There’s no question that Korean pop music has long outgrown the niche scene it was once relegated to in the U.S. Just this past year alone, some of the biggest male groups in K-pop have hosted sold out concerts, from the Staples Center to the Novo, and multiple groups have reached unprecedented milestones like having an album’s artwork nominated for a Grammy, holding one of the highest grossing shows of the summer. And though these acts strengthen K-pop’s impact in the West, one should wonder: Where are the girl groups?
Slowly, but surely, female K-pop acts are making strides of their own, and 2019 seems like the year it all finally comes to fruition. Prior to 2019, U.S. shows by a K-pop girl group were extremely rare, often only being able to perform short sets at festivals. That’s why Red Velvet’s Redmare in USA tour is cause for elation. Together with Oh My Girl (who had a five stop tour in January), BLACKPINK (who are playing Coachella this year and have yet to specify the dates of their North America tour), and a few other soloists who have already announced upcoming shows, Red Velvet is repping it for female representation by having a full solo tour of their own. Red Velvet has previously performed at KCON LA, KCON NY, and the Korea Times Music Festival, and hosted a fan meeting event in Chicago, but this will be first time they put on their full show. “[The] North America concert tour means a lot to us,” main vocalist Wendy told the Weekly over a call from Seoul. “Everyday we know we get lots of love from fans, not only from Korea, but from fans overseas.”
Red Velvet is one of the first girl groups to have, not only a full solo concert, but an entire tour since Apink in 2016. Prior to that, 2NE1 held two shows in 2012 and the Wonder Girls had a full-fledged tour in 2010. They’ll be visiting often overlooked cities like Miami and Dallas, and most of the stops sold out in minutes. According to Subkulture Entertainment, the tour promoter, tickets for the Los Angeles stop sold out instantly. And because of the high demand, a second date had to be added.
“[I] really, really felt pride that the LA show sold out within a minute,” Seulgi commented via a translator. “It’s really awesome. It kind of makes [me] feel like the group should work harder to give back to the fans for all the love [we]’ve received.”
Red Velvet debuted as a four piece act in 2014 under S.M. Entertainment, home to some of the biggest names in K-pop including Girls’ Generation and EXO. As a concept, Irene (born Joo-hyun Bae), Seulgi Kang, Wendy (Seung-wan Shon), Joy (Soo-young Park), and, added half a year later, Yeri (Ye-rim Kim), play with the duality in their name. “Red” represents a bright, bubbly side, while “Velvet” is reserved for a sultrier moment. They shift between fun and bubblegum pop tunes like “Red Flavor” and “Dumb Dumb,” and smoother, R&B tinged tracks like “Automatic” and “Bad Boy.” Having a wide range of styles and concepts, Red Velvet has made its impact in the K-pop world by being one of the most popular girl groups in and outside Korea.
Despite women making up a larger part of the K-pop fandom, their support largely lies with the boy groups. K-pop girl groups are generally marketed specifically to men, and the prevailing trend among them is a cute and innocent image. However, female fans supporting a girl group is not unheard of in K-pop. Girls’ Generation has had one of the strongest female fronted fandoms for over 10 years. Moreover, disbanded groups like 2NE1, 4minute, and Sistar had huge female followings given their stronger and empowering concepts. And though the cuter image prevailed as new groups debuted, the interest was recently renewed by the emergence of the so-called “girl crush” image. Red Velvet’s “velvet” releases fall under the girl crush tag and are far more experimental, both conceptually and sound-wise, and less saccharine, thus resonating more with female audiences worldwide. By alternating their concepts, Red Velvet smartly reach a wider fanbase while also getting to embody more than just one thing.
“If you listen to a lot of Red Velvet songs, they’re about being confident, bold, being yourself. So [I] think that’s kind of why that message —that kind of confident message— is what appeals to female fans in particular,” Joy says. “But on top of that, Red Velvet is known for their bright, happy energy, so that’s kind of the universal appeal to both male and female fans.”
2018 was an especially big year for Red Velvet, and their duality took center stage. Their quirky electropop summer release “Power Up,” with its playful and colorful music video and earworm lyrics, got the group the first “perfect all-kill” in their careers, meaning they topped all Korean streaming platforms. The EP, Summer Magic, debuted at number three on Billboard’s World Albums chart.
On the other hand, released earlier in the year, “Bad Boy” went onto become what will probably go down as a K-pop classic. Produced in part by The Stereotypes, who have worked on hits for Bruno Mars and Justin Bieber, “Bad Boy” is a haunting yet smooth, melodic femme fatale anthem. It was the group’s first sexy and most mature concept, and fans and critics alike reveled in its lush synths and vocals reminiscent of ‘90s R&B. By the end of the year, “Bad Boy” ranked within the top five of many best of K-pop year-end lists from the likes of Paper Magazine and Dazed, and even took the number one spot on Billboard’s. “Bad Boy”’s impact also broke the K-pop barrier by placing 43 on Billboard’s best songs of the year list.
“It was unexpected, especially considering how much reaction [we] received from fans overseas regardless of [us] not promoting it overseas, per se,” Joy says with a laugh about “Bad Boy.” “It kind of gave [us] more confidence in terms of trying that kind of genre.” Summer Magic included an English version of “Bad Boy.” Also notably —and very badass— “Bad Boy” was one of two songs Red Velvet performed at a diplomatic inter-Korean event in Pyongyang attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in.
Last year also saw their debut in Japan with #Cookie Jar, which peaked at number three on the Oricon album chart, the country’s most important music chart. And though it wasn’t the whole group, main vocalist Wendy collaborated with John Legend on the heartfelt ballad “Written in the Stars.” “I couldn’t believe he wanted me to collaborate with him, and I still feel like it’s a dream,” Wendy, who lived in Canada for many years and speaks English fluently, reflected back. “If I had another chance, or had a chance to go back to that time, I wish I talked to him more. It was a great, great memory, though.”
And to finalize their aim at global domination, their last EP of the year, and latest, RBB also included an English version of the single by the same name. The acronym stands for “Really Bad Boy” and is a sort of sequel to “Bad Boy” and is horror film themed. RBB hit number two on the World Albums chart, their highest position to date.
For many K-pop boy groups, it’s much easier to hold a concert or fan meeting event in the U.S. no matter how long they’ve been active or what they’ve accomplished so far. Red Velvet, who are going on their fifth year together, had to kill it consistently and have the biggest year of their careers before going on their first multi-stop concert tour in the states. “We can’t really explain how much energy we get from doing the concert. Especially the moment when you share that connection with the audience,” Wendy shared. “That feeling you get, you can’t really explain it… It can’t really [be] beat[en].”
As to future music, Yeri teased more coming in English. “If the fans really love the English versions of [our] songs, maybe [I] could bring it up to the company and just make it seem like, ‘Hey, we should release an English album,’” she says, making the rest of the members laugh. “That’s something that [we] obviously think about a lot, especially because of the reactions from the fans overseas,” she added.
With things going as fast and successfully as they are for the group, Irene, the leader, noted that they’ll always be the same “hard working Red Velvet.” “Every year [we] grow and mature, so in that sense, [we]’ll be different. But in terms of always challenging [our]selves, always working hard, [we]’ll be the same group.”
Red Velvet kicks off their five stop Redmare in USA tour at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Feb. 7 and 8. Friday night’s show is sold out, but tickets for Thursday are still available.