By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, Aug. 26 (Yonhap) -- They are young, leggy and attractive, their music light and perky, and their dance moves easy to learn. What's more, there are enough of them to please any picky fan.
From Girls' Generation to WonderGirls, 2NE1, KARA, After School and 4Minutes, girl groups are blooming on the South Korean pop music scene. Never has the industry, long dominated by boy bands, experienced such strong "girl power" before.
"In the past, one or two similar bands swept fans and earned massive popularity, while the rest disappeared quietly after a month or two. What we are experiencing is a brand new phenomenon in which several girl bands are sharing fans and popularity among themselves," said culture critic Kim Hong-in.
Debuting in 2007, the nine-member Girls' Generation has been dominating the music industry with one hit song after another. Their song "Gee" topped local music charts for nearly 10 consecutive weeks earlier this year, an unprecedented record for a female pop group. The members, aged 18-20, claim female and male fans of all ages, from teens to mature people in their 50s.
The WonderGirls have rivaled Girls' Generation since 2007 and recently debuted in the U.S., proving domestic success can indeed lead to international fame. Releasing an English version of their hit song "Nobody" in June, the five-member band earned recognition by joining the U.S. idol group Jonas Brothers on a concert tour.
Others have jumped into the market and are climbing up fast, setting themselves apart with their concepts. After School, like the name, uses a schoolgirl image, while 2NE1 claims to be the best of hip-hop.
Korea has had popular girl bands before. S.E.S and Fin.K.L, once the gems of two rival entertainment firms here, are considered pioneers of mega-hit girl bands, debuting in the late 1990s and creating the so-called "nuna budae," referring to the throngs of male fans who followed their idols everywhere.
Unlike their successors, however, those girl bands were limited in concept; they were either sexy or innocent. Such limitations eventually bored fans as both the band members and their fans grew older, and members had to turn to acting, emceeing and other areas of entertainment.
New girl groups, however, are not waiting until they've exhausted their musical heydays. They appear in TV dramas, movies and variety talk shows soon after their debuts, doing comedy skits and some serious acting at the same time, approaching their fans in literally every way.
"I was a huge fan of Fin.K.L back in high school and still believe no band can be as pretty and cute as they were," said Yoon Suk-won, a 30-year-old office worker. "But I somehow feel much closer and affectionate toward the new girl groups because I get to see them so often on television. They seem much more open and funny."
Another unique trend is the fact that girl bands are adored by a broad range of ages, media critic Lee Chan-ho said.
"Girl bands may be for boys, but movie stars and show hosts can be idolized by much older men," he said. "The broad range of fans will be a future asset for the girl bands, as it will guarantee them longer popularity."
But it may not be all talent. Behind these young women are entertainment powerhouses who pour money into total makeovers and train them to become "multi-entertainers" long before their debuts.
Yuna, a vocalist in Girls' Generation, for instance, took acting classes along with singing and dancing lessons years before her debut. She proved her years of training were worth it by landing a lead role in a daytime TV drama last year.
Son Dambi, a solo singer who released a digital single album with After School, also took acting lessons for almost four years before making her debut on the prime time TV drama "Dream."
"These days, singers can no longer just rely on their popularity in the music market to make their way into different entertainment sectors. They need real talent, effort and preparation," said Chung Hae-chang, Son's agent.
The expansion of the digital music market is considered another contributing factor to the popularity of girl bands.
Their fans -- mostly teenage boys -- are usually much less willing to open their pockets to buy their idols' albums or concert tickets compared to girl fans. But with the expansion of the more moderately priced digital music market, an increasing number of people willingly spend money on buying songs, making girl bands equal to boy groups in terms of generating profit.
"Because idol groups rely on digital single albums now, it takes them a lot less time to create an album and provides them with more opportunities to appear on television and train in other skills," said culture critic Kim. "The market situation is one of the main contributors to the prevalence of girl bands."
Ha Jae-geun, another critic said today's trend has "long been predicted."
"Boys and men have long waited for new girl groups they can love and adore. I'm sure many have wondered, 'How come there are only boy bands, and girls get to have all the fun?'" he said.
"It is still too early to say this 'renaissance' of girl bands will continue in the fleeting music market," he added. "One thing is for sure. These girl groups must maintain their originality and come up with new concepts at the same time to keep fans interested."
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