Our featured artist for this week’s SB Exchange is Core Contents Media‘s flagship group, T-ara.

I’d entered the fandom just as “John Travolta Wannabe”  was released, and while I liked the concept of “Roly Poly” and the story in the music video, it didn’t really click for me — Not even recognising Dream High‘s Baek-hee (Eun-jung) could get me into the song.

I didn’t really bother with T-ara too much until one of my friends turned out to be a T-ara fanboy. He made me watch the MV for “You Make Me Go Crazy“, and you know what? I liked it. The autotune, the hair-flipping, the “sexy shadow”s — loved it. I still find it strange that I prefer this MV over what I feel is the much more well-thought-out and executed “Roly Poly”, but there you go. At least it encouraged me to pay a bit more attention to T-ara’s latest comeback with “Cry Cry” and “Lovey Dovey“.

To answer my T-ara-related questions this week, we have Subi, Ree and Johnelle.

1. T-ara’s rotational leader system is a unique aspect of the group, and the philosophy behind it is inspiring, but does it actually work, or is just another gimmick? And, while it would not fit everyone, is the system valid enough to be considered for other groups?

Subi: The position of leader and what it entails is elusive. I’m not sure many people, including me, know exactly what it consists of, especially considering a lot of the job occurs behind the scenes. And so, I’m not a 100% sure if it does or does not work. But having said that, I don’t think they’re using it as a gimmick either. If it were a gimmick, it would be shoved down our throats, a constant attempt to show us that with this new leader, there is a new T-ara and so on and so forth. In of itself however, the concept is risky because part of providing leadership for a group is providing stability. And with the leader constantly changing, how stable can you be? It isn’t a recommendation I would make to T-ara or any other group. But again, I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors; I have no way of knowing whether they make it work or not.

Johnelle: I think the rotating ‘leader’ thing is gimmicky and was first done just because Eun-jung became too busy to be the figurehead of the group, but maybe it works for T-ara in a way.  It really depends on what role the leader takes in the group: is the leader just someone who is the “speaker” for the group that gets after the others to be on time, or to take care of their chores in their dorms, etc.; or is the leader of a group the one that does all that plus is the leading force behind the direction of the group, its music, performances, etc.?  I’m thinking in T-ara, the leader is just a figurehead, which is why the rotational leader thing can work.

Ree: Whilst I am hesitant to call it a ‘gimmick’, I don’t think the plan was properly thought out. Mostly because Eun-jung held the leader title for more than a year, and then suddenly they gave it to Bo-ram who only held it for six months (and while T-ara was hardly doing anything as well).

Something a lot of people note about K-Pop is that sometimes the only things that makes a certain person a leader is the title ‘leader’. Or at least that’s what we see. However, Hyo-min and So-yeon were both seen attending the editing process for their MVs, and it was mentioned that as the new leader So-yeon would have to attend meetings with song composers, organize their schedules, learn to mix music, discuss concepts and stage outfits ect… And whilst it is likely that the ‘leader’ only really has a minimal say in these meetings (unless So-yeon purposely gave them sleep depriving schedules), I still believe working behind the scenes is a good experience for them. There’s also the incident where Hyo-min stood up for her group on twitter when faced with accusations of being rude and unprofessional on stage, which did show that at least the girls themselves did take the title of ‘leader’ to mean something. And sometimes just feeling responsible for other people can change someone’s attitude towards work and their peers, even if we don’t see it.

So far the leaders have all worked out okay, but I could only imagine just a bit of a tip in dynamics when Hwa-young gets her turn as leader. I think the rotational leader concept works for T-ara with minimal awkwardness because the younger members (Eun-jung, Hyo-min, and Ji-yeon), were the original members in the first place, and had the longest training periods — hence it isn’t too ‘whoa’ if they get the title of leader. But, that’s why I think it’ll be weird if Hwa-young ends up getting the title — since she was the last to join, and is also the second youngest.

As for giving the rotational system to other groups — it depends on the group. Like, I can’t really imagine a group like Big Bang pulling it off (Seungri would probably lead them all the way to the tabloids) since their leader is so dead set and there’s really no better option. But for other groups it might work. Especially groups such as SNSD where I feel like the ‘leader’ title is very loose and the girls themselves work more symbiotically with each other to coordinate themselves. Quite a few have different leader-like qualities, and I don’t see any harm in them getting a turn. It may also work for Miss A (though I can’t really fathom Suzy being the leader), since Jia, Min, and Fei all have different defining qualities that could make them work as a leader.

