Welcome to another Seoulbeats Exchange! This week’s featured artist is none other than Kara!
There are many downsides to dating publicly for celebrities, but this may have turned in Kara’s favour in my case at least, for it was around the time I was getting into K-pop that news of Hara‘s relationship with Beast‘s Junhyung broke. It was the first time I’d hear of Kara, DSP, the DSP lawsuit and Japanese activities. It was all a bit overwhelming, to be honest, and most of it went over my head; but Hara was the one thing that stood out, and what led to my discovery of DSP Media’s flagship girl group.
My understanding and knowledge of the group, though, is rather woeful, and in light of their impending comepack with Pandora I (and perhaps you, too, reader) would like to get to know Kara a bit better; so I’ve brought on Johnelle, Ree , Patricia and Fannie to lend their expertise.
1a) Though rather harsh and not necessarily true, Kara seems to be generally regarded as being.. well, not that talented. If they aren’t known for their talent, then how did they become so big?
Johnelle: It was one thing and one thing only that took them over the top–the Butt dance. “Mister” was a catchy song, but it was the song combined with the dance that shot Kara to Superstardom. They were known before that, they’re all cute, but I sincerely believe it was the butt dance that put Kara on the map.
Ree: I think it was a gradual process which occurred after changing to a more “cute” image, which then climaxed with the ‘butt dance’. After their member change due to Sung-hee leaving and being replaced with Hara and Ji-young, the image they had did a complete 180. Let’s face it, the “girly and cute” image they had when they came out with ‘Rock U’ really did wonders for them. ‘Pretty Girl’ was the first song that was moderately successful, and that was followed by the rather successful ‘Honey’. However, yeah, it was definitely ‘Mister’ which made them into a pop culture phenomena, as you may say. The ‘butt dance’ is what got them a huge influx of CF deals. DSP was super smart to stop promoting ‘Wanna’ in favour of ‘Mister’. That being said, they did do reasonably well before that, thanks to a slew of cutesy, saccharine, but reasonably charting singles (more for the cutesy image rather than the music).
There’s also the fact they have really attractive members.
Fannie: Kara began gathering their momentum after their image switch from ‘strong female’ over to ‘cute and girly’. While there’s no doubt that “Mister” was when they exploded into the forefront, I attribute that largely to the general girl group boom — all the top girl groups in K-pop at the moment achieved a major boost around the same time — after the Wonder Girls had temporarily evacuated the scene and left a big space to fill. Like Ree, I think Kara’s rise and the build up of their fanbase started before that, and it mostly had to do with their friendly girl-next-door image and their looks. Although they suffered the loss of their strongest vocalist prior to taking on their girly image, Korea takes to that sort of appeal (the same kind of appeal that A Pink is trying to go for, and that IU has as the ‘nation ‘s little sister”) very well.
Can I also just say — although the group hasn’t garnered the best vocal reputation live, some of the girls (especially Gyuri) are actually not bad, they need some work on vocal control when they’re singing live. I think the main problem is that they need a fuller and lower ‘alto’ type voice to balance the group out. Both Seungyeon and Jiyoung have softer, delicate voices, while Nicole has a unique, high-pitched vocal color that is not bad but definitely not to everyone’s taste. Hara is just Hara. The original Kara lineup (check out their live of “Break It”) was pretty well-rounded, and I don’t think anyone would argue against the fact that it’s a pity — vocally — that Sung-hee is no longer in the group.
1b) And how has that translated to Japan? Could other K-pop groups benefit from following Kara’s model of promoting in Japan?
Ree: I don’t really think Kara has a “model”. They’re kind of just the epitome super-cute and male-gaze orientated in K-pop (I mean, almost all girl groups are male-gaze orientated, but there’s a reason why Kara have the biggest ratio of male to female fans). It’s pretty simple really: they have cute songs, a great ‘butt dance’, Hara also weirdly resembles Namie Amuro, and I guess also some good fortune for having people tune in to them at the right time. I mean, there’s also the thing that yes, all five of them (despite not being fluent), do try their best in learning the Japanese language, and they also appear on a fair share of variety shows, but let’s be real. Sex sells.
