A not-very-brief discussion on similarities and differences between boybands
in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and The West.
|Our story starts in the 1960’s. This is an important decade for music—The Beatles were formed, essentially reviving traditional Classical and Jazz harmonies to establish pop trends that would last generations, and Johnny Kitagawa formed his first boyband.
The first question you probably have is: ‘what do the Beatles have to do with boybands?’ This is an excellent question, because the answer happens to be: a lot.
The Beatles are credited for bringing pop-rock to the mainstream. They’re arguably one of the most influential groups in modern-day pop music (up until dubstep and EDM, but I would still argue that they play a major role in that music too). Their innovation and creativity when it came to music has shaped modern-day beliefs on what can be popular. Due to their massive influence, we can still see traces of the Beatle’s musical vision in modern-day pop.
But it’s not always about the music.
Blasphemy! And you say this now, because the Beatles have completely changed how pop groups are produced and marketed.
Enter the Beatles
About 30-50 years before the Beatles, producers realized that there was a popular niche market—specifically, the teenager. Longer lifespans, longer schooling, and older marriage age all contributed to a gap between older childhood and early adulthood—the teen age, and they had money to spend. Basically, the media realized there were a bunch of horny, young, not-quite kids who needed something to do while they were still in high school.
Pre-Beatles, most popular artists were very mass-produced. “Talent” agents would scout for young men who fit a certain critera of handsome—whatever was popular at the time. When Elvis Presley became massively popular, they tried to find mini-Elvises. How ridiculous did this get? One notable “teen star” was scouted when his father got into a car accident. The agent spotted him running hysterically after the ambulance, and thought that said boy had good enough looks to market. After he was signed, they “recorded” him, where they cut and mixed together several takes which sounded passably on tune. Then he would perform his “song”—in reality just lip-syncing to his own track to an audience of screaming teenage girls.
But the Beatles were a new concept; they wrote and performed their own music! Live! It was like the 1600’s all over again! People who actually composed their own music before they performed it! A miracle!
But it wasn’t just the fact that they were going back to traditional music—traditional classical and jazz chord progressions and the like. They also were creative, and brought a new series of marketing tactics to the board. They recorded singles, and then included these singles in their album. They recorded covers. And they were marketed in a (at that time) very androgynous manner. Their famous mop hair was long for the time, they didn’t dress in a way that was overly masculine (just suits with “soft” lines). Compared to the marketing of Men as overly masculine (think of Elvis with his tight leather pants and crew cut and whole “I served in the Army” image), the Beatles were positively feminine. Don’t forget McCartney's high range and Lennon's higher soft voice; no Elvis growls here! In their songs the female figures were also more realistic—no 100% chaste virgins or foxy seductresses there.
Things are starting to sound really familiar, aren’t they?
The Beatles would shape pop music all over the world, but ultimately they would play their largest role in the West. That doesn’t mean the Beatles didn’t influence the Asiatic music scene, but remember, the Beatles were only around for two years when Johnny formed his first boyband, and this was before the internet, where it actually took time for things to get around the world.
So let’s move to Japan, in the 1960’s, as the Asiatic boyband industry begins.
The Formation of the Asiatic Boyband Scene
The story is all over the internet. Inspired by the stage shows of Vegas, Johnny Kitagawa gathers a group of attractive young men and has them sing while performing a coordinated dance routine. Astoundingly enough, this formula worked, and before long, Johnny Kitagawa had formed his empire of pretty boys jumping and cartwheeling to the top of the music charts.
We begin with Johnny’s & Associates because of multiple reasons. The first, and most obvious one, is that J&A boybands dominate the Japanese boyband industry. There’s only a few Japanese boybands who aren’t signed to J&A, in part because of the clout that J&A developed during the early formations of the current Japanese pop music industry.
The second, less pervasive, reason is that the Johnny Boyband Formula is the norm for all Asiatic boybands.
