As far as legacy acts go, Girls’ Generation is undoubtedly one. In 2007, when K-pop was largely a boys’ playground, in marched this defiant nonet — Taeyeon, Sunny, Tiffany, Hyoyeon, Yuri, Sooyoung, Yuna, Seohyun, and former member Jessica — who not only redefined the game for women in K-pop but also what girl group music could be.
On the backs of cultural-defining and boundary-pushing songs, the women who are now lovingly considered “The Nation’s Girl Group” established a new musical order. On 2009’s “Gee,” named song of the decade by Melon in 2011, they were coquettish girls experiencing the thrill of first love. On “Genie,” they were in the driver’s seat, owning their power and reeling the world in. On “I Got A Boy,” considered among K-pop’s most experimental tracks, they loved and flaunted who they were. With their catalog, they recast the modern woman in a multidimensional light, dispelling the notion that all K-pop could produce was bubblegum music helmed by “factory girls.”
As its nine — then eight— members have since branched out into successful solo careers as actresses, soloists, and variety show stars, Girls’ Generation has now transformed into a glowing contradiction to the idea that older women are no longer relevant in the industry. Their triumphant comeback album, Forever 1, proved that if there was any K-pop group that can claim to have helped “pave the way,” Girls’ Generation did it before anyone even knew what that meant.
Now, Girls’ Generation have turned 15. The day before I write this, I decide to revisit “Run Devil Run.” Suddenly I’m 14, sitting in front of my clunky computer, impatiently clicking refresh on every website in hopes that it makes my dial-up connection work faster. On a black and white set, nine women dance in monochrome outfits. I understand nothing about the song save for the occasional English word, but it hardly matters to me. To my clumsy, bumbling 14-year-old self, these women are the epitome of cool. Their sleek looks, perfectly coordinated dances, enchanting gazes, sizzling confidence, for those couple of minutes, become mine. In the confines of my tiny room singing along to “Run Devil Run,” I feel free, powerful, and beautiful.
Girls’ Generation’s legacy may have been built on charts, numbers, sold-out tours, and swept award shows, but it’s sustained through the generations of fans who grew — and in some cases, grew up — alongside them. As the group marked its 15th anniversary on August 5, NYLON reached out to Sones and industry insiders who’ve followed the group throughout the years. Below, they share their thoughts on what Girls’ Generation means to them, from the times the group has helped them feel less alone to the moments that feel like coming home.
Dr. Jeong Areum, Author, Korean Theater & Performance, Film, & K-pop Expert
The  “Factory Girls” article [in The New Yorker] depicts SNSD as very controlled, manufactured (as if they were completely manufactured without any innate talent whatsoever), and untouchable. Perhaps the general public viewed them in a similar way in 2012. But throughout their fifteen years, we have witnessed SNSD transform from flirty, shy girls who sing about their “first love story” to strong, independent women whose dozens of hit songs and individual careers continue to inspire fans and young women everywhere.
In particular, their debut track “Into the New World” became the most iconic protest song in Korean youth activism. Previously, Koreans used to sing “minjung-gayo” songs at protests and this change signifies that a new generation of Koreans have entered the political scene — a younger generation that grew up looking up to SNSD and singing their songs. In this sense, SNSD members are not “Factory Girls,” but they stand for a Generation. They are the Generation.
In a patriarchal society where female idols in their mid-twenties are labeled “hags,” it is inspiring to see SNSD members thrive in their 30s both as a group and individually. And as the members each carve their own path via solo albums, TV, film, or musical theater, fans are able to see them grow and construct their own identities while also revealing vulnerabilities (for example, Taeyeon speaking out about mental health issues). In this sense, SNSD helps rookie K-pop acts envision what their future could look like.
Tássia Assis, Music Writer
SNSD shaped K-pop a lot — people look at them as the inspiration and the blueprint for girl groups. What they did set the standard for many others. Even if things change or are still changing, they influenced the industry as a whole. I think it’s really important that they made this comeback and showed that they’re still on top of their game, in a way. People, especially in K-pop, think that women over 30 are just done and that there’s nothing else for them to do, but [lately] we’ve seen people over 30 – not just with women but men as well – making the best comebacks of their lives.
[Personally] they made me look at the kind of pop [music] they were releasing, especially in the beginning with “Gee”. The first time I heard “Gee,” I didn’t enjoy it at all, but after I tried again, I started to notice that it’s actually an incredible pop song – it’s so good! It just gives you that energy and it’s something that’s so hard to achieve. They made me think twice about the kind of songs that I liked.
Thea, 26, fan
I’m turning 26 this month. I got into SNSD when I was only 14 years old. I was still a very awkward teenager and had a hard time connecting with my peers. The members being very relatable young adults made me feel less alone and helped me understand myself even better. I was less afraid of expressing myself because of the members. They were there through ups and downs.
I have to say that the high from the “honeymoon stage” of following SNSD is already long gone but I don’t think my love for the members ever went away. They made me feel more accepting of myself and my teenage years were less lonely because of them. Their terrific discography and hilarious variety shows were my refuge during those times. SNSD was literally the definition of my teens.
“SNSD members are not ‘Factory Girls,’ they stand for a Generation. They are the Generation.”
Emilia, 19, fan
Girls’ Generation, in Taeyeon’s words, is my nation. Being a Sone felt as if it gave me somewhere to belong. When I found SNSD, I had lost my mother in the same year. Soon after, I learned Tiffany lost her mother at the same age as I was. Because of this, I felt like I had somebody to look up to, at a time where none of my peers could understand what I was going through and how my life had changed forever.
