The arena goes dark for a full 10 seconds. Then, pop! A neon-pink cube lights up a giant LED screen, and nearly 20,000 bodies rise, screaming, their hands clutching pink heart-shaped light sticks. A minute or so goes by, but it feels like 15. The glowing Rubik’s Cube–like block solves itself to spell out “Blackpink in your area.” Another 45 seconds pass. The Korean teen next to me starts crying and hugs the Puerto Rican woman to his left. Earlier I learned they’d met online, that the woman flew from San Juan specifically to be here, to see her group. Another woman behind me says that Lisa, Blackpink’s tall, glamorous rapper with blunt Cleopatra bangs, is her favorite. Finally, the K-pop quartet emerges from risers inside the stage floor, inciting a reaction as if four Taylor Swifts had materialized at once. In addition to Lisa (Lalisa Manobal), there’s fellow rapper Jennie Kim and singers Rosé and Jisoo (born Chae Young Park and Jisoo Kim, respectively). A stampede of girls rush the stairs to get closer to the pop stars, easily bypassing the mesmerized, or maybe confused, ushers.
It’s a “Beatles arrive in America” moment, if the Beatles had Instagram and landed at Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center in 2019. If this connection weren’t immediately obvious, it becomes so about five songs in, when Rosé steps forward and sings, “When I find myself in times of trouble....” Every teary-eyed face in the sold-out crowd knows that Blackpink is the biggest girl group on the planet, but that one was for the parents. Rosé wanted them to know, too.
In addition to the obvious Beatlemania comparisons, Blackpink’s clear-cut empowerment message places it within the lineage of great girl groups past. The Spice Girls come up a lot. Being compared to a group “whose contribution to pop culture and music was so intense and massive is an honor,” Rosé says. “But it was never like, ‘Let’s become this or them.’ ” Bekuh Boom, an L.A.-based songwriter and frequent Blackpink collaborator, agrees. “[Rosé, Jennie, Jisoo, and Lisa] are going to set the standard for the new girl group in America. We haven’t had anyone like them since Destiny’s Child. [Blackpink] is going to fill that void.”
Over a Zoom call with the group in mid-July, Rosé tells me that meeting face-to-face with their international fans during Blackpink’s inaugural world tour, which ran from November 2018 through February of this year, felt “real and genuine, not like we were watching it on a screen or getting feedback on Instagram—it was literally right in front of our eyes.” Jennie jumps in to add, “We felt the energy, and that’s the best feeling.”
Talking about concerts with anyone at a time like this feels bittersweet, but with Blackpink, there’s an added pang. Its fans (aka Blinks) don’t know it yet, but in two weeks’ time the group’s management (YG Entertainment) and U.S. label (Interscope Records) will announce October 2 as the release date for THE ALBUM, the group’s debut full-length studio album. (In case you’re unaware of just how highly anticipated this release is, let it be known that fans once rented a video billboard truck blaring “Blinks Demand for Blackpink” in both English and Korean and had it circle YG’s Seoul headquarters.) The bitter part: It could be several months before it will be safe for the group to tour again due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The band may have taken its time to release a full-length album, but that hasn’t affected its meteoric rise. Since debuting in Seoul in 2016, they’ve amassed billions of streams on Spotify, despite having only 15 songs (including “SOLO” by Jennie) to their name. Granted, every song has been an instant hit—engineered to be sung along to regardless of language, and supplemented by videos conjuring hyperfeminine bubblegum-pop utopias, cut with a dash of hip-hop swagger. The video for “How You Like That,” a trap-pop track that serves as the group’s “comeback” single (a colloquial term in K-pop referring to a new release), broke three Guinness World Records after receiving 86.3 million views in a 24-hour period back in June. On YouTube, Blackpink is the most subscribed-to music group across genre and gender, with 44.3 million followers as of this writing—surpassing Ariana Grande and the mega-popular K-pop boy band BTS.