Wait! You might exclaim. Johnnies can’t dance, and Kpop boybands all dance really well. Firstly, no, they don’t. Kpop boybands perform a series of relatively basic steps in a very rote, perfectly coordinated method, and that combined with some fancy cinematography makes them appear to dance very well. Secondly, the Kpop scene as we know it—mass-produced boybands and girlgroups singing while performing a choreographed dance routine perfectly in time with each other—was established in the 1990’s, with SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, DSP Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment. While current Kpop traces its roots back to Seo Taiji, who debuted in 1992, we cannot forget that by 1992, J&A already had gotten its boyband production formula pretty well-established. Whether or not they pulled their influence from directly studying it or through mere osmosis is uncertain, but we can’t deny the fact that Johnny Kitagawa was the first person to use this formula in Asia.
The last reason is that J&A didn’t just influence the boyband scene through their performances. They also influenced the music industry through their entire system. J&A would shape the entire boyband industry, all with one concept: Johnny’s Juniors.
For the Low Price of your Entire Pre-teen and Teenage Years, YOU too, can be a Star!
It’s perfectly normal for aspiring stars to sign to a label and go through some training before they record their single or album and then debut. What’s less normal is the trainee system that J&A and all Korean idol groups have established, where aspiring pop stars live in dormitories and train while already being signed to a label. This, remember, is different from attending a music school and hoping to get signed to a label after you graduate.
This system begins with J&A, again. Johnny decided that the only thing better than having a massively popular boyband was to have an entire monopoly on the (massively popular) boyband market. In order to do so, he formed Johnny’s Juniors, who were essentially trainees signed to J&A. They were back-dancers, they covered songs by their senpai—boybands signed to J&A who had already debuted—and they appeared on a handful of J&A produced TV shows and magazines in a mad bid for popularity. Mothers, caught up in the craze that started when they were pre-teens and teenagers in the 1960’s, signed away their sons, some as young as ten years old, by the droves. They moved into dormitories, attended voice and dance lessons, and were put—if they were lucky—into a group.
If you were lucky, when your group disbanded because of too many drop-outs, and you were put into another group, it was with people higher on the totem pole, and you became more likely to debut. If you were unlucky, then you stayed a Junior while the rest of your group was ripped apart and rearranged into a plethora of other groups to debut. If you were really lucky, then your group debuted.
The end result though, is that J&A established a training system to shuffle incoming “talent” through a (relatively) fast course in singing, dancing, and being a stage personality. And singing really didn’t matter that much—J&A tracks were all written in the high-tenor range, just high enough for the Average Asian Female Mezzo Soprano to sing along cheerfully. And don’t worry if you aren’t a high-tenor! There’s always lip-syncing, or auto-tune, or “singing really softly over the very loud backtrack”. Likewise, dance-steps, even of debuted artists, were relatively simple so they could be performed while singing, and also for trainees (boys on the cusp of puberty, or younger) to be able to back-dance adequately to them. Developing a stage personality was harder—but once you had that? You could debut under J&A management!
With the clout they established, and their fan-following that started in the 60’s, anybody who managed to get through their system debuted under some of the best management Japan had—a management that had access to all the TV shows, a plethora of monthly magazines, and decades of experience. It was rare for a debuted group to do poorly. Though people talk about Arashi’s relative lack of success prior to their 18th single Love So Sweet, keep in mind that “decline in sales” by J&A terms is “not hitting no. 1 on the music chart at initial release”. For some artists, hitting no. 2 is a dream come true. For some artists, selling 89,000 copies upon initial release is excellent, not a cause for worry.
But these boyband members weren’t singers. Johnny Kitagawa formed his first boyband after being inspired by Vegas shows, and one thing we know about a show like that is it’s not about the excellence of the singing or dancing—it’s about the entertainment value. While on the surface, Johnny was producing boybands, he was actually producing entertainers, and giving them a micro-industry to compete with each other in. The successful ones he took and repackaged into a boyband for the real entertainment industry… a boyband where every member could sing, dance, and act.
