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Five Suggestions to Upgrade K-Pop’s Girl Group Comebacks

Five Suggestions to Upgrade K-Pop's Girl Group ComebacksOver the years, I’ve ranted about the state of K-pop boy groups more than a few times. But, I’ve rarely given the same focused critique to the industry’s girl groups.

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 MusesSweet 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? 

42 thoughts on “Five Suggestions to Upgrade K-Pop’s Girl Group Comebacks

  1. (Side note: I saw Reol live a few years back and it was a great performance)

    I miss groups like Orange Caramel. Yeah they are probably annoyingly cute to a lot of people but they: were different to the trends, had a specific concept or released songs that at least sounded like only they could do, weren’t afraid to be seen as “weird” (I mean weird was pretty much their calling card), actually had a lot of creativity to their songs (who else has used samples of Punjabi wedding folk songs?). My biggest problem is where’s that kind of fun any more?

    I feel like too many groups (boys included) care too much about “attitude” and style over substance. I don’t want to see how much you can posture. I don’t want to see your “bad” side. I don’t care how cool you are. I just want a good pop song. I know some don’t like the more sweeter kind of girl group songs but last year who did I like the most: GWSN, April, WJSN Chocome, Yukika, Apink, fromis_9. Because they released good pop songs that are fun/nice to listen to without having to go through layers of attitude to get to. Who do I like the most this year (out of the girls)? Cherry Bullet and Yukika. Cutesy fluff is probably becoming more and more rare right now and I’m finding myself drawn to it just cos it’s not the latest Itzy/Blackpink incarnation that some label has put together for a quick buck.

    Hopefully May gives out more good gg songs since it seems pretty stacked so far. If GWSN goes anywhere near a trap beat though I will cry, riot, then cry some more.

    Liked by 2 people

    • ALSO. I know this is about ggs, but this is my problem with groups like Oneus. Going from releasing a genuinely fun and different song: Lit, to that No Diggity mess? I hate it here. There’s so much underused and unexplored avenues in kpop (I still think traditional instruments are underused, also what I’d give for more cool dance genres like psytrance, I’m still salty that fans still hate on Side Effects to this day), it doesn’t always have to be everyone get into the same lane every single time.

      Liked by 3 people

      • People hate on Side Effects? I wouldn’t get into SKZ if not for this song, LOL.
        Still miss this sort of style with them.
        I need more psychedelic, industrial tunes in Korean music.
        Also – on the traditional influences, have you come across BUM (Tiger) by RAVI and Co.? It’s my kind of weird 😀

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  2. I think you might be preaching to the choir on this blog about the current state of Kpop, though. I think we’d first have to unpack how girl groups are marketed and consistently seen as less valuable because they don’t amass the same sales or diehard fans as boy groups. Even the most successful girl groups’ often tend to operate at the whims of the general public. The cutesy/girl crush dichotomy seems to have come from a split between marketing girl groups for either older male fans or female audiences. When women in the music industry are less respected than their male peers, they don’t get the same level of care put into their discographies or even musical freedom. The middle-ground concepts you talk about seem to be generally less favored because putting time and effort into a quality song isn’t as profitable as a ho-hum song with a trap beat and a couple catchy sing-talk hooks for a fanservicey vlive.

    I realize this kind of goes for all parts of the industry but it’s especially interesting because of the history that the idol industry has with women. 48g is kind of a whole other discussion

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Kpop is also seriously in need of stronger vocals and powerful songs. I stand by my argument that The Red is the best Kpop album of all time. 10 songs, no skips, and vocal gymnastics+ power notes that don’t overwhelm the actual tracks.

    We also need a some more Charli XCX influence in Kpop. Pop 2 should’ve changed the game.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Monotone dance performance doesn’t make any sense as a phrase but I kinda get what you’re saying. Thankfully Æspa has the ability to do both, whereas I have a hunch that certain “performance based” groups are dubbed that after a few… interesting studio sessions

        Liked by 1 person

        • I feel like these are all valid points. I do have some thoughts on your first issue. I think girl groups have always been on those two ends of the spectrum plus a third point that is missing this generation: sexy. A lot of these groups are younger so it makes sense. But also, cute and girl crush have so much variety within them. If anything, almost all GGs borrow from both in some form. Cherry Bullet Love So Sweet and ASAP by STAYC are two very different songs, but roughly on the same side of the spectrum for instance. And I feel like a lot of groups are going for a mature look in some shape or form. And I do think western music is to blame for a lot of these issues in general. More marketable sound less built on high notes and more on dance and cool mvs.
          I think WJSN, Oh My Girl, and LOONA are the most promising of this new gen and certainly give variety.

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    • Your comment is cracking me up by both pleading for stronger vocals but then also advocating for Charli, the queen of (well-utilized) autotune and singing without showy vocal gymnastics haha. I totally agree with you though! Unfortunately I can envision the result of kpop groups taking after her being labeled “noise music” or lacking the hooks and cheeky self awareness needed to make that style work….

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  4. I very much agree there is a problem and appreciate that you bring it up, but I have very different thoughts on rooting the cause and finding the way out. But my face is so tired now/s just a placeholder her I guess

    Liked by 1 person

    • The thing about ITZY is (I will probably get smacked for this) that their biggest hits included somebody else from AOA singing along half the chorus and their voice count as backtrack and can be put played in music shows. If managers of other companies see through the sales numbers they would understand that they don’t have to follow that at all

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      • I’ve seen you make other comments about Itzy that aren’t in good faith so I don’t particularly know what your intention is with this. Backing vocals are not a problem if the song is good lmao. Galactika kept Yuna’s demo vocals in WJSN’s Butterfly and WJSN is a very vocally talented group.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Well that’s interesting, butterfly was a song that made me question Galactika’s proficiency in vocal production, you can look at the comments I made back then and I clearly didn’t know somebody else’s vocals were put into it.

          Sure I am bad faith, and JYP is a total lunatic pushing his red hot group to US in such a dedicated manner knowing fully well that visibly pushing groups abroad will tank a group’s SK popularity.

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          • JYP knows what it’s like to have a group with almost no popularity in SK: Just look at Stray Kids. Companies are going to take the path of least resistance to make more money even if it’s not good for the idols’ in the long run. It’s a miracle that Wonder Girls managed to bounce back but if Itzy ends up a failure, JYP will probably just ditch them for a new set of talented girls. Itzy does deserve better than the songs they’ve been getting

            Liked by 1 person

    • It’s just that the way people consume these products are very very different (if they are consumed, which for smaller groups, not). The hope is that since these methods are almost entirely developed by marketing tricks, it can be reversed have any large agencies had the will to do so to prevent us non dancers to become grumpy whiny old man forever

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    • I liked this by accidentally clicking so I wanna refute this by saying I do not want to see singers dressed as mermaid wrapped in supermarket fresh food wrapping again, I know it’s orange camel but still

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      • Clearly, everything other than the company’s terrible management of the group. Majority of the points you voiced out hold true for AS. If it isn’t to your taste, that’s another story.

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  5. Well another thought, we need a music movement that is at least as good (novel and impactful) as the techno/house halftime from 2000s and the popified Nordic trend from early 2010s.

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  6. Out of curiosity, what was LUNARSOLAR’s “DA DA DA” included for? Was it an example of “material that puts the song first” or the ITZY-esque “girl crush” sound? (paraphrase: is it a example of the good or bad?)

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    • It’s my recent example of taking from both sides of the spectrum, which is what I think a lot of groups have been doing lately.

      I do like that song, though.

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  7. KARA, Girl’s Day, GFriend, WJSN, Oh My Girl are my favorites as of now.

    Different genres of music but with a common denominator ——> GREAT VOCALS.

    4th Gen relies on dance, rap, and performance. But great vocals elevate a song for me. That’s why I don’t listen to the polished songs of GWSN and Saturday. But I can listen all day to the messy but powerful iriwa by Pink Fantasy. Because they utilize well that vocals…

    Anyways, EVERGLOW and TWICE would be back this May. I am rooting for them since they delivered absolute bangers last year. I wish they do that again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with every group you listed and I’ll toss Secret, Brown Eyed Girls, Apink, Red Velvet, and T-ara in there as well as far as groups that manage to vary things up yet still release quality material. Honestly, I could probably add another 10 groups to the list, but eh….

      Liked by 1 person

  8. On the topic of girl groups though, those AESPA image teasers look amazing! I really hope the instrumental of their title track [and album] reflects their futuristic look!! I’m dying for a futuristic EDM / retrowave track – although that probably won’t happen lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Some examples that I think apply…

    1. Find a Middle Ground:
    Apink – “Mr. Chu”
    Oh My Girl – “Windy Day”
    f(x) – “Four Walls”

    2. Belt it Out:
    SPICA – “Painkller”
    Berry Good – “Angel”
    Jessi – “Don’t Make Me Cry”

    3. Ease Up on the Affectations:
    STAYC – “So Bad”
    TWICE – “Feel Special”
    Lee Hi – “HOLO”

    4. Get Your Quirk On:
    Red Velvet – “Dumb Dumb”
    Brown Eyed Girls – “Warm Hole”
    Orange Caramel – -=EVERYTHING!=-

    5. Do Like Dua Did:
    LUSH – “Miserable”
    The Barberettes – “Love Shoes”
    Secret – “Shy Boy”

    Then there’s songs like Purfles – “A Bad Thing” or Sistar – “Give It To Me” which qualifies for 1., 2., 3., and 5.. The list goes on… I could fill up each category, but you get the idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think the girlgroup at the top of the pack right now is clearly GFriend. The 1-2-3 punch of Crossroads/Labyrinth-Apple-MAGO is a masterclass in reinvention and successful evolution, in terms of both musical quality and aesthetic.

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  11. Reading through your points, and while I agree, it just makes me even more stumped on HOW you didn’t love Cherry Bullet’s Love So Sweet when it checks nearly every box here and is by far the sleekest girl group song of 2021

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well to be fair, it’s one of my highest-rated gg tracks of the year. To push it higher, I think I would have preferred a more powerful vocal arrangement and meatier instrumental. But, I do like it!

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  12. I couldn’t agree with these points more. My issue with a lot girl group songs (and this also applies to a lot of boy groups) but it’s clear the concept came before the song. And I don’t mean this as “the group has a specific color and style that they match and keep up with” but more so in a “what’s cool now and how do we do that”. There’s no consistency or personality anymore. This could also be due to lackluster vocals. Like if a groups thing is they’re always going to pull out show stopping, mature, unique vocals then they can really do anything and have it be their constant style but for a lot of girl groups you could switch their songs around and you’d never know who it was meant for. Like any current group can perform Itzy’s Not Shy or Mafia but only Mamamoo can do Decolamanie or only Dreamcatcher can do…well really any of their songs lol.

    I really want to listen to more girl groups, I really do but I just can’t seem to get into them the same way I do with boygroups. Maybe that’s because I like more mature songs (but like not even because I love Oh My Girl’s stuff and Candy Pop has rooted itself firmly on my playlist and is not budging anytime soon) but I think boygroups are given more room to have a sound and a style. Some of my favorite girl groups have pretty fixed concepts and are given that room to explore. Dreamcatcher, Red Velvet, pre-debut Loona to a certain extent(Loona peaked before they even debuted), GWSN, WJSN etc. Like I want more of early RV’s red stuff. Just pick something and commit, go wild. I mean look at Dreamcatcher they really took nightmare rock concept and never looked back and it’s given us absolute bangers and it doesn’t hurt that all their vocalists are main vocal material. I know I said one concern was the heavy concept but I wish concepts were more varied and then committed to more. If you want to be quirky commit pull an Orange Caramel. WJSN Chocome came the closest and I absolutely loved their stuff. If you want to be badass don’t package it in an easy to swallow marketable mv go fucking wild. Do like Hyuna or Jessi and piss some people off. And I think this ticks off another problem: how and who these girls are marketed for. Like they want to appeal to women because they are more dedicated fans but there is a boundary they can’t cross so the male gaze is a constant in concept, mvs, and costume choice. It’s clear that a lot of girl group stuff wasn’t made for me as a consumer. This is why I adore female solo artists like Sunmi or Hyuna or even Chungha (bicycle? What’s that) and Yukika. Their stuff hits closer to home.

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    • Poor Loona got screwed over by horrible management and company conflict but things seem to be looking up with Haseul’s return. At least when they’re trendy they’re still catchy unlike… certain groups lmao

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  13. I agree with that third point so bad. (G)I-DLE songs are so unpleasant to listen to because of Minnie’s “indie girl” voice. It sounds so forced.

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    • Yep, that’s who I thought of too. I get the impression it’s a Billie Eilish-centered trend (not exclusively inspired by her but strongly influenced) to appeal to younger alternative kids. I mean if it works for the music they want to make, good for them… but I feel like Minnie, and other vocalists who limit themselves to this sort of style, have so much more potential. Now I will go back to watch my good vocal compilations from the second gen era ;-;

      Liked by 1 person

  14. It’s funny how I randomly discovered BEYOOOOONDS in this blog I’ve lurked for so years and now it’s my absolute favorite girl group project (though STAYC has been a worthy challenger these past few months). All the j-pop idiosyncrasies makes the experience of following it a novelty of sorts, and I absolutely love it — in particular how unpretentious their material ends up feeling. Most of the music I listen to is Japanese, but I tend to stick to the rockier genres and, when listening to pop, it’s hardly ever idol pop. But the usual format of many K-Pop songs nowadays (or maybe it’s just a second batch of the saturation I felt circa 2013) have pushed me towards discovering more about the Japanese side of (idol) pop and I couldn’t be happier about it.