Fannie: Kara’s whole image was very J-pop like, even long before they even set foot into Japan, so part of it was that they didn’t even have to adjust their image very much to fit right in with the Japanese scene. In that aspect, I don’t think other groups can do the ‘Kara’ image any better than Kara, but I do think that they could learn from the bottom-up approach that Kara took if they want longevity in the Japanese market. Out of the more recent generation of K-pop artists venturing to Japan, Kara is the closest to being categorized as a J-pop artist (and not just K-pop in Japan) and therefore the most likely to stay relevant even after the Wave has died down in Japan.
2. Kara members seem to be well known for their participation in variety. Gyuri’s “goddess” persona and Hara’s antics on Invincible Youth are quite well known, but if a new fan wished to explore more of this side of Kara, what recommendations would you make?
Johnelle: You can find out a lot about Gyuri‘s personality especially in talk variety shows–she’s pretty witty and sarcastic with her remarks which is refreshing after seeing so many idols respond to questions with rehearsed and redundant answers all the time. Hara’s got a great personality which was well showcased in Invincible Youth— she’s tiny, but is tough as nails and I think that’s why she’s so popular with other idols and her sunbaes. You can see a lot of Ji-young in Invincible Youth 2 and although many find her to be a bit much I think she’s funny. Nicole seems to be really sweet and innocent–I loved her on Star Golden Bell and her appearance on Family Outing was amongst my faves from the show. I really know almost nothing about Seung-yeon.
Ree: If you wanted to see them as five and their dynamics as a group, then I recommend Kara’s Bakery. It isn’t really laugh at loud funny and endlessly entertaining, but I think it’s a great show if you want to see the girls act more ‘natural’, and it really shows that they have more spunk than otherwise advertised.
Also, I feel like just giving a shout-out to Seung-yeon. Although she isn’t really that active on variety much anymore, back in 2007 when Kara still had Sunghee and was struggling to get their name out, Seungyeon really went all out on variety shows. She’s quite a tough cookie and really determined, and during the group’s most vulnerable state, she did her best to get their name out there as much as she could.
Patricia: I haven’t watched Kara on many variety shows; I’ve only seen them appear on a few episodes of Star Golden Bell, Family Outing, and that weird King of Idols show in Pattaya last year. But even in these shows where there are lots of idols competing for camera time, the Kara members are always a little offbeat and are oftentimes willing to poke fun at themselves — which, in the plasticky-polished world of K-pop, is something I can respect.
3. Generally, suing one’s company doesn’t end well for idols. How did Kara get through that ordeal intact and be able to continue on with their careers? Not to say that this kind of thing is be impossible and that Kara should have been punished for going against their company or anything like that, but that’s what may be expected to have happened (like what people say about T-ara members hypothetically suing CCM)); weren’t there any mid- to long-tem negative consequences arising from this episode?
Johnelle: I think what really saved Kara was timing. SS501 did not renew their contracts after their original contract expired in June of 2010 and all of the members left the company. That left only Kara as a real moneymaker for the company after blowing up with “Mister” and having a very successful debut in Japan. The only other group that DSP Media had at that time was Rainbow and they were not that successful. So when four of the members sued to leave, DSP was stuck between a rock and a hard place– if they let the dispute draw out and at worse have Kara disband they were, in my opinion, facing financial ruin. I think DSP had no choice but to deal with the members and try to figure out a solution so that Kara wouldn’t disband. A more financially solvent company, like say SM Entertainment, would have been able to play some hard ball with the girls, but I think DSP really had its hand tied to negotiate.
I think there were some legitimate complaints from the girls as to how DSP was managing their time and finances, fans always talk about how bad DSP seems to be at managing their talent, that’s why I think the backlash wasn’t so severe for the members who were complaining about their treatment by DSP. And of course because they were able to come to a resolution eventually (and within a reasonable time frame), people slowly began to forget what the hubbub was about anyway.
Fannie: Part of it was that the whole ordeal was resolved pretty quickly, part of the credit also has to go to the fact that the Kamilias have always been a calmer and less catty fanbase (which makes them one of my favorite fanbases). The girls and the fans have weathered through a lot together to get to where they are today (there’s a bit of an underdog mentality) and so they’re less likely to arbitrarily flake.
