“We’re the only gang to run the game in high heels.” The young girl group’s runaway success hints at a larger message.
BLACKPINK debuted on the K-pop scene in 2016 with a subtle but clear declaration. “BLACKPINK in your area” was coolly slurred by member Jennie over zippy synthesizers at the top their debut “Boombayah” video. The double-single release “Boombayah” and the smooth pop cut “Whistle” solidified the long-awaited girl group as an instant success in their home country — with the latter track hitting No. 1 on the Korean charts — as well as pulling f an unprecedented feat in America: The quartet was the first K-pop act to send their debut single to No. 1 on Billboard's World Digital Song Sales chart. With just six singles and one EP to their name, BLACKPINK are breaking major ground for K-pop girl groups — and girl groups at large — with a certified hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a top 40 album on the Billboard 200 and the most-viewed Korean video in its first 24 hours on YouTube. And the key may be chalked up to their loud-and-proud embracing their identity as a girl group.
From the get-go, BLACKPINK branded themselves with catchy self-shout-outs. There's Jisoo's “Black to the Pink” hook on “Boombayah,” Lisa's “A little bit Black with a little bit Pink” line on their “So Hot” remix and multiple shouts their name on “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” and throughout their just-released Square Up EP. The group itself was designed to showcase the duality between the group's dark and fierce side (the black) along with their light and lovable side (pink), felt in their extremely accessible hip-hop/dance-pop sound. The ladies themselves fit the image with rappers Jennie and Lisa blending nicely with vocalists Rosé and Jisoo. Furthermore, BLACKPINK embrace the fact that they are an all-female act with lines like “We the only gang to run the game in high-heels” on “So Hot.”
The blatant, proud declaration girl power is reminiscent to some the most successful girl groups recent years who always seemed fully invested in the group identity. Starting in the late '90s, the Spice Girls had their five different spices, with each girl having a polished image and performance style. Plus, their two smash albums, Spice and Spice World, all played f their name, not to mention the lead singles from both introduced the different members (see Mel B and Geri Halliwell's rap on Spice's “Wannabe”) or became a group anthem (Spice World's “Spice Up Your Life”).
TLC had their T-Boz, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez and Chili with each member's part instantly identifiable in a song. Destiny's Child may have been ultimately overpowered by Beyoncé, but the group's story was one pop's most well-known with the ladies putting their story into music (the group's member exits were addressed on “Survivor”) and eventually began shouting out the different members (“Kelly, can you handle this? Michelle, can you handle this?”), making a reunion performance like Coachella 2018 all the more welcome. The Pussycat Dolls committed to their theme and had clear branding in their look, merchandise and songs; look back to verses from collaborators like Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott and Snoop Dogg.
Interestingly, the most successful wave Western girl groups recent years did not use those same tactics. The two obvious front-runners, Fifth Harmony and Little Mix, typically do not publicly push the fact that it's a group singing their insanely catchy singles on the record, with the collective identity feeling more like a backdrop. While tracks like “Wings,” “DNA” or “Salute” touched on their personal story as a group (member Leigh-Anne Pinnock has a “Wings”-inspired butterfly tattoo), it was only recently that the LM ladies seemed to let their narrative — or the public's perceived narrative — directly creep into the music with “Shout Out to My Ex,” an apparent kiss-f anthem to the media's obsession with Perrie Edwards and her ex-fiancé Zayn Malik. That single was voted British single the year at the 2017 Brit Awards, one the highest honors in the U.K., as well becoming one the highest-charting entries on the Hot 100.
It also feels like some K-pop's biggest and most globally successful girl groups have their team branding in mind too, as seen in now-disbanded acts like 2NE1 and 4Minute. But also look at groups like TWICE crafting hooks around their names (their debut single “Like Ooh Ahh” included the “I ain’t no easy/ Better think about it twice” bridge), while Red Velvet have done a nice job by embracing both sides their name with bright pop and slick R&B tracks, and Pristin opened their debut single chanting “We are Pristin!” All three those groups, along with BLACKPINK, scored impressive debuts with their first releases on the Billboard charts.
All in all, it feels like BLACKPINK may be hitting on a larger sentiment when it comes to their girl-group identity and clear pride as a girl group. There's an excitement in any group owning their identity, but BLACKPINK is doing it in a way that feels like the listener is joining in on the hype and helping craft this story. Four women coming together to declare “BLACKPINK is the revolution,” heard on the new track “Forever Young,” is powerful — it's not one person changing things; it's BLACKPINK.
Moving forward, it seems like it would only help the quartet to put more themselves into the music. There are topics the group could address that could fit to their personal story, perhaps their frustrations or worries for their long-awaited debut that was teased for years, pressures the industry or maybe the worries they feel as potential global stars. But BLACKPINK's runaway success does not seem to be a fluke and touching on something larger than just uber-catchy hits — there's a power in them being confident and proud their power as a girl group in a way that only the best, and most global, girl groups can.