2. T-ara’s promotions are different (at least for me) from that of other groups, and while that helps them stand out in the crowded K-pop scene, it does seem to come at a cost — T-ara members have themselves mentioned the lack of sleep they get, and you’d have to wonder about the amount of resources CCM is pouring into T-ara’s promotions when they have other acts as well (hello, CO-ED boys). While their current strategy has given them success, could it ultimately end up doing more harm than good, for both T-ara and CCM?

Subi: Let’s be honest here folks: the entire Korean entertainment industry works on the principle “out of sight, out of mind.” Entertainers need to constantly be promoting, doing some activity, etc., in order to continue to hold the public’s attention. If they didn’t, then the public would forget about them. So T-ara isn’t too special in this regard. Most idols never get the proper amount of rest and resources that they need to function and I would argue that in a lot of ways, this is necessary. It’s necessary for all idols to constantly to put themselves in the public eye. But the fact that Core Contents Media seems to be putting all its eggs in one basket cannot be denied. Having multiple active groups on a roster allows for some slack and with T-ara constantly working, there isn’t that slack time/space. And regardless of whether this is T-ara specific or an idol-wide problem, the fact of the matter is that the members have complained multiple times about the conditions that they have to work in. If they’re complaining this much, then they’re not satisfied with the current conditions. And if they’re not satisfied, then what? See DBSK.

Ree: T-ara definitely has a crazy schedule, they’ve had the no rest for the last year, and in the end only three of the members are really ‘well known’ amongst the public. I’m going to go ahead and say CCM is the lousiest management agency ever, and I can’t really describe what I think of Kim Kwang-soo without being obscene. They aren’t the only idols with hectic schedules, but I will take note that it’s taking a visible toll of them.

T-ara’s promotional efforts aren’t exactly different or innovative in my opinion, just way too congested and badly organised… I think T-ara was Mnet Media‘s first attempt at building an idol group from scratch, so they play around with them the most (leading to the hectic schedule). CO-ED’s promotions have been pathetic, and Supernova who? T-ara are CCM’s ONLY cash cows, so they’re probably going to be milked until they’re dry. I don’t really think T-ara’s hectic promotional tactics will hurt them in the long run anymore than other groups with demanding schedules, unless the girls themselves decide they’ve had enough and sue.

Johnelle: Well, if the girls are so unsatisfied with the situation that they keep bringing it up – it is a problem.  Not only because they’re unhappy with the workload, but by being less than 100% because of being overworked accidents and injuries happen–like with Eun-jung and her hurt knee right now.  And there’s that other possibility that we shall not mention because I happen to like T-ara.  While it’s good to have a lot of work than no work at all, there should be limits and it seems to be a problem in South Korea to find that happy medium instead of just taking every chance to make money that you can. CCM has promised them a break after current promotions, so we’ll see.

They also have Davichi who are more popular than most international fans think.  And Lee Hae-ri and Kang Min-kyung, while maybe not as busy as some T-ara members, also do a lot of work outside of music in variety (Hae-ri on Immortal Song 2) and dramas (Min-kyung in Smile, Mom).  So I wouldn’t say that CCM is totally relying on T-ara, although T-ara is probably their cash cow right now.  I would hope regarding their other acts, like the CO-ED Boys and Girls, that they’re working with them to make them more popular and profitable.

3. The addition of Hwa-young to the group has been generally derided, and I’m of the opinion that CCM actually has no idea what to do with her. Would you agree with this assessment, or do you empathize with CCM and believe Hwa-young’s addition to T-ara has merit?

Subi: While I agree with the sentiment that Hwa-young’s addition to the group did next to nothing, the same argument could be made for MANY idols in MANY groups. For me personally, I don’t see the rationale of half the members of a group. But more often than not, others do. Assessing the validity of a member’s position in a group is subjective. Does Hwa-young have something going for her? Maybe. There has to be SOME reason behind CCM’s decision to place her in the group, regardless of how superficial or imperative. For whatever reason, I haven’t seen it but I’m sure it exists. But it may not be enough to warrant her addition to T-ara.

Ree: Hwa-young is useless. I don’t dislike or hate her, however I do dislike what she brings to the group — which is essentially nothing. Believe me, I’ve thought about this long and hard, and I really can’t think of any reason as to why CCM would add her to the group. She isn’t a great singer that could help backup So-yeon, Hyo-min, and Eun-jung in terms of vocals, her rapping isn’t anything special that Eun-jung couldn’t do it just as well. I’ve seen some people claim she was made a rapper to take same weight off Eun-jung  and Hyo-min’s hands, but as of now, T-ara hasn’t had a song that’s really had rap rap (sans TTL). The only contribution Hwa-young actually has is that she’s pretty… but T-ara was a pretty damn attractive group to begin with anyway.

