In this industry of Korean pop music which we all love, change (pun alert to HyunA’s debut single) can be a good thing. The risks associated with change paid off for groups like Apink, BTS, and Dreamcatcher, as well as with Jay Park who established a solo career after leaving 2PM, and Chungha and Somi who opted to go solo after being identified with the girl group survival show Produce 101 and the subsequently produced girl group IOI.   

But changes are indeed risky. The odds of getting good results after a change can only be matched by the odds of falling flat on your face after deciding to go ahead with the change. Here are two cases of changes in K-pop that may not have gone in the artists’ (and their companies’) favor.  

Weeekly: The Case of the Unexplainable Concept Change

When it comes to image, concept, or sound change, IST Entertainment (aka the company that is only keen on changing its name from A Cube to Plan A to Play M before finally settling on IST, but who knows what the future holds) is one of the more conservative companies. After all, IST is behind the most enduring concepts for a girl group in K-pop, with Apink taking a whole seven years before finally tweaking their bright and innocent concept into a more sophisticated one. With how the concept change was resoundingly successful for their banner group and not a lot of revamps have also been implemented on the company’s male group VICTON, it was expected for the company to also be very cautious and deliberate when it comes to any change for their representative 4th gen group, Weeekly.     

The group actually started out well. Considering everything (the fact that they’re not a Big 4 group, they debuted four days after Blackpink released How You Like That and a day after Hwasa released Maria, among others), their debut with the EP We Are and Tag Me went fairly well. Their steady performance continued with their next single Zig Zag from their second EP We Can released four months after their debut. By this time, people were anticipating that it won’t be long before the group will get their big break ala My My of their sunbaes Apink, their breakthrough song that was released six months after their debut. 

Alas, IST hit a gold mine nine months into the group’s career as After School, a single off Weeekly’s 3rd EP We Play became a viral hit. It wasn’t just one incident or factor, but Koreans started using the song on their social media posts because of its inherent catchiness. Casual K-pop fans quickly pointed out that the song sounds like something Apink can release, which means that the song sounds like a 1st to 2nd gen k-pop song, something that obviously piqued the interest of the more “advanced” (in age) music lovers.

With IST’s track record of shying away from risky concept changes, no one expected the company to rock the boat, especially after a wildly successful release. They did exactly that, all right, with the bright and cheerful Holiday Party, which more or less continued the group’s infectious and youthful sound. Alas, Holiday Party did not perform as well as the viral After School, for which the company seemed to take matters into its own hands. And by that, they implemented a concept change that was something so left field with the group’s next release Ven Para.

Ven Para… an attempt at doing a Chungha/D.O by releasing a Spanish-tinged song? Not really, because as you may have heard and seen from the song and the music video, there’s not a lot of Latin flavor on both, except that phrase. Instead, we were given a girl crush song coupled with a girl crush music video. Yes, the girls we saw donning casual attire and performing silly cute antics were not wearing leather-infused outfits and dancing with literal fire (not just fire on LED screens) in the background. 

Now, you may argue that this is basically a Cube Entertainment move when they completely revamped CLC from cuties singing No On Oh with fruits in their outfits (watch the music video and look for the cherries, strawberries, and lemons in the girls’ shirts, pants, and skirts) to barbed wire-covered baseball bat brandishing women in Hobgoblin. But then, until that time, CLC didn’t have an established concept and the company felt like there was space that their girl crush group 4Minute vacated after their disbandment that CLC could readily occupy. 

In the case of Weeekly, the concept change doesn’t add up for a number of reasons. One, the company hasn’t had prior successful experience in the girl crush realm – not that the queens of Apink cannot do girl crush, it’s just that they didn’t need to do it as girl crush just isn’t their stryle, AS IST WOULD KNOW). Two, Weeekly already had success with the colorful and uplifting After School, so why fix what clearly wasn’t broken? Three, IST is a company known to be quite conservative when it comes to implementing changes to their groups, so why start now and in such a drastic fashion?

Take note that the group has steadily sold more units with every new release, with Play Game: Awake (the single album that has the anomalous Ven Para on it) selling more than 83,000 units. This goes to show that the group has continued to rise in popularity at least in Korea. What that weird concept change did was to definitely alienate fans (mostly international) who fell in love with the group in their After School era, hoping to hear more of the same from them. Moreover, there is doubt that the concept change was successful in establishing the girls’ identity as a group because when you ask people what comes to mind when they hear “Weeekly”, they will likely sing to you the melody of After School’s chorus, the one that goes, “Urin seukeiteubodeu wiro” or that English line, “I’m so good with you”, not leather-clad girls dancing with literal fire behind them!

Weeekly’s Ven Para comeback is one of the biggest conundrums of k-pop, and with the girls still not having a comeback after that fiasco, we sincerely hope that their next release won’t have everyone scratching their heads again because one more misstep for this group may inch them closer to the world of doomed k-pop girl groups (read CLC, Momoland, and Lovelyz).    

KARD: The Case of the Temporary Unnecessary Sound Change

The world of K-pop is not that kind to coed groups. If you’re not convinced, give me a name of a hugely successful K-pop coed group. Give up? That’s because there’s none. The only successful female-male collabs are in pairs, with AKMU and Troublemaker defying the odds – only that they’re actually just pairs, not groups. In recent memory, only Triple H managed to perform decently, and unfortunately, we all know what happened to them after only two releases. The rest like SM The Ballad and SSAK3 are only project groups and if you don’t know Roo’Ra, don’t blame yourself because they were active in the 1990s. And there was s#arp, which figured in the biggest bullying scandal in the K-pop industry and Coed School with the female subunit figuring in bullying incidences as well. With all those bullying events, it’s not hard to see why Koreans may have lost interest in coed groups.       

