There’s no denying that standing out as an idol group is hard nowadays. Newly debuting rookies find themselves quickly lost in a sea of older groups, many of whom are still trying to distinguish themselves even after racking up a year or two’s worth of experience. In most cases, it takes a combination of time, hard work, and originality for a group to go from unknown to a true K-pop success, as proved by groups like Boyfriend or AOA, who have finally found true footing in 2014, despite debuting two or even three years ago.
Of course, no one wants to wait if they don’t have to, and companies are always looking for a short cut to fame, even if one doesn’t exactly exist. One ever-so-popular method is the group-themed variety show. Many rookie groups have tried to hunt for new fans through these shows, with BTS‘ American Hustle Life and WINNER‘s WINNER TV as recent examples. More often than not, though, such programs end up pleasing current fans without finding many new ones.
Sending individual group members off to popular variety shows such as Running Man, Dream Team, or Infinity Challenge allows a group to be represented in front of a much wider audience than a group-specific show. Obviously, the hope is for the idol to attract attention that will translate into more interest in their band. However, most idols don’t leave a lasting impression on the variety show landscape, and while they can engage audience interest for one or two episodes, they will inevitably be forgotten when their replacement comes along.
Sometimes a group is lucky enough to have a member who can hold their own alongside the comedians and other entertainers that command attention on most variety shows. These idols become variety stars themselves, often gathering more recognition for the things they say on television than their roles within their own groups. Super Junior‘s Heechul, 2AM‘s Jo Kwon, and Secret‘s Sunhwa all qualify as variety-dols, making names for themselves alongside their bands. Though they might outshine their fellow group members on TV, everything balances out as the more musically-oriented members take over during performances.
Or, at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Occasionally, the order gets reversed, and an idol finds stardom on variety shows before his or her group can gain their footing musically. Lee Joon of MBLAQ could arguably be classified as one of these types of variety-dols; he gained popularity through appearances on shows like We Got Married and Running Man, and later through his acting roles. Unfortunately, his personal success never really seemed to translate into success for MBLAQ as a whole, and he outpaced his group in gaining popularity. Now that he’s decided to leave the group behind, it seems like MBLAQ will never get to reap the benefits of its most popular member.
ZE:A‘s Kwanghee has also earned more of a reputation as a variety-dol than as a musical artist. Appearing on many variety shows, including Running Man, Star King, and We Got Married, he established himself as the quintessential idol-turned-variety-star. For a while, Kwanghee’s status as a variety-dol was one of the most notable things about ZE:A. Recently, the group has gained attention for Lee Hoo‘s bold condemnation of the treatment he and his members received at the hands of their company. ZE:A’s future after that shakeup is somewhat uncertain now, but if the group manages to use the opportunity to finally claim success, it won’t be thanks to Kwanghee’s stardom alone.
Actor Seo Kang-joon is turning out to be somewhat of a variety star through his participation in both seasons of Roommate. As a member of the acting-idol group 5urprise, which dropped its first MV on November 17, he has the opportunity to use his current variety show platform to promote his group. Whether he takes that opportunity, and whether it works, will remain to be seen. If 5urprise does step ahead of other newbies thanks to Kang-joon, there’s a large chance we’ll see more pre-debut variety-dols in the future as companies look to launch their groups to popularity and profitability as quickly as possible.
Perhaps one of the most interesting of the newer variety-dols is Kangnam of M.I.B. He’s been steadily building a reputation for himself as a TV personality, displaying his somewhat silly personality on shows like Hello Stranger and I Live Alone. Much of his persona is built upon his status as member of a mostly unknown group. Both his cast members and viewers have been pulled in by his struggles, sympathizing with him as he worries about his bank account and happily reports that he gained a few sasaeng fans who bring him food. Kangnam incorporates his image as variety star and musical artist in a way that other variety-dols often don’t, though whether the sympathy that he engenders will convince people to check out M.I.B is uncertain.
Having a variety-dol in your group is a useful way to gain additional attention, but there must be a balance between individual success and group success if the group hopes to remain out of the shadow of its TV star. While MBLAQ might not be able to emerge from behind Lee Joon, 5urprise, M.I.B, and even ZE:A all have the still have the chance to become more than the Destiny’s Child behind their variety star Beyoncés. M.I.B, as a hip-hop group, especially has a chance to counter Kangnam’s popularity and make a name for itself now that hip-hop has made more of a dent in the K-pop scene. What is obvious is that no group can rely on one member to carry them to success. To stand out as a group, you’ve got to stand out musically, providing a unique experience for the ears and the eyes, and no variety-dol can provide that on their own.
Readers, do you think these groups have the potential to step out the shadow of their variety-dols? Do you think idols who strike out on their own, through variety shows or otherwise, are helpful or harmful to their groups? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
(Images via SBS MTV, SBS, MBC, Grazia International)