Welcome to the 25th Seoulbeats Exchange! I’d tell you what the topic for this exchange is, but it’s Secret. And that was the last pun you will encounter in this article.

But, Secret: regardless of how familiar one is with the TS Entertainment’s flagship group (though rookie labelmates B.A.P have been rising in prominence), almost everyone will have heard of “Shy Boy,” the song that shot them to prominence, and it was the first song by them I had heard. “Shy Boy” served as a key part of my education in the art of aegyo, or acting cute. That the group, comprising Hyosung, Zinger, Jieun and Sunhwa, found success in doing an aegyo song after debuting with a more mature image seemed to be the ultimate testimonial for the power cute held in K-pop and Korea.

“Shy Boy”  may be just a blip on Secret’s discography radar, but it is a big blip; “Shy Boy” is what Secret is known for, but it isn’t all they are; and so, I pressed Fannie, Jasper and Nicholas into Exchange duty to explain more about Secret.
1. What were your initial impressions of Secret, and how have those impressions changed since?

Fannie:  I first started paying attention to Secret when they came out with “Magic” — I had been aware of them before that when they were doing they were doing their R&B thing with “I Want You Back,” but their debut track never really stood out to me (that is not to say that R&B doesn’t suit them because I think it does). “Magic,” however, commanded my attention immediately, as it brought something new and interesting to the K-pop scene… the kind of grandiose sass that I associate with Beyonce. I loved that the girls weren’t afraid to let go and channel their inner diva on stage, it always truly felt like they enjoyed their performances and they also had some pretty solid vocal talent, to boot. With “Shy Boy” was when my interest in the group started to wane… yes, it was the song that propelled them from somewhat relevant to pretty darn relevant in Korea, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like it as it was so far removed from the Secret I had originally come to be a fan of. I’ve gone into more detail on this in a previous article, but while I have nothing against aegyo itself, it just felt very unnatural to me to see it on Secret, especially in the case of Zinger (thank god she finally got rid of the blonde). I think that if “Shy Boy” had been my first introduction to the group my feelings may have been a bit different.

At any rate, with “Love is Move” and “Poison” (especially the latter, of which several elements sound as if they were lifted directly off of both “Magic” and “Madonna”) the group seems to be moving back towards their pre-aegyo-ified sound and look, which — don’t get me wrong — I’m very happy about, but at the same time, it’s basically a regurgitation of their previous stuff. As it stands right now, I’m a fan of the girls themselves, but it’s been a long time since I’ve really been super excited about the promotion material they have had to work with. I’m looking forward to their next comeback to see if they can continue to grow and hopefully mature their sound and their look.

Jasper: Coming into K-pop relatively late, my first experience with Secret was actually through “Shy Boy.” I’m admittedly a bit more tolerant when it comes to the aegyo, so I thought of “Shy Boy” as simply a catchy tune with a colorful music video and really didn’t think of much else when it came to the members who sang it. It wasn’t until I decided to belatedly watch Invincible Youth when I met up with Secret again through Sunhwa’s participation on the show. I almost immediately fell in love with her endearing — at times almost desperate — attempts in trying to secure more camera time, and I decided to do a bit more research on their work. The first song Sunhwa actively promoted on the variety show was “Magic,” and I enjoyed the spunk and energy of it all. But it wasn’t until the sassy “Madonna” that I became enamored with the group. I loved the energy and charisma they brought to the song, and needless to be said, I instantly became a fan.
But in the process of learning their work, I was surprised at the radical change Secret went through in terms of sound and image. And to be frank, I was somewhat disappointed in the change since I very much preferred the old Secret. “Love is Move” was my first comeback from Secret, and while I was glad they were going back to being mature, I still yearned for the attitude Secret originally displayed, attitude somewhat lacking in their “Love is Move” comeback. Their recent “Poison” was basically everything I wanted from Secret, but I agree with Fannie in that it was essentially a resurrection of their previous image and didn’t show as much growth from them. So I too will be waiting for their next comeback to fully gauge their potential for growth, as much as I love the look they have going on for them now.

