Can Japanese Girl Group XG Make ‘X-Pop’ the Next K-Pop?
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Can Japanese Girl Group XG Make ‘X-Pop’ the Next K-Pop?

Earlier this year — on a warm day in May, Asian ­American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month — a septet of young women fought nerves backstage at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. Just over a year after its official debut, the group XG was in town for Head in the Clouds, a music festival celebrating Asian and Pacific Islander culture, creativity and art organized by record label 88rising. But the gig held broader significance: It was the act’s first international performance outside of Japan, and in New York, no less.

Despite its early-afternoon billing, the stadium was packed — and chanting, “XG! XG! XG!” — when the group took the stage in glitter-emblazoned suits. The warm welcome made it difficult to believe that this was XG’s first time in New York, and after kicking off the set with its debut track, “Tippy Toes,” the crowd’s chants reached a fever pitch as the members segued into their viral hit, “Left Right.” Fans and casual festivalgoers alike danced freely to the beat, some even singing along to the song’s catchy chorus.

Reflecting today on that Head in the Clouds performance and XG’s subsequent appearance at the festival’s Los Angeles iteration, the group — whose members range in age from 17 to 21 — exudes gratitude. “New York was our first international performance, and the ‘XG! XG!’ chants were really touching,” XG’s Cocona says. In Los Angeles, she says, she even saw some fans wearing makeup inspired by the music video for “GRL GVNG,” XG’s prerelease single from its debut mini-album, NEW DNA. “And it was just really, really cool to see all of that!”

Just six months prior, in November 2022, a set of cypher clips — or, in XG’s parlance, a “Galz Xypher” — had gone viral on social media. Taking turns, XG’s Cocona, Maya, Harvey and Jurin delivered crisp solo bars — effortlessly weaving among English, Japanese and Korean — over the instrumentals for J.I.D’s “Surround Sound”; Dreamville’s “Down Bad”; Ty Dolla $ign, Jack Harlow and 24kGoldn’s “I WON”; and Rosalía’s “SAOKO,” respectively. These pieces of content marked a turning point for XG, as new listeners outside of its core K-pop-adjacent fan base began to tune in. At press time, the cypher clips had amassed over 26 million YouTube views and over 16 million TikTok views.

Those four rappers, along with vocalists Juria, Chisa and Hinata, make up XG (short for Xtraordinary Girls). Though trained in K-pop’s sensibilities and practices, XG’s members are all Japanese, and their music, amalgamating R&B, hip-hop and dance, is sung entirely in English. The group is the first act on the label XGALX (its name plays on the XX chromosome pairing denoting female), a project of Tokyo-based entertainment conglomerate Avex, which has previously produced K-pop acts like BoA, TVXQ and BIGBANG. As Avex’s CEO, Katsumi Kuroiwa, told Billboard Japan in September, it launched XGALX in 2017 “with the aim of creating global hits” — and it hoped XG would be the “breakthrough artist” leading a long-term effort toward helping Japanese acts “thrive in the mainstream music world.” The septet was selected in 2017 out of 13,000 candidates, and it trained for five years before making its March 2022 debut.

On their first track, “Tippy Toes,” the girls declared, “Understand that we didn’t come to play.” In less than two years, XG has lived up to that claim, amassing over 637 million views on its YouTube channel; launching an official fan club, ALPHAZ; performing at the Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix following the aforementioned festivals; and releasing NEW DNA in September.

At first glance, XG has the hallmarks of a K-pop group: It was trained under the tenets of that genre’s system while also learning the language, its music videos are highly stylized and made with K-pop production teams, it has performed on Korean music programs like Mnet’s M Countdown, and its creative team includes artist-producers like Chancellor (who has featured on tracks by veteran Korean artists Epik High, BoA and Younha and has written for K-pop artist Kang Daniel). Yet XG classifies its music in an entirely new category that it says transcends current paradigms: X-pop.

