In this week's edition of Pop is Not A Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood marks the arrival of BLACKPINK by arguing that Western pop should be shaking in its boots at this K-Pop quartet.
I have an infection, but it’s not the gross, throat-coaty-phlegmy kind you might expect. It started a while ago, when I first heard the sledgehammer beats of a K-Pop band on YouTube, and it fully latched onto my helpless T cells as I made the long journey to SSE Arena Wembley this week. Diagnosis? BLACKPINK fever.
We’re talking about K-Pop as if it’s a bit of a ‘thing’ right now, aren’t we? But none of us are sure if it’s something to embrace or something to fear. For the dog-eared music execs who are trying frantically to find a way to make Jessie J remain cool and relevant to a generation that have, for the most part, moved on, this forceful musical beast from the East is a threat. Our old formula to creating pop stars is just not working anymore.
But if you were there to witness BLACKPINK’s debut London show – three years after they burst on to the scene and with every one of the 12,500 tickets sold out – you’d start to wonder if this very modern phenomenon might overshadow the homegrown pop scene soon. The show might have been a little stilted and rough around the edges at times, but you get the impression that there are dozens of stagehands struggling to keep up the pace with these four South Korean girls with sights set on world domination.
BLACKPINK were formed in 2016 through a gruelling audition process that resulted in Jisoo, Jennie, Rose and Lisa, the band’s own Baby, Scary, Sporty and Posh (no Ginger yet), becoming the new faces of K-Pop. And they ran out of the gates with a quartet of singles that all peaked as Top Ten hits. Three years on, every subsequent single and EP has landed in the top three. Their unrivalled banger DDU-DU DDU-DU has over 800 million hits on YouTube and, quite frankly, deserves 800 million more.
Truth be told, women in pop music the world over will always have a harder rap than men do, and when they’re grouped together that situation gets even more contentious. But the one thing that girl groups always have is a loyal fanbase that will organise streaming parties, and pay money for shows and merchandise. It’s the formula that helped Little Mix sell millions of records and sell out UK arenas multiple times over.
Their most recent record ‘LM5’ peaked at Number Three in the UK charts and has sold 100,000 copies after release; hardly a flop, but a notable downgrade after their previous album ‘Glory Days’ spent weeks on the top spot, spawned hit singles and has since been certified triple platinum. There are a number of contentious issues surrounding this, including a quick label switch moments before its release, but its also a sign that pop’s treatment of girl groups has changed drastically in the past two years.
In some ways, we want a fantasy that bands like BLACKPINK perpetuate: a shining vision of what we could never be, but yearn to. With their massive pop songs and almost eerily seamless dance routines, they represent the kind of dreamy vision of what pop lost some time ago. A yearning for pop stars to be on our level led to a weakening of the genre’s live performers: they became more relatable, but the genre lost its lustre a little bit. Finding a comfortable, satisfying middle ground can be hard (Ariana is one of the few people who are killing it), but by establishing their own solo careers and narratives alongside their fully charged K-Pop visions, bands like BLACKPINK (and BTS) are proving they have their fingers on the pulse. They might be selling out Wembley in a matter of minutes, but whether or not Western audiences are ready to admit that this is the future is another conversation altogether.
The strength of BLACKPINK’s melodies and their embracing of a pop sound that was cool 10 years ago (pop, like most things, is pretty cyclical), might make them the biggest girlband in the world in 2019. There’s six months left, copious tours and plenty of new tracks to come. If they stick to the pace they’re working at right now, they’ll sell out the stadium next door to the arena in no time.