Is this the end for Girls’ Generation?
While the rest of the K-pop world seems to be going about business as usual, it’s been a trying few months for the SONE fandom. Dating scandals, a bungled comeback and a loss to rivals 2NE1 on the charts have cracked the usually impenetrable exterior of the group’s superstar status. With speculation that SNSD’s contracts could be ending this year and a new SM girl group to debut, a certain fatalistic feeling is starting to attach itself to the group. Shortly after Mr. Mr. proved to be an underwhelming comeback, a comment made by SME CEO Kim Young Min back in 2010 resurfaced to cast doubts on the future of SNSD:
“SNSD will disappear someday, and another group will replace them. We used to view BoA and TVXQ as individual artists, but for this reason, we started to view them as SM artists. The SM brand now has its own profit value.”
Are SNSD really on their way out? The Korea Times recently speculated that SM are choosing to confirm dating rumours because they are planning to end the group soon. We can’t know for certain whether this is true, but what SM’s actions reveal regardless is that SNSD no longer need to be available to the public as “the nation’s girl group.” They are no longer public property. “Industry reps” have commented that this move has sent the group into a crisis and, while the comment is a tad overblown, it does provoke the question of what SM even want from SNSD anymore. It’s true, as some netizens have claimed, that SM could save SNSD with another “Gee” but fans know more than to expect that these days. SM have been coasting on the “SM brand” for a little too long with their biggest girl group, churning out rushed choreography, albums filled with filler tracks and underwhelming stage shows with the hopes that “Girls’ Generation” is enough of a drawcard to keep the fans coming back. Many fans are aware of this manipulation, of course, but continue to support the girls out of love for the group. I’m sure it’s a feeling that many fans of older artists understand.
The thing is, when it comes down to it, SNSD stopped being about the music years ago. They’ve released two major Korean singles in the last two and a half years and barely promoted their two Japanese albums inbetween. Instead most of the time SNSD are being hired to promote department stores, jeans, watches, bags, make-up, perfume, sanitary pads – you name it. After securing their place at the top, SNSD’s image has become less about being the K-pop girls with the catchy dance moves and songs and more about being “the best girl group in Korea.” They show up to movie premieres and fan-signs, make a flawless entrance, say what people want to hear, stick around for a few hours and then leave. SNSD are essentially very well disciplined ready-for-hire models that sell their beauty, celebrity, wit, and a sort of comforting happiness that comes from looking at shiny, pretty things. It’s that special type of “cultural technology” that SM have been pushing with just the right variety of elements – innocence, capability, unattainability – to make the group stand out from the rest.
SNSD were so flawless that many of us came to love them and wanted them to keep achieving, keep winning awards, just so that something so seemingly pure could continue to thrive in the world. In fact, after years of sporadic and often mediocre musical activity from the group, it seems like their popularity has only survived through the mythology that SONEs have created around SNSD’s image. K-pop, in the digital age that we live in, has bred a very intense, intimate form of celebrity where an idol can embody celebrity without even having to actually perform on a stage. Without SM, YG or whoever’s interference, the fandom has developed its own infrastructure of fancammers, translators and GIF makers to circulate their favourite group’s image, often blurring the line between image and reality. As long as there is some semblance of the idol – whether an airport photo, a blurry fancam or a tweeted fanaccount – fans can create their own FMVS, GIFs, photobooks, fanfictions etc. to satisfy themselves. Whether you condone this behaviour or not, fans have done a lot of work to make K-pop what it is on the international stage. They’ve acted as free distribution for K-pop around the world and have played a huge role in making SNSD what they are to the international fandom.
The reason why SNSD’s last few months are a “crisis” then is not just because of a bad song or a few deluded fans, it’s something more than that. SM have begun to demythologise SNSD, and because of that, they are letting the relationship between SNSD as image and SNSD the K-pop group break down. By screwing up SNSD’s comeback they lost the image of success that the group depends on to stay appealing. By revealing the member’s love lives they cut off one of their main arteries, the fans – the only people who were going to uphold Soshi’s perfect image in the face of whatever sub-par business decision they make. If SM want to keep this relationship going, they need to produce something really worth celebrating again – something fresh that can legitimise the group’s dominance to the public and let the fandom acquiesce some authority back to the company. We saw a little bit of a glimpse of it during the lead-up to the Mr. Mr. promotions when the group decided to reveal a more intimate, fun side through their Soshi Now videos but that window quickly and inexplicably closed. For now, it just seems like it’s been decided that it isn’t worth taking the gamble anymore, Soshi as image has hit a wall.
In an interview last month, the vocalist of the K-indie group Nell, Kim Jong Wan, claimed that SNSD were “the beginning and end of girl groups.” By this I think he meant of the ideal of what a K-pop girl group could be. If this is true, then what are K-pop girl groups really about? Is the answer found in some golden combination of record sales, our private fantasies and some societal ideal of what girls could be? Kim Young Min believes that SNSD will eventually be replaced, but I don’t really know what that will look like when it happens. I feel like within the overlapping spheres of business, fan culture and, the physical idols themselves, something was created in Soshi that we might not see again. Honestly, if the girls are happier now that the stranglehold over their image has loosened then it’s probably for the best. On top of that, SNSD’s dominance wasn’t fair to a lot of people who did not fit their mould. We need female idols that are less obedient and less aesthetically pleasing i.e. less likely to succeed. That said, even if you didn’t like what they represented, there was something about SNSD’s success, budget and sheer numbers that made it seem like they were the ones who could really take things to the next level for girls in K-pop. Will we ever see a group of young women at the top of their game, winning all the awards, killing the charts, floating on flying swings again? Was it all worth it just for that dream?
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