YG Entertainment and Authenticity in K-Pop

The idea of authenticity in pop music is always a contentious one. In the west, every effort is made to make sure the pop star is seen to be the real deal. While in Asia, the idol system is a transparent one in which the fans know young girls and boys train for years to debut and are almost completely controlled by their company. YG Entertainment pride themselves on their more authentic than usual idols and roots in hip-hop. From the acquisition of rap royalty Epik High to the home grown writer producer G-Dragon to the real rappers of iKon, YG has continually put its faith in authentic talent. YG still deal in pop music though, and Yang Hyun Suk and producers like Teddy and Kush are well known as big parts of the music in the company.

Money making and authenticity tend to not go together well, but all pop music is made to make money. So can there be authentic pop music and is YG it? Is their style true or a clever marketing trick? I want to examine YG’s output of 2014 to try and get at some answers. I won’t necessarily be looking at the specific quality of the songs, although it can’t be avoided, but mostly how they were marketed compared to how authentic or interesting they turned out to be.

There is no doubt as to YG’s hip-hop roots being fairly legitimate. YG has come a long way since then however, and are now the second biggest music label in South Korea. In order to get to where they are now though, they have sacrificed some of their ideals in order to get ahead. The idea of authenticity has changed within the company as it becomes more focused on idol groups. The illusion of authenticity has proven to be more effective than putting the work into originality, and 2014 was the year it all came together.

Also on KultScene: YG Entertainment Wants You To Know It’s Different

Last year, YG debuted two new groups, AKMU and WINNER, and created a new one to debut later this year, iKON. Without even getting into the details of the groups, we can see a difference between them and YG’s roots. A lot of them come from talent shows; this immediately raises alarms about the authenticity of these groups. That’s not to say everyone who auditions at talent shows is inauthentic, but it is hard to find true artists through them. There are many talented singers, dancers, and rappers, but how many are the brand of supposed authentic that YG claims it wants?

Akdong Musician were one of these, and were a huge sensation after K-Pop Star. Their music appealed to the Korean market but brought with it an interesting undercurrent thanks to Lee Chanhyuk’s compositions and the vocal dynamic between him and Lee Suhyun. After winning the show, they had the choice themselves to choose between the big three companies. They chose YG explaining that they felt they could express themselves the best there. YG’s image was working for them before even signing Akdong to their label. I have no doubt about the talents of AKMU and they had the right idea by singing with YG, but I wonder if Akdong still feel the same today.

YG has taken the soul of what Akdong Musician are and diluted it with the “YG style.” This is a disservice not only to Chanhyuk and Suhyun but to fans who came to love Akdong’s original sound and image. Their debut single 200% was a generic soft hip-hop pop song which did nothing to showcase the possible talents of Akdong. They even made them dance for the live shows which looked awkward for all involved. They even changed their name to AKMU. It’s not all bad for Akdong though, as their other big song of the year, Melted, is an incredible social critique with a stripped back piano accompaniment, and one of the best music videos of the year.

While Akdong Musician were taken from outside of YG’s doors, WINNER were created in a reality show made by the company. WIN: Who is Next? followed two different boy groups made of YG trainees as they fought to debut as the first YG boy group since BIGBANG. They were Team A and Team B, with Team A eventually winning, being christened as WINNER and given a debut.

Pop music is a business, and in business, major companies do not take risks on letting the public have a say in their next move. So when a show like this runs, I can’t help but be sceptical. YG ultimately would have total control over what was shown and it would be naive to think that they wouldn’t have made edits in accordance with their own plans. Favour was more than likely thrown in Team A’s direction to keep in line with these. The fact that Bobby from Team B, or iKon now, couldn’t make the top team even though he is the hottest property on the K-pop market right now shows there was a plan for each group prior to shooting the show. Considering that YG had the ultimate say in who won confirms this to be nothing more than a vanity project attempting to showcase their authenticity.

I realise these are completely unfounded claims, but I can’t help but feel that show was completely manipulative. Putting these aside, I want to look at WINNER’s highly anticipated debut. The promo for it was one of the best ever seen in not only K-pop but all pop in recent years. It featured micro films with each member, short documentaries about their feelings leading up to their debut and even an incredibly produced instrumental track over interesting visuals. Everything was done in a consistently stylish and artful manner. Expectation was high for something truly interesting.

… Then they released a ballad.

Ballads are the safest, most mainstream and dull kind of song in all of K-pop. Ballads from drama soundtracks consistently top the charts and have been doing so more and more recently. So when WINNER, after the amazing build up, released Empty, I was severely disappointed. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad song, just a completely safe one considering the teasers and YG’s talk of WINNER being more than just a Korean group. So of course Empty went on to be a huge success making WINNER the fastest boy group to win a music program award and winning more awards at the MAMAs and Melon. As soon as YG saw the success they doubled down by releasing a solo song from WINNER’s rapper Mino, I’m Him which sounded like a rejected G-Dragon album cut.

Also on KultScene: Let’s Discuss: WINNER As A New Type Of Idol

I want to save any criticism or praise for iKon for when they properly debut. I will say however that Bobby seems to be trying to make a legitimate career for himself, but doesn’t see that he is now an idol because of this. Trying to distance himself from other idols won’t help him at all as it will only make him seem like a try-hard boy group member.

All of 2014’s releases stem from an apparent move from YG to become a more global company. Even Epik High have lost the personal touch that made their earlier music so good. With CL making her way over to America and PSY already achieving huge crossover success, YG can obviously see themselves as the biggest K-Pop players –in the U.S. at least.

