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Feb / Mar 2017
Fine Tuning

WRITER: Fiona Sinclair Scott/ CNN

CL is a young South Korean singer making music the millennial way: with millions of followers on social media. But making it in the brick and mortar world has a whole different set of challenges. 

Her Instagram account is followed by more than 5 million people, her latest music video has had over 20 million views on YouTube and she’s the friend and muse of some of fashion’s global elite. That said, if you are over 35 and don’t spend a large portion of your waking hours online, you’ve probably never heard of CL.

Late last year, during a day of filming in New York for a CNN Style documentary about the 25-year-old singer, we spoke with fashion designer Jeremy Scott backstage after his New York fashion week show.

“I go around the world, I’ve seen her fans in Chile, in Brazil, obviously all through Europe. I mean she’s not just a Korean or an Asian phenomenon, she really is a global superstar,” he told us. While global superstar might be a stretch, she has undoubtedly made an impact and built a very loyal following in the process.

CL, or Lee Chae-rin, is a South Korean singer, rapper and model. She was the lead in the all-girl K-Pop band 2NE1, formed in 2009, until last year when the group officially split following months of speculation. The rumours were naturally fuelled by the singer’s well-documented advance towards America.

As expected, CL finally released her first English-language solo single, ‘LIFTED’ in August 2016 and followed it up with a music video. The video, uploaded to her YouTube channel, has had over 20 million views and features a cameo by American rapper Method Man. She represents a new generation of artists who can make an instant hit with the world’s millennials.

“These days, I mean, my fans are internet kids, they are everywhere” she told us while we drove through New York with the star weeks before she was to set off on a North American tour.

That’s music’s new reality, as Rolling Stone magazine noted in an article published last year. “YouTube has become increasingly important – 98 per cent of American Internet users aged 18 to 24 visit the site – and the company says its ad sales have delivered 3 billion USD to artists and content creators.” It’s the music industry’s new reality. In a time when album sales are falling, YouTube views are rising.

 

 

And that they are. Her fans are online, they are all over the world and they are incredibly engaged, as a quick trawl through Twitter or Instagram proves. A single selfie is worth over 300,000 likes, a tweet – “+BE PATIENT+” on January 11th – sparks a frenzy of replies, questions, memes and fan art. But that doesn’t seem to be enough for the young artist. “Breaking America is serious now,” she told us.

But why does breaking America matter when the internet is, largely, borderless? Is breaking the internet not the new benchmark for success? Later that day, while sat on a park bench not too far from Times Square, CL reflected on these questions.

“The US is the complete opposite of Asia. Because, you know, in Korea everything is about yin yang and keeping the balance. There’s a saying in Asia if you’re too strong, you break, but here I feel like it is about being too strong. I want to see how I can take that yin yang and do it here,” she said, about capturing the attention of a whole new audience that will eventually buy concert tickets and fan memorabilia.

And, while the power of the internet has allowed CL to reach audiences all over the world in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible before Facebook, Youtube and Instagram, it has also exposed her to more criticism. Some argue that her music videos, style of rap and the way she dresses are signs of her appropriating an image or a culture that isn’t hers.

“2016 is the year of every internet person trying to be edgy and calling people out for things – whether it is feminism or racism or cultural appropriation – everyone who doesn’t know what they are talking about now can have a say,” remarked her friend and fellow social media star, Luka Sabbat.

That means image-making in the music industry today is indeed a tricky business. When asked about the challenges, CL said, “I think audiences have a certain way they look at an Asian girl. That was the struggle for me for the last two years. But I don’t think about my skin. When I’m creating, I don’t think about the fact that I’m Asian.”

Our conversation continued with Asian-American fashion designer Alexander Wang later that day in his flagship Grand Street store. “She breaks down all those barriers, you can’t say ‘she’s just a Korean singer’. She is who she is and she doesn’t give a f***,” Wang expressed.

Despite some bumps in the road, CL seems determined to find her place in America. “I feel like I’ve put so much time into it, I have to do it. I think it’s also about how you do it – what the message is, who I represent, who I am. So I want to do it right. And that’s why it’s taking so long.”

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