What does it take to make a K-pop act press the reset button? Sometimes things aren’t working out as you’d like them to. Sometimes your image just needs a slight rejigging. Sometimes you have to deal with multiple departures or member changes and you need a new sound and look that will differentiate you in the future.
In the case of these acts, a point came when they (and their agencies) decided to go back to the drawing board. The results have been some amazing visual turnarounds and musical 180°s.
So join us now as we take a look at four acts who decided to go back to square one — to rip it up and start again.
This is a tough act to write about, as for many fans the wounds are still sore. Acrimonious is not the word for the nature of the split, and it may be best not to spend time micro-analyzing what has essentially become water under the bridge.
However, what many K-pop fans will find fascinating is the fact that two members of a group that once pretty much wrote the book on how to be a successful five member all-male dance act has now had to completely reinvent itself as a duo.
The five-member TVXQ appeared in 2003 as the heirs apparent to H.O.T, agency SM Entertainment’s first-generation boyband. But as influential as H.O.T was, those were the days before K-pop truly existed. TVXQ represented a step up. SM knew this and invested a huge deal of time and money in the act’s training.
The result was an exceptionally well-polished act, capable of performing effectively in both Korean and Japanese. The boys went on to dominate K-pop from shortly after their debut until the bombshell dropped in summer 2009. After prolonged legal wranglings, Jaejoong, Yoochun, and Junsu split from the group, leaving to eventually form JYJ.
The two-member TVXQ did not see the light of day until the following year.
Personally, I was not expecting anything special. Two is a very awkward number in K-pop. Yes, there are successful two-piece acts, such as Davichi, Fly to the Sky, and Tasty (despite their agency strife).
There are also a few interesting subunit projects like VIXX LR and EXID’s Dasoni.
(Superfluous and indulgent EXID reference crowbarred into article? Check!)
However, success stories in this dynamic are few and far between.
The two-member format does not sound overly difficult from a musical perspective. The members can just take it in turns with verses if they are both singers, or you can have a rap-singing balance in the case of a Leo/Ravi-type duo), but choreography is extremely hard to pull off. This is presumably why most Korean entertainment companies just steer clear.
Yet it was clear from the outset that SM was almost doggedly determined to make the two-member TVXQ work. And even if you still bear a grudge about the nature of the two-piece’s existence, you have to admire the way they have developed as a duo.
Ever since “Keep Your Head Down,” the music has had a maturity and sophistication about it that the five-member version never had. Sure, there were great five-member songs. This one is a particular favorite (fantastic beat).
And “Mirotic” will go down as a defining moment in K-pop.
However, the two-member group has an appeal that reaches even beyond the five-member act fanbase. “Catch Me” is a keyboard-heavy, old school electronica track that harkens back to a golden era of house music in the 1990s, while also successfully incorporating dubstep elements.
“Something” has a wonderful brass-heavy 1940s jazz feel to it, both in terms of music and visual concept.
The boys even spoke enthusiastically of how “unique” their new sound was after the release of their first two-piece album. It is obviously a source of pride for them, as it should be.
Say what you like about the two-piece version; this is an act that is not afraid of experimentation with look, dance and — above all — music.
Honestly, until a few months ago, most people who could remember the Wonder Girls probably considered them all but dead and buried – an act that had gone AWOL and presumably unofficially disbanded.
Lead vocalist Sunye was effectively gone after her marriage in 2013, while Sohee, arguably the group’s most popular member, left JYP in the same year. Individual members past and present seemed to be doing their own thing: Sunmi, who left the group in 2010, had had a couple of solo hits, including the memorable “Full Moon.”
Yeeun (aka Yenny) had morphed into Ha:tfelt, purveyor of some of the most interesting and inventive female solo material around. Dubstep number “Ain’t Nobody” is a particular standout from the “Me” album, as is the future house-influenced “Wherever Together.”
The signs were this group, who last recorded together all the way back in 2012 with this rather sub-par Akon collaboration,…
So when rumblings began to surface earlier this summer suggesting that the Wonder Girls had reenlisted Sunmi and were heading back to the studio, most people were probably thinking, “Oh yeah, I think I remember them. But why?”
