"New Jeans" review: NewJeans' instantaneous popularity

For some reason, recent K-pop girl groups have been able to gain almost instantaneous popularity, and the newest NewJeans is a prime example. They feel smooth and laid-back but upbeat, Gen Z and TikTok-inspired. As of now, they have 10 million monthly listeners on Spotify, and that's with just four songs released!

For those who are unfamiliar with the group, here's a quick glimpse at their popularity: They debuted on Aug. 1 this year, and by Aug. 18, they won first place on Mnet’s “M Countdown” for their song "Attention" over Girls' Generation “FOREVER 1.” (For reference, Girls' Generation was once a big name in the K-pop industry; They disbanded in 2017 but made a reappearance this year with "FOREVER 1.") Now, just two months after they've debuted, NewJeans has become the first fourth-generation group to surpass 10 million monthly listeners on Spotify. I must again emphasize that they've only released four songs so far.

The group seems like it was built for early success: Two of their members are former models, and one of them was an opera singer. Minji and Hanni were both featured in the BTS "Permission to Dance" music video, as NewJeans and BTS are both groups under entertainment company HYBE. Jessi, a popular solo K-pop artist known for her bluntness, has praised their success. Other big name K-pop stars have also dance-covered some of their most popular songs, "Hype Boy" and "Attention." Even the name NewJeans is a reference to how jeans never go out of style.

Like many others, I became a fan of their newest and first album, self-titled as "New Jeans," pretty quickly. For the record, I'm pretty limited in genre terminology, so this review is mostly vibes-based.

I am obsessed with their song "Attention," so I am a bit biased in this review. This song feels slick, cool, clean, and so groovy. For background, the song is basically about someone who has a crush on somebody and they want attention from them. I love the chorus so much. They sing, "You got me looking for attention," drawing out the "Attention" as the background music continues its chord progression, dancing between major and minor in a way that makes the chorus not feel repetitive despite being repeated like 10 times throughout the song. It makes me feel the way the end of a sunset feels, with the sky still slightly aglow, but the majority of buildings fading into pale blue shadows. It makes me feel both confident and curious, laid-back but with a want to try everything that the world has to offer. In this song, their vocals don't actually stand out that much, but the way they transition from the clarity of their lower vocals to the softness of their upper ranges complements the backtrack so well. Also, whenever Danielle and Hanni say "You give me butterflies, you know," my heart melts. It's such a cute lyric.

"Hype Boy" is probably the fastest and most upbeat song in the album. It's got a bit of electro and synths going on with a light beat that speeds up, especially in the beginning and the pre-chorus, then gives way to the vocals and chorus. This song definitely emphasizes their vocals more than "Attention," with more belting and brighter vocals. The song is about someone who is anxious for the person they like to call them back, and combined with the up-beat but slick music, it reminds me a lot of high school.

"Hurt" is a pretty cute song, soft with a little bit of lo-fi vibes. While not particularly standout in terms of vocals or music, it doesn't feel too derivative either. It feels more like a comfort song, like a warm blanket on a Sunday morning or a pillow to hug as you lie down and stare at the ceiling.

"Cookie" is an okay song. It's slow but upbeat, and in terms of background music, it feels very minimal, with little bits of synth and a clean, laid-back drum backing. The chorus is interesting, with the singers suspending the word "cookie" as the background music continues to play. Apparently, cookies in the song are a metaphor for NewJeans' music, about how once you "get a taste" of their music, you won't be able to resist "taking another bite."

Overall, I think their vocals are pretty good; soft, not really a traditional belting pop voice, a little bit of vocal fry. Their vocal immaturity does kind of shine through sometimes, with some unstable notes every once in a while. I'd be pretty interested in hearing how they do with louder songs, or just different types of songs in general.

Beyond their music though, they've gotten some interesting press and attention for how young they are. Their ages range from 14-18, and hence, people have expressed concern about middle-aged men attending their fan sign events. But honestly, 14-18 is actually not uncommon for the K-pop industry, as trainees tend to join entertainment companies pretty young, but not too common for a group this popular, as it usually takes a lot longer for younger groups to gain fame. I would agree that perhaps the members should avoid conducting fan sign events until all of them are above 18, but it's also a little weird that NewJeans specifically has been called out for being unusually young, and brings up suspicions about the demographics of fans.

In addition, their debut song was "Cookie," which some English viewers interpreted as slang for female genitalia, and also connecting it to some of the lyrics in the song. In response, NewJeans' label ADOR put out a statement on how they consulted a variety of professionals, found that any food they picked would have had a variety of interpretations, and also that the sexual interpretation of "cookie" was very uncommon. They believed that while some could interpret it as such, it was natural for different listeners to project their own expectations and cultural beliefs. ADOR elaborated in their pretty direct but kind of scathing statement: "If someone wants to stir up controversy, then, it isn’t any specific words that’s problematic but any words they choose to target at all. Importantly, words take on entirely different informal meanings in the context of different cultures, places, and at different times in history, so judging how suitable any one word is is ambiguous at best. [...] What we don’t condone, and what we regret to see, is those people who stir up controversy for its own sake but under the deceptive guise of protecting minors."

In any case, I find their popularity rightfully deserved, but I'm also genuinely surprised at how quickly they got popular. The speed of their popularity reminds me a lot of ITZY and Aespa, both of which gained popularity equivalent to older girl groups like Red Velvet despite debuting in 2019 and 2020 respectively. But even then, I don't think it was nearly as quick as NewJeans' popularity. Some of it probably does have to do with TikTok: K-pop groups recently have upped their TikTok game, with dance challenge after dance challenge after dance challenge. IVE's "Eleven" definitely took off on TikTok for their hand dance, as did ITZY's "Wannabe" for Ryujin's shoulder dance. Likewise, NewJeans' "Hype Boy" took off on TikTok for their dance challenge that requires two people, but when pulled off, the symmetry and asymmetry between the two dancers is so attention-grabbing and cool to watch.

I'll definitely continue to follow NewJeans as their music evolves and their group stabilizes a bit after the initial wave of controversy. I'm excited to see if they'll venture into new music styles and watch as they grow vocally and in stage presence as artists.