Korean pop’s recent surge onto the international market is far from an overnight phenomenon. The endless chains of idol stars from the land of the morning calm are intensely trained products of the nation’s top entertainment labels.
At the very forefront of this battle frontier of idol groups fighting for supremacy, S.M. Entertainment, founded by singer-turned-music-mogul Soo Man Lee, administers more than half of k-pop’s most popular singers. While the label is responsible for popularizing boy bands like TVXQ, Super Junior, and SHINee that earn screeching cries from female fans in Bangkok to Paris, they’re far from whom we’re checking for.
Then there's Girls’ Generation—S.M. Entertainment’s record-breaking 9-piece girl group. Since its debut in 2007, the band has raked in numerous prestigious awards, and sweetly crooned infectious chart-topping singles (“Gee ,” “Genie,” and “Run Devil Run”) that were stupidly addictive enough to stay afloat on top of music countdowns for months.
After dominating music charts, television variety programs, and advertisements (appearing in ads for soft drinks, water filters, fast food chains, clothing, computer games etc.) in their native Korea, the female version of the Wu-Tang went on to garner a similar success in the world’s second biggest music market—Japan.
Thanks to the Internet, and few of S.M.’s senior artists (BoA and TVXQ!) previously paving successful paths, Girls’ Generation’s 2011 debut was greeted with tremendous success. Dropping bombs on Japan’s Oricon Chart with the self-titled debut shooting to number one, and its single (a Japanese version of “Gee”) going double platinum, stateside music powerhouse Interscope decided to get a piece of the action. On November 19, Girls’ Generation will release its U.S. maxi single through Interscope, thus, officially setting off its American debut.
Over the years, Complex has documented Girls’ Generation’s sparkling rise. When S.M. Entertainment held a three-hour-long concert at Madison Square Garden late last month, we had to get down with our favorite k-pop group for a talk. Despite their crammed press junket, Complex was granted to meet all nine members for a discussion pertaining to stardom, men, and a small commentary we previously made, which didn’t sit too well with the Korean public.
Interview by Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho)
Complex: Your latest single, “The Boys,” has a more mature vibe compared to the group’s previous emphasis on cutesy themes. Was it a conscious makeover to cater to the American market?
Seohyun: No. Not necessarily. We first released “The Boys” in Korea actually. It was a challenge for us to bring a style that’s different from what we’re known for in the past. It wasn’t an effort to appeal to the American market, but rather it was our artistic approach to present a more developed look. Every time we release a new album, we try something new. And our recent change was no different.
Tiffany: Yeah, we never settled with a specific concept. We’ve always kept it as a growth. We started out when we were 17, and now we’re 22. So we’re trying to take the approach as mature 22-year-old young ladies.
Complex: Since I’ve mentioned the group’s emphasis on cutesy antics, let me ask if you guys normally talk with animated hand gestures and cute facial expressions.
All: [Laughs.] No!
Hyoyeon: I guess we jokingly do it amongst each other, but not seriously.
Tiffany: But we are a lot more animated than normal people.
Jessica: [Imitates a gesture.] Hi, girls.
Tiffany: You know like normal people will say, “My head hurts.” But I guess we’ll have some form of gesture that goes along with it.
Jessica: Yeah, we do talk with a lot more action involved than normal people.
Sooyoung: I don’t know if you’re familiar, but our dance choreographer, Rino Nakasone, who’s been instructing our choreography from the beginning, laid out a set of moves and gestures that are fitting for each member.
Complex: So these gestures were instructed.
Jessica: And for each song they’re different.
Sooyoung: They’re actually part of the choreography. But because we have so many of those pose and gestures, I feel like many people assume that we’re super bubbly and animated. It’s not like I’m going to ask Jessica [poses a gesture], “Did you eat?”
Jessica: [Poses a gesture.] No, I didn’t.
Complex: I’ve noticed from footages that almost all the performances are done with heels on. How are your feet?
Sooyoung: We’re dying in pain! After a concert, our feet are literally burning.
Seohyun: A lot of calluses.
Yuri: Our feet are in bad shape.
Taeyeon: We take care of them, but they get messed up so easily.
