Hwang Ye Ji, Choi Ji Su, Shin Ryu Jin, Lee Chae Ryeong and Shin Yu Na. A quintet of women we know mononymously as Yeji, Lia, Ryujin, Chaeryeong, and Yuna, the K-pop queens that comprise the group ITZY. They just released their fifth extended play Checkmate this month, strengthening a solid discography that’s built up since they debuted in February 2019 under the banner of JYP Entertainment (JYPE), one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in South Korea, headquartered in Seoul.
Each of the girls became trainees – a term used to define individuals training to become K-pop idols – in unique ways. Yeji and Lia successfully auditioned for JYPE, training for three and two years respectively. Ryujin was scouted at a Got7 concert, proceeding to train for four years. Chaeryeong became a JYP trainee through a TV show audition called Kpop Star, proceeding to then train for six years. Call it fate, but all their divergent avenues eventually convened into one road. A slew of awards followed, and they became the first K-pop girl group to achieve the ‘rookie grand slam’ in 2019. That rare phenomenon happens when a group wins Rookie of the Year at five major award shows in – the MelOn Music Awards (MMA), Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA), Golden Disk Awards (GDA), GAON Chart Music Awards and Seoul Music Awards (SMA). It goes without saying that this is a competitive space to be in, given the worldwide appeal of the genre, but, three years into their careers with albums, EPs and singles that span Korean, Japanese and English and a global, devoted fanbase (Midzy) on their side, ITZY’s trajectory is skyrocketing.
Energy, as it turns out, is key. “I think we have these common words ‘young, energetic, confident’ that represent us even as our concepts change and vary with every era,” says Yeji, the leader of the group, who, at the age of 22, is a formidable performer. Concepts are important in the K-pop universe, functioning as themes that weave through all elements of a comeback or release. ITZY, right from the start, shot out of the cannon with their sound, choreography and fashion statements. Yet, with every passing era – the time period of the record’s release – they manage to tie all the diverse pieces at play into a palette that is instantly identifiable as ITZY, which isn’t an easy feat. “I think it’s possible because the members are able to digest everything well!” she adds. “ITZY is a team that is not afraid of various challenges, which makes us reach out to various tastes of people with our music and style.” Lia, the stunning main vocalist, who is also 22, reckons, “That quality, first, comes from our practice and our efforts, definitely. We discuss every process with our staff and with our members to make great work for every era.” She then muses, “Time flies and, as it flies, we became at least mid-professional K-pop idols. Also, I would say that we keep our healthy energy… the positive vibe as the first priority, which our fans love. I think the way we express feelings and emotions through songs has developed since we debuted. It has become deeper and our voice skills have gotten better, I think.”
Consider Dalla Dalla, their debut song, off their singles album, It’z Different, which was released a little over three years ago. Linking to the title of the record, the word ‘dalla’ means different in Korean, and they certainly were. The song was a fusion of EDM, hip-hop, electropop, and house but, more importantly, became an anthem for individuality, empowerment and self-confidence. Icy, the fiery title track off the first proper EP that followed – It’z Icy – took those fundamental aspects even further, adding undeniable glamour into the mix. All of this occurred in 2019 alone. As 2020 came by, so did COVID-19 and, right before it took root around the world, ITZY released their second EP, It’z Me, helmed by the epic Wannabe. Ryujin, the 21-year-old main rapper of the group, owned the legendary ‘shoulder dance’ that was the key dance move of the track, rolling ITZY right into their ‘girl crush’ era. ‘Girl crush’ in K-pop is a concept that defines women as powerful, fierce and confident. It doesn’t automatically mean sexy – it’s more of an aura of strength, independence and swagger. Ryujin, incidentally, is known to go the extra mile during stage performances, being the epitome of an all-rounder as a rapper, dancer and vocalist. She modestly says, “Besides the basic talents, there are many things that are needed,” when asked about how she constantly pushes the envelope. “That’s why I think I’ve tried to think about something new every time. I think it’s important to put effort into showing various charms.”
ITZY then found themselves, like the rest of the planet, grounded with the pandemic. People and industries were forced to pivot and navigate a changed world. It’s safe to say that music was an anchor for many, as the group not only maintained their relationship with their fanbase, but won over scores of new ‘Midzys’, uniting people across boundaries and geography through digital content and a global livestream. Chaeryeong, the artistic 21-year-old main dancer, reminisces, “I was really sad about the pandemic. Anyway, we tried hard to stay connected and always considered what Midzy would like. The way to manage uniting people across the world… Well, I think music was the thing that connected us and our fans even though we were in different places and spoke different languages. We tried hard to communicate through socials and private messages and learned other languages too!” This period had its challenges and triumphs, as Lia explains, “I guess one of the biggest difficulties of those days was to show something in front of people only through digital things. Music through files, dances through video, etc. However, the achievement is that we overcame this hard time, and we enjoy meeting our fans face to face so much now. The steadiness – we kept going on our way, practising and preparing our best – was the biggest thing we could do to overcome this situation.”
