Though it’s a few generations and decades old, the sprawling, sensational world of K-pop feels like it’s changed greatly in the past few years alone. With the world out from the shadow of the pandemic – a confusing, painful period of global isolation where K-pop soared in popularity as an escapist haven – and some of the biggest acts in the industry entering notable new career chapters, K-pop feels like it’s on the precipice of a turning point in 2023.
And if there’s one name that’s on everyone’s lips this year, it’s NewJeans. The group are hardly a year old and have just six songs to their name, but they’re fast emerging as one of the industry’s great new hopes. Their sound is bouncy yet haunting; energetic and ethereal at the same time. They’ve adopted an unabashed Y2K aesthetic that has endeared them to listeners around the globe; their single ‘Hype Boy’ was such a breath of fresh air that NME named it the best K-pop song of 2022. And in December and January, NewJeans dropped two new tracks, ‘OMG’ and ‘Ditto’, that are already propelling them to greater heights. Fitting, then, as we move into the Lunar New Year that they share a mascot with 2023’s zodiac animal: it truly is the Year of the Rabbit.
A little over 10 days after that new release – and over a week after they were named to the NME 100 for 2023 – NME meets NewJeans. Still decked out in retro denims and pinks for their cover shoot, Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin and Hyein huddle on a sofa and Zoom in from Seoul, South Korea for a chat. “We’re excited for [this cover story] to be easier for international fans to access and see,” Hanni tells NME when the call connects. Born to Vietnamese parents and raised in Melbourne, the 18-year-old’s emotions are palpable in her tone, her honeyed Aussie lilt rising in pitch whenever she gets excited.
Initially, the members of NewJeans appear a little shy. But that gives way to earnestness as the words flow, their enthusiasm for their music warming the atmosphere. NewJeans don’t have members designations the way most K-pop groups do (a leader, for instance, usually takes charge of interviews), but Minji and Hanni’s natural leadership as the eldest of the five kicks in as we chat, helping their bandmates through their own trains of thought.
NewJeans debuted at a particularly hectic time for K-pop girl groups, joining a wave of rookie powerhouses like Starship Entertainment group IVE, who had already been sweeping charts since the beginning of 2022. Add the fact that NewJeans’ label, ADOR, is one of many subsidiaries under the company HYBE (home to labels housing BTS, Tomorrow X Together and fellow rising girl group LE SSERAFIM, among many others), and it’s clear that NewJeans have a lot to live up to. “I do feel pressured as many people have high expectations for us. And sometimes we get a little bit nervous,” says Haerin. Even so, the 16-year-old singer finds that the thrill of performing alongside locked-in, equally hard working bandmates outweighs it all. “It’s really fun just to be able to perform on stage,” she says with a sheepish smile.
NewJeans have several performances under their belt, but they’ve yet to headline their own concert or stage their own tour. Anticipation will be sky-high when they do. TikTok has taken their songs global, and they’ve also won over the general public in South Korea, their music and performance clips dominating social media since their debut. Just over six months after their debut in July 2022, they’ve made history on South Korea’s Melon charts, become the fastest K-pop girl group to land on the UK Official Singles chart, among other chart achievements in the US – milestones typically reached by legacy acts.
“‘Hype Boy’ has that natural, authentic joy to its performance that can be felt even when you’re just listening to the song by itself” – Hanni
Eyebrows were raised at first when ADOR (whose name stands for All Doors, One Room) announced that its new girl group would be named NewJeans. But the logic behind the moniker turned out to be prescient: just like the evergreen fashion staple of denim jeans, the fast-rising K-pop rookies are crafting a timeless image and sound for themselves, taking fresh spins on the familiar, and capturing the love and attention of just about anybody and everybody.
“There are so many new experiences that still feel surreal at times,” Danielle says. Born to a South Korean mother and Australian father, the infectiously optimistic 17-year-old spent much of her childhood surfing the beaches of Newcastle, New South Wales, before beginning her training as a K-pop idol. With a starstruck twinkle in her eyes, she reflects on the whirlwind of the past six months: “We’re taking everything day by day, slowly, and cherishing these moments as we go. Being able to perform like this on stage, it’s just a dream that we’ve dreamt for so long. To be able to share our story through music is, I think, truly amazing.”
While on the topic of surreal experiences, our discussion turns to the earth-shattering success of ‘Hype Boy’, a vibrant, carefree pop number from their self-titled debut EP. Featuring lyrics co-written by Hanni, its cheeky chorus of “we can go hi-i-i-i-igh” was easily one of last year’s biggest K-pop earworms. Recently surpassing BTS’ ‘Butter’ as the most-streamed song on Spotify in Korea, the song has become something of a cultural phenomenon (boosted, no doubt, by the TikTok dancers who’ve taken to its loose, light-hearted choreography). It’s not just us regular folk who’ve been completely enamoured with ‘Hype Boy’; several other K-pop stars have fallen under its spell, sharing their own renditions of the song both in concerts and on social media.
