“I know enough of the world now to have almost lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything,” wrote Charles Dickens. Well, Charlie was clearly no K-pop fan, because if there is one thing that Korean musical acts like to do, it’s surprise us. From pole-dancing girl groups to armor-clad boy bands, join us on a journey through the shocking, the daring and the downright bizarre as we run down the 10 most surprising K-pop comeback concepts of all time.
When it comes to out-there concepts, YG Entertainment acts pretty much have a handle on producing visuals that unfailingly get fashion writers’ knickers in knots and Illuminati-obsessed conspiracy theorists frothing at the mouth. But the concepts used in “Fantastic Baby” might even make Lady Gaga’s designers blush. The boys appeared onstage to perform the track with asymmetrical haircuts, bits of gladiator armor and green three-piece suits, but the music video was where abstract really kicked in. G-Dragon sits on a throne made of rubble while legions of gas-masked protester and riot police punch lumps out of eat other, surrounded what looks like kilometers of his own (bright red) hair, T.O.P appears to be doing a Napoleon impression and a topless Daesung is chained to a wall. It’s all great fun, but nobody alive can explain this comeback concept. Just nobody.
For many people, Orange Caramel were just another of the scores of painfully similar cute-concept girl groups that were flooding the K-pop scene circa 2010. And, for many, the After School subunit’s “Magic Boy” debut was anything but magic. The subsequent release “Shanghai Romance” had a few quirky moments in it, but for many K-pop fans, this was a subunit that was going nowhere fast. “Lipstick” was a step in the direction of crazy, but nothing had prepared the K-pop world for the absolute anarchy of “Catallena.” Replete with a synth-heavy reworking of a traditional Indian wedding ditty, sushi-themed headpieces, and a dance that defined the spring (and much of the summer) of 2014, this insane mix of seemingly random elements combined to make a perfect storm of puzzled delight for listeners – and catapulted all three of its members to a level of popularity they had probably never even dreamed of.
This one is not so much of a change of visual concept as a complete change of approach to music. Prior to 2011, the BEAST boys had already carved a name for themselves as purveyors of relentlessly upbeat, high-octane dance hits like “Shock” and “Breathe.” Although they occasionally made time for a few slower-paced numbers such as “Clenching My Fists Tight,” BEAST never really went in for dark and pensive as a musical theme. Until “Fiction,” that is. While previous releases make you feel like you ought to be in a gym somewhere bench-pressing twice your bodyweight, “Fiction” has an introspective feel that the group would go on to perfect with songs like “Shadow.” The look was not radically different, but this was the audio equivalent of discovering that your PE teacher spends his weekends locked in a room writing reams of existential poetry.
By June 2013, Korean girl groups had done the sexy concept to death. There was really nothing left to add, it seemed. So when After School decided to put out yet another sexy-themed release, it looked like K-pop fans were on a one-way trip to overkill city. But the girls somehow managed to turn the genre on its head with “First Love,” thanks to an almost impossible-looking choreography routine that involved carting numerous metal poles from music show to music show and dancing up and down them with remarkable acrobatic ease. The whole thing was done without a hint of the kind of sleaze that a K-pop pole dance routine would seem to imply, and ended up setting the bar very high for girl groups throughout the whole industry.
Following up what was an innocent-enough look for their 2012 debut “MAMA,” the EXO boys first came back with a rough, tough and slightly scary look for their sophomore album. The “Wolf” music video and promotions were a carnival of eerie-looking limb trees, dry ice and eye-liner. OK, so the overarching concept is boys (“MAMA”) to men (“Wolf”). That makes perfect sense. But for the next song, “Growl,” they decide to promote from the album, they go with…er, school uniforms. On paper, it sounds like a horrific idea, but it actually turned out to be a whole bag of win. But, well, if anyone could rock a look based on the overly tight and oppressively grey school uniforms that Korean schoolboys are forced to sport, it was almost certainly going to be EXO.
