Musing On Music #7

by Hannah Weiss

There’s No ‘I’ In Team: By going solo to define their own sound, do singers sacrifice the potential of performing as a group?

Going solo is a rite of passage for many popstars. After building a fanbase and platform as part of a band, artists including Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Gwen Stefani and Justin Timberlake have all gone on to forge successful solo careers. Yet many more have fallen in their wake. There were once four women in Destiny’s Child, but Beyoncé is the one we remember. Gary Barlow, once the frontman of Take That, could not compete with Robbie Williams, who stepped out from his bandmate’s shadow to become Take That’s breakout star. Why is it that some singers succeed as soloists while others fail to make the cut?

Justin Timberlake is a standout example of a boy-bander turned critically acclaimed solo artist. After a successful stint in NSYNC, when the boyband trend was on the decline, he stepped away from the group and made an unexpected shift into R&B. This reinvention of an individual’s sound is the hallmark of kickstarting and maintaining a successful solo career. The artist must be clearly distinguishable, both sonically and in character, from the music of their band and the role they played within it. Gary Barlow arguably orchestrated his own downfall by releasing a solo debut similar to the sound that made him famous in Take That. Meanwhile, in contrast to being known as the youngest member of NSYNC, Timberlake reidentified himself as an adult artist by taking on a more mature sound, thus repositioning himself in the music market and gaining the attention of a wider audience.

While Beyoncé achieved chart-topping success with Destiny’s Child, she had to leave the group to gain recognition as a solo artist and broaden her creative output to the reggae, trap and funk-infused societal-critique and visual spectacle that was 2016’s Lemonade. Why do we require a singer to separate from their bandmates to establish their own sound and become a star in their own right? While the determination of artists like Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake to seek solo stardom led to the demise of their respective bands, on the other side of the globe, things work a little differently.

Big Bang is one of South Korea’s most successful K-Pop bands. Active since 2006, they have run the gamut of genres from hip hop to electropop, won multiple awards, amassed a global army of fans and sold out international arena tours. Along the way, the five members have forged solo careers while maintaining a cohesive unit. Rapper G-Dragon and lead singer Taeyang are arguably the band’s most successful members, having each released several solo albums and EPs. Both have established their own niche, with Taeyang rebranding himself as an R&B crooner and G-Dragon making his mark as a maverick of sounds, blending his hip hop roots with rock, EDM and Korean folk to create a sound that is entirely his own. Fellow rapper TOP has emulated Justin Timberlake by carving out a career as a film actor, while teaming up with G-Dragon to release hip hop tracks as a chart-topping sub-unit. Despite not reaching the same level of acclaim, remaining members Daesung and Seungri have each maintained healthy solo careers in music and acting.

By reuniting every few years to release another group project, Big Bang have not disbanded, but maintained their collective identity, while simultaneously carving out their own paths. It is somewhat remarkable that this strategy has not been emulated in the west, as the commercial returns are five-fold when each member of the band can top the charts individually as well as when performing together.

The success of this tactic is further demonstrated by Station, an annual project created by SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s top record labels. Station takes its name from radio, which is known to introduce listeners to a variety of sounds through the curation of playlists. By releasing one new single each week, SM Entertainment imitates this strategy; teaming a singer from one of its many established and active bands with a solo artist from an independent label and contrasting genre. Key examples would be the pairing of Girls Generation member Tiffany with rapper Simon Dominic, and EXO member Chen with DJ Alesso. By allowing Tiffany and Chen to participate in Station, SM Entertainment gave each singer the opportunity to develop their sound beyond the confines of their respective group’s more generic pop output and collaborate with an artist accomplished in an entirely different genre. The approach turns the western model of a solo artist’s cultivated individual creativity on its head, as the Station singers shift between different group dynamics to experiment with a variety of sounds.

The wider social and cultural context of each country arguably plays a role in influencing these trends, as South Korea’s more collectivist ideology contrasts with America’s prioritisation of the individual. It would perhaps seem disingenuous in the west for an artist to remain attached to a band while releasing solo material – as if they were holding on to a fall-back rather than bravely stepping out on their own. And while in South Korea audiences appear to welcome singers slipping between genres, the idea of creative expression in America is more fixed. G-Dragon, for example, can confidently release an album that melds elements from multiple genres and be acclaimed as a trailblazer, since one of the identifying characteristics of K-Pop as an umbrella genre is its blending of different sounds. Since South Korea’s popular music scene was established in the mid-1990s, there was a wide range of established sounds ready to play with and remake. Whereas in America, where many of these same established sounds have their roots, it arguably goes against convention to cross genre borders in the same way.

Both approaches have their merits. Queen B is a brand in her own right, as the west’s focus on an individual’s unique character and artistry encourages fans to idolise solo singers by identifying with their trademark persona. While in South Korea, audiences experience a more fluid soundscape curated by artists who continuously switch roles, moving between genres and groups to maintain an ever-changing appeal.