Every year rookie groups emerge to try to make their mark on Korean music. Sometimes, there are so many rookies it can be difficult to pick a favourite. This year there weren’t so many mainstream agency debuts but independent and smaller artists more than made up the difference. Cjontai, Janine and Cy‘s discussion unpacks how the face of K-pop could be changing with a variety of new voices.

Cjontai: Did anyone have difficulty making their list like me? I could not remember a lot of debuts this year. I had to look them up. It doesn’t help that nothing feels exciting this year. I could only think of a couple of standouts right away — (G)I-dle and Stray Kids.

Janine: With all the survival show contestants last year, we had more high-profile debuts, but I didn’t have trouble with finding good people, just picking who I liked the best. I think it’s the year for solo and independent artists to make an impact. I decided on my list before MRSHLL (Marshall) dropped his highly-anticipated EP, Breatheso I’m glad Cy was able to include him. Cy, what did you like about his EP?

Cy: Quite frankly, if we’re talking sheer size and versatility of vocals, there are very few singers in Korea who have the raw soul that Marshall does. It’s more than just his vocal abilities, that are very steeped in gospel and R&B vocalists from the ’80s and ’90s (Luther VandrossPeabo Bryson, etc.). Breathe is a piece of music that’s openly expressive, sensual. There’s an honesty to the sound that I’m completely in love with. Never mind the absolutely brilliant production and composition and the amazing features. Breathe is a debut album that any new artist would give their left arm for. It’s a short piece, only six songs, but it’s a complete piece.

You’re able to immerse yourself in the scope of Marshall’s talent without feeling overwhelmed. There’s enough soul to make even the staunchest old-school soul head take pause, yet a wide enough appeal to not alienate his audience in Korea. Because let’s not get it twisted, while Holland may be the baby gay people know, Marshall is the one who’s actually pushing the envelope and creating music that’s completely him, not compromising anything about himself to create his art. (My baby wears heels, polish, and wrote a song called “Pose” just a couple weeks before the album release!) All of this, and he has the respect of pretty much every artist in the industry.

To answer Cjontai’s initial question, I actually didn’t have a hard time. I knew what sounds good to me when I first heard it. As is par for the course for any genre that’s oversaturated a market (as in pop music), you lose interest and look for innovation and talent elsewhere. Not that all these kids haven’t put their entire soul into debuting, but the companies have a very distinct direction: what’s making money? Pop with a little edge for the boys, either cute or sexy for the girls. Not to be corny, but this is quite literally a tale as old as time.

The same could be said about Katie. I was not expecting another soul vocal queen to completely snatch me this year, but Katie came through with mellow vocals that have all the grit and soul in the world without being overdone for the sake of attempting to impress. I mean, at this point she sounds over it because she had to wait for so long in one of the infamous Big 3 dungeons… Haha. But in all seriousness, she has probably one of the more unique debuts if not all around singles to come out of YG for quite some time. Understated yet so ferocious. What about Katie got to you, Cjontai?

Cjontai: Full disclosure, I don’t usually venture into indie territory, which is probably why I didn’t pick up on Marshall. I vaguely remember seeing stuff about him, but it wasn’t a lot. I’m trusting his company is doing their best to promote him despite the stigma against the LGBTQ community in South Korea. It’s actually admirable for him and Holland to be open with their sexuality in such a conservative society. But I digress; you asked me about Katie.

I picked Katie for the same reason I chose (G)I-dle. Nothing against the more aegyo-type groups, but this year had a bit more cuteness than I could handle. I did enjoy those debuts, but I find myself occasionally missing 2NE1‘s firepower, Sistar‘s sauciness, and Wonder Girls’ fierce charisma. With Katie, I got a mature debut that one wouldn’t expect from someone her age. Some people wondered what would happen to her after YG failed to debut her three years ago. How would she compete in a sea of adorable? She doesn’t, because that’s not her style. She has her own path, which is what I appreciated most from her debut.

For (G)I-dle, I remember hearing about their busking pre-debut. I didn’t look at any of the videos, but I remembered their name when they finally made their debut. I was a bit shocked learning they’re from Cube Entertainment because CLC is under them too. Sadly, CLC has been all over the place since debut, so I was surprised that (G)I-dle was given something more solid. Immediately after watching “Latata”, I knew this was a group I wanted to watch and hear. They’re not only strong performers, but they also have some catchy tunes. I love this boho chic vibe they have. I’ve already fallen down a rabbit hole by learning some of their names.