Seeing Tiffany’s energetic, caring, passionate nature has always given me a role model. In her recent solo album, she created and shared “the flower” with us; that song has always felt special to me as she really opened up about losing her mother. It all felt familiar. I’ll always love Tiffany. In a way, all of SNSD feel like my role models. Through heartbreaks, exam periods, and all the other other difficult times in the last five years, SNSD has been there with me every step of the way. So many things have come and gone for me, but Girls’ Generation is something I can always come home to.
Michael, 52, fan
I was 43 when I first got into SNSD. SNSD had won the “YouTube Video of the Year” award for "I Got A Boy" and it was recommended to me.
I am what is referred to as an Ajussi. I am significantly older than the group, so people my age often think I am simply interested in watching pretty girls dance and sing. Clearly, SNSD are all beautiful women and I'd be foolish to say I'm blind to that, but my interest goes far beyond the physical. I have been singing since I was around 5 years old. I had considered a career in music for myself, but never had the guts to go for it. I have a great appreciation for how talented these women are. I know who I am and what my motivations are, so I don't let the misjudgments of others affect me. If I'm listening to their music and others look at me oddly, I just laugh and continue on.
I have admired other musicians, but this was the first group that I felt I could actually relate to. I always felt that any conversation with other celebrities would be awkward and short, but Sunny, in particular, seems to share interests and hobbies that would allow for a genuinely friendly conversation. As I've grown more attached, I've become very concerned for their welfare. In short, when they are happy, it makes me happy. If I think a member is having a rough time, is being treated poorly, or is in poor health, it upsets me. SNSD and the Sone fandom have made me feel as if I am part of a family.
Kayla, 25, fan
SNSD has been part of my life for over half of it. I feel like they raised me in a way. I looked at them as role models. Around the time I first became a SONE, I was homeless. That's tough on anyone, especially a kid. Their happy, bright, and energetic music was something that helped me cope. Their variety shows and interviews made me laugh and feel happy. It was escapism and it really helped to be able to get my mind off my situation. It was a very lonely time but they were always there.
“SNSD played a massive part of my self-acceptance… and the music bangs.”
Andres, 33, fan
Being the same age as SNSD (only a few days older than Taeyeon), I can say I practically spent my twenties growing alongside them. I'll never forget skipping college classes with my best friend on a Friday in the middle of a project to travel to Irvine, California for the SBS Super Concert I won a pair of tickets for. I met some amazing friends and saw the concert lineup of a lifetime.
They mean a lot to me, so much so that I got a tattoo! They held me together in a lot of moments after college where I went through a harsh break-up and my grandfather and mother passed away. I would just throw SNSD and Red Velvet on and push forward. I found a whole K-pop community down here in Miami, of all places, through the love of SNSD. Scattered all over the world, but always come together for SNSD.
Josiah, 31, fan
I got into SNSD when I was 20 years old. Originally, I was the typical star struck fan who always used to be in awe of them, but as I've grown up quite a bit, I now see them as healthy role models. I always find their music to be empowering, especially [because] where I come from, being bold and daring is seen as a negative thing.
Seeing their story from when they used to get icy receptions at concerts to becoming the Nation's Girl Group has inspired me to take a more "stick to your guns" stance in life. It is okay to be different. If you're doing the right thing and believe in yourself, everybody else will come around as well. During those hard times when I didn't really believe in myself or in what I was doing, SNSD and their music gave me both the safe space as well as the motivation to keep moving forward.
SNSD paved the way for K-Pop to become mainstream here in the West. What people seem to forget is that before “Gangnam Style” became the smash viral hit that it was, there was already a decent sized fanbase here primarily because of SNSD's activities around 2011-12. I honestly think “Gangnam Style” wouldn't have been as successful as it was without that established fanbase.
Kate Voisin, 35, fan
I think [SNSD are] just a part of the fabric of my life now. I do not think a day has passed since 2011 that I haven’t known what Seohyun is filming currently or wondered what kind of secret recording Taeyeon is doing. That’s probably weird: Twitter and Instagram have made it a lot easier to keep up now than in the old days where you really just had Youtube and Soshified, their English fansite.
SNSD taught me how to appreciate my own beauty, funnily enough. I grew up Asian-American (not Korean) in a place that was massively white. Seeing SNSD and then delving more into Korean pop and then a bunch of Asian pop and then roots music after that made me step back and realize that exposure to people that share your traits is so important. If you’d asked me at 13 what “ideal beauty” looks like, I might not have named one of my own features. Because I’m consuming so much more Asian media – not just Korean – I appreciate my own features so much more than I did when I was younger (dark hair, my “weird” eyelids, my nose, all that stuff I thought marked me as “different” than what I typically saw). SNSD played a massive part of my self-acceptance… and the music bangs.
Matthew Troy, 15, fan
I started listening to SNSD when I was not in a great place. Lockdown was ongoing, a big trip that I had planned was canceled, and I was pretty done with everything. They were like the light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t make sense, but their music gave me a sense of nostalgia, although I wasn’t even born when “Into the New World” was released. Their music really helped me get through that time, and I am really appreciative of that.
Before SNSD, I liked a few K-pop groups, but I generally thought that K-pop was a bit fake. The shows just seemed a little too scripted, a bit too perfect all the time. For SNSD, they were running through the mud, yelling insults at each other. No matter the show, there was always chaos. That description may sound rather unflattering, but I wholeheartedly mean that as a compliment: they aren’t fake, and I love them for it. They can dress up when they need to, and they look insanely good. But I think I speak for the fandom [when I say] that that’s not when we love them most. No. When we love them most is when we see them messy-haired, having fun, and not taking appearances too seriously.