Music

VCHA Pioneering a New Era of K-Pop as Global ‘Girls of the Year’

Through K-pop’s rapid changes in the last three decades, a constant standard has been JYP Entertainment’s particular attention given to its female groups.

From Wonder Girls becoming the first Korean-pop act to crack the Billboard Hot 100 to the likes of TWICE and ITZY making inroads with U.S. label deals and arena tours, plus a Japanese group NiziU who’s had a No. 1 single on the Japan Hot 100 every year since their 2020 debut, the company has lived up to its company tagline as a “leader in entertainment” with noted strict guidelines for dating, dieting, media engagement and more. So when a mid-interview miscommunication over the interview time with JYPE’s latest girl group abruptly ends the conversation when the schedule can’t spare another 10 minutes, the fleeting encounter feels like it mirrors the meticulousness and unwavering standards to success set by K-pop industry giants like JYP. Especially for the high stakes with VCHA, a first-of-its-kind “global” girl group, there’s no room for missteps.

VCHA began with a bold vision outlined by JYP founder J.Y. Park and Republic Records founder Monte Lipman: their A2K competition series set out to create “the first American artist made out of the K-pop system.” Amid increasingly heated competition from industry heavyweights like SM Entertainment, HYBE and Geffen Records with similar projects, JYP and Republic pulled ahead in this next-generation pop race, culminating in the six-member girl group that’s helping evolve the definition of K-pop and changing how companies like JYP and Republic traditionally operate.

Unlike the Korea-based counterparts who famously undergo years of rigorous training, VCHA embarked on a whirlwind journey encompassing vocal and dance training, character assessments, and even “star quality evaluations” through 22 episodes of A2K where the final lineup of members Lexi, Camila, Kendall, Savanna, KG and Kaylee — who range from ages 18 to 14 — were revealed in September 2023 and made their official debut just four months later, today, on Jan. 26, 2024 via “Girls of the Year” by revealing its digital single and music video.

After four buzz tracks hinting at their sound like “Ready for the World” and “Y.O.Universe” (the latter of which performed on public Korean TV channels like KBS and MBC alongside other K-pop acts), “Girls of the Year” marks the official start of VCHA and what midwest-born, 18-year-old leader Lexi says “really emphasizes confidence, self-worth and what we strive to be, which is, obviously, girls of the year.”

An upbeat, bubblegum-pop anthem with hooks ready to get lodged in young listeners brains, “Girls of the Year” also encapsulates a subtle yet poignant message of feminism and self-empowerment with lyrics like, “No more doubtin’ and no glass ceilings.” Speaking to Billboard in their new home base in Los Angeles, the Florida-raised, 17-year-old Savanna sings that line on the track and personally connects with the lyric when “going deeper because of the meaning itself.”

“Girls of the Year” embodies the essence of VCHA’s mission—to inspire and empower a new generation of fans who aren’t as bound or preoccupied by cultural, language and country barriers. With all six based in the U.S. or Canada, the VCHA members’ backgrounds range from white and Latino to Black, Korean, Vietnamese, and Hmong.

Texas native Kendall recognizes the diversity they represent and the chance to be a role model.

“‘Girls of the Year’ is such a statement, but to us, it really means to be able to become a group or someone that other people can proudly look up to,” the 17-year-old says. “To be able to represent different communities is honestly such an honor because we all had people from our cultures or from our nationalities who we looked up to growing up and they made such a big impact on our lives. So, for us to possibly be able to grow into becoming those people for others is really what being a ‘girl of the year’ would mean to us.”

VCHA is in good company with Republic Records signees like Taylor Swift, TWICE, Ariana Grande, Stray Kids and ITZY all cited as different inspirations to the members. The girls will open for upcoming stadium shows their JYP/Republic label mates TWICE are holding in Las Vegas, Mexico City and São Paulo — something of a dream for youngest member Kaylee, who says TWICE is the first artist she remembers connecting with from a young age.

“I can’t say that I’m nervous or excited because I can’t think that it’s actually going to happen,” the 14-year-old Philly singer says. “It feels like a dream rather than something that we’re going to be performing on stage opening for TWICE. It just seems so unreal to be able to do something like this so early in our career.”

