Modern K-pop has always felt the need to position its male groups as edgy and badass, but the moodiness has seemed to kick into overdrive this year. Call it the BTS-effect, or the mirroring of current trends in Western pop, but for a lover of upbeat production and colorful melodies, this trend has resulted in quite a bit of frustration.
When it comes to fun boy group K-pop, acts like Golden Child and ONF have gotten me through the year. But more and more, they seem to be the exception to an increasingly dark, downtempo rule. The pop-lover in me gets defensive whenever a bright act like Astro or Snuper defects to a serious-minded comeback, no matter how good (or bad) the actual song might be. In the current K-pop landscape, we just can’t afford to lose any of these reliably fun acts to the “dark side.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved more than a few of these darker concepts, and am always a proponent of K-pop pushing itself forward in new and exciting directions. But, we begin to have a problem when songs and groups start sounding so much alike that they become interchangeable.
Looking back five or six years, the stable of bright boy group pop was practically overflowing. Groups like B1A4, Infinite, Boyfriend and Teen Top built their fanbases on poppier sounds, not to mention established SM Entertainment groups SHINee and Super Junior. Even more recently, an act like GOT7 first gained traction with a more carefree sound. Nowadays, the only big name carrying on this upbeat style is Seventeen, but even they’ve begun exploring darker territories. Barring the occasional NCT Dream comeback, SM has seen itself lodged in a continuous cycle of deep house, EDM and hip-hop for the past few years, often neglecting the classic pop touch that crafted so much of their iconic material.
As with pop music in general, K-pop’s trends tend to be cyclical. I don’t think bright boy group fare is down for the count permanently, but it feels like we’ve been swimming around this particular set of trends for longer than normal. It’s going to take a few of the industry’s biggest acts (BTS, EXO) to steer the course in a different direction, and I’m not sure I see that happening any time soon.
Boy group fans, what do you think? Are you as burnt out with all the serious-minded moodiness as I am? Or, do you think we’re just getting started with a sound that will eventually become K-pop’s new identity?
i honestly don’t mind the restrained/melancholic tracks in the vein of love scenario and deja vu; i still think they’re fresh as hell where K-pop is concerned (esp with boygroup sounds that can reliably be categorized into either bright pop, edm, or hip-hop) and I could stand to hear a few more comebacks in this style. i think edm/trophouse will be on life support pretty soon; astro was late to the party and the lukewarm commercial response despite the song being incredibly solid is pretty telling. heck, even wanna one low-key flopped with light…
its the hardcore hip-hop that bothers me most. the sound played out for me ages ago, which sucks, cause it still looks to be a permanent fixture especially with stray kids and yg’s new survival program entering the arena (heck, didn’t nct dream do this concept last comeback? the tears are real).
ultimately though I don’t think that bright boygroup pop is going anywhere. the style flagships (nct dream, astro) dipped their toes into foreign waters for a hot minute, but I’d bet my mortgage they’ll come back to their trademark next comeback. I’d count on svt doing the same thing too–booseoksoon was antithetical to basically the entirety of the current set of trends–and was a moderate hit despite pledis pouring zero dollars into it. they built their fandom on pretty u and very nice, after all, and with nuest around to do the ‘mature’ concepts I’ve no doubt that the return of funkventeen (or at least bubblegumventeen) is on the horizon.
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also! shine was a pretty massive hit, and that’s about as upbeat and cheerful as kpop gets. pentagon’s future is a little uncertain right now due to obvious reasons, but if they remain above water I think we’ll hear them capitalizing on that momentum a la momoland with bboom bboom
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I hope you’re right about certain groups returning to a brighter sound. The fact that so many of them have experimented with more “mature” vibes at roughly the same time is what’s really throwing me off.
I’ve been over the hardcore hip-hop concept for a long time, though occasionally it can still result in an awesome track (Stray Kids’ District 9 and some of NCT’s harder material comes to mind).
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To be honest, I haven’t really thought much about this, and I don’t really want to get into my thoughts on the trend and for the future because I really don’t have much of an opinion to give. What I can say is that one of the reasons I came to K-pop was so I could listen to my favorite brands of bubblegum and boyband-esque pop that English music has more or less moved on from, with the added bonus of not being embarrassed by the sometimes cringeworthy lyrics (one of the major upsides of not understanding!). I found that in Astro, the very first group that I followed closely and the idol group that’s stuck with me the longest. I’m not sure how much of that is their typical style and how much is just that it’s Astro-Always You was a huge change, but I love it to bits-but even now they’re still my go-to for music I love to listen to at all times of the day.
