After a decade in Girls’ Generation, one of K-pop’s most successful groups, the singer is making her English language solo debut
In 2017, after logging ten chart-topping years with Girls’ Generation, one of South Korea’s most successful girl groups of all time, Tiffany Young made the long exodus from Seoul back to California, determined to finally make her mark in Hollywood. Young was born Stephanie Young Hwang in San Francisco in 1989, and when she was just 15 years old, she was scouted by a rep from SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s leading entertainment companies, while participating in a singing competition.
After a successful audition, Young – whose mother had died just three years earlier – made a life-changing decision to pursue her dreams of stardom with one of Korea’s ‘Big 3’ multiplex music companies. She moved halfway across the world, learned a new language, and committed to a grueling trainee programme at SM, where she eventually became a member of Girls’ Generation. Last year, the performer made another life-changing decision: to chase her acting aspirations and finally launch a solo music career back home in the west.
That decision came to fruition just over a month ago, when Young released her first English language single, “Over My Skin”, a bold, flirty dance pop track with production reminiscent of early 2000s Britney and Xtina. Lyrically, the song heralded a new era for the singer, leaning heavily into themes of sexual liberation, self-actualisation, and confidence at a pivotal time for Young, who turned 29 on August 1 (the day the music video was released). The single also saw Young shed the glossy, pristine packaging of her K-pop career, eager to reveal another side of herself – a metaphor visualised by the single’s artwork, which shows the artist peeking through a tear in the blush-hued plastic wrapping enveloping her.
“I really want to be an unpredictable artist versus being super polished,” Young says. “After finishing ten years in Korea and getting all that love and support and then starting again, it made me even more certain that I wanted to walk back in with confidence and a story of empowerment. I think now more than ever it’s important to have something to stand for.”
“Over My Skin” isn’t the first solo release from the idol: in 2016, she released I Just Wanna Dance, a glistening Korean mini-album of 90s-inspired R&B and synth-pop. It does, however, mark a completely new venture for Young, who has never been shy about her desire to break into the US entertainment market, a culturally and racially homogeneous system that has long proven notoriously difficult for Asian-Americans to gain access to – let alone succeed in with front-facing, non-stereotyped roles, whether on screen or in music.
Young, who says she was inspired by the success of BoA, the “Queen of Korean Pop”, when she was a child, describes the pursuit of mainstream success in the western entertainment industry as “a battle and a struggle” for Asian-American artists like herself. Even though she’s conquered Asia, the US historically hasn’t been welcoming to artists who don’t fit or present as the homogeneous white prototype, forcing otherwise successful Asian-American acts like Far East Movement to turn instead to the east to develop their talent and build fanbases. And outside of the music industry ecosystem, the statistics surrounding Asian-American visibility on film are just as dismal, with members of the community claiming just 3.1% of all Hollywood film roles, according to UCLA’s 2018 diversity report. With her feet back on American soil, however, Young hopes to continue tearing down the barriers, and hopes that her global Girls’ Generation fandom will help amplify her mission outside of the east.
“I’m pretty sure Asian-Americans who know what K-pop is are familiar with Girls’ Generation,” Young admits with a laugh. “And now it’s like, ‘Hey! I’m here!’ and at least part of the American population will be like, ‘Oh wow, she’s the girl from Girls’ Generation.’ Hopefully that will mean something.”
The ‘Over My Skin’ video captures the ideas of liberation and self-confidence brilliantly. Tell me about your alter ego featured in the visual, Professor T. Who is she?
Tiffany Young: Professor T represents a state of learning. When I do interviews, everyone’s like, ‘You’re the K-pop guru!’ (laughs) And I’m like, in a way, sure, because of all the years I’ve amassed in the industry. But I’m also forever learning about making music, and I wanted that to be visible in the music video in an unexpected, unpredictable way. The video is about owning your style, your social media and your process. It’s about working it and enjoying it at the same time. It’s not about being perfect. Facing criticism can, if you take it in the most positive way, help you grow. And it can help you focus on what’s most important to you, what you love.
What’s been the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your career?
Tiffany Young: Perfectionism has gotten the best of me. It’s hard because I’m always like, ‘I should practice more! I can do this better! I can try this more!’ I never know when to stop. Being in a group full of bandmates who luckily are also my friends, they’d be like, ‘Whoa, you need to, like, calm down!’ Now, being with my new team, they’re just like, ‘No this is great as is. There’s always more songs, there’s always going to be another chance, there’s always going to be another time.’ I think I was just so obsessed with hitting some imagined point of no return that it would just make me really, really mean. (laughs) I’d be like, ‘No, you don’t understand!’
“I really want to be an unpredictable artist versus being super polished” – Tiffany Young
Do you still struggle with that?
