For this week’s Seoulbeats Exchange, we take a look at SM Entertainment‘s other (fully intact and active) girl group, f(x).
Like many people, I discovered f(x) thanks to the Jung sisters — more accurately, discovering that one of the members was Jessica‘s little sister. Curious as to what a younger Jessica looked like (answer: … different), as well how a group with a name like “f(x)” would appear, I ran over to YouTube and watched the MV for “Chu~.” As zany as I thought their cute side was, it left me a little under-prepared for the more “hardcore” f(x) tunes like “NU ABO” or “Danger,” some of the songs that are seen to be more representative of the group’s image. I find f(x) be a rather eccentric, yet still confusing, group, that can elicit very different reactions from people (as seen on our own site). In an effort to understand f(x) a little better, I’ve called upon Nabeela, Amy and Jessie and their expertise.
Nabeela: To put it simply, f(x) is really none other than the female SHINee. Their sound is very similar save for the more girly themes and higher pitches.
Amy: Eclectic and messy. Still trying to find its footing.
Jessie: I definitely have to agree with Amy on this one. They consistently release very catchy title tracks, but the rest of the tracks on their releases feel very random. There are some great pop tracks, beautiful ballads and sickeningly sweet songs. Basically they have a little something for everyone.
2. There are other girl groups out there who don’t prescribe to the typically cutesy or sexy image. Does f(x) stand out from these groups, and if so, how?
Nabeela:I think f(x) does stand out from these groups because they do a great job of fusing the both into a teenage angst angle that is cute and sexy. They are a fantastic balance of innocence and daring, with a dash of weird funk due to their obvious grass roots in the SHINee image.
Amy: f(x) can be kind of cutesy, but not in the typical way that we expect. I think their “cutesy-est” effort was during their “Chu~” days and I’m the #1 hater of of cutesy, but even I digested that okay. I think it’s mostly because f(x) is good at doing a slightly boyish take on cutesy. Their brand of cutesy seems less catered for the male gaze and more like cutesy because it can be fun and quirky.
Jessie: While there are some groups that flat out avoid sexy or cutesy images and go for something more tough, I think more often than not if a girl group isn’t regularly one or the other, they cycle back and forth between the two. What sets f(x) apart from this in my opinion is that while they may incorporate some cutesy (“Chu ~”) or add a hint of sexy (“NU ABO”) they stick to the same basic concept with their funky, young look.
3. What are your thoughts on the marketing of each individual member? Do you think they take Amber’s tomboyishness too far? Is Krystal the face of f(x) because of her Soshi link? Does Luna come across as too normal, less interesting, when compared to her band-mates? How does the older Victoria fit in, especially when compared to Sulli’s more “youthful” image?
Nabeela: I personally don’t think Amber is locked into being a tomboy, particularly since both the song and album for Electric Shock show off her femininity more, in terms of image and vocals. From my understanding, the tomboy thing is Amber’s personal style, and she seems to carry it well under many circumstances. Sure, sometimes I forget that she is a girl, and wish the stylists would at least put some extra effort into reminding people that she still is a young woman, but overall I don’t see it as overhyped.
Krystal is, in my opinion, way, way, way, WAY hotter than her sister Jessica, so it does not in the least surprise me that she is the face. Her Soshi heritage maybe was a major deciding factor in assigning her that role, but I personally have no complaints. It’s not like Jessica is the face of SNSD — we all know Yoona, Taeyeon, or Tiffany are better suited (and marketed) for that.
I feel bad for Luna in the sense that I think she’s boring because she isn’t given much opportunity to showcase her personality on variety or elsewhere off the stage. Yes, she does seem a bit lackluster, but she is hardly given enough of the spotlight to aptly judge just how boring she is. Victoria may be older but she seems young at heart. She’s a great leader and a great motivator, I think, and she carries the group because she has underlying maturity, though we may not always see it.
Sulli, I’m fairly sure, is the aegyo standard group member. She really isn’t anything too special–no crazy dance skills or vocals. It seems her forte is mainly raking in the souls hungry for that vulnerable female image. Compared to Victoria, yes, she is young, but like I said, Victoria’s got a lively spirit and bright personality, so I rarely notice too much of the age difference.
