Sunday, September 15, 2013

LET'S TALK/NOW KPOPPING: Girl Radical VS. Asian Girl Groups

The Girl Radical girl group project was something I've wanted to talk about for awhile and following the *NSYNC reunion at the VMA's, I figured there was no time like the present. Settle in. This is a long one.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Girl Radical, they are a female, American girl group that was formed by cattle call audition last year by *NSYNC's own JC Chasez. What will be setting GR apart from your Fifth Harmony's and what have you is their member count. Currently, the group stands at 11 members, and that number could end up rising. Given I've spent the past few years dabbling into the pop music world over in South Korea, seeing "supergroups" like Girl Radical are nothing new to moi, but in the American market, it's pretty unheard of. I recall when the Pussycat Dolls debuted with six members (slightly more than the universally accepted five member quota) when I was back in high school and it felt like there were so many women dancing on screen.

Therefore, when you hear that JC was directly inspired by the Asian trend of "giant girl groups", I'm not exactly surprised. Whether or not I feel like it will work in the US market is another question all together -- it will require super saccharine cute music + polished performance + innocent sex appeal. JC was specifically inspired by Japan's award-winning AKB48, which currently boasts (and this is no joke) close to 90 (all female) group members. To date, AKB and it's subgroups have been smashing all competition in Japan (the second biggest music market in the world after the US), selling records left and right and snatching up awards (and wigs) like it's nobody's business. One of their biggest hits, 2010's "Heavy Rotation", has over 92 million views on YouTube. It also features its members acting super cute at a slumber lingerie while singing "I need you...I love you" in English (so the view count doesn't seem so surprising now, does it?).

Personally, while I can respect AKB48's accomplishments, the music or the performances never really captured my attention -- mostly because the music is very, very saccharine (you either like it or you don't) and often dripping in a kind of sex appeal that really confuses me. There is a reason why the famous members of AKB48 have a number of potentially dangerous stalkers -- the members are often presented on a pedestal for sexual longing (with many modeling in adult magazines on the regular).

Japan's culture is different from the US (although I wouldn't say vastly) -- in that "cuteness", "innocence" and "purity" often translates itself directly to blatant sex appeal. We play the game a different way here -- our female popstars (the young ones anyway) are expected to play both sides of the line. Be sexy and innocent, the coquette and angel, the virgin and the whore (yeah, I went there). Our society is certainly patriarchal (another argument for another time), but in 2013, we are not the culture that publically encourages females to openly cater to their men -- we are the "Come & Get It", the "Since U Been Gone", the "Independent Women", the "I Don't Need A Man" culture. Herein lies an extreme difference, and it's part of where Girl Radical currently falls short by basing themselves off their Asian counterparts (so far, anyway).

We've yet to hear anything official from the girl group other than a "buzz single" in the cover of No Doubt's "Just A Girl" -- a bit of a blood-boiling choice. On screen, the set up is familiar to me -- eleven cute girls, looking popstar perfect in a variety of wardrobe choices. As an American, I appreciate the multi-racial balance presented. How they are dressed and the cutesy interactions is a direct reference to their Asian inspirations. They all look like their having fun. The soloists have passably melodic vocals.

However (and you knew that was coming), "Just A Girl" is a rallying cry for not being "just" a girl. For not being "all pretty and petite". Yet that is exactly what is visualized on screen with these eleven ladies shaking their hips, flipping their hair and smiling sweetly. The disconnect between the lyrical content (and the meaning of the song) is really off-putting to me. I'm not much older than these girls -- surely they get the reference?

If Girl Radical is going to be a "thing", they need to take their Asian inspirations and ground themselves in what works and what should appeal to young women in 2013 America. Cute wardrobe? Yes. Dynamic choreography? Yup (and we'll get to that in a second). Catchy chorus? Hell yeah. But also, you have to be more then the cutesy. Several of the girls give off a sassy, sexy mystique. Run with that but have it make sense. Translating "Just A Girl" to be an excuse to exude that "innocent" sex appeal makes no sense. None. Zip. Zero. A better song choice would have elevated this video a million points.

That being said -- I don't dislike the Girl Radical idea, I applaud it...if it is executed the right way. I look forward to seeing what's next from these gals, and if they can continue to polish up their appeal to potentially compete with the Asian Pop that has impressed me over the past few years.

