The History of Kpop, Chapter 9: Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice – Choosing Group Members

Excerpts from
The History, Development, and Future of K-pop and the Korean Music Industry
By: Hannah Waitt


Last week in “The History of Kpop” series, we wrapped up discussing the various expectations of idols as they go through training at their entertainment companies; from dieting and botox, to singing and dancing, to learning how to be witty on camera. We emphasized repeatedly just how important physical image is to being an idol, but all of that talk of image is not to say that these groups are talentless, because this is certainly not the case.

By the time these young girls and boys have gone through their four to seven years of training, they are extremely talented, but not equally so. Herein lies the true genius of the system that Lee Soo Man created. Each trainee is educated and then marketed based upon his or her natural abilities.

Take, for example, the wildly popular YG Entertainment group BIGBANG. As most of us know, the group is made up of five members: G-Dragon, Taeyang, Daesung, Seungri, and T.O.P. G-Dragon is the creative genius of the group; he writes the lyrics to many of their songs (an uncommon trait of idols), he is talented at singing, rapping, and dancing, and he has a unique charisma that makes him irresistible to girls and enviable to boys.

Then of course we have Taeyang, the smooth-singing shy guy of the group. He is extremely good-looking, is by far the best dancer, and is famous for his chiseled abs.

Next up, Daesung and Seungri are the clowns of the group. They both have good vocals and good dance skills, but where they really excel is on television. As far as the popular vote goes, neither are considered quite as good-looking as the other three members, but they are hilarious and have an exceptional ability to create a warm and entertaining environment on the set of every variety or talk show that they guest on.
Lastly, there is T.O.P. Though a self-admitted horrible dancer, T.O.P has a uniquely low voice that drives fangirls wild when he speaks, let alone raps. Furthermore, while T.O.P isn’t a phenomenal singer or dancer, he has won multiple awards for his acting skills after starring in numerous films and hit dramas.

In this diverse mix of talents and personalities, there is something for everyone. Even if you can’t stand the somewhat nasally sound of Seungri‘s voice, or don’t really care for T.O.P‘s arrogant bad-boy demeanor, you can still admire Taeyang‘s dancing skills and Daesung‘s powerful vocals. Even if you are not fond of particular aspects of each group member, you can still love the group as a whole. It’s like an ice cream sundae: you might put chocolate syrup on your ice cream, leave off the sprinkles, add a scoop of strawberry, and top it off with a cherry. Even though you don’t care for sprinkles, the fact is, you still paid for the whole sundae. Even though you don’t care for Daesung, the fact is, you still paid for a whole BIGBANG concert ticket.

Entertainment companies in Korea follow this rule religiously, especially after realizing how small the music market was and seeing that they would need their artists to pervade every medium possible in order to bring in revenue. Thus, on top of the intense dancing and vocal training that they received, each day trainees were sent to individualized lessons based upon their natural abilities.

For example, after Girls’ Generation had group practice, Taeyeon, the group’s lead singer, would go to more extensive vocal lessons, while Yoona, who is not as gifted at singing but is drop-dead gorgeous, would go to acting lessons. When you look online, you’ll even see that on the group members’ profiles, Taeyeon’s will often say “Lead Vocalist,” with Jessica, Tiffany, and Seohyun holding down the postitions of “Main Vocalists.” Meanwhile, everyone else in the group is labeled as “Vocalist,” or “Main Dancer,” or “Main Visual.”

To SM Entertainment, this method couldn’t be any clearer: why would they need nine amazing singers in Girls’ Generation when they can have three or four carry the vocal burden of the team? Economically, it is more efficient to have a few members maintain the vocal integrity of the group while other members bring in revenue by acting in dramas and hosting TV shows.

This isn’t to say that these groups exhibit a lack of talent, but rather an immense amount of it in multiple arenas. Even if Sooyoung isn’t the Korean Aretha Franklin, what she lacks in vocal skill she makes up for in her aptitude for dance and her variety and acting skills. The fact is that an “idol” is not the same thing as a “singer,” because idols are not simply singers. They are actors, dancers, comedians, and singers, and (most importantly) they act, dance, make jokes, and sing all while being beautiful. Idols are the total package: they do many things well while individually excelling in different entertainment arenas.

Thus, as trainees, idols-in-the-making work hard not only perfecting group routines, but at their own personal skills, including their personalities. Isak, former member of SM Entertainment group Isak ‘N’ Jiyeon, confessed that while she was a trainee at SM, she and her fellow trainees would often, “get together an dmake our own talk shows, variety shows, and radio shows,” while SM formally trained them in “interviews, acting, and facial expressions.” These skills would help the future idols to be witty, charming, and engaging on variety shows, making them all the more desirable to fans, and all the more lovable to the older demographic as well.

Thus is the recipe for a well-made idol group. Next week, we will talk about the pressure leading up to debut, and the difficulties that idols face after their debut. After that, we will move away from idols and into a new topic: the fans. It’s riveting stuff, so make sure you keep tuning in every Sunday night for your fix of “The History of Kpop.”




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