Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

NewJeans Explain Their ‘Surreal’ Success Smashing Expectations For Women in K-Pop

By Michael Feb 28, 2024

As the five members of NewJeans file gracefully down the stairs at their Billboard photo shoot in Seoul, they greet me with bright smiles and genuine greetings of “Nice to meet you.” Just a few days prior, the exploding K-pop girl group won artist of the year and song of the year at both the Melon Music Awards and MAMA Awards, two of South Korea’s most prestigious music prizes — and just two of the roughly 10 awards shows they attended and performed at in the country this past December and early January. Yet despite the hectic schedule of winter awards season there, they exude warmth and enthusiasm.

That infectious energy has endeared the women of NewJeans — Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin and Hyein, who range in age from 16 to 19 — to fans both in South Korea and worldwide. Since debuting in July 2022, NewJeans has swiftly ascended to the top of the K-pop pantheon. Six of its eight released singles have reached No. 1 or No. 2 on South Korea’s dominant streaming measure, the Circle Digital Chart. The act has made inroads on several Billboard charts as well, including three top 10 hits on the Global 200 and four on the Global Excl. U.S. chart, five entries on the Billboard Hot 100 and six top 10s on World Digital Song Sales (the highest-reaching was “Super Shy,” peaking at No. 2 last July). The group’s songs have gained 931.6 million official U.S. on-demand streams, according to Luminate.

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Along the way, NewJeans has smashed expectations in K-pop, helping lead a new era of female influence in a genre long dominated by male groups. While it was once accepted industry wisdom that only boy bands could build a core fandom and widespread commercial success (selling both albums and concert tickets), NewJeans is part of a girl-group generation that has done both, shifting the paradigm of what achievement entails for young female groups. And NewJeans has done so under the guidance of an equally innovative leader: It’s the first act to debut under ADOR (All Doors One Room), led by founder and CEO Min Hee Jin, the rare woman leading a K-pop label and management company.

About a decade ago — when this writer started working in K-pop as a producer — it sounded very differently. Record labels emphasized melody, dynamic vocal range and cohesive track arrangements, while dance performance was simply considered support for a song. Over time, the music trended toward bombastic anthems well-suited to choreography, and so-called “easy listening” songs (those preferred by the South Korean general public, who of late have not been K-pop’s core audience) tended to get lost. But NewJeans has proved that strong performances and easy listening need not be mutually exclusive. And as Billboard’s Women in Music Group of the Year says in person in Seoul, the act is just getting started.

Danielle NewJeans Billboard Women In Music Cover Shoot
Danielle
Haerin NewJeans Billboard Women In Music Cover Shoot
Haerin

How did it feel to win artist of the year and song of the year at the Melon Music Awards and MAMA Awards?

Hanni: It was really surreal to win such big awards. Honestly, for us, when it comes to these types of awards shows, we are just excited to be there. Just to be invited is an honor. We never expected [to win]. We really are just thankful for everyone who has put in a lot of hard work toward our content and music and all the people that really enjoyed it, so I think it just makes it more fun.

Danielle: I agree with Hanni. There are so many people that put in so much effort and hard work into what we do, and we are just so honored that so many people are enjoying it just as much as we are enjoying it. Sharing that happiness and positive energy through our music is such an honor in itself.

You have a small discography but so many big songs like “Ditto,” which won song of the year at the Melon and MAMA awards. Which did you expect to become as big as they did?

Danielle: When our CEO has a new song and she’s prepared to make a new album, she gets us all in her studio and we listen to all the songs together. I remember the first time we heard the songs for our album Get Up, we were just blown away. Because we truly were just like, “This is so us! This is so NewJeans.” When I first heard “Ditto,” I felt a connection to it — I guess I felt if people hear this, I want them to feel they’re healed in some way. So to know that people out there are receiving somewhat of a positive energy, it’s really amazing. Every time we release new music, we wonder if people are going to enjoy it just as much as we do. To see people out there jamming to our songs, it puts a really big smile on our faces.

Hanni NewJeans Billboard Women In Music Cover Shoot
Hanni
NewJeans Billboard Women In Music Cover Shoot
From left: NewJeans’ Minji, Danielle, Haerin, Hanni and Hyein photographed on December 4, 2023 at Seongbuk Songjae in Seoul.

Traditionally, men have run the K-pop industry, and ADOR was notably founded by a woman. What was it like training under a CEO who has that shared perspective?

Danielle: I can’t imagine what it would be like if it wasn’t for our CEO, Min Hee Jin. We are so close to her, and we feel such a strong connection to her. After a conversation with her, we’d just be inspired and learn so much. When we go overseas and stuff, she’d take us out shopping and we’d have dinner together, and we’d spend hours and hours laughing and talking about what happened and how we’ve been and telling stories.

Hyein: She is very consistent. She’s always wondering about us and worrying about us. She’s very friendly and reaches out [to us] first, which helps us feel really comfortable around her. She gives us advice like a mother would. She’s not just a great CEO but a great human being in general.

Historically, core fandoms have been harder for women to achieve in K-pop. But in the last few years that has completely changed, and NewJeans is at the forefront of that. Why do you think you’ve been able to capture that?

Minji: It may have to do with the fact that the K-pop market became a lot bigger. That’s one of the reasons why we started with so much attention and love from the general public. We never really set a specific [goal], but rather aimed to put on a performance that we love with songs that we love. I think this probably helped our fans love us from early on.

Haerin: I agree with Minji. I think it’s also because there are so many channels we can use to communicate with our fans and the public.

Hyein NewJeans Billboard Women In Music Cover Shoot
Hyein
Minji NewJeans Billboard Women In Music Cover Shoot
Minji

I think NewJeans has changed how music sounds in K-pop, with a trend toward returning to easy listening music. Do you agree?

Danielle: Music itself is always changing. But before we debuted, our CEO told us that she wanted to do something new, something fresh and different. But with that, she wanted it to be, no matter who you are, no matter what age or gender, you can listen to it and enjoy it. So I think with that came the easy listening music. We didn’t really think, “Oh, we’re going to change music, that’s crazy.” (All laugh.) We just wanted to try something new and fun.

You’ve accomplished so much in a short time. Where do you want to go from here?

Haerin: I want our songs to move people. My goal is not only to have songs that are emotional but also to share the emotions with people onstage and through our music.

Minji: I have similar thoughts to Haerin, but I want our music to be remembered for a long time. For example, I want people to think of last winter when they hear “Ditto.”

Danielle: Besides music and performing, I just want to become someone who stays true to myself and is always open-hearted and open-minded and modest and tries really hard because there are so many things I want to do and so many places I want to go. I want to experience a lot and learn a lot and just enjoy the time being with the [NewJeans] members.

Cover, Women in Music, NewJeans

This story will appear in the March 2, 2024, issue of Billboard.

By Michael

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