Girl Groups in Korean Pop Music History  open the window of AOD


Screaming fans filled a KBS studio one Friday afternoon for the live telecast of Korea’s hottest music ranking shows, Music Bank, aired in 73 countries around the world. The audience went into frenzy as TaeTiSeo, a subgroup of Girl’s Generation composed of Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyeon, took stage with their hit “Twinkle.”

Girl groups are the hottest thing in Korean music today. More than half of top ten current hits are by girl idol groups, with TaeTiSeo and Sistar vying for the top spot in this week’s Music Bank chart.

The popularity of K-pop is being fueled by such girl groups as Girl’s Generation, Wonder Girls, T-ara, Sistar, Secret, Kara, 2NE1, Girl’s Day, Four Minute, Miss A, After School, just to name a few in high demand. These young, talented, and visually pleasant ladies are the current reigning queens of Korean pop music.

- Of course I like them. They’re girl groups.
- I love them all. Secret and Girl’s Generation are always exciting and lovely. Their dance is also great and the songs are easy to sing along.
- I like girl groups, especially Girl’s Generation and Sistar. I’m jealous because they look great and are talented and very smart. They are all so thin and doll-like.
- Aren’t they pretty? They work very hard. And there’s no one else like them in any other country.
- I like the fact that they do their best.
- I may not know all of their songs, but I like it that they work very hard. They’re really cute and I feel like a girl myself when I see them.

Outpouring support and love for Korean girl groups come from foreign fans as well. It seems there is no stopping the worldwide popularity of female K-pop groups. So it is timely that Bupyeong Art Center in Incheon is holding an exhibition on the history of girl groups in Korea, titled “From Jeogori저고리 Sisters to Girl’s Generation.” Here’s Mr. Kim Yong-jin of Bupyeong Art Center, who oversaw the exhibition.

Girl groups are at the center of today’s hallyu. They didn’t become popular overnight, but they earned their place in the K-pop wave by training hard. The exhibition wanted to show the importance of these young female artists in Korean music history. It features an overview of girl groups, from those in the early years of Korean pop music to today’s Girl’s Generation, who delighted us for the past 70 years. Visitors can see roughly 500 items on display, from albums, posters to magazine articles and all sorts of souvenirs.

Befitting the subject matter of the exhibition, the entrance is decorated with the flashy costumes once worn by these girl groups. Past hits of Korean girl groups are played in the background and life-size photos of lovely girl singers grab visitors’ attention. The earliest time period featured in the exhibition is the 1930s. Here’s pop culture critic Choi Gyu-seong to explain more.

The first Korean girl group was named “Jeogori Sisters,” which was a Joseon music group affiliated with OK Records back in 1939. The group was composed of the top stars of the time – Lee Nan-young who sang “Tears of Mokpo,” the hottest diva Lee Hwa-ja, and Park Hyang-rim who was known for the song “My Brother Is a Music Man.” Their concert in 1939 was advertised in a flyer, the first record of girl group performance. Based on that evidence, we all agreed that the year 1939 was when the history of girl groups began in Korea.

Record indicates that Jeogori Sisters was the pioneer of girl group music. The birth of girl groups thus dates back to the Japanese colonial period. The photo of these young songstresses dressed up in Korean traditional outfits clearly shows us of their sorrow and love for their country suffering under the Japanese rule. It is unfortunate, however, that we cannot hear their music today, because they did not release any official albums. Then who are Korea’s first girl group with surviving album? It is Kim Sisters, formed by Lee Nan-young of Jeogori Sisters in the 1950s. Here’s Mr. Kim Yong-jin of Bupyeong Art Center for more.

Korea’s first official girl group Kim Sisters debuted in the 1950s. They built their career by performing for the U.S. military immediately after Korea’s liberation from Japan. Kim Sisters was Korea’s first hallyu group and first Korean group to perform in the United States. They entered the American music market decades ahead of Wonder Girls. Their debut album was released in the U.S. first, and we are proud to say we have that historic record on display at the exhibition. Amazingly, they released an album in Taiwan, too. Their LP records show that they were very popular in America and Asia as well. They sang in English for the American audience and their biggest hit was “Charlie Brown,” which made it to the Billboard chart. You can hear their song at the exhibition, too.

Kim Sisters’ American debut song, “Charlie Brown,” made it to 7th place in the 1962 Billboard singles chart, the first for an Asian artist. They preceded Wonder Girls, who debuted in America in 2009, by five decades. It is said that Kim Sisters were invited to appear in the Ed Sullivan Show in 1959, suggesting that the popularity of Kim Sisters back then rivaled that of today’s K-pop singers. The photos of Jeogori Sisters and Kim Sisters seem to take us back to those early days of Korean girl groups. Here’s Mr. Kim Yong-jin of Bupyeong Art Center again.