Johnny Kitagawa created a well-greased system to producing male talent. But he didn’t just create a factory of boybands, he created the first Pop-Idol, and the Idol would become an industry standard not only in Japan, but also in Korea and in Taiwan.
Not Just a Pretty Face
Every member of a J&A boyband is “not just a pretty face”. They can sing! They can dance! They can act! They can host television shows!
The term “idol” comes from deity worship—it’s an image or material object to which religious worship is addressed. In Asia, this term has evolved into one for any media personality. It’s important to note that an “idol” isn’t necessarily a singer-dancer. There are actors who are idols, for example. However the general norm is that an idol is more than just a pretty face—they also sing (while dancing to a well-choreographed routine) and act, as well as model for magazines. Some of them host or are regulars on TV shows.
J&A boyband members are idols—unlike the singers of the pre-1960’s era, where they were expected to “sing”, or dancers, who “danced”, J&A idols were expected to sing while performing cartwheels and backflips. As the first boybands grew older, they transitioned from their teen-pop image into actors and television hosts. Eventually, demand would lead to boyband members to act in television dramas and host talk and variety shows while they were still young. This would eventually end up paving the expected path of all boyband and girlgroup members in the Asiatic pop scene.
In Taiwan, the top idol is expected to be able to sing, dance, and act—sometimes all at the same time. Heavily influenced by the Japanese pop scene, Taiwan would end up creating several different music cultures—Taiwanese pop, and Mandarin pop. Both of these would end up drawing heavily from Japan, the then economic powerhouse of Asia.
Likewise, when Korea began to create its first “idol groups” starting in the 1990’s, it would draw heavy influence from both Seo Taiji, as well as J&A. While SM Entertainment’s first massively successful boyband, H.O.T., was not the result of a rigorous training program, they too performed catchy tunes set to a well-choreographed dance. Eventually, SM, DSP, JYP, YG—all the major players in the Korean entertainment scene—would create rigorous training programs to produce idols.
Yet while Johnny Kitagawa was the one to establish the Asiatic boyband scene—one that draws from its 1960’s and cultural roots—Japan, Taiwan, and Korea all ended up developing their idol-scene in fairly different ways.
Winning at Monopoly - The Japanese Boyband Industry
We focus on the Japanese boyband scene first because it’s been around for the longest. Having established the history of how it was formed, we can say, briefly, that the Japanese boyband scene consists pretty much only of J&A. That isn’t to say there haven’t been other boybands in Japan, but the majority of these are fleeting, or marketed in a completely different fashion. EXILE, for example, is marketed as a dance group.
With J&A having a monopoly on the boyband market, Japan’s boyband industry is very different from what you would expect in a free market. There is little to no competition, except internally. As a result, J&A has the money and clout to developing and expanding their empire without having to put in too much investment into each individual idol. With a long-established empire, they don’t need to go out actively recruiting talent, because talent is thrown at them in droves.
Because J&A doesn’t have to worry about finding talented singers or dancers, they can instead focus on developing “special” talents. The end result is a series of stageplays where boyband members swing around on harnesses doing rope-work. Additionally, because all competition is internal—among other trainees, or various boybands—the end result is that in order to stand out enough to debut, it becomes necessary to focus on a (usually odd) trait to make you or your group stand out. The end result are idols who, for example, can Tap Dance While Juggling (Taguchi Junnosuke, KAT-TUN), which is truthfully not a very useful Real Life OR Boyband skill, but looks very cool when performed on a stage. Or a boyband who can Dance On Skates (Kis-My-Ft2), which is not a particularly traditional boyband skill, but again looks pretty nifty on stage.
It’s also important to note that because J&A has a monopoly on the entire boyband industry in Japan, they can afford to invest less money into their individual boyband training, letting internal competition do the majority of the work for unique talent development, and instead focus on promoting the boybands they already had. That, combined with Japan’s strong economy (remember, Japan was the economic powerhouse of Asia for a long time, and only now is it (very slowly) shifting towards China), resulted in J&A creating massive concert tours throughout Japan, and pushing their established boyband members into every corner of the entertainment industry.
