the mind reels

a k-pop blog

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Covers from singles and the upcoming full length from Doll☆Elements

From J-Pop Idols

Doll Elements (ドールエレメンツ) is a Japanese idol group formed in 2011 by Arc Jewel. Their name is sometimes shortened as Doll Ele (どるえれ) (Source)

The Economics of MYSTIC89

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“Mystic89 isn’t an agency that represents idols, or indie music. But I think it turned out, as the agency can portray both.” Or so Park Jiyoon said in a 2013 interview with Soompi. Her observation is not wholly without merit. Founded in 2001 by Yoon Jong-shin, MYSTIC89 does seem to be a hybrid of indie label, Pastel Music and that of a more conventional idol producing entertainment agency with an eye on fitting into mainstream trends. Not that any of those under the MYSTIC89 roster fit very snugly into the idol label, nor are any of them marketed as if they would. Unlike idols who usually tailor themselves to a prepackaged image, MYSTIC89 marketing approach is the reverse. Instead of images their singers are marketed based on their own unique selling points, be it the timbre of their voice, their lyrical or composing style, or all of the above.

Uniqueness is a relative term though and MYSTIC89 naturally has its own idea about what is ‘unique’ and what type of uniqueness they look for when signing a singer. Ideally it is something that is not too strange, frightening, or dark, and ideally there is an angle to it that engenders it with mainstream appeal. For those whose unique selling points are not quite as amenable to mass appeal as others, there is a small allowance for flexibility. For these special cases it is merely a matter of striking a balance between their ‘uniqueness’ and what appeals to a general audience predicated on a cost-benefit calculus. In this model costs — things that would detract from mainstream acceptability — are permissible as long as they are not so high that they offset too much of the gains.

In practice this balancing act looks a lot like Puer Kim, who debuted under MYSTIC89 earlier this year. Before joining MYSTIC89 she was an indie singer, whose style ran contrary to what was popular in the mainstream. Her lyrics were strange and often dark, her visuals unsettling, and sometimes surreal, and her videos of the sort of low-tech aesthetic for which indie rookie idols have often been written off for by audiences. For example, the music video for her song, “it’s hard to be the daughter of a woman loved by god,” is a poorly lit black and white video that includes a scene where Puer Kim, dressed in a low-cut black dress, stands in front of a table and cuts the rind off a melon melon with a knife.

This is the sort of style that any other entertainment agency would have gutted for her major debut, but not MYSTIC89 who have made it a point of retaining Puer Kim’s personal color, sometimes even literally as with her latest mini album, Purifier. The teaser for the album is modeled after the fruit-cutting scene, albeit with the necessary alterations to bring it more inline with recent trends. In comparison to the video, the teaser is of a higher quality, better lit, and in color, although there is still the shot of Puer Kim standing in front of a table, cutting a melon.

Of course, these changes to the aesthetic rob the teaser of what made the original video so strange and unsettling. But those characteristics do not have a place in a production that is meant to appeal to appeal to mainstream audiences. Again, it can be weird, but not too weird, or as in the case of Puer Kim’s debut single, “Manyo Maash,” dark, but not too dark — certainly not dark enough that it includes a critique of two of the biggest entertainment agencies. Indeed, even the potential subversiveness of her latest single, “Bank,” the video for which could be interpreted as a critique of any system that runs contrary to the platitude, “People are more valuable than money” that appears in the video, has been effectively neutered. In the absence of any marketing providing a clue or an idea as to how the vide should be interpreted, k-pop news sites defaulted to the easiest and most obvious interpretation. To them, it is all about fiscal responsibility, which Puer Kim happens to be very serious about. And who is to say that they are wrong? It certainly will not be MYSTIC89, since to introducing a conflicting interpretation would be much too costly.

In hindsight, MYSTIC89 was never going to be the entertainment agency that indulged her potential ‘anti-idolness' for much the same reason. Darker concepts are a hard sell when it is idol groups doing them, and for a singer like Puer Kim, who would not even benefit from the cover of ‘idolness,’ she would have been doomed to niche status. Once branded 'niche' her options would be limited. She could press on and release music for a limited audience, with limited financial returns or sacrifice her artistry and become more appealing to mainstream audiences. There is that third option though, the one employed by MYSTIC89 that is newer, riskier, and far from ideal: do both.