As the likes of Sunmi and Yeeun, the latter in particular, are now making music that makes the early Wonder Girls’ material sound somewhat immature in comparison, surely the group could not just pick up where they left off in 2012. Something needed to change. And it did.
I have to admit that I was completely unmoved by the news that Wonder Girls was coming back with a band “concept.” Look at AOA (discussed below). Ditching the instruments worked wonders for them. Why should the reverse work for the Wonder Girls?
Rock girls – this concept just hasn’t worked at all for K-pop acts in the past.
The group released teasers, rocking out with some rather oversized-looking instruments playing some very rawk-flavored stuff.
Yes, lots of promise, but it just did not sound very danceable.
The outlook got even worse when the girls revealed they did not even play the instruments on their new album and that the band concept had been decided upon “halfway through the recording of ’Reboot.’”
Remarkably, though, it seems that when producer/agency head Park Jin Young talks about bands, he isn’t talking about this kind of thing:
He means this kind of thing:
Because, as discussed in this article, he is something of an 80s enthusiast.
However, this was not some hastily assembled attempt at creating a cheap 80s theme for a gimmick. The whole of the “Reboot” album (one of the best pop studio albums released on any continent for some years in my humble opinion) is a 1980s synthpop fest. And the instruments you see the girls using on stage at music shows are authentic 80s classic gear.
Yubin plays what appears to be a Simmons SDS-V electric drumkit, released in 1981.
And although she has most often performed with the white version, this Instagram post seems to indicate she has a black set, too.
Phil Collins used a similar set back in the 80s, as did this drum vixen in the music video of Teena Marie’s “Lovergirl” in 1984.
Yeeun is listed as a “keyboard” player in the album credits, but she actually mainly performs using a quintessential 80s instrument: a white RK-100S keytar, released by Korg in 1984.
Famous keytarists of the 80s include The Isley Brothers’ Chris Jasper, jazz-disco legend George Duke, soul innovator James Brown, and German pop duo Modern Talking, the latter of which is an act that has clearly had an influence on JYP’s musical style.
Meanwhile, Hyerim and Sunmi play a matching white Steinberger Synapse guitar and bass set.
Hyerim’s guitar is not unlike the kind of instrument Eddie Van Halen used on this kind of song in 1986.
The attention to detail is incredible, and what’s more the girls actually do know how to play. Observe (the synthpop version of “Tell Me” is particularly fun, as is Yeeun’s unexpected keytar solo at 36:12.)
The group has promised to continue with the band “concept” for further releases, and says it will even be recording its own instrumental tracks. If the girls can turn a bitter skeptic like me (who considered them to be a largely irrelevant K-pop relic) into an avid fan, it is safe to say that something pretty serious has changed in Wonder-world.
Should they stick with the synthpop concept and keep using the quite exclusive 80s gear they have acquired, Wonder Girls 2.0 could be set for some quite astonishing things.
This is a group that has been through quite a lot of subtle metamorphoses. Boyfriend’s debut, “Boyfriend,” got quite a bit of stick from critics upon its release. Naysayers thought the group was under-prepared for its debut and that the choreography in particular was lacking polish.
Personally, I took issue with the music. “Boyfriend” is a good enough song, but not strong enough for a debut track from a Starship Entertainment act. As excellent a producer as Brave Brothers is, “Boyfriend” was a little saccharine sweet for my liking.
Whatever the case, Starship realized that it would have to change things up somewhat for future releases. And change is precisely what they did. Out went Brave Brothers and in came Sweetune.
With perhaps the exception of INFINITE, there really is not a single male act I can think of that is a better fit for the Sweetune sound than Boyfriend. Bass-heavy instrumental tracks sound better with treble-heavy voices, such as Boyfriend’s.
But although the music took a radical turn from “Don’t Touch My Girl” onwards, nothing could really prepare the K-pop world for the total reinvention that was the Boyfriend comebacks of 2014.