In fact, K-pop concerts traditionally do not have opening acts, marking yet another way VCHA is shaking up the system’s formulas with a page from the western playbook. “This is something that was all kind of unexpected,” Lexi adds, “We’re just super honored to be able even to do something that’s not really done.”

To prepare for the upcoming shows, the sextet has all-day training sessions, rehearsals and content creation that begin around 10:30 or 11 a.m. local time once youngest members Kaylee and KG, who are 14 and 16 respectively, finish schooling, which they take earlier in the mornings via online learning classes. Kaylee and KG point to some difficulty in balancing school and group work but have the older members to help them study.

With VCHA’s release of “Girls of the Year,” coupled with the easy-listening, R&B-pop cut “XO Call Me” as a b-side that Kendall notes is part of the “new sounds” they’re excited to show, the teens are moving into unknown but exciting territory that feels more centered on deeper, heartfelt messaging than the maximalist showmanship found in most K-pop debuts.

Take the moment in the “Girls of the Year” music video where Camila walks from her dance rehearsal into a massive VCHA concert where she catches her glammed-up, onstage version performing, and the two exchange smiles—a moment of recognizing her journey that included years of auditions and competition shows like The Voice Kids in Canada and France, to now debuting in a group backed some of the world’s most proven players in pop.

See what all the VCHA members had to say about their growth, looking back at honest moments from their character evaluations in A2K to where they stand today.

The role of leader is an important one in K-pop and Lexi, you’re the leader of VCHA. How has your role shifted from someone who was known to help the contestants in A2K to now leading VCHA?

Lexi: Obviously, I’m super grateful to be the leader to help organize things in this group. Although I have the title, I do think that I get so much help from the other members — like, everyone helps me out so much. Even though I’m the leader, I think that we all help out a lot in the group for us to be able to be successful and work hard.

I do do a lot of the organization things like setting up our times for when we should practice or spreading things out for what we should do throughout the day and for what’s coming up. I help us try to stay on task too. Sometimes I’ll have to communicate [with the label teams] just a little bit for things like our schedules.

I remember Camila was voted co-favorite team mate with Lexi during A2K evaluations. You’re also the eldest member, and you said a lot of that motivated you to kind of help take care of and encourage your members. What does that relationship look like now?

Camila: Actually in my family, I’ve always been the youngest so I’ve always been well taken care of. I learned a lot from my mom and my brother, and how they made me feel always so safe and comfortable. I wanted to do that as well if I was ever in a group. Being here, it’s the same thing since we last talked; I think because I’m a very empathetic person, I always feel what other people feel. I always try to make people comfortable and make sure everyone’s okay emotionally.

Savanna, J.Y. Park said he had doubts about your seriousness but you shared how you know nerves aren’t helpful. I loved your attitude and answer then. Is that a mindset you continue today?

Savanna: If I was to explain this more, being in gymnastics at a very young age led me to learn different techniques to not let my nerves get the best of me since, if I was in a nervous state, I would perform worse— especially on events where I had to balance on a four-inch beam. Although I was definitely nervous, I applied this learned technique of mine during the evaluations of A2K. I think I still have this mindset today as we do nervewracking activities but I try to calm the members down and let them know that we’ve worked our hardest up to this point and to try to relax, trust your practice, and give it your all.

Kendall, I remember you were super-focused on both your and the group’s growth during Boot Camp with many moments practicing on your own. How are you today with leaning on your members?

Kendall: I would say that the more time we spent together and the closer we became, the more I was able to rely on my members. As a person, I often tend to think to myself and enjoy spending time on my own, but it’s nice to have a support system with the other girls that I can always lean on.

J.Y. Park also said very honestly that he thought KG had a “solid style fixed in you” that couldn’t work in a group. But not only did you prove you could adapt, you’re in the group! How do you feel you’re evolving as an artist today?

KG: Yes, J.Y. Park was exactly right. I had a very fixed style and unique way of singing where I fell off my words, and that type of singing is not usually found in K-pop groups. I can sing many different styles, so removing what he didn’t like was not difficult for me but his advice made me a better singer and fit for this group so I really appreciate it. I think being an artist or performer means you’re always constantly evolving and, right now, I’ve evolved into the K-pop world.

Kaylee, you anticipated that you could be the “Moodmaker” of the group. Do you help set the group’s tone?

Kaylee: We all have different personalities and all of us are so fun to be around! So everyone has the potential to become a mood maker of the group.

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