As all K-pop supporters know, the traditional lineup of a Korean pop group is all-female or all-male. However, as K-pop evolves into an international phenomenon, from PSY’s “Gangnam Style” to BTS (now the most popular K-pop group in the West), a novel concept is needed to have a shot at success.
In K-pop, many distinctive group lineups have been done already. To avoid the classic all-male or all-female roster, groups such as K.A.R.D, Triple H and URBAN ZAKAPA, have a mix of both male and female members. Other contemporary groups like BLACKPINK, SEVENTEEN and TWICE feature foreign members for some more diversity and representation. However, one can also find distinctiveness in a group with all-Korean and all-female members — particularly when they also have a quality that distinguishes them from the rest.
Refund Sisters, a K-pop project supergroup created by MBC’s variety show “Hangout with Yoo” or “How Do You Play?” is made up of four Korean female members. After debuting in October with their single “DON’T TOUCH ME” on YouTube, they topped the digital charts and charmed the hearts of millions around the world. So here is the million-dollar question: What contributed to their success?
Introducing The Members Of Refund Sisters
To start off, each member is not new to the K-pop community, hence their name, Refund Sisters.
Man Ok, more commonly known as Uhm Jung-hwa, is well-known as an influential and successful artist with a great deal of acting and dancing. Because of her multitude of talents, many female artists view her as an exemplar in the Korean music industry, bestowing upon her the nickname “evergreen.” She debuted in 1992 in a film called “Marriage Story” before getting her start in singing; her first album “SORROWFUL SECRET” was released the following year.
Chun Ok, known as Lee Hyo-ri or by her title, the “Nation’s Fairy,” is one of the most popular female artists in Korea. Like Man Ok, she embraces her role as a multi-talented queen. She made numerous appearances in reality TV shows and dramas, modeled for trendy magazines such as Marie Claire, Vogue and Cosmopolitan, and debuted in a girl group called Fin.K.L before going solo. Many female artists dreamed of collaborating with her, including one of Refund Sister’s members, Sil Bi.
Eun Bi, recognized as Jessi, was a famous contestant in “Unpretty Rapstar,” a survival show for female rappers. After competing with many others, she eventually won second place by popular vote and was featured in JYP’s single, “Who’s Your Mama?” Currently, she is signed with PSY’s record label, P-Nation, as a solo artist and recently released another catchy song, “Nunu Nana” in July. Lee Hyo-ri also made an appearance in the “Nunu Nana” music video, possibly foreshadowing their future collaboration in Refund Sisters. Jessi ushers a new look and style of music to K-pop, easily making her another influential member. As someone who grew up in America and moved to Korea, she openly stated that she struggled with her career and dealt with bullying. Her honesty and straightforward personality is also refreshing to see in the media scene, where many fans question the authenticity of idol personalities.
Sil Bi, known as Hwasa from MAMAMOO, is the youngest member of Refund Sisters and had her first solo debut in 2019. After being recognized for her distinctive visual style that does not fit into K-pop’s beauty standards, as well as her uniquely husky vocals, she became one of the youngest female icons in the Korean music industry. Her digital single “Twit” topped many streaming charts in Korea and currently has 80 million views on YouTube. She followed up the next year in June with an EP branded “María,” with the title track as the main song. Incorporating elements of Latin pop and R&B into the entire mini-album, Hwasa introduces a different sound to K-pop and sets another high bar for herself and other artists. This month, MAMAMOO had a comeback with the song “AYA,” which had similar-sounding components.
A Multi-Generational Girl Group
Other than the fact that the girl group’s commonality resides in having strong female role models, each member is from a different generation.
Despite her youthful looks, Man Ok is currently 51 years old, followed by Chun Ok who is 41 years old, then Eun Bi who is 31 years old and finally Sil Bi who is 25. This age difference is one of their unique qualities as a group.
But what does this mean for K-pop as a whole? By having members from different generations with different experiences of attaining success, it paints a careful picture of how K-pop evolved through the eyes of women. Starting from Uhm Jung-hwa to Hwasa, viewers can see the differences in appearance, musical styles and general vibe from their respective generations. But, despite their generational gaps, they appear to get along well, both on stage and off. It sends an inspiring message: Even when they are many years apart and lived through different experiences, they understand each other’s perspective and influence on the K-pop industry.
Of course, things don’t go entirely smoothly. Since Refund Sisters harbors influential women from four contrasting generations, there are bound to be a few disagreements in terms of group roles.
In an episode of “How Do You Play,” the Refund Sisters go back forth over who should take up the leader role. Traditionally in K-pop groups, there is one person who is designated as the leader of the group, who is responsible for taking care of the other members and represent the group publicly as a whole. Obviously, this is an important position to have, thus their reluctance to give the position to just anyone.
When Jessi confidently offers to take up the role, she is immediately shut down by Hwasa with a quick “no.” Although they are all shown laughing in the following clips, Yoo Jae-suk, the host, points out how stiff the atmosphere was. Jessi is known for her bluntness but has no ill-intent. Some of the other members may be more cautious around her because of her straightforwardness, but there is no doubt that they are all trying their best to understand their fellow members while also having fun.
By setting a new standard and creating a new group concept for current and future K-pop girl groups, they reiterate that no matter how old you are or where you are from — there is still a chance to shine.