Unlike the Pussycat Dolls of yore, Girl Radical's target demographic in the US isn't men in their 20's/30's (that age group is also AKB's sweet spot). From what we can see, it's young girls. This is why, bias or not, I feel like South Korea's brand of large and in-charge girl pop would be a much smarter inspiration choice.
As a shameless fan of South Korea's brand of girl pop (of varying member count), I've seen polished pop at its best. No group in Korea is as large and in charge as AKB, but there are a handful that have a large gathering of girls as well as large swell of popularity. Not only is their visual aesthetic on point, their in-formation is impeccable almost on a military scale. That's because these girls weren't just put together via audition and presented to the public a year later as a group. South Korean idols all come from performance factories within their "label" -- they are accepted as trainees often as children and practice long and hard for years at a time before potentially getting to "debut", whether its as a group member or as a soloist. Groups spend sometimes years in development to ensure the correct members make up its rank. There's a reason why some KPOP is so pristine, it has a literal sheen (I rhymed and didn't even intend to!).
In terms of my choices for "best in class" for the ladies of Girl Radical to take a look at, I present to you these gal groups who undisputedly did it well. Only "giant" girl groups have been listed here (defined as more than the usual five members). 
Current Member Count: 9
Age Range: 22-26
After a few revolving door debacles with past members, Nine Muses (who debuted in 2010) are now really finding their stride in the KPOP scene, especially with their recent single "Wild". "Dolls", released in late January of 2013 took elements of AKB's "Heavy Rotation" and remixed them with a throwback, horn-assisted sound that is so popular in KPOP. The girls were dressed up both as playful innocents (and not in a creepy way) and in sexy menswear and it worked for them. The choreography is clean and relatively uncomplicated -- it's breezy just like the song. In terms of hooks & snappy choreo, take a gander at "Ticket", my absolute fave from the group.

AOA (Ace of Angels):
Current Member Count: 7
Age Range: 17-23
Taking what works for a large idol girl group and flipping it on it's head, AOA set themselves apart upon their debut in 2012 by boasting a five-member female "rock" band within their seven-member idol rank (known as AOA BLACK). This came as no surprise, given they were brought to us by FNC Entertainment, the requisite "idol band" company in the KPOP scene with FT Island and CNBlue. "Elvis" has sass, confidence and a healthy dose of humor.

Current Member Count: 8
Age Range: 19-30
Following the "member graduation" concept that AKB also uses, After School uses sex appeal to their direct advantage (their latest single, "First Love", features all of the girls pole dancing). All of this, plus their catalog's penchant for the saccharine contributes greatly to their success in Japan as well as Korea. You have to respect the work gone into making these exaggerated comebacks come to life -- After School never goes halfway. They also have a three-member subunit Orange Caramel who is very successful in the cutesy-aegyo song market. 2012's "Flashback" boasts a dark sex appeal and a Britney-esque sound. My overall fave goes to the original concept featured in "Bang!" (shown below is the Japanese version), offering its members in a sexy Drumline -- the choreo is on point. Where's my snare drum?

Current Member Count: 7 (technically)
Age Range: 20-27
T-ARA is a girl group rife with scandal and flux -- dismissal of members, girl-on-girl bullying, scandalous photos on the internet. You name it, T-ARA's gone through it. Currently, they are performing as the subunit T-ARA N4 and are reportedly taking a crack at the American market (with Chris Brown as a featuring tag -- of all of the American artists to go to, the group that gets hate in Korea for bullying picks Chris Brown? Um..okay...). Their name is constantly slung through the mud following the firing of former member Hwayoung and their image has never fully recovered (to be fair, it might never recover). It was a steep tumble from the top -- the group was kicking ass and taking names in 2011 following the success of their John Travolta Wannabe/Black Eyes album. It spawned the humungo hit "Roly Poly" -- and whether you liked it or not, the song was everywhere that year (and is still considered iconic in the KPOP game). I give them props for their movie-like music videos. Like T-ARA or not, "Roly Poly" was top notch. The actual music begins at 4:21 in the video below.

Current Member Count: 9
Age Range: 22-24
The undisputed KPOP Girl Group Queens -- whether it's in the large-member-count bracket or not -- Girls' Generation have walked the line from cutesy to sexy (and back again) a number of times and back again since first debuting back in 2007. Images don't get shinier than these gals, who's solidarity and friendship is shouted from the pink hilltops by their ardent SONE fandom. Its translated itself well to Japan, too -- and in my personal opinion, I find their Japanese material the most captivating since it's much more confident and sassy (latest: "Galaxy Supernova"). It's hard to top their choreography formations; strict, clean and direct. (Shocking that my faves of the troupe are it's 3-Gal Dance Line in HyoYeon, YuRi and SooYoung, right?) Even if you dislike a song, the choruses are always catchy. SM Entertainment does not eff around when it comes to their Divine Nine. You could choose any of their Korean jams to demo this ("Oh!", "Genie", "I Got A Boy") or Japanese jams ("Mr. Taxi", "Paparazzi", "Bad Girl") but for now I'll go with "Run Devil Run" (Korean or Japanese version, you choose. Below is in Korean.). The song was actually a Ke$ha demo. Imagine that.

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