“The letter ‘X’ is often used to show something special or unknown,” Jurin explains. And it’s true that XG challenges standards both lyrically and visually. For instance, on NEW DNA’s lead single, “Puppet Show,” the group takes on outdated gender norms, singing, “Imagine a world where we could play different roles, where girls be taking control.” The song’s video matches its message: In an icy, dystopian landscape, faceless, uniformed figures surround XG until the members take literal leaps of faith to dance and sing the chorus on a stage in the center of this alternate universe. Even the album title, NEW DNA, refers to how the members view themselves as a “new species free from all conventions and limitations,” as the group says on its website.

XG’s executive producer, Park “Simon” Junho (also known by his producer moniker, JAKOPS), has been with XG since its earliest stages — down to its selection process and training, as detailed in the group’s ongoing docuseries, Xtra Xtra, uploaded to its YouTube channel. As the Seattle-born son of a Japanese mother and Korean father, Simon grew up absorbing both of those cultures, and he later moved to Korea to train and debut as a K-pop artist. (He was a member of the group DMTN, which was active from 2009 to 2013.)

For XG’s training — which, he says, “was conducted in an unprecedented manner” — Simon fused his own background and artistic style with “the foundation of the Korean [music] that is proven through global success.” Together with XG’s producers, he worked to ensure no two songs on the six-track NEW DNA have the same genre classification. X-pop is the result.

“XG’s ambition is to show music and performances that are not limited to the musical characteristics of a certain country, but can be enjoyed by people from all over the world,” Simon says. (The group has 625 million on-demand official global streams, according to Luminate.) “Current K-pop celebrities are also making ceaseless efforts to transcend the initial ‘K,’ and as a result, they are gradually breaking down boundaries. This is why I call [XG’s music] ‘X-pop,’ in the sense that XG also wants to break down boundaries together and deliver a message that everyone can relate to through music.”

To build as global an audience as possible, XG’s team approached making music in ways that diverge from K-pop acts’ traditional methods. Many groups based in Asia start out performing music in their native language with the goal of first building a local fan base, only releasing English-language music later as part of an effort to expand globally. But XG has only released music in English, despite it not being the members’ first language. Even as they converse among themselves in our Zoom interview, they naturally speak to one another in Japanese. And as of September, Avex’s Kuroiwa said that roughly 30% of XG’s listeners were Japanese, with 20% in the United States and 50% in other countries — what he called “an ideal distribution.”

It’s a manifestation of an ongoing K-pop debate: Is the genre defined by its language or by its sensibilities and cultural resonance? What constitutes K-pop — singing in Korean or embodying the elements pioneered by the Korean music business while respecting the genre’s cultural origins? Does language choice matter, or is it simply a tool to expand and reach more fans as a greater cultural movement evolves?

Simon says that XG’s team is intentionally fusing multiple influences — while still honoring their origins. He says that XG and its producers “want to add new color and continue to play the role of unfolding a new world” while still “respecting the legacy of various senior musicians.” In an effort to write lyrics that use expressions “actually used in America,” he notes that the group collaborated with American lyricists and composers, even as it also paired with Korean photographer-director Cho Gi-Seok and Rigend Film to “create innovative visuals” — all part of its intent to “present a novel group that had never been seen before in K-pop, with new sounds, new member compositions and even new visuals.”

Such cross-continental musical collaborations are becoming increasingly common as music globalizes, making previously unthinkable partnerships possible. With X-pop, XG’s team has coined a phrase that reflects this rapidly rising transference of cultures among markets. Yet XG’s collaborations feel unique: not simply partnering for collaboration’s sake, but genuine and organic, drawing on the multicultural experiences of the executive helping to shape the act’s direction.

Simon points out that creating new things in any preexisting environment has its challenges. The notion of “newness” is, to him, not only about working with “talented people with diverse backgrounds, but also with new artists with unique and fresh ideas. ‘Newness’ often raises concerns simply because it is unfamiliar: ‘Will it fit us well? Will our fans like it?’ ” Yet he and XG’s team remain committed to exploring new directions as the group forges ahead. References to evolution are ever present in its visuals, whether in imagery resembling splitting cells or nods to the “X-GENE,” the title of one mini-album track.