—Seungah in response to the question, “What was the biggest change in your new album?” during an interview for Arirang’s “Pops in Seoul Segment”

Related to what I wrote in this post: “Sunny Hill: The Almost Girl Group

“Despite being strategically staged, commercial events to sustain loyalty, fan meetings present the idol as a “real” figure with whom his fans in Japan can be intimate. They bring to life all of his perceived qualities and attributes, as the idol performs beyond the necessary routines of an actor.
Anne Allison remarks that “friendship” can be made with and through products of popular culture, which incite desires and blur the boundary between fantasy and reality. Fan meetings are an example of this, inciting and intensifying fans’ desires, and blurring the boundary between the fantasy and reality of intimacy with the idol. However unreal this sense of intimacy may be, it gives meaning to the time, money, and emotions that these women invest in being Yon-sama fans.”
—Ho Swee Lin – “Emotions, Desires, and Fantasies: What Idolizing Means for Yon-sama Fans in Japan,” Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture, Edited by Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin
The Orange Caramel - Digipedi Connection

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Orange Caramel’s current ‘quirky cute’ concept is not the result of a stroke of marketing genius or eureka moment. It was more evolution than pivot, the move from what began as your run-of-the-mill saccharine cute concept with “Magic Girl” to concepts that only seemed to becoming increasingly more odd with each comeback. Granted whether or not “Aing” and “Bangkok City” qualify as odd is more of a matter of personal taste than something that can be objectively proven. It was not until 2011’s “Shanghai Romance” that the oddness became something intentional, played up for comedic effect in the video where Orange Caramel tries and comically fail to impress their love interest played by Nu’est’s Minhyun.

To put it another way, “Shanghai Romance” was a critical turning point in the evolution of Orange Caramel’s image. It was the first time that they were willing, at least temporarily, to go against the mandate that female idols most always strive to appear ‘pretty,’ showing a willingness to use humor even at their own expense. All of this has carried over to their subsequent releases, evidenced by their stage costumes for “Catallena” which were literally decorated with food for “Catallena,” and painted eye teasers for “My Copycat.”

Yet while much is owed to “Shanghai Romance” for Orange Caramel’s current concept that has aided them in their rise to popularity, their current aesthetic style that has characterized their last three releases is not. When “Shanghai Romance” is viewed against the releases that followed it — “Lipstick,” “Catallena,” and “My Copycat” — they clash. The former’s concept is all about working weirdness into the more typical k-pop aesthetic, tucking it into details while with the latter Orange Caramel is trying something new. Through these releases they have been working to define and cultivate their own unique style, one of offbeat concepts, garish colors, and outlandish costumes that more often than not feature bows and are set in flat spaces, against brightly colored backgrounds against which Orange Caramel appears almost cartoonish.

Fig. 1 Shallow Space

Fig 2. Solid Colored Backgrounds

Fig 2. Solid Colored Backgrounds

It is this visual style that Orange Caramel owes some of their current success, and for that Digipedi deserves most of the credit. With the exception of their costumes, the duo has been behind the concept and videos for the group ever since 2012’s “Lipstick.” That sushi concept for “Catallena?” According to an interview with noonchi, that was their idea. And those vibrant, sometimes clashing color palettes and flat settings? Also them. In fact, that Orange Caramel has such a consistent visual style is mostly the result of their working with Digipedi, whose own iconic style has become part and parcel with that of Orange Caramel’s.

Such a dynamic has the potential to turn out badly, mimicking Orange Caramel’s parasitic relationship with their parent group After School, whereby the Digipedi style becomes known as the Orange Caramel style. But for now Orange Caramel and Digipedi have managed negotiate a much more symbiotic relationship. Orange Caramel’s rise in popularity, again due to their concepts, has not resulted in the usurpation of their style, but only positive attention being directed back at Digipedi. The concepts that Digipedi has created for Orange Caramel have been some of their more inventive and creative like their hybrid, “Spot the Difference” / “Where’s Waldo” for “My Copycat.” Orange Caramel has reaped the rewards of that video as well, in both attention and the organic viewings and re-viewings that are encouraged by its game-like nature. 

In the near future it may be impossible to talk about Orange Caramel without making reference to Digipedi just as it was once impossible to talk about SISTAR without mentioning Brave Brothers or KARA without Sweetune. After all the ‘who’ of Orange Caramel has as much to do, if not more, with their specific image as much as it does their music. For that, Digipedi deserves their due.

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