Co-ed groups are few and far between in pop music. A vast majority of pop groups all over the world are limited to individuals of the same gender. These single-gendered groups are typically aimed at very specific target demographics. That is, boy groups are usually primarily designed to attract fangirls, and vice versa. However, the recent rise of K.A.R.D in K-Pop seems to point towards change. So, do co-ed groups work?
As per usual, my views in every edition of Oh! Press Talk will be straightforward. In South Korea, co-ed group is very, very recherché. The main reason for why entertainment companies are avoiding mixed-gender groups is simply because it’s not worth it. The heightened gender archetypes in South Korea together with the more demanded and profitable target market of single-sex groups eluded us from seeing more co-ed groups in the industry. Popular co-ed groups like Cool, Koyote, and Roo’ra are successful but they are from a different era altogether, founded decades ago. Now the market has changed and is a different environment. Consumers demand single-sex groups more and co-ed groups are not even considered to be included in their wishlist. In terms of business, it is unambiguously a risk not worth taking.
Recent notable co-ed groups are Co-Ed School, Sunny Hill, and fresh from the oven K.A.R.D. Co-Ed School was probably the first major co-ed idol group to ever grace K-Pop. They were hyped well by their label Core Contents Media at that time and banded with quality top to bottom productions. But that’s it. Too Late was arguably a good début song for them but they never quite reached considerable heights afterward. In fact, the group’s sub-unit 5dolls (later rebranded as F-ve Dolls after reformation and separation from their parent group) did much better and received a good amount of spotlights. 5dolls mind you, was a full-fledged girl group. The label later realized this very fact and came to a general consensus to operate the sub-units (F-ve Dolls and SPEED) separately as normal idol groups. The same case goes to Sunny Hill. They produced hits such as The Grasshopper Song and Is the White Horse Coming? and the group was considered to be a game-changing prospect, until unavoidable circumstances halted their progress. There, we almost had a great co-ed group. In the end, Sunny Hill ended up being a girl group after Janghyun’s departure.
Years later and no co-ed group was seen while single-sex groups thrived and left huge marks in the industry. However, DSP had something else in mind. They thought that it was a risk worth taking by debuting a co-ed group in a fairly saturated market, full of a platitude of similar products. Thus K.A.R.D comes into the frame. The group consists of two male members (B.M and J.seph) and two female members (Jiwoo and Somin). DSP promoted the group differently. Instead of debuting them right away, they wanted to promote the group through several timely pre-release singles. A safe and subtle way to test the waters. The group is generally well-received by international K-Pop fans (mainly in Latin America) and also noticed by general public in South Korea albeit a lot less than the former. Still, they are an increasingly promising prospect. Despite not getting much attention amongst domestic consumers, they still managed to establish a considerably good fan base internationally. That, is a success.
So what’s the verdict? Co-ed groups do work if they are promoted properly and pushed in the right direction. Labels should not stop midway and leave them to dust if they want to achieve success. It’s easy to get side-tracked by achievements and accolades made by single-sex groups but if they genuinely want to prove that co-ed group can be successful again like aforementioned legends, this is no time to falter. K-Pop is booming rapidly and tapping on the mixed-gender group concept might be relevant and worthy again.
The success of a group reflects in their chosen target audience. Since the very first generation, the target audience of a K-Pop group is modeled after what society has considering the norm for sexuality; heterosexuality. Many would still say that male groups are designed to attract female fans and female groups are designed to attract male fans. This having been the excuse for years on why female groups sell well digitally, whilst male groups dominate physical sales.
K-pop to an extent markets sexual attraction, regardless of the concept the group takes on. As society has transitioned to be more accepting of romantic and sexual relationships between couples of the same-sex, more homosexuals have been open with their expression of support and physical attraction for groups of the same gender. Now, this is not to say that everyone is definitely sexually attracted to their bias group, or that one must be homosexual if you are fans of a group of the same gender.
