Hello, for fellow fans of and those curious about the current popularity of k-pop as a cultural phenomenon as well as a genre of musical performance, I am planning to upload a series of pieces on k-pop throughout the remainder of this year and early next year. I would like start with a discussion of the South Korean TV show Road to Kingdom. Joining me as a researcher and a discussant is Alessandra Kim (pictured on the right), Senior majoring in History and International Relations at University of California, Davis, and a longstanding member of the EKHO Dance team, a k-pop cover dance group (you can check their latest [August 18, 2020] performance video here.
Road to Kingdom, aired from April 30 to June 18, 2020, was a TV show developed by the major Korean music entertainment company, Mnet, and aired on its broadcasting service, in which seven k-pop boy groups competed against each other to secure a spot in the upcoming show Kingdom, which will begin later this year. The seven groups were chosen due to their supposedly “lesser known” status among Korean music fans, and included Pentagon, ONF, Golden Child, The Boyz, Verivery, Oneus, and TOO. Every round of performances had a certain theme that the groups were able to interpret freely and creatively, allowing them to showcase specific talents in the composition, production and performance. Q indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, and A indicates Alessandra Kim below. All texts herewith are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim and Alessandra Kim and cannot be reproduced or used without permission of both Kims. All screenshots are used under the fair use rule applied in the United States and are copyrighted to Mnet/CJ E&M, unless otherwise indicated.
Q:We can begin with what Mnet had in mind when they created this show Road to Kingdom, as a sequel to Queendom. Obviously, they would not have come up with it if the latter had not been successful. However, as we all know, they were subject to extensive criticisms due to the big scandal involving the manipulation of the rankings of participants for their previous hit survival audition programs, the Produce 48 and 101 series. Have you read and heard any criticism of Queendom or Road to Kingdom regarding this issue? In other words, the complaints that the rankings of the participating teams have been “rigged,” or otherwise do not accurately reflect the input from the viewers?
A: I think these two shows have different methods for generating their rankings. For a rundown of how votes were calculated for Road to Kingdom, you can take a look at here. The contest results of the show were generated from a point system that consisted of four rounds of gaining points: Round 1 and 2 set the maximum points at 10,000 each, and Round 3 for15,000 points, but each round had different scoring criteria. Round 1 was entirely based on votes from the contestants. Round 2 was based 30% on contestant votes and 70% on online audience votes. Round 3 was similar to Round 2, but the extra collaboration stages had a different calculating system wherein contestants and online audience voters would rank the collaboration teams from 1st to 3rd. A fourth round, called the “comeback round,” was absent from Mnet’s female version of the show, Queendom , and consisted of the points being awarded for online streams from fans on YouTube and Naver TV. This was done to replace the live audience votes, who could not attend the performances due to COVID-19.
Q:Yes, though it still makes little sense that Golden Child was dropped.
A: I totally agree.
Q: When The Boyz did the third-round competition of Sunmi’s song…
A: The Heroine.
Q: Yes, The Heroine. They made sure that Golden Child’s name was included among the shouts-out to the participants, even though the latter had already been eliminated. They (and other teams) continued to refer to them as “seven teams.” I think there is a subtext that the participating idol groups are perhaps not happy with the elimination process, not so much with the idea of competition itself or how the rankings are generated. And I think The Boyz was trying to express that unhappiness, within the limits of what was allowed in the program, of course. I would love to watch an interview, maybe years later, in which they could frankly discuss what they really thought of the survival format of this program and programs like this.
A. Some fans have raised the issue of TOO participating in with these teams because they just were too new, having debuted on April 1st, 2020, less than one month before the show formally begun. Of course, it was due to no fault of their own that they ended up there: it’s not like they insisted on being picked. It would have made more sense, though, had other groups been rookies as new as them.
Q: I almost felt sorry for them. It was clear from their attitudes that they found having to compete against such seasoned groups intimidating or awkward.
A: Right, there was a sense of sympathy among the fans for TOO that it was rather unfair for them to have been burdened with this situation.
Q: There was actually a scene where TOO’s leader, Lee Jae-yun, wept after seeing Pentagon’s Shine stage. I felt really sorry for him, because I don’t think it was just because he was moved by Pentagon’s performance and tribute to its oldest member, Jin-ho, due to be inducted into military service. He looked actually distressed and was probably reminded that even if everything went all completely successful in their future career, they would still have to face this moment of unwilling parting due to the military service. Who could have been the alternate group had they gone for more experienced one instead of TOO?
