Of the many things we’d like to leave behind in the last decade, the K-pop “factory girls” mentality — exhibited by The New Yorker’s John Seabrook in his infamous 2012 piece where he likened women in the industry to robots — is high on the list. But even if some in the West try to desperately cling on to these ill-conceived stereotypes, the new generation is moving on. As JYP Entertainment's latest girl group ITZY says, “They keep talking, I keep walking.”
Formed a little less than a year ago, the five-member group (Yeji and Lia, both 19, Ryujin and Chaeryeong, both 18, and Yuna, 16) set themselves apart with their first single “DALLA DALLA,” meaning “different” in Korean. The empowering self-love anthem and its fierce music video obviously resonated with the public. Nine days after their February 12, 2019 debut, ITZY received their first music show win on M Countdown (a big deal for a rookie group) — the fastest of any girl group. "DALLA DALLA" continues to hold the record for the fastest K-pop debut music video to reach 100 million views.
In the saturated Korean pop music landscape, being different is the key to success. For ITZY, that means standing out starts from within. “There are a lot of artists who talk about love, but I think a lot of our uniqueness comes from our focus on self-love,” ITZY’s leader Yeji tells Refinery29 before their showcase in New York’s Kings Theatre. It’s the last stop of their five-show U.S. tour, and the women are clad in all silver and white, adorned with edgy accent pieces like glittery studs and lightning bolt earrings.
That confident ethos can be best described in “DALLA DALLA” when sweet-faced Chaeryeong sings in Korean (roughly translated), “I don’t care so much for love / There’s much more fun out there in the world.”
“We're not belittling love at all,” says the blue-haired Ryujin, whose captivating audition dance to Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” turned heads even before debuting with the group. “But in your teens and your 20s, it's really important to discover yourself and know who you are — that’s why we feel emphasizing self-love is very important.”
“ICY” is the group’s popular second single off their second EP, IT’z ICY, and source of the mantra “they keep talking, I keep walking,” carries a similar message. This one, however, is a bit more nuanced. Though the women “ice out” any outside negative energy, they still use it as fuel for the fire of passion and creativity burning inside them. “Icy but I'm on fire / A dream inside me, I'm confident / Look at me, I'm not a liar / I don't want to be put in your box,” sings Lia.
Lia notes that there is value in listening to others when it’s constructive — something she learned from JYP executive and founder, J.Y. Park. “It's good to listen to other people's opinions and thoughts, but it's also very important to know your own and hold onto them as well,” she says.
Yeji adds another piece of advice from Park that stuck with her and colors every message the group puts out. “Instead of just obsessing over your status and where you're at in rankings and such, it's more important to look at the value of what you do and make,” she says.
Being queens of confidence, however, doesn’t mean they’re immune to doubts. “Our songs are about self-confidence and loving ourselves and we try to emulate that,” says Lia, looking regal with her hair knotted high in a tight bun. “But we’re human, and there are lots of times when I don't feel like that. One of the ways of overcoming that has honestly become reading letters from our fans [called MIDZY]. I just sit in my room and start reading them, and then I get overwhelmed and bolstered by their words. Pretty much all of us actually have gained more self-confidence after our debut, thanks to our fans.”
In the 3,000-seat Kings Theatre, the excitement and overwhelming support from MIDZY is palpable. Some fans dressed in outfits clearly inspired by ITZY’s music videos — pigtails, clear thigh-high boots, and all. Others donned the black, pink, and holographic ITZY merch they had bought in the lobby or waved homemade signs with the names of their favorite members on them. As the quintet delivered their final goodbyes, Chaeryeong pouted as she felt herself starting to tear up. After all, this showcase tour was the first time that the women were able to come face-to-face with the people who they strive to inspire.
“We started off 2020 with meeting our MIDZYs and that became a huge source of inspiration and strength for me,” said Chaeryeong earnestly, moving her Lara Croft-esque braid and leaning forward. “There are fans that stayed standing and cheering throughout the entire showcase and so I think that's something that I'm going to hold on to that's going to power me through the rest of the year.”
“We're not belittling love at all, but in your teens and your 20s it's really important to discover yourself and know who you are — that’s why we feel emphasizing self-love is very important.”
“For me personally, and for ITZY, I want to focus on finding what happiness means,” adds Lia, "so that it benefits us and our fans.”
Watching the women interact with one another on stage — playing off each other as they dance to the intro of “ICY,” teasing each other as they address the crowd, working as a team when they were tasked by a host to complete challenges — they truly seem to not only care and support one another, but complement each other in their individual strengths. Much like their message in “DALLA DALLA,” they are aware of and embrace their differences.
“Lia’s voice is really pretty,” says Yeji, “and you can hear her emotion in her singing.” Ryujin, while younger than Lia, is someone who Lia turns to when she is having a hard time. “Whenever Ryujin and I have a chance to talk very deeply, I feel very comfortable. She has deep thoughts and is very mature. She’s just a cool person.”
All of the women agree that Chaeryeong is the comic relief of the group. “She’s hilarious,” says Ryujin, smiling brightly at her friend. “Chaeryeong is also nice, polite, and always wants to take care of people, including me. So I'm very thankful for her.” Yuna, the youngest of the group and the quietest throughout the interview, carries a cheeky defiance in her that seems to always bubble just underneath the surface. “Even though Yuna is the baby of the group,” says Chaeryeong, “there are times when she becomes the leader, she sets the mood, and she makes people feel better. So she has that kind of empowering side to her.”
Yuna acknowledges that Yeji, their true leader, wears the responsibility well. “Yeji is really encouraging,” says Yuna. “There are times when our schedule is packed and people can get kind of sensitive, but she's very observant and so she knows how to come up and encourage you and turn your mind into a more positive outlook.” It’s a quality that Yeji acknowledges is extremely important in being a good role model for fans, and one that she learned from her role model: her mother. “The most important things I inherited from my mom are keeping a positive mindset, how I relate to people, and how to treat people well.”
It may seem like a simple concept to keep at the forefront of a budding international sensation, but this ethos that shines through their songs and their interactions is speaking to people, evidenced by their growing, passionate fanbase. There be a time for breakup ballads and lovesick anthems. For now, ITZY sing about what’s truly important to them as teenagers who are growing up alongside their fans.
“There's a saying that ‘the truth really touches people and the truth always wins,’" says Yeji, “so we want to be a group that's very genuine and is always really honest with our fans.”