TWICE Just Want To Make You Happy
Every healthy, balanced diet allows for a bit of sugar.
Ask fans to describe TWICE, the best-selling Korean girl group of all time, and they’ll often describe an oasis — a beautiful, serene safe haven where troubles melt away and love and happiness reign. The group of nine women — Jihyo, Nayeon, Jeongyeon, Momo, Sana, Mina, Dahyun, Chaeyoung, and Tzuyu — are all enviable hair, flawless skin, and brilliant smiles. Their voices are agile and singsongy; their dance moves graceful and exact. And, in keeping with their image, TWICE’s most iconic songs are soaring, shimmering pop tracks that burrow deep into your ears. Beyond their sunny image and positive songwriting, the group constantly express their deep love for each other, their fans, and themselves.
You might be waiting for a catch — how these are actually crass women whose songs are only a shiny veneer, but secretly hide unbridled sadness and rage, or are coded takedowns of Korea’s political body. Which begs the question: Why must there be a catch at all? No, not all of TWICE discography is sunny — but it’s still warm. A handful of TWICE’s songs, notably their most recent single “Feel Special,” are tinged with more grave undertones, as they sing about times in which they feel tendrils of loneliness and darkness creeping in. But the underlying message is to thank the people in their lives (“One moment I feel like I’m nothing at all/ Like no one would notice if I were gone/ But then when I hear you calling me/ I feel loved, I feel so special”) who care for them in those more difficult moments.
TWICE’s most beloved, signature songs evoke vivid, universal moments of elation. In “Dance The Night Away,” you’re dancing under the moonlight, near the sea — a “special happiness that’s like the salty air.” In “Cheer Up,” your heart bursts with pure excitement as you bask in that delicious moment before letting someone know you care about them. In “Likey” and “TT,” your heart is so full that you can’t even express your feelings with words — 두근두근두근 (“dugeun dugeun dugeun,” thumps your heart), or “TT” (like the crying emoticon).
“I am happy as long as I bring joy into people’s lives,” TWICE's leader Jihyo tells Refinery29 (joined by rapper Chaeyoung and Japanese main dancer Momo) amidst both the launch of their new YouTube Originals docuseries Twice: Seize the Light, which chronicles TWICE’s journey in preparation for their first world tour last year, and preparations for their upcoming EP, More & More, which will be released via Republic Records on June 1st.
It’s a relatively simple concept — wanting to bring people happiness through music — but one that for some reason many Western critics have historically had a difficult time accepting or legitimizing, especially when it comes to Asian girl groups. While female solo artists who tell stories about love or simple joys may get a pass, there’s often an expectation in the West for girl groups to be badass beacons of feminism — boasting swaggy, I-don’t-want-no-scrubs independence and girl power at every turn. From the Spice Girls to Destiny’s Child to Fifth Harmony, all these women were validated by audiences for their particular brand of feminism — any other message would seem like internalized misogyny. Songs are lauded when they serve a greater purpose; catchiness is just an added bonus. In its review of girl group Little Mix’s most recent album, LM5, NME wrote that “it may sometimes musically miss the mark; but with its strong and relevant message it’s something of a milestone for the band.”
But if anything, TWICE’s music is crafted in this particular way for the very reason that they are ultra-sensitive about the messages they send and how they affect their fans (who are called ONCE). Chaeyoung says that is the thing she’s learned over the five-odd years she’s been a performer. “Because of the nature of our job, what we say and do influences other people, so I try to think before I say or do anything. It’s burdening in a way, but I’ve accepted that that is what happens when you have power. It’s made me think a lot about how I’m going to affect the people I meet or perform for.”
And the fans are grateful. “Going through pharmacy school was probably one of the toughest times in my life and TWICE was what always kept my spirits up,” says Misa, a Canadian fan who provides TWICE-specific news and Korean-English interpretation through their account @Misayeon. “I listened to their songs while studying, watched their [live-streams] during breaks, and they just always helped create these carefree moments where you can be happy and stress free. I've been a fan of other K-pop groups in the past, but there's something about TWICE that's special and intrinsic to only them. They're very genuine people and they have a way of radiating joy to others just by being themselves, whether on stage or offstage.”
Last April, on a break in between commitments, Momo voluntarily live-streamed and danced for fans in her car for seven straight hours. (“We’re not just energetic and peppy for the stage. We’re seriously like that in real life,” says Momo). Japanese member Mina once made a handful of friendship bracelets and gave them out to fans at their concert, and has knitted hats and scarves for her fellow members and for charity. During ISAC (basically the K-pop idol olympics), Rapper Dahyun personally gave lunches with handwritten notes and polaroids to ONCE to thank them for waiting and for their ardent support.
