SM Entertainment‘s resident Chinese solo songstress, Zhang Li-yin, has announced that she will be coming back to the Mandopop scene with a new album this fall. Of course, no one really buys this, mostly because rumors of Zhang Li-yin recording for a new album have been floating around for almost two (two!) years, and yet we haven’t heard a peep from her since 2009 when she released her last single, Moving On. Since then, Zhang Li-yin has found her way out of the SM Dungeon on a few occasions — she’s participated in a few SMTown concerts, she made a guest appearance at SHINee’s concert in Taiwan last year, and she also participated in the most recent SMTown winter album. Despite her lack of solo activities in the past three years, there’s no indication that Zhang Li-yin has been dropped from the SM roster. Intermittent rumors alluding to her “comeback album” have served as a beacon of hope for her fans, and hey — at least we can say that her career is in a better place than lesser-known SM artists like J-Min and Iconiq.
But being in a state of limbo is rarely a good thing, particularly when you’re an artist at SM Entertainment. With the overwhelming success of most other SM idols, Zhang Li-yin’s current career of nothingness is, sadly, as good as gone. In the fast-moving world of K-pop, you’re either in or you’re out. But as a hardcore Zhang Li-yin stan, I’d still like to believe that Zhang Li-yin still has a chance, and that there’s been a logical reason why she’s been absent from the music scene for so long.
So without further ado, here are ten possible reasons (some silly, some not) why Zhang Li-yin’s career has been AWOL for the past three years.
1. Her career never really picked up after her debut, and there’s little hope for a massive popularity surge now. If there’s one thing that will keep you going in a fast-paced entertainment scene like K-pop, it’s consistency. It doesn’t matter how awesome or cruddy your debut was — if your follow-up activities aren’t of a similar or higher quality, there’s little reason for an audience to continue following you. Zhang Li-yin was extremely well-received by Korean audiences at the time of her debut; she won her first award barely two weeks after her debut on Inkigayo and won the MKMF Best Newcomer Soloist award shortly afterwards. However, due to her young age and lack of “refinement,” she was then sent back to SM for three years of “retraining” — a process that did not completely remove her from the public eye (having released her first full-length album I Will and accompanying music videos during that time), but instead forced her to give precedence to her training career over her performance career.
But even after she “re-emerged” from retraining in 2009 with Moving On, she was unable to maintain full-time idol-style promotions — a task made even more difficult due to the fact that Zhang Li-yin never really upheld a real idol career prior to her hiatus between 2007 and 2009. Zhang Li-yin essentially returned as a rookie in 2009, but she didn’t have the rookie-like hype or overpromotion to boost her back up to the top. Indeed, this is the tragedy of Zhang Li-yin’s career: she was able to stun her audiences almost instantaneously when she debuted, but her disappearance thereafter reduced her to a mere memory for her audiences, turning her into an image of true talent that never really rematerialized into its full form even after she returned to the entertainment scene. Because of the way K-pop works — and particularly because of the way female K-pop idols are typically marketed — many female soloists with similarly “stunning” voices run the risk of falling victim to a similar fate. As much as I love Ailee, I can’t help but think that she may pull a Zhang Li-yin if she doesn’t constantly hammer the K-pop scene with catchy songs and incessant comebacks.
2. SM’s current presence in the Mandarin-speaking market is too strong and too rigid for her to fit in. Even though Zhang Li-yin’s debut activities were heavily pinned to Korean music shows and collabs with Korean artists, it was never a question that, as an artist holding a Chinese passport, Zhang Li-yin was originally intended to target the Chinese market. All of SM’s other Chinese artists have played major roles in SM’s ventures in China and beyond. Even f(x)‘s Victoria and Amber serve as key selling points for f(x)’s advancement in China and Taiwan. Zhang Li-yin was SM’s first real, directed attempt at staking out a place in the Mandopop scene, but because of her comparatively limited activities in China during her debut, Zhang Li-yin’s status as an artist in the Chinese market was never really solidified.
SM subsequently found significantly greater success with Super Junior-M and, more recently, EXO-M. As idol boygroups, both EXO-M and Super Junior-M share many similarities, and both have garnered enough popularity in the Mandarin-speaking market to serve as a representative and “face” for SM in China and Taiwan. Zhang Li-yin, then, is the odd-person out; even in instances where she’s held joint showcases with Super Junior-M in China, she seems more like a guest performer than a labelmate of equal standing with Super Junior-M. Conversely, SM has found its way around China through promoting Super Junior-M and has thus accustomed themselves to navigating the Chinese market under the context of promoting an idol boyband. They are employing similar tactics in their promotions with EXO-M. However, they cannot effectively employ the same promotional tactics with Zhang Li-yin’s material as they have with Super Junior-M or EXO-M’s material. For SM to insert Zhang Li-yin into the relatively even landscape they’ve built in China, it would require SM to rewrite their current tactics and reinvent a wheel that has kept them rolling in China for the past four years.
3. Donghae stans have kidnapped her and are keeping her captive in an undisclosed location. I’m pretty sure that fans of Junsu, Siwon, and Hangeng have gotten over themselves by now — two music video appearances and a duet are a far cry from outright sex — but the wounds from Donghae schmaltzing over Zhang Li-yin in her “Moving On” MV are still fresh. So what if it’s been three years? How would you feel if you saw your bias playing house with another girl? What will Eunhyuk think?!
