K-pop often appears to be thriving in the UK: prior to their hiatus, BTS had back-to-back No 1 albums and acts such as boyband Ateez fill arenas, while girl group Blackpink are gearing up to headline a vast outdoor show in Hyde Park this summer. But the reality is hit K-pop songs are rare here, seldom breaking the singles chart – which makes the current Top 20 success of Fifty Fifty all the more unusual.
With their song Cupid set to climb from No 18 to break the Top 10 this week, the quartet are only the second K-pop girl group after Blackpink to break into the Top 40, despite debuting just six months ago. Cupid eschews the genre-clashing chaos of many K-pop hits to focus on a nostalgic sound – sweet but sardonic pop reminiscent of hits by Ariana Grande and Doja Cat, buoyed by the band’s harmonies, a rap by member Keena and, naturally, a massive key change. “Being in a K-pop group with a K-pop song charting in the UK charts is very hard, that’s what we’ve heard,” says Fifty Fifty member Aran. “So it’s a great honour for us.”
The song’s success represents an interesting clash between virality, the extreme planning typical of the K-pop industry, and domestic and international fanbases.
The quartet – Keena, Aran, Sio and Saena, all aged 18 to 20 – launched in November 2022 with the single Higher, but they represent years of planning by their entertainment agency, Attrakt: a David to the Goliaths of K-pop’s “big four”, YG Entertainment, Hybe Corporation (home to BTS), JYP Entertainment, and SM Entertainment.
Fifty Fifty are Attrakt’s only group – and the concept (and its potential for commercial partnerships) predated the girls’ hot-house training prior to launch. “We devoted two years to fostering distinct qualities for each member and handpicking songs that accentuated their strengths, which they had cultivated through tailored programs,” says Siahn, co-CEO of Attrakt, who produced Cupid.
As well as domestic success, “we also had our sights set on the global market and its vast audience,” says Siahn. Seeking wider fame may seem like a no-brainer for any pop act, but breaking internationally is a relatively novel strategy for South Korean pop, but a logical one given that an estimated 90% of K-pop is consumed outside the country. New girl group NewJeans have won global acclaim, and in January, Hybe and the US label Geffen Records auditioned teenage girls in the US, the UK and Australia, as part of a plan to launch a global girl group.
The UK, however – often resistant to foreign-language pop – has remained relatively impenetrable. It was a challenge Attrakt embraced, says Siahn, which specifically targeted a general audience beyond K-pop fans. “Breaking out of the genre was the linchpin of our planning process.”
The original version of Cupid is sung in Korean, but Fifty Fifty recorded a “twin version” partially sung in English, with the chorus “I gave a second chance to Cupid / But now I’m left here feeling stupid”, to reach a wider audience. Attrakt then attempted to “pinpoint the ‘fatigue points’ of the music industry” – ie mass-produced performances and songs adhering to the same structure – and overcome them. “In the current K-pop landscape, many companies place greater emphasis on outward appearance, including aesthetics, performance and visuals, than on the music itself,” says Siahn. “Music often takes a lower priority than these other factors.”
Nevertheless, a TikTok dance challenge led by the group proved crucial to Cupid’s success: its popularity on the app has since placed the user-generated sped-up version of the song at 26 on the TikTok UK Hot 50, with the Twin Version at 26 on its UK viral chart.
K-pop fandoms have often debated the importance of chart placings to their favourite groups given that they can be sustained on the support of loyal fanbases willing to spend on lucrative concert tickets, physical product and merchandising. There is also debate about whether the K-pop industry is forsaking loyal domestic fans in favour of reaching a wider audience at any cost, as the New York Times recently reported. A recent corporate takeover of SM Entertainment by Kakao Corp after a bidding war with Hybe left some Korean fans fearing the implications for the music, in addition to what it means for them when the sound of K-pop is being smoothed out to reach international audiences. A recent solo single by BTS member Jimin debuted at No 1 in the US Billboard Hot 100 – only the 66th song ever to do so, and the first by a South Korean artist.
Cupid also broke the US Billboard Hot 100 and is currently one of the daily five most-streamed songs globally on Spotify. Last week it was announced that Fifty Fifty have partnered with Warner Records. For the band, the song’s success promises to bring more autonomy and resources. “It’s just opened the door for us,” says singer Aran, as her bandmates add that they hope to learn guitar, drums and beat-making and explore rock and hip-hop.
But Siahn is cautious, admitting the unexpected early success has added some pressure to deviate from Attrakt’s careful planning. “Although our team is grateful for the immense love from fans and listeners worldwide, we’re still working towards achieving the goals we strategically set. We’re also experiencing significant pressure to maintain the hype, so it’s too early to deem our efforts a success.”
Aran, however, isn’t overthinking Cupid’s moment in the sun. “It’s a good song,” she says. “I think that’s the basis of what makes it so special.”