The only group two of us could agree on was Stray Kids. Like (G)I-dle, they came in with guns blazing. At first, I was a bit worried knowing this group was another product of a competition show. I wondered if the hype was more for them as stars of this show, or if they were truly entertaining. That’s really all I need anytime I watch rookies; I need entertainment. I got that with Stray Kids. Mind you, I have never watched their show, which means I’m not basing this on anything but their actual debut performances. I love their fiery energy and their flawless synchronicity.

Janine, why did you pick Stray Kids?

Cy:I don’t foresee there being an issue regarding Marshall’s record company’s support. He’s under Feel Ghood Music, Yoon Mirae and Tiger JK’s company. If anything, because he’s with them he’s probably in the most nurturing environment that an artist could ever be in.

Janine: I’m cautiously optimistic about Marshall’s future with Ghood Music. Tiger JK and Yoon Mirae have a reputation for being progressive and also making quality, groundbreaking music so I’m excited to see where he goes from here.

In answer to your question, Cjontai, I chose Stray Kids because I enjoyed the harder rock-influenced sound of their EP, I Am NOT. There are some very interesting production choices being made for a rookie group, particularly their use of vocal distortion and noise. “District 9” is a song I definitely would have played during adolescence while sullenly raging against the machine. I am glad they’re exploring influences outside of current trends and doing it very well. I was also impressed by how they used the baritone voices in the group. Usually, if you’re not a tenor in a boy group, you’re relegated to rap but this is gradually changing. It was nice to hear Felix showcase his singing ability in the lower register and kill it.

I did not watch their survival show either, but I’ve seen some interviews with the group and they’ve got a nice sense of camaraderie. I was mostly feeling the sound, although their performances are also impressive for their synchronicity and dynamism.

Cy: Though for the most part our lists do differ, I’m really excited to see the number of female debuts that have made it this year. Katie, Minty, (G)I-dle. We’ve talked about Katie. What about the other female debuts on this list captured you?

Janine: I’ve been impressed by a lot of girl groups and solo female acts this year, but Minty stood out to me because she’s pretty in-your-face. Her MV speaks directly to a lot of politics of desire, particularly for young girls. In the MV she’s dressed in shorts and high socks while her face is covered but her lyrics demonstrate a boldness and autonomy that makes me root for her.

I’m not the kind of listener who thinks provocation is the highest form of art, but I appreciate a good “fuck you” song, and “You Do” is a great example. Minty’s lyrics are confrontational, addressing the double standards forced onto girls that simultaneously sexualise them and punish them for being sexual. I think her work is brave (particularly considering she’s only seventeen) and even though it’s stylised there is a sense of rawness that I appreciate.

Cy: Any final thoughts about debuts in the first half of 2018?

Janine: I might sound like a stuck record, but I’d like to reiterate how happy I was to see to a breadth of different kinds of artists debuting this year. We’ve had people who are challenging expectations on all fronts! Mainstream artists aren’t taking a typical approach to debuts. They’re switching it up with concepts and music, not just extended pre-debut release schedules. I’m glad to see indie acts also stepping up to push boundaries of what we typically hear.

A lot of acts felt more seasoned and experimental. Nano is an example of someone who sounds like an old hand because he is one. He used to be a part of History and I’m glad he’s had a second chance to make a first impression. The maturity and polish of his debut struck me before I realised where he was from.

I’m excited to see what the rest of the year holds.

Cjontai: It’s been a pretty calm year, but these rookies are livening things up. Even though my tastes run more mainstream, it’s still the mainstream that dictates a lot of trends. We have more female artists pushing for tougher and more personal concepts. We have not one, but two openly gay men debuting in the music scene the same year. This was something we could only have hoped for five years ago. While there’s still a long way to go, the fact that more female groups can be bolder and artists can be open with their sexuality shows some level of growth. Art is often a precursor to change, influencing powerful minds to think of ways to improve the world.

It’s too soon to tell if these artists will change the face of music in the future, but that’s the exciting part of following rookies. You get to watch the entire journey from the beginning.

Cy: I can’t say if my tastes run toward the “mainstream.” I just like music that has soul, heart. I think as far as debuts go, we’re all in agreement that this year artists are pushing for more, even if they’re not doing so intentionally. In the case of an artist like Marshall, yes, he had in his mind that he was going to change the way LGBTQAI+ artists (and by extension people) are viewed in Korea. However, at the heart of everything is the music.

Concept-wise, I think trends ebb and flow. This year, girls groups are being pushed to be edgier. Sign of the times, really. Next year it may go back to cutesy concepts. Same with the guys. Though I can’t say there was a lot for me to pick and choose from the groups, what impressed me more than anything is that whether artist or company intent, these debuts were letting the music shine. What more can you ask for?

(YouTube [1][2][3][4]. Featured image illustrated by Vivien Wu. Other images via JYP Entertainment, LOEN Entertainment)