Tiffany Young: I think it’s something that everybody deals with in their own way. Everyone needs a group of loving people and family and friends who can tell you that you’re good enough right now and that you can always improve over time. There’s no such thing as perfect. In the end, art is about feeling. It’s not about perfecting anything, and I think I got lost in that. It’s serious, because perfectionism can really take you down a rabbit hole. I’m glad that I was able to take the year off and become a student and make mistakes and read scripts the wrong way and sing things the wrong way and kind of be like, ‘Oh, okay, there’s lots of different ways to do this…’
The past few years have marked a huge transition for you, moving from South Korea back to the US. Did you experience any reverse culture shock?
Tiffany Young: Absolutely. I remember when I first moved to Korea, I was like, why doesn’t anybody smile when they’re in an elevator? Why doesn’t anybody say ‘bless you’ or ‘you’re welcome’? (laughs) Those were all things that were new to me, so that was shocking. Moving back to the California last year was like changing cultures all over again. When you’re back on the West Coast, everybody is chill. Here it’s about relaxing, taking your time, and doing things in a really… real way.
That must have been a welcome change for you, especially coming out of the fast-paced K-pop industry.
Tiffany Young: Everything was just so heavy going into the Girls’ Generation decade anniversary. My bandmates and I were so, so, so focused on celebrating for the band, it didn’t matter what was going on behind closed doors. We’re like, this is ten years, this is for the fans who have been with us. Nothing else mattered, and that’s what we focused on. Once promotion was over, I hopped on a plane and I went straight to (acting) school in Los Angeles. I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ I didn’t even know what I was signing myself up for. I missed the girls a lot when I first got back (to the States). It was almost like I was back to my trainee days. That transition out of the spotlight and focusing on, and accepting, the responsibilities that I had signed up for, was a big change for me.
Can you explain the dynamic with Girls’ Generation now that you’re not with SM anymore?
Tiffany Young: I feel so bad for the confusion. (laughs) So I’m still in Generation, I’m just not part of SM. We left on really good terms, and that’s why I’m going to school and getting to do this. We still hang out with each other. I know it’s so different and that’s never been done that way, but there are a lot of things that hadn’t been done when we first started.
I wanted to be full-time in the US and my family and friends all knew over the years that I wanted to pursue the US market. We’ve been everywhere in Asia, and that takes a lot of time and development, after achieving everything in those ten years, we knew what we wanted as a group and we were in that space of, ‘Okay, let’s do solo projects again.’ We had been doing that every three or four years or so, but mine were always a little more extreme, because it required me to fly halfway around the world. I decided to go to school and make the music I wanted to make. I wanted to start writing and all the producers I wanted to work with were all based in LA, so I decided to move to LA full-time. The beauty of it is that I’m able to fly back whenever I want.
“I missed the girls a lot when I first got back (to the States)... That transition out of the spotlight and focusing on, and accepting, the responsibilities that I had signed up for, was a big change for me” – Tiffany Young
Have you gotten any feedback on the ‘Over My Skin’ video from your Girls’ Generation sisters?
Tiffany Young: Yeah, they’re like, ‘It’s not what I expected! It’s so cool!’ And that’s because they saw the choreography video I had released before, so everyone thought I’d be dancing my ass off like usual. They hadn’t seen that type of music video style, where it’s not, like, cut after cut after cut and then fluttering eyelashes. (laughs) I wanted it to be about how the song makes you move and feel. And I wanted it to be smart and intelligent, but still cool in a way, because we’re in the age of the Instagram aesthetic. I wanted it to look cool on the surface, but underneath, there’s just so much there.
Historically, it’s been an uphill battle for Asian-American representation in entertainment media. But with milestones like Crazy Rich Asians and Jay Park’s signing to Roc Nation this year, do you think the tide is beginning to turn? Would it have been more difficult to launch in the US as opposed to starting your career in South Korea?
TIffany Young: I think (in Girls’ Generation) I did have a head start in not having to worry about that sort of representation. I absolutely agree. I was recently looking up how many Asian entertainers and artists are on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and there aren’t even a handful, and I find that ridiculous. I think more than ever, and being back home, I feel inspired and obligated and just passionate about increasing Asian-American visibility. Even though in a way I’m starting new, K-pop has been such an amazing platform to let the world know that music is music. It’s about diversity, it’s about equality. And slowly but surely there are changes taking place, and I hope that I can stand for that.
I hope children and teens, for instance, can see themselves in you and see your success and feel encouraged.
Tiffany Young: Dude, absolutely. I didn’t see any Asian-American representation in the music industry growing up. Then I found BoA and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be just like her!’ And I hope that me being here now will inspire so many other young Asian-Americans to say, ‘Oh, I want to try this, I want to try and go for my dreams.’ And the same goes for all these other Asian artists that are breaking out. And the Crazy Rich Asians team – I love the book and I can’t wait to go see the movie. I want to send all my support and love for all the Asian-American artists and entertainers and writers and directors, because there are so many amazing ones out there right now and I think they should all be recognised.