Friday, February 10, 2012

Can Girls’ Generation Break Through In America?

Last week, K-pop supergroup Girls’ Generation got an unprecedented U.S. television showcase on “Live! With Kelly,” the Reegeless morning show currently featuring Kelly Ripa and a revolving-door series of daily guest hosts. For those who caught it, the segment offered up one of television’s rare magic moments — not during the musical performance itself, but in the brief interview immediately afterwards.

The Girls had just pulled off a crowd-pumping rendition of their first U.S. single, “The Boys,” complete with their signature precision choreography, and stood posed and slightly breathless onstage to receive Ripa and her cohost du jour, Howie Mandel. Ripa and Mandel congratulated the girls on their Stateside appearance in full-on talking-to-foreigners mode, speaking loud and slow, and making big, evocative gestures with their hands.

Then Mandel decided to pay the girls a compliment. “Your English is very good!” he said to one member — bubbly, effusive Tiffany. Without missing a beat, Tiffany responded in a perfect NorCal accent, “Well — I was born in America.” “I was too!” chimed Jessica, the brown-haired pixie next to her. Startled, Mandel could only repeat, “And…your English is very good!” The other girls burst into laughter as Tiffany defused the awkward situation: “I know, I know, thank you so much, I studied so hard!”

You can’t really fault Mandel. After all, Girls’ Generation is the face of young Korea — the nation’s hottest and biggest-selling female music group. To him, Tiffany and her bandmate Jessica speaking fluent Americanese must have been like hearing Katy Perry suddenly bust out in Khmer.

But Tiffany and Jessica — and the growing ranks of other Korean American performers recruited by management companies like SM Entertainment and JYPE in U.S.-based talent searches — aren’t just a random act of globalization. They’re the secret weapon in Korea’s next push for worldwide youth-culture domination.

Tiffany, who still breaks out in giggles at the Mandel Moment — “His expression was totally funny” — was born in San Francisco and raised in L.A. “I went to an SM audition when I was 15, and ended up getting invited to move to Korea for training. My parents were completely against it, but I convinced them to let me do it. I didn’t know what I was in for, but I knew I wanted to do music for the rest of my life. And it was really tough: Three years of hard work, learning what it’s like to be an idol.”

Korea’s pop training programs are rigorous and all-encompassing: Would-be idols live together in dormitories, going to school during the day and then learning singing, dancing and acting late into the evening. For some, like Tiffany’s fellow transplant Jessica, the process begins as early as age 10.

The management firms pay for everything; leading talent house SM Entertainment has pegged the cost of rearing a single idol at around $3 million, which for Girls’ Generation would be multiplied by nine. Most candidates end up quitting or failing to catch on, but the potential payoff for those who make it is enormous: The Girls are multimedia superstars and blockbuster branding engines with deals to endorse everything from LG phones to Intel processors to Goobne Chicken (a leading South Korean oven-roasted chicken chain). Collectively, they generate a revenue stream well north of $50 million a year — which makes them a pretty fantastic investment for parent company SM.

“Girls’ Generation are easily the biggest girl group in all of Asia,” says Susan Kang, founder and CEO of, the largest English-language K-pop site. “That’s been the case ever since they had their breakout hit “Gee“ in 2009. The video for that song alone has over 64 million views on YouTube, and has been viewed in every country in the world except for a few nations in Africa. Take the Spice Girls in their prime plus Britney in her prime and combine them, and you might get close to how big they are today.”

In Asia, that is: The Girls have topped the charts in Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan and especially Japan, the world’s second largest music market. And in Europe, where the “SM Town” concert they headlined in Paris sold out within 15 minutes of it being announced.

But Asia and Europe have a long history of embracing media in non-native languages. English is a mandatory part of elementary school education in many Asian countries, including Japan, China and Korea; over half of Europeans can hold conversations in languages other than their native tongue. Here in the States, meanwhile, fewer than one in five Americans are conversationally fluent in a language other than English, and while the occasional non-Anglophone song has cracked the pop charts — six non-English songs have even taken Billboard’s number one slot, the most recent being Los del Rio’s Spanglish hit “Macarena“ — the reality is that those are the exceptions that prove out the rule: If you want to rock in America, you have to roll in English.

That’s why Tiffany and Jessica play such a critical role in Girls’ Generation’s quest to crack the U.S. market. According to Soompi’s Kang, “In my opinion, if anyone is going to make it here, it’s going to be Girls’ Generation or 2NE1” — a high-energy quartet currently being mentored by Black Eyed Peas’, three of whom speak fluent English.

“Having native English speakers is a huge difference maker in reaching the American audience,” says Kang. “It makes it feel less ‘foreign’ to them. And the upside is that big-name producers like Teddy Riley are writing their songs, they’re backed by Korea’s number-one agency, and frankly, the Girls are nine hot ladies. With nine girls, there’s at least one of them you want to date if you’re a guy, or want to be, if you’re a girl.”

So will the nine-lady army of Girls’ Generation succeed in winning American hearts and minds? Absolutely, says Adam Ware, chief of Mnet America — the new U.S.-based sister channel launched by powerhouse Korean music network Mnet.

“There’s a tipping point going on right now, and the Girls are poised to take advantage of it,” he says. “From an industry point of view, you have the brightest minds in the music biz looking around and saying, what is it that and Jimmy Iovane” — the head of Interscope, the Girls’ U.S. label — “know about K-Pop that I don’t? And the answer is, these are talented performers who are attractive in a way that’s sexy but wholesome, who know how to make use of social media. You have young people graduating out of the Disney Channel and looking for something to listen to that’s catchy, positive, fun, and they go to YouTube and they see the Girls. They watch the videos. They learn the dances. It’s amazing: I’ve never seen anything like this, where you have huge crowds of people knowing exactly the hand gestures to do to songs that aren’t even in English.”

That’s the vibe Mnet America is counting on. They’ve expanded from four million to 12 million households in the past year, and can now be seen in nine of the nation’s top ten markets. They, and their parent company, are spending heavily behind the notion that K-Pop isn’t just a fad or niche, but the next breakout pop subgenre.

“Our parent company has really been pushing the concert biz — they’ve packaged some of the top K-Pop groups together in a global tour they call M-Live,” says Ware. “And they’ve really been investing in Mnet America, looking to put us into the role that MTV used to play — the champion of a new and exciting musical genre. MTV was where hiphop really went mainstream, and they’re the ones who made it possible for a lot of the big European artists to cross over. They don’t do that anymore. But when it comes to Asian pop artists, and K-Pop in particular, we will.”

Ware has a good point. It was MTV that made the Scandi-Pop wave of the late-’80s / early ’90s happen: A-ha, Ace of Base, Roxette, The Cardigans, Aqua, and, on the avant-garde side of the musical spectrum, Bjork. Those acts were visually appealing and vocally talented, but frequently language-challenged. If they could make it in America, why not the Girls — who, with two native-born speakers and several other members fluent in English as a second language, are well ahead of their Scandinavian forerunners, many of whom depended on phonetic transliterations for their American releases?

“I don’t think language is a barrier at all,” says GG’s Tiffany. “We have fans from all over the world, who love our music even if they can’t understand it. If there’s one thing that our experience has taught us, it’s that music is really a universal language. It’s something you don’t just hear — it’s something you feel.”


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