Out of Orbit: The LOONA Revolution

from the “Hi High” MV

Blockberry Creative’s two-year “LOONA” project finally came to fruition with the 12-member girl group’s debut mini-album [++] this August. Since late 2016, LOONA’s members have debuted one-by-one with solo releases, with three subunits formed along the way: LOONA 1/3, LOONA Odd Eye Circle, and LOONA yyxy, each of them collecting a handful of the then-available members. While domestically LOONA remain a relative obscurity and are more or less unproven, they’ve managed in this time to build a respectable international demand and critical audience. This two-year period saw a considerable outpouring of quality music even as Blockberry’s methodology in building LOONA defied the orthodoxy of the K-pop industry as we know it.

The backbone of LOONA’s mystique was in their unique unveiling. Introducing the 12 individual girls with solo releases (and the accompanying music videos, an essential element) was quickly recognized as breaking from tradition; especially when paired with the conceptual mystery that surrounded the group, providing them with esoteric baggage. While oft-cited as the most impressive aspect of the group’s gestation period, the uniqueness of this “mythos” is perhaps exaggerated by fans and aficionados. The consistent callbacks to previous releases/videos and particularly the baiting of fans with these easter eggs is well-trodden territory for the likes of BTS, while the notion of an ever-expanding fantasy universe explored in music videos is likewise performed by the likes of smaller contemporary girl groups like Dreamcatcher, WSJN, and GWSN. It’s also far too vague a mythos without the investment of the fans’ dedicated theorizing and conspiring to invest this world-building exercise with more than promotional window-dressing. Granted, Blockberry have only indulged and perhaps even capitalized on this fandom generated enthusiasm with their “LOONA Cinema Theory” events.

Blockberry’s opportunism in this regard is understandable—despite the high levels of hype and anticipation surrounding LOONA, the group is unavoidably disadvantaged compared to many others in their industry. Blockberry, and parent company Polaris above it, are not of repute as a label compared to the big three of SM, YG, & JYP. Even smaller labels such as Cube are established in a way the team responsible for shepherding LOONA is not. That LOONA is to compete on the same level as relatively fresh-faced upper-echelon girl groups such as Blackpink, GFriend, Twice, Red Velvet, or even among the ever-shifting landscape of ‘lower-tier’ groups, sets a difficult task—to which Polaris can attest with their beleaguered promotion of Ladies Code over the past few years. To put a group with such a costly overhead through the rat race without the benefits of having former survival show stars or any cross-media support—elements that bolster many current groups—feels downright naive. If anything, the nature of LOONA’s release methods aren’t just thematic. They feel downright tactical in their antithetical nature.

LOONA are in fact their own universe; their own commercial universe. When members of the LOONA 1/3rd unit appeared on the survival show Mix Nine (their first big television presentation, as none of their members had yet performed for any of their singles), subunit Odd Eye Circle was already in the process of unveiling and simultaneously preparing to become the first LOONA unit to appear for interviews and televised appearances. Likewise, when OEC were doing the media rounds, hype was built around the yyxy unit who’d subsequently make additional media impact. Each of these subunits (and even the girls as individuals) seemed to leapfrog off the previous member’s impact for continuous buzz-building and hype; aided no doubt by the bite-size behind-the-scenes videos on the group’s LOONA TV Youtube channel.

The Mix Nine appearance was in late 2017, already over a year past the initial phases of LOONA’s announcement and with no “proper” group in sight. All of this music, press, performance, and labor was to construct a brand for a group that would not come to realization for roughly another half of a year—but considering that the group’s recent appearance on the Idol Room variety show is beside the more traditionally visible and commercially successful survival group fromis_9, it appears to have worked to their benefit.

The Mix Nine appearance, however, points to the reality of this sort of self-contained existence, which is the dominant nature of the K-pop industry at large. In a now-infamous incident for the fans of the group and the show, empresario Papa YG saw fit to intensely criticize the members of LOONA 1/3 after they showcased their talents as individuals. Criticism ranged from potentially fair to obviously mean-spirited, but beneath the surface was a seeming disinterest (or perhaps even disdain) for Blockberry and the acts that the girls named as their role models. Compared to the commercial successes under YG’s patronage, certainly LOONA were working to satisfy expectations of companies whose successes are ‘lesser.’ But to say the worth of these other groups wasn’t of note is a clear dismissal made by someone displaying power and success. YG did appropriately recognize that the members of the group (specifically Heejin and Hyunjin) were “preparing for it right now,” but his disregard for whom the group members represent hints at other concerns.

Despite the long-running rollout, LOONA’s abnormal promotional tactics gained considerable media attention and a loyal fanbase. This ploy, while relatively insignificant next to the commercial juggernauts and promotional onslaught that the Big Three and many other teams undergo to ensure their acts thrive commercially, succeeded in ways that even larger groups don’t often, if ever, approach. If YG was made aware at any case prior to or even during the recording of Mix Nine, he would be able to take note of Blockberry’s tactics and subsequent results; especially the critical/international fascination with LOONA that allows a significant western press relationship that YG acts like Blackpink and even 2NE1 haven’t touched. While conjecture, one must wonder if YG’s hostility towards LOONA results not from their relative inexperience, but from a mistrust of Blockberry’s methods. After all, if LOONA’s patient gambit was to result in the group becoming one of his major competitors despite their break from tradition, it would reveal the dominant business model of K-pop to be antiquated and unnecessary.

With the initial rollout for LOONA now completed, some have opined that the conceptual baggage and outlier status is in danger of becoming an albatross and, should the group want to become one of the bigger names in the K-pop industry, they should shed that image in favor of a more traditional model. However, Blockberry and LOONA’s success so far suggests that there may be a way forward for the group outside of that well-worn path. LOONA are on track to grow far beyond any expectations, but they are still essentially a ‘rookie’ act, even with two years of hype and development to their name. What will ultimately validate LOONA is if the project’s ambitions and creative freedoms achieve success on a level that demonstrates beyond doubt that their uncanny approaches are not just unconventional, but exceptional.

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