Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Forbes Staff
The event roster for the PrudentialCenter in Newark, New Jersey, is fairly diverse. On any given night, the arena might play host to an American Idol concert, a hockey game or a death-metal mini-festival. But on August 17th, the main attraction was something unusual
even for a bastion of bizarreness.
Just before bass started thumping, a projector illuminated the curtain with images of a diamond, a spade, a heart and a club, representing the four diminutive members of the musical act known as 2NE1. Pronounced “twenty-one,” as in blackjack’s magic number, the group—CL, Bom, Minzy and Dara—proceeded to stomp across the stage as a crowd of 10,000-plus rapped and sang along with them in Korean.
“I think Korea right now is really passionate about music. I mean, everybody is, but we’re passionate about performing and we love music,” CL explained when the group stopped by FORBES’ New York headquarters a few days later (see full video below). “So I think the world is feeling that right now, feeling the energy.”
The world certainly is feeling the energy of Korean pop music—better known as K-Pop—in general, and one need only look at Seoul rapper Psy’s viral “Gangnam Style” video for evidence. The clip has racked up over 475 million YouTube views in since its launch three months ago; Psy himself was recently signed to Schoolboy Records, the Universal Music Group imprint run by Scooter Braun, who also manages Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen and Asher Roth.
Though Psy has been getting all the publicity of late, his female counterparts in 2NE1 may actually be the bigger stars. Known by many as the Korean version of the Spice Girls, the group has sold 27 million digital downloads to date, including the single “I Am The Best,” which moved 4.5 million units and won Song of the Year honors at Asia’s Mnet Awards.
“Before this song, people in other markets knew 2NE1 more than Psy,” says Danny Im, former member of the K-Pop group 1TYM. “2NE1 was way bigger. They were hitting No. 1 when Psy was on hiatus.”
2NE1 got its start three years ago, when South Korean music label YG Entertainment put the girls together to form a pop group characterized by bold, bright outfits and big, catchy hooks punctuated by rap verses and an in-your-face swagger seemingly borrowed from U.S.-based hip-hop acts like Nicki Minaj, with whom 2NE1 recently appeared in anAdidas commercial.
Conventional wisdom suggests that young acts should go light on the endorsements, at least at first (an opinion shared by 24-year-old Skrillex, who earlier this year told me, “I don’t care if someone offers me half a million dollars, I’m not going to do a cellphone thing.”) Yet for 2NE1, whose first song, “Lollipop,” was first created as a cell phone commercial for LG, branding is part of the DNA.
“That’s why so many people got to know us real fast,” says CL. “Since it was a commercial, it was out there all over the place.”
From a business perspective, that might just make K-Pop the most commercially potent genre to emerge since hip-hop. The latter is known for its praise of name-brand luxury goods from Mercedes to Gucci, both of which found their way into songs without having to pay for placement. K-Pop would seem to be similarly tantalizing for technology companies like the one behind 2NE1’s first song.
Of course, the major hurdle for Psy, 2NE1 and K-Pop as a genre is language. As “Gangnam Style” showed, YouTube has broken down barriers—without the bizarrely engaging video, it seems highly unlikely that a Korean-language song could have become a major hit in the U.S. And without the easy access offered by the web, it would have been nearly impossible to find a rap song from the other side of the globe.
“Back in our day it was nothing like this,” says Im, who also hosts the K-Pop show Danny From LA on Mnet. “Nothing went viral, there was nothing you went to YouTube to watch. If you wanted music, you had to go to Korean stores that sold Korean music.”
But the three stripes of Adidas are recognizable no matter what language the artists are singing—and while language might be a barrier for the spread of the music, it’s less of an obstacle to the spread of an easily-identifiable brand.
The response to 2NE1 as it continues its seven-country, ten city world tour will offer many clues as to the ceiling of K-Pop outside of Asia. “Gangnam Style” may have been the first step. The next, it seems, might be an English language album.
“I want that to happen,” says CL. “And I really felt that we needed English songs when we were performing in New Jersey. I mean, everyone sang along in Korean, but I thought it would be much better if we could do it in English, when everyone could actually connect to the lyrics.”
Which act will be able to orchestrate such a feat? Don’t bet against 2NE1.