In the trailer of their new album ‘Between 1&2’, TWICE ask the question: “Who are we?” At first, it seems like an obvious question coming seven years too late. With YouTube views in the hundreds of millions, multiple releases that have propelled up the charts – both in South Korea and abroad – they are one of the highest selling girl groups of all time. They are often hailed as the “Nation’s Girl Group” – no small feat, given who their contemporaries are.
But in 2022, “who are TWICE?” is neither a belated ask nor a rhetorical flex. It’s a serious question about their identity precipitated by their approaching seventh anniversary as a group. Earlier this year, all nine members – Nayeon, Jihyo, Tzuyu, Momo, Dahyun, Mina, Sana, Chaeyoung and Jeongyeon – unanimously renewed their contracts with their longtime agency, JYP Entertainment. Cue a wave of relief through the group’s fans, collectively called ONCE, to see their favourites overcome the so-called ‘seven-year curse’ in K-pop – the common term for line-up reshuffles that happen as members leave labels at the end of the standard contract term.
“It was actually decided only a few days before it was reported in the media,” Jihyo reveals to NME over Zoom. We meet a few weeks ahead of the release of ‘Between 1&2,’ the group’s schedule understandably packed – they’re rotating through a flurry of activities timed down to the minute.
“We talked about [contract renewals],” Jihyo continues as the other members nod, “and, of course, the conversation was not the easiest. It’s related to our individual lives. It decides our individual futures. So, of course, it was difficult, and making the decision was even harder, but in the end we decided to stay together.”
“The conversation [about contract renewal] was not the easiest. It’s related to our individual lives. It decides our individual futures” – Jihyo
Jihyo’s words leave little room for interpretation: TWICE have a larger vision for themselves, one that includes all nine of them. Accordingly, news of their contract renewal coincided with multiple fresh starts: they dropped their Japanese single ‘Celebrate’ – peppered with messages of gratitude to their fans – announced a new EP, and finally branched out into solo releases starting with Nayeon, who released solo debut EP ‘Im Nayeon’, led by the viral hit ‘POP!’.
And today, they release ‘Between 1&2’ – perhaps TWICE’s most important EP, as it’s the first release that kicks off the proverbial second chapter of their story. They’re poised, their pen hovering over a new page, ready to answer “Who are TWICE?” – a question they’re more intimate with than ever.
The nine members of TWICE came together through the musical survival show Sixteen, where 16 idol hopefuls battled it out for a spot in the group. The contestants were divided into two tiers of eight participants each, Majors and Minors. Over 10 episodes, contestants were put through the wringer, subjected to brutal critique, fighting throughout to move up from the Minors to the Majors, who had the advantage at almost every turn – be it better resources or coveted mentors.
The relief that came with TWICE’s collective debut at the end of Sixteen, however, was short-lived. In their own words, the group’s early years were wracked with doubt about their core concept. They’d dropped a previous proposal of an edgy, confident mood for a saccharine pop sound, one that many thought was on its way out. The numbers might not reflect it – their 2015 debut single, ‘Like Ooh Aah’, currently sits at 457million YouTube views – but the group struggled to reconcile themselves with their ethos, or even believe they would hit it big. “I had no expectations. I didn’t imagine our future,” Jihyo told Cosmopolitan earlier this year.
Then the group scored a series of chart-topping singles. They had South Korea’s most-streamed single of 2016, ‘Cheer Up’, which became a viral internet mainstay and their first No. 1 on the country’s Gaon charts (recently renamed the Circle chart). In October that same year, they dropped the Halloween-themed ‘TT’ and not a day went by when one didn’t catch netizens – or fellow K-pop artists – doing the song’s iconic dance move. More viral hits and No. 1 singles followed in ‘Knock Knock’, ‘Likey’, ‘What Is Love?’, and ‘Signal’, proving that their success wasn’t an anomaly. TWICE’s proud reclamation and revamp of the girl-group sound had made them a force to be reckoned with.
The success of those early years was instrumental in instilling confidence in TWICE, they say now. “In the beginning of our years, the company decided on a wild and edgy concept for us, but we learned that the public responded better when our concept was cute and energetic, so that’s why we evolved in that direction,” says Jihyo.
And as TWICE grew, they gained more and more ownership over their own sound. “Musically, we grew up and evolved most in terms of our involvement in the album making,” Dahyun – who has written multiple songs for the group since 2017, including ‘Gone’ and ‘When We Were Kids’ on ‘Between 1&2’ – states. “In the beginning, a lot of the stuff that we sang was given to us, made by someone else. As we released more albums, our involvement got bigger and bigger.”
