20160514_seoulbeats_bga6After discussing the dramas, MVs, albums, comebacks, indie artists, and dances we have enjoyed so far in 2016, we reach the final category in this year’s Mid-Year Review: debuts. While not many have grabbed our collective attention the way the class of 2015 did, there are still a number of solid new acts to consider and celebrate. This is exactly what Camiele and Gaya set out to do; they meet with two very different lists, with one striking point of commonality…

Camiele Gaya
1 BgA BgA
2 Sam Kim Grace
3 TK Cocosori
4 Esbee Cosmic Girls
5 Sol-T KNK

Camiele: obviously we have to talk about why BgA, a parody K-pop group of guys who aren’t all Korean but are… generally Asian, took the #1 spot from legitimate K-pop idol groups and artists.

My reasoning is simple: it’s the first legitimate parody I’ve seen that actually is serious enough that it earns not taking itself seriously. We all know K-pop is mostly put-on and very much a lot of posturing for certain demographics. While it’s a very viable genre, like all overexaggerated (and oversaturated) pop genres it leaves itself wide open for parody.

However, what Ryan managed to do was take this concept and do it in a way that while making fun was also respectful. They actually created choreography, teasers, member bios, the whole nine! It was a creative enterprise that not only managed to poke fun at a generally fun genre, but also poke fun at themselves and really anyone who just grabs their homies, flings a little Korean in there (because in terms of the international blow-up of K-pop, very few fans understand Korean, so are really just going along with it), and throws on some eyeliner. BAM! Boy group.

That being said, I don’t want to suggest the artistic merit outshines that of the artists that filled the rest of those slots. Very much the contrary. But one can’t deny how strongly put together and executed this was. It was meant to poke fun, but these guys took it as seriously as those who actually make pop music.

Gaya: The main reason BgA is top of my list is because allthough “Dong Saya Dae” parodies Big Bang‘s “Bang Bang Bang,” the former actually surpasses the latter. The problem a lot of people (myself included) had with that song was the drop — the transition from prechorus to chorus didn’t make sense. But in “Dong Saya Dae,” it does.

It’s partly because we’re all laughing our heads off at what the phrase ‘Dong Saya Dae’ is translated to in English, but it’s also because there is more of a build-up to the drop. It’s pretty subtle, largely depending on the backing instrumental to build into a crescendo as Ryan — sorry, R.O.P — sets up the most genius Korean lyric this year, but it’s there and you can feel it. With “Bang Bang Bang,” the build-up time is too short, and the build-up itself doesn’t escalate fast enough to compensate.

There is also the big picture stuff you mentioned, Camiele, like the time and effort put into every aspect of this parody; and I guess that’s why I’m taking it seriously — because the team behind BgA certainly did. The whole thing is essentially one big joke, but they didn’t treat it like one during the production process. They achieved their aim of entertaining people, and even getting us to think a bit about the racial politics around K-pop; but they also managed to do Big Bang better than Big Bang, and for that reason, they are top of my list.

Outside of that, though, I love the variety in our lists! Most of the debuts on your list almost made it onto mine, Camiele; but ultimately other acts caught my eye more. TK, though, was one name I missed. Could you tell me (and our readers) more?

Camiele: Okay, story time! I got the chance to interview underground vet rapper Deepflow at SXSW this year. He’s not only an incredible rapper and hip-hop historian. He’s dedicated to bringing up talent from the underground, mentoring them, even directing their videos. His label, Vismajor, is home to rappers Nuksal, Don Mills, and WU-TAN. He also just debuted the label’s first singer: TK.

Since I’ve started following what Vismajor does closely, I knew of his impending debut with teasers for his album Tourist. It features in-house cameos, but more than that, it boasts some powerful hip-hip-infused R&B and brillaint composition. It’s truly a debut all new artists strive for: honest, creative, cohesive, and unique. I almost put him on my list of best indie, but I felt with this debut, that wouldn’t have done him proper justice.

