Numbers matter in k-pop. Try as you might to argue that they don’t – that the sales figures and YouTube views don’t matter, that the chart rankings aren’t deciding fates of groups high and low – it’s impossible to ignore. Such is the fate of an oversaturated industry where groups need to find a place and build a fanbase before they’ve even debuted.
Jellyfish Entertainment’s girl group has been centred on numbers from the very beginning. The original trainee trio of Nayoung, Sejeong and Mina appeared on Produce101. Just 3 among 101 girls. Only two of them got into the final debuted line up for I.O.I (justice for Kim Nayoung!) and later this would impact them when they came to debut in their companies group.
The first number: 9. The idea behind gugudan, or at least one of the concepts Jellyfish seem to have behind their reasoning, was “9 girls with 9 different charms.” They were to come together and showcase their separate talents and do it so well that they all melded together perfectly. Except that wasn’t what happened. Jellyfish gave them a debut song that, well, let’s just say didn’t sit right with a lot of people. I.O.I fans were bitter that Sejeong and Mina took a break from their I.O.I related activities to re-debut, with some going as far as calling them traitors. Meanwhile, the Nayoung and the six other girls that the public had yet to meet were introduced in shiny blue plastic outfits, with a song that was more Kids Bop than just an actual bop. Don’t get me wrong, I will defend Wonderland with my dying breath because I think it’s genuinely a good song. But timing, public perception, and cute concepts were not on the girls’ side. The public didn’t get to know Hana, Mimi, Sally, Soyee, Haebin or Hyeyeon all that well. Thus, the odds were stacked against them from the very start.
Now we know it’s now 8. Maknae Hyeyeon announced she had made the choice to leave the group in late 2018 after a hiatus taken for health reasons. No matter how much fans supported her decision, it was a huge blow for the group. Hyeyeon had a certain amount of recognition for her dancing abilities and a subunit promotion with Mina. As an individual, she brought a great deal of charm and talent to gugudan. As a whole, at this moment, the foundations of the concept that gugudan was built upon crumbled. See Jelpi, this is why you don’t go around using the number 9 in every promotion. The number was never assured. Now, they’re going to have to backtrack. The secondary concept they use heavily, and in my opinion, the far superior one that Jellyfish should have used much more from the very beginning, of “theatre idols” is still going strong. As a group, they will now have to tie their identity to this.
Because that 3 still exists. The trio from the Produce101 days is still unquestionably at the core of gugudan’s popularity, and also most of the discussion surrounding the group. When Jellyfish decided to debut SeMiNa earlier this year, it’s unclear what they were trying to achieve. Were they simply giving the Produce101 fans what they’d been clamoring for since their performance of “Something New“? Were they testing whether the trio could outperform the group in sales? Was it to try a new sound experimentally before taking the group on a new path? We’ve yet to see the outcome of this last one in particular but it’s hard to see past the idea of Sejeong, Mina and Nayoung’s greater popularity in their decision making.
In the end, it all comes down to 1. Sejeong. It’s unfair to place the burden on her shoulders. She’s a successful soloist in her own right. She has a great number of solo fans, otherwise known as Akgaes. And yet still she promotes gugudan as a whole, calling for people to support them. Yet as her popularity still soars, gugudan flounders. They didn’t nickname her God Sejeong for nothing. She has the personality, the voice, the looks, everything. The general public know her. But they don’t seem to care about her group. Jellyfish have tried to promote her even further as if this is the antidote to the situation, that her popularity will somehow transfer onto the other members. It’s a shame that they haven’t caught onto the fact that if it hasn’t worked by now, it’s not going to work at all. Sejeong needs a break. She deserves to have the pressure on her lessened. The other girls should be taking some of the strain. Share out the lines and high notes to main vocals Haebin and Soyee, who are more than capable. Let Mina and Mimi do some variety appearances. Let Hana speak for the group and promote them. The roles need to be shared. That’s the importance of group dynamics. We’ve seen situations in past girl groups where this same kind of solo member promotion has lead to their downfall; After School’s Nana, 4Minute’s Hyuna, and Miss A’s Suzy anyone? They’re all successful alone but their groups suffered with the disparities in popularities.
And now we reach a fractured point in time for the group. Despite their most recent mini-abum ‘Act 5 – New Action’ arguably being one of their most cohesive and well executed mini albums to date, it failed to secure the numbers that would have seen gugudan looking forward to a brighter future. It’s now been a year and a half since that release. That year has seen most of the members fade into the background, with only updates from their personal Instagrams to keep fans going. There have been no new roles for aspiring actress Hana. There have been few OST’s for main vocalists Haebin and Soyee. Once again, Sejeong has been allowed to shine, finally releasing her first solo mini-album after the huge success that was ‘Flower Way.’ Mina has also been relatively busy, with various MC and drama appearances. One other stroke of fortune has seen member Sally appear in the most recent version of the Produce series in China. Under her own name, Liu Xiening, she’s been shining. As the only Chinese member of gugudan with somewhat shaky Korean language skills at debut, Sally was always quiet and close to her members, in particular Soyee, looking for guidance. In her native language, she’s been given the chance to really show her personality for the first time on Produce Camp. Ironic that we should come full circle back to the series that started it all. And despite this small success, it feels tainted. The girls are more fractured than ever, with no new comeback insight for the foreseeable future. It’s now 1 + 1 + 1 +1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1…
There’s no easy solution to all of this. Girl groups deal with an entirely different set of problems compared to boy groups, and face a great deal more criticism because of it. It’s hard to break through into the wider public’s recognition when highly successful girl groups like Twice are already there, but this is where girl groups seem to need to reach. Whether it’s 9 or 8, gugudan need to work as a whole to succeed. Numbers are just numbers but they matter.
ᴼʳᶦᵍᶦⁿᵃˡˡʸ ᵖᵒˢᵗᵉᵈ ᵒⁿ ᴴʸˡᶦᵃ’ˢ ᴿᵉᵃˡᵐ. ᵁᵖᵈᵃᵗᵉᵈ ᵃⁿᵈ ᵉᵈᶦᵗᵉᵈ ᶠᵒʳ ᵁᴷᴾ