In order to continue attacking the western market though, they are losing any sense of true authenticity in place of a corporate illusion of reality. They put the main focus of their groups on their supposed legitimate rappers to give a sense of originality to them. Yet when music is released, it is generic and uninteresting. YG has essentially tricked their fans into believing everything they do is true artistry, that everything they release comes 100 percent from the members themselves. In the pop music world, this is impossible. This is the true quality of YG, making corporate look authentic.

What do you think of YG’s authenticity? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

  • Moody

    I actually loved this article! I totally loved the last sentence. You critised them using the right words without sounding like a dick.. and sadly I have to agree with most of your points expect for epik high and akdong musician I think their music is not heavily customised by YG’s need akmu knew what they were goin into so they chose YG for a reason and I think epik high’s album is the best thing coming out from YG this year I don’t think they lost their touch they have changed as people and their music changed too. YG knew their last album wasn’t that great so didn’t want to influence them much. But yeah I kinda understand why people hate YG ent I mean saying they are copying black music and acting tryhard cause at some point this is true but which music genre isn’t influenced by black music nowadays? There are so many other points good and bad to say about YG success and YHS himslef but that you can’t deny they are really on top despite all the scandals he knows how to stand which shows his great business skills. Now we need to see how he applies his skills when BB will be gone.

    • CaptainJoeHook

      I didn’t sound like a dick woo! But yeah you make a good point about Epik High, Shoebox was a vast improvement on their first album with YG.

      • Moody

        ops I didn’t know you wrote well you got a new fan 🙂 I am reading all YG articles and other stuff too and I am liking all of them so far

  • Lee

    I completely disagree with you because so much of the facts you claim are just false. For example, “So of course Empty went on to be a huge success making WINNER the fastest boy group to win a music program award and winning more awards at the MAMAs and Melon. As soon as YG saw the success they doubled down by releasing a solo song from WINNER’s rapper Mino, I’m Him which sounded like a rejected G-Dragon album cut.” First of all before WINNER’s album was even release, YGE already stated that Mino would have a solo on the album. Before, WINNER’s album was even release it was already announce that I’m Him would have a music video as well. If you watch WINNER TV or did your research correctly you would know that. So to claim that they release I’m Him because of the success of Empty is false. Another example, is claiming that Epik High lost what made them special after joining YG. If you know Epik High, you would know that Epik High had already lost their personal touch before joining YG. A lot of it had to do with Tajinyo. The numerous false information in your writing completely discredits your article.

    • CaptainJoeHook

      You claim much of the facts are false but then only take issue with one. I honestly don’t know much about winner’s tv show so you’re probably right about that. That has little to do with my argument though and whether it’s true or not doesn’t change what I think. It’s only one mere fact. As for epik high that’s less a fact more an opposing opinion. I don’t think Tajinyo should make them lose their personal touch. It has influenced them but to only write songs about ‘haters’ and other uninteresting things like that.

  • Junni

    I don’t think this is true. AKMU mostly handles their own music and there’s no true singer in the world who only explores one genre or style of music. You explore music and find things that you like and things that are fun and things that sound good, even if they weren’t made with a serious message or purpose (taking some of Psy’s and BIGBANG’s music as examples) and sometimes they get released on an album, so Epik High was likely just adjusting to their new environment, testing the waters so to speak.

    As for WIN, I think YG is smarter than you’re giving him credit for.

    It’s possible that he had WIN planned from the start and divided the teams with that end in mind and, even if he wasn’t planning WIN, the fact is: YG would never debut two boy-bands that are that similar that close together. YG plays the long game, slowly building his wealth and influence and carefully preparing each of his artists for the various setbacks they’re likely to face in the industry (which includes getting shoved into second place by people you call friends).

    As I was saying about team divisions, the characters are distributed in such a way that no matter who debuts first it’ll feel bittersweet. The three talents that people were most looking forward to seeing again were split between the teams and YG must have known that no matter who debuted the reaction would be the same. The point of WIN was to show both teams how easy it would be to lose (knowing how close you are to failure always makes people desperate to succeed and desperation equals motivation), allowing the fans to feel as though they have a voice or a measure of power within the industry, giving people a stronger emotional attachment to both teams and demonstrating the desirability of YG as something that people are willing to fight for and something that can’t be attained without a fight.

    The supposed-to-be-sixth-member of BIGBANG shows that even with a decent voice and a nice face, YG won’t let just anyone be famous.

    Overall, it was an incredibly effective method of ensuring WINNER’s success regardless of who ended up with the name.

  • legally lethal

    personally I think yg entertainment is one that looks after their artist for one they don’t really rank their artists with looks its talent through out in one of the interviews tablo talks about how he got saved after his strathmore scandal even winner’s mino states in his rap during show me the money how he got saved by yg entertainment and thanks them in the cases of ikon and winner if you really understand yg you would he already had his plans set but not in a way that he sabotages a TV program to his liking as a viewer you will never know what a producer is looking for in an artist for us its just whoever makes us jump and happy are the winners but to them they look at different aspects. promoting their artist in america is good for the company and the artist so far for all I know they are currently the only entertainment company to have collaborations with big stars will.I.am and snoop dog, plus you can’t ignore the fact that they work together as a unit as a family and give their artists credit where it is due looking at other groups none of them make fun of their bosses the way big bang does one could say its a marketing ploy but frankly speaking if it was in that lane they wouldn’t he that relaxed, yg entertainment help heir artists grow that the whole point for these survival shows and techniques look at big bang most of the group members actually write and help in music production to video concept to their own schedules same foes to 2ne1,winner, ikon, akmu, epik high e.t.c

    • Joe Palmer