Concepts. They can be wildly bold or subtle. They can be sweet, fierce or powerful. They can be filled with lore, building their own worlds within a comeback, linking song to music video to photo book. Concepts of the features of k-pop that makes the genre what it is. For me personally, concepts are what draw me to a groups release. I mean, I am a VIXX fan. They are widely recognised as “concept kings” for their dedication to themes in their releases. So perhaps I was always meant to pay a lot of attention to how concepts are pulled off.
These concepts sometimes come to define groups in this way. Whereas VIXX are known mostly for their intense dark concepts, you have the opposite in a group such as TWICE. They consistently follow an unabashedly bright concept. TWICE has found massive success in recent years. JYP, having found a formula that appeals to the general public, has stuck with it. This is has been the path to fame that a lot of girl groups have relied upon. Yet is it possible to say that this is because they are a girl group? Undoubtedly there is some truth to the statement. Boys groups have traditionally built dedicated, largely female fanbases upon which their popularity is grown. Comparatively, BTS is achieving massive success both internationally and domestically on a sound that they’ve cultivated from their debut too. Despite this, there are far fewer general critics of their concept. As a group, they are applauded for their deep storylines, for the metaphors that go beyond what others would call the simplicity of TWICE’s music.
Here is one of the first examples of the girl group concept paradox. The circle of double standards that are levelled at female idols compared to their male counterparts. Boy groups are not so heavily scrutinised for sticking to what works for them. Meanwhile, girl groups are told that they need to change in order to be worthy of their successes.
And what happens when they do decide to switch concepts? Many female groups have done this after finding themselves sinking rather than swimming amidst the sea of idol comebacks. This is particularly prevalent among groups that try cute concepts. The cute concept has had its haters since it became popular. As the trend spiked with songs like GFriend’s Me Gustas Tu and TWICE’s Cheer Up, we’ve seen more people voice their discontent with it. The cute concept, some argue, perpetuates weak femininity, a sense of playing into detrimental gender roles. You have the aegyo infused high pitched voices, the adorable dance moves, the youthful costumes. Everything that goes into these concepts is meant to be cute and young.
But where a majority of the Korean public tends to see these concepts as refreshing, others say they’re anything but. They want powerful concepts. Concepts that show the idols age. So girl groups try taking this approach instead. We’ve had 180’s from third generation groups like GFriend and Oh My Girl, and even from the “nations girl group” SNSD when they released Run Devil Run following Oh. Cute girl group Minx re-debuted altogether as Dreamcatcher and found themselves gaining new popularity. Dreamcatcher found a niche, and that has worked for them. But this never quite seems to be the case when girl groups try the infamous sexy concept, with only a few exceptions.
Stellar became a prime example of this backlash in 2014 when they released Marionette. The girls and their company had never tried to hide the sexualised style of the dance, nor the promotion that lead up to it. But that didn’t matter. The music video was banned, fans from many different fandoms branding it as too much. And yet, it was their most popular release by far. Here was the paradox; they were told they were too provocative, but if the sales were anything to go by, certain people liked it. So would their company push forward with this to try and increase their popularity? To an extent they did. But it was still not enough to save Stellar, as they disbanded just four years later. Another debate exists in whether sexy concepts are right or wrong. Nevertheless, in Stellar’s case, it was deemed the latter.
So girls cannot be cute. But they also cannot be too sexy. Then perhaps a girl crush concept is the way to go? CLC did just this. When they came back with Hobgoblin after a string of quirky, often cute concepts, international fans flocked to support them. They were fierce, finally seen as a worthy successor to label mate 4Minute. Or was that a copy of their label mate? Some people branded it as such. Some called it fake, others saying that the drastic change in style was a blatant attempt to take back all of those 4Minute fans that their company Cube had lost after their disbandment. Following Hobgoblin, the cute concept returned again. The cycle repeats itself.
All the while, boy groups are indeed dealing with their own problems. Yet they are inexorably different from the double standards that female idols are held to. Girl groups have had to alter performances in which their moves were deemed “too sexy”, whilst mirror images of some of these moves performed by male idols have been left as they are. Have a look at this video for some great examples.
K-pop is, and always has been, driven by fandoms. There’s something inherently sexist in the way that groups are tailored to the primary demographic companies believe they are targeting their groups towards. For girl groups, this is males, and for boy groups, generally the opposite. When women are criticised for trying to own their sexuality, then criticised again for doing the opposite with a cute concept, but boy groups are excused, is there even a way they can win? In the end, it comes down to the fans again; please fans, reap the rewards. If more stable fan bases can be cultivated for girl groups in the same way that boy groups gather hoards of dedicated fans, perhaps this problem will abate some. But for as long as double standards for women exist in society, the media will always reflect them. The concept paradox for girls groups will continue to occur.
And that’s a shame. Because in being so focused on what concepts girl groups can and can’t do, those critics are missing out on some great songs.