History of K-Pop: Wonder Girls

History of K-Pop: Wonder Girls

It’s 2018, and the Korean Pop music industry is full of talented girl groups with a wide variety of concepts and musical styles. However, many of these groups have one thing in common—they look to the Wonder Girls as a source of inspiration.

Dubbed “South Korea’s Retro Queens,” the Wonder Girls were widely applauded for their ability to pull off various musical and visual concepts containing elements from different decades, such as the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The group broke barriers not only for girl groups, but for all K-Pop acts, with their ability to create one viral hit after another and their early attempts to break into the American music industry at a time when few groups could.

The Wonder Girls first appeared on the K-Pop scene in early 2007, when they performed their debut song, “Irony,” on MBC’s Show! Music Core. At the time, the group was made up of five members: Sunye, Sohee, Hyuna, Yeeun, and Sunmi. The catchy single demonstrated the group’s ability to explore previous eras of music through their own work—in this case, Hip-Hop and R&B from the ‘90s.

Following their debut, the group announced their official fanclub name, “Wonderfuls,” and continued to promote during the year. However, Hyuna was eventually withdrawn from the group by her parents, who were concerned about various health problems she experienced at the time. Following Hyuna’s departure, new member Yubin joined the group, taking on the role of being the group’s lead rapper. Yubin made her debut with the group only three days after joining in a live performance of “Tell Me,” a song that would propel the Wonder Girls’ fame to even greater heights. The song’s viral appeal can be partly attributed to member Sohee’s famous line, “omona,” as well as the popularity of the choreography. The song also went on to attain the number one spot on various music charts in South Korea.

The Wonder Girls continued to promote throughout 2007, enjoying the explosive popularity they experienced following the popularity of “Tell Me.” In 2008, the group went on to release two more of their most popular songs, “So Hot” and “Nobody.”

In particular, “Nobody” experienced great success, obtaining and keeping the number 1 spot on KBS’s Music Bank for four consecutive weeks, along with receiving other accolades, and even sparking another dance craze centered around the song’s addictive choreography. Additionally, the song further showcased the group’s ability to tackle retro concepts like no other. Instead of using ‘90s inspired beats and visuals, “Nobody” emulated the styling of popular American girl groups of the ‘60s, like The Supremes and The Ronettes.

2008 became one of the group’s most successful years, during which they earned numerous accolades, such as a “Daesang” (or “Artist of the Year”) at the Seoul Music Awards and a “Best Music Video” award at the Mnet KM Music Festival Awards.

In 2009, the group shifted their focus from domestic success to international, kicking off a concert tour with a show in Thailand and performing alongside their mentor and their label’s CEO, JYP, at various concerts in the United States. However, the group’s international efforts really picked up speed when, in March 2009, the group announced their plans to launch an English-language career in the United States, comprised of English versions of existing singles, such as “Nobody” and “Tell Me,” as well as an English album. In June of the same year, JYP announced that the group would accompany The Jonas Brothers on the North American segment of their 2009 world tour.

The Wonder Girls on stage with The Jonas Brothers, 2009.  Credit: kimyoobin.wordpress.com

The Wonder Girls on stage with The Jonas Brothers, 2009.

Credit: kimyoobin.wordpress.com

The decision to accompany the Jonas Brothers on a total of 45 concert dates in total helped bolster the group’s budding popularity in the United States—for example, “Nobody” appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October 2009, making them the first Korean artists to appear on the chart. Although many K-Pop acts enjoy popularity in the United States nowadays, headlining their own tours and even making special appearances on American television, the Wonder Girls made their foray into the American music industry at a time when many groups were hesitant to pursue popularity in the United States. While the group didn’t experience the same heights of fame in America that other groups do now, their venture into the market helped signal a future in which K-Pop artists could hope to attain more success across national lines.

In early 2010, the Wonder Girls faced another lineup change, this time with Sunmi putting her musical career on hold to pursue academic studies instead. Although new member Lim stepped into Sunmi’s place, the group’s plans to release an English album were eventually scrapped due to Sunmi’s departure. The group also ended up postponing plans for a North American headlining tour of their own, only embarking on a short tour with labelmate groups 2PM and 2AM later that year. Following their tour announcement, the group also announced the release of their newest album, 2 Different Tears, and their plans to release the EP in three languages—Korean, Chinese, and English.

The following year, the group continued their venture into the international market, this time with the release of another album, Wonder World, which included the popular single “Be My Baby,” yet another track in which the group showcased their penchant for incorporating  vibrant, retro influences into their music. Once again, the styling and choreography for “Be My Baby” appeared to mirror that of popular girl groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In 2012, the girls continued their expansion into the American media market, this time with the release of a made-for-television movie. The movie, titled Wonder Girls, aired on TeenNick in February of that year and included two English singles recorded by the group, “The DJ Is Mine” and “Like Money.”

At the time, the group appeared to be preparing for additional promotions in the United States, but also returned to Asia for a Korean summer comeback and a Japanese debut. Their Korean comeback saw the release of “Like This,” a song that proved to be yet another viral hit for the group due to its catchy chorus and choreography.

