Making it big in K-pop is a big ask. Only a tiny fraction of all the trainees and debutants who enter the K-pop fray will ever make it truly big.
Detractors often dismiss K-pop idol stars as pretty-faced dancers devoid of real charisma. But as most fans know well, looks and dancing ability are just part of the equation.
K-pop fans are not pure image junkies. They also want to hear good music, so singing ability is important, too.
And if you want to make it, as per the now somewhat infamous documentary “9MUSES of Star Empire,” you need to endure physical and mental exhaustion; and train for hours on end to get to the top.
But even talent, looks and dedication will only take you so far. Most groups have at least three members, and some can have member numbers in the double figures – meaning that girl group and boyband members are in de facto competition with each other for camera time and fans’s attention.
And that is when stage presence comes into play.
What is stage presence?
Simply put, it is a performer’s ability to engage an audience when onstage. To a certain extent, almost all K-pop stars you care to mention have some amount of stage presence; or they would never have ended up in the limelight in the first place.
But things get trickier when you try to gauge stage presence, and try to argue about who has more je ne sais quoi.
Ultimately, audience engagement is subjective – you may be drawn in by a performer’s act while the person next to you is left cold by it.
So you may end up agreeing strongly with or disagreeing vehemently with our picks. Perhaps you have a few thoughts of your own on the matter. As always, we are looking forward to hearing your take, so be sure to let us know your ideas in the comments below!
For many, G-Dragon is the first name that springs to mind whenever anyone mentions stage presence in K-pop.
Even in a group where arguably he is not even the most conventionally good-looking member, it is very hard to take your eyes off G-Dragon when BIGBANG perform. He may be one of the few people in the K-pop game who you just could not imagine doing a job than doesn’t involve being onstage.
It is hard to deny that his bandmates, such as Taeyang, also have abundant stage presence.
Also, take into account that G-Dragon is also up on stage with the absurdly good-looking T.O.P.
But despite all of that, and the charms of Seungri and Daesung…
…G-Dragon is the one who really stands out. Is it pure charisma? Is it bravado? Is it creativity? Is it uniqueness?
It’s hard to put your finger on it exactly, but whatever it may be it is quite undeniable. And that, dear Soompiers, is the very definition of je ne sais quoi.
Looking unique and possessing abundant talent does not necessarily lead to a star developing stage presence – but it certainly won’t hinder its blossoming.
Non-fans might struggle to engage with early B1A4 material like “OK” – catchy is probably the most favorable adjective you could apply to it.
But I assume that when most people saw this group debut, they were thinking, “Hey, who’s the rapper?”
The group is imbued with talented members, including the likes of golden-voiced Sandeul:
And I am not even sure if Baro is the most conventionally good-looking member of the group. But he seems to just emit warm, positive energy, which is possibly why TV producers seem so keen to cast him in their dramas (such as “Reply 1994” and “Angry Mom”)…
And I have said this before, but if you want to see a really outstanding performance, watch him onstage at the 2015 Dream Concert.
Anyone who has ever read any of my writing for this site may have noticed that I have a bit of a thing for EXID (and especially LE)…
But even my LE bias cannot stop me from admitting that Baro was hands down the most magnetic performer on the stage that day. And LE – despite her faultless flow, and much to my chagrin – was nowhere near.
Nor were, for that matter, Tiger JK, Yoon Mirae or BTS members Suga and Rap Monster. And that’s a pretty strong field if there ever was one.
In many ways, Zico and G-Dragon are very alike. Brimming with creativity, a wild streak a mile long and a crazy twinkle in the eye every time he takes to the stage, Zico was just born to be famous.
Perhaps this is why, for many, his solo work was underwhelmed somewhat. Much like G-Dragon again.
To return to the BIGBANG star, I for one have been somewhat nonplussed by G-Dragon’s non-BIGBANG output. G-Dragon seems to have got caught up making cod-American rap numbers full of often-vapid, braggadocio lyrics. He can do so much better.
And this very same criticism goes for Zico, too.
He is a giant bucket of charm and impossible-to-ignore energy when working with Block B.
No offence to the rest of the group – but after Zico’s opening part in this, most people were just asking themselves when the others were going to let him get back onto the mic.
And as a featuring artist, he often completely outshines the performers he is supposed to be supporting. But as for his solo work – it has been underwhelming. For a better critique of what is wrong with his debut track, “Tough Cookie,” this article has it pretty much spot on.
For me, the same criticisms apply to “Boys and Girls,” too. There is some decent rapping, perhaps, but “decent” should not be the standard you are talking about when it comes to Zico.
But the real crime of “Tough Cookie” and “Boys and Girls” is that they sell Zico short. In trying to paint Zico as an alpha male rapper (which he isn’t), his stage presence ends up being minimized where he and his agency are trying maximize it.
Some agencies do not yet seem to realize that sometimes charismatic stars do not need whistles and bells (or cornrows and fake assault rifles) in order to shine.
Just give them a mic, a good tune, and a stage to perform on.
Aged just 23, Zico’s time in the limelight is only just beginning. And although he may not quite have got his solo mojo working yet, he will get there eventually.
As part of Block B, however, he is ever the star of the show.
As many commentators pointed out after the viral success of “Gangnam Style,” strictly speaking, PSY isn’t really a K-pop artist, so to speak. He has been in the game for a very long time. And although he has had crossover hits with idol stars, he isn’t an idol himself, despite being represented by one of the “big three” talent agencies in YG Entertainment.
