Despite the regular insistence that it is disposable and only for teenagers, K-pop has managed to have several groups and artists attain veteran status. Over time, these artists develop their image and sound in ways that also embrace their beginnings.
I doubt even Lee Soo Man thought that H.O.T would have a lasting impression. (Especially since they, along with many first-generation idol groups, were disbanded within a few years). Their debut, “Candy,” introduced the bright colors and catchy music that came to define a good swath of K-pop performed by idols. The track has a characteristic 90’s-sounding sample of some old-school R&B, which then explodes into a carnivalesque organ and fast tempo. The video complements the party atmosphere with the members dressed in colorful outfits as they cavort in an amusement park.
It wasn’t much of a surprise that former H.O.T member Kangta developed into a solo K-pop artist making dance-oriented tracks like “The Best” (Pine Tree) and collaborating with pop music bestie Vanness on R&B-inflected pop-tracks like “127 Days.” That’s pretty much within his wheelhouse as a former member of a K-pop group.
But Kangta’s development as an artist also shows his progression as a veteran K-pop artist. His image in the video for “Breaka Shaka” trades in the colorful plush jumpsuits of H.O.T’s “Candy” for tailored suits. The video also features a more sophisticated choreography for the track, with its emphasis on a dance club beat and synthesizers.
Kangta blends a more mature image with an expansion of musical interests as well. Who knew that guy with a bowl hair cut in H.O.T would end up doing tracks that allude to musical standards, like “Happy Happy” from the Pine Tree album? This track features trademark horns from the big-band era which complements Kangta’s velvety voice.
Or how about “Mabi[Paralysis]?” It begins with Kangta’s slightly breathy vocals accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. The track then builds on natural instruments, continuing to showcase Kangta’s voice.
No one could have predicted that Kangta would develop into a solo artist with such solid vocal credentials.
While Kangta seems to embrace his status as elder statesman of K-pop, g.o.d has retained their reputation as a fun-loving group. The group’s debut, “Observation,” introduced g.o.d as space aliens(?) in a futuristic music video where they teleport to Earth. During the breakdown of the song (which features a sample The Ohio Players’ “Rollercoaster”), they goofily stalk a girl.
Over a decade later, g.o.d’s comeback in 2014 with “Saturday Night” from Chapter 8 demonstrated a more progressive sound and image that still embraced their dorky beginnings. The video makes fun of the members in their more adult lives and does a good job of displaying their good-natured personalities in ways that make sense for an older group. Rather than running away from their humble beginnings, they own it (watch the very end of the video @ 5:35).
However, g.o.d’s sound was becoming more progressive well before Chapter 8. “Report to the Dance Floor” from Chapter 5 balances Kim Tae Woo‘s soul vocals with the rapping of the other members over the very funky and groovy music. This is a far cry from synth foundation of “Observation,” especially when they perform it live with a full band.
There is no way anyone thought that a group swinging on a giant platform would turn out to be the oldest K-pop group that maintains all its original members. Yet, Shinhwa starts out their career with”Haegyeolsa[Solver],” a video featuring the members partying in a post-apocalyptic landscape in oversized shiny suits (they look so young!). The music itself sounds like 90s-era pop.
However, like Kangta and g.o.d, Shinhwa matured their image and their sound by drawing on their vocalists and rappers in deft ways. Shinhwa’s 2015 comeback with the We album featured incredibly chic visuals and complementary choreography for the first track, “Sniper,” all befitting their veteran status. This video is positively cinematic in its use of the camera and the styling of the outfits.
Musically, Shinhwa has always been versatile, given the vocal diversity that Minwoo, Hyeseung, Dongwan and Jun Jin represent. “I Gave You” from The Classic is a slower tempo song that features percussion and guitar that results in a sparser instrumentation and allows the vocals to shine.
Just because K-pop groups progress in their sound and image does not mean they leave their debuts behind. Concerts by all of these artists often feature performances of the early songs that garnered fans in the first place. Rather than looking at debut tracks as embarrassments, they should be viewed as part of the entire body of work of a K-pop artist. The fact that these artists have had longer careers that anyone anticipated must be attributed, in part, to their ability to progressively develop their style, both visually and musically.
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“god (지오디) | Report to the dance floor – Human Concerts.” noona51k. YouTube. 23 Feb 2013.
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Caterpillars to Butterflies: The Progression of Veteran K-pop Artists by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.