This week on SB Exchange, we feature JYP‘s sassy quartet, miss A.

Miss A were preparing to release their first album A Class when I started getting into K-pop, and I remember teasers for their title track “Goodbye Baby” — I loved each member’s teaser, for they not only introduced me to Min, Fei, Jia and Suzy, but they also presented different facets of the same theme, like sad Fei in the rain and Min’s almighty super-slap. Oh, and I loved the music too; but this unfortunately had a flipside in that when “Goodbye Baby” was released, I wasn’t feeling the actual song because I was still enamoured with the teaser music. And though the music video itself was gorgeous (red and white is a great combination), I just couldn’t see myself enjoying this song.

That all changed when I saw their live performances on the various music shows, though. “Goodbye Baby” was my first experience of a miss A stage, and I really, really enjoyed it. It was a new experience for me, seeing a girl group eschewing both aegyo and the typical coy, come-hither sexy for a more classy and bold approach — and I felt that this came across much better in their performances than in the actual MV; maybe the fact that the performances were recorded live that just made it feel more real to me. And the dancing, oh the dancing! Watching live stages and MVs for their prior releases also endeared me to the group and their style.

In my endeavour to learn more about this group, I’ve turned to Dana, Amy and Fannie for their insight.

1. From “Bad Girl Good Girl” to now “Touch”, what are your thoughts on the group’s evolution thus far?

Dana: In all honesty, I’ve pretty much loved the way miss A has evolved as a group, and I think that AQ Entertainment/JYP has done a pretty excellent job of selecting and crafting concepts that really suit them.  I’ll bite, I wasn’t totally sold on miss A when they first debuted; I wasn’t really digging the concepts for either of their first two singles (though I had to admit that they were badass dancers); but then “Love Alone” came out, and suddenly I was all, “SAY A where have you been all my life?”  I was almost dangerously obsessed with “Goodbye Baby” when it hit the scene, and “Touch” has met nearly all of my expectations, though at first I wasn’t totally having it.

But if miss A’s concepts are taken together as part of a flow chart, if you will, rather than scrutinized individually, I think one can’t help but notice how miss A has constructed for themselves a unique style and attitude that is accurately reflected, albeit differently, in each of their concepts.  More to the point, their conceptual evolution shows a growth that goes beyond simply experimenting with different styles.  They consistently deliver music and performances that, in my humble opinion, showcase musical development without compromise.  Miss A has always been miss A, but they become a better miss A every time they come back.

Amy: As a huge fan of miss A, I would say that they haven’t evolved much. Here’s a group that I truly believe is of the strongest groups to debut in the last 3 years or so, but their progression as artists hasn’t changed that much in the current “Touch” promotion as compared to their “Bad Girl Good Girl” one. Suzy might be the member that has improved the most in live performances, and while the four of them have always been really solid, they’re pretty much always solid all across the board. Part of this can be blamed on the fact that I don’t think their material has truly improved, or changed radically in image/concept from single to single, which just means that miss A’s performance style and aesthetics remain relatively stagnant.

But, I would also say that just because there’s not much evolution doesn’t mean that I like them any less. K-pop has a tendency to throw around wildly differing and contrasting images around so that groups can appear to have “evolved,” but that very often means just dressing and dancing differently but being very much the same mediocre artists. I can always expect miss A to be solid and impressive performers, which is what I’m looking for anyway.

Fannie: A lot of girl groups tend start out with a more girlish concept and throw in flashes of supposed maturity over time, but miss A has had a mature image right from the start and up until now. I actually really appreciate the fact that they don’t flip-flop on their image too much. That being said, there have definitely been changes in between each of their promotions, albeit in a more subtle way. For example, “Touch” is definitely a softer and more vulnerable approach to romance than the group has taken in the past, although that’s not to say there isn’t a splash of their trademark attitude and kick imbued in there as well.

One other thing that I should mention is that I think Suzy has been consistently growing and maturing both technically and emotionally with each subsequent release. I think that both she and Jia are more confident in themselves than they were at debut.

2. They’ve sung about break-ups and they’ve sung about falling in love — which aspect of relationships do you think miss A is more successful at conveying? Which miss A do you prefer — the one singing about break-ups, or the one singing about falling in love?

Dana: I’d have to say that I think miss A is better at breaking up — which is not to say that they don’t do “falling in love” concepts well, but that I prefer them when they are kicking ass and taking names.  Perhaps this is my overwhelming love for “Goodbye Baby” speaking instead of my more rational self, but I found the concept particularly well-suited to the members, especially Jia (who is also my homegirl, just sayin’).  When they bring attitude to a performance, it’s actually somewhat believable, which, let’s face it: it’s hard to find a girl group that actually looks like the are embodying the attitude and tone of the performance instead of desperately pretending to.  Loving SNSD does not prevent me from saying that I wasn’t totally convinced that any of them were going to take revenge on their playboy ex-lover (“Run Devil Run”) or bring any boys out.  As such, miss A’s performances stand out.