It’s from this sexual attraction to their bias and this marketing tactic, do we see fan entitlement peak through. Whilst we’ve seen excessive debuts in K-Pop when it comes to boy and girl groups, co-ed groups still significantly lack in numbers. If K-Pop is marketed towards sexual attraction, then one would imagine that a co-ed group would tick all boxes, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation. However, this is where K-pop’s other marketing techniques come into play. Whilst music is definitely a strong contender in the likability of a group, idol groups are more than just stage performers. A unique quality in K-pop is the devotion in believing the group bond. To many an idol group that lacks this bond, is also lacking in both unity and chemistry. In K-pop, there are times, fans like to only believe in the two extremes. There is a tendency to think that a group is either the best of friends, or as some idol groups like to describe it a bond that can be shared with no other like ‘family’, or completely hate each other.
K-Pop idols are seen as emotive and are inadequate of being professional, hence if they don’t share an unbreakable bond, disbandment is the only path in their future. This mass appeal is unfortunately harder to replicate in a co-ed group. Many people believe it’s hard to completely be friends with members of the preferred sex, especially when you find them attractive. To become a K-Pop idol, one should also be fairly attractive, in addition with heteronormativity, the thought that it’s inevitable that sparks may occur is excepted. Whilst shipping culture is also a defining point of K-pop fandoms, a degree of dedication is removed without the false hope of availability. In addition if group members date, there’s an awkwardness that can arise if a break up does occur.
Another reason Koreans can be skeptical to co-ed groups is the examples provided from predecessors. Whilst the co-ed group S#arp found success as first generation idols in the late 90s, their infamous bullying scandal is more notable than their releases. It has been 11 years, but memories of the hardship still lingers for the bullied member. At the time of their reconciliation, the industry’s rapid progression, had made this scandal an event of the past.
Whilst K.A.R.D is finding success overseas, there are certain limitations to their circumstances. K.A.R.D’s style of music, predominantly house and EDM, is currently finding popularity in the West, as it is a reflection of the current popularity of the genre. Their reliance on this sound, may make it harder for them to find success in Korea, where a softer more mellow sound is preferred. Whilst I enjoy their music, I unfortunately don’t see a prosperous career for the group in their home country.
The topic of co-ed groups is shrouded within two of my biggest issues with idol culture: gender roles and heteronormativity. When weighing up the pros and cons of co-ed groups, concept difficulty always comes into discussion. Most girl groups these days have adopted the ‘cutesy’ concept, and male groups perform powerfully. Co-ed groups don’t fit into these boxes, and this ambiguity has caused the general public to shy away from them. A sore lack of interest from the public means that these groups on a whole aren’t all that marketable, so we don’t see a lot of them. But what exactly does the public have against co-ed groups? Well, it’s very difficult to find a demographic that will back these idols. Something that makes “idols” idols is that they’re expected to do some much more than just produce good music. They’re supposed to behave a certain way in order to appease their target audience. For gendered groups, this is generally done by emphasising gender roles, from the sound of their music to the style of their choreography. Girl groups are expected to behave cutely or seductively for their male audience, and boy groups are expected to behave powerfully and erotically for their female audience.
I think that where co-ed groups tend to go wrong is that they almost always attempt to allude to sexual desire within group members in attempt to excite fans. I’ll use Cube’s “Triple H” (Hyuna x Pentagon subunit) as an example here. Throughout the group’s début music video “365 Fresh,” the male members Hui and E-Dawn constantly vie for Hyuna’s attention in some sort of bizarre love triangle. The group’s choreography features the two male members taking turns dancing intimately with her. Cube’s former 4Minute/Beast subunit “Trouble Maker” featured the same risqué choreography, and a fantasy romance between the two singers. Co-ed groups are almost always underwhelming as they are constantly trying too hard to fit into a heteronormative industry via imaginary sexual tension.
