Sixteen, the new reality show by JYP Entertainment, is the latest in a long line of Kpop talent competitions. The show pits sixteen aspiring trainees against one another, all of them vying for a spot in the upcoming JYP girl group, Twice. It’s also my new guilty pleasure.
But this admission comes only a few weeks after I panned Unpretty Rapstar for producing needless drama, and now here I am, singing the praises of a seemingly very similar show. So what gives? Why is Sixteen any better than Unpretty Rapstar? And, more importantly, why should you give it your attention over the next few weeks?
The first reason I’ll give you is an obvious one: if you watch the full season, you’ll witness the very formation of JYP’s first girl group since Miss A. There’s no guarantee that the members of Twice will be stars. But if I were a betting man, I’d probably put money on it. In three years time, Twice will almost certainly be part of the mainstream Kpop scene, and it’s exciting to see the early stages. The premise of the show is designed to give us exactly that. Starting with sixteen young trainees, JYP will separate the wheat from the chaff, eliminating one woman at a time until he has an identifiable and exciting group. And that’s it. That’s the goal. It’s so clear, so precise, so...understandable.
One of the biggest problems with Unpretty Rapstar is that not a single person understood what the purpose of the show was. In fact, I’d wager that the very members of the show had no idea. They seemed equally concerned with “getting eliminated” as they did with starting drama, when all that really mattered (I think?) was getting selected to work with a producer on a single. But none of it was clear. No one knew what was going on, least of all the audience, and it made for a real mess of a show.
I want to be clear that I think Sixteen makes for excellent television. It probably won’t lead to any memorable music production, at least not until Twice becomes a real group. On the other hand, while Unpretty Rapstar made for terrible television, it happened to produce a fair amount of good music. “Puss” will probably be remembered as the best female rap song of the year. I’m not recommending that you watch Sixteen for the music or even the dancing. It doesn’t excel in either category. As television, however, it’s pure television gold.
And a lot of that has to do with JYP being one of the most exciting, enigmatic, and unpredictable icons in Kpop. He’s part mogul, part idol, and part evil genius. He can manage some of the biggest stars in Korea one day, then sing about his love of booty the next, and on the seventh day, when even God rested, JYP can plan one of the most intriguing social experiments ever to hit the small screen. It goes something like this.
[SPOILERS FOR EPISODE ONE]
Before any competition, before any show of talent, almost before any of the contestants names were known, JYP divided the sixteen women into two groups: Major and Minor. The Majors would receive star treatment: access to idol mentors, better practice times, comfortable travel, and spacious and clean living arrangements. The Minors would receive none of these perks. It’s a classic social experiment, and it’s extremely gutsy.
JYP, in my opinion, knows exactly what he’s doing. He understands the fact that some of his trainees are in need of a little validation (those in the Major category), and some of his trainees need to be fighting for their lives to show their true potential (those in the Minor category). Think of Mina, a trainee for only one year. It would be easy for her to believe that she has no chance against some of the veterans of the JYP system. But JYP believes in her and places her in the Majors. Mina should thrive on that confidence; it’s exactly the validation she needs. On the other end of the spectrum is Ji Hyo, a trainee for ten years. The only way to be sure he would get the best out of Ji Hyo was for JYP to force her to realize that her seniority means nothing in this competition. Not here. Not when the stakes are so high. "Ten years a trainee" is nothing but bad-sounding parody.
JYP’s genius goes even further than understanding how to manage talent, however. He also understands that his viewers are coming into the show with absolutely no bias. We don’t know any of these trainees. They’re not famous. They haven’t done anything yet. We have no reason to like person X over person Y. At the outset, we have no story. So JYP creates one for us, using archetypes.
As humans we are social animals, and all of us have an ingrained understanding of social hierarchy. We often respond to it subconsciously. But when someone comes in and upsets the normal hierarchy (i.e. replaces seniority with a self-imposed Major/Minor system), we feel that change viscerally. We immediately react to seven trainees being elevated to a Major status, while the other nine suffer the disrespect of being assigned to the Minors. The creation of this archetype, even if it makes us hate JYP, gives us someone to root for. Personally, I love a good underdog story, and that’s exactly what the Minors are reminding me. I’m going to root for every last one of them. Down with cake-eaters! (Until they do something amazing that makes me secretly like them anyways.)
I think I should take a moment here to admit that Sixteen has flaws, many of them. It’s been derided as overly cruel, exploitative, and drama-heavy. I wouldn’t spend my time debating those points, because I think a certain level of all three is to be expected from any talent competition. And Sixteen, comparatively, is no worse than the rest. If the basis of a show is to grant rewards following public judgment, it is going to be cruel, exploitative, and drama-heavy.
Every talent competition is rife with voyeuristic moments. All of them purport to show us reality. Never for a second did I believe that any of the women in Unpretty Rapstar took the show to be anything more than a paycheck and a way back into the spotlight. Unpretty Rapstar was like watching a bad season of Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Rehab. We know all of them from somewhere, we already have our biases, and we already know which of them will succeed and which will fail. We know who the wannabes are who wait until the end to leech off the show’s popularity (cough, Bora).
Sixteen shines in its believability. Because all of the contestants come in with a blank slate, I can believe that these are actual trainees that want to join JYP’s next girl group. I don’t look at Mina and Ji Hyo, or Dahyun (was that an eagle dance?), or Natty (the youngest competitor) and roll my eyes, waiting for the drama. Instead, I look forward to every episode. And I think you will too.
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.