Nicholas: I first noticed them from Sunhwa’s regular role on Invincible Youth, while they were promoting “I Want You Back”. Contrary to Fannie though, I actually quite liked the song for its slightly laid back feel. Also, seeing the episode where they showed their basement house did give a perception of how rookie idols were treated (compared to SNSD’s plush quarters shown in the same episode).
While I could not say I am a fan of every single concept, especially “Shy Boy” (though I have to credit them for kind of making it work), I do like most of their songs for having a sound that says Secret, which could be more than could be said for other groups (especially newer ones). I would also have to give them some credit for having done a decent, rather cohesive full album last year, Moving In Secret. For proof that TS Entertainment understands what makes the girls sound best, “Neverland” is worth a listen. For “Poison,” I liked the song and how it seemed like a throwback to what made them known, the pop-friendly sound with a little sass and attitude thrown in, yet without it seeming too contrived and tacked on (overly sexy crotch shots aside). Still, like Fannie, I appreciate what they bring to K-pop and look forward to seeing them in future concepts.

2. I can’t find any gaps in talent between the members: would you say that Secret is a well-rounded group?

Jasper: I’d say Secret is pretty well-rounded. In a four-member group, there really shouldn’t be room for a useless member, so all four of the girls have a distinct role they play adequately. Main vocal Jieun and dancer Hyosung carry most of their songs, but even their visual Sunhwa and rapper Zinger have decent voices that can carry a tune when necessary.

Nicholas:  All the members have well defined roles, and they do manage to have stage presence, so it is rather impossible to call any of them deadweights or not very useful in the context of the group. On the flipside, being such a cohesive unit also means that talent tends to be slightly covered up. Jieun is a great singer, but when everyone performs to standard, she tends to just sound consistent and not really stand out, unlike in groups where there is one person covering the group vocally (cough, A Pink and Eunji)
All things being equal, a group where talent is spread out well is far more preferable for me. Another thing good about Secret is how members actually improve with time. When Sunhwa first started out, she was largely a sub-vocal, but in the last two releases, I heard her doing more lines, as well as being having decent vocal control and consistency that slightly edges out Hyosung these days.

3. Secret could be compared to other 4-member girl groups in K-pop, of which there are a fair few–what makes Secret stand out?
Fannie: You know, I’m having a hard time coming up with the words to describe the difference, but there is something distinctive about Secret. They’re not as dark as miss A, but still have plenty of sass and attitude. They also are upfront about their sexuality like Sistar, but I think it comes off as not quite as cheap. Secret also has a bit of the underdog appeal. The group also has Hyosung, who has this super ‘glamorous’ body, and personally, I think Sunhwa is gorgeous, inside and out. It’s too bad that after establishing her ‘blank’ image on Invincible Youth she’s often typecast into comedic and sometimes unfortunate roles (the same thing that oftentimes happens to Lee Joon). I mean, seriously? Park Hwee-sun and now Kwanghee?

Jasper: I agree with Fannie in how Secret can appear as a median to all these other four-member groups. They aren’t as as refined as miss A, they aren’t as overly sexual as Sistar, and they’re not as spunky as 2NE1. They sort of embody a mixture of traits these other groups are more known for, combining those traits with a bombastic and energetic sound to create an image that’s solely Secret’s.
Furthermore, Secret also has this underdog appeal that just makes you want to cheer for them. During their debut period when TS Entertainment was first starting out, the group members were called “Basement Idols” referring to how the girls used to live in an unfurnished basement, and they were probably among the poorer of idol groups out there at the time; jarring, considering most rookies’ living conditions are not very ideal in the first place. Looking back at how far they got gives a feeling of satisfaction, even if they’re only considered a mid-tier group at best, and you really just wish the best for them, them being genuinely sweet and endearing girls.

Nicholas: In some ways, TS Entertainment was really the little company that could. By ensuring every member in the group has a purpose, and successfully finding a niche (no small feat considering how saturated the industry is), their groups have certainly won a following among K-poppers in the know. That they have acts that are fun to watch on stage never hurts. As said earlier, having a nicely carved out niche is probably what makes them stand out. Not as try-hard sexy as Sistar , but with the same decent songs and vocals, and not as bold as miss A, but with some sass in the mix, Secret are probably to many people the Goldilocks, just right for most tastes.