Additionally, because there is only internal competition, instead of negative, rivalry-based relationships, J&A boybands all develop a (not necessarily friendly) mentor-mentee relationship that starts when they were Juniors, in training. If this relationship didn’t exist, then it quickly develops when they’re called to back-dance for their already debuted fellow label-mates. The end result are events like Johnny’s Countdown—where debuted groups (and some non-debuted groups) gather for a new year countdown concert. This, of course, ends up feeding back into producing boyband members—mothers sign their children up, believing they will be entering a healthy, nurturing, supportive environment.
Ultimately, because J&A has such a monopoly, they end up producing a plethora of boybands each with a subtly different flavor. The goal isn’t to destroy other bands, the point is to get people to buy every boyband’s CDs, DVDs, and watch their TV shows. They cross-promote their other groups, share tales of “when we were young and training together”. They visit each other’s concerts, talk about getting lunch with other boybands, and about how fun it is that “That Other Boyband With That Different Sound” is so enjoyable, it didn’t matter if they are radically different, “Everybody Can Enjoy It!”
To summarize, the Japanese boyband industry ended up not developing the boyband, but ended up re-defining what the boyband meant. It wasn’t enough to be able to sing, dance, and pose well in a camera—when everybody you’re competing with are your fellow trainees, you had to be able to work well with others and stand out in some fashion—and sometimes that meant juggling while tap-dancing, and other times that meant beat-boxing. In Japan, the concept of a boyband is defined and redefined by J&A, and in order to compete among each other, trainees and already debuted members alike put more and more effort into standing out by being different.
This is important because when we look at Korea, where the major players in the entertainment all formed and debuted groups at approximately the same time, we see a very different scene.
Darwinism in Action – The Korean Boyband Industry
Unlike Japan, where Johnny Kitagawa established his first boyband decades before other people thought to get their fingers in the pie, the Korean idol scene started in the 1990’s, with the formation of several entertainment companies that—to this day—still play a major role: SM, DSP, JYP, and YG.
The important thing to note about this is that they all started in about the same position—with nothing. All of them formed their first idol groups in the 1990’s, and because they all started at the same place, the end result is an environment fit to make Charles Darwin proud.
A main difference between the Korean and Japanese boyband industries is quality of the end product. J&A boybands are acknowledged for being jacks-of-all-trades, able to sing (adequately), dance (decently), and act (passably). But why listen to one boyband painstakingly lip-syncing their way through a song while fumbling through a series of dance-steps, when you can listen to another? And since there are four other companies churning out boybands at the same rate as you, you can’t afford to produce a product that appears inferior in quality to the other company’s. Unlike J&A’s monopoly, the money wasn’t going to be going to you regardless of which boyband was most popular.
It’s also important to note that South Korea’s economy, during the 90’s, was still developing—even today, Korea’s economy is weaker than Japan’s, simply due to the fact that its strength is a very recent thing. This made competition even more important—the general populace didn’t have money to blow on six different boybands at one time.
The end result is boybands that were consistently being pushed to sing and dance better and better. Companies hired choreographers to come up with choreography that would make their boyband stand out. Most of all, they put their members through a rigorous training system that lasted for years, where members lived in a dormitory and went through a program that, of course, did not involve plastic surgery in any way, shape, or form.
Like J&A, the first company to produce a product, did the best. SM Entertainment managed to hit its first success earlier than the others, with H.O.T. (High-five Of Teenagers). Having managed to get their foot into the market early, SME then produced a plethora of other groups, all who met with relatively massive success. Likewise, other idol-producing companies followed along to produce an entire industry of idol groups.
