On today’s exchange I thought I’d take a look at a group that have flown under my K-pop radar for a very long time: 2AM.

The first time I heard of 2AM was while watching the SHINee episode of Honey Pot, of all things; it was merely a passing reference, but the mention of 2AM followed by 2PM‘s name confused me — wait, did they get the name of the band wrong? Or was it a joke of some kind? The only conclusion I could draw was that I should probably watch videos with subtitles.

Of course, now that I’d discovered Korean TV, it was only a matter of time before I also discovered Jo Kwon.

I never thought I’d come across a bigger diva than Key, but there Jo Kwon was; Naturally a binge session on youtube followed, and it was actually how I finally watched an episode of We Got Married. The show itself isn’t really for me, but the Adam Couple were hilarious to watch.

Musically, though, I never really bothered with 2AM. Looking them up online, I saw the word “ballad” and my brain just shut down on me. I feel bad admitting that because there isn’t anything wrong with ballads, and there are a lot of people out there who enjoy them, including myself on the odd occasion– but my tastes do tend toward more louder, energetic songs (hence my love for “Lucifer”). And the majority of the ballads on my iPod feature prominently on the playlist I have for when I go to sleep.

But after listening to some of the members’ solo musical ventures, seeing their different styles made me more interested in their dynamic together as 2AM, and I finally started to listen to some of their songs. But I’m playing extreme catch-up here; so, to help bring me up to speed I’ve enlisted the help of Nabeela, Gil and Johnelle.

1. I wasn’t really that interested in 2AM when I heard that they were a ballad group; do you think the group suffers in terms of popularity because of their ballad concept? And do you think this issue is more an international K-pop fan thing, where people may not have had much exposure to the ballad style to begin with?

Nabeela: The sad thing about K-pop is that it’s all a visual thing. 2AM is a group of amazingly talented and good-looking boys, but sticking with the ballad concept has ultimately done nothing for them. That being said, grouping them in with K-pop never really made sense to me, because they seemed always to appeal more to a niche market, i.e. those who enjoy ballads above all else. Their popularity in terms of “K-pop popularity” is suffers because, well, 2AM isn’t a pop group; however I still think they command a significantly large audience for a ballad group. And I think it’s the same for Korean fans and international fans. Music is music, and some people like ballads, others just don’t.

Gil: I agree with Nabeela. When you compare 2AM to their counterpart, you can see the difference in popularity. Personally, I enjoy 2AM’s music more so than 2PM’s and think they are more talented, but when we’re talking about a scene dominated by flashy dancing, addicting hooks and minimal clothing 2AM is not going to achieve the explosive success of other groups. However, I, like many other people, appreciate their talent immensely.

Johnelle: 2AM did suffer because of the their ballad concept.  They actually debuted before their One Day brothers 2PM, but kind of floundered in obscurity after their debut.  2AM was completely overshadowed by their “beastly” counterparts.  While they were known, they didn’t make an impact until Jo Kwon rose up the variety ranks as the “Kkap King” and became part of the Adam Couple on We Got Married with Ga-in in October 2009. As the Adam Couple rose in popularity, the members of 2AM slowly did, too.  Finally in January of 2010, almost two whole years after their debut they finally won their first #1 win on Inkigayo with “I Can’t Let You Go Even If I Die.”  I really believe if it weren’t for Jo Kwon’s unrelenting work in variety, 2AM might not have made it.

I don’t think this problem of under-appreciation of ballad singers exists only with international fans because they were also not appreciated in South Korea. The news that many international fans see is a reflection of the news that is coming out of South Korea.  So a lot of the time if a band is not being promoted heavily on international K-pop sites it’s because no news about them is being generated in South Korea.  Recently though, more attention is being shown to ballad singers, K-hip hop, K-rock and K-indie bands as international sites are beginning to explore more of South Korea’s music scene.

2. 2AM seem just as capable at dancing as many other groups. Should they break free of their ballad roots and release a dance track, or would that spoil their charm?

Nabeela: It would ruin their charm, I think. They’re so developed vocally that dancing may actually take away from their true talents, the talents that have gotten them by so far and have won over their fans. Switching it up for a “pop” scene style would certainly damage the whole point behind 2AM. But all things considered, if the choreography was appropriate to their ballads, then why not?

Gil: It wouldn’t spoil their charm I prefer their slower r&b feel. Jo Kwon is known for his exaggerated dance moves and kkab but he’s a fantastic dancer. However there was a special stage where the boys covered popular dance music like “Fire”, “Abracadabra”, and “10 out of 10” but put a R&B twist on them, possibly one of the sexiest things I have heard in k-pop. More so than a dance track, I would love for them to put our a sexy R&B track. 2AM is unique in the fact that in a sea of boy bands they stick out as one of the few with a ballad concept. I understand Dana’s frustration with the lack of progression regarding 2AM’s style and it is understandable. Personally I believe that 2AM should branch out, into jazz, maybe Motown, and heck if they really want to do something pop-like, maybe a pop-ballad similar to that of “I did wrong.” However I think they should stick to styles that showcase their vocals and capabilities–a dance track won’t accomplish that.

Johnelle: I loved their venture into more upbeat songs with the dance track “I Did Wrong.” But apparently they didn’t think they were good at it because in their recent comeback interviews they’ve said that they won’t do dance songs because their dancing and stages were bad.  I would hate for them to totally leave the ballad songs behind because I love their voices, but diversity is always good.

