Words & Interview by Robert Michael Poole.
Every so often, a vibrant new city emerges on the world scene, stepping out from its history to modernize with entrepreneurial optimism and financial clout. When that coincides with a cultural rebirth that sets it on the cutting-edge of the world’s trends, the city swirls in its own perfect storm. Think London’s Swinging Sixties, New York’s Yuppie Eighties or Bubble-era Tokyo.
The rise of Seoul, capital of South Korea, via electronic giants LG, Hynix and Samsung to automobile makers Hyundai, Kia and Daewoo, has even led to a whole new flashy district south of Seoul’s Han River – Gangnam (river south). A hub for emerging arts, fashion and music, it’s the birthplace of the Korean wave, a cultural tide of TV dramas, films and music that has swamped Asia and is now making a splash on western shores.
And like any cultural phenomenon, at the wave’s crest rides a figurehead — in Korea’s case, a singer, rapper, designer, model and controversial K-Pop princess. “I prefer ‘style icon’” says the mild-mannered HyunA at her studios in the affluent Cheongdam district. “And I hope one that will be long-loved.”
For most international observers, HyunA first emerged as Psy’s crush in “Gangnam Style,” the bright and bouncy subway train girl who leaves his wannabe rich guy smitten. Already a K-Pop leading light, she was Psy’s first and only choice. “I was honored he choose me,” she says, before clarifying a common misinterpretation of the video—“‘Gangnam Style’s’” focus was on the people, not the place, and it had to highlight Gangnam’s versatility in fashion and culture. Many parodies entitled ‘XX-style’ came out after the video’s release, showing that K-Pop’s fresh attitude resonates worldwide.”
HyunA began her career at age 14, as part of the girl-group, Wonder Girls. The pure-pop quintet were one of the first K-Pop acts to venture to the States in 2009, touring with the Jonas Brothers and scoring the first placement ever by a Korean act on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Nobody.” Her parents’ concerns over her health meant she left the group before their international ventures though, taking time out before returning with electro-pop unit 4Minute.
4Minute’s hit songs “Muzik” and “Hot Issue” laid the ground-work for some of K-Pop’s more edgy and street-wise acts. “4Minute style is charismatic and powerful, especially on stage,” says HyunA, whose fellow members each have their own particular talents that combine to make a formidable five-some.
Eldest member and leader Ji-hyun, 22, is the group’s lead actress having starred in TV drama A Thousand Kisses as well as presenting the Top-Gear-esque, She and Car. Ji-yoon is a star of the stage set to play Bok-Hee, a ballerina who gives up on her dream due to injury, in the musical My Love With in Seoul starting this December. Ga-yoon, often dubbed the ‘Gangnam Lady’ for her high-class fashion, is the invited fashion editor for Korean girls magazine Ceci and at 18, So-hyun remains a student.
Combined, all the girls are active contributors to the music-making process, with a new album planned for 2013. “We all chip-in with ideas and suggestions when it comes to production, including writing the raps and lyrics,” says HyunA. “I just began writing lyrics myself and I am really enjoy the process.”
HyunA has made most waves though through her often raunchy solo career. Describing herself as a “performance artist,” she released the sexually provocative video to “Change” in 2010, at age just 17. She says innocently, “Even from the initial production stage, I do not think of controversy… is it really raunchy?” And continues, “People have different ideas and perceptions, but I don’t want to stop my vision because of controversies that may arise.”
Her follow-up, the infectious “Bubble Pop,” introduced her to a new audience in 2011 when it was recognized by SPIN as one of its Best Songs of 2011. “I am grateful for all the attention from the international media, and whenever I hear such news it only solidifies my sense of responsibility to do better,” says HyunA.
She also revealed her tattoo for the song’s promotion, another sign that amongst the legions of picture-perfect girl groups, HyunA exudes an individuality and confidence that allows her to stand out amongst the crowd. “It says, ‘my mother is the heart that keeps me alive,’” she explains. “It is like a magic spell for me.”
New song “Ice-cream,” with a video featuring Psy stealthily invading HyunA’s Ice-cream van— plus some rather sexy moments in bubble bath foam —presents a HyunA growing in confidence. “This track and performance aims to show various sides of me,” she says. “The HyunA that people expect, and a new fun and bright side of me.”
Her bright side can also be found in her own fashion brand, Hyuna x SPICYCOLOR, described as ‘retro, chic and sexy.’ “K-Pop is not limited to songs and stage performances, but it has become a more broad term that includes other elements such as fashion and culture,” says HyunA, who also expresses her delight that some K-Pop fans are even learning the Korean language to help them to understand her performance better.
And while she has yet to follow Psy’s lead in promoting worldwide, she has time on her side. Hiding none of her ambition, she proclaims; “I want to do more internationally, most definitely. I do not want to rush it, but I would love to show the real side of HyunA to everyone.”