momoland is smashing k-pop's 'factory girl' stereotype

The South Korean girl group was created on reality TV, but MOMOLAND might be K-pop's realest (and funniest) act.

by Jeff Benjamin
Aug 20 2018, 6:24pm

In 2012, The New Yorker's John Seabrook wrote a now-infamous piece among K-pop fans titled "Factory Girls" where he equated the life of a Korean pop star to those of assembly-line, dancing and singing drones. Six years later, the music scene has grown immensely in its fandom and visibility across the world, but still gets unfairly docked by critics for being overly manufactured and controlling. Particularly as K-pop reaches new heights in America — with BTS earning a No. 1 album and GOT7 booking stadiums that have never hosted K-pop groups — the authentic, Internet-driven rise of MOMOLAND becomes all the more important.

Created on South Korea's 2016 singing competition Finding Momoland, the girls struggled in their early years to garner interest in their home country of South Korea, much less the international attention found by their peers. Yet in a moment that can only happen in today's bizarre, online world, MOMOLAND found its big break when a recording of member JooE dancing ballistically during a live performance went viral. Fans discovered the young singer's love of rocking out, creating memes of the 18-year-old dancing to everything from their favorite K-pop songs to the Spongebob theme. JooE scored her own endorsement deal to tirelessly twirl and sip Tropicana drinks, and all of which helped color the group's January single "Bboom Bboom."

From pure and innocent to sexy and fierce, the "concept" of any K-pop release is a heavily coordinated and well-thought-out plan, so that the group can successfully create its own visual and musical world with one music release. While JooE and band mates Hyebin, Yeonwoo, Jane, Taeha, Nayun, Daisy, Ahin, and Nancy wear coordinating tutus, the concept of "Bboom Bboom" seems to focus on the girls just having fun. The live performance of the electro-swing track saw the ninesome encouraging the audience to shout their latest album title Great! at every dance break, had JooE grabbing the spotlight with her OTT moves, brought back dabbing, and generally saw these polished K-pop stars letting loose in a way not commonly seen.

Backstage at KCON 2018 Los Angeles, the annual K-pop convention and festival that attracted more than 94,000 fans last weekend, MOMOLAND proved its antics are no farce. The girls laughed and hugged one another with blankets, JooE doing a tiny dance jig and making an adorable "eye smile" at reporters. It made MOMOLAND one of KCON's best-received performers for the weekend, with the SoCal crowd erupting into cheers when JooE got her chance to let loose during their closing rendition of "Bboom Bboom." It may be moments like these that help change K-pop's too-buttoned-up perception in the West.

Ahead of their first U.S. performance, the members of MOMOLAND open up about having a "more authentic image," their fans around the world, and what’s coming next.

Welcome to Los Angeles, MOMOLAND! What's going through your head right as you get ready to play a huge stage like the Staples Center?
Daisy: We never imagined we'd make it this far. We're here in LA, playing the Staples Center, it's a big venue, we're really nervous, but we're really, really excited — mostly excited. It's just so big for us! [Laughs]

Ahin: It's a dream come true.

Nancy, you grew up in Ohio. As a fellow Midwest kid, sometimes places like LA can feel so far away. What's going through your head?
Nancy: Actually at first, I only dreamed of performing in my hometown. My dad is in Ohio right now and I call him every single day so I think about Ohio a lot. But the U.S. really is so huge and even if Los Angeles seems far away, I'm so happy we can all be here together.

JooE, you got attention for the wild dancing that led to an endorsement deal with Tropicana and seemed to pave the way for you guys to let loose a bit more in your future music. Were you expecting that kind of reaction?
JooE: Honestly, I didn't know that I would receive so much love for doing something that I like. But the fact that people are able to enjoy something as I was enjoying myself, that gave me a lot of strength and support in that way. So, I actually want to say thank you.

Does she dance all the time like that?
Daisy: It's a regular thing . [Group laughs]

It's something somewhat atypical in the K-pop scene, which is more formal. Do you think showing these sides have helped you break out in the scene?
Daisy: We do think we're more approachable and have a more authentic image. We don't really come off as [people who are] hard to talk to. We're just the same in the front of the camera as we are behind — we're just ourselves. It's honestly easier for us to just be ourselves rather than create an entire image for ourselves. I do think that's why we're getting the love that we're getting.

You're holding some of your first concerts in Latin America, which I feel like Is a result of fan covers and excitement over songs like "Bboom Bboom" and "Baam" around the world. Have you noticed anything in particular?
Nancy: It's kind of hard to notice reactions from around the world. We're always together working, it seems like we're always inside, we don't get to go out and see reactions in the real world. But when we hear about it or people tell us about these kind-of viral reactions, we find it really fascinating even if it's pretty new for us.

Hyebin: We actually look up a lot of cover videos online. There are a lot of people we see following the entire concept — they wear the clothes, they do the makeup, it's actually very much the same to what we're doing. On the flip side, there's also videos and people who will actually put their own twist and concept on our songs so watching that has been quite new. There are a lot of groups that get crazy like us. [Laughs]

Daisy: We see the YouTube comments or tweets, people say, "Come to our country!" or "We want to see you guys!" so it's cool to see people from all around the world want to see us perform and meet us. We really want to meet them too. So we're really happy about going to Latin America and maybe some other places in the future? Well, we hope… [Laughs]

The K-pop industry is known for being tough, you must be very busy these days. How do you stay level-headed?
Ahin: I think us being together is what makes us strong and what makes us always happy. That's how we have fun, being together. Talking to other members is its of way of self-care because we don't really have time to meet up with other people, we just have to enjoy the present together. By talking together, we're each other's support systems.

What else is coming from MOMOLAND this year?
Taeha: We don't have any concrete plans on future music or new albums just yet, but we are planning to meet fans all around the world. At the end of the year, we are expecting to make even more appearances so, as a hint, we want to tell fans to have high expectations for us.

South Korea