The warehouse in Los Angeles is cold and drafty, transformed this November day into a photo-shoot dreamland for Jennie, Jisoo, Lisa, and Rosé, the four members of Blackpink. Cement floors sprout into a fairy-tale garden, and a glossy vintage station wagon is parked next to a man-made hill. For nearly 12 hours, the performers—some of the most popular women in the world—gamely hit their poses. In the evening, huddled up with fuzzy blankets over bare legs in front of a makeshift plywood backdrop, they seem less like superstars than best friends unwinding. “We put in a lot of work so we could look like superwomen,” says Jennie. “We’re very normal girls, at the end of the day.”
Normal as they may be, their 2022 has been anything but. They appeared at the VMAs in August, performing their hit single “Pink Venom,” and onstage during their latest blockbuster world tour, which kicked off in October and will hit 27 cities over nine months. Shows sold out in minutes and were attended by tens of thousands of fans, including celebrities like Selena Gomez and Usher. The foursome released its highly anticipated second studio album, Born Pink, in September, which notched a record as the best-selling album by a Korean girl group, with over 2 million album sales. It continues to dominate on YouTube, where Blackpink is the biggest musical act with over 83 million subscribers.
You don’t accomplish all that by being like other pop groups. Most have a limited life span: they age out, flame out, or see one member rise above. But Blackpink has managed to become the biggest girl group in the world precisely by allowing its members to be solo stars in their own right. The group may be bigger than the sum of its parts, but each of its parts is bigger than most other pop groups’ combined efforts. As the culture becomes more stratified—only a handful of musicians stand out, from Taylor Swift to Drake to, yes, BTS—Blackpink has managed to succeed by demanding our attention everywhere we have attention to give: not just in our headphones, but also in fashion and on screen. Still, in a pop landscape that’s not built for longevity, how do you maintain your spot at the top?
The members of Blackpink were recruited through an audition process by YG, one of the traditional “Big Three” K-pop labels in South Korea. During their five-plus years of training at the dormlike YG facilities in Seoul, the young women learned to dance, sing, and perform together, watching as other trainees failed to meet the company’s exacting standards. K-pop produces revenues upwards of $10 billion per year. Blackpink in particular is a serious engine in that market, especially for YG. There’s a lot of financial pressure riding on their continued success. But that doesn’t seem to faze them. “If we consider this in the business way, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” Jennie says. “We do it out of our heart.”
The varied international backgrounds of the members add to their global appeal. Jennie, 26, was born in Seoul but moved to New Zealand as a child. Rosé, 25, was born in Auckland and raised in Melbourne. Lisa, 25, is Thai and grew up in Thailand; she was the first nonethnically Korean trainee signed to YG’s label. Jisoo, 27, is from Gunpo, a small city in South Korea, and the only one of the four who has lived in the country all her life. “We’re all from different cultures,” Rosé says. Their differences, she says, are “only a plus,” especially in the studio.
When they officially debuted in 2016, it was as YG’s first girl group in seven years. To K-pop fans, this was a big deal: YG was known for creating stars, and Blackpink’s debut was widely anticipated. But the reception to their first singles, the dance-floor-ready, fast-paced “Whistle” and “Boombayah,” was tremendous. Blackpink has a specific brand of catchy, glittery, and bombastic hip-hop-tinged pop with high-impact aesthetics, often showing up in sparkly designer clothes; in their biggest hits, Jennie and Lisa rap while Rosé and Jisoo sing, each of them emanating a strong dose of cool-girl attitude. They quickly developed a loyal fandom, called Blinks, and a massive following on social media. They stood out to U.S. label Interscope, which partnered with YG in 2018 to manage Blackpink’s business outside Asia. Interscope CEO and chairman John Janick attributes their popularity to the “meticulous” approach they take to their music: “I think that really sets them apart.”
But the music alone does not account for Blackpink’s massive visibility, Janick says: “They’re all four stars in their own way.” For instance, Jennie’s early solo project “Solo” was an unflinching hip-hop banger, continuing to subvert expectations about what a female K-pop star could sound like. In 2023, the Chanel ambassador will appear in HBO’s The Idol, alongside the Weeknd. Lisa, who reps the luxury brand Celine, has released two solo songs that reflect her knack for hip-hop-influenced earworms. Jisoo made her acting debut on the drama Snowdrop, and with 66 million Instagram followers became the platform’s most-followed Korean actress. Rosé, whose 2021 singles “On the Ground” and “Gone” charted highly globally, made a splash at the Met Gala last year, in a dress by Saint Laurent, for whom she is a brand ambassador. All four have attended various Fashion Week shows this year: “Being able to go to Paris and see our fans in person for the first time since the pandemic—it was very memorable for me,” says Jisoo. (Influencer marketing platforms calculated that Jisoo topped celebrities like Kylie Jenner at the recent Paris shows, with an earned media value of over $22 million, boosting sales for her brand partner Dior by over $45 million.)
Side pursuits aren’t rare for K-pop groups—see the seven members of BTS now pursuing solo paths—but the scale of Blackpink’s successes, and the cohesion they maintain while regularly doing their own things, may very well be exceptional. As Minsuk Yang, chairman and CEO of YG, puts it, “Blackpink will continue to play its role as a trendsetting icon, not only in music, but also in beauty, fashion, and other industries.”
As the year closes, the group isn’t slowing down. It still has more than 20 dates on its tour with stops in from Berlin to Bangkok this winter alone. It’s an arduous undertaking, even for pros used to this kind of thing. When Blackpink first toured in the U.S. in 2019, the intensity of the calendar took its toll; in a hit Netflix documentary released in 2020, they can be seen struggling with the relentless schedule. This time they are better prepared. “Now we know how to take care of ourselves a little better,” says Jennie. “We try to be prepared in terms of our health and our mental health.” The pandemic not only offered a chance to rest and focus on solo projects, but also increased the fans’ desire to see them return to the stage. That excitement is clear in the euphoria of concert attendees who have waited years to see their favorites dance to “How You Like That” and “DDU-DU DDU-DU.” “Being able to come back with the team to tour and meet the fans worldwide has been a highlight,” Lisa says.
Despite all this pressure, their focus is laser sharp—and short-term. “My No. 1 rule is not to look ahead, and enjoy every day, because it gets too overwhelming once we start planning a year ahead, two years ahead,” says Jennie. Popularity is a tricky, fast-paced game. For Blackpink, the way forward is sticking together, allowing one another the space to grow—and keeping people guessing about what’s next. Their ambition may be limitless, but they need to pace themselves too: “I just want everyone in one piece,” says Jennie. Who are they, really? “Four rock stars,” Rosé says, succinct and to the point. “There we go,” says Jennie, as Rosé, Lisa, and Jisoo nod and laugh. “That’s our answer.” —With reporting by Solcyre Burga and Aria Chen
Set Design by Nicholas Des Jardins; Styling by Minhee Park; Hair by Seonyeong Lee; Make-up by Myungsun Lee; Production by 360PM