Girl groups are an intensely major force in South Korea and despite facing a high level of scrutiny - combined with rampant sexism - they’re the ones breaking social and cultural barriers.
For better or for worse, girl and boy groups in K-pop often differ quite extensively in music, narrative, tone, aesthetic and choreography. It’s hard to put them side by side, as the often-aggressive production and dance routine of boy groups almost drown out the more nuanced and detailed sound of many girl groups. They may sound sunny and playful a lot of the times, but if you read between the (sometimes not so subtle) lines, it’s straight up savage.
There are of course exceptions to the lighter sound, like Dreamcatcher who like to mix metal music with their K-pop. As with the boy groups, this list won’t perfectly represent this side of K-pop, and it’s much harder to pick the songs as girl groups in K-pop so sacred and fundamental to stans. I have tried to pick artists that in different ways express the immense power they hold and the barriers they have broken and continue to break. The boy groups are flashy and handsome, but it’s the women who hold the real transformative power of K-pop.
2NE1 is the sister group of BIGBANG: the same generation, they also perfectly represent the sound of YG Entertainment - volume turned to 11, always all cylinders firing full-on and really hard. Forming in 2009, they raised the bar for charismatic live performances and edgy fashion, not to mention how unique and impactful their strong female presence was a decade ago. To me, “I Am the Best” captures everything that made 2NE1 one of the biggest selling girl groups ever - so in your face and powerful. Keep them in mind when you watch the other music videos on this list, and imagine where those groups would be without 2NE1. They endured a lot of crap from fans not thinking they were pretty enough - but they just ran with it instead. Oh, and that little group called BLACKPINK that’s basically the biggest group in the world right now? 2NE1 walked so they could run.
This is a tricky one. Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra” isn’t as obvious a banger as many others on this list but more of a sleeper track. Once you hear that intro though and see that little hip dance that went insanely viral long before TikTok, you understand why it was such a massive hit. “Abracadabra” is considered Brown Eyed Girls’ breakthrough, and it put them on the map as independent and mature city girls but the video also received major criticism for being way too racy. But as with other tracks on this list, the suggestive aspects of the video also hold a lot of power depending on who’s watching.
It’s always difficult - especially with K-pop girl groups - to know where to draw the line between exploitation, sexism, and actual productive representation. The video is also pretty sapphic too. While it doesn’t flat out address a female love interest - like G(I)-IDLE’s “Oh My God” - there’s an interesting shift of gaze that opened a lot of doors for other groups. Just watch rapper Miryo in her white suit and cane going off and you’ll know what I mean.
If Brown Eyed Girls were labelled suggestive with “Abracadabra”…well Sistar said “hold my beer”. There is nothing suggestive about "Touch My Body”. Instead it’s so over the top with selling the ladies and their lady parts that it goes beyond cringe and almost borders on endearing. But it also, probably without knowing it, makes us aware of how often we're exposed to the female body like this without realising it. When a music video like this comes along, it creates, at least in me, some cognitive dissonance: What am I watching?
That being said, the song and video is also fantastically playful and lovely. Sometimes we need to indulge in something that so obviously just wants you to be happy - and I’m telling you, it's just not possible to be angry while dancing the little dance in the chorus. Go watch compilations on YouTube of (male) idols dancing it with such genuine happiness.
The song was obviously also a major hit, and when I heard it playing in the beginning of Burning in 2018 and recognised it, I knew that I had truly lost my soul to K-pop.
There is no way around TWICE. They’re the darlings of K-pop in South Korea and the members are always on top when votes come in for the most popular idols. They set themselves apart with a super cheerful attitude and vibe, and are fantastically productive. They’ve also been active in speaking out about mental health and openly support the LGBTQ community, both of which are still considered somewhat taboo in their homeland. Only BLACKPINK, BTS and Psy hold more views than TWICE on YouTube but despite being K-pop royalty, they didn’t embark on their first US tour until 2019.
It was basically impossible to pick a TWICE song for this list, because all of them are K-pop staples, all of their dances are fundamental, and their performances never less than perfect. From the iconic hand movement in “TT” to the pure joy of “Cheer Up” or the pop miracle that is “Yes or Yes”. Recent comebacks have seen TWICE mature and explore darker themes, which by this point in their career is fitting. So I landed on “I Can’t Stop Me” from late 2020, an 80s-esque punch of a song that makes me want to run - not from something but towards it. It’s like a soundtrack to the change you make in your life when you’ve found what you love and go for it.
Apink, like Red Velvet after them on this list, is a perfect representation of third generation K-pop (or late second - those lines can get a little blurry). A solid group, their popularity keeps rising at a steady pace, even though they don’t get half of the recognition they deserve. Their music and style is cute and sort of bubblegum pop, but as K-pop keeps branching out and melts into other genres, this sound has become almost a rarity. Their light and cheerful sound isn’t as powerful as TWICE, but airy enough to let you float around in your inner happy place.
