I’ll begin this latest Bias List screed by stating that I’m an avid watcher of K-pop’s survival series. From juggernauts like Produce 101 to barely-remembered blips like Under Nineteen, I love a good competition. And yet, I fear that the proliferation of these series is killing K-pop’s creativity.
An Old-Fashioned Approach
Back in the day (cue sad violin soundtrack), it used to be that K-pop fans were drawn in by a group’s sound or concept. You’d hear a song — perhaps through youtube, maybe through music shows — and if it resonated with you, you’d work backwards and get to know the groups’ members by watching variety shows and interviews. An appreciation of their endearing personalities or killer talent helped sustain interest, but the very existence of a certain member or two wasn’t usually the jumping-on point for a fan. A group had to wow you with their sound first.
Over-Saturation leads to Risk Aversion…
This scenario has flipped 180 degrees over the past few years. As the industry started to clog with more and more competition, agencies realized that — apart from the rare success story here or there — the only acts that were breaking out were those who had prior recognition via TV series or competition show. This started innocently enough, with groups like Winner and iKON gaining pre-debut hype via YG competition shows.
But, as the years passed, it became necessary to bolster the popularity of individual trainees before even determining what their eventual music would sound like. I mean, can you think of any other music industry where fans actively follow and promote pre-debut trainees without even knowing what their voice sounds like?
… and Risk Aversion leads to Stagnation
Here’s the problem, though. Idols are known to be jacks or jills of all trades, but at their core they are (or at least should be) conduits for music. Concept, choreography and personality are obviously important factors in any K-pop release, but they shouldn’t be the overriding factor. Yet, if you’ve got a debuting group filled with members who already have an established, eager fan base, there’s no need to put much effort into crafting a distinguishable sound. It’s much easier to play it safe and cater to whatever the trend may be at the moment. Fans will support the artist either way. Why push boundaries and potentially alienate the general public?
Well, pushing boundaries and going big is kind of what K-pop used to be about. But in a post-Produce industry, those qualities are becoming more and more of a rarity. This is, in part, why I think we’ve seen K-pop’s current trends hang around much longer than normal. Case in point: I’ve been complaining about tropical sounds since 2016. Years ago, this musical influence might have only been a brief blip in the industry’s continual evolution. These days, it’s a proven formula for an easy hit, not to be tampered with.
This approach filters down to K-pop’s behind-the-scenes creators as well. Largely absent today are those idiosyncratic composers of the past — your Sweetunes, Brave Brothers, Duble Sidekicks, Yoo Young-Jins. In their place is a host of new creators (or worse yet… song camps) who can reliably churn out solid re-creations of current trends, but have little discernible style of their own.
Because again, why create something that will be embraced by some and ignored by others, when you can forge a product that will be tolerated by all but inspire no one? It’s an exercise in market expansion rather than market penetration. And, if nothing else, K-pop is very much in a current frame of mind that’s obsessed with expansion.
The Current K-pop Landscape
Putting this into immediate context, each project from former Wanna One members (whether solo or group) has been nearly indistinguishable from the next, neatly slotting into some pre-defined mix of overused styles. None of these releases have emerged with much of a concept beyond vague descriptors like “moody,” or “chill.” Not all of the music has been bad, but I don’t think a passive fan would be able to easily tell the difference between a CIX or AB6IX, for example.
Second (and early third) generation K-pop had its little niches it could cater to, offering a variety of styles for a variety of tastes. The groups that continue this approach today tend to be ones that debuted without the aid of a survival series, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. They’re still operating under those old rules: build an identifiable sound and like-minded fans will eagerly fall into the group’s charms. Craft a catchy, memorable song and you might just gain attention without having a beloved trainee within your ranks. But in an industry ruled by MNET and the like, this is proving difficult for many. Most of these left-of-center acts struggle to make consistent comebacks — the very ingredient necessary for cultivating their fan base.
The Way Forward
There are exceptions, of course. Rookie group ATEEZ seem poised for superstardom without the benefit of pre-debut hype. It’s their sound and style that’s done it, bolstered by a consistency in producers and a lot of good old fashioned hard work. This burgeoning sensation feels similar to BTS back in 2015, and seems to point towards longevity. I don’t think we’re ever going to get a BTS-style success from a corporation-fueled survival series approach. Groups formed via television just don’t have the same arc as those who slowly work themselves up in rank through the strength of their discography.
So, how does K-pop get back to a more musically-focused place? It won’t be easy. It requires a certain level of discernment among the music-listening public. It requires fans to admit when their bias’s comeback isn’t up to par — and to realize that you can still be a fan and be critical at the same time. This is counter to the industry’s (successful) fostering of an idol worship culture. After all, why would you be critical of a group’s music if the music wasn’t what you fell in love with in the first place? This is the sneaky brilliance of these survival series. They know that the set-up can be so much more important than the delivery, and have found a way to inoculate future artists from the need to stand out musically.
For as passionate as K-pop fans are, it’s almost as if these large conglomerates have dulled our ability to demand diversity in what the industry offers. I am certainly complicit in this, slavishly following each new pre-debut reality series and following the resulting group through a manipulated sense of loyalty. I purchase albums from groups I like, even when the music is just so-so. In a lot of ways, K-pop’s more maddening techniques have sunk their teeth into my listening habits.
And yet, I urge us all not to be lemmings. Find the music you genuinely like and support it wholeheartedly. Critique when necessary, with the understanding that constructive criticism is healthy. Enjoy the over-the-top survival series for what they are, but demand that the resulting groups’ music feels necessary on its own, and not just a means to an end.