K-pop has often been criticised as being manufactured. Nowadays however, we regularly hear of idols producing their own music and they are praised for it. It is almost nearing the norm to expect such things from groups that stem from the big three — at least YG with Winner and IKON, and JYP with Stray Kids, GOT7, and 2pm.
Many famous and acknowledged Western artists didn’t write their own music. Hailed artists like Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, and more sang and performed pieces others wrote for them. Other professions within art and performing are also ones wherein they aren’t part of every process of the product — like actors, that only perform their role but take no part in screenwriting nor directing. Each area requires work and time, and each is their own craft. It is incomprehensible to expect someone to perfect multiple crafts at the same time. It is indeed a feat if one does and it should be acknowledged and credited well, but those that do not should not be cast aside as they have so much to offer as is.
Looking back, it was certainly not anywhere near common for idols to write their own music during K-pop’s founding years. Iconic older acts such as g.o.d. and H.O.T didn’t write their own music but nonetheless were praised as amazing performers and created a significant hype. Current prominent performers such as Exo, NCT, Black Pink, GFriend, and Twice do not write their own music (for the by far most part) but are also acts with a lot to offer in terms of choreography, performances, and otherwise beautiful vocals and hardcore rapping. Is the music and performance of these latter groups any less credible as they are not created by the members themselves? Do they deserve to be called manufactured? Should they rather be encouraged to create their own music?
During their trainee period, idols receive dance and vocal lessons, sometimes language lessons, etc – but generally not lessons in song-writing itself. Hours are spent on practising choreography in the months up until a debut; and after their debut, for a new comeback. Hours are spent memorising lyrics and a given melody, and hours are spent recording it well. The practice never ends — there’s always performances to practice for, there’s countless schedules of activities an idol must attend to. But when it comes to song-writing, it is up to the artists themselves to prove to their designated boss that they have something worthy of putting out there officially in the open.
Idols generally learn song-writing by doing, by watching the other producers they work with. It’s a side-gig, but many are enjoying it and are eager to put out the work that they are learning to create. There are also those who do not choose to delve into creating their own music and rather either choose different pursuits or simply choose to focus on their own performance. Idols that study at university also often do not choose music related majors, but rather choose from a variety of other majors in the arts or maybe Business Management (especially if your name is Young.K, and you already write songs in addition to knowing how to do it well). They do not feel the need to get any additional education to help them become better “musicians” — they maybe choose majors that may help them further in the future instead, especially as being an idol does not guarantee a long-lasting career.
The act of performing, putting on a good show, and being overall entertaining and reaching fans, is not something that necessarily requires song-writing skills at all. While there’s no doubt that idols who write their own words and rhythms may reach some hearts that otherwise would be harder to reach, all idols are trained to perform – and perform they do, and they do it well. They do it often, they are professional at keeping an act, of continually treating fans like they deserve the world, etc. Idols work hard just to practice choreography and performances, looking their very best from head to toe by often following diet programs, to record the songs to just the right tone and feeling (see: JB from GOT7 having to sing the two words “my swagger” more than 100 times for GOT7’s debut song “Girls Girls Girls” until J.Y. Park was satisfied).
Vocal performance is an artwork in and of itself, and it takes work. Exo contain powerhouse vocalists D.O., Chen, and Baekhyun, who continuously collaborate with other artists and show their vocal skills through those releases. Exo shines much through their vocalists, and although they have been criticized in the past for not participating much in song-writing (although notably members Chanyeol and Lay both write lyrics and produce), there’s no denying Exo’s vocalists’ talent. Label-mate Taeyeon has a similar case, too — her vocals outshine anything else, a fan even going as far as saying “your voice is a genre”. She continues to put out hit after hit, and is revered as a great vocalist.
