T he five young members of 4Minute sit dressed in tight, black leather outfits at a luxury hotel in Ebisu, Tokyo. It’s one day before their Japanese debut, but they show no signs of nerves.
The group’s first concert here, at the 1,500-capacity Shibuya AX, turned out to be impressively packed to the rafters with screaming teenage girls. More notably, though, was the large number of music industry representatives also in attendance. This comes despite the fact the girls have not yet released any music in Japan.
Having spent the last few weeks wooing media and gaining fans in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, Nam Ji Hyun, 20, says coyly, “This is just the start.”
4Minute currently lead a tide of ambitious Korean girl groups that are attempting to make waves across Asia and into the West, leaving their cute Japanese counterparts behind. The girls are confident, aggressive and stay on message. “Within four minutes we can hypnotize you,” says 15 year-old Kwon So Hyun. “We’ll surprise you when we show you what we’ve got.”
4Minute’s management coined the term “candy funk” to describe the group’s style and have thus given a name to what is now being termed a Korean girls-group boom by critics in Japan. “Our image is colorful like candy,” says Kwon.
The boys came first. Big Bang are the current Korean hotties melting Japanese girls’ hearts, and they follow in the footsteps of Tohoshinki, (known as TVXQ in their homeland), who become the first ever foreign act to achieve eight No. 1 hits in Japan. Yet while boy bands have often found success outside of South Korea, girl groups have always struggled to make it across borders.
Korean management companies, however, are determined to make 2010 a breakthrough year for girl groups. They’ve invested time and money into the likes of 4Minute, The Wonder Girls, 2NE1 and After School.
The investment starts with a selection process by the management companies. From Spice Girls to the Pussycat Dolls, it’s a procedure that seeks the perfect pop combination of talent. 4Minute’s Nam was chuffed to have made it through Cube Entertainment’s vetting.
“We had to come through lots of competitions and survival contests among many trainees to get this opportunity,” she says. “We are the survivors.”
Typically the process in Korea has led to groups with a variety of talents, including singers, rappers and dancers with very individual personalities that create diversity. It’s the opposite of the typical Japanese approach of finding similar types of girls for each unit.
The Korean girl-group wave was set in motion in early 2007 with the debut of the five-piece Wonder Girls from management giant JYP Entertainment. They were soon followed by SM Entertainment’s Girl’s Generation (also known as SNSD), both of whom quickly began topping charts in South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan.
The third of the big three management companies, YG, presented the more street-style four-piece 2NE1 in May 2009, the same month that 4Minute were announced by Cube (itself a JYP subsidiary). And while the girls reap dreams of glamour and fame, their management is seeing dollar signs in their eyes. By the end of the year, YG had recorded a 92 percent profit increase on 2008 thanks to the fast success of 2NE1, who even exceeded sales of boy-band Big Bang. Both still fell short of leader SM Entertainment though, home of BoA and Tohoshinki, who recorded sales of $55.7 million compared to $32.2 million for YG and $9.2 million for JYP.
4Minute’s edgy, sexual style has already caused controversy in South Korea, where public broadcaster KBS banned the song “Won’t Give” due to its sexual content. This is a marked difference from more innocent Japanese girl groups such as AKB48 or Morning Musume, who are tailored to a primarily mid-30s otaku (nerdy) male audience.
While Japan has long dominated pop-music culture across Asia thanks to stars such as Ayumi Hamasaki and SMAP, these cuter girl groups have only managed to carve niche markets.
Former NHK Pop Asia presenter Motoko Sekiya has been promoting Asian music in Japan for more than 20 years and believes that the music markets have been determined by many cultural factors.
“Korea was considered a female-consumer market buying boy-band products. But as the market matured, the boys wanted to spend money on groups that suited them,” she explains. “And Korean boys are more Americanized so they prefer aggressive groups compared to the cute-style groups that suit men in Japan.
“The Korean market is also quite small, so they look outwards to other territories. The producers behind the girls groups have studied not only the Japanese music industry, but other countries’ industries, too, and especially the U.S.
“They have been very positive about the possibility of future success and revenue; for example, they haven’t pushed for performance fees when they play abroad. It’s something Japanese companies should really learn from when they try to go to other territories.”
