One of the most versatile idol groups of all time that opened doors for future South Korean acts in the western music industry, celebrates its 15 year anniversary today. Wonder Girls paved the way for many third and fourth-generation idol groups and yet their impact is often overlooked.
From the concept of 60s girl groups to 80s funk, Wonder Girls have earned the title of “South Korea’s Retro Queens” and rightfully so. The group’s versatility made them stand out throughout their career. Even with long hiatus periods, each comeback was met with great anticipation from fans.
For their 15th anniversary, we will take a look back on these living legends, their career and their lasting impact.
Park Jin-Young, professionally known as JYP, set out to form his first ever girl group in the early 2000s under his company JYP Entertainment. He announced the new girl group and their name in May 2006. The public got to know the new group through their pre-debut reality TV show MTV Wonder Girls.
The show consisted of 4 episodes and showcased each member’s talent through covers of popular songs like “Together Again” by Janet Jackson as well as original songs like “Irony.” This show created a buzz around the group and hype for their debut.
On Feb. 13, 2007, JYP Entertainment debuted a new girl group called “Wonder Girls.” The group debuted on MBC’s Show! Music Core with the single “Irony.” The debut lineup included Sunye, Sohee, Hyuna, Yeeun and Sunmi. Their hip-hop, RnB, and funk fusion gave them a competitive edge during the 2007 rookie year. The group gained attention from the start and announced their fanbase’s name, “Wonderfuls,” within their first year.
Sadly, the group’s original line-up quickly changed. Hyuna ended up leaving the group due to personal health issues she faced during that time. After Hyuna’s departure, Yubin was added to the group and Wonder Girls came back with their hit single “Tell Me.” Their first full-length album The Wonder Years was released soon after the single dropped. The group’s popularity continued to grow as they promoted vigorously in their first year. They ended the year on a high note winning Best New Female Group at MAMAs, Best New Artist at the Seoul Music Awards and Rookie Award at Melon Music Awards.
In 2008, Wonder Girls released two more hit singles “So Hot” and “Nobody.” Their single “Nobody” was number 1 on KBS Music Bank for four consecutive weeks. “Nobody” also won Best Song of the Year and Best Music Video of the Year at MAMAs. With such success within their first two years, anything seemed possible. JYP saw the group’s potential and wanted to take them to the next level. His daring idea was one that many entertainments dreamed of but very few dared to attempt. And what happened in 2009 has been pointed to by some critics as the reason why Wonder Girls are not bigger names in K-pop now.
On June 26, 2009, Wonder Girls released the English version of their 2008 hit “Nobody.” The 60s girl group theme reminiscent of iconic girl groups like The Ronettes and The Supremes resurged for the 2008 classic “Nobody.” Their nod to the past solidified them in both the South Korean and United States music industries. The English version of the single peaked at #76 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in Oct. 2009. This was more than enough to leave their mark in the K-pop industry but the group did not stop there.
For their American debut, they also toured with the Jonas Brothers, one of the biggest bands in the world at the time, as their opening acts. The world tour was documented on the reality TV show Welcome to Wonderland that aired on March 6, 2009, on M.net. Though their American debut is not viewed as a huge success through modern K-pop fans’ lenses, Wonder Girls opened the doors for future Hallyu generations to make waves in the western music industry.
In 2010 the group faced another line-up change. Member Sunmi decided to put her music career on pause to pursue higher education. While she was gone, Hyerim (Lim) was added to the group to fill her spot. Before Sunmi’s hiatus, the group had planned to release an English album but the idea was postponed and later scrapped.
Wonder Girls’ Worldwide Activities
Their plans for a solo North American tour were also scrapped during this time. To compensate for the career changes, the group toured with labelmates 2PM and 2AM and released their EP 2 Different Tears in Korean, English and Mandarin Chinese.
Wonder Girls came back the following year with their single “Be My Baby” and album Wonder World as they continued to promote on the international stage. “Be My Baby” won Song of the Year at the Gaon Chart Music Awards. Similar to “Nobody,” “Be My Baby” paid homage to 60s girl groups. This concept carried over to their 2012 TeenNick special where the members played themselves in a girl group battle.
Following the TeenNick special release, Wonder Girls released two more English singles “The DJ is Mine” and “Like Money” featuring Akon. While they were promoting in the states, they continued to promote in South Korea, releasing “Like This” that same year. The viral dance and flashmob concept present in the music video kept up with the trends at the time and further proved their versatility. “Like This” also won Song of the Year at the Gaon Chart Music Awards.
With tours, TV specials and albums released in multiple languages, 2012 was a busy year for Wonder Girls. In turn, 2013 ended up being a rocky year for the group. Member Sunye announced her departure from the group at the end of 2012. She also shared exciting news, Sunye was engaged and planned to get married in 2013. After her marriage and her first child, Sunye retired from the entertainment industry altogether. Sohee also left the group in 2013. Both Sunye and Sohee’s departure led to the end of U.S. promotions. And once the group performed at the 2013 Winter Special Olympics, they went on a three-year hiatus.
Source: JYP Entertainment
Getting the Band Back Together
During Wonder Girls’ long hiatus, Sunmi and Yeeun debuted as solo acts. Sunmi released her single “24 hours” in Aug. 2013 and Yeeun released “Ain’t Nobody” in July 2014 under the stage name HA:TFELT.
After a three-year hiatus, JYP announced Wonder Girls’ long-anticipated comeback. The teaser for the comeback was released in June of 2015. It showcased the members playing instruments, something very different from their previous concepts. Lim was on guitar, Yubin was on drums, Sunmi was on bass and Yeeun was on the keyboard. On August 2, 2015 Wonder Girls’ released their third and last studio album REBOOT with the single “I Feel You.” With the neon lights and synth-pop sound, the style was reminiscent of the 80s. This comeback took on a more sultry spin to their retro concept and was praised by fans and critics. The album ranked #1 on Billboard’s Top 10 Best K-pop Albums of 2015. The album was also deemed the fourth-best K-pop album of the 2010s by Billboard.
In 2016, Wonder Girls’ made their final promotional comeback with their song “Why So Lonely” and the B-side “To The Beautiful You.” The bright and colorful music video contrasted with the reggae-inspired sound and gloomy lyrics. As always, the group demonstrated their versatility and ability to experiment with different genres and themes. “Why So Lonely” won Song of the Year at the Gaon Chart Music Awards.
After 10 years of activity, Wonder Girls disbanded on Jan. 26, 2017. Members Yubin and Hyerim were the only two to renew their contract with JYP entertainment. The group released their final single for their 10th anniversary “Draw Me” on Feb. 10, 2017. Many fans were disappointed to hear the news, but considering how much they achieved during their career; it’s safe to say the Wonder Girls solidified themselves as living legends.
Source: JYP Entertainment
When K-pop fans and critics think of iconic girl groups, Wonder Girls are often overshadowed by big acts like Girls’ Generation and 2NE1 or they are left out of the conversation altogether. Many critics point to their risky ventures in the United States as to why the group wasn’t bigger during their active years. But it wasn’t for Wonder Girls, third and fourth-generation groups like BTS, BlackPink and EXO arguably wouldn’t have the international reach that they do now. Wonder Girls’ never played it safe because true legends never do. To pave the way for the next generation one has to be ready to take a leap of faith. So even though Wonder Girls may often be overlooked, the doors that they’ve opened and their versatility are components of their career that no one can forget.