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[Article] Tonplein Names [X X] as Best K-Pop Album of 2019 (200116)

The Best K-Pop Album of 2019

I imagine that if you're a K-pop listener, you have noticed that the trend of the K-pop scene has jumped up to a different level in the late 2010s. Previously, we have seen many K-pop artists who struggled to capture all listeners under the banner of large companies, often called the "Big Three". We also saw, along with the success of highly recognized K-pop artists that was passed across generations by these large companies (for example, JYP's girl group lineage that hearkens to Wonder Girls - Miss A - Twice - Itzy, or SM's boy group lineage that ultimately even created SuperM), the pain of many K-pop artists who fell behind that success. Explaining the phenomena that occupied K-pop previously and have changed K-pop in the late 2010s will require a more multi-dimensional approach and analysis, in a much longer piece than the current article. But what I focus on here, and what I think that other labels who used to fight behind the largest companies began to focus on, is one of K-pop's important genre-specific characteristics: the active and vibrant interaction between "artist" and "fandom".

A significant factor that helped K-pop artists produced as part of the big-label lineage to survive is that such artists were able to inherit the fandoms of senior artists and continue that active interaction. For example, Itzy coming out of JYP this year were called the "sister group" to the successful Twice, and received much attention from the Twice fandom even before debut. JYP itself also created linkages between Twice and Itzy in many ways and successfully absorbed that attention from the fandom. In this way, despite Twice and Itzy being different in their fundamental concepts, they were able to preserve a fandom on a similar level. These are actions that are also seen in other labels that engage in similar inheritance, and so fandoms of K-pop artists from large labels do not only remain as fans of that artist, but evolve into a fandom that has a strong attachment to the label itself. The active interaction that lives between artist and fandom is essential to survival in the K-pop scene, and so the survival of K-pop artists produced by large labels cannot be simply written off as being guaranteed by "name value".

The strategy chosen by other labels, positioned behind the largest companies, begins from that observation. If a fandom with strong attachment can be established alongside the artist, and if the fans and artist can interact in a vibrant way, then the artist's survival is guaranteed. In that moment, the direction of K-pop becomes oriented away from and denying the core tenet that other forms of music pursue - the idea of being heard by and approaching everyone. Put in a somewhat extreme way, even if a certain K-pop artist's music is not recognized by others, as long as there is a fandom with strong attachment and room for interaction, that artist's survival becomes guaranteed. Rather than creating music and character that appeals to everyone, you pursue music and character that is only for a strongly attached fandom. This is what many labels saw towards their survival, and what comes out of this is the concept of "lore" that has come to dominate the late-2010s K-pop scene. K-pop artists engage in acting according to the lore that has been set up, as if they have become protagonists in a fantasy novel. In some cases, labels have even constructed the world that the artist will occupy before the artist's debut. Even if not everyone can accept such worldbuilding, this at least opens the possibility of establishing a fandom becomes attracted to and forms a strong attachment to the lore. To be sure, even this is a methodological approach that Exo and NCT - from the major label of SM - pioneered, and there are artists like AOA who gave up the lore that was created at debut. But it is also true that many K-pop artists, such as Dreamcatcher, GWSN, Exo, NCT, Kard, and Cherry Bullet, are surviving as they lean on this approach. And it is essential to note that Big Hit's TXT is promoting in a way that emphasizes their unique world, rather than appealing to the fact that they are BTS's junior group.

From that perspective, I consider Loona to be at an unparalleled place even among late-2010s K-pop artists. The approach of revealing one new member each month from a trainee group called "Loonation" was new; the name of "Girls of the Month" created that way didn't just function as the name of a girl group, but came as one massive project and world. The special world owned by each member of Loona, and the way these things interacted to create the full group's world called Loonaverse, is worthy to be called the ultimate form of the phenomena observed in the late-2010s K-pop scene. Prior to their official debut, Loona came to us every month as units or solos. These activities served to explain the Loonaverse early on, a clever strategy to prevent the confusion that a fandom might have when faced with expansive lore all at once. And we cannot ignore the product of those unit/solo activities: while there might be quality differentials across each product, one cannot deny that those works distinguished themselves through various methods that differed from repeated and standard K-pop approaches.

The fact that "favOriTe"'s music video, where Loona appeared for the first time as a full group, ran into strong criticism from the fandom proved that Loona's fandom - established this way - had come together in powerful attachment towards the artist and solidarity, that would not fall short against any other fandom. They did not accept a product that tore down the Loonaverse that the group created, and merely put on a layer of "schoolgirls" seen from a male gaze. "Hi High" also had to deal with strong criticism on a similar level. These cases prove the missteps of BlockBerry Creative, but they also ironically prove the success of the Loona project as a whole. For that reason, I think the success of "Butterfly"'s music video feels a little different. Previously I have written about the excellence of "Butterfly"'s music video based on its content. But I want to mention that it's also excellent from the perspective that it is the result of the interaction between Loona's fandom, who produced tough criticism against "favOriTe" and "Hi High", and Loona, who created a more solid product as they incorporated the fandom's voice and brought the Loonaverse to life.

Even apart from everything discussed, [X X] is a good album, good music, just taken on its own. I've written about some of these things in our review of [X X]. It was good in "Butterfly"'s ensuring organic continuity within the album by bringing the style of opening track "X X" forward; and, along with an opaquely processed melody, its pushing-out of the member's voices with the "Fly like a butterfly" sample and putting the beat drop at the forefront. In the bouncy synthesizers and catchy hook of "Satellite", it was good in member Yeojin's attention to detail, as she pronounced the two "bout"'s in "I'm talkin' bout you, I'm talkin' bout you" with a slight difference. It was good in the structure of "Curiosity"'s hook, which faintly pushes back the members' voices atop the beat. And it was good in the construction of "Colors"' undulating melody. But what I wanted to focus on more in this piece was just how this name of Loona stands out, from this flowing trend of K-pop that has changed completely in the late 2010s. I believe that these women will come to be named as symbols when we recount the history of K-pop in the future, and so I think this [X X] will remain as one of the most fondly remembered albums in the K-pop of not just 2019, but the 2010s as a whole.



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