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Everybody projects some impression through the clothes and cosmetics they wear and the way they act, whether they want to or not. This impression or image, as it’s called when applied to celebrities, can help shape someone’s success. For singers and dancers in particular, their images help determine their audiences, and sometimes they try to take advantage of this to play to different crowds. This approach to marketing pervades the Korean pop industry, not uniquely but remarkably so nonetheless.
When we talk about image in Korean pop, the first thing we notice is that there are themes. After debuting with one concept and maybe continuing with that for another mini album or two, many idols undergo a series of image changes, and the styles get very similar to those already used by other groups. It’s almost as if there’s one toolkit containing a bunch of cards with different words like “sexy” or “retro” written on them, and the toolkit gets issued out to all stars before they debut. I can imagine it, too. IU draws “angsty” for her debut, so she sings “Lost Child.” Then she draws “cutesy” and releases “Boo” and “Marshmallow.” Now, it’s an interesting process to observe, but it really only illustrates a bigger point.
I will venture to say (don’t shoot me, please) that Korean pop is often more about image than about musicality. Not always, but very often, it seems that public perception is hugely important to Korean stars.
In one aspect, you have the general trendiness of the releases. Wonder Girls goes retro, Secret goes retro,T-ara goes retro, Kara goes retro, lots of girls go retro. B1A4 does their cowboy thing in “Baby Good Night” and then 2Yoon injects bluegrass into “24/7.” This could be a coincidence or a “Hey, that’s a good idea!” sort of deal more than a series of attempts to capitalize on each other’s successes, but it would be a pretty big coincidence and knowing how much Korean agencies like their marketing, I don’t think that coincidence is likely.
In other aspects, there are things like people getting upset when IU posts a controversial photo of herself and Super Junior’s Eunhyuk because they feel that she’s shattering their mental image of her. I honestly don’t understand how that’s related to her status as a singer at all but some people can get really fixated on it. A more dramatic example might be T-ara‘s controversy with Hwayoung. Their activities were put on hold over a perceived bullying, not because there was any real proof but because some netizens took it upon themselves to see things that probably weren’t there. The whole deal probably arose more from misplaced priorities (focusing on T-ara’s image more than their songs) than anything else. Or how about Girls’ Generation? They can’t have put “The Boys” and “My J” on the same album because of musical similarities since there are none. It’s likely that one song is for promotions and the other is a nod to the Gee fans. They won’t want to ostracize old fans even if they’re trying to get a cooler image. What people want, or what agencies think that people want, can really get in the way of the quality of the actual music releases in lots of unfortunately creative ways.
The image-centric approach does work. It’s not what interested me in Korean pop culture but working at figuring out what makes a pop singer popular makes it much easier for outsiders to feel comfortable with Korean pop. However, once newcomers start to find out how much of what each individual singer does is dictated by others, they may not want to stick around with singers who musically follow whichever way the wind blows. Therefore, it’s a good thing that things are starting to change. There’s an increasing trend of B.A.Ps and the Lee His, performers that start with a general idea of who they are and what they want to be, and instead of running around in the snow and making a snowman here and a snow angel there, they’ve figured out where they need to be and are focusing on refining and shaping what they started with, and letting the resulting image speak for itself.