From Slay to Shred: Anticipating the Wonder Girls Idol Band

Ever since JYP let it slip that Wonder Girls would be returning as a band (a real live band with instruments and everything!), we’ve been anticipating their comeback. On August 3rd, 12pm KST, Wonder Girls will return with Hyelim on guitar, Sunmi on bass, Yeeun on keyboard, and Yubin on drums (Sunye and Sohee have withdrawn from the group). That’s right, after two years on hiatus, Wonder Girls will return as a band! Which is crazy. It’s exciting, astounding, perplexing. It’s worrying! I’ve been racing through the whole gamut of emotions, and I just can’t seem to settle on one. Because while there have been so many ups and downs in Kpop over the last few months, Wonder Girls’ return is, for me, the most surprising thing that has happened all summer. And it’s going to completely change everything for one of the most well-known Kpop groups out there!

Paradigm Shift

Forming an idol band is a big deal, and there’s honestly no successful model out there for female idol groups (indie groups are not the same). AOA would probably be the closest thing with their early releases of “Elvis” and “Get Out,” and AOA Black’s “Moya.” But since then AOA’s band concept has been unceremoniously dumped in favor of an instrument-free, booty-focused approach. (FNC Entertainment has locked up the erstwhile drummer, Yookyoung, and thrown away the key, presumably to ensure she is unable to lead a revolution with her flaming drumsticks.) As much as some fans will persist that they want a return to the band concept, AOA is not a good role model.

There are healthier models in male groups CNBLUE and F.T. Island, but there’s an enormous difference: both CNBLUE and F.T. Island debuted as bands. Not as idols, but rock bands. Yes, these men have successfully navigated the thin line between idol and rock band, but they started with a guitar strapped to their chest and one foot on the kick drum and the overwhelming cultural acceptance of men in rock bands. Gender is important here! Their narrative, from start to present, has been as men that play instruments. Wonder Girls, until this point, have also had a consistent narrative: as female idols.

Now, that doesn’t mean they can’t change. Look at AOA, who changed from a band to an idol group at the flip of a switch. But here’s where gender is going to rear its ugly head. AOA’s change in narrative proceeded from a concept that was less commonly accepted for women to one that is more commonly accepted, i.e. from rockers to sexy idols. They moved in the direction that would attract the least vitriol. Going in reverse, for Wonder Girls, is going to draw a lot of attention. And that attention is most likely to take the form of netizens questioning their abilities as musicians. No matter what Wonder Girls does, no matter how much they shred, this conversation will take place in a different arena than it would for male musicians.

JYP is anticipating this conversation. There’s a reason for the reassuring notes at the end of each teaser that states that the music was recorded by the Wonder Girls members. Dismissal and disbelief are expected. So why do it at all? Why invite all the noise and nonsense? Well, because noise and nonsense gets heard! After a two-year hiatus, and a career that never fully reached the heights it was hyped to attain, Wonder Girls needs something to kickstart their return. Coming back as a band and ruffling a few feathers might be just what they need.

But Can They Melt Our Faces?

According to JYP, the women of Wonder Girls have spent one year preparing for their comeback. That’s one year spent learning guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums. It sounds like an impossible dream. Perhaps even a recipe for disaster.

To be fair, though, the one year quoted by JYP is a bit misleading. Yeeun previously knew how to play both guitar and piano. Sunmi supposedly started learning bass in her 20s (she’s 23). And doubtless, Hyelim and Yubin are not as green as JYP makes them out to be either. Some of this is an exaggeration to make us even more excited to see what these women can do. It also lowers expectations, which is a double-edged sword.

Regardless, we’re not going to see much on music shows. It’s almost unheard of for an artist to get a live band setup, even for the big groups like CNBLUE and F.T. Island. We’re almost certain to hear a pre-recorded version of the song, which won’t make it easy for Wonder Girls to impress us with their skills when they’re slapping a muted bass. On the other hand, it will allow them to focus on giving us a more dynamic performance. Because there’s a big difference in the stage of a band and an idol group. For a band, all movement becomes more static. You are physically hooked in to a piece of equipment. The thing to watch for early on will be how the members of Wonder Girls are able to connect with their instruments. For them to rock, guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums need to be more than casual props, they need to be identities that the women inhabit. The dynamic cameras in the music shows will help, but Wonder Girls will need to figure out how to go from using movement to impress and engage their audience to using a more static form of showmanship. If their teasers are any indication, they're well on their way.

Aside from typical promotions on music shows, it will be interesting to see how fully Wonder Girls embraces the band concept. Because there’s actually one other important thing we know about this comeback. And it’s actually something that we don’t know. Or, rather, it’s something we know we don’t know. Have I lost you yet? Here it is: We don’t know if this change to Wonder Girls is a permanent one or a one-time gig. JYP has confirmed several times that Wonder Girls is returning as a band, yes, but that doesn’t mean “in perpetuity.” This is Kpop after all, where things change faster than you can swing a dead cat at them.

Embracing the band concept fully will require developing a large repertoire of songs they can perform as a band, something they don’t currently have. If they’re serious about becoming a band, this would have to be a long-term play, not a one-year project. Even then, the concept would necessarily limit their range. There’s an incredible variety of sound in Kpop right now, but a somewhat limited number of sounds that can be created with a four-piece band (though a keyboard helps). That limitation, coupled with the increased training required to master their instruments, means that Wonder Girls is actually probably better off adopting a hybrid model. I can easily see this as something that the group can strategically return to from time to time. In future concerts, they might start as a band, then two songs in, throw down their instruments and light up the stage with a killer dance performance, only to return to their instruments later on.

And that’s how I can imagine Wonder Girls truly being successful with the band concept. Not as a full-on rock band, but as an idol band. So long as the netizens don’t attack, don’t make gendered and unfair assessments of perceived musical talent, so long as Wonder Girls gets comfortable in their new skin, so long as they avoid the early exit a la AOA, then they can absolutely start melting our faces off. I'll see you on August 3rd. I'll be the guy without a face!

Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.


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