“We started off with discussing concepts or styles for the albums, and now we are writing our own songs” – Jihyo
And so TWICE began to explore cornucopia of sounds and styles: synth-pop, electro-pop, retro, Latin pop. “The biggest factor was our desire to share TWICE’s diverse take on music,” Dahyun continues. “By putting different concepts and styles of music forward, we showed how TWICE is capable of manifesting a variety of looks, instead of just [the] one that we’ve been showing since our debut.”
This was the evolution TWICE was undergoing when they released the effervescent 2018 single ‘What Is Love?’, which depicted the members as wide-eyed girls wishing for a kind of love only found in films. “Everyday, in a movie, a book, or a drama, I feel love,” they sang, parodying iconic movie scenes in its music video, from the dance duet in Pulp Fiction to the pottery scene from Ghost.
Their follow-up single ‘Fancy’, however, carried none of that naivete, replacing the rainbow-hued dresses and vivacious energy of ‘What Is Love?’ with form-fitting black outfits, sultry gazes and sharp, confident lyrics: “It’s dangerous, it pricks, you’re like a rose / It’s OK, I’m not afraid at all.”
And before the magic of ‘Fancy’ had time to wear off, TWICE dropped the scintillating, gold-plated (literally) ‘Feel Special’. They marked their full entry into a more mature era with the ‘Feel Special’ EP – which featured songwriting contributions from all members – and an uncharacteristically vulnerable title track, where they thanked their fans for their undying support on the days they felt less than special.
Looking back, it’s hard for the group to pinpoint when this hunger for growth set in.“I can’t specifically point out when, since I believe the musical maturity happened naturally, coinciding with the growing years of our time as TWICE,” Mina says. But there was a point, she admits, when she knew they’d done something tremendous: “I can point out when this change in our concept peaked: ‘I Can’t Stop Me’ and ‘Cry For Me’. These tracks are significantly different from the tracks before like ‘TT’ or ‘Cheer Up.’”
‘Different’ is an understatement. When TWICE debuted ‘Cry For Me’ at the 2020 Mnet Asian Music Awards, it was like witnessing the birth of a new act altogether. ‘TT’ was the hapless venting of frustrations about wanting to get someone’s attention, but ‘Cry For Me’ kicked the door in with nine-inch stilettos and proclaimed that the days of shedding tears for someone else were over: “I want you to cry, cry for me / The way I cried for you, baby, cry for me.”
Fans celebrated TWICE’s path from inexperience to self-assured expression – how they’d layered optimism, youthful joy and ambition with the wisdom of growing older and the artistic confidence that comes from time spent in the industry. “I believe we are extending the ways we can express ourselves as artists. We started off with discussing concepts or styles for the albums, and now we are writing our own songs,” Jihyo reflects.
It hasn’t been easy, Chaeyoung clarifies. “I wouldn’t say that we are confident all the time. There are times when we feel confident, but not always, especially [when it comes to] songwriting. The more we do it, the harder it gets, because we have more to think about. The pressure mounts as our involvement in the album-making grows.”
Indeed, TWICE’s triumphs have come with their costs. In July 2019, ahead of their highly anticipated ‘TWICELIGHTS’ world tour, JYP Entertainment announced that Mina would be pulling out of the tour entirely. In an unprecedented move – as K-pop companies usually shy away from detailing or even revealing mental health diagnoses – a statement from the label said that Mina’s absence was brought on by an “anxiety disorder”.
Almost a year later, ahead of the release of their second studio album ‘Eyes Wide Open’, Jeongyeon also pulled out of promotional activities due to anxiety issues. Although she returned to the group after three months, she took a second hiatus less than a year later, citing “panic and psychological anxiety”.
In the past, members of TWICE (and their agency) have been uncommonly honest about the mental health struggles they’ve been through – and they’re candid with NME now. “We work so much,” Nayeon says frankly. It’s true: in just seven years, TWICE have released three full-length Korean albums, four full-length Japanese albums, 11 EPs, and three special albums. That’s not including the group’s touring schedule around the world and sundry promotional commitments. “Because of that, I think the realisation that not only bodily health but mental health is also important – it just kind of came naturally to us,” she adds.
Despite this, there was some hesitation at first about how much TWICE should disclose publicly and how people would react. “We release a lot of albums in a very short amount of time. And in the process, we also communicate with our fans a lot. It is kind of inevitable [we’d] conceal what’s happening to us individually.” Ultimately, Nayeon says, TWICE decided to be transparent. “Before, there was a time when we thought that it was better not to talk about it, but now we don’t think that. We think it’s much better to be open and honest about what’s happening to us.”
