I have seen the future and the future is BLACKPINK. Four Korean-adjacent young women singing songs about…well, I’m not really sure, but I assume all those same things that all pop songs are about, exacting complex group dance moves while dressed to the nines. They’ve sold…well, whatever constitutes a lot of record sales in this day and age but more importantly, their music videos have racked up over THREE BILLION VIEWS on YouTube. They are the most important female vocal group currently in existence and at the vanguard of K-pop, which may or may not be an actual thing according to their producer Teddy Park.
The new Netflix documentary BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky seems like it was begun before the group became famous, as if the filmmakers could see the future yet to come. We first see them at their initial press conference in 2016, their high heel shoes clacking across the stage as they stand in front of a bay of computers, like super heroines scientifically engineered for pop perfection (the computer bays are actually filled with music writers, who are usually the opposite of genetic or physical perfection). In actuality, filming started last year and continued through the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic, with Park and others appearing in masks. It all feels very current while still jumping backwards and forwards in time, examining the early lives of the group members before their ascent to the top of the global entertainment industry.
After meeting the girls in a limo ride to the recording studio, they sit down with Park to review their recent collaborative single with Lady Gaga, “Sour Candy,” which was released last spring. A veteran of the Korean music industry as a member of 1TYM, Park has overseen BLACKPINK’s career and says he wants to be “someone that I needed when I was young. I didn’t have someone that’s a little more outside looking in telling me where to go.” He’s dismissive of the “K-pop” label, saying, “We’re just Korean people trying to do music, so if Koreans makes music, it’s K-Pop?…why don’t they do that for every country?” He’s right by the way.
Park discusses the members of BLACKPINK’s different cultural backgrounds and personalities. Rosé grew up in Australia, the child of South Korean immigrants, and is the last to leave the studio. Jisoo is a “straight up Korean girl” and the oldest, with a “professional poker face.” Lisa from Thailand is “cool, calm,” but also has an “executioner killer instinct.” Jennie was born in South Korea but grew up in New Zealand and is “a perfectionist.” The girls themselves switch languages at dizzying speeds, Korean, English, Thai, like some more highly evolved human race.
When it’s time to tell their story in their own words, the women of BLACKPINK display a common grit and determination, though their backgrounds may differ. While barely in their teens, they left school and their families behind to learn how to become pop stars at YG Entertainment’s training facility in Seoul. They would study singing and dancing 14 hours a day and performed at the end of each month for producers and management. They were given grades of A, B and C. Girls who didn’t make the grade went home.
YG Entertainment started putting BLACKPINK together early as 2009, when they first started auditioning girls to follow up on the success of the group 2NE1. It would be seven years before the group was whittled down to Jisoo, Jennie, Lisa and Rosé and their first single was released. The girls talk about digging deep to find the resolve to survive training, not letting their trainers see how much it hurt and wanting to show them they couldn’t be broken. In the end, “The four of them just felt right,” says Park.
As far as I can tell, the girls still live together in the “BLACKPINK DORM”, a dystopian hi-rise where I want to believe they are the only inhabitants besides a small ferocious dog named Coco. Having conquered the world with pop music, including a paradigm shifting appearance at 2019’s Coachella Festival, the members of BLACKPINK try to relax by shopping for vintage clothing (which to them means from the early 1990s) and making sweet treats with varying degrees of success. But there’s little time for relaxation. Jisoo says the pressure to follow up each hit single with another hit single feels like “being chased.” Jennie talks about being tired all the time and says, “Sometimes when I look like I’m really tired and angry, that is my happy face.”
Directed by Caroline Suh (Salt Fat Acid Heat), Light Up The Sky is a fascinating look into the modern pop music industry and an entertaining portrait of a group who have struggled and sacrificed to earn their much deserved success. The world of the future already seems like a scary place so it only makes sense the pop stars of the future are survivors of a Hunger Games style musical competition who find joy in hardship. Their music means nothing to me, but that hardly matters. I am a man of the past. The members of BLACKPINK are unsentimental about the passing of time as well. As Lisa says at the film’s conclusion, “It doesn’t matter if we grow old and get replaced by a new younger generation as long as there is still someone talking about us.”
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.
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