They soldiered on providing excellent EPs like Not Shy (August 2020), which explored themes of love. The eponymous title track fused pop-rock and hip-hop and was a rallying cry of solidarity. Self-love was a trait that emerged through this offering, and, given the situation of the world, it was a timely reminder. People often say that music reflects life and life reflects music. It begs the question: did these messages of strength and confidence affect them in their personal lives too? Yuna, the 18-year-old maknae (youngest) – she’s the lead dancer of the group with dazzling presence – thinks it did. “Yes, I think it reflects a lot. I think music reflects life in each moment! When I think that I’m making that kind of music, I feel that I need to have more responsibility and try harder to get into the message about the confidence in our song,” she discloses. While still a teenager, Yuna is a consummate professional, but is also – as fans well know – hilarious and a ball of light. The balance she very clearly manages to achieve is inspiring. “As my work gives inspiration to some people, I try to control my mind too,” she reveals. “As I tried hard not to let my fans get down, I think I had quite some pressure sometimes as well. Even I had a hard time… but I do know that I get love from so many people, so I try to keep a positive mind and try to have fun as much as I can when I can do my work. Their exceptional abilities and can-do spirit carried them through 2021 with more records – Guess Who (their fourth EP), and, by September, Crazy In Love, their first full-length album. Musically, this was such a diverse year with all sorts of genres threading through their tracks – from lo-fi to trap and everything in between. In The Morning from Guess Who was stage performance gold. Crazy In Love, with its 16 tracks, gave us Loco and Swipe – both Gen-Z canon. It hit number 11 on the US Billboard 200 and was certified 2× Platinum in February 2022 by the Korea Music Content Association. ITZY were stronger than ever, not just professionally, but also as a unit. Being with a group of people who know you inside out often helps you see yourself more clearly. They’re like mirrors to help you discover yourself on a deeper level.
Chaeryeong agrees, saying, “Their honest feedback holds me, giving me comfort and strength. It helps me to become a better person not only in skills but also as a human being.” Yeji, as leader, holds strong yet humble. “To be honest, I’m not a suitable nor a capable person as a best leader,” she avers. “However, I think I’ve learned a lot from having this role in a team. I actually get a lot of help from other members too. I think I got a stronger sense of knowing others’ preferences and thoughts and how to gather them.” It also helps that they know just how to alleviate the pressure through their packed schedules on those rare days off. “I usually watch content (dramas, movies, etc) on OTT, order delicious food from delivery apps, and also listen to songs that I like on that day,” says Ryujin, while Yuna adds, “I meet my family and friends to relax. Spending time with good music, good food and good places keeps me as who I am.” Girls after our own hearts!
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Cut to 2022, with Checkmate, their fifth EP with its liberating title song, Sneakers (which racked up over 7,20,000 in stock pre-orders). ITZY have such a strong voice throughout their discography. They’ve upheld the attributes of self-confidence and self-esteem, embodied girl (or teen) crush energy, and explored love, thematically. They’ve now arrived at what seems to be a sense of freedom. Yeji says, “We put various styles of songs that people would love into this album. There are many songs that you can choose to match with your style. We want to show that ITZY can freely take on various genres. At the same time, we also learned a lot about music while working on this album.” Of the larger trope, she adds, “We want to spread positive energy to make everyone feel good and want everyone to find their own freedom at the same time. I think enjoying freedom is also the same as being honest to your own feelings.” Chaeryeong contemplates her personal definition of freedom, stating, “I don’t think about something that has not happened and do whatever I want to do now. Freedom maybe equals happiness.” Sneakers is the vehicle that carries that message as the girls sing about being “on the way to the top!” It’s fun, it’s strong; as Ryujin puts it, “I think this song has a totally summer, bright vibe and the message is clear by itself – keep up to your highest and freest moment with your own sneakers on. Sneakers might be something that makes you feel free and confident. It might differ for everyone.” They each have their own favourites on the EP, with Chaeryeong revealing, “My favourite song is Domino. It’s a very touching song as it has a very emotional melody and lyrics. When I read over the lyrics, I get so touched. I like the part ‘I can hold it because of you’, because it means that we depend on each other, so we do not fall.” Yeji likes What I Want as “the melody sounds very trendy, and the rap part is so chic and charming.” She also provides some extra information: “To record Sneakers with the best and perfect sound, we re-recorded about four times!” It’s also brought us blonde, ’70s-style Yuna – the styling is impeccable. She laughs, saying, “It took a long time preparing this album! One TMI added here, red-brown colour was another option (for her hair).”
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The EP (according to Hanteo Chart) sold 472,394 copies in the first week of release, beating their previous week one sales record of 2,59,705 – that was for Crazy In Love – making this their personal best. And the good news keeps coming. They’re about to embark on their first world tour, which kicks off in Seoul over two nights – August 6 and 7. They’ll then head to America in October covering a series of cities. “Since the schedule is very tight, I’m a little worried,” admits Lia. “Frankly, I’m anxious because I think we are running out of time to prepare for the concert. We’re working hard and practising hard to show you a good impression! I want to make great memories as it is the first world tour that everyone has been waiting for. All cities are so precious to us as it’s been so long visiting abroad, so every minute will be the best for us.” ITZY has big dreams, as Yuna declares, “We are heading to a larger world, bigger goals. We are having our first world tour this year, and we are trying to make better and meaningful moments not only on charts but also in our individual growth too. Just to answer very directly, we are going to go meet Midzy around the world soon!”
They also have a message for their Indian fanbase with Lia summing up their feelings. “Thank you India Midzy, for your support. I hope we can have a chance to see you guys face to face. We’ve prepared our new album just for you guys, so please enjoy it and have a great summer with us! Love you!” Where else would we want to be, but by ITZY’s side?
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