In addition to selling out arenas, collaborating with superstars like Lady Gaga (“Sour Candy”), Dua Lipa (“Kiss and Make Up”), and Selena Gomez (“Ice Cream”), and serving as brand ambassadors for the likes of Celine, Chanel, Dior, and Saint Laurent, Blackpink was the first K-pop girl group to grace the Coachella stage last year, where the band shared a tent with Jaden Smith. “Will Smith was backstage,” Jennie says. “He said, ‘You guys are so great.’ That was a starstruck moment for me, definitely. Like, Will Smith knows us. Wow.” The group’s Coachella performance also serves as the dramatic finale to a new Netflix documentary, Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, directed by Caroline Suh (Salt Fat Acid Heat), launching October 14.
Blackpink is a contradiction, to be sure, a global pop phenomenon without household-name recognition (yet), the future in the present. The group thrives in a digital world and an American market that’s grown less hesitant to embrace non-English singles—the same shift that has benefited artists like Rosalía and Burna Boy. This is partly because K-pop fans, in general, are a highly coordinated, digital-native lot. Some might recall how they mobilized alongside TikTok teens this past summer, claiming to have registered for tickets to President Trump’s Tulsa rally (and then not showing up). Blackpink’s fans are equally zealous. Within seconds, Blinks can make their favorite group trend worldwide—or turn an image of Lisa dancing in thigh-high boots into a “sexy legs” meme. “We’re moved by our fans,” Jisoo says. “We feel their sadness and happiness. We’re deeply connected.” If there was ever a pop group primed to break out when all of our social interactions happen via screen, it’s Blackpink.
It’s 4:30 a.m. Seoul time when Jennie, Rosé, Lisa, and Jisoo accept my Zoom call from New York City. They’re around 7,000 miles away as the crow flies, a full day in the future, as a laptop’s camera focuses in on their heavy-eyed and completely unblemished faces. A cadre of employees from the group’s management team and a translator linger, just out of view. Jennie tilts her head toward the ceiling and attempts to remove a contact lens. She apologizes, but it’s a completely forgivable offense. After all, this is the group’s first “break” since wrapping the photo shoot for this magazine’s cover. “These days, we have no boundaries when it comes to work,” Jennie explains. “Even on our days off, we’re basically at the studio recording.” Rosé laughs while tucking a loose strand of iridescent pinkish-lavender hair behind her ear, then adds: “Life is work, and work is life!”
While the 24/7 lifestyle of a K-pop star would seem daunting to most, to the members of Blackpink, who range in age from 23 to 25, this is just a normal Monday—or, rather, Tuesday. Well, technically, it’s both. They started the workday over 10 hours ago, getting glammed up in a studio in Seoul’s Gangnam District, the same neighborhood immortalized by another South Korean artist, Psy, in his 2012 viral hit “Gangnam Style.” That song marked the moment Korean idol music, or K-pop—the modern-day Motown, full of bright melodies and immaculate choreography—entered mainstream American consciousness. Around the same time, further up the Han River, Blackpink was one year into its existence, and four years away from its public debut.
Like most K-pop idol groups, Blackpink was formed via an intricate process at a pop-star boot camp. Each member had to pass an audition with YG, move into a dorm, and train for four to six years, beating out other girls with the same ambition before getting selected for a new group that placed equal importance on flawless appearance, skill, and charisma. (Think Making the Band, only cutthroat.) “We all lived together since the beginning,” Jennie says. “After our training time was over, we’d go home together and order food, talk about how scary the teachers were, how the work was too much. And just like how kids at school become friends, we just got along. It was very easy—we didn’t really have to try.”
Jennie, who studied in New Zealand before returning to her native South Korea, was Blackpink’s original member. “I was the first one on the team, and I got to watch everybody come in,” she recalls. Lisa from Thailand was next—YG’s first non-Korean idol. “She was just this young, tall girl with a perfect body.... She started dancing like a robot—she memorized everything in seconds,” Jennie says. Lisa adds: “My mother says I was always dancing and singing as a child, [pretending] to hold a microphone.” K-drama actress Jisoo, the group’s oldest member, followed. “She came in, eager to learn everything and catch up to everybody, which was really motivating for me as well,” Jennie says. And Rosé “gave us the meaning of what music was supposed to do.” Rosé had grown up in Australia, the group’s indie girl with a guitar. “I was born and raised in an English-speaking country, so [Jennie] helped me out with the cultural differences,” Rosé says. “I had never danced in my life.”
