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Sunday, April 14, 2024

In the war of the rookies, girl groups continue to reign supreme

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NewJeans' debut EP of the same name sold over 311,000 copies in a week after it dropped in August. Its songs "Hype Boy" and "Attention" became long-running megahits on domestic music charts. [ADOR]
NewJeans’ debut EP of the same name sold over 311,000 copies in a week after it dropped in August. Its songs “Hype Boy” and “Attention” became long-running megahits on domestic music charts. [ADOR]

311,200 and 75,000 are two contrasting numbers that represent very different things for two very different K-pop groups.

The former is the number of debut EP copies sold by girl group NewJeans in the first week of its release, while the latter is the number for boy band Tempest’s debut EP. Each group recorded the highest first-week sales respectively for the debuts of a girl group and boy band this year.

These contrasting numbers summarize that 2022 was indeed the year of girl groups in K-pop.

This year alone saw 18 girl groups debut: Kep1er, H1-KEY, Rocking Doll, Nmixx, ILY:1, Le Sserafim, CLASS:y, Lapillus, Irris, NewJeans, CSR, Girl’s World, We;Na, mimiirose, QueenzEye, Acid Angel from Asia, Artbeat and Fifty Fifty.

Eighteen boy bands also made their debut: Trendz, JWiiver, Black Level, Tempest, TAN, NINE.i, Younite, TNX, BLANK2Y, Superkind, ATBO, n.SSign, Dignity, ABlue, Aimers, WeNU, Xeed, and &Team (also considered a J-pop band).

Among boy bands that debuted this year, Tempest saw the highest first-week CD sales at 75,000 copies. [YUE HUA ENTERTAINMENT]
Among boy bands that debuted this year, Tempest saw the highest first-week CD sales at 75,000 copies. [YUE HUA ENTERTAINMENT]

This is in fact significantly lower than usual. Usually, 30 to 40 K-pop idol groups debut within a year, but three years of the pandemic has taken a toll on agencies. The number of offline gigs plummeted and the sweeping popularity of trot (a genre of upbeat music popular among older generations) means even fewer events calling for idol groups to perform. As a result, smaller agencies have been going through financial struggles and ended up postponing or canceling the launches of new groups.

Nonetheless, many girl groups that did end up debuting amid difficult conditions saw unprecedented success. Not only are their sales numbers high, but many of their songs became widely-sung hits among the general public.

Two girl groups sold over 300,000 copies of their debut EPs in the first week of their releases: Le Sserafim and NewJeans. Kep1er and Nmixx sold more than 200,000 and CLASS:y over 100,000. Including IVE, which debuted in December 2021 and has been sweeping best new artist awards this year, numerous rookie girl groups have quickly garnered success.

Girl group Kep1er was formed through Mnet’s audition show “Girls Planet 999” (2021) and debuted in January. [WAKEONE ENTERTAINMENT, SWING ENTERTAINMENT]
Girl group Kep1er was formed through Mnet’s audition show “Girls Planet 999” (2021) and debuted in January. [WAKEONE ENTERTAINMENT, SWING ENTERTAINMENT]

This is also due to the fact that several of these girl groups had already secured a fandom before debuting — be it because they were formed through an audition program or because they included members that had previously debuted as part of other groups. Kep1er was formed through Mnet’s multinational audition show “Girls Planet 999” (2021) and includes Korean, Chinese, and Japanese members, which guaranteed international pre-debut popularity.

Le Sserafim includes members Miyawaki Sakura and Kim Chae-won, who were members of IZ*ONE — a former girl group formed through the Mnet audition show “Produce 48” (2018) which was active until 2021.

Le Sserafim debuted in May. It lost a member early on due to a bullying scandal but is continuing to see success among both its fandom and the general public. [SOURCE MUSIC]
Le Sserafim debuted in May. It lost a member early on due to a bullying scandal but is continuing to see success among both its fandom and the general public. [SOURCE MUSIC]

Le Sserafim’s second EP “Antifragile” sold over 560,000 copies in total and is ranking high on both domestic and global music charts. The achievement is impressive considering it lost a member, Kim Ga-ram, due to a bullying scandal early on in the group’s career.

