Kara is a group that’s been with us since the start of the hallyu wave, and with a few post-debut changes, they were able to break through to popularity with five — instead of four — members, performing to the ever popular “Mister.” Since then, the girls have enjoyed moderate success, and they’ve garnered a solid Japanese fanbase. They’re one of the few groups that’s managed to go to Japan and have something close to success. While they may not be the most popular girl group in today’s K-Pop spectrum, they’ve managed to keep their relevance over the years.
Kara came out in 2007 with their single “Break It.” Being labelmates with Fin.K.L at DSP Media, the R&B sound in their first single was to be expected. Also labeled as Fin K.L’s successors, there were high hopes for the group. However, the single failed to reach commercial success and the group was pressured to give it another go with a second single. While in the mist of finding their place, member Kim Sunghee took her leave and members Goo Hara and Ji-Young were brought in. After the change, the group’s next single “Rock U,” which was more in line with the pop sound of the period, brought a bit of attention to the girls. Gone were the hoodies and tough-girl personas, and in were the sugary sweet imagery.
This cutesy imagery has carried through to most of their songs. They managed it well until their breakout hit, “Mister.” Their “butt dance” helped them wiggle out of obscurity to the group we know today. While not top tier, their releases now get pretty good press. In 2010, the girls ventured into to Japan with a Japanese remake of “Mister,” and this gave them a rather successful debut. They continued their success with the single “Jumping” and a compilation album that was the first to break the 100,0000 barrier mark in sales for a Korean group in Japan (since the 1990s).
As they continued in their career, they did start to mature a bit more with songs like “Lupin” and “Pandora.” Their most recent release of “Damaged Lady” has almost brought the group full circle. They sound much more refined and the feel of Kara’s original image can be felt throughout the song, with or without the somewhat techno aspects sprinkled throughout. This song, as well as “Runaway,” showed that the girls had matured into a rather well-rounded group, and things were looking bright for them.
However, all good things must — or will — come to an end.
Notably, Nicole and Jiyoung have announced their departure, and Kara’s future now hangs in the balance. With the recent news of a fan meeting, fans and onlookers alike are unsure about how this will pan out for the group. Questions have come up: will they be addressing the girls’ exits? Or is this meeting being held to calm the nerves of anxious fans? Further to the news, it’s been announced that two new members will be recruited to take the place of Nicole and Jiyoung. As we’ve seen in the the past, a group replacing its members is akin to shuffling a deck of cards. However, while member swaps are commonplace, switching up Kara this far into the game can cause a major shift in the group dynamic, affecting the group’s potential to move forward.
All eyes will be on DSP Media, as their handling of the transition will determine how well the change will be for Kara. While they deliberate on how to go about it, we can imagine that they’d probably be taking cues from groups that have been through the same hurdles.
Star Empire Entertainment’s Jewelry has made a name for itself as K-pop’s longest running girl group, as well as a group that has had a number of member changes. In their case however, many of the members’ departures have been seen as willing, to the point that send-offs have been held to commemorate the changes. Moreover, when longtime members Seo In-young and Park Jung-ah left in 2010, the addition of two new members seemed like a natural progression. In March this year, Eun-jung, who joined in 2008, took her leave as well. Undoubtedly, the group’s past members would be missed, but they’d also go on to do other things while Jewelry the girl group carries on their legacy.
Another example can be seen in After School, over at Pledis Entertainment, who has also had relative success in the changing of members. A “graduation” system, which has been in place for some time, was instilled to ease members and onlookers into the idea that lineup switches have to be expected in line with the group’s progression. Moving on from its first generation, some people have said that later members like Raina, Nana, and Lizzy, have had greater effects on the group than was first anticipated. Incidentally, the trio has managed to create a popular sub-unit in the form of Orange Caramel, and Nana has risen to become one of the most well-known visuals in K-pop. The combined successes here have brought a considerable amount of attention back to the group as a whole.
To illustrate further, we saw one of the best known lineup changes when Sunmi departed from the Wonder Girls. When Sunmi exited the group, she left a dent during a rather rocky stage in the Wonder Girls’ career. While JYP’s wonder proteges enjoyed all-around success with “Nobody,”, they had experienced a shaky entrance into the Western music scene — Sunmi’s leave in the midst of album and tour plans was not the most ideal. Replaced by Hye-lim, it was clear that the change shook up many fans. Hye-lim had big shoes to fill, and while Sunmi’s departure was drama free, the former was constantly under the microscope. While the decline of the Wonder Girls has been caused by a combination of factors, Sunmi’s departure could be seen as the “beginning of the end” for the group, and this has been even more apparent with her success as a solo artist.
Moreover, we can’t forget that not all changes in a group are going to be smooth ones. T-ara famously showed us some of the darker sides of this. While many companies explain that member departures are due to school or even to pursue other career paths, Hwayoung’s departure was ripe with controversy. Was she bullied out of the group? Or was she lazy? Her departure and the events that followed were a huge hit to T-ara’s image. While they did not replace her, her leaving left a lot of questions lingering over the group, which took quite some time to fade.
Swapping out members, especially with girl groups, is the norm these days. There is always a better singer and a prettier face. But this can cause distance to form between groups and their fan bases. With every update, many groups leave fans with bated breaths, wondering if their favorite will make the cut with their next single. Rania is recruiting new members, Nine Muses is almost famous for their group changes alone, and A Pink has let a member go amidst another controversy. While most would think that newer groups would try to keep a steady lineup for clarity and also for the sake of fans, it seems more like the girls are ingredients to be mixed for a desired result. If one fails, swap them out. It’s only now coming to people’s attention because it’s happening to long-standing groups, groups that have met success, or have been established long enough, so that people can’t imagine the groups with different faces.
Back to Kara, Nicole and Jiyoung have already left the group with little to zero drama, but with the silence from their ex-company for, their departures have felt more like attempts to “abandon ship,” rather than a natural progression. DSP plans to give fans a say in this change, with a reality show. Set to air on May 27th, seven girls will be competing for a chance to win one of the two spots while on Kara Project. The group is to be made up of DSP trainees, and the girls will be competing over 6 episodes that will lead up to a finale. It will air live, giving fans the chance to vote for the new members; the final decision will also take into account the votes cast by “professional” judges. As of writing, five of the seven contestants, other known as “Baby Kara” members, have been revealed.
Without a doubt, many fans are in an uproar over the additions, just as they are in the departure of the previous two members. However, I find the show a very clever solution, in place of bringing in one or two new faces with nothing more than a paragraph bio to back up the company’s choice. At the very least, this will give fans a chance to connect, even briefly, with the “new Kara.” Either way, the chosen newcomers will have big shoes to fill, and it will be some time before the shadows of the previous girls finally fade.
(Images via DSP Media, Star Empire Entertainment, YouTube)