“Gretchen, stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen! It’s not going to happen!” yelled Regina George – the undying meme and quintessential queen bee – in the 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls. Gretchen, who was Regina’s less-popular sidekick, was adamant in creating a new slang to use at their high school, unaware that she was trespassing royal rules. Who dares to create new buzzwords without a crown atop their head?
At the time the movie came out, only half of six-member girl group IVE were born (member Rei, for reference, was two months old). However, swap Evanston, Illinois’ North Shore High School to Seoul’s Starship Entertainment, and not much has changed.
Since debuting in December 2021, IVE have gone from surprising rookies to industry sovereigns. ‘Eleven’, their lush first single, immediately stood out and prompted the Internet to coin their concept as “chaebol crush” – or what happens if Tiktok’s old money aesthetic is mixed with bangers reminiscent of Britney Spears’ best moments. Their second single, the intoxicating ‘Love Dive’, won Song of the Year at the 2022 MAMA Awards and dominated South Korean charts for months. They are ‘Royal’ and have ‘Blue Blood’. Heck, their first fan concert is named ‘The Prom Queens’.
And now, they want to reclaim the word kitsch.
Off their first studio album ‘I’ve IVE’, the brash, bratty pre-release track ‘Kitsch’ has become the first song of 2023 to achieve the coveted PAK (Perfect All-Kill), meaning that it charted at Number One on the daily and real-time components of all major South Korean music streaming platforms. “We just describe [kitsch] as a new word,” Wonyoung tells NME via Zoom, with the casual tone that only someone who never had to worry about their lunch being stolen could. “For us, it is like free, young and hip. It’s a little different from the original meaning.”
According to the books, kitsch means an object or design of poor taste, but with an ironic, sentimental appeal. Think handcrafted vacation souvenirs, for example, or those little porcelain animals available at any grandma’s house. Nothing to do with the “high-school, but haute couture” atmosphere that they present in the music video for ‘Kitsch’. However, because IVE are IVE, and not Gretchens or Karens, when they sing “I pop up on your algorithm everyday / Can’t control how high it goes, it’s a crazy score / No one can expect this nineteen’s kitsch”, we can’t help but nod and agree.
“We’re going to shine at the top, we belong at the top and give [people] great messages”
The only thing IVE aren’t, though, are mean girls per se. While Regina George and The Plastics had a burn book before gaslight and gatekeep were a thing, IVE want everyone to girlboss instead. “We always showed self-love and confidence,” says Gaeul. “In our new songs, we hope that our listeners will not just see us, but that they realise they should have confidence too, and practice self-love.”
While onstage, IVE are posh and commanding, but they couldn’t be more down-to-earth when the lights are off and the show is done. Dressed in comfy sweats and sitting around a conference room table for this interview, Wonyoung and her teammates Liz, Gaeul, Leeseo, and Rei (Yujin couldn’t participate in this call due to an overseas schedule) are sweet and relatable – a little shy, even. They measure their words carefully, as if IVE’s titanic success was some parallel world that they go in and out of. A place where they can envision their potential and embody all that they want to be.
The name IVE comes from that fullness: I have, period. In ‘I’ve IVE’, they double down on that meaning and showcase 11 solid tracks that are cohesive beyond their years. Ranging from the mystifying strings of opener ‘Blue Blood’, to the airy progressions of ‘Mine’, and then to the ’90s R&B vocal delight of ‘Cherish’, they don’t miss a single beat.
“‘I’ve IVE’ is about our team, like collaboration and teamwork. I have IVE, I have our members,” explains Wonyoung. ‘I’ve IVE’ also marks the first time the sextet put out more than two songs at once (all of their previous releases were single albums), and although their discography has always been impeccable, they have now proven it wasn’t just a fad.
Title track ‘I AM’, for example, is a fitting follow-up to last year’s festive ‘After LIKE’ – “No matter how many times you listen, you don’t get sick of it,” says Liz. At the same time, it also expands the album’s core message: “It’s about our own attitude [of] you can do anything, and I can do anything,” continues Wonyoung. “We’re going to shine at the top, we belong at the top and give [people] great messages.”
“Just being a part of this new generation of strong girl groups is an honour”
And this effortless self-confidence is something IVE sought to explore, especially considering that the album features lyrics written by Wonyoung, Yujin, Gaeul and Rei in more than half of the songs. Via email, Yujin shares that writing lyrics for ‘Heroine’ was like scribbling in her diary. “On YouTube, I always see song recommendation playlists, and I noticed there were many with titles along the lines of ‘as if you’re the main character of a movie’,” she says. “I thought ‘but we’re already the main characters of our own lives’.”
Time – although they are still so young, so new – has given IVE conviction in their own skills. In these sixteen months since debut, Rei says that she’s “learning how to love myself and to have confidence in whatever I do, and whatever appearance that I put out there”, while Liz understands that the love from fans is limitless. “Because of that, I want to do everything I can to give it back to everyone”, she says. To Yujin, this period led her to learn how to wait and “not be in such a hurry”.
They do feel some pressure about the fact that every single song they released so far has become a major hit. But more than pressure, Wonyoung says that they feel “a strong desire to make better songs”, with Liz adding that “many of our fans want to see us growing and being part of the music making process, so I hope to be able to show more of this in the future”.
Leeseo, the youngest of the group at 16, stayed quiet for most of the interview, but her final insights reveal the same cohesiveness and maturity of ‘I’ve IVE’. “The things that we had always dreamed of have become reality now,” she says. “The group as a whole received a lot more love than we expected, so I was able to feel more confident in the music that we put out. I want people to know that IVE doesn’t just do a single genre, but that they’re capable of doing many different types of music.”
2022 was a K-pop girl group renaissance of sorts, where rookies like LE SSERAFIM, NewJeans and viral phenomenon FIFTY FIFTY captivated the industry and fans alike – IVE aren’t blind to this musical reawakening, recognising the importance of allowing everyone to shine. “Just being a part of this new generation of strong girl groups is an honour,” says Rei. “Each group has different images and charms, and what [they] put out is inspiring, so that we can work harder and show more of our best selves.”
While weird is not a word anyone would use to describe the luxurious, unbelievably stunning IVE, maybe that will be their next reclaiming. If kitsch can mean cool, then maybe weird can mean special, and the prom queens can end the ball just like Cady Heron did – spoiler alert! – breaking the tiara and distributing its pieces all over the world. As Gaeul says, “all these weird things are actually what makes us special.”
IVE’s debut studio album ‘I’ve IVE’ is out now