The term “nugu,” meaning “who” or “who is that” in Korean, has been part of the K-pop lingo gaining widespread use among listeners in the 2020s. In a highly saturated sea of idol groups, it has been used to refer to lesser-known artists as “nobodies.” Although it was first used to deride obscure acts, the word has been gaining more positive connotations over time, and is now used to describe under-appreciated groups waiting to meet their heyday.
Lesser-known Korean acts tend to seek breakthroughs abroad rather than in Korea, since foreign K-pop fans are more likely to search for underrated "hidden gems" and give their support to them. Unearthing and promoting nugu groups has become a shared pastime for global K-pop fans. Yet, this phenomenon has recently sparked a heated debate: What does it take — or not take — to be nugu?
Who counts as nugu?
A prominent case that recently brought this discussion to surface was the megahit of girl group Fifty Fifty’s “Cupid,” a song that initially saw no reactions when it first dropped in February. However, its viral fame on short-video sharing platform TikTok led it to peak at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 where it still remains, making Fifty Fifty the longest K-pop girl group to stay on the chart.
But on the other side of this formidable achievement is the fact that Koreans hardly know the group. Separate from how successful the song has been, most domestic listeners have only heard of the name Fifty Fifty from the news at best, with not much change for the group’s recognition per se and little interest in the individual members. Although Fifty Fifty saw better publicity abroad, such as landing a spot on the soundtrack for the upcoming “Barbie” movie, it did not necessarily translate to building a loyal fan base.