What is more amazing is that world-famous magazines such as Times and Life featured detailed stories about Kim Sisters. Portugal also extended official invitation to Kim Sisters to perform there. That shows how popular Kim Sisters was overseas, because Korea was an unfamiliar country to Portuguese at the time. We also have a very interesting item on display. The Star Dust, a well-known hotel in Las Vegas, used to feature photos of hot pop stars on their room keys, and the photo of Kim Sisters graced their room keys during the 1950s. We can get an idea about how talented and in demand they were.

Although their hits were not composed by Korean songwriters, their unique style, exceptional vocal talent, and ability to play 28 musical instruments were enough to propel them to the world star status. If the 1950s was dominated by Kim Sisters, the 1960s saw a more variety in girl groups.

The 1960s were marked by a flood of Sisters – Lee Sisters, Jeong Sisters, Arirang Sisters, June Sisters, Lilly Sisters, Cherry Sisters, and Kimchi Cats. One wall of the exhibition hall is completely covered with the albums, concert posters, newspaper clippings, and photos of these sisters. The abundance of girl musicians in the 1960s evinces the beginning of a girl group boom. It is surprising, even now, that there were so many girl groups back then. The photos of Kimchi Cats waving to their fans at the airport after returning from a U.S. concert tour are not that different from those of today’s top female stars. Here’s pop music critic Choi Gyu-seong again.

The second Korean group to make it to the American market was Kimchi Cats. They first swept through Japan and Southeast Asia, before entering the U.S. Kimchi Cats was also quite popular in America as well. Their Korean album “The Blues of Black Wound” was a huge success and left an indelible mark in Korean music history. They made in Las Vegas and American media dubbed them “the pearls of the Orient.” When they returned to Korea after their U.S. tour, they held a solo concert in Seoul. Materials and documents from their career are also on display here.

If Kimchi Cats was hot overseas, the local fans were infatuated with Lee Sisters.

Lee Sisters’ Ulleungdo Twist sparked a twist boom all across the nation, just like Wonder Girl’s Tell Me dance or T-ara’s shuffle dance made everyone follow their moves. Then Pearl Sisters debuted in 1968 with the song “A Cup of Coffee,” tempting Koreans to indulge in coffee. Here’s Mr. Kim Yong-jin of Bupyeong Art Center again.

In the 1960 the girl groups were comprised of really beautiful and talented musicians. Pearl Sisters was an iconic duo at the time. They were real sisters and they were loved as much as Girl’s Generation of today.

Pearl Sisters also released an album in Japan to perhaps initiate the hallyu wave. One look at their performance video is enough to convince anyone of their talent and charm.

As more households began to watch TV in the 1970s, girl groups started capturing the hearts of countless Koreans. The most well-known groups of that decade were Bunny Girls, 16-year-old twin sisters who debuted in 1971, and Hee Sisters, who first appeared in 1978. Their eye-catching dance routines and flashy outfits wowed the still naïve TV audience of Korea.

Koreans opposed the dismal oppression of the military regime in the 1970s by listening to folk music, rock, and American pop songs. Bunny Girls and other girl groups reflected the trend, with Bunny Girls popularizing the songs of Swedish group ABBA. No notable girl group appeared during the 1980s, but that decade-long hiatus was a chance to regroup for the renaissance of girl groups in the 1990s. Starting with Wild Rose in 1993, Baby Vox, SES, and Finkle swept the music scene with their girlish innocence mixed with bold sexiness. Here’s music critic Im Jin-mo to tell us more.

The early and mid-1990s was dominated by male musicians, such as Seo Taeji and Boys, Deuce, Kim Gun-mo, and Shin Seung-hoon. Then, SES, Finkle, and Baby Vox debuted in the late 90s, captivating the audience with their perky and charming performances. They were able to reign over the Korean music scene on the achievements of past girl groups from the 60s to the 80s. Girl groups did not just appear out of nowhere, but underwent decades of preparation to earn their popularity.

SES projected an image of mysterious nymphs, while Fnkle appealed with their girlish perkiness and Baby Vox with their sexiness. They were the forerunners of Korea’s girl group resurgence in the 21st century.

The exhibition has provided a separate area for the latest cadre of girl groups. There is no lack of photos or materials on these super divas. Visitors are busy taking photos in front of the posters of their favorite stars. Here’s music critic Im Jin-mo to talk about why Korean girl groups are charming K-pop lovers all over the world.

These girl groups have the trifecta for success. First, their group dance is perfectly synchronized. The impact that comes from perfect unity is quite phenomenal. It shows how much work they put in. Secondly, they sing well. Although they are not as good as some American soul and R&B singers, they’re among the best in Asia. Thirdly, they are visually attractive enough to entice even western audiences. They are shapely, pretty, and charming. Foreigners can’t escape the allure of these three factors – powerful group choreography, pleasant vocal skill, and attractive appearance.

Korean girl groups are carving out their place in the world music scene with their stunning visual, perfect choreography, and wonderful voices. But their global popularity of today was not achieved overnight. It is undeniable that the K-pop girl group fever also existed some 70 years ago and the past girl groups paved the way for today’s young entertainers.

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