a comfortable appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman earlier this year.
In the five years since they made their debut, Girls’ Generation have racked up sales of well over 30m in digital singles and 4.4m albums, assisted by clever promoters and a Korean management agency, SM Entertainment, that has been nurturing their talents, and their unimpeachable image, for more than a decade.
The group’s 2011 single The Boys was released in English as well as in Korean and Japanese. That year the band earned more than $88m for SM Entertainment, and they are expected to earn double that this year. “GG’s songs are infectious pop,” said Robert Poole, chief executive of SomethingDrastic, a Tokyo-based Asian music promoter. “It’s hard not to like Gee, and as soon as I heard Mr. Taxi, I thought they had to make an English version.”
Industry experts say the group’s brand of electropop and brilliantly produced videos will ease them into unfamiliar markets outside Asia. “Girls’ Generation totally fit the bill,” said Mio Scobie, overseas editor of Us Weekly magazine. “They produce feelgood beats, instantly memorable choruses and, as I’m sure people have already noticed, they’re stunning.
“British listeners are used to genres being full of variety, so in terms of people getting disappointed that other K-pop acts aren’t like Psy, I doubt that’ll be the case,” said Scobie, adding that Psy had been “brilliant marketing” for the K-pop genre. “The album will be a hit regardless of how many new listeners jump on board. Girls’ Generation fans are fiercely loyal and will be ready to buy and download in their droves.”
The band’s carefully manufactured image is evident everywhere from their myriad product endorsements to support for causes ranging from Unicef’s work with children in Africa to aid for the victims of last year’s tsunami in Japan.
They reportedly live together, sleeping two to a room apart from Tiffany , who has a room to herself. It should surprise no one who has seen them perform that they receive more requests than any other K-pop artist to perform for the South Korean military.
If Psy pushed open the door to an unsuspecting international fan base, Girls’ Generation could be the second stage in K-Pop’s assault on Britain, McClure says. Fellow girl group 2NE1 and boy band Super Junior are rumoured to be preparing material for release in the UK, while Psy has promised to record an English-language follow-up to Gangnam Style.
“Psy is by definition a one-off and I’d be surprised if he had another international hit,” said McClure. “But bands like Girls’ Generation have more staying power. The question is: will K-pop become a permanent fixture? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that Girls’ Generation will stick round for a while.”