After the release of Five and despite its success, everybody knew that Apink is ripe for a concept change. By 2018, all members were already in their mid-20s, which makes the group’s pure and innocent concept a stretch and unsustainable. Five was a bit of a fluke, as the group had to remind the public of their strength, but the same public can only have so much of watching a 6-year group continue to sing songs about first love and hesitating to make the first move. Five served its purpose well, but it was time for a change. 

When reports of how drastic Apink’s 2018 comeback concept will be, there apparently was substantial resistance from the fandom. A good number of fans backed their conservative preferences, especially with the success of Five. To make long story short, they were okay with Apink continuing to sing teenybopper bops as they stay active in the music industry and any changes to the group’s image will be met with a withdrawal of support. 

Alas, when teasers for the group’s comeback emerged on July 1, people were scared. Bomi throwing paper at the camera? Namjoo stabbing a mountain of fries that she covered with ketchup? Eunji crying outside a bathtub while unrolling film negatives? Naeun throwing a show? This is definitely not the same group that sang about daydreams of walking side by side with Mr. Chu while wearing couple rings. 

And just when you think the individual teasers are scary, the rolling music teaser is more alarming. The first song I’m So Sick has lyrics such as “Not a single bit of the feelings from before, Not a single bit of those emotions are left.” And they have a song titled I Like That Kiss. How can the nation’s Fairy Idols be this… brazen? People were shocked, fans were scared, and industry observers excitedly speculated on how this image change will affect the group. Will this be accepted or will this be the beginning of the end?

Alas, the pessimistic speculations were laid to rest as Apink did not turn into pillars of salt, broadcast stations did not implement bans, and no petitions to the Blue House for indecency and immorality were submitted. The song I’m So Sick is definitely the most mature track the group has ever released, but it retained the distinct Apink sound that the group has imbibed since their debut. The catchy chorus is still there, the killing parts in English – now spoken by Naeun – are still there, the distinct choreography is still there. All in all, I’m So Sick is very much an Apink song, and what’s great about it is that the group is now singing songs that match their age. Remembering the times they spent together ala LUV is still good, singing about taking 5-second breaks is still good and considering the era when they sang those songs, they were pretty much appropriate for Apink at that time. But now, singing about getting sick of lying and getting drunk calls from your ex is also age-appropriate. Nothing wrong with that. 

The Taste of Success

And the public agreed. 1 & Six debuted at number 1 on South Korea’s Gaon Album Chart, becoming Apink‘s third chart-topping album in the country. The single I’m So Sick entered the Gaon Digital Chart at #7 and peaked at #3. The song gave the group five music show wins, including one from Inkigayo, their first in four years since LUV. The international music publication Dazed named I’m So Sick one of the best K-pop songs of 2018. I’m So Sick‘s music video is the group’s most-watched, amassing more than 86 million views on 1theK and close to 5 million views on the group’s official YouTube channel. As for the album, 1 & Six has outsold the group’s previous EP Pink Up (the one with Five as its title track).  

So, wait. What happened to that boycott by conservative fans? What was the difference between this concept change and the previous one, the less-successful Pink Revolution and Only One? On the matter of the fans who weren’t on board with the concept change, a new generation of fans got to replace them, and these new fans, having been exposed to strong girl crush concepts, are more accepting of more sophisticated concepts for the groups they stan. So, the conservative fan fallout did not prove successful. 

As for the discrepancy between the success of Only One and I’m Sick / Pink Revolution vs. 1 & Six, a number of factors may be considered. For one, people may not have warmed up to the subtleness Only One presented, while the shift in the group’s image was more distinct, which is more appreciated by the fans.  It is also interesting to note that both Only One and I’m So Sick were both produced by Black Eyed Pilsung. In other words, it can be argued that overall, I’m So Sick is just more dynamic, and thus more interesting a song than Only One, which sounded too mellow and chill and thus, was not exciting at all. Fans were anticipating a wave for Apink‘s concept change, and they got that with I’m So Sick, not with Only One

One popular question asked by industry analysts regarding Apink‘s second wind is, if I’m So Sick was the song released in 2016 instead of Only One to signal the band’s change in musical direction, would it have been as successful as it became in 2018? We cannot really conclude this to be the case, because we also need to consider the competition Only One had in 2016 and the degree of preparation Pandas had in 2016. Were the Pandas emotionally prepared and accepting of I’m So Sick in 2016 as they were in 2018? That’s a very interesting scenario to think about, but unfortunately, we cannot answer with finality unless A Cube / Plan A / IST Entertainment builds a time machine that we can use to change particular events in 2016. 

A New Direction

After the group’s successful concept change via I’m So Sick, Pandas were ready for a comeback with Apink sticking to this more sophisticated and elegant sound and image. On January 7, seven months after the group reintroduced themselves to the public with a mature image, Apink released their eighth mini-album Percent, along with the single %% (Eung Eung). For those who thought that the group will pull off something similar to what they did with Five after Only One, they were gladly mistaken as the single continued the new direction taken by the group with I’m So Sick. Their new collaboration with Black Eyed Pilseung and Jeon Goon topped several music charts in South Korea after its release. It peaked at No. 17 on the Gaon Digital Chart, while the album reached No. 3 on the Korean chart and No. 14 on the Billboard World Albums Chart. Finally, Eung Eung won three music shows – in Show Champion, M Countdown, and Inkigayo

Both the song and the music video found a following with anime fans and those who dig retro sounds. In the music video, we see the women of Apink appear on a dark and stormy night at a “Pink Factory” as they assemble a variety of what appears like representations of body parts –  such as lips made of vinyl and a glittery heart (not the cutesy shaped but a giant bean-shaped one). They dunk all this into a bright pink brew, raising to life a guy’s suit. Now, if that reminds you of Fullmetal Alchemist and the transmutation circle, then you will definitely appreciate the music video. 

As for the song, the ‘80s influence dance track with snapping beats, fizzy synths, and percussion that slaps extra hard is simply an auditory treat. In their end-of-the-year lists, Billboard joined Dazed in acknowledging the strength of the songs of the “new” Apink, including Eung Eung as one of the best K-Pop Songs of the year. 

After Eung Eung, Apink took a break for a year and three months – the longest of their careers before releasing Look, their ninth EP, which contains the lead single Dumhdurum. The last time the group had a comparable long “sabbatical”, the comeback ended up being a flop by their standards. The fear was real that the Look comeback was going to fare worse, also considering that the entire world was at the early months of what was the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting your music when people should be at home and getting paranoid with everything that’s going on in the world is definitely one huge risk. 

The risk paid off – maybe because everyone needed all the comfort they can get, and if buying music assures them of some normality in the crazy times they are living in, then so be it. Besides, music these days is one of those things anyone can enjoy without leaving the comforts of their home, so why not? The album debuted at number two on the Gaon Album Chart, while the lead track Dumhdurum topped the Gaon Download Chart. The song entered the Gaon Digital Chart at number four and peaked at number two in its second week. Two months after its release, Look has sold close to 48,000 physical copies.

The song proved to be a hit with the fans, as it won eight music show wins, with the group having an all-kill by winning in all six music shows and twice in Inkigayo and Show! Music Core, the latter they last won three years ago with Five. Both Look and Dumhdurum also received international critical acclaim, having been included by Billboard, Buzzfeed, Dazed, Paper, and Time Magazine in their year-end lists of best K-pop songs of 2020.   

With the group a year away from celebrating the 10th anniversary since their debut, what could go wrong? Stay tuned for the third act of Apink.

Featured Image: Apink Official Twitter