Additionally, I have to add that when miss A does produce tracks that talk about falling in love, I am exceedingly pleased that they manage to do it in an innovative way (sans lollipops, aegyo, and ruffly pink skirts).  That would Not. Work.  At.  All.

Fannie: So far, I think that miss A is more comfortable in conveying falling out of love, but I think that as a group they’re actually pretty well equipped to convey both types of emotion. Forgive me for the lame metaphor but to me, miss A is like a yin-yang: half of the members have a ‘darker’ and more ‘androgenous’ feel (Jia and Min) while the other half is ‘lighter’ and more ‘feminine’ (Fei and Suzy). At the same time, all four members, despite their natural affinities, also have a drop of the opposite characteristic (Jia and Min can both be feminine at times; Fei and Suzy are capable of being dark). This combination makes the group itself very versatile.

Amy: I think miss A is best at portraying the girl that just doesn’t give a shit and is still awesome, but without being overly preachy (hey, lookin’ at you, 2NE1). It just works. I like my bad girls subtle and not obnoxious.

3. Some Korean entertainment companies have tried to break into the Chinese market (hi, SM), with some success . With two of the four member being Chinese, would miss A necessarily have a better chance than other groups of making a mark in China? They released some of their promoted tracks in Mandarin, but could they be doing more?

Dana: Tough call.  I’d say that having Fei and Jia will certainly be good from a public relations perspective; additionally, because the group is equally Korean and equally Chinese, I think they might have a good chance at playing down their “Koreanness,” so to speak, in order to better appeal to Chinese audiences.  That said, I think that they and their management are being wise by not prematurely throwing the girls into China and hoping for the best.  China is a huge, huge market, and figuring out and devising the best strategy by which to attempt an honest-to-goodness Chinese debut will take time, funds, and a lot of careful creativity.  I think it is wise that they have so far devoted most of their efforts to building up a solid base in South Korea, and that if they plan properly and don’t make any sudden movements, they should enjoy a reasonably successful run in China.

Amy: Honestly, I don’t think any Korean company knows how to break into the Chinese market, Chinese members or not. While Hallyu is a big phenomenon all over Asia, it’s not as intense in China as people seem to think it is, and honestly, it makes sense that it’s not because no Korean company outside of SM is truly putting intense effort into courting the Chinese market and, well, China is freaking huge. Groups like H.O.T. and Super Junior and actors like Lee Minho and Kim Hyunjoong do really well with Chinese audiences, but I think that has less to do with having Chinese members and more of just those groups and those actors having particular luck in China. f(x) has two Chinese members and I don’t see them doing well in China, and the same goes for miss A. This is less of a miss A problem and more of a general K-pop-in-China problem. Korean companies need to really sit down and put together a game plan in China the same way they have for Japan, and until they do, I think K-pop’s hold in China is miniscule and vastly overhyped.

Fannie: I can’t predict how they will fare against boy groups promoting in China (judging by the popularity of Super Junior-M, much of the existing audience for K-pop in China is female and hormonal, and I have no doubt that SM will also be aggressive with their EXO-M marketing strategy), but I do think that miss A definitely has a better chance than other K-pop girl groups of making a mark in China — in fact, they already HAVE made some sort of mark in China. The special edition album they released in China last year topped several charts, and they also managed to win a Best Rookie Award (at the China CETV Asia Teen Star Ceremony). “Touch” has also recently ranked #1 on China’s largest music site, Yin Yue Tai.

Obviously, having Chinese members has something to do with it. Not only are a decent portion of their translated songs actually understandable (and although I’m not a fan of direct song translation approaches to entering a new market, I actually prefer the Chinese version of “Breathe” over the Korean version), but there’s also the appeal of having ‘natives’ in the group; I’ve heard that Jia and Fei are more popular than the other members in China (especially Jia). Lets also not forget that China is not completely new territory for miss A: the unofficial prototype for the group, JYP Sisters promoted in China prior to miss A’s official Korean debut.

That being said, I think that Korean companies are definitely taking a gamble when they try to tackle the Chinese market. I agree with Amy that K-pop craze is not as intense in China as it’s made out to be by Korean news outlets. If anything, their biggest media cultural import comes from Taiwan. Personally, I feel that the Hallyu in China already peaked (at least in the drama department) — with the explosive success of Dae Jang Geum (my favorite sageuk ever) — in 2005. While it can be argued that the drama-driven aspect of Hallyu in Japan had similarly peaked — with Winter Sonata — in 2002… and yet Korea still managed to profit from a music-driven Hallyu renaissance in Japan just last year, the situations are different simply because the their two music industries also very different. On one hand, it’s true that China has a massive population that theoretically could grow into one of the world’s largest music markets. On the other hand, pirating is a HUGE problem in China and relative profit from music sales there are poor in comparison to Japan. I can’t really see a Chinese venture as being particularly lucrative (aside from bragging rights), unless they capitalize more on concerts and other things on the side for revenue.

