Welcome to another Seoulbeats Exchange!

With the Olympics on right now, you’d think that a lot of acts would delay comebacks and debuts to avoid going head-to-head with broadcasts of the games, but it’s business as usual in the K-popverse; and going head to head with the Games of the XXX Olympiad is none other than Kwon Boa, better known by just her stylised first name, BoA.

Pure fangirl jealousy was what led me to BoA. One day, I was merrily surfing the internet for all things Minho (naturally) when I chanced upon this fancam:

My mind asked itself two questions: who was that woman and what was she doing with my Minho? Fuelled by envy, I may or may not have taken to a certain-K-pop-website-that-shall-remain-unnamed-due-to-old-shame (in my defence, I hadn’t discovered Seoulbeats yet)  looking for intel on this diminuitive lady with the sparkly blazer, but when I hit upon her music (the “Hurricane Venus” MV was first), all my delusional fangirl-rage just dissipated. I admitted defeat when I found her Japanese discography–after all, if you can’t beat hate ’em, join ’em.

BoA is often claimed to be the “Korean Britney,” though, personally, her lack of scandals and actual singing ability make her more similar to Kylie Minogue. SM specifically cast and trained her for international success, but BoA managed to surpass even the company’s wildest dreams with her astounding success in both the Korean and Japanese music industries. She’s even managed the unthinkable and made a fan out of my sister–I tell you, that is nothing short of a miracle. The only regret I have with BoA is that I didn’t discover her sooner, because I feel like I’ve missed out on pretty much her entire career. Her lastest release, Only One, gives me hope of seeing more BoA, but in lieu of a functioning time machine, I think I’ll settle for the next best thing: picking the minds of Dana, Fannie and Subi.

1. BoA has such a large catalogue of work that I don’t even know where to start. If I wanted to get a clear picture of what BoA and her music was about, which song(s) would you recommend?

Dana: To say that I’m familiar with BoA’s entire body of work would be a catastrophic overstatement.  BoA herself debuted in 2000 when she was only 13 (and I was only 12), and her decade-long career spans a number of styles and languages.  I myself was vaguely aware of BoA as early as 2008, but by that point, she was focusing less on her Korean career and more on Japanese promotions and an American debut — and so she was essentially off my newly-emerging K-pop radar.

However, if asked to pick a song that defines what BoA is about in my eyes, I’d start with “Girls on Top.”  Despite the questionable mullet hair-do, I think this song is so essentially BoA that it would be a good place to begin any understanding of BoA as a strong female soloist.

Fannie: Oh gosh, we would have to go all the way back to the beginning, wouldn’t we? BoA is one of the few K-pop artists of whom I’ve been a fan for her overall body of work and not just a few hit singles–and she has a very extensive discography, so as a fair warning, this might become a bit of a list.

I was a fan of BoA as a J-pop artist before I even discovered K-pop, so the songs that initially defined BoA for me (“No. 1,” “Valenti,” “Double,” “Every Heart,” “Shine We Are”) were off of her early Japanese albums. Later albums showcased some more experimentation with funk (“Do The Motion,” “Sweet Impact,” “BUMP BUMP!,” “Woo Weekend”) as well as a matured sound (“Mamoritai,” “Possibility,” “Eien”) that I think bears similarities with the sounds of her most current Korean comeback. And yes, several of these songs have both Japanese and Korean versions – I’m listing them under the version I prefer.

Out of her early Korean albums, the classics would have to of course be her debut song “ID; Peace B” as well as “Destiny,” “Atlantis Princess,” “My Name,” “MOTO,” and “Girls on Top.” This may be a personal thing, but I somehow discount the whole Hurricane Venus album when I think of her discography because it didn’t sound like genuine BoA to me; it sounded like BoA had instead been eaten alive by SM’s robotic supersonic bionic energy. Losing the real BoA feel was the similar concern I had with her attempt to break into the American market (too much autotune) although “Eat You Up” and “Energetic” did manage to grow on me over time.

With her most recent comeback with “Only One,” it’s obvious BoA has finally wrested some autonomy over her Korean material back from SM. More than anything, I associate BoA’s sound with an old-school J-pop/K-pop sound along with a dash of funk. Therefore if you don’t want to go through ALL the songs above, I guess the most representative of older classic BoA would be “ID; Peace B,” “No. 1,” “Double,” “Every Heart,” “Destiny,” “My Name,” and “Girls on Top.”

My personal favorites? “Valenti,” “Destiny,” “Dakishimeru,” and “Mamoritai.” “Only One” is also climbing pretty high up on my list, although as with all songs, it will have to stand the test of time to be sure.

Subi: Despite the expansive and extensive catalogue of BoA’s work, she is among the few K-pop artists who has a constant and consistent sound. From her first single “ID; Peace B” to “Only One,” BoA’s sound is the best of everything pop has to offer and the most essential. It’s about the edgy synths, steady bass, and the catchy chorus. But what separates her from the rest of the pack is that she isn’t stuck in a niche. She isn’t waving a lollipop around, singing about some oppa but at the same time, she isn’t stomping the yard, rapping about how bad ass she is. She’s doing her own thing and honestly, if you need a snapshot of BoA, you could put her discography on shuffle and you wouldn’t miss a beat. But for some of my personal favorite BoA tunes, check out the following: “ID; Peace B,” “No.1,” “Everlasting,” and this may the cheap way out, but anything off of her Japanese discography.

