Blackpink, Lady Gaga, and the importance (or not) of Western collabs in K-pop

We are exactly two weeks away from the release of Lady Gaga‘s sixth studio album, Chromatica, and with that the first new Blackpink song in over a year, Sour Candy. Sour Candy is next in a list of collaborations between western acts and K-pop groups. The discourse around these sorts of collabs is often mixed, so I wanted to take a deeper look into them, their pros and their cons.

Blackpink aren’t the first K-pop group to feature on a western act’s song. The Lady Gaga collaboration isn’t even their first time doing it, as they featured on Dua Lipa‘s Kiss and Make Up in 2018. Dua Lipa has also featured Mamamoo’s Hwasa on a Physical remix. There’s also Red Velvet featuring on a version of Ellie Goulding‘s Close To Me, as well as other collaborations.

Then there are K-pop acts that have featured western acts on tracks of their own – like BTS with Halsey in Boy With Luv and Nicki Minaj in Idol, to name just two.

In my mind, the above examples give three different types of collaborations and each have their own pros and cons.

BTS featuring popular western acts on their own songs is a very clever move that almost guarantees some interest overseas from non-K-pop fans. The reality of the situation is the likes of BTS and Blackpink should be recognised as huge pop groups in the west without having to collaborate with acts that are household names over here. But sadly that doesn’t happen too often.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Boy With Luv featuring Halsey has more than 443million streams on Spotify, compared to 120m for Black Swan. Of course, this could just be BTS fans trying to break streaming records as is often what happens when K-pop acts release new music. But there is still a huge jump between 120m and 443m – and one has a western act on it and the other doesn’t. What’s funny though, is if you listened to Boy With Luv and didn’t know who sung it, you’d be forgiven for not even realising Halsey featured at all. But the song did get some UK radio play, despite the almost inaudible Halsey feature.

What I will say with BTS collaborations though, is I believe in many cases, the collaborations come through the western artist being a fan. Halsey has spoken numerous times of her admiration for BTS, and worked with Suga on her 2020 album Manic too. I think it’s fair to say both BTS and Halsey benefited from Boy With Luv. It probably introduced some Halsey fans to BTS, which accounts for the huge number of Spotify streams. And it probably put K-pop on the radars of people who had never listened to it, thanks to the limited radio play or mainstream appearances the song had. And Halsey got to work with the biggest boy group in the world and someone that she hugely admires and respects.

BTS also feature Sia on a version of their track ON. The Sia version actually doesn’t have as many streams as the original though. Again, like Halsey’s Boy With Luv, Sia’s appearance is minimal and, personally, I find it a bit pointless. But the BTS members organised the collaboration with Sia themselves, and who in their right minds would turn down a BTS track?

They also got to perform at the Grammys thanks to their feature on Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road remix. I’m firmly in the camp who say they should have had their own stage because they are undoubtedly one of the biggest names in music right now, and just because your neighbour Karen hasn’t heard of them, that doesn’t take that away from them.

But again, the feature was still a benefit to BTS as they were thrust into the global spotlight in a way that nobody could ignore them. I’m still waiting for them to have their own performance on such a global stage, because it’s completely deserved. Whether that will happen in the near future, I don’t know. But it should.

Building on the Old Town Road remix, I want to look at other western acts that have featured K-pop groups on remixes of their songs.

Dua Lipa released her single Physical earlier this year, alongside a music video. It has so far had 245m streams on Spotify. Not long after, she released a remixed version which featured Hwasa of Mamamoo. This has had 4m streams on Spotify. Personally, I prefer the Hwasa version although as a K-pop stan I am obviously biased. I also believe that, in this case, Dua Lipa simply wanted to work with Hwasa, as they performed together at the Mnet Asian Music Awards last year. I don’t think this collaboration necessarily benefits either artist, it was simply done because there was the desire to work together.

