So round soundThe four young women do not turn a lot of heads. Though blessed with pleasant faces, the four are, well, slightly heavy. But saying they are slightly heavy is like saying Michael Jackson is slightly odd.
The oddest thing of all may be that the women work in a business that covets good looks.
“I never thought that I could ever become a singer,” says Lee Young-hyun, 22. “I had tried before. They liked my voice, but they asked me to lose 30 kilograms in six months. That’s when I walked away.”
That was two years ago.
“So how much do you weigh now?”
“You don’t ask a lady that question,” comes the prompt reply.
So the question gets reworked: “Sixty or 70 kilos?”
“I’ll only say this: Sangsangchowol” (Beyond your imagination). “That’s all you’re gonna get from me.”
And so it goes.
Big Mama, four zaftig pop singers who have grabbed Korean’s attention, if not tonnage, won’t reveal what the scales show. Indeed, they don’t give a whit about their weight and, thankfully, nor does Korea.
The four are, to put it bluntly, a huge hit with Koreans in their 20s and 30s who adore their rhythm and blues vocals.
The pop group was formed, the foursome says, with the idea that as long as people considered their singing abilities good, their physical appearances would never be a concern.
Actually, Big Mama may be obligated to maintain its vast appeal. “We might be in breach of contract if we got plastic surgery or lost weight,” Lee says.
These days Lee says that she is very happy since she can sing professionally without worrying too much about her girth. If it bothers other people, too bad.
The name Big Mama was given to the young women by representatives of YG Entertainment and M-Boat, two local talent agencies which now represent the group. A YG flack saw the unconventional quartet clomping about the studio one day, nicknamed them Big Mama, and it stuck.
Though the name is drawing plenty of notice in slim-crazed Korea, the two words have yet to challenge the fame -- or the musical skills -- of Mama Cass Elliott, the now-deceased corpulent chanteuse of the iconic 1960s American rock group, The Mamas and the Papas.
Shin Yeon-ah, who is Big Mama’s de facto leader because she has the most professional singing experience, says that she didn’t like the name at first. “I didn’t want to get attention because of a name, and I didn’t want people to make a connection between the name and our actual appearance.”
Since 1995, Shin has worked as a back-up singer for countless Korean pop acts, but nobody ever asked her to step to the front of the stage.
“Well, let’s just say I am not your prototypical pop starlet. I guess that’s why my phone never rang.” At 32, she’s not exactly young, by industry standards, to have just recorded her first album. But finally getting the chance to grab the spotlight is all that matters, she says.
“I know it’s late, but for me it’s just great to be able to do all this,” Shin says.
Park Hun-pyo, the group’s manager, admits he was skeptical about having the group debut at this point, for even the big names in the Korean music industry are having trouble selling CDs. “To be honest, it was a much bigger risk than anything we had done before. Sure, the idea is unique, but I wasn’t too thrilled about the timing.”
Just as their management had doubts about the group’s prospects, so did the members. Big Mama had heavy doubts believing they could be stars.
Park Min-hye, 22, who attends Dongduk Women’s University in Seoul, says that singing was always more of a hobby. Singing in her church choir was her first outlet and gave her exposure to gospel music, which she continues to love. But she was realistic about her prospects outside a choir loft.
“I like to sing, but I know that I am not a beauty. I always thought I didn’t have the looks to become famous. So the closest I thought I would get to being a star was to join a professional chorus.” She backed up well-known Korean singers such as Park Hyo-shin before she joined Big Mama in January 2002.
Lee Jee-young, 24, a senior at Dongduk, had some experience as a vocalist for an underground band but could never get auditions for anything more mainstream. She still remembers how talent agents would tell her how great her voice was. “And then came the ‘but,’” she says. “‘Your voice is great, but ...’ ‘It sounds fantastic, but ...’”
Size does matter a lot, it seemed.
Unlike most singers, a photograph of Big Mama does not grace the cover of their only album, which appeared in early February, or on the inside of the CD, with the lyrics. Park, the group’s manager, points out that Big Mama has not been on television. “Usually, the so-called video-type singers, the ones who have the looks, go straight to the tube. We did not want to do that. We wanted to wait.”
According to Park, getting on the radio and doing live concerts are the group’s main priorities. “Our aim is to get their sound out and let the public decide.”
In fact, a portion of the Korean public has decided that anti-beauty in the entertainment world is alright. The Bubble Sisters, four young Korean women who wear the black makeup and hairstyles reminiscent of slavery-mimicking minstrel acts in the United States more than a century ago, have turned out their first album. But the four are generating just as much controversy as they are fans. “Dehumanizing” and “absurd,” complained one African-American resident of Korea.
Another singer, Park Jae-sang, a short, chubby fellow who calls himself “Psy” and periodically shows off a flabby midsection on videos, will never be mistaken for a pretty boy.
On March 15, Big Mama will make its TV debut on “Yoon Do-hyun’s Love Letter,” a popular music show on KBS hosted by the rocker Yoon Do-hyun, who achieved fame last summer with his rousing World Cup theme song.
The group’s music video, which also came out last month, does not attempt to conceal the four’s bulk. Instead, the video takes jabs at the pencil-thin kids who dominate the pop genre with their over-produced studio albums and lip-synced “live” performances. In the video, four gaunt, stick-like models sing in a bar to an adoring crowd while the members of Big Mama do the actual singing backstage.
The group’s focus on sounds rather than pounds is paying off. According to YG Entertainment, 90 percent of the group’s recordings sold are on CD, which is unusual in Korea; sales are usually divided 50-50 between cassette tapes and CDs. YG says the numbers suggest that fans want a higher-quality recording for the group’s higher-quality voices. Size-schmize.
Lee Sang-chul, a marketing manager at YG, says that although Big Mama isn’t yet smashing sales records, the group’s growing success was a bit unexpected. “I must say that it’s a pleasant surprise.”
Lee says that for the past couple of years the Korean music industry, like the music industry worldwide, has been in a decline in terms of sales, losing out mostly to free mp3 computer downloads.
According to Tube Music, a Web site that sells CDs and other music-related items online, Big Mama’s first album has been in the lower range of the top 10 albums in terms of sales for the last month. The group’s fan site already has more than 9,000 members.
That’s pretty large. But then so are these women.
by Brian Lee