If one thing has been lacking from K-pop’s 2020 boy group landscape, it’s a sense of fun. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not exactly in “fun” times right now, so to expect anybody to be in a particularly good mood at the moment is asking a lot. But when things are dark, don’t we need upbeat entertainment the most?
This lengthy rant will be a sequel to a similar post I published in the summer of 2018, and I regret to say that – despite a promising 2019 – things have only gotten worse on this front. This year, every single boy group is either sulking, emoting hard or simply trying to prove how badass they can be. Even when we hear a bit of lighthearted funk, it’s usually undercut by a “hard” trap breakdown or angsty aside. Nobody seems to be allowed to just let their guard down and have a good time.
For clarification, let’s define what I’d consider a “bright” boy group song. These examples may seem almost old-fashioned to us now, since the style seems to be such an endangered species:
Astro – from Hide & Seek to Crazy Sexy Cool
Golden Child – from DamDaDi to Genie
Seventeen – Adore U to Boom Boom
VERIVERY – from Ring Ring Ring to Tag Tag Tag
NCT Dream – Chewing Gum to We Young
TXT – Crown
Or, if you’d prefer some older examples:
Infinite – Man In Love
B1A4 – What’s Happening
Boyfriend – Love Style
SHINee – Dream Girl
GOT7 – A
EXO – Love Me Right
In short, I’m talking about songs and concepts that utilize bright colors, big melodies and upbeat rhythms that sustain (or even build!) though the entire track. It seems like a simple approach, right? Yet, our current generation of boy groups seems to be allergic to it. Every one of those groups I mentioned in the first set of examples has since gone down a darker route and shows no signs of returning to their upbeat roots. Not all of these transformations has been bad or unenjoyable, but their similar trajectories threaten to blend every group into one homogeneous entity.
With this in mind, I’m going to attempt to brainwash the K-pop industry and fandom as a whole by arguing against a few of the assumptions and reasons we’ve found ourselves stuck in this rut. Wish me luck!
1. “Dark” = “Mature”
I see this thrown around a lot – how a group’s new song is so “mature” just because they slowed the tempo and upped the moodiness. I want to push back on this hard, because as an older (at least, relatively) K-pop fan myself, I resent the fact that just because you’re at a certain stage of your career (or life) you can’t have fun anymore without coming across as juvenile.
Though they’re different markets, I’m thinking about Japan’s Johnny’s Entertainment, with a roster of groups who have stood the test of time. We’re talking about acts like V6 and Arashi who have been in the industry for decades, or even comparatively newer acts like News or Kis-My-Ft2, whose members are now in their thirties. You don’t see these groups arbitrarily “going dark” with no opportunity to return to a fresher concept. Their discographies are varied all the way through their career, yet even in their thirties or forties, the most rousing portion of their concerts tends to be those good old sing-along anthems.
Yet, as soon as a K-pop group’s maknae turns twenty, it seems like it’s time to get “serious” and be taken “seriously.” This brings me to…
2. Bright groups aren’t taken seriously
I’m not sure I buy this. I think a lot of this argument is based on a Western viewpoint that’s been imposed upon K-pop as the industry has grown more international. Like it or not, boy and girl groups are rarely taken seriously in the West. Sometimes even by the groups themselves are eager to move onto more “meaningful” fare, which ironically tends to be the very moment their music falls out of commercial favor. Much of this has to do with a presumed lack of “authenticity,” given weight by the fact that many of these groups don’t write their own material.
Well, few idol acts write their own material either, and it doesn’t make a lick of difference to me. When it comes to pop music, I’m not interested in authenticity if it means little else but moping around. I don’t need a dissertation on social or political issues to be satisfied with a song. I just need the music to be good. And if a song pierces through the language barrier and hits all the right dopamine centers, you better believe I’m taking it seriously.
