Women in 2015 (Who Did It Better)


I’ve already written a post sampling my favorite tracks released in 2015, but I want to dive deeper into something that made 2015 special: the quality of releases by female artists. A few big names, like Sistar, AOA, and even my usual perennial favorite Girls’ Generation, were disappointments. But on the whole, from the music to the visuals to the dances, 2015 was a year of leading women and women leading.

The Solos

In a previous review, I’ve mentioned my frustration at the seeming lack of interesting female solo acts in K-pop. But as it turns out, they’re all around. Along with Boa, Gain, and Cheetah, and the earlier reviewed Hyuna, there are singers like Ailee, Lizzy, Lim Kim, and IU that are anything but boring.

Ailee is the reigning queen of idol power vocals, and the rare pop singer that can respectably execute a Whitney Houston cover. This year, she told her partner to “Mind Your Own Business” while backed up by her weapon-wielding girl gang, then showed a very different side with a second MV for “Insane.” Where “Mind Your Own Business” is colorful and loud, “Insane” is more artistic and longing. Ailee went through a full promotion period with a broken foot, singing from a chair on her own and doing it with more presence than a lot of whole groups do.


Lizzy, who’s shone in recent years as a member of After School’s subunit, Orange Caramel, stepped out on her own with “Not an Easy Girl,” which draws from old school popular Korean music and  classic cinema. Like Ailee, Lizzy’s track suggests real versatility considering the types of songs for which Orange Caramel and After School are known.


Meanwhile, Lim Kim brought a different flavor to the K-pop scene. Her vocal tone is miles from the default sweet ones permeating multiple idol groups, making it hard to imagine anyone else being able to pull of her songs. She recently released “Stay Ever,” her collaboration with rapper Verbal Jint, but “Awoo” and “Love Game” are the real must-listens.


And then there’s IU. She’s the standout solo that I’m least personally familiar with, but there’s no doubt that she made waves with this year’s album, both in her single “Twenty-Three” and with plagiarism accusations and a controversy around her references to a literary figure. But the latter dramas do not take away from the quality and character of  “Twenty-Three.” This is neither the first nor last music video to evoke Alice in Wonderland, but its contemporary style is one I hadn’t seen before.


The Veterans  

Despite the earlier mentioned known groups, there were many that have been in the public eye for years and came back as good, if not better, than ever. I’ve talked about the Brown Eyed Girls single “Brave New World” before, but their other title track, “Warm Hole” deserves its own attention. Yes, it’s exactly about what you think it’s about, but is that really so bad? I don’t think so; these are grown women communicating what it is they want.


Nine Muses has also been previously discussed, but I can’t resist the opportunity to bring up their last title track of the year, “Sleepless Night.” The group retained their trademark sexiness, but brilliantly injected it with both sadness and sensuality. The MV doesn’t fully showcase the choreography, but it does have a memorable plot twist.


Most surprising for me this year was 4minute. Their pre-release track, “Cold Rain,” made me sit up in my seat  and wonder how I’d overlooked how nice their singing voices are. It was followed by the promoted single, “Crazy,” which immediately grabbed me and avoids the common problem of some members getting severely shortchanged in the number of singing/rapping lines. This banger of a song, the dance, the black and white aesthetic, and Jiyoon’s confidence (and green hair) are enough to make me rethink writing them off.


Finally, there’s T-ara, the overly maligned group that continues to endure and, despite the odd collective grudge against them in Korea,  is now venturing into the mainland Chinese market . That they keep working and have found a way to gain success elsewhere is reason enough to talk about them,  but let’s also remember their ’60s-inspired, sailor suit-reviving summer single .


The Rookies

Ikon who? Most female rookie groups didn’t have years of publicity forerunning their debuts, but they in terms of listening and watching, they’re a lot less pretentious and much more fun to watch and listen to, on top of being talented.