When asked about what inspires this kind of creative output, XG shows deep curiosity about the spaces it physically occupies. “Inspiration can come from anything, however small,” Cocona says. “We really try to feel the present. There’s a lot that you can receive if you just have the right antenna pointing in the right direction.

“XG has this motto or slogan, ‘Enjoy the moment,’ and we try to cherish every single moment that we’re alive because there’s a lot of deeper meaning in everything that surrounds you,” she continues. “So I have this photograph folder and anything that gives me inspiration, I’ll save for later. I’ll open up my memo pad and write down words that come to me.” Recently, she recalls being particularly inspired by the Studio Ghibli animated film How Do You Live? (soon to be released in the United States as The Boy and the Heron).

“I watched it once with my family and then again about three days later with the girls and Simon-san. Each time I watched it, different scenes and lines really resonated with me.”

But ultimately, the members of XG are most inspired by one another and their shared dream. During our conversation, they encourage one another to take the mic, and that’s mirrored in how they approach their work. In fact, before they take the stage or ahead of important events, they shout the word hesonoo, which means “umbilical cord” in Japanese. According to Simon, they see themselves as seven members who share “united hearts and faith, as if they were connected by an umbilical cord.”

“What makes us extraordinary,” Jurin says, “is that I feel we are able to break free from all these norms and borders that tend to bind us. By that same token, there is a bond between us that transcends a lot of types of challenges, and it’s really amazing to have that.”

Cocona agrees. “Everyone is so genuine, it feels like we’re just being our true ‘animal’ selves,” she says. “We live life as it comes and follow our hearts. The moments where we have relaxed conversations with everyone and Simon are when I’m happiest. We always say, ‘Let’s definitely go to [outer] space someday!’ ” (Her groupmates nod agreeably to that ambition.) Harvey adds, “Everyone is just bursting with passion, and our love for each other is so strong! We make sure we communicate well and respect and understand each other, so this forms a really tight bond.”

As Hinata notes, they are motivated by their potential to “give people the courage to move forward,” crediting their ALPHAZ fan base as their main source of energy. “If I had to create a metaphor with this entire ecosystem as a body, [the ALPHAZ would] really be the heart, almost pumping oxygen throughout our whole body,” Jurin says. “The relationship between ALPHAZ and XG is really like family, like we’re coexisting, and whenever we decide that we want to take on some kind of new challenge, [they will be] the first ones to support us and back us up. They really understand us on a different level.”

A few days after NEW DNA arrives, the members reconnect to share early thoughts and reactions to its release. Two physical versions — an “X” version and a “G” version — came out with the same six tracks, a 78-page photo book, stickers and photo cards. “Our ALPHAZ got their hands on [the album] before we did. They said it wasn’t a ‘mini-album’ but a ‘mega-album,’ ” Chisa says with a laugh. “And when I actually held the album, I felt its weight and thought, ‘Yeah it’s not mini, it’s mega.’ ” Both Chisa and Juria say they’ve noticed fans engaging creatively with the photo cards, personalizing and decorating them with stickers, sharing them with one another online.

Though NEW DNA only has six tracks, XG captures a different theme in each of their music videos. In “GRL GVNG” (pronounced “girl gang”), the act performs in dark, moto-inspired clothing in a futuristic setting, whereas in “New Dance,” it wears bright, colorful clothing and dances against everyday scenery like a bowling alley, city alleyways and the beach. “It was so exciting to show a powerful version of ourselves, like in ‘GRL GVNG,’ and then switch to a new persona as in ‘New Dance,’ ” Juria says.

And with the album out and performances in New York, Los Angeles and Singapore under its belt, XG is preparing for yet another momentous event: an upcoming headlining performance at South by Southwest in Sydney. There, Jurin promises, fans can expect to find an even further evolved, “brand-new XG.”

“I don’t want to spoil anything,” Maya adds, “but my members and I are all thinking of something new and exciting for all of you. All I can say is that we want you all to look forward to what we’re preparing and hope you all are ready to have fun with us.”

Source : Billboard