Bekuh Boom has been working with the group since the beginning. Alongside Korean American producer Teddy Park, she’s credited on tracks like the group’s debut single, “Boombayah,” and “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du.” For the former, Boom recalls receiving the track and title from Park before starting to work on the lyrics. She’d assumed the title was a play on “Kumbaya”—“so instead of holding hands, it’s like, ‘F--- you!’” she says with a laugh. “But it was actually supposed to be pronounced boom-bye-yay, so I accidentally created a word.” While it’s not always easy writing songs for a multicultural audience, Boom finds it incredibly rewarding. “I think what I love most about Blackpink is that they represent this unity between women—how all of us can be different but still get along and bring something powerful to the table,” she says. “Their music speaks to so many different people from so many different walks of life. I’m just really grateful to be a part of that.”
While Blackpink remains largely apolitical in conversation, Rosé is quick to celebrate the group’s global diversity—something few K-pop groups can claim: “Music [doesn’t] always originate from the UK or the States. It’s global, it’s Asia, it’s the most random places you can imagine. I’m very proud that we all originated from different parts of the world.”
It’s now 5:30 a.m., and on my screen, Jennie, Rosé, Lisa, and Jisoo are snuggled beneath a geometric blanket on an abalone-gray couch. Jennie’s wearing a preppy ribbed white baby tee with a trendy lettuce hem and a matching lightweight cardigan. To her left, Rosé’s icy locks contrast with her Siouxsie and the Banshees/Bauhaus goth tee. Next to her, Lisa’s in an oversize shirt, promoting the L.A. pop-rock band LANY. (The groups met when Blackpink played a sold-out show at the Forum in Los Angeles last year.) Jisoo is wearing a dark hunter green shirt tucked into khakis with a wide grommet belt. “Fashion definitely empowers us as much as music does,” Jennie says. “Music and fashion—” “Cannot be separated,” Rosé finishes the thought.
In the beginning, the members of Blackpink attended runway shows together, but now they go solo for the designers that best reflect their personal style. The scene is always the same: cheerful chaos. When Jennie stepped out of a black car during Paris Fashion Week to see Virginie Viard’s summer 2020 Chanel collection, fans let out frenzied cries from behind the barricades as photographers turned their lenses toward the source of such fanaticism. With her classic beauty and affinity for timeless silhouettes, Jennie has come to be affectionately referred to as “Human Chanel” by fans. Lisa’s appearance at the Celine show inspired similar devotion. Within minutes of Hedi Slimane’s spring 2020 men’s presentation, the hashtag #LALISAxCelinePFW was trending. Jisoo, meanwhile, has served as the Dior fashion and beauty ambassador for Korea, and Rosé was recently named the global face of Saint Laurent for fall 2020. The campaign announcement featured Rosé air-guitaring in a moody black-and-white video with a postpunk edge. “Rosé is trustworthy and meaningful on various subjects, beyond her image,” says the brand’s creative director, Anthony Vaccarello. “She is always giving people something different and unexpected, because she goes her own way, fully in control of her never-obvious choices.”
Music and fashion are further entwined in the group’s own saturated visuals. Lisa descends the steps of an Egyptian tomb in a floor-length sequined Celine gown at the start of the video for “How You Like That.” Straight to camera, she intones the group’s now-iconic battle cry, “Blackpink in your area!” Jennie elaborates on the phrase, which holds new meaning today: “When we say ‘Blackpink in your area,’ we’re literally saying we’re in your area with good music, with good energy—we’re here for you.”
Hair by Seonyeong Lee at Garten; makeup by Myungsun Lee at Woosun; manicure by Eunkyung Park at Unistella; set design by Seo Yun Choi at Darak; production by Lee Kyung Kim at BL Creative House; on-set coordinator: Hee Young Park.
This story appears in the October 2020 issue of ELLE.
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