There are also cases of idols producing their own work but their companies rejecting their work for whatever reason. Though arguably there are companies that are perhaps unfairly picky and won’t just accept any sound or product — there’s also a certain brand to uphold as a group. Groups have a brand; a specific sound, a certain quality to adhere to. Even if idols may produce for their own groups, there’s still also the idol’s individual sound versus the group sound. Both are not necessarily able to be showcased through the group’s published work. Many idols may choose to upload their own songs onto the platform Soundcloud for this very reason. Exo’s Chanyeol, though he does self-produce and write for the group at times, is not always allowed to bring his work to Exo —and so brings it to his own Soundcloud account. Though artists may just simply also share songs on the platform for the fans, with no other intention or reasoning. Even BTS’ members upload songs of theirs on Soundcloud, ones that aren’t part of BTS’ discography but were nonetheless self-written.
In performance, it is important to note that dancers shine. Astro are well-known as one of the more synchronised dance groups — and are especially known for all having long legs, and the choreographies usually take advantage of just that. Astro may not write their own songs, but they are a group with concepts and performances that distinguish them. Taemin is another performer who very rarely dabbles in song-writing (but has written lyrics before) for the music he puts out, but his iconic dance performances are much to reckon with. His 2017 release “Move” made all other idols cover his dance, his suave moves were much to consider and copy. The corresponding album also had huge success, but Taemin did not participate in the writing of any of the tracks. When it comes down to it, would it really make a huge difference?
“Even if [singers] are being instructed to be a certain way, they are trying their hardest and putting in their best efforts.” (GOT7’s JB, Forbes, July 2018)
Everything that idols put out there has so much hard work behind it. Much goes into every single performance and act, and that should never be undervalued or put aside.
There’s a larger team at play behind every entertainment company. Artists continually thank all the staff that work with them from the company whenever they receive awards, and with good reason. For those that don’t produce themselves, there’s a team of writers behind working on songs. There are producers that also still help the idols who self-produce and deserve thanks, there’s marketing staff who help create each concept that groups play out both on paper and in person, etc. The list goes on and on. One big team to help one group present a product. Many people who rely on each other to bring out the best of the group in question. Many people with different perspectives, different knowledge and specialities, all coming together to bring the best product.
Regardless of whether some idols self-produce, often they did not start that way and even so, they carry a team who work with them on many different things. Those that did not start out self-producing also continually perform songs that weren’t created by them—and they do it well. They put on performances, as performers do.
What makes song-writing so important for some people then? Many will jump to the gun and say they love idols/artists who self-produce, or otherwise maybe put down the idols that don’t. Perhaps there’s something about a song written by the artist themselves as more personal, like we’re getting content from the people themselves. They’re not just singing lyrics, they have some history or thought behind them. When they sing of love, it is maybe a love they’ve experienced themselves. This vulnerability can prove to be more intimate, a product more human. If idols were ever to be able to admit that they’ve experienced what they write in their own lyrics (at least when it comes to love), it might be a strength in such a way.
For the artists themselves, sometimes it’s important for them release “their own” work. They want to create and perform something they’ve created themselves, to be a fully-fledged singer-songwriter. Those that have been doing this for years and have achieved great results and managed to reach out to people, like Shinee’s Jonghyun and the BTS members, also do set the bar higher for those that are only just now being allowed to share their own work and gain a better idea of their self-producing skills. To write in such a competitive industry and do well on the charts, the satisfaction that must ensue would be enormous. The satisfaction may be great, but the pressure to deliver would be just as big. That interest to make something of your own that you can be proud of — that desire, that motivation, that pressure, it’s not for all. But it is for some.
Song-writing takes up time, so does practicing performances and recording. There’s also the matter of creativity of making something new, and the lens of perspective that may limit one’s song writing skills. Not everyone can bring 100% in each area of music and performance, but they can bring 100% in what they themselves are good at – and that may not be writing their own lyrics or compositions. They don’t need to do that in the first place to be excellent performers, nor even great musicians. They are whole as they are, already bringing so much to the table.
This guest post is written by Nate M.J. Sort. Just a bean who’s trying to get into business school. Unintentional but passionate JYP Nation stan.
(Forbes, Mwave, Soompi, Naver. Images via: SM Entertainment, Big Hit Entertainment, JYPE, Fantagio.)