Sekiya believes that the Korean groups will need to master Japanese and spend a lot of time in the country, but that No. 1 singles and stadium shows are within reach.
“It took four years for Tohoshinki to get success here,” she says. “They did activities in small towns, but gradually their efforts paid off. Even now there isn’t a weekend that goes by without a Korean singer or actor having fan meetings or an event happening.”
With a Japanese version of their hit single ‘Muzik’ set to release in June, 4Minute are the first of this wave of girl groups to seriously target Japanese music fans.
“We heard so many great things about Japan as a center of fashion and style” says Nam. “But we have just three days on this first visit, and a lot of work to do.”
While 4Minute will return to play Zepp Tokyo on May 8, their alleged rivals, 2NE1, have been invited as special guests to present at the MTV Japan Video Music Awards on May 29.
“We don’t actually view the other groups as rivals,” says YG Japan’s CEO Gen Sasaki. “We are just happy that 2NE1 even exceeded Big Bang last year by achieving the highest download amount ever in Korea with ‘I Don’t Care.’ “
Sasaki is adamant that 2NE1 not even be labeled K-pop at all. “While K-pop is influenced by British and American pop music, 2NE1 is based directly on hip-hop,” he says. “CL (main rapper Lee Chae Rin, 19) blew us away with her rapping skills and all the girls have their own individuality and charisma.”
Sasaki says YG sets trends in Korea by producing actual artists and avoiding eye-candy idols: “We have never been a commercial company. Even with Big Bang, the guys were not chosen on looks but on their diverse talents. We wanted a female version (of them) that would be colorful and funky.”
He also believes Japanese management have been far too slow in keeping up with music trends in recent years and that’s where Korean acts are getting the edge globally.
A part of this edge is education. 2NE1′s Bom (lead singer Park Bom Lee, 26) graduated from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, and two of the other girls in the group speak fluent English. Sasaki again stresses though, that good music is the key, “The next album is everything, the quality of that comes before all else.”
2NE1 aren’t the only group focused on the West. The big Korean management companies are all setting up shop in the United States and are seeing real results. The Wonder Girls will release their debut English album on May 15 and embark on a U.S. tour in June. This follows the U.S. debut of their single “Nobody,” the first ever by an Asian group to chart in the Billboard Hot 100, hitting 76 in October 2009. 4Minute collaborated with U.S. R&B singer Amerie on “Heard ‘Em All” earlier this year, and Korean acts have also been getting coverage on Western blogs, including significant attention from influential celebrity-gossip blogger Perez Hilton. These early gains have inspired the groups to make it to as many countries as possible.
However, Japan is still the first step on this road, and Sasaki alludes to plans beyond the MTV awards for when 2NE1 arrive in Japan next month.
It is tempting to see the girls as products of a corporate machine, but after the initial selection process they are given room to grow that few J-pop artists can do more than dream of.
For example, 4Minute’s Jeong Ji Yoon has developed into the group’s primary lyricist, saying “I could say that the overwhelming melody just makes me do it!” But 4Minute’s reputation is largely built on their slick dance moves, as best displayed in the music video for “Muzik.” Jeong explains that here, too, the girls are involved in directing choreography.
“We practice the dance moves every day and night, and we are so proud to express our own creativity.”
Kim Hyun Ah, 18, thinks the group still has room to grow and says the girls listen to various types of music as a form of study. Kim has simultaneously debuted as solo artist Hyuna, but says her heart belongs to 4Minute.
“The chemistry was there already during training, it was like a destiny that we were meant to meet even though we didn’t know we would end up in the same group.”
Speaking of her experience with the Wonder Girls — whom she left due to health concerns — Kim is now grateful to have had experience in two of the Korean girl-group boom’s leading acts.
“I felt like I was growing up,” she says. “I felt I was starting (to be) a professional, not only looking at myself, but gaining the ability to see other members’ attributes and find my role in the wider perspective.”
The uber-cuties of J-pop could risk looking outdated if Japanese fans develop a sweet tooth for so-called candy funk. “Our name also means ‘for a minute,’ ” says Kwon wrapping up the interview. “In that specific moment we are here.” Of course, 4Minute hopes their success lasts for longer than that.
4Minute’s new Japanese single “Muzik” is out on June 5. For more information, visit www.4-minute.com