A: Ateez, maybe, but then again, they are already rumored to be a contender for Kingdom, the upcoming series in which The Boyz will compete as the result of winning the Road competition.
Q: Interesting, you like Ateez, right?
A: I do! But their fandom is perhaps smaller than other well-known boy groups, and some thought that they should have participated in Road to generate publicity.
Q: The Boyz did an amazing job with their performances in the show. Is that a consensus opinion among those you know?
A: Many of my friends are already fans of The Boyz and Oneus, so they were predisposed to root for these teams, but yeah, many do agree that The Boyz did the fabulous job.
Q: Pentagon is very experienced but perhaps seen as a perennial underdog?
A: Yes, they went through a lot of hardships, their original member E’Dawn departing not too long after their debut, and so on, and now their oldest member is going into military service. I think they have a very strong and dedicated fandom, but the latter’s size is not expanding much.
Q: Why do you think that is the case?
A: I think some people I know, and maybe fans I have observed, prefer Pentagon’s sunny, optimistic songs like Shine, Naughty Boy and Humph! Many of them became fans of Pentagon due to these songs. But they are a bit befuddled, perhaps, by the dark, psychologically tormented music recently put together by Hui, the team’s super-talented leader.
Q: What about Oneus?
A: They had a lot of fans carried over from survival shows, including Produce 101 and Mix Nine. My favorite Oneus song is Lit: I mostly love it for its interesting choreography. In my view they need some kind of clear-cut concept or signature style.
Q: Hwanwoong is much praised for his dance skills.
Q: In the show, they come across as so young and cute. Especially compared to, say, Pentagon, who looked grizzled and, like, full of han (Korean word for ressentiment, although difficult to translate). [Laughter] ONF is supposed to be read as “On and Off?”
A: Yes, I do think their dance skills are great. Unfortunately their existing fandom has been comparatively smaller in size. They are still not very well known. I hope Road has made some impact in publicizing their talents to the general public.
Q: Personally, I feel their music is really great, especially Moscow Moscow, which does not sound like a k-pop idol song at all. Now we come to Golden Child.
A: I think they are disadvantaged because they lack a senior team, like BTS for TXT at Big Hit, who could serve as a sort of locomotive that has laid out the rails for them to advance on.Their MVs are clean, pleasing and illustrate the skills of the members pretty well, but perhaps could have been made a bit more attention-grabbing.
Q: For the performances in Road, I really loved those of The Boyz, ONF and Golden Child. Those were my favorite teams in terms of the appeals of the stage performances they put together. Did you think the things that The Boyz pulled off in the show, for instance, were also present in their previous outings, such as MVs?
A: I think they have had much greater access to resources this time around. But The Boyz had always boasted one of the cleanest, most harmonized choreography styles among boy idol groups. I would choose Astro, Seventeen and The Boyz as my top three teams in the cleanest, neatest choreography category.
Q: It was really interesting to compare The Boyz’s MV of Reveal and their stage presentation of the same song in the second round of Road. I felt that their official MV was more about internal struggles, about the gap between what one retains inside and what he (or they) allows to be shown to other people. And the visuals reflected that sense of walled-off anxiety. But the performance version was altogether different. It was really like watching a series of classic paintings: it came off as not a plea for love, but a confident declaration of power. They had all members and dancers were captured in a magnificent vista at the climax. After seeing this, I am thinking like, hey, they should just make their own MVs from now on. [Laughter]
A: I think The Boyz just took all the available resources and made full use out of them. In my view they made most of the fact that they had a lot of members: eleven, I believe. To be sure, there are advantages and disadvantages for having a large group as opposed to a small one. Having said that, like Seventeen, The Boyz designs elaborate formations and moves that highlight seamlessness and sophistication of their group choreography.
Q: They do not seem to rely too much on aggressive gestures or what I would call “martial arts” dance moves. [Laughter]
A: It is important to have a good range of intensity in dance moves: if you keep your dances “powerful” and fast all the time, it could become tiring and repetitive. The “quieter” moves are not necessarily easier to execute and require a lot of coordination as well.
Q: Let’s talk about storytelling, or narrative elements embedded in the stage performances, conveyed through singing and dancing. The Boyz-Oneus collaboration stage was interesting to me, because it was self-reflexive: they took Sunmi’s song and made it essentially about being an idol singer.