But as “Gangnam Style” put K-pop on the radar of many people otherwise ignorant of Korean music, he will forever be associated with the movement.
I am no great PSY fan, but having had the opportunity to see him live on more than one occasion, I can attest that there are few other artists in Korea who can galvanize a crowd like this man. Forget “Gangnam Style” and the Snoop Dogg collaborations – if you ever get the chance to see him perform this in concert:
… whatever you do, do not turn it down.
No matter what or where the crowd is – it invariably goes nuts whenever PSY gets on the mic.
Another artist you really need to see in the flesh in order to understand what kind of star quality he possesses.
I actually saw all of 2PM up close and personal not long after their debut. At the time, I will confess, I didn’t really know who they were. I was actually manning a ticket booth at the concert hall they were performing at, and they had just come off stage after singing “Heartbeat.”
In a bid to outwit the gigantic gaggle of screaming teenage fans who had gathered around the stage door, their manager had decided to have them exit the stage via the concert hall’s front door instead; where a JYP Entertainment minivan was secretly waiting.
All five boys, still in full “Heartbeat” attire and makeup, came sprinting out of the concert hall’s main entrance, right past my ticket booth and out of the front door. A bold move that not a single 2PM fan had seen coming – each of them looking slightly apologetic and startled as they saw me in the booth, only about a meter away.
Moments like these were meant to be caught on camera, but I failed spectacularly to do so.
But even as frayed as they were, running one by one towards a door to evade a pack of fans, the boys looked great. But Nichkhun – when he ran past, it was as though he had an aura around him.
I had no real idea who he was, but ever since, whenever I have seen him onstage, he seems to have that same aura. It is a star quality that allows him to stand out despite being in a group with some other exceptionally eye-catching members.
If artist has got something that you can’t quite pin down – it’s most likely stage presence working its magic.
How do you stand out when you are in a 10- (or 13-) member SM Entertainment flagship boyband? For most idols, being selected to become a member of an act like EXO is to arrive at the pinnacle of K-pop.
And in a group full of unique-looking, super-talented individuals, you have to be pretty outstanding if you want people to sit up and pay attention to you and only you.
Arguably Tao also had a lot of innate star quality, but for most EXO fans, that is water under the bridge now.
Kai, however, is a slightly different prospect. His commitment to the EXO cause is unquestionable – he brushed off this:
…which to my (admittedly untrained) eye, looks like someone who has trained to the point of near-exhaustion or injury.
He is so charming that even other people’s children cannot help but take to him.
And you get the impression that even other members of EXO are a tad envious of the way Kai seems to appeal to fans of all ages.
During an SBS radio appearance in June this year, Chanyeol spoke of the matter, saying “Kai is sexy and charming onstage. But he also has an adorable, childlike side to his personality that makes some people just want to take care of him.”
But more than that, Kai seems to have a fearless confidence about him, both when performing and when appearing on variety programs, radio shows and the rest. Because being an idol involves much more than just singing in studios and at concerts – for them, life truly is a stage.
And the trick is – as Kai seems to understand – realizing that the performance is never over.
Perhaps a surprise pick for this list, but then N.Flying has turned out to be something of a surprise package.
The group has been active since 2013 and flashes of Seunghyeub have been seen here and there for years.
Here he is, featuring in a Juniel video from 2013, perhaps playing the eponymous role of “Pretty Boy.”
N.Flying have also enjoyed Japanese success, but for one reason or another, agency FNC Entertainment decided to keep the act on the backburner in Korea until May this year.
As a rock frontman, he has already exhibited a lot in the way of personality. He is every bit the charismatic lead vocalist that will certainly lead N.Flying to brighter and better things.
But what really caught the eye was his pre-N.Flying Korean debut as the rapping J.Don in spring this year.
Not only did he feature with AOA’s Jimin (who has bags of stage presence herself), he arguably completely stole her thunder – out-rapping and out stage presence-ing (that isn’t a word, I know, but indulge me) a stand-out member of one of the top K-pop girl groups in town.
The pop-rock brand of music that N.Flying creates isn’t for everybody.
But this much confidence, talent and bravado in a member of what is essentially still a rookie act – it is almost unheard of in K-pop.
It is hard to pick a single member of BTS out and say of him, “He’s the one with stage presence.” So many of the members seem to have a certain swagger about them that comes from knowing you have a natural ability to do your job well.
Although he has occasionally been the subject of disgruntled web user ire, V has a certain quirky charm to him that has led his groupmates to unanimously choose him as their “strangest” member.
Many people (including other BTS members) have spoken of his “4D” personality.
But although the term tends to be bandied about as an (albeit tongue-in-cheek) insult, it really is something of a compliment. It means you stand out from the pack.
And in a seven-member act full of mega-talents like Rap Monster and Suga, the need to do just that is imperative. In V’s case, the 4-D element just adds to his appeal and seems to invest him with the confidence he needs in order to let his charisma come to the fore.
Despite Suga’s skills…
…and Rap Monster’s enviable flow on the mic…
..if you are talking about stage presence in BTS, you are probably talking about V.
So what are your thoughts, Soompiers? Which other male K-pop stars belong on this list? Who do you think has the most stage presence? Tell us your thoughts on our picks in the comments below – and stay tuned for our list of female K-pop stage presence queens…coming soon, only on Soompi!
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica and a hankering for hip hop.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not necessarily represent Soompi as a whole.