Infinite first came to my notice with their MV for “Be Mine,” which was something atypical as far as K-pop MVs went; granted, it didn’t entirely make sense to me, but whatever, it had explosions. “Paradise” only further deepened my interest, and I decided that Infinite would become my second bias group (SHINee being the first, of course) and that I would stan them forever and ever and go around calling myself an Insipirit. Unfortunately, it seemed I made my resolution too late, as by then Infinite had wrapped up promotions and disappeared to Japan. By the time they came back with their latest mini-album Infinitize, I’d become a Hiller instead… but I digress.
Basically, Infinite had become a band that I liked well enough, but into which I just couldn’t get, and I can’t really understand why; I still can’t name half the members, for crying out loud. Perhaps Johnelle, Fannie and Natalie can help me out?
1. Infinite are the first idol group for Woollim Entertainment, a company that has been around since 2003. Has there been anything to Infinite that sets them apart from other groups due to coming from a company that is new to the idol business, but not to music itself?
Johnelle: Being the first boy band out of Woollim Entertainment, which had some credibility musically as the management company of NELL and Epik High, was advantageous for Infinite. For one thing there was the buzz around their debut–I remember news and talk of Woollim’s first boy band’s forthcoming debut. Everyone was interested to see what kind of boy band Woollim would create since previously their artists were more indie than mainstream K-pop.
While Woollim might have followed standard boy band procedures in forming the band and training them–we all have heard the trainee horror stories–the difference that sets Infinite apart from other boy bands lies in the music that Woollim gives them. Their songs aren’t standard K-pop fare–the vocals tend to be a little more challenging often containing a modulation, or key change in the song. The instrumentation in their songs are also awesome with either great guitar riffs, soaring orchestration, or bumping beats. Woollim is also solid when it comes to the engineering of Infinite’s albums, there’s nary a track released by Infinite that wasn’t mixed to perfection. That being said I think they spent more effort on their music than their ‘concept.’
What might have also helped in the success of Infinite was the singular focus that Woollim spent on them–all their attention was spent on Infinite training them vocally, honing their dance skills, and drawing out their personalities and speaking skills. Woollim’s focus was centered on preparing Infinite’s debut instead of juggling several artists and trainees, which didn’t end up with everything going great with them waffling on Tablo’s scandal and in the end losing Epik High. But at least things for Infinite worked out.
Fannie: Being in Woollim definitely factors hugely into why Infinite has always been a bit different from the run-of-the-mill boy group in K-pop, albeit in a subtle way. The group was pretty much groomed by Tablo and Mithra Jin prior to Epik High’s hiatus, and I think the heart of the group really is its music first, even if they catch more initial attention for their dance. In addition, the group stands out to me as being really hardworking and earnest. And I know the counter-argument to that is that most idols are the same because they’re all working under the same cutthroat industry standards, but to me I feel that even after attaining popularity, Infinite never really left its rookie mindset, and I mean that in a good way.
This is partly attributed to the fact that the group had to build itself from the ground up — being Woollim’s first real venture into idol territory, they had to really put themselves out there to forge new connections (and let’s face it — Epik High was pretty standoffish aside from Tablo’s brief stint in variety to get their name out there in their early days) and establish their reputation in the industry. Unlike, say, Exo who pretty much had their popularity handed to them on a golden platter before they even set foot on stage simply by being an appendage of SM, Infinite had to work extra hard to even get noticed even in spite of the fact that they had one of the strongest debut stages I have witnessed to date.
Natalie: Infinite isn’t your typical idol group because they’ve never been quite so gimmicky or commercialized as other groups. They have a very consistent sound, reminiscent of 80s music, with great composition and more compelling lyrics than what you’d typically see. They have a consistent look and sound that defines them, which is one of their strengths and weaknesses. In K-pop, it’s very important to stay fresh and new with concepts and choreography to stand out, and as we’ve seen with their recent comeback, Infinite’s concepts and music are very similar to what they’ve always done, not leaving much room for growth. Still, their music and look is what got them fans to begin with, and Inspirits love Infinite for who they are. Perhaps coming from Woollim is why Infinite’s way of doing things differ from typical idol groups.
2. What, in your eyes, are Infinite’s biggest strengths? What makes them stand out?
Johnelle: The first thing that made Infinite stand out to me was their live performances. I thought the song “Come Back Again” was a solid debut and the MV was different and cute, but it was their live performance that wowed me. They had tight vocals and powerful precision moves which equated to near perfect live performances. That coming from rookies from the very start was impressive. In my opinion, Infinite’s debut is one of the few in K-pop that lived up to the hype. And from then on, you could always rely on Infinite to bring great live stages for your viewing pleasure. I’m surprised that Infinite weren’t more popular from the get go and especially that they didn’t hit #1 with “Before the Dawn” because seriously, the MV and live performances were awesome. But I think that BTD is what got them more fans and more exposure so that they were able to finally get their #1 win with “Be Mine.”