I’m definitely disappointed that the music style that I came looking for is seemingly beginning to disappear in the K-pop landscape. Just today, though, Red Velvet’s return to their more lighthearted sound has given me hope, and I love the power in portions of Stray Kids’ My Pace. I’m hoping that Stray Kids specifically, already being such a large influence, will help bring back the more bombastic, strong, hard-hitting (but not dark or heavy) style that I love just as much as the poppier stuff. I’m counting on them to singlehandedly bring back rock guitar!
All in all, I’m optimistic for the future, though I don’t think I’ll ever get a steady stream of material for the more carefree side of my musical preference spectrum. And if I don’t, I’ve still got ONF, Golden Child, rookie era Astro, and plenty of others to fall back on.
I’m with you on enjoying the fact that K-pop is poppy without the burden of horrible English lyrics. I’ve always been hyper-attuned to lyrics in pop songs, and so many of them are quite terrible or just meaningless. I’m sure K-pop is no different, but my limited grasp of the Korean language makes that a moot point.
It’s funny you should mention Red Velvet, because light, bubbly pop music has never gone out of style when it comes to girl groups. If anything, I find myself drawn more to the less cutesy side of girl group K-pop. Powerful concepts for female groups tend to sidestep many of the issues I have with the guys. I can’t think of the last time I heard a moody, downbeat title track from a major girl group.
Regarding Stray Kids, I hoping thaey usher in a new age of rock guitar as well! I can’t say I’m a big fan of their new album, but District 9 alone really opened up the possibility for a rock resurgence.
i think this also has to do with the ‘storyline’ concept, like groups that try to tell a consistent and continuous (usually?) story within a series of releases (such as BTS, Monsta X, VIXX?).
they tend to go for these melodramatic stories full of despair and for those to be taken seriously, the song and the music video should reflect this feeling. and, because it is a consistent story, so should the next comeback. this way, they craft a canon and while this is what keeps fans hooked (like fan theories), it also prevents the group from trying something new. maybe this is also why DNA isn’t “one of BTS’ best,” or why it didn’t live up to the expectations: because when it is juxtaposed with their serious songs that carry a certain canonical weight, it’s underwhelming. fans were waiting for the next installment in BTS’ story, but they were given a spinoff. (dna is my fav bts song btw hehe)
i think this spiral of seriousness is bugging me more than serious music. ASTRO is just trying out concepts, I’m sure they will go back to releasing some fun stuff too – they gave themselves the freedom to, after all, by avoiding the storyline pitfall. why don’t boy groups try to tell a story through different concepts? LOONA has proven pretty good at it: they don’t need to keep it serious to tell a serious story (like love4eva). or why can’t their stories be positive and fun?
I never considered this, but you bring up a really great point. Trilogies and multi-part comebacks have certainly become a huge trend over the past few years, and so many seem to be in the BTS-style aesthetic — brooding and mysterious and open to a gazillion different interpretations.
Even some of the brighter groups are doing storylines, albeit very loosely. Golden Child’s first three comebacks were apparently all part of a “Geundong High School” series, though there really wasn’t much of a story behind this. It was more of a loose theme.
Honestly, though, I think I personally prefer each comeback to be its own story. I’m all for groups building their own signature style, but not at the expense of some convoluted narrative.
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Gosh, what a mood. I’m not going to type an essay for once, but I think that in general most concepts and genres can have a great song! Yet the dark concepts tend to go all trap-inspired or (even worse) future bass, which really is quite the turn off. Bright concepts are overrun with trop house, but at least there’s often an ‘80s melody to be had!
You’re right, of course. Some of my favorite K-pop songs of all time would be considered “dark.” I think the problem, like you said, is that “dark” has recently become synonymous with trap/future bass/chill/moody/whatever you want to call it. That’s what I’m truly sick of.
I would gladly take a million “dark” songs if it meant they were EXO’s Mama or TVXQ’s Rising Sun or Bigbang’s Monster or Infinite’s Back.
Oh man, you just listed some of the best comebacks in kpop history. Add VIXX’s “Error” to that list! I love a melancholic sort of dark song, they just haven’t been done the right way as of late.
Error is DEFINITELY how you do a dark song right!
I actually wish there was more upbeat hip hop, like Block B back in their heyday (and even as recently as Yesterday or some of Zico’s solos). Now *that* feels like a rare sound in today’s kpop landscape. Hip hop songs and concepts don’t always have to be edgy, serious, and try hard….they can be fun and goofy or even “hard” in an over-the-top way that doesn’t take itself seriously. I would kill for more of that style from today’s boy groups because it seems like virtually no one is doing it!
You are totally right! I think this heavily mirrors what’s happening in the West right now. “Fun” hip-hop is definitely not easy to find anywhere.