Kpop is interesting in the fact it’s dominated by idol groups—there are very few solo artists, especially compared to other Asiatic industries. No doubt this is highly influenced by Seo Taiji—who, while he wasn’t quite an idol group, helped set the tone for modern Kpop. Due to idol groups popularity and success, large companies put more marketing into their idol groups over solo artists. This isn’t to say that there aren’t solo artists, but for the most part they fall short of idol groups in Kpop.
We can think about why. For one, it is infinitely harder to market a solo artist than an idol group. A group will have a diverse range of personalities to attract an audience. That accompanied by being able to divide singing parts and dancing parts, means that it’s easier to train “talent” into a level that’s acceptable for an idol group, but much harder to bring “talent” to a level capable of competing with other solo artists. Idol groups are ideal for cultures that produce talent, finding microtalents and polishing and training them to an marketable level.
The training in Kpop groups is extensive. Some Chinese choreographers have studied some Kpop music videos and found that the angle between fingers is identical among all members of the group (when they perform a dance move that involves splayed fingers). Everything is very carefully produced to create the illusion of a cohesive unit.
I say “illusion” because Kpop has extremely high production values. They utilize excellent video editing; you will almost never catch a “mistake” in a Kpop performance unless it’s an illegal fan recording. Even the majority of their “live” performances are pre-recorded. Because there is so much competition between companies, the focus has shifted to producing a perfect product. With so many people wanting to make it big, companies pick and choose from “talent” and then reinvent them with a new image. They debut (if lucky), with an image that changes at the whim of the company. Consider pre-lawsuit DBSK, where Kim Junsu actively protested his “cute” image and stated he wanted to switch to a “sexy charisma” image. This is a group who was consciously making their fans aware of the marketing and production involved in the Kpop industry—in a joking, self-deprecating manner, but nevertheless discussing it.
So what is the result? Boybands who debut with established images. The most successful groups know how to market their individual members as separate images—broadening their market. Companies focus, in contrast to J&A boybands, on the production of the product, and as a result produce “perfect” boybands who sing (sometimes in harmony, but it’s hard to find a singer who can harmonize), and dance in unison.
Arguably, because of the heavy emphasis on producing “perfect” products, with very set images,
fans hold unrealistic expectations of their idols, leading to a feedback loop of producing perfection because it’s expected, and anything less won’t be accepted in the industry.
The Early Bird Gets the Worm – The Taiwanese Boyband Industry
It’s important to talk about Cpop when addressing the Asiatic boyband scene. For one thing, China takes up about 20% of the world population, which is a fairly large number. (Note: 1.3 billion is a lot of people to sell CDs to.)
It’s also important to talk about Cpop because the Mainland China music industry is very young, and also very insular. Mando-pop tends to be dominated by Taiwanese groups and Hong Kong artists, especially internationally. This is, in part, because Taiwan and Hong Kong’s music industries are slightly better-established, and also because Mainland China feels absolutely no need to promote their work beyond the Mainland’s borders. (Remember: over one billion people.)
My experience with the Cpop music industry is primarily Taiwan-based, so for the following section, the focus will be on Taiwan’s relatively weak boyband industry.
Taiwan has produced several popular boybands, including Hong Hai Er (Red Child), and Xiao Hu Dui (The Little Tigers). Both of these are relatively old—early 90’s and late 1980’s-early 1990’s respectfully. Modern boybands consist of two very dominant names: the first is F4, now called JVKV, which was formed because they were the four actors in Meteor Garden, the Taiwanese drama adaptation of Japanese manga Hana Yori Dango. The second is Fahrenheit, a four member boyband formed from four young drama actors.
This isn’t from a lack of trying to produce boybands. There are plenty of boybands in Taiwan who all meet with relatively decent success. Take 5566, Energy, ComicBoyz, and a bunch of other names that met with decent popularity and then faded away. What Taiwan has never been able to do, unlike Japan and Korea, is establish a strong idol group industry. Any music store in Taipei has entire shelves dedicated to J&A artists, and various Kpop artists. The Cpop industry contains various solo artists and idols, but very few well-marketed and well-produced groups. Arguably the most successful group in the Cpop industry is girlgroup S.H.E.