Not many people would have been brave enough to predict in 2012 that Girl’s Day were on the verge of becoming one of the most influential acts in K-pop. Although the group had had a few minor dance-themed hits like “Nothing Lasts Forever” and “Tilt Your Head,” the girls were mostly known for light, fluffy, cute tracks like “Twinkle Twinkle” and “Hug Me Once,” with concepts that saw them appear on album covers in wedding dresses and inoffensive school uniform-look outfits. When member Jihae left the group at the end of 2012, the group’s debut as a four-piece was a mature look and an equally mature sound for “Don’t Forget Me.” It looked like this more considered look was going to be Girl’s Day go-to concept from hereon in, but they instead went on a run of releasing a series of sexy-concept songs that ran from “Expectation” through “Female President” to “Something,” each one more popular than the other. And then, at the very height of their sexy-based success, the girls ditched the concept completely and returned to cute with “Darling.” Surprise, it seems, is what Girl’s Day does best.
The first time I pressed play on the music video for Topp Dogg’s “Annie,” I thought I had followed the wrong link. Baggy, ankle-length pants. Jackets with shoulder pads you could land a helicopter on. Shrill keyboard sounds. And an instrumental track positively drenched in hi-hat. No joke, I thought this was a Bobby Brown video from circa 1989. But, no, this was Topp Dogg dipping into the k-pop box of retro concept surprises. While other K-pop acts have looked for inspiration in the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll scene (think Secret’s “Shy Boy”) or 1970s’ disco (such as T-ara’s “Lovey Dovey”), Topp Dogg decided to go with a New Jack Swing theme for this track, a song released to celebrate the group’s first anniversary of all things. Because when you think first anniversaries, you naturally think MC Hammer and Mr T-style gold chains and people who think that this makes for an acceptable album cover.
OK, this one is cheating a bit, as it is not exactly a comeback per se. Nonetheless, hear me out. It was January 2012. Through a steady flow of releases like “A,” “To Me” and “Sweet Dream,” Rainbow had slowly but surely carved itself out a niche as the thinking K-pop fan’s favorite girl group. The group’s musical concepts were sophisticated and mature, the outfits and choreography were cool and understated. This was a group that simmered, but never boiled over: never oppressively sexy, never sickeningly cute. And then Rainbow Pixie happened. A subunit project that involved garish costumes, Harry Potter-style magic wands, a frenetic dance routine and a song that sounded like it had been dipped in a vat of liquid sugar. It was a release that most Rainbow fans like to pretend never happened. Fortunately, the girls have since returned to what they do best with their current “Black Swan” comeback. File “Hoi Hoi” under “What were they thinking?”
The VIXX boys had hinted at the fact that they had a dark side with the zombie-dance theme for “On and On”, as well as the “Hyde” music video, which was suitably full of skulls and snakes and stuff. But when they dropped “G.R.8.U,” their most poppy and innocent release to date, it looked like they had finally decided to scrap the scary and soften their image. Not so. Their next release, “Voodoo Doll” immediately plunged the boys straight back, deeper than ever, into a gory underworld full of spooky contact lenses, gouging and enough black eyeliner to fill a small warehouse – as well as a music video that is certainly not for the faint of heart. If you are talking scary concepts in K-pop, you are almost certainly talking VIXX.
The living embodiment of the surprise comeback, then-fledgling talent agency Chrome Entertainment’s girl group Crayon Pop debuted in 2012 with a mini album that contained the songs “Bing Bing” and “Saturday Night.” The K-pop scene at the time was already awash with legions of girl groups wearing multicolored leggings and copious plastic accessories singing dance tracks, and Crayon Pop’s entrance onto the K-pop stage was barely noticed by most. Those who did catch the first few songs mainly just shrugged with disinterest. So possibly only the wildest of optimists would have predicted the success of the girls’ June 2013 “Bar Bar Bar” comeback. But the matching motorscooter helmets, the red polo shirts and the five-cylinder piston dance were just too much cute and crazy for anyone to resist, and the group went viral across the planet. Within two months, international music powerhouse Sony had bought up Chrome’s exclusive global distribution rights. And with a full-group comeback scheduled for later this month (with Shinsadong Tiger taking charge of production), there may be more delightful chaos heading to your TV screens in the weeks ahead.
You’ve read our list, now it’s time to have your say, Soompiers. What is the K-pop comeback that surprised you the most? Let us know in the comments below!