2021 has been a strong year for the boys so far. At the same time, I haven’t been as impressed with many of its girl group releases. In fact, if you were looking at just the past few months of reviews, you’d probably assume I disliked girl group songs entirely. But, that’s not the case.
I was just listening to Nine Muses’ Sweet Rendezvous mini album this morning and practically had an out-of-body experience. When I fall for a girl group song or album, I fall hard. It just doesn’t happen as often as I’d like anymore.
So, now’s a good time to take stock of the sounds and approaches that are driving industry trends. As usual, the commentary below is my own, and directed more at agency decision-makers than idols themselves. Even if I don’t connect with an idol group’s music, I respect the hell out them because they work incredibly hard. You may not agree with all my points, but it’s fun to approach these things from a variety of perspectives.
And funny enough, all five of these suggestions could apply equally to boy groups! But, they’re not our focus for today.
1. Find a Middle Ground
I’ve often heard fans profess how girl group concepts and songs are so much more varied than boy groups. I’m not sure I agree. Both sides of the industry have their tropes, and most of my favorite material tends to exist in the murky middle ground between them.
Over the past few years, girl group material often falls on one end of this spectrum:
Cutesy fluff ——————————————- Edgy badassery
But, I’d argue that the room between these extremes is where the most enduring and interesting tracks exist.
As K-pop continues to push into global markets, agencies seem intent on replicating the groups who have seen the most success in the States or elsewhere. So many younger groups are either going for an early-Twice bubblegum burst or a “rum pum pum” BLACKPINK shoot ‘em up.
Most recently, I’ve noticed many groups borrowing equally from both extremes, which is where the “girl crush” concept comes from. After ITZY capitalized on this sound, it quickly became ubiquitous. But, this isn’t the middle ground I’m talking about.
What I’d love to hear is material that puts the song first. Great verse, great chorus and strong, straightforward delivery. Groups like Kara, Sistar, SNSD, and GFriend have found success aiming toward this middle ground while not completely dismissing trends.
2. Belt it Out
Going back to Nine Muses, as I listened to Ticket I marveled at just how much these girls were SINGING. From verses to chorus, there’s a strength in their delivery – even in a song that could otherwise be dismissed as novelty.
We don’t hear this kind of performance nearly enough anymore. Verses are often clipped and catchphrasey, coming across as “sing talk” rather than full-throated belting. Choruses can be more robust, but even they seem to veer toward hookiness rather than melody.
Even supposed “vocal” groups like Mamamoo have largely abandoned satisfying power notes for sung-spoke delivery that emphasizes attitude.
My advice: make sure you’ve got a great main vocal (or two!) and let her show off that talent. Place the key in a comfortable range for the performers, and take advantage of layered vocal arrangements that made groups like Kara and Nine Muses so incredible.
3. Ease Up on the Affectations
This is a personal preference, and connects directly to the previous point.
Guy or girl, I’ve never been a fan of an affected style of singing. I’d much rather hear an artist perform in their natural voice than try to fit within a character or concept. If this must be the case, at least choose an affectation that’s unique to you. As much as boy groups adopt a silly posture to appear tough and edgy, girl group performances tend to fit into a couple tropey affectations:
Quirky-cute: voices are pitched up and phrasing is clipped
Indie-cool: twangy, breathy – almost slurred speech that stretches vowels to create a languid feel
Unsurprisingly, these two styles match the extremes of the spectrum I included above. Again, I think the most compelling (and authentic) performance lies somewhere in the middle.
With that said, sometimes affectations can be an amazing boon to a group. Sistar’s signature sound wouldn’t be what it is without Hyolyn and Soyou’s breathy coos. But, I feel like those performances were more unique to them than a response to some overarching trend.
4. Get Your Quirk On
I know. I just got finished complaining about affectations, which are often used to add “quirk” to a song. But, with this point I’m focused more on concept. “Girl crush” has been the go-to concept for a while now, but there are so many opportunities out there for fresher ideas.
Japan does this very well, with a wide spectrum of girl group concepts that sometimes veer far outside the typical idea of an idol. I’m not saying K-pop needs to go that far, but it would be fun to see girl groups:
Tackle witty concepts and lyrics like the groups of Japan’s Hello Project:
Play around with gender expression and gritty settings like the now-rebranded Keyakizaka46 used to do:
Bring their much-prized edginess to less mainstream territory like Reol:
And if K-pop would rather revisit its own concepts, how about more “powerful innocence” (GFriend), “summer queens” (Sistar) or “slinky seductress” (AOA)?
5. Do Like Dua Did
With this, I don’t simply mean “reinvent the eighties,” although I have no problem with that either!
Dua Lipa released one of the finest (and most successful) albums of last year, and she did it by being part of an emerging trend rather than riding coattails until they became old and dusty. Future Nostalgia has its own specific vision and fully commits.
Really, that’s my advice for any K-pop act – male or female. Why debut if you’re just going to sound like everyone else? It may score you an easy hit or two, but it’s not the key to longevity or a dedicated fan base.
I’d love to see more girl groups emerge with a specific sound in mind, and – here’s the hard part – stick with that style for more than one or two comebacks. Consider Cherry Bullet and their cool video game concept. It barely lasted through their debut year! Even the ever-popular ITZY seem to have upended their debut-era style for something that sounds more like their peers. There’s a strength in specificity. Do what only you can do.
What about you? What would you like to see more of from K-pop’s girl groups?