GFriend made ripples with their debut, “Glass Bead,” but their follow-up “Me Gustas Tu” was just as catchy and had even more athletic choreography. The group made headlines around the world when video of one of their performances, an outdoor affair featuring a slippery stage, went viral. It wasn’t their first time persevering through a stage mishap (see: main vocal Yuju’s “flying shoe”), but it’s become the prominent example of their professionalism (or more cynically, how a group can complete a performance despite gross organizer negligence).  Yerin has already shown variety show charm, and Yuju has some of the best vocals in this newest crop of groups. Long story short, they’re coming for the Nation’s Girl Group crown.


CLC’s gained attention as Cube Entertainment’s first “international” idol group in its inclusion of Thai member Sorn, but they also built name recognition through performances in the Hongdae  area of Seoul beginning late last year.  In this outdoor setting, they showed singing and instrumental skills, and that they don’t need high production value to impress. They even tackled an Adele song, though we haven’t seen their musicianship in their singles as of yet. Like other artists in this post, their varied abilities are just waiting to be further showcased. They released three singles, but retro “Pepe” was my favorite.


Oh My Girl debuted with a single that Tony Basil and 2004 Gwen Stefani would love, with marching band snare drums and a cheerleader chorus livening up what could’ve been another standard new girl group song. “Cupid” turned out well, but second single “Closer” has really set OMG apart. It’s dreamy in sight and sound, and their execution of the choreography is comparably precise to GFriend’s dances, but with flowing finesse instead of athleticism. The dimmed fantasy atmosphere is a brave stylistic choice for a new group, but it works.


They’ve been quiet since their April debut, reportedly due to main singer Yujin’s struggle with vocal nodes, but The Ark still merits recognition. Earlier known for their boy group dance covers and featuring former YG Entertainment trainee Kim Yuna, The Ark’s sole single thus far is unexpectedly emotional, and its release nearly coinciding with the first anniversary of the Sewol tragedy added an extra punch.


The Unknowns

The groups in this section are beyond their first year of activities and show that it doesn’t take a large company or sizable fandom to make good music.  Besides BESTie, seen in the last post, there are many others who are or should at least be on the cusp of making it big. First is Dalshabet, who’ve had a string of nice singles, with this year’s “Joker” continuing the trend. The song is unsubtly racy in its lyrics and wordplay, powered by the classic piano/horns combination. The question now is how they’ll adjust to the recent departure of two members.


Thanks to rapper Yezi’s success on Unpretty Rapstar 2, 2016 could be the year that Fiestar as a whole gains notoriety, if their company plays its cards right. In the meantime, there’s “You’re Pitiful” a breakup song that doesn’t need to rely on every production feature in the book, and most interestingly uses both chair- and partner-focused choreography.


Awkward name Romanization aside, Purfles has vocal and performance chops, making them worth taking seriously. Their most recent and mainstream-sounding single is “Bad Girl,” one that expresses confidence in starting a relationship rather than flowing with the whims of the man involved. Preceding single “A Bad Thing” had the more poignant impact in its message and visuals. The lyrics present a venomous relationship and the realization of how unhealthy it had been, underscored by the handcuff movements during the chorus.


The Rising

As my previous work reveals, I’m firmly in Mamamoo’s corner when it comes to their song styles and stage presence. Their activities this year are noteworthy because it looks like Korea (and Austin) are catching on to what I’ve known all along. Their collaboration with singer-songwriter eSNa, “Ahh Oop!” feels more like their earlier releases and has a more creative music video, but  “Um Oh Ah Yeh” brought their most commercial success yet.


Female artists are all too often subjected to stereotypes about the quality of their music and performances. Many are boxed into “sexy” or “cute” images (by companies, sure, but more fiercely by audiences) as if that’s all women can be, when they can also be sporty or powerful or a host of other things. Their dances get written off as so easy compared to formation-dependent, beat-driven male acts’, but in truth they often require as much skill and precision, just sometimes in a different style (and as groups like The Ark demonstrates, they can do the boys’ dances well, too). Hopefully this post gives a solid idea of how versatile and creative female artists can be, and not just those with established names under the supposedly preeminent record labels. There’s so much to love and respect about those discussed here, and about the many more that aren’t included. Let’s give credit where credit is due.