New generations: SNSD, NewJeans and the evolution of K-pop girl groups

With NewJeans' retro debut and icons Girls' Generation back in the game, K-pop's female artists are returning to the scene's roots – with a modern update

Everything in pop culture moves in cycles, and nowhere is that more evident than the girl groups active in K-pop right now. In terms of the sphere of female artists in the Korean scene, it feels like we’re on the brink of a full circle moment – current artists drawn back to K-pop’s roots while giving them a contemporary refresher.

So far, this dialling back to the early days of modern Korean music is most evident in two groups. First, there’s NewJeans, the first act to be unveiled by the new HYBE imprint ADOR, and the very retro ’90s sounds of their self-titled debut EP. Secondly we have returning second-generation icons Girls’ Generation, or SNSD, who earlier this month celebrated their 15th anniversary with new album ‘Forever 1’.

Since Girls’ Generation debuted back in 2007, and even since we last heard from them five years ago, K-pop girl groups have undergone a big evolution. Even in the second generation, acts like 2NE1, SISTAR, f(x) and 4Minute – all of whom debuted two to three years after Girls’ Generation – helped introduce more experimental styles into girl group records, and with big success. As K-pop has expanded and become a global movement, its female artists have grown and switched things up.

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Most notably, there’s been a gradual change in “girl crush” concepts, with more and more groups portraying powerful women in their songs, performances and music videos. In 2022, it’s far less common for the cute, ultra-feminine presentations of first and second-generation girl groups to make an appearance – instead, badass is the mode of the day. Songs are full of empowering lyrics of self-acceptance (ITZY on ‘Wannabe’: “There’s no need to be something / I’m the best when I’m myself / I wanna be me, me, me”) or flexing in ways that society sometimes still frowns upon (Lisa boasting on BLACKPINK’s ‘DDU-DU DDU-DU’: “Our hands are full with a fat cheque / If you’re curious, fact check”).

When Girls’ Generation were first rising through the ranks, they made history as the first K-pop group to appear on both late-night and morning US TV. These slots are now the norm for artists from the scene of all genders, but girl groups specifically are reaching bigger heights than they ever have. In May, TWICE played their first stadium shows in North America, with a pair of concerts at the Banc Of California Stadium in Los Angeles. BLACKPINK have scored the highest positions on the US charts for a female Korean act, hitting Number 13 on the Hot 100 with their Selena Gomez collab ‘Ice Cream’, and Number Two on the Billboard 200 with their debut ‘The Album’.

As girl groups grow, so do opportunities to showcase their artistry. Back in the early days of K-pop, it was far rarer for female idols to receive writing or production credits for their work – Girls’ Generation, for example, didn’t get that chance until 2011, four years after debut. While there are still far fewer self-producing/composing female artists in K-pop compared to the men, there’s been a shift to allow the women more creative input and control, from the likes of (G)I-DLE to MAMAMOO to EXID. Even NewJeans’ debut EP gives two of their members their first credits – Danielle for ‘Attention’ and Hanni for ‘Hype Boy’. A bonus to this development: as more and more female artists pen their own songs, the male gaze that still hovers over a lot of girl crush songs will likely diminish.

Girls’ Generation and NewJeans’ recent releases both encapsulate the evolution of K-pop girl groups well. The junior group’s first release is full to the brim with vintage R&B atmospherics and sleek girl group harmonies. It’s hard not to hear elements of first-generation girl groups like S.E.S. or Baby V.O.X. woven between the layers of more of-the-moment sounds, like ‘Hype Boy’’s subtle moombahton foundations.

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But NewJeans don’t just add a modern twist to early K-pop in sound. There’s the attitude, too – they might not fall under the girl crush category, but there’s still strength and confidence in their lyrics. “I’m not gonna be the one to get hurt,” they assert on the lovelorn ‘Hurt’, while ‘Attention’ finds them coolly commanding their crush give them what they want.

As for the seniors, ‘Forever 1’ nails a similar trick of bringing back the sounds of days past but updating them with new touches. Alongside classic pop sounds, Girls’ Generation delve into futuristic noir-pop on ‘Villain’ and squelching, erratic sounds on ‘You Better Run’, embodying each brilliantly as if they’re what they’ve always dabbled in.

But evolution is evident in more than just the sonics. K-pop – as with many pop industries around the world – is hugely youth-focused, and Girls’ Generation’s return shows there’s still space in the industry for women in their thirties to be at its forefront, even as the culture cycles spin into their next phase.

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