Girl group 'centers' are now a thing of the past
“Who is the center of this group?”
This is a question K-pop fans often ask when they first start getting to know a certain band.
In the K-pop industry, “center” is a term that refers to a group member who receives the most support and publicity from their agency. A center often literally stands in the center during a performance, has the most song lines and screen time in music videos, and is prioritized when appearing on TV shows. Naturally, the center becomes the most recognizable and popular figure of the group.
The tendency to designate and promote a member as the center was most noticeable among girl groups, which usually did not have fan bases as large and loyal as boy bands did.
“Fans of boy bands, predominantly women, are usually larger in number and more loyal than fans of girl groups” said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun. “As a result, members of a boy band are more likely to evenly receive attention from the fan base, while girl groups need to work harder to appeal to the general public.”
A center is considered to be the face of a group. Old-school K-pop girl groups such as Girls’ Generation, Miss A and AOA, which debuted between 2007 and 2012 respectively, had members Yoona, Suzy and Seolhyun as their unshakeable centers. The centers took the lead in captivating the public’s attention, and an attractive center was a must for a group’s success.
Nowadays, however, the distinction between a center and other non-center members is becoming increasingly blurry. More girl groups are distributing lines and screen time evenly among members instead of focusing on just one center.
“When I watch Blackpink’s music videos or concerts, I have no idea who the center is,” said a new fan of four-member girl group Blackpink. “The camera or spotlight doesn’t focus on any particular member.”
This changing trend is especially apparent among so-called fourth generation girl groups that debuted around 2018, such as (G)I-DLE and ITZY, that have no particular member as their centers.
The phenomenon has been visualized on fan pages that analyze line distributions among members and turn them into pie charts. YouTube channel HEXA6ON’s pie charts show that many girl groups today divide a song’s lines almost exactly evenly, even if they have a large number of members like six-member groups GFriend and (G)I-DLE and 12-member group IZ*ONE.
Designating a center member used to be a reasonable strategy in the K-pop industry. Management agencies aimed for a trickle-down effect, hoping that the center’s popularity would cause the group as a whole to become well-known.
The current K-pop girl group system is considered to have been established around 2007, when iconic K-pop acts Girls’ Generation, Wonder Girls and Kara debuted. The success of nine-member group Girls’ Generation sparked a trend of girl groups with a large number of members, which quickly saturated the K-pop scene.
A rapid increase of girl groups and the number of members meant it was impossible for every single member to catch the public eye. Agencies had to pick and choose a certain member to focus on for the group’s survival, concentrating most of its resources on the selected center so that she would gain popularity and promote the group’s name.
“Entertainment giants like SM Entertainment could afford to send members out to appear on various outlets such as TV series and radio shows, but those opportunities were limited for small and medium-sized agencies,” said pop culture critic Kim Jeong-hyeon. “They had to give all their opportunities to one center.”
Such strategy indeed worked for girl groups AOA, EXID and Miss A. AOA member Seolhyun appeared in numerous commercials, movies and TV series. Seolhyun was well-known to the Korean public even if they had never heard of the group AOA. Eventually as time passed, AOA as a whole became more well-known as Seolhyun rose to fame.
EXID, a group that was initially met with lukewarm success, also rapidly gained popularity in 2014 when a fan's individual video clip of member Hani’s performance went viral online.
However, the trickle-down strategy is as risky as it may be effective. Other members may hold a grudge against the center for monopolizing the spotlight even though they all worked hard together. As a result, the group’s team spirit may become shaky.
“The trickiest situation is when the center is not the main vocalist, and the main vocalist is less popular than the center,” said an entertainment firm insider. “The main vocalist sings the majority of the song and does most of the work during the recording process and may get extremely frustrated if the center receives all the attention.” A number of girl groups have split up or had members leave the team due to conflict revolving around this issue, the insider added.
Ever since the mid-2010s, management agencies have been breaking away from the center strategy, no longer focusing on just one member. Girl group Twice debuted in 2015 under JYP Entertainment and initially pushed member Nayeon as the center, but soon started shining the spotlight on other members including Tzuyu and Sana.
JYP Entertainment reportedly learned its lesson the hard way from its former four-member girl group Miss A, which debuted in 2010. The agency had high expectations of the team as a whole, but when member Suzy gained a disproportionate amount of popularity and started starring in TV series, the group was soon only a name and eventually disbanded in 2017.
The experience led JYP Entertainment to limit Twice members’ individual activities, such as solo appearances in commercials and TV shows, to prevent certain members from taking all of the spotlight. Agencies now focus on the fountain effect as opposed to the trickle-down effect; instead of relying on one member’s popularity to promote the group, the entire group shares the spotlight in order to grow together. The bottom line is that a group can only last if they succeed as a group.
The shift also reflects another change in social trends. A girl group’s center was often the most conventionally attractive member of the group. However, as beauty standards are becoming, slowly but surely, more diversified, selecting the most conventionally attractive member as the center of attention and opportunities may not sit well with fans from a generation that values fairness and political correctness.
”I think we can call this a ‘multi-center’ system or a ‘no-center’ one,” said Kim Jin-woo, chief researcher at Gaon Chart.
Kim added that the change may be a new strategy itself. “Since each member has a different image, this makes it easier for groups to change up their public image and concepts with more flexibility. When a group has a fixed center, its image is also fixed — but a center-less group has more room for various music genres, therefore enabling various marketing strategies.”
BY YOU SEONG-UN, HALEY YANG [email@example.com]