In the last few years, co-ed groups have again been on the rise, with the meteoric success of Troublemaker, rise of K.A.R.D, and the recent debut of Triple H. With their successes, it seems difficult to understand why companies have, in the recent past, been so wary of co-ed groups.
This avoidance stems back to two main reasons – propriety and fan service. Korea has strong social norms, and acting “properly”, is very important. (For more on this, see sex and sexuality, homophobia  , greetings and terms of address) . To new fans, it can be bewildering to discover that unlike western artists, the closest a K-pop idol tends to get to wild partying and “groupies” is their MV, before returning to their dormitories alone. In this way, they’re almost treated like dolls; to be used then put back into their box, untouched until the fans are ready for them again.
In a country which values heterosexual marriage and traditional family units, the thought of co-ed groups living together intimately can be too much for some. Normally, single sex groups live together in cramped spaces, spend a lot of time with each other by necessity, cooking, cleaning, joking some idols, like Fiestar and EXO members, shower together; other idols walk around their dormitories in the nude like Sistar or Infinite; others joke about knowing each others’ porn preferences like Block B. Whereas this can apparently be excused for idols who are assumed to be heterosexual and bonding with friends, make the situation co-ed and it pushes fans’ boundaries in a way that companies are unwilling to test.
Anyone who steps outside of these set boundaries, like Sulli, faces public disapproval which can manifest in various ways negative gossip, online attacks, calls for psychological help, shunning by those around them, professional consequences, outright threats, and abuse. Sulli has been criticised for posting personally chosen images and comments that fans see as sexual, breaking her previously chaste and innocent image. It’s interesting how most would consider sexualised images of her to be professionally acceptable, but personally taken images as unacceptable. Arguably female idols are often held to a higher standard of chastity and innocence, where men tend to be forgiven or excused.
Demands for propriety are often linked to, or even result from, fan demands, jealousy and unrealistic marketing. One of the most successful marketing tools is the idea of an available idol who is just waiting for their beloved fan to come and sweep them off their feet. While fan service between the same sex gender is often brushed aside, the thought of male and female idols in any kind of relationship almost automatically translates to “potential romance”. Obsessive fans feel jealous that someone else can have access to their beloved idol, which is especially harsh when they can’t. As these fans often spend a lot of money, these are concerns which companies consider. If we look at reactions to idols who date, especially those who show their relationship like Taeyeon and Baekhyuns hidden messages, the backlash can be fierce.
This company-enforced isolation between males and females is a pity, because at a time when most young people are forming relationships and testing out social skills, idols are forced to avoid any question of impropriety. They often miss out on meaningful relationships and important life skills in learning about relating to people of a different sex and/or gender. Idols who have close friendships with the opposite sex can be stuck in a catch-22; companies are likely to forbid public relationships, but if an idol is discovered in a secret relationship, the results could be devastating for the whole group. So how then, can idols learn healthy communication skills in such a stifled and artificial situation?
Because of this demand for propriety and fantasy, companies work extremely hard to keep a “clean” image. They must be careful with dressing rooms and practice spaces, they could need more supervision in the form of a chaperone. They may also require additional staffing for male and female styling, cannot share costumes and props, and so on. This of course, is an on-going extra cost for the company.
In addition, a good balance of talents and styles in a co-ed group is vital, though difficult to maintain. Male and female members should complement each other with varied and established roles otherwise, why bother with a co-ed group? This creates its own complexities group members are less likely to be able to easily cover for someone of the opposite sex if absent or ill. Then once the balance of skills has finally been achieved, male idols have compulsory army duty, causing disruption and meaning the group has a limited time to establish themselves. The risk of a scandal engulfing the group before costs are recouped (let alone turning a profit) can be perceived as higher with a co-ed group, and could also be a risk for CFs, an important way for groups to make money.
And yet, despite this, we have the tremendous success of Troublemaker, and more recently, K.A.R.D. While there were co-ed groups before these two, Cube unit Troublemaker with Hyuna and Hyunseung, paved the way for K.A.R.D. by showing that a mainstream co-ed unit could be successful. Furthermore, on top of a catchy song with a popular storyline and an iconic dance, they turned the co-ed musical stereotype on its head by having a female rapper and a male singer. Other more well known co-ed groups include MFBTY, Koyote, Co-Ed School, Sunny Hill, Akdong Musician, Nasty Nasty and more, but how did they fare?
Sunny Hill, while successful, are no longer a co-ed group. They shot to fame as a five member group with Jang Hyun, but he departed in 2014 and the rest of the group continued to promote. Likewise, Co-Ed School, did not achieve popularity, plagued by line up changes and scandals. The female idols became 5Dolls/ F-VE DOLLS and the male idols became Speed, both of which suffered further line up changes and later disbanded.