Subi said plenty of groups have deadweight members — but honestly, how many groups add on useless members? I mean, Qri and Bo-ram hardly do anything in the first place, but they were part of the original line-up and both of them do have some kind of rationale for being there. If anyone can tell me how Hwa-young contributes anything to what was once a good six-membered T-ara, please do tell. I’d love to be proven wrong.

Johnelle: I’m going to have to agree that CCM didn’t know what to do with Hwa-young and just stuck her in T-ara where her presence has been forgettable, but I guess she got a better deal than her sister who’s in CO-ED (Hyo-young).  I really don’t understand the addition of members to a group unless they are taking someone’s place to fill a void.  Other than that, it makes it seem as either the group was lacking so they needed to add in a new member to add to the group or that the company didn’t know what to do with a new rookie, but didn’t want to waste a rookie with potential so they shoved them into an existing  group.

To answer this question all you have to do is really just ask yourself, “Is there any moment in a T-ara performance where you distinctly remember Hwa-young’s presence and that her presence added to the group’s performance?”  I would have to say no and that if you didn’t remind me she was there — I wouldn’t even had known.

4.  T-ara is yet another example of a group who ‘sold-out’ to acheive fame and success, starting with “Bo Peep”. While I guess “Cry Cry” is more of a move back to their old sound, the relatively more lighthearted “Lovey Dovey” seems to be more successful. Could T-ara end up in the same situation as SNSD, with their ‘cuter’ concepts selling better than their darker ones?

Subi: In order to answer this question, I need to answer the question of which concepts ultimately sell and because this Korea and Asia we’re talking about, I’m going to say “cuter.” All over Asia, youth, innocence, and all related characteristics are praised and prized above all others. And if it’s valued in the society, then it’s going to be valued by the entertainment that the very society wants to consume. More people will enjoy cute, more people will buy cute. If T-ara wants to continue making money and achieving mainstream success, this may very well be the way in which they’re going to have to do it. That being said, I wouldn’t call it selling out. T-ara is a group, like most Korean groups, that seeks to entertain the public. If this is what the public demands, then they have to do what the public wants. I’ll be perfectly honest: I’m not a fan of T-ara. But I do understand their goals and I think they’re doing a good job of achieving them. This group has come a long way since their debut days and they’re getting better and better. Regardless of whether they’re cute or dark, as long as they keep on achieving what they want to, they’re doing the right thing.

Johnelle: I would agree that “Bo Peep” was a sell out move that made them popular. I much preferred their ‘normal’ songs like “Lies” and “Like The First Time,” but it was “Bo Peep” that put them on the map.  It happens to a lot of girl groups though, look at Secret, they didn’t get mass popularity until “Shy Boy.”  And I guess you gotta do what you gotta do, although one would have thought that having solid songs like “Like The First Time” would make you popular.  But in Korea (all of Asia really), it doesn’t always work that way.

I don’t agree that “Lovey Dovey” is a ‘cute’ concept and therefore popular.  In my opinion, the ‘cute’ concept is one that is so aegyo-rific (think horrific instead of terrific) that it explodes in popularity- it also is more geared towards pervy ajusshi fans.  “Bo Peep” and “Yayaya” were aegyo-rific.  “Lovey Dovey,” on the other hand is a solid club song with an addicting dance concept and that’s why it’s more popular than “Cry Cry.”  I mean look, they even did a zombie MV version of the song —  that is in no way ‘cute.’

T-ara seems to be doing well with their catchy dance tunes and love ballads now rather than having to rely on the cutesy concept.  Hopefully, it stays that way.

Ree: T-ara is… strange. “Cry Cry” to me was a step forward in the fact they had a good song, not in the fact they were going towards their roots again. I know people think I hate T-ara’s material, but I really don’t. I just hate the majority of their promotional tracks. I don’t really want to say they sold out with “Bo Peep” , because “Bo Peep”  did have a whole album behind it, and that album itself was pretty great. I really liked T-ara’s old sound, and by old sound I don’t really mean Lies and TTL (because from the get-go I never thought that kind of style was all too signature to T-ara to begin with), what I mean by old sound is the electropop sound they had going on in ‘Absolute First Album’, which they haven’t really revisited since ‘Why Are You Being Like This’. To me YaYaYa was sort of the turning point, and it was the time that I realised that they had absolutely deviated from their original style (which is a shame, because they had a very unique style).