So what can we say about the Taiwanese boyband industry? Obviously, it’s young and not very well-established. Fahrenheit, for example, debuted in 2006. It’s also important to note that the successful boybands are those that first received fame through alternate means—mainly acting.
But there’s also one huge similarity between the Taiwanese boyband industry and Kpop and J&A. And to understand this, we have to focus on a man known as Andy, and the plethora of groups that he’s produced.
Andy is a producer for Channel [V] Taiwan, a music television network. Specifically, he produced two very popular shows, Blackie’s Teenage Club and Mou Fan Bang Bang Tang. They were sister shows to each other, one hosted by a man nicknamed Blackie, and the other hosted by his then girlfriend (now wife) Fan Fan. What’s important about these two shows is that they were girlgroup and boyband producing shows. (Starting to sound familiar?) Teenage girls (for Blackie’s Teenage Club) and boys (for Mou Fan Bang Bang Tang) auditioned—by singing, dancing, or otherwise displaying a special talent—and when accepted joined the television show, where they competed in contests or discussed content such as recent idol dramas. Two groups were initially produced from these shows: boyband Lollipop, and girlgroup Hei Se Hui Mei Mei.
It’s important to note that neither group met with large success. Lollipop was more successful than their sister group, and ended up performing in Taiwan’s Taipei Arena. Their sister group attempted to rebrand themselves as Hei Girl, which was met, again, with relatively little success—its members later left to pursue solo careers in acting and hosting. Lollipop later split into Lollipop-F and JPM, which again met with relatively good success, but nothing close to the scale of J&A or Kpop groups.
We can talk about why boybands tend to be met with very little success in Taiwan, especially given that they’re massively popular in Japan and Korea, and the Mandarin-speaking community is massive. Note that boybands aren’t about the music. They’re about the image. And when it’s about the image, it’s hard to market a group for an overseas market (read: China). That being said, the Taiwanese market is tiny. Note that Taiwan is a very small island. While it has a high population density, it comes from a not-particularly-strong economy, and with J&A (previously) and Kpop (nowadays) imports, it’s hard to find a reason to support a Taiwanese boyband when they tend to fall short of imports. Note also that Taiwan lacks a strong infrastructure in terms of music television programs for their idols to perform on, which has hindered the development of boybands more.
It’s also important to note that this doesn’t mean that Taiwan doesn’t have an idol industry. It does, but idols tend to be solo artists. Rainie Yang and Show Luo, for example, are solo artists who are also idols. But boybands in Asia are produced through a long, rigorous grooming process, and attempts to duplicate it have failed. This doesn’t mean that Taiwan isn’t trying, but it’s competing with imports, and it’s trying to establish itself relatively late in the Asiatic boyband industry. Remember how J&A has a monopoly on the Japanese boyband scene? J&A has been around long enough that while it hasn’t gotten a monopoly on the entire Asiatic scene, it’s hard to find a place where J&A hasn’t influenced… except, possibly, a different hemisphere.
Filial Piety is for Asians – The Western Boyband Industry
Let’s go back to the Beatles. Post-Beatles, Western music was all about the Art. I capitalize Art because just because it was about the Art didn’t mean that pop music didn’t continue to be produced; it just meant that they were a bit more discerning about it.
There are some general cultural differences between East Asia and The West. One, of course, is traditional values of obedience versus emphasis on independence. We can go into a bunch of detail about how individuality is a lauded trait in western culture, whereas in Asiatic cultures filial piety traditions continue to dominate ideals of what is appropriate or not. The end result is Western traditions of individuality and the influence that the Beatles had has resulted in a different boyband image.
Remember that in Asia, boybands aren’t singers or dancers. They’re idols—meant to represent “ideal” characteristics that are easily marketed—and therefore participate in every aspect of the entertainment industry. In part because the western music industry developed a tradition of writing and performing your own music, western boybands never achieved the same “idol” status that Asiatic ones did.
