With BTS going on hiatus so that the group’s seven members can begin service in the South Korean military, and Blackpink serving Destiny’s Child déjà vu as Jisoo’s solo career continues to take off, the rookie girl group NewJeans is suddenly poised to seize the K-pop throne.
The fact that they are being mentioned in the same breath as the biggest K-acts on the planet is all the more remarkable considering that NewJeans’ first single, “Attention,” debuted only last summer. But over the past year, the teen quintet—Minji, 19; Hanni and Danielle, 18; Haerin, 17; and Hyein, 15—has rapidly become one of South Korea’s brightest cultural exports. Hits like “OMG,” “Ditto,” and “Cookie” are bilingual blends of Total Request Live–era R&B, old-school Baltimore club beats, and angelic harmonies. They have racked up hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify and set first-week records on the Billboard charts. Rolling Stone called NewJeans “the group of the moment.” In August, they will make their Stateside festival debut at Lollapalooza, in Chicago.
“I’m still amazed to realize how many people listen to our music,” said Minji, one of the group’s oldest members. Their pared-back wardrobe—they can often be seen in loose pigtails and underground Korean labels like Kanghyuk and Kusikohc—has also turned the group into fashion darlings, with each member inking separate ambassador deals with brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Chanel, to name but a few. “A year ago, we would never have been able to imagine receiving so much love,” said Danielle.
The group’s name has a double meaning, referring both to the timeless stylishness of a good pair of jeans (the band already has partnered with Levi’s) and to the laying down of “new genes” for K-culture. Album covers tend to forgo glossy photo shoots for Pop art—including variations on the same image of a cartoon rabbit, a nod to the group’s “Bunnies” fan base and the subversive iconography of X-Girl, the cool-girl ’90s streetwear line founded by Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth.
Credit is due partly to the group’s president, Min Hee Jin, a celebrated Svengali of K-pop. But NewJeans’ knowing sense of sophistication feels in tune with that of teen auteurs like Aaliyah and Billie Eilish, rather than being the product of puppet strings. “We don’t divide particular roles,” Hanni said. “We’re in this together.” Hyein, the youngest of the bunch, agreed. “Each person’s personality is different, so how each of us does things might be different, and the person in the lead changes from time to time depending on the situation,” she said.
After NewJeans was announced as the face of Coca-Cola in April, the group dropped “Zero,” a fever dream of drum and bass, Korean nursery rhyme interpolations, and shout-outs to sugar-free soda: “See you looking, catch it, here’s your Cola.” The song is perhaps the most inspired, if not oddball, corporate cosign in recent memory—as if Grimes had produced a Britney Spears number for a Super Bowl jingle. But that might be the point. “When someone asks what is NewJeans’ identity, I hope the answer will not be one narrowed down to a simple and small bite,” Haerin said. “Our biggest strength is being free and natural, so I hope NewJeans will become a group that is unpredictable with so much creativity.”
Hair by Iljung Lee; makeup by Nakyeum Lee.