2014 is on a roll. It’s been claiming veteran groups left and right, starting with EXOdus and, after enough bad fortune befell SM groups, decided to move on to the B-list and hit MBLAQ. Kris Wu, the K-pop mockingjay. What have you wrought?
Y’all know I’ve been a fan of MBLAQ since I first got into K-pop around… 2010ish? Ahh, what an innocent time.
— 浪漫主义者 (@hyunapng) October 13, 2014
Reflecting upon my reaction to the fall of the house of MBLAQ, however, especially compared with the recent self-destructions of other groups, has brought me to the disheartening conclusion that I was really more a fan of what I thought they could be than what they were. In a way, the news of their demise is kind of akin to being one of the last two pageant contestants, expecting that your name will not be the one that is called but secretly hoping that it is.
Unlike Exo, who imploded spectacularly at what seemed like the height of their fame, MBLAQ has suffered a gradual decline over the years, with occasional half-assed comebacks whenever their company, J. Tune
Crap Camp needed money. So many things went wrong with this group, sometimes I wonder if they’re an even bigger Shakespearean tragedy than U-KISS. While the latter’s inability to achieve traction remains something of a mystery, given the consistently quality material they’ve pumped out on a semiregular basis since “Bran New Kiss” (though that album name still brings me great secondhand embarrassment), MBLAQ is more a case of consistently squandered potential that is of great frustration to fans.
So, if a group consistently disappoints with subpar material, the obvious question is why I’m still a fan. To answer that question, it’s because when MBLAQ do get it right, they get it right. I will forever espouse the perfection of the “Blaq Style” era, when (on a musical and aesthetic level, if not a business one) everything came together flawlessly. In a way, “Blaq Style” was their watershed moment, a make-or-break attempt to wring the last remaining vestiges of momentum built up from “Y” and allowed to gradually squander over a year-long break. Although “Stay” didn’t win any coveted music show awards, it did bring the group some recognition, and had they properly capitalized upon that newfound momentum they might’ve still been able to secure a place among top-tier boy groups. Of course, we all know how that turned out. It’s almost a comedy of errors, a guide to How to Run a Perfectly Good Boyband Into the Ground.
I’ma cut the shit. In the world of K-pop, fame is not the natural and inevitable result of talent and high quality music/production (though it’s kind of sad how many theoretically adult K-pop fen actually seem to believe this). In actuality, it’s a combination of savvy management, promotion, that “X factor” that resonates with the general public, and just plain luck. It’s no surprise that groups debuting out of one of the Big 3 have a significantly better chance than groups out of smaller companies. Red Velvet were already up for a music show win on their first round of promotions (though they lost), while Winner racked up multiple trophies right out of the gate (though arguably, that traction was achieved through YG’s WIN music competition show). Groups from smaller companies have to work harder, and the climb to the top is more gradual, but it can be done. SISTAR, Girl’s Day, B1A4, Infinite, and VIXX all managed to break out of nugu hell in the past few years to join the top tier of idol groups.
What’s important to note about those groups is that nearly all of them had a year or so of near-constant promotion. VIXX’s is most fresh in my memory as it is the most recent, but they’re basically a guide to a smaller company who did everything right. In a world where the average fan has the attention span of a mosquito, you can’t let the general public forget you, particularly given the recent explosion of nugu groups all clamoring for relevance, much like turtle hatchlings making their way to the sea. Securing that spot in the general public’s eye and keeping it is vital—there is always going to be another nugu group to take your place. Given the stiff competition, exposure is the most effective way to do this, typically via musical releases, variety, or both.