I’m also taking seriously those songwriters and idols who know their way around a potent pop melody. I’m thinking specifically of B1A4’s Jinyoung, who composed some of the last decade’s most irresistible pop songs. They were lighthearted, upbeat and could even be criticized as innocuous, but the strength of their energy persists long past the shelf life of the latest tuneless trap dirge.
3. Once you go dark, you can’t go back
The most troubling aspect of this doom and gloom has been a pattern in which groups embrace their newfound musical “maturity” and get stuck in that same template for years. Reverting from a Blue Flame to a Hide & Seek, or a Wannabe to a DamDaDi seems almost like career suicide, as if a group suddenly isn’t taking their music seriously anymore. Why is this?
For an industry that relies so heavily on concepts, you’d think it would be easy for a group to slide naturally between lighter and darker sounds. Yet, it simply isn’t done that often. While the transition from bright to dark is lauded as “growth,” the opposite move is seen as risky or frivolous. When it comes to this phenomenon, I’m particularly concerned about Seventeen. At this point, they’re so established that they’d find easy success with another title track like Very Nice or Mansae, yet I fear that a misguided sense of “growth” is keeping them from revisiting their funk-pop roots.
We don’t really see this issue when it comes to girl groups, which makes me think that gender roles impose a strong influence. As much as K-pop likes to play androgynous with make-up and stage outfits, these brighter concepts seem to be deemed more childish and, therefore, weak. The male K-pop idol is an archetype unto its own, but as with most societies, a narrow definition of “masculine” seems to be prized above all else.
We can see this in competition shows, like the currently running Road to Kingdom. When a group wants to have impact, they never opt for a brighter, funkier concept. This is reinforced by voting and results. The darker, edgier performances on Produce 101 and other survival series always seem to get the most attention and votes. Is it because they’re truly of higher quality? Or, is it that audiences have been conditioned to seek out material that compliments existing gender roles?
4. The international market doesn’t want bright boy groups
I’m not sure we know what the international market wants, but we know what the industry thinks the international market wants. Speaking as an American consumer, the bulk of our successful boy bands have made their name on brighter, upbeat material, and given the right push by agencies, the same has been true of K-pop acts. BTS’s Boy With Luv was received very well internationally, as was TXT’s Crown.
I don’t buy the assumption that western ears don’t appreciate upbeat material. The problem is, all of the groups who have peddled brighter fare hail from agencies that don’t have much reach into the international market. Groups like VERIVERY, Golden Child and Astro arrived without the benefit of a heavily-watched survival series, making it more difficult for them to gain a global foothold. Yet, almost every act that’s come from a Produce-like juggernaut has opted to go dark and edgy right from the start. If these are the only acts an international fan is familiar with, their taste is going to be guided for them — at least to some degree.
5. You can’t showcase skill with bright material
Bright pop songs are too fluffy to showcase an idol act’s true potential, right? After all, these groups are groomed and trained to perfection, delivering complex choreography with the utmost precision.
That’s all well-and-good, but without personality, complex choreography loses much of its appeal. I may be in the minority, but I’d much prefer to experience a blast of joy or a tangible love for performing over some technically perfect routine. After all, we’re at the point where almost any established K-pop group can deliver a flawless piece of choreo. The industry does not lack for talent. After a while, these constant attempts to one-up each other begin to lose their potency. The acts that really catch my eye during weekly music shows are the ones who can cut through all their practiced perfection and offer a natural sense of showmanship. This feels like the spark of a true star, and this kind of charisma is a skill that often goes unappreciated.
I’d argue that brighter material actually helps draw this out in performers. If a song is fun, the artist is more likely to be having fun performing it. There’s no need to pose this way or that. You can be a little more unguarded – maybe even smile! And whether this smile is practiced or not (it most likely is), it’s a welcome sign that these idol groups are human beings with their own individual charms, not mechanized, moody robots trying to conform to someone else’s definition of what a K-pop star should be. You can still have complex choreography, goosebump-inducing power notes and intricate hip-hop flow within a brighter template.
If only we’d see some of that this year!