Yuri: We’ve been wearing heels for so long, we’ve gotten so used to them that we feel more comfortable wearing them when we’re going up on stage. It straightens our postures; it makes us feel more confident. It’s not comfortable, but we’re so adjusted now that it feels weird without them.
Complex: Ouch. Switching gears, Teddy Riley produced “The Boys.” Are there any other American musicians you guys want to work with?
Tiffany: The cast of Glee. Personally, I’m a big fan of Ryan Tedder. He has amazing music.
Complex: I think you’d fit right in.
Tiffany: I like everything. And I’m sure the girls would be happy to try everything as well.
Hyoyeon: I want to work with Jay-Z. I really love Jay-Z.
Sooyoung: We all have different tastes. But I really love Timbaland, and his work with Justin Timberlake, Aaliyah and others.
Complex: So you guys are somewhat familiar with hip-hop?
Tiffany: Yes, definitely. We like music that’s strong and upbeat.
Complex: Are there any indie artists you guys are fans of?
Taeyeon: 10cm [a popular Korean acoustic folk duo].
Sooyoung: The Black Skirts [a Korean punk rock band].
Taeyeon: Jang Kiha and the Faces [an experimental six-member band from Korea].
Complex: Any interest in possibly working with them?
Sooyoung: If the opportunity permits. Yes, certainly. If those artists think we’re capable of working with them it’ll be amazing.
Complex: Are you guys familiar with the Wu-Tang Clan?
Hyoyeon: Yes, I know Wu-Tang. I don’t know about the group’s background, but I listen to their music a lot.
Tiffany: And you know I grew up in L.A. so I’m familiar with the name.
Complex: I consider Girls’ Generation as the k-pop version of the Wu-Tang. You know how you guys have nine members as well? So Taeyeon is the RZA, Yoona is Method Man…
Taeyeon: [Laughs.] You’ve actually picked out each member and made a comparison?
Sooyoung: If you write the comparisons down for us we’ll search them up on Google.
Complex: Since we’re on the subject of hip-hop, who are some of your favorite rappers?
Sooyoung: Cee-lo Green. He raps, he sings, he’s amazing.
Tiffany: I love Kanye.
Taeyeon: I love Dynamic Duo [a two-member Korean hip-hop group].
Tiffany: I think Tiger JK [a member of Korean hip-hop group Drunken Tiger] is really attractive.
Complex: With the success in Japan, what has changed?
Sunny: We’re certainly recognized by more people.
Sooyoung: I wouldn’t say we changed because of the success. But as a whole, since we went on tours, and done so many performances, I could humbly say our live performance game has gotten much better. Instead of just performing one song on a television show, we had to learn how to keep a crowd entertained for three hours or more.
Tiffany: Thanks to the love and support from our fans, we were able to achieve the level of success we have now. But overall, I think success to us means how much we’ve grown as a group, and how much we’ve grown as performers. And I think the experience we’ve gained from our Japanese tour made us grow tremendously. If anything, that’s a huge success for us as artists.
Complex: Jessica, you’ve been quiet, any comments?
Jessica: Umm…sorry. To tell you the truth I was zoning out. [Laughs.]
Complex: Good to know. You guys just recently inked a deal with Interscope. Can we expect to see more of Girls’ Generation in America?
Tiffany: It’s definitely a step into the U.S. market. We’ve been blessed with the opportunity. This album wasn’t just targeted towards the U.S., but worldwide as a whole. It’s great that we’re also recognized in the U.S. market, and we hope that we can start something amazing in the near future.
Complex: You guys debuted around the same time as the Wonder Girls…
Management: Can we not do comparisons?
Complex: I just wanted to ask them what they could possibly learn from the Wonder Girls’ experience in the U.S.
Management: They probably wouldn’t know, since they’re not familiar with [the Wonder Girls’] time in the U.S.
Tiffany: Yeah, we’re not really…
Taeyeon: Well, I would say how they started is a little different from how we’re starting. No? Since it’s not a similar case, it’s a little difficult for us to pinpoint a difference, and tell you what we’ve learned. Plus, it’s a starting point for us as well.
Tiffany: Yes, we’ll leave that as a question mark.
Complex: Fair enough. You guys have ads all over Asia. With so many sponsorships under your belts, how big is the financial return for you guys individually?