Up until last year, most people’s image of Boyfriend was a purer-than-pure, innocent look. Often clad in white, singing in high keys – it is an angelic, almost ethereal image.
Then, the “Obsession” comeback. As for inspiration, what could be more harmless than “Peter Pan” references? Well, everyone knows that there is quite a bit of darkness in most children’s tales.
But suddenly we were all knee-deep in neck tattoos…
…extended rap sections, fight scenes, and explosions. As well as some unprecedentedly macho bare-chested, bare-fisted punchbag action. Grr.
Perhaps the most telling moment of all is this donning of a replica Captain Hook-style hand-hook at the very end of the music video.
Captain Hook was the villain of the piece in Peter Pan – it’s a pretty clear message: Boyfriend have become bad boys.
Starship, probably quite sensibly, kept everything under wraps in the lead up to the group’s next mini album release. Quite right, too. When you are going to spring a surprise, you need to pick your moment.
And things got even darker with “Witch” in October, with a theme based upon “Little Red Riding Hood“— possibly the darkest of all the Brothers Grimm tales.
The neck tattoos went, but in their place came the creepy contact lenses, scary vampire teeth, dust-covered tuxedos and all sorts of supernatural imagery.
And all the time, the music has become ever so slightly harder. Bad boys need harder beats, after all.
It is an image the group has continued this year with “Bounce,” from the gothic/“Alice in Wonderland”-themed “Boyfriend in Wonderland” EP.
From angelic/pure to bad/scary – no matter on which side of the fence you stand on the issue, the Boyfriend transformation has been quite a journey.
When agency FNC Entertainment first announced the formation of AOA, admit it, you were probably just as confused as I was.
OK, so there are eight of them, but actually, there are only seven of them because some of them are in the band version of AOA while some of them are only in the dance version. And the band version is called AOA Black. Or maybe it isn’t. Dunno. I gave up trying to understand after about five minutes.
But for people with short attention spans, this looked very much like a female version of some of the rock-pop projects that FNC has made a specialty of developing over the years. Think CNBLUE, FTISLAND and – more recently – N.Flying.
In fact, the lead track on the girls’ debut album was even written by CNBLUE’s Jung Yong Hwa, another clue leading many to suspect this group was formed with a view to taking a rock direction.
Indeed, this is what they looked like when they debuted:
They were much-touted for their instrumental ability – Choa was the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Jimin was the lead guitarist, Yuna played the keyboards, Mina was on bass, and Youkyung (whatever happened to her?) was on drums.
As a band, AOA (or is that AOA Black? Again, I have trouble keeping up) were fun, but had little real commercial success. “Moya” is good enough, I suppose, but let’s face it, it hardly took the K-pop world by storm.
No, the AOA success story only really got into gear when the act dispensed with its USP.
The girls worked with songwriters and producers like sometime CNBLUE/FTISLAND songsmith Han Sung Ho and Gummy/Yangpa collaborator Kim Do Hoon for the early part of their careers, crafting a melodic, rock-tinged pop sound.
But in January 2014, they did an about-face. Out went the instruments and any notion of being unique. In came Brave Brothers, controversial outfits, and even more controversial dance routines.
Basically, they just became like everyone else. A sexy concept and Brave Brothers? You could be talking about any one of about a dozen girl groups.
In terms of success, though, AOA has not looked back. It may sound like a diss to call them generic, but ditching their uniqueness has worked wonders for these girls.
They are now possibly the cream of the second-tier girl groups, and realistically may challenge for a place at the top table with their next release.
That said, the girls still clearly pine for a return to their rock origins. As well they might – they were actually quite good at that stuff.
Well, now you have read our list, it’s time to have your say, Soompiers! Which K-pop metamorphosis was most memorable for you? As ever, tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica and a hankering for hip-hop. When he isn’t writing for Soompi, he is remixing your favorite K-Pop tracks – with sometimes astounding (but often catastrophic) results.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not represent Soompi as a whole.
An earlier version of this post contained a typo that said Mina of AOA was on the drums. She plays the bass guitar.