Despite co-ed groups constantly turning up the sex appeal, sometimes that’s where the concern lies, for both fans and record labels. A huge reason that co-ed groups rarely work is that they can often appear scandalous. Entitled fans despise the prospect of their favourite idols getting cosy with the opposite sex, even though that fear is most often completely irrational. Female idols are expected to be “pure” and “innocent,” particularly J-idols. For example, AKB48’s Minegishi Minami was coerced into shaving her head in retribution for a sex scandal back in 2013. Many fans of J-Pop feel as though female idols mingling with male idols tarnishes their “purity,” which may prompt discomfort with the idea of co-ed groups. In the same way, record labels fear that their groups may become the subject of controversy if dating rumours happen to break out. On the rare occasion that record labels actually do début co-ed groups, their reluctance is always obvious, and the disbandment of said groups never seems far away.
In my opinion, much of upcoming co-ed group K.A.R.D’s success is thanks to the fact that they are straying away from the typical co-ed concept, and aren’t attempting to contrive any romance between members. K.A.R.D invites the pleasant possibility of co-ed groups simply existing. Energy is put into their official content rather than concocting an unrealistic fantasy for their fans. According to idol culture, this shouldn’t work. However, the way I see it, their groundbreaking level of high quality is their appeal. It’s great. It’s rare. It’s new. It’s fresh. But that’s also why it won’t work for other groups long-term.
Can co-ed groups be successful? Yes, they can. However, only if all the necessary factors come into play in the right place at the right time. Quite frankly, I don’t see co-ed groups becoming mainstream anytime soon, but that’s only because idol culture won’t allow it. In order for co-ed groups to succeed, the emphasis needs to put on their music, not fan service. Record labels need to handle their groups carefully, and invest properly in them long-term. K.A.R.D is doing that right now, and I can only hope that after their début, many others will follow in their footsteps.
I don’t feel that I have anything particularly groundbreaking to add onto the discussion of this question other than to say: sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Except, this honestly holds true for any group regardless of the sex of the members involved. A successful group needs something special to make it stand out, be it their music, appearance, variety talents, concepts, or the members’ individual appeal. Co-ed groups aren’t that inherently different in my opinion, except for the fan base they target.
I acknowledge that co-ed groups isolate the less emotionally mature group of would-be fans that aren’t willing to see their favorite idols interact closely with the opposite sex. But simultaneously, the concept of a co-ed group will entice other fans that come for exactly that dynamic, fans that otherwise may not have been interested in the group if it was just male or just female. So while a co-ed group may not pull in the rabid fanboys and fangirls that would theoretically support them should they not be co-ed, there is another fan base out there for them to target. And I don’t think that truly puts them at a disadvantage, especially if you consider the number of extreme “send you my period blood” fans their concept inherently pushes away. That’s a big win for me, in both regards.
It’s easy to look at the career of one failed co-ed group, say Co-Ed School themselves, and declare the concept just can’t work in the context of Asian entertainment. But I think there’s a lot of other things that went wrong with Co-Ed School that unfortunately led to their demise – be it their styling and general concept, talents evidenced by the MR from hell, and most significantly the drug smuggling and rape rumors attached to one member of the group. There’s really no recovering from that.
K.A.R.D, in my opinion, does co-ed right in every way. It’s either incredibly smart marketing or a very happy accident, but their music is so very reminiscent of popular Western EDM jams that it makes an easy bridge between them and their Western i-fanbase. And it is their growing i-fanbase, Western or otherwise, that is really starting to put them on the map in South Korea. I like that DSP isn’t afraid to partner up male and female members in dance sections but never tries to force a loveline narrative in either the group itself or any of their music videos. It’s so refreshing to see, and that’s something I couldn’t see with the previously mentioned Co-Ed School above. Most of all though, and the reason I find myself loving K.A.R.D, is the captivating dynamic between the four members. I honestly found their first song “Oh Na Na” a bit underwhelming for all its hype in the i-fan community but somehow found myself following the group after watching some of their other videos where their personalities were able to come through. The group just works, in every sense of the word, and that’s something I think a lot of groups struggle to achieve, co-ed or otherwise.
