Tiffany Young: ‘I Want to be a Fearless Artist’
The Korean-American pop star opens up about her artistic evolution, the misconceptions around girl groups, and walking away from SM Entertainment
There’s probably no better journey than growing up with an artist. We are witness to their evolution both as musicians and human beings, they incorporate themselves into some of our best memories and are with us through all our ups and downs. It’s even better when instead of outgrowing them as we all get older, we are able to relate to them more. When I connect to Tiffany Young over Skype, it’s one of the first things we talk about. “I’m so glad we were able to grow and evolve with the times,” she says from L.A where she is currently based. “It really is about being able to shape and mold and grow with whatever is happening and still stay true to yourself.”
Born Stephanie Young Hwang in America, Young rose to fame after she moved to South Korea and debuted with superstar K-pop group Girls’ Generation in 2007. With a career spanning over a decade, Girls’ Generation are one of the most significant contributors to the spread of K-pop around the globe–even before YouTube’s viral powers kicked in. “We started 10 years ago, we started when there wasn’t social media and YouTube—I know, we sound like old people,” she says with laugh. “But we started out when the Internet was just exploding and the first iPhone was just out.” I relate to this immensely and we laugh at our mutual ageing woes.
In October last year, the group’s label SM Entertainment announced that Young, along with fellow members Sooyoung and Seohyun, had decided not to renew their contracts with the company and would focus on their solo careers. Although GG still remain a group as a whole, for Young, leaving her long-time label was the start of a new artistic story. How did singer-songwriter know now was the right time to leave? “Contractually, I’ve done everything, and 10 years… I’m so proud of that,” she answers after a moment of contemplation. “You know, we’ve talked about it enough that we trusted each other to do our own things but get together when want to. If one of my bandmates wanted to start acting, or go to musicals or somebody wanted to take a rest or go solo… we supported it. I’m so glad we built the muscles [of GG] around that. I pour my heart into each project and my girls know that, my fans know that.” She adds that throughout her career she harbored a dream to someday go home to California and pursue the American market. When she finally told her members about getting into the acting school she had wanted and wanting to explore new music in the studios in L.A., it wasn’t a surprise to them at all and she had their blessings. “One of the girls was like, ‘You know what, this is who we are. We’re gonna do all that we can and we’re going to come back together and do more.’”
After moving back from Seoul to L.A. last September, Young started a course in acting and simultaneously began writing new songs and crafting a vision of her solo artistry. “Writing in the studio.. it was a long process just really kind of going at it everyday, but you know what they say, ‘10,000 hours make a master’ and I’m just putting in that work.” Her first U.S. solo single “Over My Skin” which dropped in June was far removed from the bubblegum-pop/EDM/power ballad staples of GG, diving into funk territory while also introducing a sexier, bolder side of the singer-songwriter. “I was kind of finally in this place where I was comfortable enough to really start putting all of myself out there,” she says about the track. “It’s me finally being comfortable in my own skin, owning who I am, loving myself, not finding validation anywhere else. Loving yourself first and putting yourself out there in the best way possible.”
I tell her the sound reminds me a little of Prince’s 2007 album Musicology and she’s thrilled. “That’s exactly it! Sonically it’s funky, I love funky music, I love music that makes you dance. It’s K-pop funkyness… Maybe it’s K-funk now?” she ponders with a laugh. “It’s about that feeling, that groove and it’s about making you dance. Everybody knows I love to dance and I love making my fans and everyone else around me dance.” Her follow-up single “Teach Me” which dropped on Friday dives into glamorous, sinister pop and the darker subject matter of taking revenge on a cheating ex. Girls’ Generation members Hyoyeon and Sooyoung also make an appearance in the retro-themed video.
When it comes to the visuals for both, Young reveals it was about owning her identity as a feminine but powerful, independent woman. The result? We get to see more of who Young is at her core. “It’s translating well because everybody knows this story—right now we’re in this time where I’m owning my style, I’m working with social media but there’s also all that criticism and judgement that comes along with it. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about feeling and freedom and expression.”
Young reveals that her upcoming EP–due next year– will feature more ‘minimal, cool, sleek and crisp’ sounds. In addition to Prince, some of her influences include Pharell, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. “Recently I’m digging into Robyn, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, Gwen Stefani… So it’s funky, cool, glam, pop, rock… I’m still figuring it out, but it’s all the things that I love and I’m finding the root to it.”
When it comes to writing for herself versus with Girls’ Generation, Young admits it’s a pretty big difference. “I wasn’t writing this extensively when I was with the group—I was really kind of taking baby steps into the writing process,” she explains. “GG has some of the best lyricists and I cant compete, but coming back home and having no rules… new rules actually, this freedom really just let me experiment and try different sounds, tempos and styles.” She has a lot of music written right now but says its ever-changing and developing just as she is as a solo act. “The fans’ reaction is making me feel fearless and bold. It’s such a privilege. I hope this album is going to be shaped around that.”
