Flashback Friday: Girls’ Generation - The Boys | Bringin’ the boys girls out

A GIF from the music video of Girls’ Generation’s “The Boys”, featuring a shot of them all walking backwards as part of the choreography for a later run of the chorus.

October 18 marked the 12th anniversary of Girls’ Generation’s “The Boys”. Released back in 2011, it was a huge shift for Girls’ Generation towards a more mature and edgier sound, which was being dictated by the emergence of other groups who debuted as the antithesis of what Girls’ Generation were; which resulted in a shift in sounds and concepts from all girl groups. Everybody was on silver sets in black leggings and ankle boots with a heel.

But as much noise as “The Boys” made upon release, it was really the start of the downfall of Girls’ Generation. I use the term downfall extremely loosely, because “The Boys” was a smash hit. And Girls’ Generation were so popular that it would have taken something extreme for anything of theirs to not be a hit. But it truly was the start of SM losing sense of what Girls’ Generation were supposed to be post “Gee” and “Tell Me Your Wish (Genie)”, something they would struggle with until the group would go on hiatus, and something they would still struggle with even when Girls’ Generation reunited in 2022.

But of all of the attempts to try and sell this edgier Girls’ Generation, “The Boys” was one of the better attempts. Nowhere near as good as “All Night”, which I think got it VERY right. But it was one of their better attempts. It really is a song which has grown on me over time, because back in 2011 I really didn’t like this song or appreciate the impact of it.

I realised over time that my problem was never the song, but that it was Girls’ Generation singing it. The video concept. The vibe of the song. It just felt off brand for Girls’ Generation. The whole thing would have worked so much better with BoA. But this was the period where SM started to lose their identity as a brand, and started giving their acts the same concepts, the same music videos and the same songs. Girls’ Generation’s “The Boys” and Super Junior’s “Sexy, Free & Single” share A LOT in common, which could have been a cool intentional thing if SM had presented them differently. But SM had a big identity crisis during this time.

But “The Boys” was also the genesis of a couple of things. A couple of game changing things.

Firstly, “The Boys” was an early instance of a K-pop act releasing a song and music video in English, with a clear intent to cater to a North American audience; something which SM pushed hard. Girls’ Generation had an exclusive licence deal with Universal music to release the song in North America. And Girls’ Generation performed “The Boys” on the Late Show with David Letterman, which was huge at the time and still huge now, given that David Letterman was one of THE late night shows of US network television and Girls’ Generation were one of the first K-pop acts to perform on it. It’s a standard thing now, with every K-pop act passing through a late night talk show, but Girls’ Generation were doing it back in 2012 and it would be a while until it would happen again.

The problem however was that the charm of Girls’ Generation kinda got lost in this North American push. As we had seen before with other Korean and Japanese acts trying to the crack the States, taking an act and packaging them into what you think the market wants, rather than what they are known for just didn’t work. I still don’t think it works. And in the case of Girls’ Generation, “Gee” had already gone so viral worldwide and cemented an expectation of their brand, none of which came through in “The Boys”.

As part of SM’s objective to have Girls’ Generation surf the hallyu, “The Boys” was famously produced by Teddy Riley of Blackstreet, Michael Jackson and New Jack Swing fame; marking one of the first times he’d been a part of a pop zeitgeisty thing since the 90s. Even Riley producing “Teeth” for Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster in 2009 flew under radars due to “Bad Romance” and “Telephone” bleeding the attention for any of the others songs dry. Teddy Riley producing a song for Girls’ Generation didn’t make much sense, but it could have been made to make sense. Teddy had produced what I feel are Girls’ Generation adjacent songs, such as “Take Me There” from The Rugrats Movie soundtrack in 1998. And there could have been a narrative of SM trying to bridge generations. But the generational gap is what caused the ‘Teddy Riley is producing for Girls’ Generation’ story to not really hit the way I think SM thought it would, because Teddy Riley was not part of the gaggle of popular producers that most knew at the time. And the sad part of it was that he was an influence to a lot of these producers. Timbaland, The Neptunes, Kanye West, Rodney Jerkins. All of them.

Girls’ Generation’s core audience and younger journalists back then weren’t familiar with Teddy Riley or just how big he was at a point in time. And even if you mentioned that he worked with Michael Jackson, it didn’t illicit a big reaction, because his work with Michael was so long ago, and there was a long period after that where Riley was off the pop radar and forgotten about. And then there’s how the Dangerous album is never spoken about or held in the same regards as Bad, Thriller or Off the Wall. But Teddy being brought into the SM fold for Girls’ Generation, led to him working on songs for SHINee, f(x) and Exo - which would also result in SM adopting a different approach when it came to attaining songs for its acts.

Teddy Riley working with SM was the start of a new A&R model at SM Entertainment, which is sourcing songs from a pool of American and European songwriters and producers. And Lee-Soo Man would use this and take what would become a trend across K-pop to co-launch EKKO Music Rights. The whole thing was probably a money laundering scheme, but I ain’t getting into that now. The best way I can describe EKKO Music is as a Craigslist for writers and producers. And SM still use it to this day, as do many other labels and entertainment companies in K-pop.

What was seen as just Girls’ Generation putting out a ‘cunty lil’ bop’ was actually so much more than just that. But as was the case with “Gee”, the impact it had beyond just being popular gets lost or forgotten about. “The Boys” made huge contributions to the hallyu, and resulted in a framework which would open doors for others. But the stans of other groups will never admit as such.

A slight deviation from ‘Here’s a song Girls’ Generation released 12 years ago’. But y’all know how it goes round here on Random J Pop. I’ve always gotta drag out the Pepe Silvia whiteboard.

💿 Girls’ Generation album reviews: 🇰🇷 Forever 1 | Holiday Night | I Got a Boy | 🇯🇵 Girls’ Generation II ~Girls & Peace~ | Girls’ Generation

💿 Girls’ Generation solo EP reviews: Taeyeon This Christmas: Winter is Coming | Tiffany I Just Wanna Dance

📼 Another flashback: “Gee”. The song that started it all.

🎛️ A Girls’ Generation related mashup: Beyoncé x Hyoyeon