My adventures as a K-pop listener are well-documented, sparingly here, but more often on the old music blog.
It's been six years, come to think of it. It was six years ago when we flew to Seoul for the final week of 2015. Between our first snow (which wasn't much, considering how it was a warmer-than-usual winter, supposedly) and our many adventures with street food, I asked Shalla to compile me a playlist of Korean songs to accompany the trip. She ended with roughly 900 songs, a good mix of idols and indie obscurities.
Come to think of it, my adventures have gone longer than six years. Nine years? Shalla introduced me to K-pop before we officially started dating. I have said I listened in part to generate content for the music blog - that first entry was about Lee Hi - and, arguably, that openness led to us being together all these years later. But maybe it's too cheesy for the vibe I'm going for with this entry. Also, I digress wildly.
Six years later - I'm entering my seventh, if my math is correct - well, I own eight physical albums (two of them are joint custody things), have watched one concert, and have become enough of a fan of one group to be able to convert others to become the same. (Also, that playlist? Sixteen thousand songs.) And then the world caught up and suddenly they're cool for being fans when those who came before me were heavily derided for doing so. The phenomenal success of BTS is distorting what used to be a common reality among K-pop fans: that groups don't last forever; that male idols, in particular, have to go serve the military at some point; and that the old will have to give way for the new.
And yes, I know that sentence could make me sound bitter, but I've seen enough of K-pop to know that it's all about cycles. Groups usually have seven-year contracts - it's the maximum mandated by law, if I recall correctly - and even then groups don't last that long, because the whole arena is relentless. It's difficult for acts, whether you're a soloist or a group, to break through, because there's just a lot of material to sift through. A lot of acts fall through the cracks, never to emerge again. Even more acts grind for years without seeing the returns they hope to see.
Take Brave Girls. They first debuted in 2011, had changed its line-up completely in the intervening years, and was actually going to split up this year. I found their songs good - "High Heels" is my pick - but despite a big producer backing them, they couldn't quite break through. And then a YouTube video of Korean soldiers going apeshit for their 2017 single "Rollin'" began trending, and now, they're one of Korea's biggest acts, dominating the charts throughout the spring and having a pretty successful release in the summer.
That's what makes BTS' global success a damn big thing, arguably. K-pop is such a self-sustaining world that it took a while for an act to really be an international success; because most of them didn't dare to dream that big. Sure, there were successes in Japan, and there were successes in Asia - hello, Momoland - but BTS cracking the so-called Western market, and keeping their hold for the past couple of years, is ground-breaking. It could also go up against our general tendency to wish things last forever. BTS would go for longer than most, sure, but that party will soon end at some point - and many will be in for a ride when that happens.
But old K-pop fans know that very well. Again, it's all about cycles. Nobody likes talking about endings, come to think of it, even if it always comes with a corresponding beginning. Why be a Debbie Downer?
I've seen those cycles happen in the past couple of years, though, and especially in the past few months. I've talked a fair bit about Mamamoo - okay, not a fair bit - but I'll admit I began losing interest after a bunch of disappointing releases. Yes, fans are supposed to worship everything their favorites do, but it's just not my thing - and so was the group's pursuit of modern, harsh sounds that characterized K-pop in the past year. ("Aya" is still their worst single in my book.) Also, being a fan is exhausting, and I say this even without really diving that deep into being, well, a fan.
There's also the fact that I didn't listen to the same old things over and over. There were a lot of interesting new acts that came out in the past couple of years - again, not always breaking out, not even if you're backed by a major agency, as is the thing with K-pop. Cherry Bullet's debut "Q&A" comes to mind. The group hasn't quite broken out the way some expected them to be - they didn't even get any members into Girls Planet 999, although the less said about the fanatical nepotism that caused it, the better - but their early stuff especially are pretty good. Same with Cosmic Girls, who also couldn't quite break out, but managed to still stick with their space-y concept both in their full(-ish) group and sub-units. "Unnatural" and "Easy", both released this year, will sit comfortably in any pop playlist.
(Let me play "Easy" again. Damn. If the music blog was still a thing, this would definitely be in the list of my ten favorites of the year. But I'll call it the Best K-Pop Song of 2021 anyway.)
If you want to feel old, though, just watch the coverage in the past year about the third generation of K-pop giving way to the fourth. The acts I waved the flag for are definitely in the third, and it's around this time when they're on their way out. Mamamoo, for one, has essentially split up, with Wheein - always my favorite of the four - moving on to a new agency while still doing some activities with the group. The other group I became a fan of, GFriend, didn't so much split up as were, well... we're not certain what really happened there, but I personally would never forgive their new overlords at Hybe (aka the folks behind BTS) for essentially screwing them over. The group's sudden end pretty much sullied the mood at the flat Shalla and I share for a week or so. I mean, we knew the end would be coming, but it wasn't supposed to be that sudden.
And then there are the new groups. Our orientation is still in female acts, so forgive me for not paying that much attention to the men. StayC was portrayed as the next big thing, and for a while they were, but bigger things are still ahead of them if they play their cards right. bugAboo also had hype considering they're managed by one of K-pop's biggest producers, but their debut, in Shalla's words, lasts for ten minutes. (Nice hook, though.) aespa's success is more of a given considering they're an SM act, but try prying "Cabbage" - I mean "Savage" - out of your head. And then there's Ive, who just debuted this month and are already making the rounds of the yearend shows, because they're led by the Starship Dorks (my term) from Produce 48 and their winning group IZ*ONE. Maybe I'll follow them next, because I have always been a bit enamored by Ahn Yu-jin.
Being a K-pop fan means acknowledging that these cycles exist, dealing with these cycles, and grappling with the fact that you'll reach the end of the cycle you live in at some point. But, well, go on and wish BTS lasts forever. You have to have what you want, right?