Cartooned image of Korean girl group
Loona and Red Velvet are breaking the mold for Korean pop music. (Illustration by Sarah Yu, Duke University)
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Cartooned image of Korean girl group

These two powerhouses have challenged what it means to be a girl group in South Korea.

When it came to girl groups in the Korean pop music scene, it was almost as if they were kept in a box. While boy groups had the freedom to be themselves, the girl groups were generally marketed toward men and often had to stick to two categories: cute or sexy.

Finding a girl group that had their own unique sound and concepts, that didn’t play into two-dimensional gender stereotypes, was hard to find. Fast forward to today, and fortunately, girl groups are slowly starting to have more flexibility and carve their own paths. Among the sea of talented ladies, there are two groups that stand out in particular: Loona and Red Velvet.

Red Velvet is a group from SM Entertainment, a company that houses K-pop royalty such as Girl’s Generation and EXO. The group debuted in 2014 with their single “Happiness”, and consists of members Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy and Yeri (who was added to the group in 2015). The name of the quintet represents their underlying concept; “Red” signifies a bold, colorful image, while “Velvet” signifies a smoother, classier side.

While there are songs of theirs that fit into either category, there are many that fit into both. Red Velvet loves to switch up the game. They’ve done everything from uptempo urban pop to nu-disco to future bass. The group takes pride in their versatility and it shows.

A great example of this is their 2017 album, “Perfect Velvet.” Chase McCullen, of The 405, wrote that while many girl groups seem to be limited to either a cute or sexy concept, “Red Velvet’s only true interest appears to be dodging what’s expected,” and that “the album plays like something of a challenge, constantly seeking to top itself.” Tamar Herman of Billboard described the album as “a lush retro-pop soundscape that offers up a complete turnabout from the vibrant sound and styling of their summer hit ‘Red Flavor’ and ‘The Red Summer.’” Herman later went on to choose it as one of Billboard’s 20 Best K-pop Albums of 2017, ranking it at No. 10.

Red Velvet has never shied away from stepping outside the box before, but there was something about “Perfect Velvet” that was, well, perfect. It was the best display of both their “Red” and “Velvet” sides, which isn’t something as simple as a dance track versus a ballad, or bubbly versus mature. The group showcased their growth as artists, as well as their diverse styling and sound. By alternating through concepts, Red Velvet gets to reach out to a wider fanbase, while also being able to embody more than one thing.

Loona is a group formed by Blockberry Creative (BBC) and consist of 12 members: Heejin, Hyunjin, Haseul, Yeojin, ViVi, Kim Lip, Jinsoul, Choerry, Yves, Chuu, Go Won and Olivia Hye. Their Korean name is “Idarui Sonyeo,” which means “Girl of the Month” — pretty fitting for how the girls were revealed to the public. Each member was revealed over the course of 18 months, getting their own music video and releasing a single that typically had a solo track and a track performed with another member.

After a certain number of girls were revealed, a sub-unit was created, and they released an EP. By the end, three sub-units were formed: Loona 1/3, Loona Odd Eye Circle and Loona yyxy. And this was all before their debut as a full group.

Loona wowed everyone, from K-pop newbies to K-pop veterans. Never before had something like this been done. This was smart on BBC’s part. By sticking to their “girl of the month” scheme, they were able to get a bunch of people to care for and be invested in a group of 12 girls before they even formally debuted. Each girl brought a fresh sound to the table. No song was the same. Yeojin’s “Kiss Later” is a candy pop bop about consent while Olivia Hye’s “Egoist” is an EDM track about learning to love yourself.

The music videos weren’t cheap either, each containing beautiful cinematography that was next level even for K-pop, which is famous for having mesmerizing music videos. Not to mention that each and every video from Loona is connected, making up the Loonaverse — something so complicated that you could write an entire thesis on it.

The group officially debuted as 12 in 2018 with their single “favOriTe” and has put out three EPs since then. Even when they came together, they still never lost what made them stand out from the crowd. In fact, it became amplified. All of the girls’ distinctive personalities combined to become a complete powerhouse. The group isn’t afraid to color outside the lines.

They’ve executed many different concepts and styles of music and have done it well, exceeding expectations for a girl group that has only been in the spotlight for two years. Whether they’re telling you to be confident and stand up for yourself, or being absolute sweethearts, you’ll know it’s them. Much like Red Velvet, they’ve created a musical style that’s all their own.

These two groups, by developing their own sounds that are so uniquely them, have pushed the boundaries for girl groups. They’ve shaken up the preconceived notions of what a girl group should sound like, and what it means to be a woman in the South Korean pop music industry. They’re multifaceted, three-dimensional, complex— just like real women. While groups that only stick to one sound or concept, especially the “cute” or “sexy” ones, should not be shamed or looked down on, it’s refreshing to see female idols come out of the mold that the industry shapes for them.

By doing that, these superstars are empowering the women that look up to them. They’re showing them that it’s okay to be yourself and be confident, which is something that women struggle with in a society that conditions them to make themselves small and inconvenience as few people as possible. The more companies that take the risk and let their girl groups step out of the box, the better.

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