Management: They’re probably not sure about that.
Tiffany: It’s a company thing. They do the math for us.
Complex: But they treat you guys well though?
Tiffany: Yeah, of course. It’s all math that we don't really take part in.
Complex: Sure. Then what are some unexpected things you guys had to do since the debut?
Taeyeon: Good or bad?
Complex: I prefer hearing the bad.
Yuri: To give you an example, our faces were displayed on a huge neon billboard in Times Square. That’s something we’ve never expected. We’ve certainly dreamed about it. But to actually perform our song in English, and see our faces appear publicly in a city like New York, it’s something that we never really saw it coming. And it’s surreal for us to actually experience it first hand.
Tiffany: We’ve just had our Japanese debut, and it’s been a little over a year. As a newly debuted foreign female group, we were the first to top the charts on the release date. And our song “Gee” reached number one on the Oricon Daily chart. That was unbelievable. It made us appreciate the fans so much more. We all want to say thank you for that.
Complex: Taeyeon, did you have something to add?
Taeyeon: It’s nothing too big. We’ve certainly thought about making an international debut whether it’s in Japan or in the U.S. But I really didn’t think we’d be on airplanes so frequently. Since we’re a girl group, there are certain things that bother us. Hopping on planes isn’t always comforting. And you know our skin gets really dry, and worrying about how we’re going to appear on camera right after we get off the plane. Stuff like that gets a little irritating.
Complex: How do you guys relieve stress?
Tiffany: We eat. We eat like every two hours.
Taeyeon: Eating tasty things. Sweet stuff.
Seohyun: We talk a lot amongst each other. All nine of us talk about different things.
Complex: But aren’t you guys together all the time?
Seohyun: Yeah, but we still have a lot to talk about.
Taeyeon: There are endless amount of topics to be discussed.
Complex: The profiles written about idol groups are very generic. For hobbies, they’re always listed as reading, listening to music, or watching movies. Seriously?
Hyoyeon: But Seohyun is really like that though.
Jessica: And honestly, if someone asks you what your hobbies are there aren’t really much to write down, right? So you just end up writing down basic things like shopping.
Tiffany: I mean, what do you like to do? Reading, listening to music, things like that, right? It’s totally normal, but I guess it looks fake in a way because we are people you can’t personally ask. But what you’ve mentioned are all our hobbies.
Taeyeon: Plus, those are all things we wrote earlier in our careers. I’m sure things are different now. For instance, I now consider sleeping as a hobby.
Sooyoung: And by watching movies, it’s not like we’re…
Taeyeon: Sitting down and dissecting the film.
Sooyoung: Or listening to classical music with a surround sound system. As if we’re sitting through a live orchestra.
Complex: Then what do you guys do for fun?
Sooyoung: Oh, we’re great at that.
Tiffany: I want to go to Disney Land!
Sooyoung: The standard for fun depends on the individual. For us, since we’re a group of nine girls, nice décor, fancy outing, and special occasions, like each member’s birthday, things like that can easily sway us a lot. So drinking wine and gossiping, we consider all of that as part of having fun.
Even when we’re working, instead of treating it like work, we have a tendency to approach it as if we’re having fun as a group. In certain cases, it gets too loud, so it might even appear a bit unprofessional. [Laughs.] But I think we’re having fun while we’re working.
Tiffany: We’re kind of boring.
Taeyeon: We like to walk around the street, do window-shopping.
Complex: People don’t recognize you guys?
Seohyun: We usually cover ourselves with a hat.
Taeyeon: Yeah, some people do, but since it’s not something we get to do often, it’s really fun when we actually do it.
Complex: So if you guys all go out to a club together…
Hyoyeon: That would be fun.
Jessica: Oh, so your standard of having fun is clubbing?
Complex: I mean…
Hyoyeon: I think it’ll be great. We really want to go, too. But it’d be difficult if people recognize us, so we’re not sure if we’d really enjoy ourselves.
Complex: Okay, then if nine of you guys go to a club, whom do you think will get holla’d at the most?
Seohyeon: I think Hyoyeon, because she has the best moves.
Sooyoung: But wouldn’t it be difficult to tell ‘cause it’s so dark?
Complex: Okay. [Laughs.]