While 2012 appeared to be a promising year for the group, their final English release ended up being a new version of “Like Money” featuring rapper Akon—their English album, which was said to have been completed, was never released.  2013 proved to be a rockier year in the group’s history—late in 2012, member Sunye announced her plans to get married in January of the following year, and after the group performed at the Winter Special Olympics in Pyeongchang, they went on a hiatus that would last for three years.

After her marriage, Sunye gave birth to a daughter in 2013; although JYP Entertainment denied at first the notion that Sunye was retiring from the group, she later announced her retirement from the entertainment industry altogether in 2014, choosing to focus on missionary work and her family instead. Additionally, in December of 2013, member Sohee left JYP Entertainment and signed with another agency in order to focus on an acting career. Due to the departure of two of the group’s original members, plans for an English album, as well as any future promotions in the United States, were permanently scrapped.

In spite of the group’s hiatus and significant lineup changes, this three-year period wasn’t one of total inactivity for the group’s members. In August of 2013, former member Sunmi returned to the entertainment scene with the solo release of single “24 Hours,” followed by the release of her debut EP, “Full Moon.” Both title tracks were well-received and helped establish Sunmi as a talented solo artist.

Yeeun also debuted as a solo artist during this time, releasing her work under the pseudonym HA:TFELT, a portmanteau of the words “hot” and “heartfelt.” Her solo album, “Me?” was released in 2014 and featured the single “Ain’t Nobody,” a passionate and dramatic song that helped set Yeeun apart as a versatile and powerful vocalist. Writer Jeff Benjamin reviewed the album positively for Billboard, comparing Yeeun’s vocals to those of Western artist Sia and calling the album “an intense introduction to the new Yenny.”

In June of 2015, after three years of the group’s inactivity, JYP Entertainment announced that the Wonder Girls would finally be making a comeback, this time with the re-addition of former member Sunmi into the group’s existing lineup. Instead of returning as a dance group, the Wonder Girls took a bold step in a new direction and returned as a band ensemble, with each member playing a different instrument.

With Yubin on drums, Lim on guitar, Sunmi on bass, and Yeeun on the keyboard, the group returned with the release of “I Feel You,” a powerful and enchanting song reminiscent of the 1980s in both musical style and visual styling. The song’s release was followed by the release of “Reboot,” a full album that proved to be a commercial success, both domestically and internationally.

Although the group once again used a retro concept for their comeback, their first post-hiatus release was sexier and more mature compared to previous releases, setting the group apart as an experienced senior group among their peers in the industry.  

In 2016, the group made another comeback with the release of single “Why So Lonely” and B-sides “To The Beautiful You” and “Sweet and Easy.” The songs were met with commercial success in Korea, and a live performance of “I Feel You” earned the group their first music show win since their promotions for “Like This” in 2012. The song is at once vibrant and summery, yet dark and brooding, featuring the members singing of failed relationships and feelings of isolation over reggae-inspired instrumentals.

Ultimately, the group’s 2016 comeback was their final one before the announcement of their disbandment. In January of 2017, JYP Entertainment announced that only two of the four members renewed their contracts with the label—Yubin and Lim elected to renew their contracts, while Sunmi and Yeeun decided to sign with other agencies for the continuation of their careers. On February 10, the group released their very last single, “Draw Me,” as a commemoration of their 10-year anniversary and a final expression of gratitude to the group’s fans.

Although the group disbanded a little over a year ago, the group’s former members have remained active in their individual careers and are openly supportive of one another’s as well. For example, after signing with MakeUs Entertainment, Sunmi released her first solo comeback in three titles, “Gashina.” The song became an instant hit and was covered by countless other artists on variety shows, competition programs, and more. Shortly afterward, she also released the single “Heroine,” which was also widely well-received.

After signing with Amoeba Culture, Yeeun released several new singles as HA:TFELT, including “Pluhmm” and “Cigar,” both from her second single album, Deine, meaning “yours” in German. Yeeun received praise for both songs, which were minimalistic, yet dimensional and sensual in nature.

Additionally, Yubin made her solo debut with the release of “Lady,” a bright and catchy city pop-inspired song about an independent woman telling her lover to stop hesitating and acknowledge her affection.

Former members Sohee and Sunye stayed true to their pursuits following their careers as members of the Wonder Girls—since their departures, Sohee has appeared in various acting roles in dramas and films, and Sunye gave birth to her second daughter and continued her missionary work. Meanwhile, Lim is currently attending school at Hankuk University and remains signed with JYP Entertainment.

Finally, former member Hyuna, who was the first to depart from the group, later debuted in girl group 4Minute and launched a successful solo career of her own. Although 4Minute also disbanded recently, Hyuna remains one of K-Pop’s most influential soloists, and her career has found her crossing paths with former members of the Wonder Girls, with whom she still remains close.

With a dense history and successful past, there's no doubt that Wonder Girls are true legends of K-Pop. While they may have disbanded, the Wonder Girls will always hold a place in our hearts, providing a reminder of the happiness they shared with their fans over the years. As the former members continue to reach new heights in their solo careers, we can’t wait to see what they will accomplish next! What’s your favorite Wonder Girls song? Let us know in the comments below!

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