TWICE haven’t necessarily decided to open up because they feel they’re now stronger – enough to withstand the unpredictable force of public opinion, the glare of the tabloids. “I don’t want to say that we are honest because we are strong,” Nayeon says. “It doesn’t come from strength. Rather, it comes from our conscious decision to be close with ONCE, to be honest with them.”
“ We help each other by showing that we accept each other’s weaknesses first…. I trust that other members will be there for me whenever I need them” – Tzuyu
TWICE’s fans have been the group’s rock over the last seven years. “This album is about our relationship with our fans,” says Jihyo of ‘Between1&2’. “If we released this album in the beginning of our years, it probably [wouldn’t have] sounded as true because there was no relationship. I mean, there was, but it was not as sincere and deep as it is now.
“Over seven years, our relationship really deepened – it’s become very sincere and we have a great feeling of solidarity.”
That solidarity and unwavering encouragement from their fanbase has buoyed not only specific members of TWICE, but the entire group. When Mina backed out of the ‘TWICELIGHTS’ tour, her bandmates were feeling “similar anxieties” as she was, they told Time Magazine, but were buoyed by the positive responses to JYP’s statement and the outpouring of support. For TWICE, honesty fuels courage. As Nayeon puts it to NME: “Through honesty, we can protect ourselves. We can protect our group.”
“You might find it hard to believe, but we’ve never had a big fight,” Nayeon laughs.
“Seriously, honest to God, we’ve never had a fight,” Mina smiles.
TWICE’s disagreements and discussions, as it turns out, are resolved in a fairly civil manner. “We raise our hands,” Chaeyoung explains. “When there is a disagreement, we raise our hands to see, and then we go with the majority. It’s a simple rule we follow.”
“One of the unspoken rules –” Nayeon is quick to add, “– is that when there are nine of us, it’s really hard to talk at the same time. So, if there is an issue and someone answers first, we go with that.”
The rule of fastest speakers first makes sense when you watch TWICE talk among themselves. It feels like watching a high-stakes volleyball rally – blink and you’ve missed an entire conversation. The more excited the members of TWICE are, the louder they get, turning around to face each other, speaking all at the same time, gesturing to get attention. Observing as an outsider sparks a latent warmth, as if you’re sitting in a restaurant watching the group at the next table have a 10-year reunion.
“When you spend almost every day together for seven years, it’s hard not to have unity or solidarity, the feeling of closeness,” Jihyo says. She makes it sound simple, but TWICE’s dynamic cannot entirely be chalked up to proximity and the hours spent together. Their maturing friendships, grounded on the principle of acceptance, have given rise to quiet but steadfast bonds.
“As newcomers, our mistakes were seen as cute. But now, in our seventh year, I think we have more pressure to be more perfect and to not make mistakes” – Nayeon
When Nayeon was promoting her solo debut, for instance, her bandmates visited the set of her music video, photoshoots and music shows for moral support. The promise that they will do the same things for the next member to go solo – which, by the way “will come out when the right time comes” – is unsaid and unwavering. The nine women of TWICE are each other’s friends, confidants, collaborators and sounding boards all at the same time.
Acceptance is the foundation of the TWICE dynamic, Tzuyu says. “We help each other by showing that we accept each other’s weaknesses first. By letting each other know that we acknowledge the weaknesses, we can rely on each other. I trust that other members will be there for me whenever I need them.” TWICE have had to figure out many things over the years, but they’ve never doubted their trust in each other. Even if they make mistakes, they will always have TWICE to come back to.
They think about that last part often. “I feel like we didn’t have a lot of challenges in the early years because we’d just made our debut and everybody expected us to make a lot of mistakes. As newcomers, our mistakes were seen as cute,” Nayeon says. “But now, in our seventh year, I think we have more pressure to be more perfect and to not make mistakes.”
It seems like a good time to go back to the original question: Who are TWICE – or rather, who are TWICE now? They’ve provided many answers: they’re continuously evolving. They’re honest and open. They believe in each other and, over the years, have come to believe in themselves as well. Most importantly, perhaps, is they’re not afraid of being human.
With ‘Between1&2’ out in the world, TWICE are about to write a new chapter of their story. It won’t be without its flaws and imperfections – but that’s not going to hold them back. Nayeon puts it all into perspective: “Whether I think about making a mistake or not, I still do. So why stress about it?”
TWICE’s ‘Between1&2’ is out now via JYP Entertainment