Patricia: It’s funny, because I remember that all hell broke loose when Kara’s scandal came up, if only because it came up so close in timing to the DBSK lawsuit, and it was almost a given that if DBSK’s ship was sinking, Kara’s ship would probably sink faster. Now, it’s almost as if the Kara ordeal never really happened. The whole scandal was closed up so quickly and so cleanly that I’m almost tempted to believe that the members’ decisions to sue the company was more a ‘spasm’ or a sudden impulse than a serious, deliberate attempt to leave the company, and I think that this is the way DSP tried to play off the scandal afterwards — that is, if there was any ‘playing off’ necessary. But with these things, we never really know.
4. Going for the more cuter and fresher look after Hara and Ji-young joined the group has worked well for Kara, but do you think that they can successfully pull off music that takes on a more mature and darker approach? The teasers for “Pandora.”
Ree: I think Kara is at a point where they can do “darker” and “mature”, but the main point of everything they put out isn’t really for the sake of musical reinvention, but rather just fanservice: if you’ve seen the “Speed Up” PV then it’s pretty apparent that Kara has no qualms with putting the ‘dark’ look out again, despite Jiyoung’s age. But it isn’t going to be done simply to be more ‘mature’, it’s going to be done because they look really hot in ‘darker’ and more ‘sexy’ clothes. That’s sort of just what Kara does… music has never been a big thing for them. I mean, they have some good songs, but they were never meant to be the point.
Patricia: I feel that with a group like Kara, the whole “dark” image is a one-time deal, a novelty. And yes, it’s a little bit strange to call a girl group’s “grown-up” concept as being a novelty in comparison to their usual cutesy image, but I think Kara just suits the fun, cute image so well that anything else seems out of place. I personally have a thing for seeing idols do things that are out of their element — hearing the dancer of a group singing a ballad; seeing the jokester of a group do a serious fashion photo shoot — but when it comes to concepts, once is usually enough.
Fannie: I’m not sure why people keep on boxing Kara into pastels when they’ve long been experimenting with darker and more mature (and mature does not have to equal sex, although it can) schemes as well. I actually think Kara adapts equally well to both cute and mature concepts, honestly. Different concepts highlight the strengths of different members (Gyuri in particular shines when they go dark).
We all know deep down that K-pop is, and has always been, a business in which to invest and make profit, and Kara is just but one example of the realisation of that truth. As my colleagues have pointed out, Kara’s general career trajectory is not so much about artistic growth as it is about making as much money as possible–something that is true for most, if not all, K-pop groups assembled by companies.
From what I gather, the main tenets of Kara’s success are their looks and personalities, with music third. Though good looking idols are plentiful in K-pop, their looks seemed to have helped them immensely in Japan (I can see the Hara-Namie similarities, too), as well as how their general image is shaped, it fits in with the larger J-pop scene. The group has also built upon this base by learning Japanese and appearing on shows (I’m sure their variety experience in Korea helped them out!) That they have crossover potential into a bigger market is only a good thing for Kara, and I agree that other K-pop groups could benefit from a more earnest approach that could open them up to a larger audience rather than merely concentrating on existing K-pop fans in Japan. That said though, it’s only to be expected that not every K-pop group is going to appeal to the Japanese market’s tastes. As for the members’ personalties, I am still learning about them but they have thus far came across as down-to-earth and relatable, qualities that have help mould their identity in the industry.
And this identity may be why I can’t find myself comparing Kara directly with other girl groups in Korea (maybe it’s different in Japan?). While it can be said that such group has better voices or that group’s members look more appealing than Kara’s, Kara feels a bit too different to directly compare with others; I can look at the different elements, but not Kara as a whole. Kara is thoroughly mainstream in everything from the music it puts out to the concepts it puts on to even the personas the members have, but all these parts somehow manage to work together to distinguish itself from other groups. I am beginning to understand now why my fellow writers say that Kara’s successes in Japan are not entirely replicable. Though I still cannot find myself enjoying the majority of Kara’s songs, and personality and looks aren’t enough for me, I can respect Kara for doing what it does, and doing it well.
What are your thoughts on Kara? Do you have a favourite Kara variety moment? Share your thoughts below!
(Dispatch, DSP Media, M.net)