I don’t believe that diversification woud make them lose their charm, but they should definitely focus on what they’re good at.

3. Okay, a dance track may not be feasible; but couldn’t 2AM do more to stand out in the K-pop scene? It’s like they (or, at least, their management) rely on the ballad concept too much. Their album concepts, for example: I know Dana wasn’t too keen on the execution of the Scott Fitzgerald theme of their latest comeback, and I can’t help but thinking that they could do more with that.

Nabeela: I feel like dance is just not 2AM’s thing. Maybe if they introduced a dance theme earlier on, it could have molded to their image more appropriately, but trying to branch into serious choreography and dance track right now would probably just throw people off.

Instead of dance, I really think 2AM needs to develop their use of complex story, kind of like what T-ara did for their Black Eyes Album. Amping the storyline and the drama would be a different approach to consistent music theme, and if anyone is up for the job, 2AM is all I can think of.

4. What has been 2AM’s contribution to the Korean music scene? How have they affected how ballads are seen in K-pop?

Nabeela: 2AM is definitely a dose of different for the music scene, which is so drowned out by pop music to begin with. The fact that they come from one of the big three entertainment companies and carry around the label of K-idol while promoting their consistent ballad image makes them very unique, I think. They’ve definitely made the ballad more of mainstream appeal, but other than that, I dont think 2AM has made any drastic alteration to the music scene by being present.

Gil: Korea is no stranger to ballads; there are popular groups such as SG Wannabe, Brown Eyed Soul, and Sweet Sorrow. In fact a lot of popular Korean idols release one or two ballads in their albums, so it is not as if ballads are completely a niche market. Korean entertainment extends farther than just produced pop that we think of, there’s a vibrant hip hop, rock, and indie scene in Korea but we’re not always aware of it

Johnelle: I think 2AM’s contribution to the Korean music scene was breaking through to international audiences and bringing more exposure and appreciation from international fans to ballad singers and groups.  While there has been popular ballad groups, I think 2AM really brought mass appeal to the genre internationally especially to the growing number of newer K-pop fans. 2AM has also proven that even though they are a ballad group, they can be beastly hot, too.

5. And what has 2AM’s impact been on you?

Nabeela: Nothing really. I do enjoy my ballads, but 2AM songs are not really my thing. They never appeal to me as much as other ballads do, so I can’t say their music has changed the way I see ballad music or K-pop for that matter.

Gil: They make my ears happy. Seulong makes my eyes happy too. That’s about it.

Johnelle: 2AM really did open up the world of the K-pop ballads for me with their awesome voices.  I’m sure my story was like most fans–being introduced to K-pop through the girl and boy bands.  But as I got more interested in Korean entertainment and music, 2AM was definitely one of the groups that wowed me.  I followed their career fairly early on because I loved Jo Kwon’s antics on the variety shows and was ecstatic when they finally broke through and started topping the charts.  They worked hard for their success and I’m glad that they finally achieved it.  I’m also happy that they have been able to pursue their other interests:  Jo Kwon and Seulong in acting, Changmin with his cooking and Jinwoon with his rock music and acting.

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Seulong makes my eyes very happy too, Gil. In fact it was his appearance in DJ Clazzi’s “How We Feel” that spurred me to look more into the other members’ solo efforts, and thus their music as 2AM. The universe works in mysterious ways.

I am quite saddened to hear that 2AM weren’t entirely comfortable with their “I was wrong” stages; I loved the puppet concept, and thought they pulled off quite well. The synchronisation wasn’t always 100%, but their movement fit the song and always placed the vocals first, and I’m a sucker for that kind of choreography. I am also a sucker for R&B, and I absolutely loved that medley Gil mentioned. In fact, I would greatly appreciate more R&B from these guys, or even Motown– that genre worked well for other vocally talented boybands like Human Nature, and I would love to hear me some Korean Motown. And jazz would be amazing too, if they did that… oh, my head’s spinning from all the possibilities…

But, if 2AM wished to remain as a ballad group (which would be a shame solely from the point of view of musical growth and evolution), then they could at least sing something happy– or if they do sing less heavy songs, to promote them more. Thus far, it seems that 2AM’s ballad recipe consists of: sadness, angst, and copious tears. While I understand that sadness and ballads go together perfectly, that doesn’t mean you can’t sing meaningfully about things other than heartbreak using the ballad construct. I can’t agree that ballads are not flexible in that sense, and it would be really exciting if 2AM realised that as well, with respect to their promotional material. Sure, their image may be that of the sad ballad guys or whatever, but I feel like it’s starting to stagnate, and 2AM need to bring something new to the table, especially if they want to remain relevant in K-pop.

I’ve also come to a realisation regarding ballads: for me, one non-negotiable requirement when I listen to ballads is that it has to be quiet. I can deal with background noise when listening to other music, but for ballads, even if they do up the volume with soaring vocals, it really distracts me. This could explain why I have so many ballads on my sleepy-time playlist; nighttime is when my household is the quietest, and I can listen easily and give my full attention to the ballads. I guess for me, ballads need me to concentrate to have an effect, and I can’t always do that. And, perhaps, that is why I’m averse to them; they compete for my attention during the day, and I can’t give them that. Or, more often than not, I’d prefer to “Boom Shakalaka” instead.

But that’s just me; do you see ballads differently? How do ballads affect you? And what kind of genre and/or subject matter would you like to see 2AM tackle? Leave your thoughts below!

(KBS, Osen, SBS, Valent Lau)