Girls’ Generation as a whole have had a massive transformation come 2018–rapper Hyoyeon is digging into her production skills as DJ HYO, leader Taeyeon explored a darker side as she transformed into an assassin in the video for the sultry “Something New” and the group’s new sub-unit OH!GG (featuring Taeyeon, Sunny, Hyoyeon, Yuri, and Yoona) went for clap-infused Latin pop on their debut single “Lil’ Touch.” Where GG’s last album Holiday Night still pushed the largely bubblegum-pop agenda, it would seem each member was ready to showcase something a little more reflective of their current reality as artists who have evolved in different, unique ways.
“We’re in this time where its about being expressive and diverse and not in this like cookie-cutter, perfect doll-like [figure,]” Young says. “I mean I loved that, that was all me when I was younger, but things are changing and I have been changing, my band has been changing… I’m just so glad we’re at this place where its like, you know what, I’m going to move the way I feel. It’s not about being perfect anymore.” However she does add that all the work that went into Holiday Night was a big step in the path they are all currently on. “Everybody just kind of showed what could be even more possible, whether its vocal abilities, writing or putting on a show. This year we have the time to breathe and take in what we’ve created. Because we all have time to ourselves now.”
South Korean girl groups have always been judged little bit harsher than boy groups, perhaps because it’s difficult for new audiences to shed the misconception that they’re all cutesy little girls with no individual identity. Young admits it’s frustrating. “I think everybody is just like, ‘Oh just another girl group, just cute, the same thing.’ It’s actually not. It was who we were at that time and age,” she explains. “We were 16, 17…. It doesn’t mean we don’t have personalities or we’re not expressing ourselves; we kind of are at the fullest capacity we can.” She adds that when starting out in the industry, of course there are boundaries and rules, but then the more responsible an artist is, the more heart they put in to it, they can find that space to express themselves. “Rewind to 2007 to what “Into the New World” was, what “Gee” (2009) was, what “I Got A Boy” (2013) was, what “Party” (2015) was… it really is our truth,” says Young. “But it is something that takes time and it really is growing up in front of the camera. With lots of time, love and support, everybody grows into their own. Everybody has worked so hard to be where they are.”
She’s proud of the younger girl groups for building on this narrative and helping it evolve into bigger spaces. “Obviously I got to watch Red Velvet very closely,” she says about her juniors in SM Entertainment, adding, “I was such a fan of the song ‘Bad Boy’—I love the choreography, the directing, the sound…” Her voice catches a little at this point as she says, “I’m tearing, they’ve really grown up.” Other all-female acts she admires include YG Entertainment’s BLACKPINK and JYP Entertainment’s Twice. “It reminds all of us–I think even the fans–of our earlier days. It takes so much work and dedication. Those girls deserve everybody’s applause and support. I support all the girl bands, not just the ones I’ve mentioned. I’m so thankful I even get to say that, knowing how many hours and how much thought and detail goes into it all.”
While the success of these groups and K-pop’s recent mega-boom has added to global Asian representation and broken into Western markets, Young agrees it still isn’t enough. “I am feeling a lot more obligation,” she says about being an Asian-American entertainer. “Because there isn’t enough representation here [in America] or anywhere in the world. I was recently looking up the Hollywood Walk of Fame and there are only handful, not even a dozen, Asian entertainers on it.” She adds that there are so many amazing directors, writers and artists who have paved the way for her and she wants to contribute by doing her part in representing Asian-Americans and women. “Luckily, we are in a time where beauty is about diversity.” Young wants her new direction as an artist to inspire more POC and women to step into creative fields, not just as entertainers, but to form the backbone of the entertainment industry as directors, writers, set designers and producers–and it can only be done if more people in positions of power strive towards it. “It is about people that have these platforms to say, ‘Hey women, let’s start directing, writing, leading the way.'”
When I ask her what kind of artist she wants to be seen as, Young takes a few moments to think about it before she answers, “I want to be a fearless artist.” She wants her music, lyrics, visuals, everything to tell a story–her story. “I’m taking in everything moment to moment, and each moment is like… what if I don’t have another chance?” It’s about drawing the line between Stephanie Hwang and Tiffany of Girls’ Generation to create something new that is a combination of both. “I’m feeling like we’re molding a story together all over again. They say real art inspires, entertains and educates and you know, I am taking baby steps–it’s only been a year! I’m really just walking into this and its exciting, I feel the energy and love from my fans so… that is the artist I strive to be.”
Watch Tiffany Young’s new video for “Teach You” below: