Part 1: Concepts and Perceptions
Girl groups are a wonder! They perform in high heels, short shorts, and swing their hair back and forth almost as good as Willow does. Marketed as goddesses, angels, and school girls, girl groups appeal to a vast array of people both in and out of the K-pop world. However, of recent, girl groups seem to be having a hard time making it as big or keeping up with their male counterparts. If there was any doubt to this, watch the coverage of the MAMA 2014 awards. How did things come to such a pass?
A debut or comeback concept can make or break a group early in its career. This is especially true for girl groups, whether it was the badass “I’m the best” girl power of 2NE1, the sweet girl next door appeal of Girls Generation, or the I’m a little bit sexy-a little bit cute-but all woman vibe of Wonder Girls. Iconic and original concepts can help girl groups stand out, but is hardly sufficient for longevity in the industry. Wonder Girls have basically disbanded, with the happy marriage of a jaded Sunye. While Girls Generation and 2NE1, had a very tough 2014 even though they start the year very strong.
Then there’s the sexy-feline concept of groups like the 9Muses of Star Empire Entertainment. There, however, is a fine line between sexy and raunchy. Groups like SISTAR of Starship Entertainment, AOA of FNC Entertainment, and Girl’s Day of Dream Tea Entertainment have found that line, and tread it with each new comeback. Wearing skirts with slits to the sky and heels to make a ballerina wince, these girls exude confidence, and with an “eye-smile”, warmth. Instead of coming across as “too much,” with their calculated movements they come across as classy and when done correctly, sophisticated.
Contrast all of these to the women of Wa$$up, whose concept of “twerking” has kpop fans saying “Oh that twerking group is coming back,” “They have no ass and they aren’t doing it right.”
Wouldn’t it be better if instead fans would say of them “Oh! I get to hear a new song from a cool group.” The same sentiment could be said of Stellar, whose “Marionette” song was overshadowed by the hypersexual imagery. Moreover, YouTube labels the video as “inappropriate for some users.” All of which indicates that a sexy concept wielded clumsily can detract from the music and art, helping the group along the pathway to obscurity.
Although, Exid has traveled down and then back up that road of obscurity. Their sexy concept song “Up and Down” failed to catch on, and kinda faded away until a softcore video of one of their members dancing to the same song went viral. Since then they’ve continued to find Kardashianesque success.
The cutesy “aegyo” concept, tends to be the most popular of all the girl group concepts, with Crayon Pop being a shining example. This is probably because a significant percentage of K-pop fans are middle and high school girls. So, seeing groups that look like them and are more relatable gives aegyo groups more appeal, than the dazzling sexy groups or “normal” looking tomboy groups.
Another prime example of a cute girl group is the recently debuted group Lovelyz. Wearing school uniforms and singing of first love, is the epitome of a cute concept. On the same note, Tiny-G singing in nightgowns, pillows, and pigtails showcases the innocent nature that is the definition of being a cute girl group. Although, Tiny G started out as a hip-hop style tomboy group.
Also, A Pink has consistently used the cutesy concept to find success. And, many girl groups debut with this tried and true concept, such as Red Velvet of SM Entertainment and Girls Day. Many of these groups later pivot to other concepts, especially as biology kicks in – something boy groups, as the case may be, don’t necessarily have to deal with.
Probably the least popular of the girl group concepts is the tomboy look, prevalent among hip-hop inspired groups. When 2NE1 debuted in 2009 with “Fire,” they basically started a revolution with their hardcore, tomboyish look. Although, as they matured into sexy ladies, they shed some of that rebellious image – again due to biology. Ultimately, they set the bar for future hip-hop based “tomboy” groups, such as Global Icon (G.I.) and EVOL.
Of recent, it seems there are a few drawbacks to the tomboy concept. Tough girls, especially ones who do hip-hop, are not considered to be traditionally pretty, which with the proliferation of cosmetic surgery and BB-cream can polarize and turn-off fans. Looks, as it turns out, factor a lot in this business. Even if you can cover a boy group successfully, like G.I. did with Block B, or dance your butt off like EVOL in their practice video, your talent becomes overshadowed by your appearance. (If you don’t believe me, watch San E.’s reaction to Jimin vs the other contestants on Unpretty Rapstar).
Also, while fans claim to want something unique and different, when these rare tomboy groups come out, they instantly get compared to the original 2NE1, and either they comeback with a softer look or fall to the wayside in favor of more marketable groups.
On February 17, 2015 Sports Chosun released its ranking of girl groups, with 2NE1, Girls Generation and Sistar coming out on top. Not one single tom-boy group made it anywhere near the top. Well, 4Minute which is like a hybrid sexy-hiphop group came close.
Interestingly, when Soompi posted about the Chosun article, their readers made the following comments
The only reason why these groups are going up the ladder is because they flaunt their skirts and have the sexy theme/concept. 2ne1 or snsd never had to do these during their time. No offence but i’m hating on these hoobae girl groups right now they dont deserve to be going on top if all they use is the sexy concept.
I think theres a lot of potential in boy groups but not so much in girl groups. But, im looking forward to some of the new girl rookies like mamamoo and red velvet. =P anyways this is just my opinion…
In an industry based on perception and visual imagery, girl groups have it harder. In most societies, girls are meant to embody purity. Girls are kept close to home and guarded. With girl groups, these factors, unintentionally or otherwise, come into play. This may factor into why when cutesy girl groups dominated, girl groups had an easier time making it big and keeping up with their male counterparts. They effectively played into the public’s sensibilities. While this is not always the case, it is common enough to mention.
On the flip side, an overly sexy group can detract from their essence and can be off-putting to fans. And, this may be why as the sexy concept has increasingly become commonplace, the popularity of girl groups is in decline. All in all, before they can make a big impression musically, girl groups have the added pressure of having to take much more into consideration in order to make a striking and lasting impression.
But then again, maybe the industry needs to make sure that girl groups are getting that extra attention that they would otherwise be getting at home, otherwise we’ll keep getting situations like GLAM, Jessica, and Park Bom. Fact is, as a society we tend to agree, girls should be handled with care.
Stay tuned for part 2…
Johnny contributed a little bit to this article.