Until a few months ago, the idea that the trailblazing Korean girl group Girls’ Generation would return to make music together was variably a pipe dream — or during more cynical moods, a running gag — within K-pop circles.
After all, most K-pop groups are considered dated after about seven years, at which time their management agencies and fan bases tend to move onto newer faces — making Girls’ Generation, who debuted in 2007, something of a vintage brand today. The originally nine-member ensemble’s sunny image was rocked by the messy departure of one of the lead singers in 2014, and eventual hiatus for the remaining members as they pursued separate career paths.
Yet, to the shock and delight of tens of millions of fans worldwide, the now-octet embarked on a comeback in August to celebrate their 15th anniversary, releasing the album “Forever 1” and performing to roaring crowds.
The surprise LP comes at a time when wildly successful all-female groups Twice and Blackpink are also unveiling new music, alongside latest-generation groups like Itzy and NewJeans. Though trendier than Girls’ Generation, the former two are equally iconic, credited with breaking K-pop into a once-indifferent West in the late 2010s and making the genre’s global reach undeniable.
On August 25, Spotify announced that Blackpink’s latest single, “Pink Venom,” broke streaming records for female artists this year, days after clinching the third-biggest debut of all time on YouTube. Blackpink’s album joins those put out by relatively newer groups as well as comparative old-timers Girls’ Generation on global music charts.
Altogether, the moment marks a historic chapter in K-pop — one where successive generations of legendary female artists are converging at one point in time to chart vibrant, new directions within the genre.
The evolving sonic landscape hasn’t escaped the notice of the University’s K-pop dance crews, namely APEX and K-Edge, who perform original choreographies set to popular tracks. In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, fourth-year Architecture student and APEX president Breanne Gill praised the new freedom afforded to girl groups in how they style themselves and their music.
“In 2015 and 2016, everything was very cutesy to fit into certain, traditional Korean stereotypes,” Gill said, referring specifically to “very feminine and girly” caricatures of women. “Now, I feel like [girl groups] are breaking boundaries.”
K-pop has undergone striking changes since Girls’ Generation first made a name for themselves in South Korea as the “Nation’s Girl Group.” In 2009, their bubblegum pop single “Gee” became a runaway hit, setting off a pre-TikTok dance craze throughout the Asia-Pacific and solidifying female artists as powerful contenders in an otherwise male-centric Korean industry. Over time, the group would alternate its cutesy image with more mature concepts, such as the black, sequined hoods for “Run Devil Run” and risque streetwear for “You Think.”
Still, it’s Blackpink that popularized an edgier aesthetic to K-pop — the group’s name itself captures their ability to juxtapose softer, guitar-backed ballads against vengeful, synth-laden anthems. By striking a venomous tone on tracks like the apt-named “Kill This Love,” the group carved a new lane for female groups to succeed as independent girlbosses instead of mere male idolaters.
As a choreographer for APEX, Gill said she keeps an ear out for hard-hitting bangers that lend themselves to interesting dance moves — though personally, she enjoys listening to songs with EDM influences, or that evoke nostalgia for Y2K for retro eras.
“I noticed [Twice’s] latest songs sound different from a lot of their past work,” Gill said, commenting on the group’s EP “Between 1&2,” which dropped on August 26. “The production has more synth-pop with retro vibes. I liked it — futuristic but also retro, which is really in style for music in general.”
Amid unbridled dynamism in Korean music culture, towering expectations from day-one fans and years of age separating them from younger confreres, Girls’ Generation faced a daunting task in crafting a satisfying denouement to their legacy. By any measure, they knocked it out of the park — achieving a concise, versatile body of work that carefully blends modern tastes with homage paid to their classics.
Take title track “Forever 1,” which transitions from a pulsing EDM rhythm to a piano sample taken from the group’s 2007 debut song — a heart-tugging memory for any OG fan, particularly those who remember its significance as a youth protest anthem. Or “You Better Run,” a spiritual successor to 2010’s “Run Devil Run,” this time embracing distorted vocals, chaotic rock guitar riffs, and Blackpink-esque cries of “I’ll kick you to hell.” The international influences on the production side of the album add a unique sparkle to Girls’ Gen’s familiar vocal lines — say, Seohyun’s melismas or Yoona’s saccharine harmonies.
The creative fusion on Girls’ Generation’s “Forever 1” is just a microcosm of a broadly exciting era for K-pop, which is experiencing a sea of change in levels of globalization, experimentation and female empowerment.
Yet the moment is made all the more poetic by the icons’ unlikely return to the scene — a tribute to the powerful role music plays in touching people across generations.