Taeyeon: Well, we never really went clubbing. We’ve been to clubs for a shoot, or other work-related stuff, but we never gone to a club to actually party.
Complex: Then do you guys drink?
Taeyeon: Since we’re adults, we can drink. But we’re not…
Sooyoung: We drink, but none of us are drinkers. Better yet, we’re not really aficionados of drinking.
Tiffany: Since we don’t really have much time to sleep. We’d rather invest our time sleeping.
Complex: When you guys fight, who wins?
Hyoyeon: I don’t know. We never really got into any physical altercation yet.
Tiffany: Yeah, just arguing verbally, right?
Complex: When you guys start screaming at each other who prevails?
Sooyoung: Well, we don’t really start screaming at each other.
Complex: Then when you guys argue logically…
Sooyoung: Well, when we argue logically, I think Taeyeon’s tough.
Taeyeon: Oh, am I?
Sooyoung: Yeah, she’s the boss.
Hyoyeon: Sooyoung appears tough, but she shuts up easily and keeps her head down.
Tiffany: Yeah, Sooyoung is really a sweetheart. She’s flimsy. And Sunny can be tough, too.
Sooyoung: Yeah, Sunny usually settles for most. She’s willing to put up a lot. But in the end, if she feels like something needs to be said, she tells you straight up.
Tiffany: She’s definitely the wise one.
Sunny: No, no. They’re just exaggerating. [Laughs.]
Complex: What kind of guys does the Girls’ Generation prefer?
Hyoyeon: Isn’t it obvious? He has to be someone who likes nobody but me. He has to make me feel special.
Sooyoung: Someone who makes me feel comfortable, like he’s a friend. Since our work put ourselves in the public, we’d like to be with someone who’d make us feel comfortable. And understands what we do.
Complex: What about style? Casually dressed? Streetwear? Super-clean cut?
Sooyoung: I think somewhere right in the middle could work.
Tiffany: Someone who knows how to be grungy, and someone who knows how to be polished.
Complex: What type of footwear would make you guys completely dismiss a dude?
Yoona: Those slippers with three stripes.
Hyoyeon: And pointy shoes.
Tiffany: Oh! Ugg Boots. I don’t know. It’s like a girl thing.
Sooyoung: But I think [Ugg Boots] looks good depending on how they pull it off. I personally don’t like guys wearing Western boots or cowboy boots.
Taeyeon: [Laughs.] You know those sandals? And when older men wear them with their socks on. Those are bad.
Jessica: You know when you go to weddings? You see these guys wearing those dress shoes with extra inches of heels? I really don’t like those.
Jessica: That you can’t really see, you know?
Sooyoung: I mean, which girl would like that?
Yuri: Let’s just decide on one choice. Sandals with socks are a definite no.
Sunny: Then let’s be a little more specific. Sandals with toe socks are a definite no.
Complex: [Laughs.] Okay, it has become more lenient, but why do you think fans of Asian pop have this notion that idol stars shouldn’t date?
Hyoyeon: I want to ask that, too. Why?
Sunny: I guess because idols are usually young, and many of them have innocent and lively appearances. So I guess it’s difficult for many people to imagine them dating. And I also feel like many people consider idols to be their girlfriends or boyfriends. Not only do we not want to shatter their fantasy, but also idols, including us, we’re too busy to actually date. I think we can start dating, or fall in love when we’re ready. Maybe after we’re satisfied with our goals.
Complex: Jessica, do you agree?
Jessica: Yeah, yeah. We all have boyfriends, you know? Guy friends.
Complex: Okay, I’d like to take this opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding. Sooyoung, do you remember the comment: “Shake a tree in Apgujeong and 10 Sooyoungs will fall out”?
[Ed note—The comment appeared in a previously published Complex article describing Girls’ Generation. The statement made headlines in multiple Korean media outlets, and hosts of a popular variety program, Radio Star, asked Sooyoung about the description when she appeared on the show.]
Complex: We didn’t mean to offend you in anyway. What we meant to say was that there are a lot of attractive women in Apgujeong [a section of Seoul].
Sooyoung: Oh, yeah, I understood it as such.
Tiffany: Wow, you’re really honest.
Sooyoung: The only questions that boggled my mind were, “How can such a tree exist? What kind of seeds would it need?”
