K-pop frequently seems to be booming in the UK: before going on break, BTS had consecutive No. 1 albums, groups like boyband Ateez fill arenas, and girl group Blackpink is preparing to play a sizable outdoor concert in Hyde Park this summer. But in truth, K-pop hits are uncommon in this country and rarely make the singles list, making Fifty Fifty’s current Top 20 triumph all the more extraordinary.
The quartet, who made their debut only six months ago, are only the second K-pop female group after Blackpink to enter the Top 40 with their single Cupid, which is expected to rise from No. 18 to crack the Top 10 this week. Cupid forgoes the genre-splitting pandemonium of many K-pop singles in favor of a nostalgic feel that is bolstered by the band’s harmonies, a rap by member Keena, and, of course, a significant key shift.
This sweet but sarcastic pop is reminiscent of hits by Ariana Grande and Doja Cat. According to what we’ve heard, it’s really difficult to be a member of a K-pop group with a song that charts in the UK charts, says Aran of Fifty Fifty. “Therefore, it’s a huge honor for us.”
The popularity of the song shows an intriguing collision of virality, the kind of meticulous preparation typical of the K-pop industry, and both domestic and foreign fan bases.
The quartet, comprised of the 18 to 20 year olds Keena, Aran, Sio, and Saena, debuted in November 2022 with the single Higher, but their entertainment agency, Attrakt, had been planning them for years. They are a David against the “big four” of K-pop: YG Entertainment, Hybe Corporation (home to BTS), JYP Entertainment, and SM Entertainment.
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Cupid’s arrow: how Fifty Fifty became the rare K-pop band to pierce the UK Top 40 https://t.co/0BxZK6r5Sj
— The Guardian (@guardian) May 5, 2023
The concept (and its possibilities for business relationships) came before the girls’ hot-house training before the group’s debut as Attrakt’s sole act. According to Siahn, co-CEO of Attrakt, who produced Cupid, “We devoted two years to fostering distinct qualities for each member and handpicking songs that highlighted their strengths, which they had cultivated through tailored programs.”
“We also had our sights set on the global market and its vast audience,” adds Siahn, in addition to home success. Expanding their fan base may seem like a no-brainer for any pop act, but for South Korean music, breaking worldwide is a relatively new tactic, though it makes sense considering that an estimated 90% of K-pop is consumed outside of the country.
Hybe and the US label Geffen Records held auditions for teenage girls in the US, the UK, and Australia in January as part of a strategy to form a global girl group in response to the success of the new girl group NewJeans.
The UK, meanwhile, has remained largely impenetrable due to its frequent resistance to foreign-language pop. According to Siahn, Attrakt accepted the challenge and intentionally sought a general audience outside of K-pop aficionados. The key to our planning process was breaking out of the genre.
To appeal to a wider audience, Fifty Fifty recorded a “twin version” of Cupid that is partially sung in English and with the lyric, “I gave a second chance to Cupid / But now I’m left here feeling stupid.” Attrakt then tried to “pinpoint the ‘fatigue points’ of the music industry” (i.e., mass-produced performances and songs sticking to the same format) and get around them.
“In the current K-pop landscape, many companies place greater emphasis on outward appearance, including aesthetics, performance, and visuals, than on the music itself,” claims Siahn. “Music frequently receives less attention than these other factors.”
Nevertheless, the group’s TikTok dance challenge was essential to Cupid’s success; as a result of its popularity on the app, the user-generated sped-up version of the song is now at position 26 on the TikTok UK Hot 50, and the Twin Version is at position 26 on the UK viral chart.
K-pop fandoms have frequently discussed the significance of chart positions to their favorite artists given that these fandoms can support their favorite artists through the purchase of expensive concert tickets, physical goods, and merchandise. As the New York Times recently noted, there is controversy about whether the K-pop industry is abandoning devoted domestic fans to expand its audience at all costs.
Some Korean fans are concerned about the effects on the music and what it means for them when the sound of K-pop is smoothed down to appeal to worldwide audiences as a result of the recent corporate purchase of SM Entertainment by Kakao Corp following a bidding war with Hybe. Jimin, a member of BTS, just released a solo track that debuted at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100, becoming the 66th song overall and the first by a South Korean artist to do so.
Additionally, Cupid debuted at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 and is currently among the top five daily Spotify streams worldwide. It was revealed last week that Warner Records and Fifty Fifty have collaborated. The band anticipates more freedom and resources as a result of the song’s success. Aran, the lead vocalist, adds, “It’s just opened the door for us,” and her comrades add that they intend to study the guitar, drums, and beat-making as well as investigate rock and hip-hop.
Siahn is circumspect, acknowledging that the unexpected early success has increased some pressure to stray from Attrakt’s meticulous preparation. “Even though our team is incredibly appreciative of the worldwide support from fans and listeners, we’re still striving to meet the objectives we’ve deliberately set. It’s too soon to call our efforts successful because we’re under a lot of pressure to keep up the excitement.