4. And finally, do you see miss A as singers who can dance, or as dancers who can sing?

Fannie: Although there are many aspects to an idol’s job, their primary objective is to sell their brand through their music. The dancing is used as an accompaniment to their songs. Therefore, I see miss A as singers who can dance, although some of the members do dance better than they sing (live).

Amy: I think the group consists of members who are both. I primarily see Jia and Fei as dancers who can sing, and Min and Suzy as singers who can dance, and it’s a fantastically happy coincidence that when you net everything out, you just have an entire group who are as well-rounded in singing as they are dancing, which is why I’m such a big fan.

Dana: miss A are definitely, definitely dancers who can sing.  Don’t get me wrong here — I think that comparably, miss A puts on some of the best live performances of any group out there because their vocals are solid and their dancing is fabulous.  But their vocals are, for the most part, unremarkable.  I think that their singing is  completely acceptable and a great complement to miss A’s dancing, which I have always viewed to be the centerpiece and cornerstone of their performances.

This is not to say that miss A can’t sing, so please don’t misconstrue my meaning here; having listened to miss A’s ballad “Blankly,” it’s readily apparent that the girls have voices that are better than average, but I think that the ballad genre compromises a lot of their talent precisely because the girls are dancers who can sing and not the other way around.  “Blankly” is a beautiful song and the girls do an admirable job with it, but Lena Park they are not.  The fact that their vocals hold up makes them competitive as idols, because it means that their vocals don’t necessarily come at the expense of their dancing (which often happens in idol-dom), but it is miss A’s dancing, and not their singing, to which they should attribute their successes so far.

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In terms of progress, I’m not really sure what to expect with miss A — I mean, where do you go after debuting with a song about the Madonna-whore complex? But I’ve come to appreciate the stability in their image, even with their oscillating concepts. Although there is a big difference between “Bad Girl Good Girl” and “Breathe”, I can still see a sense of irreverence that is common to both (and I have to say that I love the Chinese “Breathe” too; the Mandarin lyrics are more forthright than the Korean ones.) I actually think they’ve become more serious of late; or perhaps it can be seen as becoming more mature. I agree that, musically, I don’t think much has changed, but I have enjoyed their thematic evolution; I don’t think “Touch” is the best song, but conceptually it is the perfect choice, as it allows them to portray a different facet of their image — and it’s so beautifully executed as well.

My favourite track from miss A’s EP Touch is “Over U”, which just happens to be a break-up song. Don’t get me wrong, I do like “Touch”, but I honestly think miss A perform better with songs that vocally favour power over technique, especially when combined with their choreography, and I also think that the group’s “break-up” songs tend to be these types of songs (though I do concede that “Bad Girl Good Girl” could be interpreted as not being a “break-up” song.) Miss A do sing about other topics in their non-promoted tracks (and “Bad Girl Good Girl” may also be an example of this), and I think that I may have in my mind linked their kick-ass attitude to their songs about, well, kicking aside guys not worthy of them and their love. The conclusion I can derive from all this is that I, like Amy, just like my miss A totally bad-ass, regardless what they’re singing about.

I also agree with Dana about miss A’s dancing — sure, they have the whole attitude thing, but I also think of Brown Eyed Girls who are also known for their badassery, and are better singers to boot. Concentrating on dancing is not only an example of miss A focusing on their strengths, but it also serves as a point of differentiation. Other groups may be able to also pull off a bold concept, but they would be hard pressed to pull off some of the moves I’ve seen miss A successfully attempt.

I’ve said before that their choreography is one of my favourite things about miss A, and that I really look forward to their live stages, but if there’s one thing that I don’t like about their lives, it’s the “breathiness”. I understand that total vocal control would be hard to accomplish with respect to their choreography, but it still irks me; even with Jia’s opening line in “Touch”, it’s there and the choreography isn’t even that intense for the song. That said, I do at least appreciate them for attempting to sing live. Having heard miss A sing “Blankly” live, I know that the breathing issue seems to occur when there is dancing involved, but, funnily enough, I wouldn’t want them to give up on their current style for the sake of vocal stability. As Natalie mentioned, miss A would find it very difficult to make sales with their voices alone; and when you have such talented dancers together, you would be mad not to make the most of that (yes, Suzy’s probably the “worst” dancer, but you’ve got to give her props for being able to meet the high standards set by the other three members.)

Reading about China’s relationship with K-pop and Hallyu is very interesting, especially the observation with the boy groups. Jia and Fei were original members of JYP Sisters, which would mean that they would be doubly more familiar to Chinese audiences, much more than Suzy and Min. I’m no Mandarin expert, so I don’t know how great the Korean members’ pronunciation is, but China seems to love them, what with their chart-topping and award winning; they’ve also performed live in China, so they could be able to overcome the piracy problem — though it would require a lot more effort. While boy groups may seem to have an easier run in China, miss A seems just as capable of holding people’s attention, and are the K-pop girl group most well-placed to make it big in China, if and/or when they and their management eventually see fit to take more decisive steps in that direction.

So, Seoulmates, what do you think of miss A? Do you think a Chinese career is a viable option? What kind of songs would you like to see them sing? Leave your comments below!