Kpop fans, to a large extent, view music in terms of singles. An album is just an excuse for a new music video. A single album is the perfect length, an extended play is a little more than we want to spend, and a studio album would be better as two smaller albums. It’s a mindset that’s hurting the genre of Kpop. The question is, can we stop it before it’s too late?
Are We Really Obsessed?
B.A.P. recently released “Where Are You? What Are You Doing?” from their fourth single album, Unplugged. It’s a playful ballad with a flowerboy concept, and anti-fans have not been quiet in suggesting that B.A.P. should stick to songs like “Warrior” and “One Shot,” the singles that have defined their career. But really, where is this idea coming from?
Every pop star has more than one dimension. Even Britney Spears produced great ballads in her day (“Sometimes” anyone?). Because having more than one dimension is necessary to producing a decent album. You don’t need to love ballads to know that an album that had no rise and fall would be an album that lacked emotional maturity or catharsis.
But for some reason, many Kpop fans refuse to allow their artists to explore and show their other side. When Secret promoted an “I Do, I Do” instead of a sexy concept, people got upset. When Big Bang chose “Blue” as their first album single instead of “Fantastic Baby,” people scratched their heads. When Taeyang released “Eyes, Nose, Lips,” they complained that it wasn’t like “Ringa Linga.” So what’s the problem? What do Kpop fans really want?
It’s not surprising that we’re obsessed. The entire promotion cycle of Kpop is based around the single. Artists choose one song to promote, make a music video for it, and sing that song on all the variety shows. So the single is what the average Kpop fan hears.
Digital music, aside from all its merits, has the downside of being heavily geared toward the single. iTunes, one of the biggest online music retailers in the West, made a business model out of selling $0.99 singles. Even if a consumer searches out an entire album, there is an easy to read display of the popularity of each of the songs, further highlighting the single as a smart standalone purchase. When consumers are presented with the option to buy just their favorite (or the most popular) song from an album, they often see that as a cost-savings. What they miss out on is all that other music.
But it goes even deeper than that. By releasing shorter albums more frequently, artists enforce a ‘single’ mentality. The difference between a four-song album and a ten-song album is vast. A shorter album can rest heavily on one song, whereas a longer album needs two to three strong singles to sell. A quick look at B.A.P.’s discography will tell you everything you need to know. In the two years they’ve been active, B.A.P. have released four single albums (with an average of 3.5 songs per album), four extended plays (average of 5.3 songs per album), and one studio album (13 songs). Eight of their nine albums have relied on one single. Their fans, in turn, know B.A.P. through their singles.
Is it Hurting?
Yes. Once the single becomes our expectation for a particular artist, we force them to produce the same music or concept every time or risk losing their fans. But music is not a widget. It’s not a product to be manufactured. First and foremost, it is an artform. Our reliance on the single creates a cyclical expectation that destroys creativity and innovation within the Kpop genre.
As well as hampering innovation, our obsession with the single also forces groups to raise the stakes with each release, to push the limits of the concept within which they are pigeonholed. Every time a girl group gets accused of being too sexy, is it really that they’ve gone too far, or that we’ve pushed them there? As soon as Sistar or Girl’s Day became defined by their sexy singles, the only logical way they could create "better music" was to give the fans more of what they wanted: more sexy. And that’s what it all comes down to: expectations.
Changing Our Expectations
So is there a way to change our expectations? Unfortunately, much of it needs to come from within the industry. Artists need to condition their fans to expect more than one single from an album. 2NE1 has done a great job of this with their album Crush, promoting three separate (and very different) songs so far. M.I.B.’s debut album, Most Incredible Busters, featured five singles, one by each member, and one group song. Kara did something similar for Kara Collection. Big Bang promoted four from Alive, if you count “Monster.” The point being that if the artists are willing to release longer albums and promote them more fully, fans will start expecting a more diverse range of music. And that, in turn, will create a more welcoming space for innovation within Kpop.
For artists to change their releases, however, the entire industry needs a makeover. Most of the groups have a clear strategy: release 2-3 singles per year, spaced out so that the fans never lose sight of them for long. 2-3 albums a year is an insanely busy schedule that, outside Korea, has probably only ever been matched by the Beatles. For Kpop, though, this translates to rapidly releasing single albums and extended plays, not studio albums. But the industry isn’t about to change. Because the industry executives understand that the fans want the next Girls’ Generation comeback. They want the next Exo release. They want the next 2NE1 album before they’ve even finished promoting this one!
So it’s the fans that need to change? But then we’re right back where we started, with fan expectations. It’s a vicious cycle, yes. That’s why we’re where we are today. But it’s not entirely hopeless.
Is There Another Option?
Of course. The easiest way to start viewing music as more than a collection of singles is to go analog. I didn’t understand the concept of an album until I bought a record player. The extra amount of work required to spin a vinyl record, then to get up and flip it to hear the other half forces you to spend more time with the album. The lack of a shuffle feature forces you to think of songs in relation to their neighbors. It forces you to listen all the way through, because honestly, it’s too much work to get the needle where it needs to go to play just one song. It forces you to treat each album like art.
Although vinyl doesn’t really exist in Kpop, you can still buy the CD. If you’re poor and can’t afford shipping from Korea, buy the whole album as a digital download. If you’re too poor for that, find someone who has uploaded the whole album to YouTube. However you get it, the important thing is that you listen to the whole thing, all the way through, in the order it was produced. The album is a body of work. If you view it as such, you might not be so surprised when B.A.P. or G.NA promote ballads or when Secret goes for an aegyo concept. You might be shocked to find that you like Exo’s “Run” better than their promoted single, “Overdose.” You might find that you like being surprised.
But please, next time you wonder why an artist is promoting a concept you don’t think “fits,” hold judgment until you’ve listened to their album. All the way through.