The second ingredient that seems essential to achieving fame is a consistent image and/or brand. Groups debuting out of the Big 3 don’t need this because they already have the image of a powerful company propelling them. But groups out of smaller companies do. If you look at the eras when each of the above named groups achieved traction, it’s the moment they finally found a formula that worked, and proceeded to stick to it pretty closely. Girl’s Day, for example, were chameleons during their first few years after debut, jumping from concept to concept before finally hitting upon a winning formula with “Expectation” (dance jams with a sexy/cute aesthetic). VIXX were doing rather generic boy band dance songs until they struck gold with “On and On,” and currently remain the reigning kings of scifi and horror concepts. Occasionally, these groups will throw out something a little different to keep the public from getting bored, but they never stray too far from the same basic formula.
These key ingredients were conspicuously missing from MBLAQ’s career. Arguably, they did hit upon the perfect formula with “Cry” and “Stay,” songs and concepts that did what they’re supposed to do—capitalize on their strengths. MBLAQ thrives on R&B-influenced bops with a sort of manly-metro aesthetic and angsty theatricality, which is perfectly encapsulated with “Cry.” The line distribution was fairly even between G.O, Joon, and Seungho while restricting the weakest vocal (Thunder) to awkward English intros and raps. So as a fan, it makes no sense to me that JTC’s response was to immediately overhaul everything and release “Mona Lisa” next—a bizarre quirky concept that did not suit MBLAQ’s aesthetic and vocally underused everyone except for G.O (who was forced to hit insane dog-whistle notes in every live performance). The group proceeded to take long hiatuses between comebacks and while JTC continued the throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach when they had already found something that stuck but stubbornly refused to return to it. Given the amount of competition in the market at the time, many fans understandably moved on to other groups whose management had their shit together. And since I just know that if this blog were actually read by anyone, some contrarians would show up to say how much they loved Mona Lisa, my response is simply
My overall point is not whether or not individual fans loved a song or concept but how well it suited the group’s overall trajectory, and the evidence would suggest otherwise.
MBLAQ finally returned to their R&B roots in 2014 with “Broken,” but by then it was, to quote JoJo, too little too late. When MBLAQ’s contracts were up, my conclusion is simply that Joon (and Thunder) saw the writing on the wall and chose not to renew. Unlike U-KISS, who seem to be enjoying moderate success overseas (and who probably realize it’s too late for them to move onto greener pastures in the K-pop idol world), MBLAQ was a sinking ship with no signs of reviving itself. Even their brief forays into the Japan market fizzled as JTC’s increasing cheapness limited their prospects—they went from original J-pop songs to cheap remakes of their Korean material. JTC moving on to mismanage Pro C/Madtown was probably the nail in the coffin. Further proof of this company’s stellar promotion of its groups shows in their failed girl group venture, Two X. I’m not sure if they’re even still around, which kind of proves my point. Joon has been having success with acting lately, and he’s always been the most visible and popular member, so he has a safety net outside of MBLAQ. Thunder… well, he has a famous sister.
Even I, one of the most haplessly devoted A+’s, moved on to greener pastures. Although I still kept rooting for MBLAQ despite my better judgment, I found myself paying more attention to rising rookie groups (which isn’t hard considering that two-year hiatus between “It’s War” and the underwhelming—and again, completely unsuited for MBLAQ—“Smoky Girl”). VIXX grabbed my attention with “On and On” since I’m a sucker for the manly-metro aesthetic, particularly when combined with a sci-fi concept and a catchy song. When they came back with “Hyde,” my stan-dom was sealed. Every release since then has not disappointed, an illuminating experience considering it’s not one I’d actually had before. I think being an MBLAQ fan got me so accustomed to disappointment that it became my default setting. MBLAQ kept me hanging on not for their material, but in spite of it. It was those rare glimpses when the group got everything right—those glimpses of what they could be if properly managed and promoted—that, in retrospect, are the most heartbreaking part of this whole debacle.
MBLAQ are making one final comeback supposedly scheduled for November, but we all know that this is just a swan song. Here’s hoping that JTC will finally get it right so they can at least go out on a high note (hopefully, not one G.O has to hit live every performance).
Oh, MBLAQ. In the K-pop Games, I fear that the odds were never in your favor.