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Sharing similarities with both SNSD and f(x), the group has been “billed as the middle-ground between f(x)’s experimental style and Girls’ Generation’s more mainstream sound,” yet if we define mainstream and experimental as the dichotomy between the popular and alternative, then what specifically do these terms mean in the context of the K-pop industry? After all, it’s the same corporate label behind both f(x)’s purported “experimental” nature and SNSD’s “mainstream” pop sensibilities.
In 2013 (the last year f(x) and SNSD both released LPs in a similar timeframe), we see that SNSD released their prog-pop album, I Got a Boy, the culmination of SNSD’s transitional 2011 effort, The Boys, that saw a more electronic direction in contrast to earlier hits like “Genie” and “Oh!” I Got a Boy was SNSD changing trajectory, perhaps an attempt at escaping the success of “Gee.” But with certainty, it was a sound that was divisive to fans with its titular single sharing more in common with Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” than their meteoric 2009 hit.
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Meanwhile, f(x) released Pink Tape, a release that cemented their status as the “critic’s k-pop group,” marked by their emphasis on album-by-album releases, an eclectic visual style, and songs that utilized unconventional instrumentation. The lead single “Rum Pum Pum Pum” covers such expansive melodic grounds that it’s hard to believe the song is barely three minutes long.
This leads to the question: are these two releases that different in terms of defining what “mainstream” and “experimental” sound is? I would argue they are not opposite dualities that fans like to characterize the two groups as. Even if the two albums have different teams behind them, they are both indebted to a progressive pop influence and prone to flirtatious genre exercises (the twee pop of f(x)’s “Shadow,” SNSD’s bossa nova/swing number, “Romantic St.”).
It’s more accurate to say the two releases are sister albums, SM’s attempt at creating a cohesive aesthetic with their artists. Certainly f(x) reaches further with its more “alternative” influences and seems more “art pop,” but at the end of the day, both records are number one hits on the Gaon Music Charts. This makes the western connotation of popularity that draws the line between “mainstream” and “experimental” pointless.
It seems connotations of “mainstream” and “experimental” in the K-pop industry is more closely intertwined with the marketing of the music rather than the creative triggers behind the group’s output. At the end of the day, no matter how “experimental” f(x) is, its chief goal is still one thing: crafting the perfect pop song. It’s also worth discussing that no matter how “accessible” SNSD must be, the songwriting team behind the group must continually grapple with the pressure of giving each of its (now) eight members vocal spotlights on the songs.
With pressures of appeasing fandom bias coupled with the process of crafting a mega-hit in under four minutes, the songwriting team is forced to get creative with structure and presentation of the music; after all, the bar has been raised beyond the singular chorus-heavy hits of SNSD’s earlier output.
In a way, SNSD has grown sonically more experimental as the group’s representation shifts from a cohesive single identity to a more chaotic collective rooted in the individual identities of the members.
In the K-pop landscape, mainstream and experimental are rooted in aesthetic differences or how the group decides to channel a style, rather than the western conception of the two terms that come loaded with values of authenticity, sterile consumerism, and success. This isn’t to say K-pop isn’t authentic (in recent years, K-pop dwarves American pop in creative output) or that K-pop is purely consumerist music. This is to say these terms need to be redefined in the context of the K-pop music industry, as western definitions of these two terms carry connotations that create a disconnect in what we mean when we say SNSD has a “mainstream” sound and f(x), a “experimental” sound.