How K-pop singers are overcoming the military break

NFB members perform the act’s “ugly dance” at the 2022 Gyeryong World Military Culture Expo held in Gyeryong, South Chungcheong Province on Oct. 13. (Screenshot from video posted by YouTube channel Gustav)

It took a long time to confirm that even BTS cannot avoid South Korea’s mandatory military duty.

All able-bodied South Korean men are required to serve in the military for around a year and a half, inevitably forcing most K-pop stars out of the limelight at the height of their careers.

Military service was once considered a death sentence for a K-pop career. Most aspiring artists stuff their youthful efforts to establish their name, and an absence of nearly two years was often long enough for their fame to wear off.

But while many artists have already tried to postpone their service or even avoid it – conscription dodging scandals have tarnished the reputations of several stars – singers are increasingly adopting the service as a natural part of their career path.

Money-making activities are prohibited during military service, so artists stay in touch with fans online. For example, Exo member Baekhyun prepared monthly video uploads, while boy group Day6 released a new unit music video while they were away.

“Fans have become more mature about the interruption of their stars. Additionally, agencies are increasingly preparing content in advance. So rather than seeing that time as a waste, companies are now looking at it like a natural step,” said pop culture critic Park. Hee-a told the Korea Herald.

The constant stream of singer videos sometimes brings unexpected publicity to idols.

Such was the case with 2PM’s Junho, whose video of him performing the band’s 2015 song “My House” on a music show went viral. The members of 2PM admitted that the video played a big role in their return as a full group in 2021, after the members were released.

Boy group 2PM poses during the comeback media showcase held on June 28, 2021 (JYP Entertainment)

Boy group 2PM poses during the comeback media showcase held on June 28, 2021 (JYP Entertainment)

Boy band ONF gained more fame during their military hiatus. A YouTube video of act members J-Us and E-Tion dancing to New Jeans’ “Hype Boy” at an Army-sponsored event racked up more than 2 million views in just days, raising awareness their name to many for the first time.

ONF is the first K-pop group whose members, except for Japanese member U, enlisted in the military together. In a letter to fans, leader Hyojin said they decided to enlist in December 2021 after a long discussion among the members so that “ONF can meet the fans as a full group as soon as possible.” .

Supported by the rise in popularity, the boys even set a new service record. The music video for “Your Song,” the lead track from his special album “Storage of ONF,” racked up 20 million views in four days, the act’s best showing yet.

ONF (WM Entertainment)

ONF (WM Entertainment)

Pop music critic Kim Do-heon said these kinds of changes surrounding the enlistment of artists began in the 2010s, especially after the entertainment soldier system was abolished in 2013.

“In the past, many performed their duties as entertainment soldiers, which meant performing in the military. Nor did the military band draw attention to individual talents,” said Kim.

But now it looks like the military has figured out how to better use entertainment staff, Kim said. Rather than being granted special privileges, many singers and actors are given the opportunity to perform at local events hosted by the military while serving regularly.

The average lifespan of K-pop acts itself has also become longer. While even big names, such as Seo Taiji and Boys, Fin.KL, and HOT, lasted just five years in the 1990s, reports show groups lasted five to seven years on average in the 2010s. In recent years, an increasing number of groups have even overcome the famous “seven-year crisis”. Previously, bands would often break up at the end of their contracts, which were legally limited to seven years.

Groups BtoB and Highlight each made successful comebacks following members doing their military service, Highlight with “Not The End” in May 2021 and BtoB with “Be Together” in February. SHINee also returned after a 2.5-year hiatus last year with their seventh LP “Don’t Call Me,” following the dismissal of their three senior members. With “Don’t Call Me”, the quartet swept the major music charts and recorded their strongest sales performance.

Image from SHINee's seventh repackaged LP

Image from SHINee’s seventh repackaged LP

Day 6 (JYP Entertainment)

Day 6 (JYP Entertainment)

Many artists also use their group’s break activities to explore solo careers. While solo debuts were limited to only the most promising group members in the past, more and more K-pop actors are trying solo projects at the start of their careers, allowing them to officially launch. as soloists when group activities cease. SHINee’s Taemin has released solo albums and performed concerts when Onew, Key, and Minho were away, and with Taemin now on duty, the other three are each thriving as soloists.

Day6 also leaves no time for fans to feel their absence through solo and unit releases. After Sungjin’s enlistment in March 2021, the other three members continued as unit Even of Day and made their solo debuts. The three also enlisted in the order, with Wonpil beginning his service as the last member in March. But fans had little time for the group’s absence to be felt when Sungjin returned on September 6. This was followed by the announcement of the quartet’s full contract renewal with JYP Entertainment a few days later.

“The military break has become like a milestone for the second chapter of a career. For a band like Day6, which had gained a good reputation up to this point, they are passing the period smoothly to welcome their next step,” commented Park.

The experts, however, both stressed that this optimistic outlook would only apply to the best performing groups.

“The overall size of the K-pop industry has grown, and we must not forget that there are more groups that are disappearing before they even get into the limelight. The military interruption is still threat to them,” Park said, adding, “Even for the successful few, the idol industry pushes them to keep making new music in order to stay in the realm of fame. so many new bands and new music coming out these days.

The fact that a full band comeback is taking so long is part of what makes the military hiatus a crisis for boy bands, Kim said. In the case of Super Junior, it took nearly 10 years for the nine-piece to make a full comeback.

K-pop group BTS performs at their concert

K-pop group BTS performs at their concert

BTS, which will begin its military hiatus with Jin’s enlistment at the end of this year, is expected to return as a group between 2025 and 2027, according to its agency Hybe. The company is currently working on members’ solo outings to minimize the impact of the lack of group activities, Kim explained.

Even though BTS is set to provide their service, Kim added that the discussion about granting exemptions or alternative choices to high-profile pop celebrities should continue.

“It’s not just about granting exemptions, but about providing the right treatment to artists who have contributed nationally, and also putting them in the right positions to take full advantage of their service,” Kim continued. .

“Even if entertainers must carry out their duties, there will be ways for the military to better utilize their reputation and fame.”

By Choi Ji-won ([email protected])

Previous “Goblin” to “Itaewon Class,” Popularity of K-drama Soundtracks Help New Singers: K-pop Producer Seo
Next We interview composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, a pioneer in the tangible realization of the impalpable