    Nick, if you haven’t already, check out their one of their newest releases, “This is not how I pictured myself” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2-Fv3iXX6w ). I don’t feel strong about it being to your tastes, music-wise, but the lyrics are delightful (and go with along nicely with your fourth point).

    Liked by 1 person

    • While I’m squarely camped out on the K-pop side of the lake, I do occasionally paddle over to the J-pop side for a change of scenery. Here’s a list of some of my favorite artists/groups:

      Tokyo Girls’ Style: Probably my favorite group. They’re released some pure gold.
      Shishido Kavka: My J-pop-rock queen.
      Flower: Lush, lavish, and lovely.
      Koda Kumi: When I want to snap my fingers, tap my feet, and bobble my head.
      BABYMETAL: Because.. ..duh!

      Other notables: Dream/Happiness/E-Girls, FEMM, xxx48, Weather Girls, Country Girls, Yumemiru Adolescence, Dazzle Vision, etc..

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      • Aside from Koda Kumi, whose entire discography I listened to in the early 2010s (though I can’t say I remember much about it), and my passing knowledge of BABYMETAL, I’m unfamiliar with most of those. I’ll be sure to check them out when I have the time, thank you!

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  15. I am always of the belief that there is a vast supply of songs and vast supply of kids who want to be in kpop, so the agencies should not be limited in their choices.

    So I say
    Content and talent is queen
    DItch the elaborate costuming and theming
    Ditch the role labels (vocal, subvocal, visual, dance, rap)
    Go for all around talent
    Hire hungry creative off-broadway theater types to craft the concept
    Give them half the budget and half the time
    Pick the best song you can find, spend the money here
    Deliver the performance simply and solidly
    Comeback early and often

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  16. I mostly agree with these, and also agree with the commenter above that girl groups are stuck between appealing to female fans (more loyal purchasers and for general promotion of the groups) and the male gaze (historically the trend in kpop, most execs/producers/general decision-makers remain male). This article from this week illustrates this a bit more in-depth: https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/k-pop/bands/article/3132655/blackpink-girls-generation-brave-girls-k-pop-girl-groups-have

    I think a lot of the girl crush/edgy badass concepts are meant to appeal more to female fans in an “aspirational” way, but they’re generally too serious to produce good music. At the same time, they don’t want to actually challenge gender norms because it would alienate male fans. ITZY early comebacks walked this line well (“Just wanna be me” is perfect lukewarm empowerment lyrics). Weki Meki Cool is another example of this done well. G-IDLE tries to do this but their music is not as good. It would be better if they would commit to actually appealing to female fans or at least have a little more humor about the situation. Unfortunately given the state of feminism in Korea this is probably not viable. (Boy groups have also basically lost their sense of humor about the absurdities of idol expectations, with few exceptions like ONF)

    And here’s where I plug my girls Weeekly, since I feel like they’re a good example of a new gen group who does your recommendations well. Their concept is in the “cute” camp, but it’s more generally youthful than cute, and it seems like they’re meant to appeal to same-age girls. They rarely wear short skirts, for example. It doesn’t feel generic. Their vocals are pretty good and they have actual sung choruses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l02-h_7lPZE And their 3 mini albums are very consistent in sound and have some good bsides, with a clear vision of the type of group they are. My favorite bsides are Hello https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK5cxLWVBP0 and Top Secret https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAxqHzLsRAc to give some examples.

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    • You summed it up perfectly-girl groups are straddling the line between giving just enough to hook in female fans but not pushing the boundary enough and fully committing to a truly empowering concept. I mean let’s compare 2NE1 to Blackpink; there’s a glaring discrepancy in the way the two groups were marketed and how palatable they are to male audiences (and also we could argue that 2NE1’s disbandment was due to them going too far and YG tried to compensate by pushing out the non-offensive BP).
      Weeekly was actually one of the newer groups I had in mind that seem to be doing a cuter concept that still seems to be marketed to young women at least to a certain extent. I’ve always liked their outfits (especially since they’re almost always wearing longer shorts or pants and they don’t look super uncomfortable on stage) and the way they used a skateboard in their choreo which gives me very NCT Dream Chewing Gum vibes. They’re a good example of doing something cute and still have it be appealing to female fans. This is also another issue-girl groups thinking that they have to try on that edgy boy group concept to be able to reach female audiences which is absolutely not the case.

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  17. Nothing particularly new here, I’m mostly here for the Nine Muses appreciation 🙂 Ticket is my least favourite song on Sweet Rendezvous but the entire mini is so good. Who R U is one of their best B-sides

    Like

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