Western boybands tend, instead, to be classified by their ability to sing (or dance). Often they’re marketed as writing their own songs. Take the Jonas Brothers, who are most certainly a boyband in terms of their marketing. The Jonas Brothers perform their own music—playing instruments! J&A has a boyband that plays their own instruments… sometimes. Well, there’s that junior group that performs as a live band for some boyband concerts… does that count?
Also take One Direction, who were contestants on X Factor. They all passed individual auditions, making them talented singers individually, and were formed into a group later in the competition. This is different from J&A, Kpop, and Cpop, all of which often audition people with the intention of forming them into an idol group.
Also note that with cultural traditions, it’s a lot harder sell an image to western audiences, as well as harder to have boyband members only put on a certain image. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen—Disney artists, for example, actually have an image that’s similar to images that J&A and female Jpop girlgroups have—it just means that it’s less common. Western culture, being more open about sex, means that it’s less important to sell the “I want to be your boyfriend and just hold your hand” image. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen; Disney artists, for example sell hand-holding and avoid mentioning sex for the duration that they’re signed to Disney. But it’s common for Western artists to grow out of that image. Western traditions of independence results in very distinct phases in a person’s life—there’s that time when you move out of your parent’s home—and so it’s harder to both convince the artist and the market to maintain a similar image and purchase a certain image for a long duration.
It’s also interesting to note that while there have been “boybands” as early as the 70’s and 80’s, western boybands are much more of a 90’s and later sort of phase—this is different from J&A, who started in the 60’s. During the 90’s, there was Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync; note that Backstreet Boys started as a vocal harmony group, and ‘N Sync also was very vocal harmony based to the point of recruiting a bass vocalist to create some semblance of harmony. This is quite different from many Asiatic groups (J&A often forms groups of young boys who are on the cusp of puberty; Kpop has many groups who consist primarily of tenors), who sell an image over vocals.
Even in current times, Western boybands (One Direction is arguably the largest Western boyband at the moment), tend to be very vocal-based over performance/image-based. One Direction’s hit song “What Makes You Beautiful”, doesn’t have a choreographed dance. Every upbeat J&A, Kpop, or Cpop song has some form of choreography involved. What we can see here is a difference in priorities—western boybands are, “all about the music”. Asiatic boybands are about the image.
This doesn’t mean that Western boybands aren’t. Like every country’s entertainment industry, heavy emphasis is placed on appearances. And Backstreet Boys and ‘N sync did have choreographed dances set to their songs. But we see a larger divide between “singer” and “idol” in Western boybands than we do in Asiatic ones, and a large reason for this is cultural—and the Beatles’ influence from the 1960’s.
We started in the 1960’s—when the Beatles’ debuted, when Johnny Kitagawa formed his first boyband. From the 1960’s, Japan established a pop-idol industry that spread to the rest of Asia; in the West, the Beatles led to an increased emphasis on musical talent and skill over entertainment.
It’s interesting to note that the idol industry is something that’s very established in Asiatic countries, but less-so in Western ones. That doesn’t mean the idol concept is nonexistent in Western countries—Disney produces child-idols on a regular basis—but Asiatic idols range from their late teens well into their forties. You have an industry that essentially targets that niche market of teenagers—and then keeps them interested well into their later years. The differences between Asiatic countries is less extensive, but it’s undeniable that a large part of the differences arose because of the strengths of each country’s economy. In all cases, the music industry is an entertainment industry—and entertainment of any form can only be supported by thriving economies, given the fact it’s a luxury good.
Boybands are undeniably a commodity that’s marketed towards the teenage girl—a group of (hot) young men singing about love, being in love, “you” being beautiful… all of it adds up to target the niche market that is old enough to start spending money on their own entertainment choices, yet are still living primarily off of their parents’ income. Essentially, the best type of market to target.