2. BoA has released very little during the last two years. Could her success with Only One lead to more frequent releases by the artist and increase her relevancy in K-pop?

Dana: It’s true that BoA hasn’t released much music since 2010, but at this point, I don’t really know that BoA’s relevancy in K-pop is of concern even to her.  BoA sits upon such a mountain of achievement that it is almost unrealistic to expect her to continue to produce at the rate that she was producing years ago.  Yes, she’s only 25 and has so much ahead, but I have to wonder if the dearth of releases is more attributable to the fact that she and SM are simply being a bit more choosey when it comes to the music she will release and the activities in which she will engage than anything else.  BoA isn’t just a singer anymore, she is an icon and a mogul in the K-pop industry.  Her experience renders her far more ready than most of her peers to move onto bigger and better things.  The K-pop music industry is unstable and over-saturated, and so I actually think that BoA’s limited releases have made her a smarter performer in the grander scheme of Korean entertainment.

Fannie: I think that BoA is starting to cast a wider net in terms of her career in the entertainment industry, but I’m absolutely certain that she will be continue to produce albums for many years to come. I’m not so sure, however, that appealing to the widespread K-pop market (which is a young market) is necessarily her goal anymore. She doesn’t really have anything to prove these days in terms of popularity (been there, done that), so I think she’s just having fun growing and maturing as an artist at her own pace. And as BoA continues to age and mature, I believe that her audience and sound is also going to age and mature right alongside her.That being said, people also need to remember that she’s not even that old yet! She’s only 25 – which is younger than the majority of the members in DB5K and Super Junior, not mention younger than half of 2NE1 as well as three out of four of the Brown Eyed Girls.

Subi: Considering what K-pop has become now, BoA will never be SNSD or 2NE1. Her fans will not be spamming the shit out of some poll and they will not be ruining the Internet with all their hashtagging, reblogging, or whatever it is K-pop fans do these days to “support” their idol. And that may mean she won’t win as many M! Countdowns or that she may sell less than her more “popular” hoobaes but BoA’s got to the point in her career where that, I am of the belief, that it doesn’t matter. She’s been there and done that and now it’s time for something else. “Only One” is doing well but it’s no “Oh!” and it’s no “I Am the Best.” But that’s okay. “Only One” isn’t going to get her “more frequent releases” or “increase her relevancy.” But that’s precisely the point. She’s sacrificed herself to the great pop machine for so long. Now she has the freedom to do without having to worry about being No.1. She can let some other poor soul do that while she concentrates on other things.

3. Do you think a second shot at the US market is a real possibility?

Dana: I’d really like to think that BoA still has a shot at making it in the United States.  I was fortunate to get to see her live at SM Town‘s concert in Madison Square Garden, and her command of English and ability to work the crowd was unmatched by every other K-pop singer at the event.  However, as charismatic of a performer as she is, I am not sure that she has the vocal ability to do well in a far more competitive market.  American audiences won’t (or shouldn’t) be impressed by lip-synching; so far, BoA hasn’t really put forth a tremendous amount of effort to sing “Only One” live, and even when it seems live, I’m still suspicious that it’s she’s just lip-synching to a live recording in order to appease fans.  I know she said that she can’t perform that choreography and sing at a high level but…isn’t it…her job to do that?

I also don’t think that her upcoming movie COBU 3D is going to do her many favors when it comes to a second American debut.  The movie is supposed to be coming out this year, but doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page or an official trailer; even when it does come out, who besides ardent BoA fans and people who aren’t tired of the exact same Step Up-esque dance movie format is going to go see it?  Maybe she will spark some curiosity, but I highly doubt that it is going to win her legions of American fans that will one day cry for a full-length album.

All of that pessimism doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t still hope for US success for BoA…but I am doubtful.

Fannie: It hinges on how well her movie goes over in the US, which I’m guessing will be somewhere in the middle-low range because – let’s just admit it now –it’s pretty much a rip-off of the Step Up franchise and is going to be subsequently labeled by the public as such. I’m not so sure her singing career will necessarily take off in the US, but she did manage to network closely with a lot of great dancers and choreographers in the international dance community (I mean, she did have a star-studded cast of back-dancers for her most recent MV) and I think she could perhaps make some headway in that direction. Despite the fact that she has produced a ton of great music over the years as an artist, BoA’s always been better acknowledged for her dance and performance ability moreso than  her vocal quality (a bit nasal and thin, although she has near flawless vocal control), anyway. So I do think taking a more dance-centric approach would be a smart move for her.

But then again, who knows? In the West all you need is a good club-banging beat and some golden luck to go viral (as we are seeing in the case of Psy). I don’t think BoA necessarily needs to succeed in the West, though. I wouldn’t mind if she lived out the rest of her career in Japan.