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I think I kind of agree and disagree? My fav single of the year is Golden Child’s lady so I’m not against moody at all lol. I’d been completely out of touch with kpop from around 2015 – late last year and started paying attention again bc of BTS’s bilboard stuff and finally giving in to my friend telling me to listen to svt (who i adore now). I’ve personally always liked angrier sounding songs more (maybe listening to fall out boy and green day too much in my formative years) but if anything, I feel like boy group songs don’t go far enough in that direction? like, i’ve recently discovered Monsta X’s b-sides like Deja Vu and Be Quiet and Calm Down and Destroyer (from reading your reviews, I don’t think you would like them much haha) which go a lot harder than their singles and I’m much more drawn to those songs. I’ve enjoyed Hellevator/Grr/District 9 a lot more than I thought I would bc they’re so bombastic and noisy and just sound really substantial. I feel like so many of the ‘moody’ boy group songs these days sound kind of… empty? I think I blame that a lot on badly done drop choruses and uninteresting production choices. On the other hand, its a lot harder for me to like happier bubblegum pop songs which is why I cherish songs like nothing’s over, man in love, very nice, healing, my first and last, touch, complete, which have a brighter sound that I actually like. weirdly enough, I haven’t been able to get into astro at all, not for lack of trying. Maybe bc I was out of the kpop loop so long but I like the balance of concepts in boy groups rn, I just wish people would either write proper, interesting choruses again (in the vein of gr8u and man in love) – which have both lovely choruses and – or (if they really have to) write compelling and energetic instrumental drop choruses like complete or golden child’s sea or monsta x’s b-sides like be quiet or fallin. In fact, I wish we could get more songs with a chorus -> post chorus structure, like infinite have in man in love, synchronise and wind which are brilliant without being moody but are energetic enough to keep me compelled. reliance on pre-choruses are slowly making me lost interest in kpop again tbh (sorry for the length of this OTL)
I think a big reason we are seeing a shift to more serious tracks from boy groups is due to K-Pop’s expanding international audience. K-Pop has always been a very visual medium. There are many instances in which the quality of a song is disregarded in favor of the aesthetics of the music video. Also, the serious trend tends to allow for music videos that are more palatable to international audiences, especially people that aren’t familiar with K-Pop. Unfortunately the poppier, light hearted songs often are paired with music videos that seem childish and borderline on Stepford Wives (Stepford Husbands?) type vibes. Looking at a music video where you have late teen and twenty something young men acting childish, cutesy, or even just overly happy is very jarring if you aren’t used to it, and then the song, regardless of its quality, winds up being disregarded because the audience’s focus is on the visuals. So long as K-Pop is a visual medium, trends are going to be dictated more by the music videos and performances than the songs themselves. I do think there are some artists who have achieved the right sort of middle ground for the brighter type trends like N. Flying. By incorporating humor into their videos, they avoid that uncanny valley/Stepford territory that a lot of other groups fall victim to.
Another thing I would draw attention to is that I think the visual trend for boy groups is seriousness, which doesn’t mean that the song or the video necessarily has to be dark. Seriousness can be achieved through storytelling, realism, symbolism, aesthetics, etc. I just think the problem we have right now with boy groups in K-Pop is that the range of sounds and styles that could accompany that visual medium haven’t really been fully explored. Groups divert back to “dark” sounds with hip hop, trap, EDM, etc. because those are the sounds that have traditionally accompanied a “serious” music video. While hearing these sounds recycled over and over is frustrating, I think we are just beginning to see boy groups try out different genres and sounds (Love Scenario, Deja Vu, District 9, Taemin’s Move, etc.) that can still accompany a music video that will appeal to an international audience. Hopefully we will continue to see more groups dabbling with different sounds and genres, and I think we will, because the market for BTS clones is already oversaturated, which means agencies are going to have to find a new pie to take a piece of.
I don’t think that the brighter Golden Child/ONF/Seventeen groups are going to disappear. I think they will just remain more of a niche market that is targeted towards a primarily Korean, Japanese, and K-Pop fan demographic. These will also probably be the groups that see more success on domestic music charts, because their music will be more appealing to the general public who doesn’t care about or watch music videos and just streams music. Conversely, the “darker” boy group songs will be the ones charting primarily due to fandom power, even though the performance and quality of the song takes a backseat to the music video and visual medium. It will be interesting to see how these serious concept boy groups evolve over the next year or so. I think the serious visual trend is more or less set right now for the foreseeable future, but there is still plenty of room for experimentation on how to execute that trend with different sounds. Seriousness as a concept might be here to stay for a while, but I think the sonically “dark” songs that generally went with it are on the way out as agencies continue experimenting with new sounds to accompany it instead.