A: It was a great idea, in the sense that the staging was already taking place in the context of all the prefatory steps they were taking, which were shown as a part of the Road to Kingdom show. So the viewer’s awareness of this context created a level of extra depth to the performance, rendering it more meaningful.
Q: Do you have some sense of how non-Korean/international fans perceive the result of the competition?
A: I think most of them agree that The Boyz deserved to win. But a sizable number of those whose opinions I have surveyed felt that Oneus should have ranked higher.
Q: What do you think is the reason for such low scores for Oneus?
A: I just feel that they cannot do as many things as some other teams, because there are only six members, and with an even number of members, making formations could be a challenge. The audience has to be able to see all members, and I think Oneus has to go an extra mile than, say, The Boyz does, to design an impactful performance in a confined stage simply because of these physical reasons.
Q: Road to Kingdom was initially advertised as a show in which rookie groups compete to make themselves known. In reality, the only group that met that criterion was TOO. The rest were actually industry veterans, especially Pentagon, more or less unfairly treated by the whole system, I think, and I could feel that there was this added subtext to the whole show, almost a sense of rage, like they were all internally screaming “We have all been unjustly neglected for all these years!” while posing and smiling for the camera. In a way, this hyper-competitive situation is analogous to the Korean social system, or Korean educational system. You are so frigging talented to begin with but you nonetheless work like a mule for three years, five years, and finally you get a chance to sit on this one chair reserved for only one winner, in a place already teeming with equally talented and hardworking competitors. [Laughter and Sighs]
Just for fun, can you speculate who would be competing members for the Kingdom show?
A: Well, the internet speculation ranged far and wide: Ateez, Monsta X, Seventeen, NCT 127, Stray Kids, Astro, Nu’uest, TXT, SF9, and iKON.
Q: Who would you root for?
A: Ateez, but there is a worry about the significant gap between Korean and international perceptions of the group.
Q: Can you explain to me why such differences of perception have arisen? You are in a unique position to see this issue from both sides.
A: When they debuted, I think their MVs, dances and music were conceptually very strong, but perhaps considered too edgy for some Korean viewers. International fans embraced their hard-core hip-hop styles and I also think they are extremely versatile. Still, I do not really know why they are not as popular in Korea. They never score well in the Korean music show competitions and it is frustrating.
The brand reputation rankings the Korean Business Research Institute releases (and reported here by soompi for the month of May, 2020, for instance, does not even include Ateez in the top thirty (in fact, no team that had participated in Road to Kingdom, including The Boyz and Pentagon, is included). The groups ranked in the top ten are BTS, Oh My Girl, EXO, Blackpink, Twice, (G)I-DLE, NCT, Red Velvet, IZ*ONE and Seventeen. There is also the Billboard Social 50, which is a popularity chart based on followers, online engagement, and streaming. I do not have access to the official lists, but Twitter accounts dedicated to charting and streaming a certain k-pop group will provide weekly or daily updates (For instance, https://twitter.com/ateez_charts). Other notable rankings include number of Spotify streams, Apple Music rank, Twitter mentions and trends, Gaon album chart, Naver real time search, Genie music streams, and so on.
Q: Despite suspicions about the ranking system and vote counting that Mnet is saddled with now, Road to Kingdom seems to have served some useful purposes for the participating groups. They had many good arenas to showcase their talents. I am truly happy for The Boyz in particular and the way they made the best out of this opportunity was impressive. I also must say I was very touched by the camaraderie and respect the boys (not just The Boyz but all boys ^ ^) displayed toward one another, as the young people engaged in the same profession and life-goals. I really admire their professionalism and dedication to their music, dance and performances. The Boyz is right, they are all in this together and they deserve each other’s support.
A: I agree that it is refreshing to see k-pop groups interacting on this level and being not only respectful, but encouraging and supportive as well. In an industry that seems so territorially divided by entertainment companies, it is nice to see all the groups together, in a show that is less brutally cutthroat than, say, the Produce series. However, since some of these groups were more of “rookies” compared to others, I still feel as if there was a barrier of respect and seniority. If Kingdom manages to put together a lineup in which all participating teams have the equal footing and the comparable level of experience within the industry, it will be interesting to see how those groups interact, since I’m sure some of them are already friends.
(In Part 2, we look in detail into select stage performances!)