CL's "The Baddest Female" music video / Screenshot via YouTube
The current top spot on the Time 100 reader’s poll, where voters choose the people they think “have changed the world this past year, for better or for worse”, belongs to 23-year old Korean pop idol Lee Chaelin, listed as “CL of 2NE1,” which is how she introduces herself in 2NE1’s debut single, “Fire.” As of two weeks before the poll closes, CL has, with around 12 percent of the overall vote, almost three times as many votes as the second-place contender, Lady Gaga, and six times as many as Beyoncé. Of individual “yes” or “no” votes for her inclusion on the list, 89 percent say “yes.” What’s surprising about this is not so much the sheer number of votes—international K-pop fans are excellent at voter mobilization—as the fact that CL is there to be voted for at all. She is the third Korean pop star to be nominated for the Time 100 and the only Korean on this year’s list who isn’t the head of a single-party republic. And unlike past nominees Rain (a.k.a. Stephen Colbert’s nemesis) and Psy, her spot on this list seems less about what she’s already accomplished than what she is about to. It’s right there in her blurb: “upcoming U.S. debut.”
Of course, what she’s already accomplished is still a lot. 2NE1 debuted in 2009, just as K-pop was turning from ballads and midtempo R&B to slick electropop. The four-piece group’s fresh attitude in songs like “I Don’t Care” and “Follow Me” and use of genres like rap and reggae made them stand out from most other popular girl groups at the time. When their first full-length album was released in 2010, the six new songs on it all held positions in the Top Ten on various Korean charts for a full week. These successes have been tempered by their label YG’s habit of endlessly delaying releases, with their album Crush pushed back an entire year before it was released in February 2014. Still, their influence holds, particularly overseas. In 2012, they became the first Korean female pop act to do a solo tour of the US. Crush set American Billboard’s record for highest-charting K-pop album, and last summer, their 2011 smash hit “I Am the Best” soundtracked an English-language Microsoft commercial—still sung entirely in Korean.
If there’s any member of 2NE1 who could turn their group’s stateside exposure into a solo American career, it’s CL. She’s already had a few rap solo tracks throughout 2NE1’s career, “The Baddest Female” and “MTBD.” She’s multilingual, and she credits a childhood spent moving between France, Korea, and Japan with opening her up to other cultures. Her relationship with black culture via hip-hop is problematic at best, but she’s conscious enough to tell Complex, “There are so many Korean people [in the U.S.]—and Chinese and Japanese—but they don’t have one pop artist that they can look up to. That’s kind of sad. I wish I could be that person for them to be proud of.” She’s also just a straight-up magnetic performer, as this live performance of “The Baddest Female” and “MTBD” can attest.
Then there are the co-signs. Time’s brief blurb mentions her working with super-manager Scooter Braun, who is best known for working with Justin Bieber, but also the one who signed Psy to his Schoolboy Records label at the height of “Gangnam Style.” But this is just one of the latest in a string of high-profile U.S. connections. Back in 2010, 2NE1 came to the States to record with will.i.am, when will.i.am was still in his K-pop phase (see the video for “Check It Out”). The songs were finally released in 2013, but that wasn’t the end of CL’s connection with will.i.am. Reportedly, she is stepping in for Fergie for a new Black Eyed Peas release—not the first time she’s filled that role. Last year, she appeared with Diplo and YG labelmate G-Dragon (who’s worked with Diplo on multiple occasions) on Skrillex’s “Dirty Vibe.” The list of potential collaborators for her solo album includes the similarly up-and-coming songwriter Bobby Brackins and Florence + the Machine. And there’s her status as a fashion icon: her enduring friendship with designer Jeremy Scott, which has had a huge influence on 2NE1’s wardrobe (for better or for worse) and vice versa, and appearances at New York Fashion Week.
Winning the Time 100 reader’s poll doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the Time 100, which is chosen by the magazine’s editors. Neither does it guarantee you a place in the American market: Rain won the poll three times, but he has made no attempt to cross over since Ninja Assassin. But for Rain’s appearance on the list in 2006, Time’s write-up dreamed of a global pop utopia where pop “no longer moves simply in a single direction, from the West to the rest of the world”. If CL’s career prospects—and her ascension above even America’s pop icons—are any indication, that time is now.
Madeleine Lee Is the Best. Follow her on Twitter.