“‘Hype Boy’, I think, just had that type of fresh but familiar sound,” Hanni says. “All of our songs are the same [in that sense]. But for ‘Hype Boy’ specifically, there are a lot more opportunities to make eye contact with the members, and kind of play around with the dance. ‘Hype Boy’ has that natural, authentic joy to its performance that can be felt even when you’re just listening to the song by itself.”
Minji chimes in to point out that the word ‘hype’ was seldom used in Korea prior to the song’s release. “Once brought to people’s attention, I think it felt fresh, and had the power to bring out a joyful energy that uplifts people’s spirits. Maybe that’s the reason everyone hyped to ‘Hype Boy’,” she adds. Despite having lived in Korea most of her life (save a couple months studying in Canada), she makes it a point to contribute to our conversation in English, later relaying the thoughts she had struggled to put into words via email.
“When we’re performing ‘Hype Boy’, everyone’s singing together,” she adds. “It’s amazing. Like when we go to university festivals, they all sing along with us. And when other senior artists covered ‘Hype Boy’, the first time when I saw it, we were really thankful and a little shocked, and like this,” she says, shyly touching the tips of her index fingers together with a wide-eyed expression. When Hanni saw a video of fellow HYBE group SEVENTEEN singing ‘Hype Boy’ on their world tour – to a crowd who knew all the lyrics – she disbelievingly dropped it in their group chat.
“When other senior artists covered ‘Hype Boy’, we were really thankful and a little shocked” – Minji
Speaking with NewJeans, it seems they have yet to come to terms with just how big a splash they’ve made. Despite the overwhelming success of their debut, every co-sign or accolade – no matter how big or small – that comes their way continues to surprise the girls.
In December, when they became the fastest girl group to win a Daesang – or Grand Prize – at a South Korean awards show, every single member was caught off-guard. “We didn’t even know we were the ones that won the award,” Hanni recalls with a hearty laugh. And today, when NME informs NewJeans that we named ‘Hype Boy’ our best K-pop song of 2022, Hanni and Haerin whip their heads around to look at each other in disbelief while the rest of the group gape into the camera. It’s in these moments where you really just see NewJeans for what they are: a group of passionate teens with a pure, earnest love for music and performance.
Every member of NewJeans was born between 2004 and 2008, so it’s understandably odd to some that they’ve adopted the nostalgic stylings and sounds of the ’90s and early 2000s, from the subtle R&B that influences songs like ‘Attention’ to the chunky platforms and tartan they don for their NME cover. Don’t call NewJeans posers, though: the members express avid fandom for movies, music and fashion of the era, from The Breakfast Club to fingerless gloves. Besides, trends are cyclical, as Hanni notes.
“It’s kind of like bringing back the old trends from maybe when our parents were our age,” she says. “I like that whole cycle of trends being connected. And also, it means that our parents can kind of connect to the Y2K trend because of all the retro, ’90s styling and stuff. For that to be a part of our music and image also leaves us a lot of room for creative expansion as well. It doesn’t really hold us into one area.”
“Our music tastes are very similar but different at the same time. But the thing that we share is that we all like the old, kind of like ’90’s, early 2000s type of vibe,” she continues, the members nodding in agreement. For Hanni, much of this interest was nurtured by her mother’s own love for music. “[She would] just let me listen to the music she listened to when she was my age, and she really enjoyed sharing that with me.” Total Girl, a teen magazine she read while growing up in Australia, also greatly influenced her fashion choices, and she and Danielle go on a spirited tangent discussing the colourful plastic accessories bundled with each issue.
Meanwhile, soft-spoken youngest member Hyein shares her love for Y2K-era movies. “I think it’s very cool that people see and feel that same Y2K vibe from us,” she says shyly, speaking for the first time 15 minutes into our chat. “And especially our generation, we grew up watching all these Y2K trends on social media, so I thought it was really cool that now it has come back, and that we’ve been able to pull it off in our own NewJeans style.”
NewJeans love fashion and film, but it’s clear that their passion for music is the driving force for all they do. The group’s eldest three members, Minji, Hanni and Danielle have all written lyrics for NewJeans songs, which is uncommon even among experienced K-pop acts. (While there are exceptions, few K-pop agencies allow their artists the opportunity to get involved in songwriting, especially in their rookie years, preferring they hone their performances by focusing on vocal and dance skills.)
Last year, the group revealed that they’d been tasked with trying their hand at lyrics by ADOR CEO Min Hee-jin, granting NewJeans a voice in their own artistic narrative. “It’s such an honour, because our CEO really always thinks of what more we could input into the album,” says Danielle. “Having the opportunity to convey our stories and characters in our albums is incredible, and we really want to continue exploring it for future projects.”