Sooyoung: I was just joking. [Laughs.] I’m sorry.
Complex: If Girls’ Generation didn’t exist, what would you guys be doing right now?
Taeyeon: I guess it’d be different for everyone.
Sunny: Most of us would be students, no?
Jessica: Yeah, I guess we’d be studying. Probably take a year off, do an internship, and then go study abroad.
Tiffany: But since we all started doing this at such a young age, I don’t think we can imagine ourselves anywhere else. And this is where we wanted to be.
Taeyeon: Some of us were trainees since we were in elementary school. So, truthfully, it’s even difficult for us to imagine.
Complex: Then please tell me a happy instance, and a sad moment, since becoming a popular k-pop star.
Taeyeon: Personally, I’m happy that my current position as a celebrity allows me to gain so much support from various people. But at the same time, it’s sad that so much of my personal life and opinions have to get exposed to the public.
Tiffany: I think we can all agree.
Sooyoung: The sense of responsibility that comes along with the exposure…
Taeyeon: Yes, certainly there’s a big pressure of feeling accountable for our behaviors.
Sooyoung: You want to give back the love the public have for you. And as a result, you have to be held responsible for your actions. It was a dilemma for us before, but now we just look at it like, “They support us because we’re doing what we love to do.” The passion and urge we displayed initially is why they liked us from the beginning. We believe doing our best is the only way for us to repay those who love us.
Complex: Does the Girls’ Generation use any forms of social networking outlets such as Twitter or Facebook?
Sooyoung: Even if you do see an account under our name, it’s not us.
Tiffany: We’re definitely at an age where we want to keep in touch with our friends, and most importantly we want to keep in touch with our fans. That’s one thing we’re very disgruntled about. I think there are pros and cons. The fact that we’re not on social networks gives us a different aura, since we’re unreachable.
Taeyeon: If we were allowed to use social networking outlets like Twitter, we’d probably be too active. Truthfully, I don’t even know how to follow people on Twitter. I don’t know how to use it. I’m completely lost. But if we do come across using it, we’ll probably go all out.
Complex: Sadly, the average lifespan of an idol group isn’t long. Are there any plans for you guys after Girls’ Generation?
Tiffany: We don’t intend on ending it. We just don’t.
Sooyoung: If we have to choose a certain occupation, then maybe becoming a mother?
Tiffany: I guess each member will pursue something that fits her, but we’d like to maintain the title as Girls’ Generation.
Complex: Are there any new k-pop groups you guys are checking for as possible competitors?
Taeyeon: Honestly, we really enjoy watching music programs and checking out all the new artists.
Complex: Which group do you guys think will blow up?
Taeyeon: That’s difficult to tell, since there are so many.
Seohyun: I think each group has qualities that are worth noting. Since all of them are so different. We check them out, and think amongst ourselves what parts of their performances or songs are good. Some have great visuals, while some have great music. If anything, we try to learn from them, instead of seeing them as competitors.
Complex: Girls’ Generation’s debut was a turning point, which somewhat sparked the recent influx of young trainees spurring up across Asia. Any advice you guys want to give to those up-and-coming talents?
Jessica: I hope they’re not dedicating their time and effort just to become famous celebrities. I hope what they’re doing is something they truly enjoy. That’s the only way to prevent regrets from happening.
Seohyun: There has to be a set goal. Don’t just vaguely chase after something that’s glowing. You need to know what you like, what you want to achieve, and what makes you happy. That’s the only way to keep yourself focused from diverting off to other paths.
Complex: Finally, what’s the next step for the Girls’ Generation?
Tiffany: World domination.
Yoona: More so, world tour. We’re currently doing the Asian tour. And once that’s over, if possible, I’d like to see us go on a world tour.
Taeyeon: Expanding our legacy to outer space!
Sooyoung: Oh, gosh.
Tiffany: Currently, we’re promoting our group album, but we’re going to slowly start pushing our solo work. I think it’d be great to showcase to our fans, how strong the girls are as individuals. And when we come together as one, we’re just shinier and stronger.
Complex: Yeah, like Wu-Tang. You guys can come together like Voltron.
Tiffany: Yeah…That’s kind of how I always imagined us.