How and when South Korea’s pop-music industry began to insinuate itself in the U.S. isn’t altogether clear, but mounting evidence indicates that K-pop, a polyglot sound purveyed by a swelling stream of slick, energetic boy bands and girl groups developed by entertainment megacorps like S.M. and YG, has established a beachhead here.
Small wonder: These fresh-faced performers and their sticky-sweet sounds are as addictive as Pop Rocks, and the choreography, costuming, video and stagecraft involved in their packaging beat most anything going. SMTown Live, a showcase of top acts like Super Junior, Girls’ Generation and SHINee, not only sold out Madison Square Garden last October, but matched and even surpassed Justin Bieber’s most recent Garden extravaganza for sheer dazzle and preteen decibels. Now, American kingpins like Kanye West and Teddy Riley are working with K-pop acts, and Girls’ Generation strutted on Letterman in April.
All of which sets the stage for the arrival of 2NE1, alternately pronounced “to anyone” and “twenty-one” (the latter prompting fans to dub themselves “Blackjacks”). A YG-groomed girl group crowned 2011’s “Best New Band in the World” by viewers of global-pop showcase MTV Iggy, 2NE1 stirs hip-hop and dancehall sounds into its spotless dance pop; singers CL, Bom, Dara and Mimzy drop English choruses and asides among Korean verses, but their attitude needs no translation. Blackjack, 2NE1’s Will.i.am-helmed English-language debut, has yet to arrive, but last year’s 2nd Mini Album includes six of the group’s strongest cuts. Listen to inspirational thumper “I Am the Best,” and you too might be chanting “naega jeil jal naga” with the diehard Blackjacks in Newark.—Steve Smith
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