Similarly, Red Velvet feature on a remix of Ellie Goulding’s song Close to Me, which originally featured Diplo and Swae Lee. The Red Velvet version was released a few months later. I don’t see a clear reason for this release. To me, it was just for Ellie Goulding to have a slice of the K-pop pie, as its popularity was growing back then and people were beginning to take notice of Korean acts, however sparingly. It was a bit of a surprise drop with not much fanfare, and it hasn’t even got one million views on YouTube. In comparison, the original has 131m.

Regardless, it’s a good song and Red Velvet got to write on their version too. But it still feels like a bit of a waste of a collaboration.

Before working with Hwasa, Dua Lipa worked with Blackpink on Kiss and Make Up. The song is Blackpink’s most streamed song on Spotify with 351m, their next being Kill This Love with 318m. Kiss and Make Up was the stand out song of Dua Lipa’s re-release of her debut album. But it almost didn’t happen. When it was left off the standard edition, songwriter Chelsee Grimes offered it to other singers including Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears. Eventually it returned to Dua Lipa and they brought Blackpink onto it too.

To me, this was a collaboration done right. It’s not a measly feature on a song, the Blackpink girls don’t provide a few backing vocals. They get almost half of the song to themselves, in both Korean and English. It didn’t get a music video, sadly, however Dua Lipa did do a surprise live performance of it with the girls on one of their US tour dates last year.

The song itself feels very Blackpink. They performed it on their world tour without Dua and it didn’t sound out of place on the set list. It has the same sort of feel as their tracks Don’t Know What To Do and Forever Young. It’s a masterpiece of a collaboration.

Of course, Dua Lipa is a huge act around the globe – but there’s nobody much bigger than Lady Gaga, which brings me onto Sour Candy.

I am apprehensively excited about Sour Candy. Part of me could spontaneously combust when I think of how excited I am to hear it, the other half of me has already written it off as a wasted opportunity.

This song is going to introduce Blackpink to millions of people who have never listened to them. Whether or not that will then translate into them becoming more globally popular, I do not know. But because it will be many people’s first impression of the girls, it needs to be good.

Gaga just released Rain On Me, featuring Ariana Grande. It’s the perfect pop song and the two ladies blend their styles perfectly. Ariana gets a huge chunk of solo action in it too, so surely Blackpink will in Sour Candy, right?

Here’s the thing. I’m worried they won’t, and that their feature will be reduced to a few lines dotted throughout because the truth of the matter is, Ariana is a globally popular act and household name, something Blackpink just aren’t, at least not on the same level. They shouldn’t need to collaborate with western acts to get their names out in the non-Asian market, but sadly they have to. So Lady Gaga has a big opportunity and also responsibility to showcase the best of Blackpink, like I believe Dua Lipa did in Kiss and Make Up.

In an ideal world, the song will feature Blackpink just as much as Rain On Me featured Ariana Grande. I am cautiously optimistic that Gaga will do this, because she does a lot for her fans so I don’t think she would then let down Blackpink’s fans. She’s also a master musician and visionary in how to do things differently in the scene, which also gives me hope that Sour Candy is going to be pop perfection.

I’m also just really damn excited for new Blackpink music, because they haven’t released anything for over a year since Kill This Love – but that’s another blog post.

Being a Blackpink stan is really difficult

The world is still surrendering to the effects of coronavirus, so I don’t know how likely a music video for the song is, but I think the businesswoman in Gaga will have considered making Sour Candy the third single from Chromatica, therefore giving it a music video, because of Blackpink’s popularity too. But, judging from the Rain On Me video, Gaga’s current era is perfect for a Blackpink collab.

Blackpink’s label YG seem to be putting a lot of emphasis on the song’s release though, which makes me think there will be some sort of promotion for it and not just the song dropping as the album comes out. But who knows with YG?

So, to try and summarise, K-pop groups collaborating with western acts is definitely beneficial for both parties when done right, but it can also feel like an after thought and pretty pointless.

K-pop acts, especially the bigger names, should not need to work with English-speaking artists to get recognition in the western world, but it appears it helps.

All that’s left to say is, May 29 – Chromatica’s release date – cannot come soon enough, because I need that Blackpink goodness in my life.

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