On Pitting Kpop Idols Against Non-Idols

Source: http://www.theloop.com.au/Versus/portfolio/Director/Sydney

When people talk about Kpop, granted, it’s usually about the idols.  But some people equate Kpop  with idol groups, and then conclude that they lack talent, and as a result, do not make “real” music like non-idols do.  However,  both idol and non-idol artists are a part of Kpop, and they have more in common than you may think.

One’s identity as an idol group can be a point of contention.   M.I.B. insists in an allkpop article:   “We’re not an idol group, and we want to prove this simply with our skill and expertise. We want to show you that we know how to have a good time on stage.” Aware of the negative perception some have of idol groups, Junsu of JYJ maintains in a Han Cinema article:  “”We are guaranteed to try many different things because we are an idol group. Some are trying to escape the image of an idol group because people tend to have a prejudice that idol groups have a lack of talent in music, but we want to show a whole new image of idol groups by showing that idols can have excellent music ability.” Both groups respond to perceptions about idol groups.

But what is the difference between an idol artist and a non-idol artist?  Idol groups, including BigBang, TVXQ!, 2NE1, MBLAQ, BEAST, Super Junior and SHINee, share certain charateristics that cause others to label them as idol groups.  They all are graduates of  a training system used by many Korean agencies, but pioneered by the former chair of SM Entertainment, Lee Soo Man.  Han Cinema refers to what Lee calls “the methods that we use when selecting and nurturing aspiring singers into real gems,” culture technology:    “CT includes not only the broad system itself but also the techniques we use to make music, choreography, music videos, live performances and even the stars’ makeup.”  As a result of this training, idol groups not only record albums and make music videos, but they also engage in a wide array of other activities, including:


Eunhyuk and Leeteuk MC-ing SBS Awards


TVXQ! at ElleGirl Photo Shoot

appearances on Korean televisions shows,

Shinhwa on Happy Together

appearances in their own reality shows,

Infinite on Sesame Player

stints as ambassadors,

2AM as Ambassadors for 2012 World Conservation Congress
Source: http://www.wkpop.com/2011/11/2am-initiated-as-ambassadors-for-2012.html

and spokespersons for a variety of products.

Kim Hyun Joong for The Face Shop
Source: http://koreangossipgirl.com/kim-hyun-joong-ss501-official-comeback-schedule-june-1-june-15-2011/

Because these activities give them greater exposure, idols are the face that many people see when they encounter Kpop.  But the very training that allows them to engage in these various pursuits is the very thing some people point to as evidence of their inferiority, their “fakeness.”    In a seoulbeats roundtable, Young-Ji suggests that they have limited careers:  “All the idol group members from the 2000s are currently nobodies — either that, or they’re trying to make something out of themselves — take a look at all the members of H.O.T., Sechs Kies, S.E.S., Fin.K.L; with the exception of only a few members and perhaps Shinhwa, it’s difficult for idols to redefine themselves.”  Nabeela, of the same roundtable, suggests the limited careers are related to a perceived lack of talent:   “Young’ins will always try to become idols due their lust for that glamor. On the other hand, serious musicians and artists know how fickle idol glamor can be, and I think they make an honest effort to differentiate.” Both imply that Kpop idols work hard to be temporary, fake artists, unlike “serious musicians.”

However, these are sweeping generalizations that are challenged by looking closer at idols.   Former idols continue to work using their talents honed by the training process.  For example,  three of the four former  members of Fin.K.L. are actively working.  Lee Hyori did a photo shoot for Ceci as recently as November of last year. Ok Joo Hyun starred in the successful Kdrama The Musical just last year, and will star with Junsu (of JYJ and formerly of TVXQ!) in the German musical Elisabeth. Sung Yu Ri frequently stars in successful Kdramas, including Hong Gil Dong (2008), Swallow the Sun (2009) and Romance Town (2011).  Kangta, Tony An, Moon Hee Joon and Jang Woo Hyuk of H.O.T. still make appearances and are still active musically through collaobrations with newer artists.  Kangta has assumed some administrative duties at SM Entertainment, thereby remaining active on the business side of Kpop.

Well, if idols are just talentless hacks, their non-idol counterparts are the talented underdogs of Kpop, or so the logic goes.   They are seen as more serious and more talented.  They are “real” artists who are not idols.  Jeon Jin Woo compares idols to airplanes and non-idols to chickens:

Entertainment companies select would-be singers based on their visual appearances; hence, someone who sings really well has a low possibility of becoming an idol singer if his/her looks are not good. This is why many talented, prospective and new singers go through difficult times. These people are often unable to live as flying birds (successful singers) but are only continuing their heavy flap of wings as chickens. . . .  Idols are not singers. The definition of a singer is a person or a musician who uses his/her voice to create and express music. According to the definition above, idol ‘singers’ cannot be singers. Idols put more effort on their appearances and dance skills. Furthermore, many of them do not have the ability to create their own music. What is more, singers should be able to convey a song’s melody, lyrics, and its embedded emotions to the audience.

But is there a great difference between idols and non-idols, especially when it comes to talent? There is far less distance between the two than one might think.  First, idols can be found singing some decidedly non-idol songs that show their vocal range.  Here is Onew of SHINee getting his disco on in his rendition of the Bee GeesHow Deep Is Your Love:

Onew has a penchant for taking the vocal path less traveled, as demonstrated by his performance of Puccini’s Nesseun Dorma:

Not only do idols sing things you woudn’t expect them to sing, they sing them well.  They have singing talent, and this is something that they share with non-idols.

Take 4Men, R&B group known for their vocal stylings, as an example. (seoulbeats considers them to be an idol group, but I do not. We can talk about why later).

4Men, Knocking

But 4Men know idol songs and dances.   Witness members of 4Men do their best impression of SNSD’s Oh!

That’s not the kind of choreography you get just by passing by the television while the video is on.  You have to study that. 4Men also covered Big Bang’s Love Song, a song by another idol group:

Non-idols sing idol songs, and vice versa.  Here is SHINee’s Jonghyun singing Wheesung‘s Insomnia:

While Jonghyun is known for being a member of the group SHINee, Wheesung is not known for being an idol.  He appears on Kpooop‘s list of Non-Idol Songs Worth Listening To.  Here is his original:

Wheesung, Insomnia

These examples suggests that idols and non-idols are part of a one large, diverse music scene.   Non-idols are quite aware of idols, and even know their songs and dances. Idols know their non-idol counterparts and appreciate their work. While they may go about their pop lives in different ways, they are both part of the Kpop scene. One is not better than the other, just different.  Fans of Kpop can and do like them both. Idols and non-idols can live peacefully together on an iPod.


“JYJ: We Are Still Idol Group,” Han Cinema

leesa86, “M.I.B.: We Are Not an Idol Group,” allkpop

Roundtable, “What Makes an Idol?”, seoulbeats

Jeon Jin Woo, “Sky Full of Airplanes and Chickens that Cannot Fly,” KHUL

SPONJiE, Lee Hyori Transforms into Marilyn Monroe,” soompi

‘Elisabeth’ Brings Death to Life on Stage Next Month,” Han Cinema

dorkykor3an, “Moon Hee Jun and Tony Perform ‘Candy’ for MBC Lunar New Year Special (2012),” allkpop

“Kpop Non-Idol Songs Worth Listening To (Part One),” kpooop

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