What Girls’ Generation’s Members Leaving SM Entertainment Says About Gender and Power

SNSD celebrating their 10th anniversary as a group earlier this year.

Earlier this month, it was reported that three members of mega-hit girl group Girls’ Generation (SNSD) did not re-sign with their managing company, SM Entertainment. This comes just after the group’s 10-year anniversary, which they had celebrated with a double-single release of “Holiday” and “All Night.” Even though Tiffany, Soohyun and Seohyun did not renew their contracts with the company, there is still the possibility of SNSD continuing and the group has not officially disbanded. However, being one of the most successful groups in K-pop and directly responsible for the Hallyu Wave’s international popularity, it is shocking to see that even SNSD could not survive as a group.

When the 9 original members debuted in August 2007, they started with a seven-year contract, which they all renewed in 2014. The year, group’s exclusive contracts ended on August 16 and the members have continued to be in talks since then. This comes after many second-generation girl groups (groups that debuted during the late 2000s), such as 4Minute, 2NE1, Wonder Girls, T-ara, and SISTAR, have disbanded within the past two years. Disbanding at the end of a contract is so common in the K-pop industry, that the phenomenon has been dubbed “The Seven Year Curse”, named for the typical length of an artist’s contract with their agency. However, the “jinx” seems to affect the future of an idol group in different ways depending on gender.

While male groups are also in danger of disbandment when they have been active for such a long time, they are more likely to lose an individual member and continue to promote as a smaller group. Popular male groups that have renewed their contracts in the past couple of years include INFINITE, Teen Top and B2ST. Each of these groups have lost a member, with the majority of the group agreeing to continue promoting together. This differs from the girl groups that have recently disbanded, where the members go their separate ways: some pursing solo careers, selling their own paraphernalia, or starting anew in acting.

Factors that influence the disbanding of a group include company management, artist’s desires, scandals and profitability. The double standards of the K-pop that place girl groups under a more scrutinizing magnifying lens than their male counterparts are well-known in the industry. The beauty, weight, and the personal character of female idols are more frequently criticized on popular Korean forums such as PANN and Naver. The different expectations between female and male idols have been pointed out as direct factors in whether or not a group disbands or not.

                                                    SNSD at the 2014 Dream Concert.

However, internationally successful groups that are credited with leading the Hallyu Wave, such as BIGBANG, Super Junior, TVXQ and Girls’ Generation have been perceived to be immune to the threat of disbandment because of their immense success and the thousands of loyal fans they attract. Not only are the groups still incredibly popular, but they are equally as profitable: In 2016, BIGBANG brought home $44 million and in 2014, Girls’ Generation’s Japanese tour alone brought in $31.6 million in revenue. Unlike SNSD, BIGBANG was expected to re-sign and actually renewed their contracts two months before they ended in 2015. Though both groups have attained incredible success, have had their fair share of scandals, and can still sell out concerts in minutes, SNSD’s contract renewal has been the topic of much more speculation (especially because their contract negotiations are still in process and they already lost a main vocalist and popular member, Jessica, in 2014.) While awaiting news about the group’s future, SNSD fans have even speculated that SM is trying to set the group up for failure and intentionally sabotage their promotions.

I can’t comment on whether these speculations have any validity: contract negotiations between idols and their companies are so ambiguous because both parties are notoriously tight lipped about the nitty-gritty details of their agreements. In addition, not all of the (little) information that is released in Korean is easily accessible to international fans, and the translations may not be accurate. Many English-speaking K-pop fans, like myself, are dependent on sites that translate Korean news into English, such as AllKPop, Soompi, and Koreaboo. Even though these websites do report about Korean celebrity news, they cannot be categorized as journalism: the articles are very short, do not cite their sources, and are interspersed with click-bait lists and quizzes. These websites have been criticized for their lack of fact-checking, invasion of privacy, and inaccurate translations in the past. While I am very aware of the shortcomings and the suspicion, for the international K-pop fan that cannot read Korean, these websites are often the only sources for any information about idols and I was forced to cite these sites myself in this post. Other places where English-speaking fans might get their information from would be from fan-sites or “insiders” who post on Twitter or blogs, which have the same questionable validity.