One thing I did notice about where our lists differ is the genre and type of artist. Your list is more idol group focused, where mine is more focused on solo artists, particularly those who tackle blues and R&B. I do have one idol group debut with Sol-T. But it begs the question, what captured you more about the groups you put above some of the artists on my list, which you say almost made your Top 5? For me, vocals and originality are key. More than that, it’s got to be music I haven’t heard much of coming from SK, music that sticks to me and has substance, or even better, both. All of the artists I chose do that for me. What does it for you?

Gaya: I think we have slightly different criteria because of our own personal tastes. I enjoyed covering last year’s Indie releases in our 2015 Mid-year and End-of-year reviews, but I am a pop fan at heart! For me, the most important factor was impression — that is, did this act do enough to make me remember them, and want to come back for more? I chose these five debuts because they are the ones that I remember the most vividly. From there, I used mainly music and visual elements (like styling, dance, etc). to determine my rankings.

BgA, Grace and Cocosori had both the aural and visual elements down, which is why they are the top 3 of my list. Grace’s mantra of “I’m fine thank you and you” is insanely catchy, and the MV for “I’m Fine” is a frenzy. It all feels like a big mess, but that’s because it’s meant to be: “I’m Fine” expresses a kind of frustration with oneself that I wholly empathise with. And there’s the fact that she wears a crown of lipstick at one point in the MV, a moment which may have cemented Grace as my new low-key style inspiration.

I actually think Grace is why Sol-T didn’t make my list; I connected more with the nature of her aggression, and preferred her dystopian setting more. But I definitely think Sol-T is a group to watch. What drew you to them, Camiele?

Camiele: I think what drew me to them over Grace is how undelicate they seemed without being too overly put on. I mean, by its very nature K-pop that attempts to be more harder edged is sort of… we’ll say “inauthentic.” But for me, Sol-T had the vocal strength as well as a decent rap presence that seemed genuine enough (barring Chae-hee‘s horrendous braids that I can only imagine were an attempt at street cred) for me to really dig them. Grace, in my eyes was really trying too hard to wear that Nicki Minaj costume a lot of newer female rappers are fond of, and it just made me roll my eyes when I watched the video the first few times.

What stopped me from adding most groups, male or female, was if I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t be able to differntiate them from each other or anything else that’s been released in the past five years. I’ll give an honorable mention to NCT U for “The 7th Sense,” because damn if that song’s composition and their choreo didn’t have me shook for a couple days after I first watched it. But really all the groups can sorta just rotate, and you wouldn’t realize you were listening to anything different.

Which leads me to my next question. “Curveball” has been Sol-T’s only single for five months now. And many if not most of the groups that debut sadly won’t make it past two singles before they disappear. I don’t wish that on any group, especially because we know how hard these kids work to make it. I can’t say for sure if Sol-T will make it out of the hoarde of groups that debut every six months, but their attitude and their supposed grit has me hopeful they can stand out.

What groups or artists if any on either of our lists do you think have staying power? What’s going to put them ahead of everyone else and keep them around?

I think the solo artists on my list have what it takes because artists like them are ever evolving musically, always expanding their musical vocabulary, and producing music constantly. I think their labels help, in that these are artists who have a lot of creative control and are versatile enough to work with other artists as well as release music that’s honest and truly uniquely them. For them the goal is first and foremost the music. Every artist wants a level of popularity and success, but these artists won’t sacrifice their creative integrity to get it. Af least that’s my impression and hope.

Most idol groups no matter the label, but especially from smaller labels with limited resources, aren’t so lucky and have to play the hand their dealt, meaning whatever’s the trend and whatever’s going to make them popular quickly (thus make the label money) is what they’re made to do. Rearing a group (essentially four or five, sometimes more, separate artists and the group itself) is an expensive enterprise. So if they don’t rake in the cash to sustain them and at least make back what was invested in them for training, lessons, producers, costuming, etc., they’re sadly going to be disbanded and the company will go back to their pool until they come up with something that’ll make good on their promise of monetary returns. Like I said, I don’t know if that’s in the cards for these ladies, but I’m hoping.