Subi: No. Lee Soo-man has stated that he believes the Western market is obsolete and while I’m not precisely sure what he’s getting at there, I do think there will be a day and age when there will, in direct opposition to the “West,” be an “East.” BoA can make much more money in this opposing “East” that she can in the “West,” or as most people really mean, the US. Everyone recognizes that and so, I don’t believe that another tackle at the US market is on anyone’s radar.

4. SM actor Kim Min-Jong recently voiced what fans had also been thinking–that BoA was one of the highest ranking individuals in SM Entertainment. But is her position in the SM hierarchy more a reflection of seniority rather than of respect for her skills, or any influence she may have in the company? If there is more than one factor involved, which has the greatest weighting?

Subi: In Korea, it doesn’t matter how whatever you are. It does, however, matter how long you’ve been there. That’s the culture, the social etiquette—all that jazz—so yes, of course, it’s a reflection of her seniority and the experience she has that others do not.

Fannie: I pretty much agree with what Subi said. It’s mostly a seniority thing. The fact that she’s been one of SM’s shareholders for quite some time now also may or may not also be a contributing factor to how much influence she holds within the company.

5. BoA has acheived many things and passed many milestones; but what, in your opinion, is her biggest achievement to date?

Dana:  BoA’s biggest achievement?  Even if it wasn’t commercially successful, BoA has had activities in three countries (four if you count the fact that she released music in Mandarin).  She has won far more recognition that most artists her age can claim, and even though she might not be making huge splashes on the Korean music scene as of late, I really do think that this is only the beginning for BoA.  Every experience she’s had in Korea, the US, and Japan have prepared her for a long and lucrative career in entertainment, and I’m sure she’ll make the most of the opportunities given to her.

Fannie: Without a doubt, paving the road for K-pop idols to enter Japan. She really had to build herself from the ground up all alone, in a way that none of the newer generation of idols had to do (thanks to her hard work).

Subi: BoA’s biggest achievement is starting and leading the Hallyu Wave. She was the first Korean artist to make it big in Japan and when the international stage was paying attention to J-pop, she was there and put Korea and indirectly, K-pop, on the map. This is something that she did not only for herself, but for her peers, her hoobaes—and her country. A close second however, is having evaded the K-pop Kool Aid. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot about BoA that is still very much a slave to the pop machine and ,in all honesty, a hay pile of bullshit, but at the end of the day, for the modern woman, she’s been inspiring in a way that SNSD and 2NE1 aren’t. SNSD are these nine gorgeous goddesses that and 2NE1 are these hard as nails betches. I don’t care who you like and who you don’t like but women, in real life, are not like that. I don’t wake up in the morning looking absolutely perfect and bringing all the boys out; I also don’t go out at night sticking it to the man with how fierce and bold I am. BoA has always been more identifiable for me because she’s one of the girls. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s absolutely beautiful and can dance like a crazy mofo, but still, she’s relatable and despite the length of her career and what K-pop is now, she hasn’t gotten into a pair of booty shorts and heels or black leather and thick eyeliner.


Fannie, I’m still working my way through your list.

Thinking about the fact that BoA is only a couple of years older than me makes me feel depressingly unaccomplished, but I don’t think I’m the only one feeling that way: as Fannie and Subi have said, BoA has been there and done that. She’s like an intrepid explorer, uncovering new lands and trying new things–a pioneer. She’s even done the “booty shorts and heels or black leather and thick eyeliner,” though I understand Subi’s intent behind these words: as she said herself, BoA is consistent. She doesn’t change her look willy-nilly; other K-pop groups and their companies are forever trying to exploit new angles: one minute it’s the “cute” concept, then the “sexy” concept, then the “angst” concept, and so on and so forth. Even though BoA has undergone changes in her image over time, they were more gradual and natural, matching her own growth from girl to woman. BoA’s music, image, everything is about being a girl, and now a woman.

She isn’t all-out about girl power or being hot and attractive–of course, she is all those things and more, but these things do not completely define her, just like how they don’t completely define any normal girl or woman. If there was an overriding concept for BoA like there are for other groups, I think it would be just “BoA.” This could be a soloist’s advantage, though: concepts are one of the tools used by companies to bring members together, to somehow stimulate group unity (or at least an illusion thereof). Promoting alone may be more nerve-racking–seeing BoA rehearse by herself in the SM film I Am made me feel lonely from just watching–but there may be more freedom offered, too. I say may” because solo idols are not free from typecasting, like with IU and Lee Hyori, but BoA has managed to get past that, and in an image-focused industry like K-pop that that is quite an achievement.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see what the next stage in BoA’s career will bring. Though I’ve missed the growth of BoA and am slightly devastated at the notion that she’s done with being a regular idol (in that there may not be so many comebacks), I’m looking forward to the growth of her songwriting and composing–and for her to work her way through every dancer in SM. As for the rest, we’ll see what happens.

(Nate, SM Entertainment)