T-ara haven’t really done a ‘cute’ concept the way SNSD has, but if you mean ‘will their earworms sell better than the actual good songs’, then yes, they’re already in that position. Almost every pop group is in that position though. T-ara was in that position ever since someone from CCM decided to promote “Bo Peep” and “I Go Crazy Because Of You” over the billion other great tracks they had on their album. And I can’t really pretend that the reason why is beyond me, because even though I hate 98% of their title tracks, Roly Poly was probably one of my favourite songs of 2011 :x First class hypocrisy right there. Honestly, it’s working for them, and although they probably lost a lot of fans along the way, it’s getting their name on the charts. I don’t particularly like it, but I will always be a fan of them, and so I can’t condemn them for doing what sells. (But I can recommend EVERYONE give their first album a chance, please, there’s more to their music than their promoted songs).

– – – – – – – – – –

My views on the leadership issue are in line with Ree’s: the leader would be the most junior member present at any meetings, so I am not surprised that they would have not much sway in the production side of things. That said, though, the leader at the time does step up when needed, like with Hyo-min’s tweets. And with respect to the issue of T-ara’s dangerously busy schedule, Nabeela’s article talks of this particular subject in great detail — all I have to add is that I admire their guts in outing their company and president so publicly, and really do hope they get their holiday.

As Johnelle mentioned, it would be interesting to see Hwa-young become leader. She would be the hoobae of hoobaes at production meetings, but you never know; she could have some latent leadership qualities in her that would really make her shine. Or at least, that would be the best case scenario. We’ll just have to wait and see how Hwa-young puts her own stamp on the role, as well as how she manages the group dynamic with her role, not to mention increased public interest, possibly due to the aforementioned issues. Overall, Hwa-young is in a better place at the moment than her twin sister — her band’s last three singles have hit #1 on music charts and she’s just debuted in Japan with the highest paying contract for a K-pop girl group to debut in Japan ever (along with the rest of T-ara, of course). But, the fact remains that she is featured very little in songs, both promotional and non. “Lovey Dovey” is probably the longest solo she’s had so far.

Then again, Hwa-young isn’t the only member to get shafted when it comes to line distribution. For “Cry Cry”, CCM had to redistribute the lines for the live performances once they realised that the studio version was essentially a Hyo-min -So-yeon duet feat. the rest of T-ara. And even then Bo-ram only got one extra line (taking her total number of lines from… zero to one), while Hwa-young and Qri missed out completely. Ji-yeon and Eun-jung were the biggest winners, but that would be because they are the more recognisable members. It’s a shame that CCM doesn’t promote its less prominent members — especially Bo-ram and Qri, because even Hwa-young is managing OK thanks to discussion of her always being overlooked, a la Hyo-yeon. Qri did get the lead role in “Lovey Dovey” MV though, and Hwa-young was one of the T-ara members featured in their duet with Davichi, “We Were In Love“, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction.

When Subi challenged the notion of T-ara selling out, I had to agree with her reasoning. A K-pop group’s raison d’etre is to make their company as much money as possible, so in that sense changing to a sound and/or image that would be ultimately more profitable is really just T-ara doing what its meant to do. But musically, T-ara had an identity, and then to change that identity… sure, it got them noticed, but it forgot those people who liked T-ara’s initial sound, their fans; but T-ara have managed to turn even that to their advantage, as they are now known as the group with contrasting consecutive concepts. Furthermore, philosophical CCM president Kim Kwang-soo is of the belief that no act should restrict itself to pleasing only fans and fanclubs and try to appeal to a wider audience, so fan losses probably don’t keep him awake at night — especially when the changes made have resulted in greater popularity, thus validating his philosophy. In fact, it was only recently announced that T-ara would launch its official fanclub.

And this may be why I like T-ara; they have so many things about them — the leader system, the lack of official fanclubs, the dramatic changes in concept for each release, the male backup dancers — that together make them so unique, and different from other groups. I, for one, have not seen a girl group promote a club song without an accompanying sexy concept, and seeing T-ara’s live stages is really refreshing. I don’t think “Lovey Dovey” is a cutesy song, but rather a lighthearted and fun one, and this is where I think T-ara succeeds, because as great as they were with “Cry Cry”, they totally rock “Lovey Dovey”, and the fun nature of the song may be one of the key factors in its popularity — especially with their tongue-in-cheek Zombie MV. Whatever concept T-ara tries their hand at next, I hope they can retain some of that, say, nonchalance, and not get too serious or angsty, because fun is what they do best.

What are your thoughts on T-ara? And has it taken you more than one go before you got into a group and their music?

(Nate, Naver, SNSDLyrics, Soompi)