Thus, when DSP Media, a company that, if we’re being honest here, has a patchy history of managing their idol groups, debuted a new coed group in 2017, people were a bit excited but have somehow managed expectations. You see, DSP Media actually has a solid track record of creating idol groups. Fin.K.L, Sech Kies, April, Rainbow, Kara, and SS501 all started with DSP. You might wonder now, how can a company with such a stellar line-up not end up at the Big 3 (or 4) level or even with legit challengers like Cube and Starship?  It seems to be a combination of factors, with the main reason being the artists do not seem to have that much of an affinity with their agency. Not a lot of their talents choose to renew their contracts once they are about to expire, as evidenced by Jiyoung and Nicole of Kara. When the group Sech Kies reunited years after their disbandment, they did so under YG Entertainment, not DSP. Alas, when Kara reunited in 2022, DSP was already bought by RBW, so the Kara comeback was already handled by the buyers. 

Anyhow, KARD was off to a promising start in 2016 despite DSP not really having the best standing in the industry. The foursome caught the attention of some Korean music fans who were intrigued by the tropical sound of which the group was one of the earlier adapters. But more than their domestic success, the group acquired a bigger following in the international market, with fans liking their fresh sound, the idea of a group with boy and girl members together, and the undeniable physical attractiveness of all four members. I mean, who can ignore how hot J Seph, BM, Somin, and Jiwoo are? 

The group’s success continued with their next releases, particularly with their official debut single Hola Hola released in 2017, which charted in Korea and pushed the group into a “world tour” of Asian countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Manila, Melbourne, and Jakarta. They also performed in high-profile music festivals in Japan (Summer Sonic Festival) and even the US (SXSW). Finally, it was on August 19, 2018, when the group held their first solo concert in Seoul. Throughout these ballsy efforts by DSP to promote the group overseas, criticism of the group also started in their home country, as it was apparent that the company is pushing the group more internationally. Domestic K-pop observers have gone as far as saying that KARD is a “fictional group” along the lines of aespa’s virtual members who live in the virtual world of KWANGYA. 

But this is not actually where the weird events related to KARD started. Everything was (and actually, still is) swimmingly fine for the group until three years in, they decided to tweak their sound with the two successive releases in 2019, Bomb Bomb and Dumb Litty. The Latin-tinged moombahton sound which has become the group’s bread-and-butter signature sound since their first project single was adjusted to reflect a more commercial dubstep sound that for a time, was the trend in K-pop. 

For us fans with basic music taste, here’s a simple explanation: In the “old” Kard releases, the Latin influences come in chill, reggaeton beats. With Bomb Bomb and Dumb Litty, the group shifted to singing songs that ceaselessly build up in the verses until that explosive “beat drop” that supposedly makes everyone including their mom lose their heads because… the beat has dropped! In a euphoric, almost orgasmic fashion at that! For further reference, go to the following: Hate by 4MINUTE, Miroh by Stray Kids, and I Don’t Wanna Cry by SEVENTEEN. But that’s not to say that moombahton-heavy songs don’t have beat drops. It’s just that the beats are being dropped in a rather… suave manner. With dubstep songs, it’s as if listeners are encouraged to hold their breaths until they turn blue before the beat finally drops and we can all breathe freely once again. 

Which was why when the 2019 KARD releases came out, fans scratched their heads in confusion. Why am I listening to something so familiar, though I swear to all supreme beings that this is not the KARD I am used to? What is going on? The two tracks continued the group’s popularity especially overseas, although many die-hard Hidden KARDs found the songs… strange Obviously, they love the songs because they’re by KARD, but it feels awkward to see the group surrender their signature sound to the all-consuming “beat drop” trend. 

I mean, KARD is supposed to be a group setting trends, not merely following them. They’re the lone coed act in a sea of exclusive-gender groups, they were more focused (read: stubborn) in maintaining their international appeal rather than gaining a foothold on the domestic music market, and they are among the pioneers of the moombahton sound in k-pop. BM has been quoted in interviews in saying that the group in 2019 was trying to diversify their sound, but doing so would mean being unfaithful to the sound they’ve attached themselves to a bit too early in their careers. And that can put off some fans who were on their way to completely joining the Hidden KARD fandom.

But then, 2020-2022 happened, the world went into a standstill because of the pandemic, J Seph served his mandatory military service for Korea, Somin had to deal with the undying rumors of her role in the APRIL bullying scandal, (yes, KARD main vocal Somin was also APRIL main vocal Somin for a time, and the two girls had to continue dealing with the other undying rumor of them not getting along with each other. Fortunately, on June 22 last year, the group came back with the EP Re: (complete with teasers asking the question, “Do you RE:member KARD?” after all that has happened in the world, including that weird sound change in 2019) and the title track Ring the Alarm gave us KARD pre-2019, so yes, we remember KARD, all right. More of these and less of the suffocating beat drops in the future, juseyo!   

The good news with both groups, as we’ve already mentioned in the case of KARD, is that they are still active groups and therefore can still do some “damage control”. KARD has already reverted to their old sound that is not too beat drop-reliant and Weeekly can still be pretty much considered a rookie group, being only in the business for two years. May the odds be in their favor the next time they (or their companies) plan on implementing such huge risks!

Featured Image: Weeekly Official Twitter