Asiatic markets have taken it further due to Asiatic traditions regarding loyalty—essentially creating the pop-idol who is not merely the teenage girl’s go-to for music, but also TV dramas, TV shows, etc. You do see this now in the US—there are One Direction board games—but Western boybands still tend to be entrenched firmly in the music industry as opposed to branching into every aspect of the entertainment industry.
I suppose the most important question is: is the Asiatic pop-idol concept good? Certainly, from a business perspective, it’s genius. You’re earning money from multiple angles, and because you’re selling the “well-rounded” idol, and the “multi-talented” person, you don’t need to actually scout anybody who’s particularly talented in one aspect because you can just play up some other random talent. It means that you’ve essentially managed to eliminate talent from the equation, and success is something that can be controlled—because you are producing and training these people from a young age.
But you’re also selling a mediocre product—J&A boybands are jack-of-all-trades who usually are more focused on selling a “special talent” because they aren’t exceedingly strong vocally, Korean pop idols are notorious for going through plastic surgery, and MR Removed videos are all over the internet because the majority of them can’t sing well, and their backvocals are notoriously loud as a result. Taiwanese Mandopop boybands are lackluster overall, and tend to go into acting instead.
Boybands are meant to be a phase—they target the teenage girl market, and girls are only teenagers for a brief moment of their life. In smaller markets like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, it’s important to obtain as many sales as possible in the brief lifetime of a boyband—so it stands to reason that they enter as many parts of the entertainment industry as they can. The buying power of these smaller countries (Korea and Taiwan in particular, because of their weaker economy) means that it’s harder to “get rich quick” with only CD/DVD sales.
The end result is that while there are slight disparities between Asiatic boybands by country, the largest difference stems from the 1960’s, when the Beatles released their first album and Johnny Kitagawa formed his first boyband.
I doubt any of them realized what an effect they would have, come the 21st century.
End Notes and Credits
I don’t usually write meta because I get rambly (see Taguchi Got Hot, which clocked in at 4k words when I meant it to be about 400). This clocked in at over 6000 words, which is quite long. Note that I had to change my sub-title from “brief” to “not-very-brief” as the word-count progressively grew. I honestly was pretty surprised at how much I had to say. Mostly because I originally meant to just briefly talk about my observations, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that I needed to go back into the history to show why things were the way they are. Obviously, this being my observations, I don’t have any sources—the most documented section is the Beatles section, as Mikachi had previously taken a class on their history and helpfully shared this information with me.
I thank everybody who put up with me rambling about this—who listened to me while I opened up a video and started ranting about how obvious the marketing was, why couldn’t anybody see it. I apologize to anybody who sat through these words and can’t believe what they read, because quite frankly, I can’t really believe I wrote it.
It was pretty hard restricting my focus to boybands alone, since I have a lot of opinions about Asiatic girlgroups as well—I had some great talks with people about this. I’ve briefly touched on girl-groups in the Korean and Taiwanese Mandopop sections, but the majority of this focus is on boybands simply because if I got into girlgroups, I would never be able to finish this. No, I am not going to write an essay on girlgroups. Please. I have a life.
Comments welcome, but as always, I request that you refrain from any defensive knee-jerk reactions of: “MY BOYBAND IS NOT A MASS-PRODUCED AND HEAVILY MARKETED COMMODITY THEY ARE SPESHUL SNOWFLAKES”.
Thank you to everybody for reading.
Finally, several people deserve a very special thanks.
Mikachi: for all her insight into Beatles advertisement and marketing. That Beatles class was good for something, after all.
Muu-chan: who introduced me to DBSK way back in 2008, for being by my side for almost every one of my forays into the whys and hows of the music industry, and for that day I wrote my first fanfiction, and she said: “post it! :D” Without you, I don’t know where I’d be.
Trell: for being the best editor anybody could ask for. <3
Rei: Yes, you’re right. Cosmic Child did wonders for kickstarting this essay again. Did you know that Taguchi has a lovely smile in it? It’s quite lovely. And those flips are gorgeous. But you forgot to mention that he harmonizes while break-dancing. That was most impressive.