By Lai Frances
“English queen!” That’s what a fanboy in the audience enthusiastically yelled after Ryujin introduced herself in my native tongue during our live interview at Build Series in January 2020.
At the time, Itzy, whose name is a play on the Korean words “to have it all,” was less than a year old since their debut in February 2019, but the group had already amassed an impressive roster of accomplishments, broken records, and awards under their belt; including the fastest rookie group to win a music show (nine days from their debut) and a handful of Best New Artist awards, all while capping the year with a showcase tour in Asia and the United States.
During the same interview, Yeji, Lia, Ryujin, Chaeryeong, and Yuna surprised viewers by answering a majority of the questions in English, widening the eyes of the in-studio audience and invoking excitement from viewers worldwide. The moment was later included in a fan-made English compilation video on YouTube that has more views than the conversation itself.
While 2020 delayed plans and canceled concerts, that did not stop the JYP Entertainment quintet from releasing their viral chart-topper “Wannabe” last March, followed by the confident “Not Shy” that summer. The group used the pandemic to their advantage to produce thorough video interviews and dance-practice clips showcasing different dance breaks between promotional cycles. The group managed to do weekly — sometimes daily — livestreams via the South Korean streaming platform VLive and communicated with fans in Korean and English, often mentioning how they were studying and practicing their English.
Little did fans know, Itzy was going to welcome 2021 with a four-track all-English album Not Shy consisting of all their lead singles (“Dalla Dalla,” “ICY,” “Wannabe,” and “Not Shy”), out today (January 22).
It's 7 a.m. in New Jersey and 10 p.m. in South Korea when the quintet appears on Zoom. Sitting in the front row in full glam despite the late hour is Yeji, Lia, and Yuna; behind them sit Ryujin and Chaeryeong. Exchanging greetings and the customary “happy new year” in English, the group’s tone is energetic and bright.
“We’ve prepared them in English because all of our fans have given us so much love and support, so this is our way of repaying the love our Midzy have given us,” Itzy’s leader Yeji says with Lia and Yuna to her left. Pointing to the music video for “Not Shy,” the album’s lead single, Ryujin says, “This is actually us thanking our global Midzys and this is our way of growing closer to them, so that’s why we prepared this album.”
Considering the improvement in the members’ English in the lead-up to the album, Itzy’s entrance into the Western market was a consideration in its production. “We hope to, of course,” Itzy’s main vocalist Lia responds. “It’s not meant for that [entering the Western market], but if we get a chance for that, then we’d love to! We’ve always wanted to. Maybe once everything gets better?”
The English album follows the releases of fellow JYP labelmate Twice after releasing English singles of “More & More” and “I Can’t Stop Me” last year. Other acts who’ve gone through the Korean-to-English release trend in 2020 were Loona (“Star”), CLC (“Helicopter”), (G)I-DLE (“Oh My God”), and many more.
“I think many K-pop artists make English versions since English is a universal language,” Itzy’s sassy dancer Chaeryeong says. “As K-pop has more and more global fans, I think this trend will grow bigger.” The group’s bubbly youngest, Yuna, chimes in after, “Artists can have a new experience recording English versions, and fans can enjoy and understand the lyrics more too.”
British production duo LDN Noise, who helmed the group’s popular B-side “Surf” alongside some of K-pop’s top talents (Twice, SHINee, f(x), EXO), agrees to Itzy’s sentiments. “Any time K-pop can reach a new audience, it’s always a plus,” songwriter, producer, and DJ Greg Bonnick says. “Once your eyes are open to the K-pop world, people are super intrigued and hopefully here to stay as fans.”
While the trend is inevitable as K-pop grows as a global phenomenon, Isabel Chi, A&R and Management for One and Saint Leonard, reminds us that incorporating a line or two in English is nothing new in Korean music.
“The rise in popularity of full English versions of songs has to do with acceptance into mainstream Western media,” Chi says. “While K-pop fans and those already interested in alternative music have no problem listening to songs in Korean, I think that making songs only in English is an attempt to make the genre more palatable to the masses who need a segue into the genre. Songs in any language open up that market to the artist — Selena Gomez just released her first all-Spanish track, K-pop groups have regularly made all-Japanese albums — and I do think the main goal of labels is to tap into a yet-unreached market.”
But global recognition is more of a nice than a must for Itzy's future aspirations. “Since the U.S. has the biggest music scene, it’d be a great achievement to have many people know and listen to our music through our new English album,” Lia says. Rather than focus on future possibilities, the five members hope to make their story heard through their music — and by as many listeners as possible. “Our songs have messages of self-confidence, and we hope our English listeners will be able to hear it with our English songs,” Ryujin adds.
“The only thing that matters is the music feels and sounds great. We don’t need to conform,” Bonnick says.
One of the first Korean artists to promote during the pandemic last year, Itzy has successfully taken advantage of using their time at the dorms to not only create content but study, practice their language skills, and communicate with their fans. Yeji, who doesn’t deny feeling a little bit of pressure learning and performing in English, has tremendously improved alongside Ryujin, Chaeryeong, and Yuna, who aren’t native speakers.
“English is confidence,” Yeji says with a laugh, remembering a past relay interview where the group was asked to imitate the phrase “cuteness overload.” She adds, “It was tough, but it was also fun. I also took a lot of one-on-one and group lessons, and I had homework. I want to be able to speak to global Midzys in English. I try my best, but I’m not perfect!” Ryujin quickly swoops in to compliment Yeji: “She’s definitely become more confident now and she’s improved a lot.
Lia, the group’s native English speaker, talks proudly about how quickly her bandmates picked up on a new language, to the point that the group’s on and off-cam conversations are spoken in Konglish (a hybrid of Korean and English). “It’s become a sort of a bad habit,” she jokes as the group nods and giggles. “What I felt while living with the girls is that their English has improved a lot! The members try to speak English in the dorms and even while practicing.”
But when it comes to singing for this new album, there’s really no shift in the core messages of their sound. Chaeryeong, however, did notice a change in her tone. “In my case, my voice becomes deeper when I sing in English, so I try to keep my energy up,” she notes. Out of all the four tracks, she believes “Not Shy” sounds stronger in English, to which all members agree.
Just a couple of weeks shy of their second year together, Itzy has plenty of goals for their year ahead. Getting closer with each other is Ryujin’s, “revealing some new and professional vibes” for Yuna, and for Lia, to work harder. “We still have a lot to do,” Lia says. “I don’t know what’s waiting for us, but we’re excited for it. We’re scared, but whatever it is, I’m sure we’ll be able to go through it.”
Whatever the outcome, there is no denying Itzy have transcended their “monster rookie” moniker and become the “monster girl group” of South Korea — and soon, the world. (After all, they are Honorary Ambassadors of the Korean Tourism Organization.) Having seamlessly transformed into one of the nation’s top groups, the new album proves that music and success have no borders.
“[Success is] different for everyone, but personally, I think I achieved it,” Lia says with a sincere look on her face as her fellow members were in deep thought. “My standards aren’t that high, happiness and success isn’t something that should be high, so to be here with my members and all the fans that love us is already so much success and happiness.”
“I think that there’s no boundary in success," Yeji adds.“So whenever I try and achieve my goal, I feel successful every time.”