If there’s one thing K-pop is famous for, it’s producing tightly-choreographed, colour-coordinated pop idol groups.
However, in an industry that draws musical and strategic influence from the West, there seems to be one major discord.
Why aren’t there any mixed-gender K-pop groups?
Turns out there have been a few in the history of K-pop, but none were successful.
In 2015, SM Entertainment partnered with indie label BALJUNSO to launch a new mixed-gender idol group. The group, called Play the Siren, featured two female and three male members. But after releasing their first single, 'Dream Drive' last year, little has been heard from them.
Other notable mixed-gender groups Sunny Hill and Co-Ed didn’t last long either. They both eventually disbanded to form single-sex groups. Sunny Hill’s male members left to pursue producing careers, while the members of Co-Ed split into girl group 5Dolls and boy group SPEED.
Single-sex groups have better fan appeal
“People listen to K-pop because they like the music, or because they find it just speaks to them, but of course the crush element behind fandoms is undeniable.” K-pop DJ Jamie Ilagan tells SBS PopAsia.
So it follows, single sex groups, where fans can form romantic crushes over a host of beautiful girls or handsome boys are more marketable, especially in the hyper-competitive Asian music industry, he says.
K-pop idols, Ilagan adds, are therefore usually marketed as single to boost their fan appeal. However, there have been exceptions to the rule.
“There have been artists with public relationships, marriages, pregnancies, but never active members. For example, Kahi from After School is now pregnant, but she hasn’t been an active member of the group for some time.” Ilagan says.
Some things just don’t translate well from the West to the East
K-pop music is heavily inspired by Scandinavian and European Pop, famous for their kitsch and catchy bubble-gum stylings. In fact, many K-pop hits are written by Scandinavian writers and vice versa.
But unlike the K-pop industry, several internationally-successful co-ed pop groups have come out of the ‘EuroPop’ and ‘ScandiPop’ scene, including Aqua, Vengaboys, SClub7, Ace of Base, A*Teens, The Cardigans, and of course, ABBA.
Korea has not shared the same success. There are a few surviving co-ed groups, but they don’t perform mainstream pop. For example, 8Eight performs primarily ballads while Clazziquai Project performs alternative synth music.
Mixed-gender groups don’t lend themselves to a neat and unified group ‘concepts’
Unlike western pop groups where individual band mates may maintain their individuality or have a unique image (or ‘concept’ as it’s called in K-pop speak) within the band, members in K-pop groups are more homogenous. As such, achieving that homogeny within a co-ed group is much harder.
“Take the Spice Girls," says Ilagan. "Each one had their own concept - you have the sporty one, the posh one, the scary one. But with K-pop the idols are relatively similar. A group will have an overarching concept, though not each member.”
“Record companies will decide what kind of concept each group has – whether it’s a school concept, or a bad boy concept, or something else. Most concepts fit better with a single-gendered group.”
Even though a truly successful co-ed K-pop idol group might never be, fans do love boy-girl duets.
“There have been heaps of collabs, like Jimin from AOA and Xiumin from EXO or Suzy from Miss A and Baekhyun from EXO. And yeah, they do sing love songs where they play characters that are in love. And it doesn’t bother fans,” says Ilagan.
“But those pair ups aren’t so much about gender. They’re more about teaming up two big names in the K-pop industry at that time.”