But aside from how poor Korean-to-English celebrity news coverage is, English-speaking fans agree on the differences in how companies package their idol groups based on gender: girl groups are typically regulated to either innocent/cute or sexy concepts that have succeeded for girl groups in the past (such as A-Pink and AOA, respectively.) In contrast, boy groups seem to have more freedom to change concepts (in terms of dress, make up and music) with each comeback. Most girl groups tend to stick much closer to a central concept throughout their entire careers, and this is for good reason. In 2016, GFriend won the most music show wins for a girl group with their innocent look, fast-paced dances set to powerful pop songs (such as “Glass Bead”, “Me Gustas Tu”, “Rough”) However, during their recent promotions for the single “Fingertip”, the members sported more mature and darker look that did not match their previous white dress and school girl uniforms that conveyed purity and youth. While it could be due to the public’s distaste with the retro synth song (also a change from their characteristic bubblegum pop sound), this comeback did not chart as well as their previous releases. Their most recent song “Summer Rain”, is reminiscent of their successful “powerful innocence” concept: singing about nostalgic love and dressed in matching white dresses.

While boy groups are similarly packaged into a particular concept that they think will succeed (such as hip-hop/R&B or the “flower boy” style), there seems to be more involvement of male idols in their musical and creative direction. There are more male idols who compose songs and/or choreography for their group, such as Block B’s Zico, B1A4’s Jinyoung, SEVENTEEN’s Woozi and Hoshi, and VICTON’s Hui. Female counterparts are hard to find: 2NE1’s CL has partial songwriting and composing credit and rookie group PRISTIN are the only girl group members who seem to have direct involvement in their creative expression. In addition, though there are female composers, the quality of those songs is also up for question. These idol composers seem to be inspired by the “first” self-producing idol, G-Dragon: his composed songs have become hits that have solicited BIGBANG as a national symbol. In contrast, Girls’ Generation doesn’t have the same creative control in their music or their performances. After Jessica left the group and embarked on a solo music career, she commented about how surprising it was to have input in the songwriting process.

Though SNSD has become extremely popular, if the group is going to continue promoting, they are still wholly reliant on SM to create the concepts, music and performances that they will release. Compared to BIGBANG, SNSD seems to have less bargaining power with SM because of how much more responsible the company seemed to be in the groups success rather than the individual efforts of the members. This is also why fans often speculate whether or not all of the members are still invested in the idol life: it was reported that the 3 members leaving SM were more focused on activities outside of SNSD, such as acting. However, based on the company’s statement that the members do not want to disband, it seems that these members were unable to negotiate a contract that allowed them to balance their idol activities with other interests. Jessica, was previously ousted from the group for her interest in her own fashion business, which the SM did not think would be possible to focus on while simultaneously being a member of Girls’ Generation. Though the members do participate in many individual activities, it seems that their direction is also controlled by SM Entertainment, just like in SNSD’s musical promotions.

This refusal to let all of the members have their own agency in their decisions stifles the members from fully developing their identities outside of the group and in that way, forces them into a situation in which they can only succeed within SNSD. In fact, while Jessica is composing her own music as a solo artist, her releases do not see popularity close to anything like she was used to in the past.

Because the K-pop fan community is so heavily composed of women, I wonder why there isn’t more discussion about the power of very popular, female idols. Despite the amount of fan support that Girls’ Generation has worked all these years to obtain, that influence doesn’t seem to translate to power and respect in the hierarchy of K-pop. As female fans, is it right for us to support an industry that doesn’t give women that freedom and are there ways that we as fans can help change that?

“Pink Ocean”: SNSD’s audience using the group’s official colored lightstick to show their support.