In keeping with their moves toward global domination, 2NE1 is performing in Times Square today along with the other three MTV Iggy Best New Band finalists.
If this part of their launch is successful, they will be better positioned to make a dent in the US pop music market where many other popular Asian artists have failed before. Despite having huge fan bases overseas, artists that make their debuts in the US have generally been faced with lukewarm receptions. BoA’s self-titled English language release dropped in 2009 and barely dented the charts. Hikaru Utada (who to be fair, spent as much time in NYC as Japan coming up) attempted to make a genre-crossing album with 2004′s Exodus, which spawned a #1 single on the dance charts, but absolutely no impression elsewhere despite her work with hip-hop heavy weights like Darkchild and Foxy Brown. Utada’s 2009 English release This Is The One was designated a heat seeker with almost no radio airplay – but still only sold around 15,000 copies stateside. The Wonder Girls are still struggling to stay in the limelight after entering the charts with “Nobody” in 2009 but still trends fairly low. Se7en and Rain’s attempts never really got off the ground.
After watching good artists try and fail to make it in the US market, I began trying to find a pattern. Why was this happening? The reasons vary – particularly because artists often use their entry to the US as a kind of reinvention, which can be risky – but a big component is that American marketers/listeners had no idea what to do with them.
But, luckily for 2NE1, they have a secret weapon: Nicki Minaj.
It may seem strange to look at Nicki Minaj as the the person who put a crack in the Billboard ceiling big enough for 2NE1 to break through to the top spot, but it is her inherent strangeness and genrelessness that is opening the door for other women artists to bend the rules.
Both Minaj and 2NE1 are barrier breakers, crossing into pop music but bringing the swagger of rock and hip hop. For Minaj, she’s dominated the pop charts with rap ballads like “Super Bass,” and lent honeyed vocals and verses on Lil’ Wayne’s “Knockout”. 2NE1 is far, far more aggressive in appearance than more traditional pop groups like The Wonder Girls, which could have been a liability. But here too, Minaj’s eclectic fashion sense wins the day, as she’s appeared in everything from fetish gear to rococo swag:
Both Minaj and 2NE1 are also combatting societal scripts about what women of color can be. While Minaj occupies a space defined by feminist contradictions, she still actively defies the proper “place” for a black woman in the broader pop music space. Considering the limited spaces where black women are allowed to appear, it’s remarkable how Minaj has carved out a space for herself in both urban markets and the fashion industry. 2NE1 is facing off against stereotypes around Asian American women – particularly the submissive stereotypes that would push them out of the more aggressive sides of the pop and hip-hop scenes. Think about it – it was hard enough for Jin, an Asian American rapper that proved himself time and time again freestyling on 106 and Park, to get taken seriously in the US market even when signed to the Rough Ryders label. And despite putting in tons of work on the West Coast underground scene, there was no place on the airwaves for Far East Movement – until they completely overhauled their sound and image, sailing up the the charts with more simplistic rhymes and dance-oriented beats. Asian women have an even harder climb – the roles are even more constrained by race and gender expectations. Since I don’t follow folk and indie rock, I can’t comment on Thao Ngyuen’s presentation. But here’s 2NE1 – and they don’t fit anything that’s currently a path to radio airplay. And they for DAMN sure don’t fit the existing Asian stereotypes – I don’t see them getting a show on Cartoon Network anytime soon. Especially not with lyrics like this:
Ridin’ down Seoul city
Black on black Lamborghini
Haters can’t never see me
Come and get me, too slow
I’m bout that paper chasing
Body, fly face amazing
Burn burn keeps it blazin
Too hot to handle, can’t touch this
You think you with it with it
But you can’t hit it hit it
U know I got it got it
Cuz I’m so bout it bout it
I let them hoes know
I run this show show
We get it poppin
And we stick you for your dough dough
Cuz I’m so bad bad
But I’m so good good
Yeah I’m so bad bad
And I’m so hood hood!
Hell, they might even make it on hip-hop airwaves. On a recent trip to the airport, one of my local hip hop stations started playing “Party Rock” – and since everything’s got a dance beat on it nowadays, anything could happen!
What is also fascinating to me is their simultaneous acceptance and rejection of beauty. While Minaj and the 2NE1 crew are considered attractive by conventional standards, they each grapple with culturally influenced ideas of beauty. Early on in her career,I read an interview with Minaj where she responded to someone criticizing one of her more out there looks by saying something like “maybe I don’t feel like being pretty to you today.” In our culture, where women are marketed heavily based on their sex appeal, it was interesting to see Minaj reject that framework, even as she courts it. (She has also advised girls that sex appeal isn’t enough to get ahead.)
I thought of Minaj’s comments while listening to 2NE1′s “Ugly,” a track where four beautiful women identify with unattractiveness.
2NE1 and Minaj’s embrace of unattractiveness/ugliness seems strange on its face, but it makes a lot of sense. For Minaj, rebelling against the tyranny of forced attractiveness (kind of like when men shout at you on the street to smile, when they have no idea who you are or what you are dealing with) is a way of maintaining the true self. It’s strange that not wanting to be pretty all the time is almost a revolutionary notion, but here we are. Along those same lines, 2NE1′s lyrics on “Ugly” refer less to a physical reality and more to an emotional state:
I think I’m ugly
And nobody wants to love me
Just like her I wanna be pretty
I wanna be pretty
Don’t lie to my face
cuz I know I’m ugly
[DARA] All alone
I’m all alone x 2
The idea that beauty is tied in with feelings of self-worth should be familiar to most folks, regardless of their awareness of feminist theory. But it is fascinating how many similarities emerge, whether we are talking about the tyranny of “thickness” or Korean women marching through the alphabet trying to find the perfect body line.
While both artists approach this from a different perspective, they are complicating the conversation around beauty in ways that generally haven’t happened in a long time. To build in a point of reference, it’s been eleven years since TLC dropped “Unpretty” and eleven years since Joydrop released “Beautiful.” Occasionally, a singer will vocalize feelings of insecurity around their looks – but since this isn’t popular, it isn’t often done. (Interestingly, 2NE1 balances “Ugly” with “I Am the Best” on their album – a song for all moods, I suppose.)
So, the chances are looking for for 2NE1 to gain a toehold in the American market – marketers and audiences only have to look at Minaj’s star to allow 2NE1 to shine.