4. She has decided that serenading her dog makes for a far less stressful career. And I agree.
5. SM doesn’t know how to market her. Hypothetically, this also implies that SM doesn’t know how to market any female soloist with a heavy-duty R&B voice. Currently, there isn’t another female on the SM roster with a voice that’s completely suited for R&B and soul. Even lauded singers like SNSD‘s Taeyeon and f(x)‘s Luna, though highly skilled, do not possess the growly, deep-set R&B sound that Zhang Li-yin possesses. CSJH the Grace was a close attempt at building a girl group with a mature, deep-set sound, but their eventual dissolution as a group also resulted in their unique sound aesthetic being left in the dust.
Post-SNSD SM seems to have ascribed to a certain mold for their female singers, knowing full well that most of their girls will debut in girl groups, and that their girl groups cannot be singing intimidating, heavy-duty R&B ballads all the time if they wish to retain their maximum marketability. To look at it positively, this means that SM requires their female artists to be more flexible: a high pitched, highly feminine voice with a classic pop-ish sound like Tiffany‘s or Seohyun‘s is easier to fit into a variety of pop songs, be it ballad, dance track, or stupid, lollipop-waving bubblegum fluff. On the other hand, darker-toned, deep-set R&B voices like Zhang Li-yin’s are less suited for the multifaceted nature of pop music, limiting her to the styles of music that she can perform. There’s probably a good reason why SM didn’t take any of the finalists from K-pop Star as trainees, despite the fact that all the finalists had stunning voices and incredible performance charisma. There’s no doubt in my mind that the A&R staff at SM believed that the finalists at K-pop Star were great singers. They just weren’t the singers that SM needs or wants.
Herein lies the problem for Zhang Li-yin, who was recruited by a random SM representative in 2003, long before the days of cutesy pop and the stereotypical cutesy idol girl group mold. Zhang Li-yin is unlike any other female artist on the SM roster, to the point where she falls outside of SM’s promotional strategies when it comes to female idols. Obviously, this is really unfortunate; Zhang Li-yin has a great voice and boatloads of talent, but no amount of talent will make her the kind of idol that SM wants to promote.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that SM really wanted to revive Zhang Li-yin’s career and were willing to pour as much time and resources needed to bring her back to the top. But in doing so, they’d also have to write a completely new marketing plan for Zhang Li-yin. On the one hand, this would be awesome — wouldn’t it be great to see singers like Park Ji-min debut under SM and be surrounded by the hype, the resources, and the money that SM has? But on the other hand…would SM ever invest that much time and energy to write a new set of rules for themselves? Probably not.
6. Her contract doesn’t bind her to a 24/7 idol career like other SM artists, and we’re just not used to seeing it. An iffy hypothesis, obviously, because no one outside of SM knows the details of Zhang Li-yin’s contract…but there’s always the possibility that SM doesn’t issue its backbreaking, we-own-your-life contracts to everyone on their roster. And if Zhang Li-yin was one of the lucky ones, who are we to complain?
7. SM’s buddies in Sweden don’t know how to write R&B power ballads. Fortunately, SM also has Balladmaster Yoo Young-jin at their disposal, but it seems as if Yoo Young-jin likes to save all his groovy R&B stuff for the boys or for himself. Not cool.
8. SM needs a token “special female guest” that will always be free to perform at other artists’ concerts. For whatever reason, SM likes to throw Zhang Li-yin into any one of her labelmate’s concerts in China or Taiwan as a “surprise guest.” She’s sung at SHINee’s concert in Taiwan, Super Junior‘s concert in Chengdu, and Kangta‘s concert in Beijing, alongside many others. And I mean, why not, right? It’s really handy to have one artist who always has the free time to jump into a guest performance at a moment’s notice. Voila, instant “special stage.”
9. She’s secretly dating Hangeng. Well, she did say that she used to frequent his mom’s dumpling shop. Quick, someone needs to pitch this Romeo and Juliet revamp to SM as a follow-up to their Hana Kimi remake. Scheduled to air June 2014.
10. Her AWOLness is all in anticipation for a giant Zhang Li-yin blowout celebration in 2013, complete with a deluxe album release, a dozen MVs that rival those of T-Ara‘s 30-minute epics and are shot in 3-D, a solo world tour, and a Broadway-scale production of a new show paying homage to her life entitled Timeless! The Musical with a cast of 300 tap-dancing SM trainees. And also fireworks.
Well, a girl can dream, right?
There’s no question that Zhang Li-yin’s talent is well-acknowledged by those who know of her, but the issue of whether or not she is a sustainable figure in the K-pop or even Mandopop scene makes for a very uncomfortable question. Why is it so difficult for artists who are so obviously talented to maintain a career as “popular” idols? Furthermore, why are there so few female R&B soloists comparative to male R&B soloists? Why is there so little Korean R&B music written for the ladies? Perhaps this has to do more with musical trend than it does with any deep socio-cultural issue, but with the rapid rise in popularity of female solo artists like Ailee and K-pop Star contestants like Park Ji-min, Lee Ha-yi, and Baek Ah-yeon — all of which boast voices that lean more towards a deep, mature R&B sound than a traditionally feminine and pop-y sound — it makes me wonder if K-pop will make room for these kinds of voices. Younha‘s well-received comeback gives me hope that there’s still an audience for powerhouse female voices outside of the popular safety of a girl group. Zhang Li-yin’s loss of what could have been a vibrant career is sad, but even as we wait for the Comeback That May Never Be, here’s to the hope that the landscape of K-pop will change to reflect the times.