4. Secret’s latest song “Poison” seems to be quite popular; do you think the group will be able to successfully carry over their popularity from “Shy Boy?” Do you think they could surpass it?

Fannie: I’m not sure whether or not “Poison” is going to take Korea by storm (I’m leaning towards no, as their more mature material is going to limit their audience range) but I do think it’ll do fairly well, as Secret is a pretty established group by this point. And like I said earlier, “Poison” is a little too self-sampling for my liking, although that doesn’t seem to be a terrible thing in the K-pop industry. I do think that TS Entertainment does take the “find a successful formula and replicate it” thing a bit too seriously at times, though. I like when groups have a distinct sound, but not to the point where I start feeling like subsequent songs are sampled from previous hits (we give Super Junior enough grief about this type of thing already, as it is).

Jasper: To be honest, as much as I love “Poison,” I really don’t think it’ll be able to match the success of “Shy Boy.” It’s basically just the same type of material the group was giving before their aegyo-era, and while they now have a dedicated fanbase to buy that material, I wouldn’t really call “Poison” anything groundbreaking for Secret. But whether Secret can overpass the success of “Shy Boy” in the future? I’d certainly like to think so. It would be a bit sad to think that the cutesy “Shy Boy” would serve as the group’s peak when they are honestly capable of more. I see much more promise in Secret, and I hope just a few more tries — experimenting with a new sound or influence — would be all it takes for Secret to reach their full potential.

Nicholas: Secret seem to be permanently stuck in B territory. While they have enough support and material to sell albums in decent numbers, get support on variety programmes and win a few music shows, I still cannot see them as becoming a national girl group. While this could be due to the niche nature of their music, it could also be how strong support is for the current A-listers, or a lack of a song that took the nation by storm. Also the sheer number of girl groups these days make it hard for any one group to totally dominate the attention of the listening public en masse. Still, with nice tunes, members who work well in their roles, and appealing stages, I could see them drawing the interest of a fair amount of girl group lovers who like to look slightly beyond the mainstream choices. And for that, I could see them as reasonably successful acts over the next two years, and possibly beyond.

“The old Secret was better” is one of the truisms seen in K-pop, and it’s understandable why fans would feel this way: completely changing one’s concept would throw any fan off, which was further compounded by Secret’s inability to sell their new look. Idols not being entirely comfortable with the material has, in this case, led to the failure to convert people. JYJ Junsu’s solo works are a far cry from the cute angel image fans had of him, and his undoubtedly sexier songs have  taken people by surprise. Ultimately, Junsu’s conviction is what sells the work, because he makes it clear that this is what he wants to do, this is the type of song he wants to perform. That kind of confidence in one’s music alone is often enough to win doubtful fans over. Secret, though, hadn’t been able to exude the same kind of confidence with their cute look that could allay fans’ concerns–though, really, that might have turned out for the better.

That Secret is the happy medium of the 4-member girl groups currently in K-pop is a very plausible one as they, in their current state, do have qualities that can be found in each of the other such groups. Unlike Nicholas, though, I cannot say that the all-roundedness of the group leads to members not being able to stand out–rather, the clear roles that each member has within the group (which parallel very nicely to their roles in the heist plot of “Poison”‘s MV) allows members to be differentiated well enough; in fact, Jieun’s voice is fast becoming one of my favourites because I find it so distinctive. Even with live performances, each member is able to shine without sticking out like an overly talented sore thumb. Actually, Secret have been killing their live performances of “Poison”–to paraphrase fellow writer Paloma: “Sunhwa’s the weakest singer?” “Poison” may have the sex appeal and the sound that Secret began their careers with, and fans love them for, but more than Jieun’s adlibs, Zinger’s raps, Sunhwa’s stage presence and Hyosung’s attention-grabbing moves, what stands out most is Secret’s confidence and conviction in their material; you can hear and see it clearly on stage, and at the end of the day, whether you’re an idol group known for their sexy image, or the aegyo queens of the K-pop scene, confidence (alongside talent) in your concept and material is ultimately what sells.

(TS Entertainment, KBS)