By Taylor Glasby
Before the recent release of their fourth single — the lyrically sagacious, '90s hip-hop-soaked "Uh-Oh" — the six members of the multinational K-pop group (G)I-DLE felt the prickly onslaught of nerves. Not that this was new; according to Beijing-born vocalist Yuqi, 19, they get nervous before every drop of new material. Their way through it is by communicating with each other. A lot. Not just before a comeback but "almost every day if we have time," says Thai vocalist Minnie, in English. "Maybe not all six of us every day, maybe just two or three, but we’ll always talk."
"We often encourage each other before a stage," Yuqi elaborates, also in English, her long, diamante earrings repeatedly catching the light. "We’ll have a pep talk." She’s an animated speaker, hands fluidly mapping out the rhythm of her words. The group’s leader, rapper and songwriter, Soyeon, 20, and Minnie, 21, also share this habit, and the latter’s thin metal bangles collide as she talks, filling this beige, windowless room deep inside Madison Square Garden with tiny, bright spirals of noise.
Members Shuhua, Yuqi, Soyeon, Soojin, Miyeon, and Minnie at KCON New York on July 7, 2019
This isn’t their first trip to New York City — they made a fleeting stop last summer for a 3-song showcase — but as they step confidently onto the stage at KCON to the noisy adoration of thousands, it’s easy to see how far they’ve come in just a year since their debut. Each of (G)I-DLE has their own ultra-distinctive presence: Minnie is almost Amazonian, all lithe strength and power; Soojin, 21, oozes a sexy playfulness; Miyeon, 22, is coolly composed; Taiwanese Shuhua's, 19, etherealness is punctuated by cheeky, knowing glances; Yuqi has a feisty, fighting spirit; and Soyeon's compelling energy (which saw her effortlessly take down opponents on the 2016 season of Korean hip-hop survival show, Unpretty Rapstar) ignites every move and word.
Their KCON performance consists of "Uh-Oh," "LATATA," "HANN," and "Senorita," all of which have been penned by Soyeon (alongside some legendary Korean producers, including Big Sancho). She's written for other idols (CLC, JBJ, SHINee’s Key) and penned four of the five tracks on (G)I-DLE's second EP, I Made, with Minnie composing its final track, "Blow Your Mind."
Although Soyeon had been given songwriting classes while she was a trainee, she never intended to be the group's primary songwriter. "At first, I really didn't know I'd be writing these songs," she recalls. "But our debut was getting delayed because we didn’t have a song. So that's when I thought, I should write our song, and started writing a title track."
"Because I was a rapper, I'd only written lyrics and verses," she continues. "I started putting on the beats and melody, then I took a MIDI class and stuff." Although she appears to have been undaunted by the task at hand, it doesn’t lessen the enormity of the situation — that the reception to, and even the fate of, her group lay in her hands. "I always have pressure," she concedes with a small laugh and smile, but her arms fold protectively over her body, "because it’s not a solo song — it’s for the team."
The members are her muses. "She always says my voice inspires her," says Minnie, who was the main influence for "LATATA." "I think she knows my voice better than me! She knows how to put it in a way that sounds good. She's like..." She pauses. A mind reader? Minnie laughs. "Yeah, a mind reader."
"I usually have lots of conversations with Soyeon," says Miyeon softly. Soyeon says, smiling at her: “For some songs, I write with inspiration coming only from Miyeon. I get it in various aspects but mostly from the powerful, emotional parts of her.”
Shuhua believes it's her image and her vibe that helps spark Soyeon’s creativity, but for Yuqi, it's the other way around; she doesn't think she inspires their leader as much as Soyeon inspires her. "I prefer to just believe in her. She's done everything so fast so, from my point of view, whatever parts she gives me, I try to do my best with. I think that trust works for me."
"She’s been seeing me since trainee period, so she knows what fits me the best, and she writes me that part," says Soojin, glancing over at her bandmate, who nods. "Soojin has a really cute voice," Soyeon says, "so I sometimes make her do cute songs. But I also know she expresses sexy well, so I try to give her parts like that, too."
Their label, CUBE Entertainment, recently gave them their own studio and the girls can be found ducking in to check on progress. "Soyeon lets us listen to a sample or maybe the hook and asks us if it's OK, then she'll continue writing," says Minnie. But Soyeon isn’t one to sit around writing fragments of songs and tucking them away onto hard drives that gather dust on a shelf. "I've written so many raps," Soyeon points out, “but for the team, I write songs for an album. I don't really have made songs [lying around]. I'm more like, once I write it, I publish it."
The songs are steeped in their very essence — a girl’s complex, internal house of mirrors that is constantly being broken, assessed, understood, and remade, where one style or sound is never enough to reflect who they really are. And so (G)I-DLE are the enticing tropical beats and coy fingersnaps of "LATATA" and the ominous, warning whistled hook of "HANN." They’re also the pensive harmonies and slow throb of bass on the R&B-infused ballad "Put It Straight," the whimsical words painted over the house music of "What’s In Your House," and even the tango of "Senorita." Their lyrics push back, they beckon. They can be bored nonchalance or sharpening desire.
Soyeon sees their self-produced sound as a "perk," since "knowing our members better than any [external] songwriter means we know what we can do best." There are a number of prominent female idol songwriters (such as Miryo, LE, Sunmi), although they're primarily from an older generation of idols. Unsurprisingly, they're not often talked about with the same reverence, or even in the same breath, as male idol writers such as Zico or G-Dragon.
Ask (G)I-DLE if they feel like their status as a female, self-producing group is pushing forward or laying new ground for their generation and they exchange unsure looks, then laugh at each other's expressions. "I guess... not really," says Minnie slowly. "The strength of our group is that we make our own songs and we put our opinions into the concepts and everything, but we just want to do something that suits us. We want to show who we are as best we can, and how we can perform."
Although Soyeon mentioned in a 2018 interview that she was keen for (G)I-DLE not "to be like other idol groups in Korea," she takes a moment now to elaborate and say that "rather than being different from other groups in a certain way, we’d like to have our own color. Like, [someone saying] 'Oh, this song must be (G)I-DLE.' It's not being different, it's about standing out," she says seriously.
However much they downplay their role, (G)I-DLE are already a significant addition to the pop landscape. Soyeon's shy, slightly embarrassed smile indicates she’s still coming to terms with that line of thought, admitting that winning over a dozen awards in their first year stunned her. "We used to say our first goal was 'the best rookie award' and when we actually got it, it was unbelievable," she says. Minnie adds: "We didn’t really know until we received the rookie awards. That’s when we realized, oh, maybe we can do something. But even now we're still just trying harder [as a group]."
Their impressive start (118 million views for "LATATA," 64 million for its follow-up “HANN”) is no small burden on the group who are expected to not only maintain their success but continue growing. "The president of CUBE always says, 'If you stop now, there’s no spotlight later,'" says Soojin. It honestly sounds terrifying. They laugh, even as they nod in agreement.
But Yuqi knows there’s a middle ground to be struck and she wants to have fun in the process. "Of course, every time we’re successful, then the next time everybody will have even more expectations for us — like, what will their next color be, what will their style be? Instead of getting pressured, we can enjoy it, we just do what we want to do. We show who and what (G)I-DLE is — that's the only goal for us."