As I said above, the quality of Infinite’s songs is also one of their strengths which led to them having a distinct sound all their own and within a year of their debut. The problem with this though can be seen in the criticisms of their latest album Infinitize–that their new songs are signature Infinite, but also too similar to their past work making the new songs seem a bit stale and showing no growth musically.
I think Infinite’s styling has always been done well also. They are hardly put in matching costumes, but rather are always dressed in clothes that are complementary to each other. Their styling individualizes the members yet they still look like a group. My only complaint in this regard would be some of their questionable hairstyles…
Fannie: Aside from music over gimmick, the easy and on-the-surface answer to this question would be that synchronized dancing was what made the group recognizable in the first place. But really, I think it’s more about having chemistry and great teamwork. It’s easy to assume that the entire group is made up of naturally talented dancers, but anyone who has seen L‘s Samsung Galaxy Player CF will realize that it isn’t really the case. Their polished stages are a result not only of discipline, but also of helping each other out.
Natalie: Infinite is known for their dancing but they’re more than that. People can tell that not all the members are good dancers (looking at Myung-soo, Sung-gyu, and Sung-yeol) but they practice long and hard enough, going over their dancing again and again, so that their performances are perfect. They’re very hardworking, to the point that it worries me. I feel like Woollim has been overworking them with performances and showcases and shows, to that it’s affecting the boys’ performances.
Aside from hardwork, I think their personalities make them stand out. Not that other idol groups have members that lack strong personalities, but it’s always seemed to me that in Infinite the members are very different and unique in their own ways. You have sassy, forthright Sung-jong, the “diva maknae,” easy-going and smoldering Myung-soo, the “visual derp,” playful Sung-yeol, the “choding,” extremely happy to please Woo-hyun, known as “Namgrease,” and so on. They have their own little quirks and don’t strike me as perfect as members of other idol groups. Perhaps it’s due to my naivete regarding other idols, but Infinite has always struck me as a little more quirky.
Lastly, their music is what definitely makes them stand out. As said before, Infinite has a very consistent sound to them that people adore.
3. While Infinite is well known as a group, the individual members do not seem to be as established in the industry. The members have branched out, but could more be done that could raise both the members’ and the group’s profiles?
Johnelle: The thing about Infinite is that I don’t think any one of its members receives a significant amount more attention than the others. Recently yes, L got some extra loving due to his role in Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, but Woo-hyun was on Immortal Song 2, Sung-yeol was cast in the K-drama While You Were Sleeping, Sung-gyu and Woo-hyun debuted in the musical Gwanghwamun Sonata, Dong-woo featured in the debut track for Baby Soul and Yoo Jia’s “She’s a Flirt,” and Dong-woo, Sung-yeol and Sung-jong appear on a lot of variety shows because they’re all variety gold. I think Woollim has done a good job of getting the members out there and supporting their individual work.
If I had to pick anyone who could use a little more time in the spotlight I guess it would be Hoya, but I know that even he has done some individual work like subbing in for BEAST’s Junhyung in live performances with Wheesung for his song “Heartsore Story.” I know Hoya does a lot of work for Infinite’s choreography, etc. which might account for his not doing as much work aside from Infinite activities (and he may not want to do other things), but I would say he’s the member that would deserve a little more spotlight. That being said, he still is quite popular with even Tiffany of SNSD choosing him as the member who left the biggest impression on her.
Fannie: Like Johnelle said, the members have been trying to do their fair share of branching out, but I think that aside from L (who has an INSANE amount of charisma without even having to try) they just haven’t struck that pot of gold yet. If they keep on making appearances, it’s bound to happen at some point, although it’s hard to predict in advance what will captivate the audience and what won’t. A lot of popularity within the Korean entertainment sphere is manufactured by amount of exposure (it’s pretty automatic in that sense), so they just have to keep putting themselves out there as best they can.
4. While Infinite definitely has a recognisable sound, one of the criticisms they receive is that there is no evolution in their music. Do you agree with this view, and if so, what do think Infinite could do to change this perception?
Johnelle: Having their own sound is a definite advantage to Infinite’s image, but I do agree that having a distinctive sound can also be a disadvantage. A lot of the criticism that Infinite’s latest album received was that while all the songs were technically good songs, the album wasn’t impressive because it lacked originality because the songs all sounded too similar to what Infinite has released previously and also showed no growth musically for the group. Changing their style totally wouldn’t be a wise choice, but Woollim needs to step up the song creation/selection for Infiinte– maybe explore working with new composers and musicians who can incorporate what we know and love of Infinite and put a spin on it.
Fannie: I think consistency is necessary in K-pop in order to establish a brand, and brand is important (this is something that the management behind B.A.P. knows well). But growth is important as well, so while a signature sound must be maintained, at the same time it does not help the group in the long run if it is simply regurgitated and reused (a la “Sorry Sorry” & Clones). I do think that Infinite (or rather, Woollim) is still trying to grow their sound, albeit very, very carefully. Infinite’s mainstream popularity is still something that is relatively new, so the group’s priority is still to establish their brand. As long as things keep progressing forward, I’m happy, although I’d also like to see the group take on more risks, once they have a more firm and comfortable footing in the K-pop scene. Maybe experiment with fusing in other genres (although not to the extent to which their original sound is lost).
