By Rachel Saywitz, a Third Bridge Creative contributor.
The Korean word “nugu (누구)” literally translates to “who.” But for fans of K-pop, “nugu” has a more significant meaning: it represents the dozens of K-pop groups who remain virtually unknown to the mainstream public. Given how incredibly saturated the K-pop market is—over 100 groups and solo idols debuted in 2022—and the dominance of a few big entertainment companies, most K-pop singers rarely escape “nugu-dom.” And if they do, usually through a viral moment, that newly mainstream status rarely ever crosses over to the even more saturated Western music market.
This has made it all the more surprising to watch the rise of FIFTY FIFTY, a group who—after only six months since their debut—has spent ten weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 with their February single “Cupid,” making it the longest-charting song by a K-pop girl group on the chart, a record previously held by Coachella headliners BLACKPINK. The success doesn’t stop there: “Cupid” flew to the top of Billboard’s Global Excl. U.S. chart on May 22, breaking another record as the first girl group of any genre to hit No. 1 with a debut entry on the chart.
A few days later, in a twist of hilarious irony, the Twitter account @nugupromoter announced that FIFTY FIFTY would be appearing on the star-studded Barbie movie soundtrack. Nugu-no-more: the young idol quartet from a small company had somehow reached global recognition in a matter of months. How did they do it?
An Emphasis on Global Reach
FIFTY FIFTY—comprised of members Aran, Keena, Saena, and Sio—released their first single “Higher” in November 2022, but their debut was years in the making, according to Siahn, the co-CEO of FIFTY FIFTY’s label Attrakt and the group’s chief producer. The label spent two years cultivating FIFTY FIFTY’s image and sound, with a goal to create music that the idol singers enjoyed and could relate to. “Higher” reflects this ethos well—it’s grounded in a simple, breezy melody with its production lifted by acoustic guitar and synths to sound like an adventure above the clouds. The critically acclaimed song had modest success: its music video reached 1.6M YouTube views within its first month and received comments from fans stating that "these girls deserve more attention and support."
With “Cupid,” Siahn sought to specifically tailor the group’s second single to fit a wider audience and address what he believed were “fatigue points” in the industry to create a song that didn’t sound like it came off the pop factory line. “Cupid” follows a relatable story of unrequited love and the frustration that comes with that, and the song’s light touch along with FIFTY FIFTY’s soulful singing definitely make it stand out among K-pop’s more brash popular singles.
But the key to the song’s eventual success didn’t rest in one song structure, but two. Released at the same time as the original single was an English-language “Cupid (Twin Ver.)” English language releases of original K-pop songs are usually a hit-or-miss—lyrics often don’t fit as well in the original melody, and the typical K-pop song structure, with its rap breaks and dramatic flourishes, tends to sound misshapen in an English market. Siahn was aware of this, mentioning in an interview with Variety Magazine: “The ‘Twin Version’ is more focused on the music and the message, expressed through a slightly different mixing style and arrangement.”
Comparing the two, the twin version has English lyrics that fit the mood of the song, and the FIFTY FIFTY members—who were trained to learn English prior to their debut—have a vocal tone that sounds a bit stronger; their voices have a slight lift to them as they hold out certain English phrases. The version also doesn’t include member Keena’s rap break—a musical element standard in most K-pop songs—or a key change in the final chorus, which added some dramatic heft to the original single. With the twin version primed for an outside market, “Cupid” was ready to make an impact.
“Cupid” Takes Flight on TikTok
The K-pop industry should seem like the entertainment field most primed for TikTok virality: the genre relies on catchy choruses, and maybe more importantly, inventive choreography. Nowadays, K-pop groups will announce a TikTok dance challenge to go along with their new single and encourage fans to post their own dance challenge videos. FIFTY FIFTY launched their own dance challenge with “Cupid's” release in February. Greater than the reception of their first single, “Cupid’s” popularity grew steadily, with the original version of the track higher than its twin in every aspect.
But what actually launched FIFTY FIFTY past nugu-dom wasn’t their own generated content. On March 14, TikTok user @tutordancetiktok released her own dance challenge to a sped-up version of “Cupid (Twin Ver.),” using different choreography and dancing to the song’s pre-chorus rather than the chorus itself. The dance’s simple hand choreography caught on, and the twin version’s English lyrics allowed the dance—and the song— to quickly spread past K-pop fans. The twin version skyrocketed past its original, and on March 27, “Cupid” entered the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, making FIFTY FIFTY the fastest K-pop group to enter the chart since their debut.
As the sped-up version filtered through #dancetok, more users recognized the song’s sweet, dreamy vibe as perfect background music for other videos, and the song continued to proliferate through all corners of the platform. More successes emerged: FIFTY FIFTY entered into a partnership with Warner Records to promote “Cupid,” continued to climb up the Hot 100, and in May, moved into the top 10 of the Official U.K. Singles Chart, becoming the first K-pop girl group to do so.
Can FIFTY FIFTY’s Success Be Replicated?
With “Cupid” still firmly in the top half of the Billboard Hot 100, and its twin version’s popularity still growing, FIFTY FIFTY seems to have achieved what few K-pop groups do in an entire career, let alone in a few months. But how replicable of a case study is “Cupid?” After all, the song didn’t go viral through the group’s official dance challenge, but by a creator on the platform. While it does remain to be seen if another K-pop group can pull off FIFTY FIFTY’s success, there are a few angles that companies may want to chase. Siahn and the FIFTY FIFTY members created music and an image collaboratively and aimed at the domestic and global market with a music-first approach. FIFTY FIFTY may not have anticipated the song’s explosive growth, but thanks to their mindful planning, “Cupid” might just shoot them into stardom.