It’s taken just four years for Blackpink to become one of the biggest girl bands in the world, with members Jennie, Jisoo, Rosé, and Lisa continuing to smash new records and forge new ground. They were the first K-pop girl group to play at Coachella and to reach 1 billion YouTube views—now they’re the most-subscribed-to music group on the platform, and in 2019, they broke three Guinness World Records with the single “Kill This Love,” which has had more than 312 million plays on Spotify and over 824 million YouTube views, a mere fraction of the quartet’s billions of streams, downloads, views, and followers. That same year they also undertook the most financially successful concert tour by a Korean female group. They’re front-row fixtures at runway shows and the faces of mega brands, including Chanel, Puma, Louis Vuitton, and Dior. And all this with just a handful of songs in their repertoire.
Now, as they prepare to release their latest album in June, it may be time to ask: How on earth did they do it?
Excitement prior to Blackpink’s August 2016 debut had built to a fever pitch, as they were the first girl group in seven years out of YG Entertainment (home to K-pop legends Big Bang, 2NE1 and formerly, Psy). There were big shoes to fill: The reign of the trailblazing four-member girl group 2NE1 was over, and Blackpink was expected to revive the bold EDM pop sound they’d embodied. Their debut, Square One, was an overnight smash, the insistent build of “Whistle” and cocky chorus on “Boombayah” making for a short but thrilling introduction.
In November 2016, their second single album, Square Two, featured a pop banger (“Playing With Fire”), an acoustic version of “Whistle,” and “Stay,” a country-influenced track that allowed them to spread their vocal wings away from their “girl crush” concept (K-pop vernacular for a fiery look and sound that’s proved immensely popular with international audiences).
Though they were dubbed “the new 2NE1” during their rookie days, some of their first appearances on Korean variety shows bring into focus not only Blackpink’s chaotically entertaining presence but the determination to carve out their own identities. Vocalist Jisoo has become a face for beauty brands Kiss Me and Dior; rapper and vocalist Jennie has branched out as a soloist and a powerful influencer; New Zealand–born Rosé’s distinct vocal sound has seen her on hits for G-Dragon; and Thailand-born rapper and dancer Lisa is the most-followed K-pop star on Instagram.
Then, and now, they recognize the need for each other to complete the group alchemy that’s endeared them to millions. “I don’t think a specific member should do more dancing or one member does more singing. I think Blackpink’s harmony is complete because of each person’s energy,” Jennie told Vogue Korea earlier this year.
The long-standing vision of K-pop as a blinged-out, ultra-slick fantasy world was created by three labels: YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and SM Entertainment. YG is renowned for maximalist visuals and a heavy, club-friendly sound devised by in-house writer-producer Teddy Park, the man behind some of K-pop’s biggest, hookiest hits. On Blackpink’s 2018 “Ddu-du Ddu-du” (“DDDD” for short), all these elements aligned to produce an irresistible pop package.
Success lay in the catchy titular refrain, the memorable finger-gun dance, and a gloriously excessive video, but also in Blackpink themselves as aspirational but emulatable, aesthetically fierce but not intimidating, killer onstage but adorable off it. The four-track EP, Square Up, would go platinum in South Korea, “DDDD” would reach gold in the U.S., becoming their first billion-view video, and “Kill This Love” would make them the first-ever Korean girl group to enter the U.K. singles chart.
These milestones came via a fandom that had grown rapidly since late 2016, but which had to wait eight months for 2017’s single “As If It’s Your Last,” then an entire year for its follow-up, Square Up. One release per year was once standard in K-pop, when there were fewer groups fighting for a share of a small domestic market. Groups now average two or three releases (known as “comebacks”) a year in a bid to grow and maintain fandoms, but YG Entertainment, one of South Korea’s oldest K-pop agencies, remains unapologetically committed to less is more.
It’s not a fail-safe plan—it draws constant fan criticism, petitions, and boycott threats—but the old-school approach, in an era of oversaturation and instant gratification, has created heightened desire and demand. It’s turned every comeback into a global event and has funneled the fandom’s streaming power into the kind of headline-making, spreadsheet-melting numbers that have seduced many a label executive.
Like many successful musicians, Blackpink understands the power in marrying the worlds of music and fashion. Their innate understanding of style has made them hot property, with the girls now front-row fixtures at Fashion Week. In September 2019, Jisoo popped over to London for Burberry, while Rosé wowed at Saint Laurent (and was also asked by Anthony Vaccarello to be its brand ambassador). Meanwhile, Jennie found herself next to Cardi B at Chanel, for whom she is a brand ambassador.
In February 2020, Lisa—currently a muse for Hedi Slimane’s Celine—took a trip to Milan for Prada’s fall 2020 show, and just this week, posted a #WFH look on her Instagram account (high-waisted light-wash denim, a Celine button-down shirt, and Bottega Veneta’s latest envelope clutch) that garnered more than 5 million likes.
Given their proven selling power—magazines have reported needing to print quadruple copies to supply demand; their tours sell out in seconds—the relationship between the band and fashion’s leading houses will long continue to flourish.
Blackpink was signed to U.S.-based Interscope Records in late 2018, a direct play for the American market and something no South Korean girl group had tried since Girls’ Generation in 2012. Despite their skill and experience, Blackpink’s awkward, lackluster February 2019 performances on Good Morning America and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert were widely panned. But in front of a vast, mostly K-pop-unaware audience at Coachella, the universality of the group’s songs bloomed, earning rave reviews. A high point was the rousing “Kill This Love,” the title single from their new EP.
It’s rare that the members aren’t busy, even when there isn’t a release to promote. They often turn to Instagram to communicate with their combined 128 million followers (including the main Blackpink account), and have focused on solidifying their A-list status as fashion icons (such as Jennie’s recent collaboration with luxury eyewear brand Gentle Monster), industry mentors, and accidental viral queens (Lisa’s stint on the survival show Youth With You and her performance video that became a Did It Work? meme).
And finally, a year after their last record, the wait is almost over. There’s the forthcoming Lady Gaga collaboration, “Sour Candy,” on her album Chromatica, and a June comeback from the band itself. Could Blackpink eventually be the first K-pop girl group to break through in the West? The opportunity is there for the taking, but that means new successes must be capitalized upon and old strategies reexamined and refined. Now might be the time for Blackpink to really be the revolution.
Originally Appeared on Vogue