Frankly speaking, it’s not the fact that they are “co-ed” that will make a certain group fail or succeed. It has its pros and cons that will affect the path of success, and the factor that will contribute to the success we’re talking about are the other attributes around. It’s not about gender, it’s about luck.
In idol-verse, they all struggle to get their name out there. Boy groups mostly rely on the physical sales while girl groups mostly rely on the public. It’s no secret how boy groups always have smashing physical sales on Hanteo and Gaon, whilst girl groups constantly top the melon chart with their popular songs. You need to be on a higher level of success to break that stereotype that groups such as Twice, EXO, and Big Bang have already conquered. In co-ed, it’s one, both or none. People think that just because you’re co-ed it allows you to have the benefits of being both a boy group and girl group which is actually not true.
So far, in k-pop, there are only three notable co-ed groups I could think of. Sunny Hill, Co-ed School, and most recently KARD. What are their similarities? The presence of heterosexuality. How do they differ? The level of success and popularity. No matter how we look at it, it all came down to the members, the management, and their songs.
Sunny Hill, originally had good feedback. However, due to Janghyun’s leave for military and their further lack of exposure, they ultimately fell off track. Sunny Hill actually debuted the same year as Wonder Girls, Girls Generation, and KARA, but sadly did not achieve the amount of success they had. Co-Ed school also got good feedback, but some factors including a member’s alleged problematic actions lead to the group’s demise. KARD, on the other hand, are experiencing overflowing popularity. They are popular internationally and have a growing fan base locally. Their music has a Western feel with its use of EDM and tropical house that are undeniable in their quality. That is how you do co-ed right. It also helps that they came from DSP which is a mid-tier company in South Korea.
Sunny Hill had good feedback but fell off track. But so did NU’EST (pre PD101) and F-ve Dolls. Co-ed School had growing popularity but lost it because of a problematic member. But so did GLAM. KARD gained international popularity and praise. But so have GOT7 and Red Velvet. Bottomline is that it doesn’t matter what gender a group has. Be it all boys, all girls, or co-ed, no one can predict which has more chances of success. It all depends on every attribute present. And those attributes are visuals, good music, talent, and company’s management skills.
As either a boy group, girl group, or co-ed group, you can succeed, fail, or stay unknown forever. It’s not about gender, it’s about luck.
If you’ve followed J-pop for a while, you probably know of AAA which are one of the most successful co-ed group from Asia. Under Avex, there has been a predecessor as well many successors of AAA but what makes a co-ed group work? From my take on it, I think it has nothing to do with them being a co-ed and it has more to do with their bond/relationship as a group, the type of music they release, and pure luck.
AAA is always praised for their bond as a group for the past 12 years and that same bond is also present in lol (エルオーエル). I don’t think the general public has any issues with co-ed groups and they are just as loved as boy or girl groups as long as the members work well together. lol (エルオーエル) has been gaining popularity after each single within the teen demographic, due to the member’s style, age, and their cute interactions.
Now when it comes to music, having good music for the most part helps with your popularity.Though in this case AAA and lol (エルオーエル) are bothfrom Avex, one of the biggest entertainment companies in Japan. For the most part, lol (エルオーエル) has been releasing EDM/Tropical House tracks in a good amount of their singles and B-side songs. Tropical House these days is extremely popular and has been very popular in Asia and the West (which is what helped made KARD popular). After their debut single ‘fire!’ they have been in the top 5 on the weekly Oricon chart for every single they’ve released.
Now it comes down to pure luck, not all co-ed groups under Avex saw the same success as AAA or lol (エルオーエル). For example, 1 Finger, who debuted back in early 2015 with ‘KTMusic’ did not see the same level of success as AAA or lol (エルオーエル) did even though they were formed around the same time as lol (エルオーエル). I think it’s because they don’t fit in a certain demographic even though their music is great. Which goes down to show it really has nothing to do with a group being a mixed gender and has more to do with how the general public likes the group.
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