Gaya: As a girl group from a small company that isn’t straight-up catering to the male gaze, Sol-T has it tough, not gonna lie. But they do have talent, and hope they pull through.

But it’s funny that you mention this, though, because member Coco of Cocosori is a former member of Blady. Cocosori is the group I have my eye on the most, because they are potentially going to be my Orange Caramel replacement — they’re pretty much the love child of OC and Japanese duo FEMM. I love broccoli, so their debut MV “DarkCircle” is right up my alley, with its trot tune and zany storyline. Cocosori’s sexuality is definitely more raw than I’m used to in K-pop, but for the members’ sake I hope it doesn’t become full-on exploitative.

“7th Sense” is easily one of my most listened to songs of 2016, and I had a legitimate meltdown over Do-young, but the main reason they aren’t on my list is because they don’t perform live as much as they should. I swear I’ve even seen some “Without You” performances where the backing track was drowning everyone out.

When other rookies are hitting the ground running with stable vocals, and even SM girl groups like Red Velvet and f(x) performed live at debut, there are simply no excuses. SM makes me so angry with how they treat their idols’ ability to perform live as an afterthought. It took Exo four years to get to the stage most debuting groups are already at. What makes it worse is that NCT U can perform these songs live (even “7th Sense”) but SM avoids giving them valuable experience and practice, preferring to protect their brand name over letting their idols develop relevant skills and it drives me up the wall.

I don’t see a single SM (male) idol group making this list going forward, unless SM gets its shit together and stops coddling their boys.

As far as staying power, I like to think that Cocosori fits in well alongside Orange Caramel, and will be able to chug along. KNK and Cosmic Girls have the most competition; I think as long as KNK keeps giving us great songs like “Knock” and steadily grows its fanbase, they will carve out a place in the market for themselves. Cosmic Girls really caught my attention with “Catch Me,” but with their youngest two members being minors, I’m in no hurry to see more of that side of the group right now. 2015 groups like G-Friend and Oh My Girl have done a lot to bring girl group choreography back into the spotlight (for non-censor) reasons, and I hope WSJN continues along this path. The most important thing, though, is that their agency is a well-known one, and that fact alone will help sustain them in the coming years. How popular the group itself becomes — we’ll just have to see.

I’m most worried for Grace, but it’s only been two months since her last video (the dance practice version of “I’m Fine”) so fingers crossed for more music from her. And BgA, well they have their own stuff going on, like making their own short films and skits on YouTube because Hollywood still isn’t interested in hiring (local) Asian talent. But who knows, maybe “Dong Saya Dae” will open doors in a world where the West is discovering and talking about K-pop. Maybe they can guest star on Make it Pop!!!!!!!

Cameie: My only thought really is I hope whatever the endeavours, whatever their goals for the future, I hope these artists get there and accomplish what they want. As hard as it is to even debut for a lot of them, they deserve their dreams to come to fruition.

Gaya: The moment that people have been talking about the most since that Buzzfeed video with Amber, about trying to create a K-pop star, came out is when a former trainee notes that at least the guy got to make a video. All these artists listed got to make a video and get a single out there, so major props to them! We can be quick to judge a group, but we can also appreciate the hard work they have done to debut in the first place,

And we have a lot more debuts coming our way soon: Produce 101 alone is going to linked to a number of these, like Jellyfish Entertainment‘s new girl group, and your girl Kim Ju-na, Camiele! The male version of Produce 101 will undoubtedly have the same effect for male groups, and we’ll probably be getting a Pentagon debut by the end of the year, if Cube doesn’t botch it.

(YouTube[1][2][3][4][5]. Images via: RHPC/Wong Fu Productions)