Minji, who earned her debut songwriting credit on their December song ‘Ditto’, opens up about her process. “When I heard ‘Ditto’, it just popped into my head: this main image of a winter mountain that felt kind of cold, but warm at the same time… So I tried to put some objects inside the mountain, for example, like a tree house and a campfire.” Visualising the scene inspired in Minji hope, which emanates from the song’s hazy, wistful spin on the Baltimore club sound.
Arriving days before Christmas, the dreamy ‘Ditto’ flawlessly captures the awkward, hesitant pining of potential lovers, while its staccato beats imitate the heart-fluttering thrill of finally closing the distance. Its credits include two indie Korean musicians, singer-songwriter Oohyo and Cho Hyu-il of The Black Skirts – both masters at expressing the ache of a love yet to bloom – and Swedish songwriter Ylva Dimberg, who previously co-wrote ‘Hype Boy’ and ‘NewJeans’ single ‘Cookie’. Though it’s the pre-release track to ‘OMG’s single, the catchy, coquettish ‘Ditto’ has performed as well and sometimes even better on the charts.
“Having the opportunity to convey our stories and characters in our albums is incredible” – Danielle
Like their seniors, NewJeans’ younger members are hard at work honing their songwriting skills. “I’ve been practising songwriting ever since our debut, so I want to continue to try and build experience in that. I think it is very meaningful, the fact that our message could inspire people and evoke emotions,” Haerin says, choosing her words carefully. Her hope, she shares, is that listeners will be able to experience the full spectrum of human emotion in NewJeans’ music.
Hyein echoes Haerin’s sentiment and reveals that her current struggle lies in capturing how she feels in her writing. “It’s really much harder than I thought, to express my emotions and incorporate those emotions into the music,” she says. Still, the 14-year-old shines in NewJeans’ moodier songs, her voice taking on a haunting quality on tracks like ‘Hurt’ and ‘Ditto’. Thoughtful beyond her years, it’s likely just a matter of time before the pensive Hyein finds her voice.
From the thrill of first love and the pain of heartbreak, the themes in NewJeans’ music so far have tapped heavily on universal human experiences. It is through this relatable simplicity that the group are able to connect with pretty much anybody, be it a pre-teen longing for their first taste of love or someone much older reminiscing on memories from their youth or simply keen to indulge in a fantasy. Factor in how energetic yet easy on the ears songs like ‘Attention’ and ‘OMG’ are, plus the group’s unabashedly joyful performances, and it’s no wonder that NewJeans have resonated with so many across the globe.
The idea of connecting to and engaging with their listeners is one that comes up throughout NME’s chat with NewJeans. When asked what impact the group want to have, Danielle is flustered at first. “I don’t know how to put it into words!” she exclaims with a giggle, before going on to do just that. “I want our listeners to be open-minded to new music and have them listen to things that maybe they haven’t heard before,” she says. “Because you can always find what you really like by trying new things and challenging yourself.”
“I hope that we can become the kind of artists people will look forward to, and wonder what they’re going to bring to the table next” – Hyein
“I always want to try new things. Whatever we do, I hope that we can become the kind of artists people will look forward to, and wonder what they’re going to bring to the table next,” Hyein echoes.
With the next NewJeans album already on the horizon, Minji offhandedly suggests they take on jazz next. “Oh, definitely,” Hanni nods. NewJeans have previously cited as inspirations Baltimore club (‘Ditto’) and Jersey club (‘Cookie’), and Hanni hopes they keep exploring more styles and genres in their music: “I think pulling R&B and hip-hop together, a little bit pop and you know, New Jersey club, mixing the genres into one song gives a more unique kind of sound, so to try [mix more genres] in the future, I think that would be really fun.”
“We’re under the genre of K-pop, I think, is how most people would see us,” Hanni continues. As the only member of NewJeans not of Korean heritage, it’s not surprising she’s thought hard about the blurring of boundaries like nationality and language in music. “We want to show the music industry that music doesn’t need to and shouldn’t be divided by language. I think it’s something that, personally, I [feel] very strong about.”
Wherever NewJeans decide to take their sound in the years to come, the girl group are determined to nurture the cherished connection they’ve fostered with their listeners thus far. “Like all the girls have said today, I think through music, there’s a lot of feelings and emotions that we can convey and communicate with each other, even if we don’t speak the same language. And it shows, because it seems like everyone’s enjoying our music,” Hanni adds with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “So, I hope we continue to be a group that, despite whatever language people speak, that they can just empathise and enjoy our music.”
NewJeans’ ‘OMG’ is out now via ADOR
Hair: Giihee Naree
Makeup: Eunseo Lee
Styling: Yumi Choi