Do a quick Google search of articles on K-pop girl groups, however, and you’ll see that the mission-driven sweetness of girl groups like TWICE is often interpreted in a reductive way by critics. There’s John Seabrook’s infamous 2012 New Yorker piece “Factory Girls,” in which he describes drone-like women who are carefully crafted by a system and lack any agency. Or more often, music from K-pop girl groups is described as “dripping with bubblegum imagery and witless refrains, is all too often incredibly sexist” and with “many of its vapid songs intentionally light on lyrics.” These characterizations play into stereotypes many have about Asian people — especially women — being mechanical, robotic, and objectified. Their positivity is seen as disingenuous and dehumanizing, and cheery songs as empty calories. TWICE, however, glean their strength from their uncanny ability to spread contagious positivity to millions of people — and maintain that every healthy, balanced diet allows for a bit of sugar.
“Many fans tell us that they get lots of positive energy from us,” says the self-assured Jihyo. “Even though they haven’t met us on a personal level, they can tell that we have a strong bond and get along very well with each other. That gives the fans good models. People experience lots of difficulties, whether at work or at school, so I’m glad that TWICE can cheer them up.”
SK (@SubjectKPop), is a Singapore-based fan who posts updates and provides English interpretation of TWICE’s daily content, and has followed the group since their 2015 debut. He says that TWICE’s music “soothes” him (among their songs, “Dance The Night Away” comes to mind as one that never ceases to lift his mood), and seeing the group do what they love brings him happiness. TWICE’s apparent work ethic has also inspired him to work even more diligently.
TWICE is one of the world’s biggest girl groups, having sold more than six million albums worldwide. The group’s first music video in 2015, “Like Ooh-Ahh,” became the first K-pop debut track to reach 100 million views on YouTube, and the women sold-out most of the stops of their first world tour in 2019, including The Forum in Los Angeles. Of course, even upbeat music requires hard work, and TWICE wouldn’t be at the level they are without putting in the effort. In the Korean music scene in particular, the playing field is saturated with acts, and few truly make it — even fewer women. “Becoming famous, living up to people’s expectations, and feeling pressure are all things we feel,” says Jihyo. “Anyone in this position is not given the luxury of being strong all the time, whether it be physical or mental. You’re too exposed to so many people, so you always get both praise and a lot of criticism. We have to be careful about every little action we take to prevent it from bringing us down, and we try, but it’s not realistic. The only way to overcome [criticism and hindrances to your strength] is to ignore it and keep good people close.” Nowhere more does this come across more than in Twice: Seize The Light.
Beyond giving peeks backstage, the series is one of the most intimate looks at what makes TWICE who they are. It includes footage of the women auditioning and starting training at as young as 8-years-old (Jihyo then went on to train for over 10 years), surviving the competition show SIXTEEN which first placed them in the group, all the way up to their preparation for their first world tour in 2019. It also reveals the hardship the women went through when Mina took a brief hiatus from the group’s promotional activities and U.S. tour due to her battle with anxiety — and while mental health challenges aren’t unique to K-pop, it was one of the first candid acknowledgements of mental health struggles that have affected many in the industry.
If one thing is clear in the series, however, and at the core of the TWICE ethos, it’s that success — and often, experiencing joy — takes hard work, but it’s worth it. “There’s this quote I often think about: When you find what you like, you find yourself, ” says Chaeyoung. “When you’re young, you might come across people that are not supportive of what you do, but you should always have faith in yourself. And don’t bring yourself down by comparing yourself to others.” Momo, who moved to Korea from Japan at 15, ardently jumps in: “Do not be afraid of challenges. I know that looking back, I was afraid, too, but I tried anyway. If you try, you’ll learn something, whatever that may be. It’s better than not going for it.”
Jihyo says as much in the series, during a clip of her speech at the end of one of TWICE’s concerts in Seoul. “If I say I was always happy and always loved what I was doing, that would be a lie. Some moments felt so tough for me,” she said. “I almost gave up, felt agony so many times. But I always imagined myself being on stage, surrounded by supportive fans, under bright lights with my band members. I imagined that so many times. And it finally happened — here I am on this stage. So I am really happy.”
So, no, there’s no catch. TWICE is not too good to be true. The ability to finally live out their dreams is the force that powers TWICE’s enduring positivity in their music, in their affectation, and drives them to share it far and wide. K-pop is seeing more reception stateside, and especially now, amidst the global pandemic, focusing on things that bring comfort and happiness is more important than ever. Add the fact that now that people, as Jihyo puts it, “have become more open-minded,” maybe TWICE’s brand of bubblegum — thoughtfully, and even painstakingly crafted and refreshingly sweet — is exactly what the world needs to chew on.