Apink also seem to have found their little niche because out of all the girl groups that arrived at the start of the last decade, they’re one of the few left standing, which says a lot about their group dynamic and friendly aura. Ten years for any group in any genre is a massive achievement, and when they released “Dumhdurum” - one of the best songs I think they’ve ever put out - I feel like they’re not going anywhere for some time still.
Formed in 2014, the "Red" of Red Velvet's name is supposed to stand for the more intense and captivating side of their personality, while "Velvet" is the softer side, both in image and music. It’s not always clear how concepts like these translate into actual music, but the duality definitely helped them break the mould of being either cute or sexy, but instead managing to play with these stereotypes. While many other girl groups usually have huge male fanbases, Red Velvet, like the newer girl groups now coming out, have a big female following. IZE Magazine hailed them as transforming the "passive image" of South Korean women, and they are often cited as a major contributor for helping to spread Korean culture (Hallyu) across the world.
They are also loved among other idols - for example EXO’s leader Suho - and if you don’t know the choreo for their song “Red Flavor”, you don’t know your K-pop. I picked “Psycho” for this list, mostly because it displays their duality very well, and the song is obviously great, but any Red Velvet song would’ve done the trick. They really are that good.
As with BTS, it’s impossible to have a girl group list without talking about BLACKPINK’s insane impact. They managed to break the code in a way that completely catapulted them to world stardom. Their music videos are in the billions. Like 2NE1 before them, they have that particular hard YG Entertainment sound, and the dynamic among the four members seem to work really well for them as a group.
As with so many girl groups - especially if you get as successful as Blackpink - they’ve had to endure harsh criticism and sexism which they’ve dealt with in a most impressive way. The fact that they, again, display a very hard and tough image has made them seem less approachable than softer girl groups, but this of course works better for a Western audience. Even if Blackpink aren’t among my personal favourite girl groups, there is no denying they’re absolutely killing it and paving the way for so many more groups to come, just like their big sisters before them. For me the choice of “Ddu-du Ddu-du” was a given. I think it’s their best track: I mean, Jennie rides a bedazzled tank!
I’m tempted to post the dance practice for this song rather than the actual music video, because it’s absolutely iconic and I just can’t get enough of it. The song is catchy to the point of imploding, and when I first heard it I couldn’t wrap my brain around how a song could sound this much like distilled pop concentrate.
The group also, as far as I know, peaked with this song. And coming from a small label (well, any label other than the big four: YG, SM, JYP and Big Hit), the road is usually harder. The group has dealt with some hardships and have had members come and go, but they’re also absolutely hilarious off-stage and seem to take their hardships in stride. Regardless, nobody can take this gem of a song away from them: the happiest saxophone you’ll ever hear, the insane rap break in the middle, the choreography that will light up the darkest of souls. Just give in. Stan Momoland!
If BLACKPINK represents complete world domination of K-pop, LOONA marks a different kind of shift towards the genre: one of exploration and change. Their concept was made clear for the get–go that this was a group that wanted to go beyond gender, race and nationality. Theysubsequently gained a huge LGBTQ following and “Butterfly” shows this off with a very clear and powerful message, and the video was also shot across the world, giving the viewer a diverse representation of women. Earlier song “Heart Attack” also features a same sex relationship between two girls, and as with (G)I-DLE, these themes are only beginning to be truly explored in Korean pop culture.
Like Red Velvet, many fans have expressed joy in how LOONA have shattered female stereotypes in South Korea by redefining what it means to be a girl - and a girl group - and questioning why they can’t enjoy the freedom that male idols take for granted (rather than just being cute or sexy). In this way, “Butterfly” might be just as much about LOONA themselves, and all of the other women in the business, as well as a powerful message to people everywhere: “It starts with a small flap. Now, inside my heart, a hurricane. Never been there”.
This list closes with another group pushing K-pop forward at lightning speed. If you recall the somewhat odd flirting with lesbianism in Brown Eyed Girls, here it is with no doubt whatsoever. “Oh My God” is about a girl being in love with another girl but the song isn’t made for a male gaze. It’s sincere, it expresses confusion, and both the lyrics and the visuals are layered with symbolism, references and codes only some people will get. This is a full-on lesbian anthem, and we don’t get many of those regardless of genre, language or country. It’s pretty wild for a country still very much struggling with acknowledging its existence at all.
And what an anthem it is: dramatic and sensual, playful and yearning. When the “Oh my god” hits in the chorus, it truly sounds like somebody giving in to overwhelming emotions. And I’m pretty sure you’ve fallen in love with Soyeon, one of K-pop’s best female rappers right now, before this video is over.