Nasty Nasty, with ZE:As Kevin and Kyungri and Sojin from Nine Muses followed in the wake of Troublemaker, but while their concept was slick and seductive, the vocals didn’t have the contrast that made Troublemaker so popular. The MV lacked subtlety, tending to be bluntly sexual rather than coy, and it lacked the iconic dance, plot and catchy sound that really launched Troublemaker. Nasty Nasty clearly portrayed a divided, lust filled relationship, but failed to show any emotional connection or have the members relate to each other. They could undoubtedly have gone further with their concept, but haven’t been given the chance.
There are other success stories also, though they occupy a very different space. MFBTY consists of married couple Yoon Mi-rae and Tiger JK with fellow rapper Bizzy. Their success could possibly be attributed to any combination of factors- they were previously not considered to be traditional K-pop idols, they were already established artists with individual profiles, they were older and their ages meant they had a different type of fan, and that it was more acceptable for them to be married. Likewise, Akdong Musician, YG’s brother and sister duo, are also safe in terms of propriety and fan service for obvious reasons. They also have, aside from the quirky and sweet image they project, a special position and nuance for the industry, which YG should highlight. Both MFBTY and Akdong Musician are unique in terms of their group composition, but also in terms of the music they bring to fans.
In this respect, K.A.R.D’s choice of musical genre, Dance Hall venturing towards “Tropical House”, is a sound choice, helping them to stand out from other co-ed groups, while being on trend. They’ve also chosen a good time to promote; Troublemaker has done a lot of the work in opening fans’ minds to a co-ed group, while not actually claiming the title of a co-ed group. Both Hyuna and Hyunseung came as established artists from popular groups to combine into a unit, and without the perceived group intimacy and impropriety. Despite their racy concept, Hyuna is repeatedly mentioned in the media as having a shy and innocent personality in real life, and both mention feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed when doing seductive and borderline scandalous photo shoots.
K.A.R.D. are also very, very careful to avoid any appearance of internal relationships. They give the appearance of sibling relationships, and state that they will “never date each other”. This relationship could be appealing on its own; some of the best moments of their videos are in practices and hidden versions, where they sometimes make eye contact and genuinely smile at each other. They offer innocently playful fan service- jokingly encouraging each other when they swap lines and dance moves in a V App broadcast. Their “hidden” concept, mixing guest appearances and even English language versions, clearly show their efforts to promote their tracks.
And yet, while they dance together, there’s no real connection or interaction beyond the surface. They tend to use each other like props, with fleeting, emotionless touches during dance scenes, rather than drawn out, realistic intimacy. Even when they dance together, they can be physically spaced surprisingly far apart, which is both a positive and a negative. In terms of avoiding fan backlash, it’s smart, because there are always those who seek to find hidden meanings where sometimes there are none. But in some ways, it’s a lost opportunity. This playful sibling image doesn’t translate when performing love songs, and they also lack a realistic image of being lovers. Imagine the power in a group committed to songs about love and attraction, where the idols are comfortable enough to accurately portray sizzling charisma?
The song “Troublemaker”, especially the dance, portrayed this concept of heated attraction, setting up a compelling narrative. The mature, sexy concept has served Troublemaker the unit particularly well, though with the conflicting behaviour and popularity of Hyunseung, it seems Troublemaker may not promote again any time soon. In light of this, Cube have tried to recreate the Troublemaker magic, with Hyuna coupled with Pentagon’s Hui and E’Dawn.
Triple H, as their new unit is called, seem to be taking a slightly different direction to Troublemaker at first glance a different sound, location and a distinctly different colour palette filled with yellows, oranges and bronze. Interestingly, the group is the reverse composition of Nasty Nasty, but with similar elements of overt sexual implications. But looking closer, “365 Fresh” straddles a fine line a concept too similar to Troublemaker will leave fans bored and a copy will court potential backlash at the thought of replacing Hyunseung, especially on the heels of CLC’s similarity to 4Minute in “Hobgoblin”. Conversely, a starkly different concept could alienate fans eagerly awaiting a Troublemaker comeback.
Triple H aren’t the same as Troublemaker, but neither are they markedly different, and whether fans and the public will accept them remains to be seen. Like the storyline, the sound of “365 Fresh” walks a tightrope, offering something slightly new and yet failing to completely distinguish itself. But “365 Fresh” pushes the boundaries of propriety in all kinds of ways- by painting criminal activities as “cool”, by romanticising self harm and most interestingly, by implying all three are lovers.
How the public will react to 365 Fresh and to continued co-ed groups and collaborations remains to be seen. K.A.R.D seem to have found success even before their official debut, though we’re yet to see if Cube can make lightening strike twice with Triple H. In the meantime, fans of co-ed groups can rejoice and hope for this trend to continue into the future.
(Seoulbeats, Xsportsnews, Kuki News, The Korea Herald, OBS News, Newsen, MWave  , Soompi  , EntertainmentAsia, Asian Junkie, Cube, DSP Media, YG, Core Contents Media, Star Empire Entertainment, Feel Ghood Music)
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