The lack of notable male rookies has been continuing for years in the K-pop scene. Among boy bands that debuted in the past two years, Omega X has seen the most commercial success. Its first full-length album “Story Written in Music” released in June sold over 100,000 copies in total but none of its songs were charted on domestic music charts. The group now faces an uncertain future after it announced legal action against its agency for physical and verbal abuse last month. Omega X is currently in a lawsuit to nullify its exclusive contract with its management.

Among boy bands that debuted in the past two years, Omega X has seen the most commercial success. However, the group now faces an uncertain future after it announced legal action against its agency for physical and verbal abuse last month. [NEWS 1]
Among boy bands that debuted in the past two years, Omega X has seen the most commercial success. However, the group now faces an uncertain future after it announced legal action against its agency for physical and verbal abuse last month. [NEWS 1]

Girl groups also dominated domestic TV music programs while none of the boy bands that debuted this year appeared on the top 10 of such shows. Girl groups also win more advertisement deals, which can create a virtuous cycle of the acts becoming better exposed to the general public.

For boy bands that debuted in the 2020s, there has been no action that has become generally popular enough for ordinary listeners outside the fandom to recognize them or their songs.

It has reached a point where end-of-year award ceremonies have been struggling to find a band to win the best new male artist. Starting this year, the Melon Music Awards (MMA) unified the female and male rookie categories into one Best New Artist. Melon did not disclose the exact reasoning behind this decision, but many analyzed that it was due to the lack of outstanding new boy bands eligible to receive the award. Eventually, two girl groups — NewJeans and IVE — took home the 2022 MMA’s Best New Artist.

Girl group IVE performs during ″THE-K Concert″ at the Olympic Main Stadium in Jamsil, southern Seoul, on Oct. 7. IVE debuted in December 2021 and has been sweeping best new artist awards this year. [NEWS1]
Girl group IVE performs during ″THE-K Concert″ at the Olympic Main Stadium in Jamsil, southern Seoul, on Oct. 7. IVE debuted in December 2021 and has been sweeping best new artist awards this year. [NEWS1]

Boy bands from the so-called “Big 4” agencies — SM, YG, JYP Entertainments, and HYBE — are also unfamiliar to the public, despite having large fandoms and seeing high CD sales. One case that shows the estrangement between the fandom and the general public is K-pop powerhouse SM Entertainment’s boy band NCT127. Its fourth full-length album “2 Baddies” dropped in September and sold over 1.5 million copies in the first week, ranking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 which tallies CD sales in the United States. However, the title track never made it onto the weekly or monthly top 100 on Korea’s Melon Chart.

Boy bands’ weak performances on domestic music charts are evident on Melon’s current top 100. Amongst the top 100 for the month of November, the highest-ranking song by a boy band was Big Bang’s “Still Life” at No. 49. The song dropped in April and the band debuted in 2006. Other than that, only BTS has tracks on the top 100; “Dynamite” (2020) at 54 and its most recent song “Yet To Come” released in June at No. 84.

NCT 127's album "2 Baddies" sold over 1.5 million copies but did not see its title track on the weekly or monthly top 100 of domestic music charts. [SM ENTERTAINMENT]
NCT 127’s album “2 Baddies” sold over 1.5 million copies but did not see its title track on the weekly or monthly top 100 of domestic music charts. [SM ENTERTAINMENT]

Critics have repeatedly pointed out that boy bands’ music has become much too cryptic and performance-centered to appeal to general listeners.

“There’s an entry barrier to recent songs by boy bands,” said pop music critic Kim Do-heon. “Unless you’re a fan, it’s hard to understand the meaning behind their lyrics or the content they put out.”

“As the domestic K-pop fandom shifted [to favor girl groups], more K-pop boy bands are embarking on tours abroad early on in their careers,” said Kim Hong-ki, founder of Korean music startup Space Oddity. “The poor performance by rookie boy bands this year shows that it has become especially difficult for idol groups from small firms to survive. The standards for the quality of songs and music videos have become so high, and the competition is only getting more intense. It eventually becomes a battle of budgets.”

BY JEON YOUNG-SUN, BAE JUNG-WON [kjdculture@joongang.co.kr]