Amy: Overall, I think SM doesn’t market the individual girls very well at all, so I think attempts to classify and categorize their schemes for f(x) don’t go very far. Krystal and Sulli are the obvious popular members, but at the same time, it’s not because SM has done a lot to push it, it’s because Krystal and Sulli already just fit into the standards long prescribed by the Korean audience. Victoria got a random booster shot of popularity through We Got Married, which felt like a stroke of luck, but what exactly is she even marketed as? And Luna? Their “roles” in the group are vague. Amber has the image of a tomboy, and this might be the one image I think SM actively pushes for because I can’t see her being girly any time soon, despite the fact that Amber herself as voiced her desire to be slightly more girly in future concepts. This is her schtick now and though her popularity isn’t that of Krystal or Sulli’s, she’s labelled too much as the tomboy for SM to revert back on anything.
Jessie: I absolutely think they take Amber’s tomboy role too far at times. I remember when they put her in a male hanbok for holiday greetings back when the group was still new and I’ve found it pretty forced ever since then. Amber has stated that she would like to be a little more girly (like Amy mentioned) but they definitely didn’t do that for “Electric Shock.” I think there are ways that you can portray a boyish image while remaining feminine. I think it is sad that she is styled in more “manly” clothes than some of her male label-mates.
Other than that, I think Sulli is the only other one with a strong individual image. She will forever be stuck in the cute, girly “Fake Maknae” role. Krystal’s link to SNSD made her a shoo-in for “face” because it led to easy press prior to their debut, but it is still the proper role for her if you had to choose from the rest of the members. Luna is obviously there for vocals, but not much else. She is like members in Super Junior who get less spotlight because they aren’t as funny or outgoing–but the group’s sound would suffer without them.
Victoria may be older than the rest of the members, as well as everyone in SNSD, but she doesn’t seem like it at all. Even though she fits in just fine with the rest of her members as far as the public is concerned, she is great for the role of leader given the fact that she has a lot of discipline and performance experience from her extensive dance training from a young age.
4. By how much do you think Amber’s hiatus set the group back?
Nabeela: Not at all. She was only gone for about 7 or 9 months, I believe, and afterward f(x) made a strong comeback with “Danger.” Plus, I think the rumors and hearsay about her hiatus kept the buzz about the group alive. Overall, minimal damage.
Amy: Not that much. Amber has a sizable fanbase, but I think it’s extremely far-fetched to think that she alone can inspire a huge added boost to sales or image, just like her absence didn’t really hurt them, especially because she was gone at a time when f(x)’s popularity still wasn’t at its zenith.
Jessie: Since she came back, it really didn’t have that much of an effect aside from stressing out fangirls for a while. Since the group didn’t actually promote any new music without her aside from wrapping up the “NU ABO” promotions that were already underway, the group came away from it with no lingering issues.
5. SM has two types of groups: those that were created with the specific aim of furthering the interests of the company and maintaining/increasing its market share (DBSK, SNSD, Exo) and those that are more “experimental” in nature (Super Junior, SHINee and f(x)). Super Junior and SHINee have been able to strike out on their own; do you think f(x) could achieve this, too? The group is said to be popular in South Korea, but do you think this is more due to f(x) being a SM group, or due to the group’s own image and music?
Nabeela: f(x) is certainly an experimental group. You can very much see how SM took SHINee (who were explosively popular when they debuted, even hailed as the new DBSK back in 2008) and morphed their concept into a female version to see how similar concepts would work with the opposite sex, and how it would affect target audiences. Their popularity is undoubtedly due to SM’s experimentation of image and sound, as much as I hate to admit it.
Amy: Good question. Super Junior I don’t really see as truly experimental: their debut just took a non-standard approach to K-pop group debuts because of the number of bodies in the group. They’re still doing what SM wants DBSK, SNSD and Exo to do with market monopoly, and they’re doing it in very straight-forward ways. SHINee could have, in theory, failed like f(x) has in terms of gaining rapid success, but the difference is that SM knows what to do with their boy groups, and sadly, the market during SHINee’s debut was just more primed for boy groups than it was for girl groups.
I’ve said this multiple times before, but even if nobody likes the rest of SHINee’s work, their promotional tracks were strong enough that they can manage to stay afloat in the public sphere to get them awards and recognition. This is honestly the way SM works SNSD too — their title tracks are far stronger than the rest of their work, but SNSD has a very clean-cut appeal-to-the-masses feminine appeal that SM isn’t doing with f(x). SHINee isn’t a straight-laced “manly” group (a la DBSK or 2PM), but that’s circumvented by the fact that SHINee gets better songs, more interesting choreography and styling. I don’t think f(x) will ever attain mainstream appeal in the way their 2009 peers have managed to — 2NE1, T-ara — just because their image is so zany and they haven’t hit their stride with promotional material yet. f(x) has gotten random luck with how well “Pinocchio” did and unfortunately I also attribute a lot of their popularity to them being an SM group.
