We see them all the time: girl groups going from bubbling with aegyo to enticing their audience with short shorts and hip sways, boy groups throwing hearts but then suddenly introducing abdomen flashes and hip thrusts. And of course, vice versa. And it’s a change that is at the heart of what makes K-pop tick: the ability for groups to switch concepts every promotion cycle, bringing a “fresh” aspect to their music, hopefully keeping the group relevant or propelling them to the top. But is this really the way to go for a group?

To be more specific, the concept changes I’m referring to here are changes in image that are drastic or move a group towards a path that would be difficult to predict based on previous works. It’s definitely possible to gradually make changes that are both interesting and follow a path to maturity that parallels the growth of the group. We can easily point to groups like SNSD or BEAST that have done that well. But it’s also possible to go too far and make too large a change that leaves a viewer wondering just who this group has become.

This is a topic I’ve been struggling with, mainly because within K-pop, there are groups for which this tactic has worked, but groups for which it hasn’t. Prior to entering this time-sucking world of K-pop, I listened to artists because I found their image and sound to be consistent and something I enjoyed. I looked for a musician or singer because their discography tended to be more or less constant in the sounds they produced, differing in how certain mechanisms were used and the message conveyed. New spins were certainly appreciated, but in no way were they necessary for the group’s continued efforts. It was comfortable. Even with K-pop, I tend to find a group’s sound to be paramount to their success since, after all, these are idols that make music. Without a distinction to their sound that holds true away from the screen, away from visuals, a group is going to have difficulty being indistinguishable among the numerous groups of the industry. But this distinction within music carries over into image and concepts considering that, for idol groups, these two aspects together deliver a performance to the viewer.

The largest danger a group faces when they abruptly change concepts for whatever reason is the loss of the initial fan base. Within K-pop, there tends to be a closer connection between fans and group members because of various appearances on variety and this strong promotion of an image that is sold with much effort to an audience. With all the ways the media gets into a star’s life, there are plenty of opportunities to sell a personality that a viewer can like, driving a fan to appreciate a group for each individual member, not just the music that is created. For these fans, it’s easier to enjoy a transition between concepts because there are more “sides,” so to speak, of their favorite members being shown. But for more music-minded fans, an abrupt change in concept can be off-putting and entirely unappreciated. This tends to be the case when groups with younger members go too mature to early or groups that have the mature image down pat regress into a cutesy concept.

The reasons why this happens are obvious: certain images sell better than others. Sexy and cute, though on the opposite sides of the spectrum, appeal to audiences when done properly. When one side doesn’t work out as well as hoped, or generate as much money as hoped, groups sometimes take a drastic change to reinvent themselves. And that’s really what it is: an entire change of concept that creates a new group from the old. The vocals usually remain the same–sometimes even taking affected tones to suit the newer image–but everything else is just so different. Groups that come immediately to mind are Secret and Girl’s Day, both groups that switched from more mature concepts to cuter ones and with more success. While Secret has since returned to fiercer days, Girls Day hasn’t.

Within this change comes an expectation that a group is like their concept. I don’t mean that in a literal way, as in numerous groups are actually aliens or have suddenly taken up a number of side jobs. But there is an expectation that a group can act mature, sophisticated, or cute as in their concept, demonstrating an overflow of concept into actual personality that makes the assumption that idols have a proper say in their concept. This isn’t anything new. Normal people do this among one another every day, creating opinions based on first impressions. For an idol group, their first impression can be their debut song or whichever song is currently being promoted. Because of that, when a concept changes too drastically, it can be jarring.

Another worry that accompanies this change, aside from a different fan distribution, is that a group can mesh boundaries that truly define a group, something that is becoming more and more important because there are just that many groups. If music isn’t distinctive enough, then there needs to be an image that is easy to remember or a concept cycle that defines the type of music and style that the group is known for. This grows in importance for groups that lack outstanding features, in particular, rookies. Everyone can sing and dance these days. Indeed, most groups follow typical formulas of having dance tracks and ballads on their albums, sounds only made different because of natural distinctions vocally and the melody a song takes. As such, it’s important for any group to grow into a niche that best suits them, much like miss A, Big Bang, and B1A4 do with their music, perhaps explaining a bit of why these groups tend to do well enough. A worry that any new group should have is which niche is left for them to fill, especially since the industry is approaching oversaturation, if it’s not there already.

And there’s also an interesting issue that could crop up: members not fitting the concept. It seems like a problem for a company to deal with, but it could happen. Examples? Hyoyeon from SNSD in cute concepts. 2NE1‘s Sandara Park for some of the group’s work. 2AM and dancing (according to some fans). MBLAQ‘s Seungho and any cute acting in a performance. I don’t mean that these members can’t pull off the necessary concept on stage. Most can, even if they feel unnatural or uncomfortable. But it gets to a point where it forces the member to move far outside of how they would normally act in order to pull of an image that is not what they would prefer. This would be understandable if the profession at hand was that of acting. But it’s not. It’s music. And though I may sound like a broken record emphasizing its importance, and some may say their profession is to be an entertainer, if the idols don’t put out music, then it’s more difficult to get activities on variety shows and generally more difficult to get work in general because there is no tie keeping that group or member relevant. Unless you’re Super Junior‘s Siwon and could probably live off of how how you look, if you’re an idol, you need music.

I’ll give concept changes this: they can diversify a group’s discography and allow for a proper exploration of sounds until the group finds one that is just their style. But quite honestly, taking that route is a dodgy one, primarily for reasons above. It’s easy for a group to get lost in their image, becoming indistinguishable from other groups, generating no interest because there’s nothing flashy that the group can bring to the table. Perhaps it is for that reason that we see more and more of the newer groups attempting to invest more in music, dance, or some sort of skill from the start that can either bring notice to the group or last them for the long haul, granted they aren’t from a Big Three company. We all know that Big Three companies can generate notice and fans, regardless of the talent level of the group’s members. Perhaps prior to, say, 2011, when the Great Rookie Influx began, there may have been that time for solid improvement from debut, time to figure out which method worked best, how to market a group, which talents should be showcased, just an overall slower build-up of momentum towards greater popularity and a more consistent type of music.

If it wasn’t clear already, fans hold quite a bit of the power for the concepts which is both helpful and a hindrance. Fans can drive a group towards an image than they may or may not like simply because it’s a staple that gains good reactions. Otherwise, for the more established groups, fans can allow poor concepts to slide by, sometimes releasing the group of any accountability for their image because of their company’s control. In a sense, it was more difficult for groups to stick with a single concept prior to numerous debuts because there was less music coming from fewer sources. These days, because everyone wants a piece of the K-pop pie and because of the dwindling attention span of a K-pop fan due to new music at least every week, it’s easier for a group to maintain an image more to their liking. In other words, there’s more stuff to wade through in between comebacks, unless we’re talking about B.A.P, which helps mask whatever music a group put out before unless a fan searches for it.

Image changes have their place, but it’s high time that idol groups reevaluate their image in order to stay competitive and continue doing music within the K-pop scene. They need a niche to occupy that can serve them well for the long run, one that’s broad enough to allow for maturation and playing around with multiple topics, but not so broad that just anyone could do it well. It’s hard to accomplish, but it most likely would pay off in the end.

Seoulmates, how do you feel about image changes? Are there groups that you’ve found established a solid image? Any that you still can’t pinpoint? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

(Daum, SM Entertainment, TS Entertainment, YG Entertainment, Cube Entertainment, SBS)