Interesting points! I try to keep visual elements out of my reviews as much as possible, but you’re right that they’re often the driving force of any comeback (which explains why more cinematic/performance-led tracks may be selected as titles even if there are “better” songs on the album).
About international influence…. that’s a thorny subject for me. I’m not against globalization of any sort, but I hate to see genuinely interesting things become watered down to please an international crowd. Honestly, I find American pop music to be in such an incredibly poor state right now. It would kill me to see K-pop venture down the same route, though I don’t think that’ll ever happen completely. It’s still a genre defined by domestic success… at least for now.
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From my experience as a BTS fan, people were always whining about “no more emo sh*t” re HYYH trilogy, fans and non fans alike, and when BTS put out DNA and Her it’s now labelled their “worst song” and “worst album” yet even if I disagree. I actually thought dna was a really good song for its genre and Her a really good pop album. At the same time I thought it didn’t feel genuinely BTS cause the lyrical level wasn’t up to par with previous albums like the things they talk about that so many fans relate to and probably stan them for, the…angst. And the whole HYYH story is part of what made them blew up in 2015 just like what’s happening to LOONA now and I don’t think both companies are going to drop it cause it’s another universe they’ve created for their groups that makes the fans always engaged.
The thing is that when more groups follow that pattern it becomes an overused trend and people start to get sick of it but I’ve already seen some groups trying out new things and getting more attention exactly because they sound different! It will be fun to see what BTS and EXO summer comebacks are going to sound like and if there’ll be a change!
Yeah, I’ve got nothing against BTS going down the serious route. It fits them well. My issue is when every other group jumps on the bandwagon and we’re left with only one flavor of K-pop. That gets old really fast. But, I guess that’s how trends work. It just seems like we’ve been stuck in this particular trend for an overly long time.
For me the best BTS songs are the fun ones, like Fire (people always forget that it’s the third part of HYYH), Dope, War (even with the lyrics) or 21 century girls. As a ex army (who love those types of songs, and grew bored of their serious style, even more after every boy group kept to doing it) it’s sad for me seeing how people are forgetting that they used to be called Fun Boys because they had a lot of fun songs and a really funny stage presence.
Loona has a great advantage (or disadvantage) and it’s that the money for girl groups is from Korea, the youngest member has 15 years (so they can’t become sexy) and they have to make at least one song with a light concept (and probably they will be great as they always are). So I don’t think they will marry with a dark style, also they have pop songs and lighter concepts.
PD: I didn’t like DNA, and it’s not because of the style. Is because, for me, is one of their worst songs… it’s forgettable and the lyrics are bad. But it was a fun ride, at least it made me smile.
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I think the problem is not exactly how much seriously some groups are more and more taking themselves and how much this is reflecting on a darker shade of music: to me the problem is that this music is sounding *all the same*, group by group and title track by title track (or album by album).
I don’t mind the idea of “trends” itself, and just like in the 80s when everything turned to synthpop and in the 90s when everything turned to eurodance, it cannot necessarily be wrong that nowadays EDM and tropical house fulfill the scene. It gets wrong when producers have absolutely no original ideas, when idols have to comeback 2/3/4 times a year to keep warm their fandoms and (paradoxically) when commercial performances say it’s the right way to boost the ROI.
Looking to the highest revenues of 2018 so far (source: https://bit.ly/2Be5uTN), we have BTS, Wanna One, SHINee, Twice, NCT, EXO-CBX, GOT7, Seventeen, Black Pink and INFINITE. And apart from Twice, GOT7 and EXO-CBX, whose funky twist is a little bit different from all the stuff around, 7 products out of 10 are quite similar in terms of approach to market: maximum value with the minimum effort.
Who tried to follow a more – let’s say – “exotic” path (and most of them were rookies like ONF, Golden Child, ACE, The East Light, Target and Samuel) didn’t succeed even in gaining remarkable YouTube views.
Moreover, the failure of “rebooting projects” The Uni+ and Mixnine has underlined this lack of creativity: apart from legal controversies and busier and busier plans to keep focus alive, there is no longer space enough for experiments.
The only chances to reverse the tape would be a sudden drop of sales or a sudden music twist in KPop main acts that somehow establish the rules of the game. If BTS had promoted So What instead of Fake Love, if Blackpink’s Ddu-du Ddu-du hadn’t been the huge sensation that it was, if NCT and SHINee’s 350 new songs in just a few months had been perceived as a chicken battery instead of “creative concepts”, if Wanna One had carefully developed the potential of Energetic instead of recording the highest amount of random tracks between a shooting and a reality show, well: maybe we wouldn’t have such a little amount of memorable songs after 8 months.
I hope boy groups will be finally able to find their “(G)I-dle model” coming out from the sand with something different from the same old stories, but at the moment it’s quite difficult to see it at the horizon.
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