I’m not sure how this can be remedied because I can’t ever see SM letting them promote something “regular” — say, “Beautiful Stranger” — but I’m hoping that with their success with “Electric Shock” this time, SM will wake up and realize that there are a lot of people who want to like f(x) and will do so if they get better material.
Jessie: Unfortunately for f(x), and no matter how much I personally love them, I do think the popularity they have is mainly due to the fact that they come from SM. If they had been any other rookie group from any other company I don’t think they would necessarily still be around. I do think their popularity is gaining with each release though, so it would be nice to see what the girls could do if they were given the same attention and resources that SHINee was. I don’t think they will be able to truly stand shoulder to shoulder with the big groups of K-pop until they are a priority to their entertainment company. Maybe with the success of “Electric Shock” they will receive some more attention from SM. Or at least a fan club name!
I never really liked comparing f(x) to SHINee, because I felt like it was too easy a comparison to make, but I have to admit that it does ring true. Like how SNSD is seen as a female counterpart to Super Junior, f(x) has a similar concept to SHINee with the “contemporary” aesthetic they both share. Super Junior and SNSD follow traditional gender norms: one is a manly boy band, the other the epitome of girliness — even their fan club colours reflect this. Their contemporaries, on the other hand, are an exercise in gender-bending when compared to most other groups of their gender, with SHINee having an overall softer, perhaps feminine, sound that was definitely amplified by their youthful, flower boy image, and f(x) being the more boyish girl group. If one was asked to describe f(x), I don’t think “grown-up” would be one of the words used. There are elements of maturity in f(x)’s music, but for the most part they are indeed, as Nabeela stated, very adolescent in their image, with an edge to it; some may even read this as “spoilt”, something that could be one of the reasons why members like Krystal keep getting into trouble with netizens.
Like Jessie, I too feel that Amber’s tomboy image gets out of hand at times; male hanboks aside, I’m pretty sure that she shares clothes with the male SM idols as well — she was definitely wearing Donghae‘s red suit when she randomly turned up in one of the “Oppa Oppa” performances in late 2011. Though I’m sure Amber would get a kick out of saying that she’s been in Super Junior’s pants, she would probably be even happier if she were not constantly taken for a boy, and has said words to that effect in f(x)’s most recent Mnet Wide interview.
The one thing about f(x)’s image that has really bothered me, though, is how Sulli is marketed as the maknae of f(x). Because she and Krystal were born in the same year, they can both be referred to as the maknaes, though Krystal is the youngest idol in both the group and the company. Sulli does have the young, fragile and innocent look associated with maknaes, but I feel that marketing her as the maknae has as much to do with compensating her shortcomings in singing and dancing as it does with her look. Not that Sulli’s bad, but compared to her groupmates it can be seen that she is behind, skillwise (though she has improved over the years). I went a very long time thinking that Sulli was the maknae, and I admit that finding out the truth soured my view of the group for a while.
I am in agreement with Amy about f(x)’s musical direction — because their image is not “mainstream,” and thus easily digestible for the masses, f(x) needs to overcome that with better quality material. In this matter, they are at the mercy of their company, and it has only been with Electric Shock that the group has finally received the quality of which they were in dire need. It may not be the best piece of work, but compared to f(x)’s previous releases (especially last year’s Pinocchio), this mini album really delivers, and the public response has also been positive. The only thing missing with this comeback is the dancing; though their “Dance Group of Asia” title may have been effectively stolen by miss A, f(x) always had the more interesting and varied choreography. They even have the advantage of being one of the only girl groups in K-pop to perform in platform heels which do not impede footwork as much as a regular heel — they should be making the best of it.
A lot of f(x)’s music still suffers from talk-singing and “one-note syndrome,” but the changes that have been made, such as more equal line distribution and allowing Amber to sing more, are more than welcome, and one can only hope that SM and f(x) continue in this vein for future releases. And lay off the remakes, too. Though f(x)’s success is modest compared to that of their label-mates, it shows that there is potential for growth when focus is placed on the music — but then, that’s true for all musical acts, isn’t it? But f(x)’s image means that there is a ready-made opportunity or SM to put out music that only f(x) could pull off, like “NU ABO” — a niche already carved out for them, and the audience to support it too — and I hope they realise and utilise that.
Seoulmates, what are your thoughts on f(x)? Do you like the direction they are moving in? Did you think that Sulli was the actual maknae, too? And what would be the ideal fan club name for f(x)? Leave your thoughts below!