Natalie: I would agree that there’s a lot of similarities between their singles but I wouldn’t say they’re not progressing. I’m going to agree with Fannie and say I think Woollim is trying to establish Infinite’s sound, which is what made them popular in the first place. Perhaps being an Inspirit makes me biased but I like Infinite’s sound and look just the way they are, although I would like to see something a little more different in their next comeback.
5. Infinite may not be considered a top-tier K-pop group right now, but do you think they could make it to the top?
Johnelle: Infinite definitely does have the potential to reach the top of the K-pop hierarchy, they’re on the cusp now. One telling sign that I noticed at one of the end of year shows last year was that in the show they paired up Infinite with Beast (as their competition) who are their sunbaes by about a year. To get there though, Infinite will have to kick it up a notch with better songs with each release–everything else they would need I think they already possess.
Natalie: I think Infinite will continue to grow in popularity and even be sought after to perform overseas at some point but I don’t know if they’ll even reach DB5K or SNSD-type popularity. Because they’re my bias band, I’d like to see them succeed and have success and acclaim but I’d also hate to see the side-effects of these things: overworked, overprocessed, and eventually, overexposed. I’d like them to become as popular as they can be and recognized as more than just another K-pop group and I do think they have what it takes. They’re attractive, they’re likeable, and they produce good music — what else do you need to be popular in K-pop?
Fannie: What I like about Infinite, actually, is that they haven’t peaked yet and still continue to grow and improve. I almost don’t want them to make it to the top, not in this industry. The top is usually pretty brief, and sometimes means complacency. It also always means an eventual decline. As a side note, a funny thing is that for a time there were (or are) a contingency of hipster Inspirits, who initially didn’t take well to the huge influx of fans after “Be Mine” launched Infinite into the mainstream. I can kind of understand their feelings as the fandom was never quite the same after that (and with the good also comes some bad… and K-pop fans are very good at getting on each others’ nerves) but just imagine how much MORE the fanbase would be forced to evolve in order to accommodate new numbers if Infinite was actually at the top.
Also, in K-pop, the more fans you have, the more haters as well.
Apart from different album concepts, each K-pop group has an over-riding group concept, especially at the beginning of their careers when they are trying to get their name out there in the entertainment scene: B.A.P. are aliens, Big Bang has the hip-hop theme, 2PM are buff guys doing acrobatics. But Infinite doesn’t have any of that — while at debut they were known at “Woollim’s first ever boy band,” they do not have etched-in-stone, clear-as-day concepts for comebacks either — there are stylistic changes, such as with their logo and different hairstyles, yes, but their lack of rigid adherance to a specific concept has meant that, like Natalie said, the focus stays on the group’s music, their overall look and group dynamic (which really is something, I have to say), and this is what more often than not gains them fans, rather than flashy gimmicks.
That said, however, their consistent image could also count as one of the reasons why people feel that Infinite has not grown as a group. Infinite has looked mostly the same since debut and sounded the same, too — and a view of no change by the casual observer is understandable. Yes, Infinite has improved in quality over time, like with live singing and performances, but that they still operate within the same parameters means that this kind of criticism is only inevitable; it does feel like they are still rookies because Infinite is doing more or less the same thing it has been doing since debut, and while being “on the cusp” does have its advantages, it would be a shame for a group of Infinite’s calibre to spend their career in that position, being the little train that could but never quite did.
Yes, with the rise comes the inevitable fall, but that is only natural — in fact staying just on the edge is more unnatural, and something with which I’m personally not entirely comfortable. I think we — fans, company and idols — all know that there is no point in holding back for fear of what comes after (or we shouldn’t, at any rate). Worries over how Woollim will handle further success, its effects on the group members’ relationships and the increase in fans and haters are all legitimate concerns, but how will we know what happens next unless we make an effort?
Music is seen to be Infinite’s focus, and this is what will need to change for Infinite to advance further in their field. I appreciate that Woollim may be taking it slowly in this regard, and I admire the care they are taking with their boy group, but more could be done. “The Chaser,” for example, has a slightly different sound to previously promoted tracks, but the overall feel of the track is still the same, and while it is great to be able to identify an Infinite song less than three seconds in, there needs to be more. Hopefully, their next comeback will see this happen — all I ask is that Woollim do a bit more next time to give more variety to Infinite’s music. I, for one, second that idea of working with different composers and producers; the same names have been popping up in Infinite’s album credits, and some new blood could be just what they need for their much discussed evolution to start.
Do you feel the same about Infinite? What are your thoughts on their image, group dynamic and music? Do you agree that their music is what may be holding Infinite back? Leave your comments below!
(note: L = Myung-soo. Don’t worry, I was confused too, for a bit)