March 19, 2013
Massive meta study: B1A4


This post goes out to all the friends who haven’t yet discovered the joy of B1A4… And to all the friends who already have: y’all know what it is.

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Introduction: Why meta? Why B1A4?

In this post, I offer my thoughts on the five members of idol group B1A4, for two reasons. First, this post is an exercise in empathy: it seeks to provide a compassionate analysis of five public figures who are very dedicated to the work they do, so that fans of the group can better imagine and appreciate these individuals’ lived realities. Second, I believe that in learning and growing together publicly, these particular individuals can help us better understand how to work as team and build community with others.

This post is not intended to be an exhaustive primer about B1A4 (for that, go here); rather, it’s an evidence-based exploration of each of the members in an attempt to uncover the complexities of each individual and how they each contribute to the positive group dynamic. Of course, the evidence we have is necessarily incomplete – despite the massive amounts of data from variety shows, printed interviews, fansign events, promotional materials, and so on, these individuals do have lives outside of the public eye. So it’s important to keep in mind that this analysis can’t tell the whole story, and it shouldn’t tell the whole story, out of respect for the individuals’ private lives. (I do welcome evidence-based discussion of the arguments I’ve presented, though!)

Links throughout, and list of classic videos and gifs at end. Image heavy.

Jinyoung

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Jung Jinyoung, B1A4’s leader, composer, and vocalist, is the epitome of cool. Operating on the belief that “hard work never betrays you,” Jinyoung leads with dedication and dignity, creating his own music and shepherding his tiny flock through the rough-and-tumble kpop industry (and all the things that includes). Suave, sophisticated, and supremely confident, Jinyoung always puts in his complete effort with a strong faith that he’ll prevail. Though Jinyoung’s most recognizable work - composing - is done alone in the studio with a set of headphones on, he works whatever crowd he’s with in order to promote B1A4. 

Jinyoung’s primary leadership styles are affiliative and democratic, meaning that he prioritizes relationships among members (and the other industry folks within B1A4’s circles), and decisions are made together, as a team. Among the members, he’s known as “the evangelist of positive thinking” for constantly encouraging everyone to be and do their best. He frequently delegates leadership roles within song composition and preparations for performance: members take turns directing as they record their songs, CNU and Baro often write rap lyrics, and the whole group is consulted in Jinyoung’s song creation process. Jinyoung makes his calls based on what will help the group be successful and what will help individual members grow. For instance, even though Sandeul’s constant singing in the dorm got on his nerves while he was composing, Jinyoung refrained from scolding him because he realized that kind of practice was how Sandeul would improve.

Initially, Jinyoung has said that he was so focused on relationships that he hesitated to offer critical feedback to the other members, he realized that holding back from being firm wouldn’t help them improve their skills. In the studio, Jinyoung is a perfectionist, demanding nothing but the best and working with members, especially Sandeul, until they get it right. (Baro has said that Jinyoung can get really scary when he’s angry, but it’s a side we don’t see on camera, and Jinyoung says that reasons for anger are scarce these days.) Furthermore, Jinyoung recognizes and often pays tribute to the ways that making music is an iterative, collaborative process among members and fans. The BABA Ep. 16 video features Jinyoung narrating the story of B1A4 from its debut to the its first anniversary and explicitly attributes the group’s success to the participation of fans.

Jinyoung considers his own growth to be an important part of the team’s progress; he took up composing “to be of some use to the team” above and beyond his role as its leader. Though he had no formal training in music composition, Jinyoung began to study composing on his own and has since written four title tracks (Baby I’m Sorry, Baby Good Night, Tried to Walk, and What’s Happening) and several B-sides for the group. It seems likely that Jinyoung was able to transfer some of his skills for tinkering (members say he can fix anything mechanical) over to his work with electronic music. Furthermore, Jinyoung thinks of songwriting and music as a chance to explore fantasies, and he works to develop storylines within his songs that are not always obvious and that expose narrative complexities (“reversals”). In doing so, he asks audiences to think more deeply about what they’re listening to, just as the composition process demands that Jinyoung himself, as well as the other members, think more deeply about his music than most idols ever do. (Check them out waxing theoretical here and here!)

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Jinyoung’s perfectionism, competitiveness, and his belief that hard work inevitably leads to success set lofty standards for the group, but at times he can come across as arrogant or vain (see his preening above, a symptom of what the other members call “prince syndrome,” and how he covers his mouth when he laughs). On the occasions when he doesn’t achieve his goals, he seems surprised. In Hello Baby, Jinyoung struggled to comprehend four-year-old Eunsol’s fear of him, asking, “Why can’t you understand my heart?” rather than asking what he could do to build the relationship. And later in Hello Baby, after Baro won the fashion show, Jinyoung presented further arguments to the judges as to why his own design should have won. When asked about his strong points in one of the Hotline episodes, Jinyoung appeared surprised by the question, as if his strengths should be self-evident: “Uh, I’m a really good person. I can compose songs. I’m B1A4’s leader…” Although he’s reluctant to talk about himself here and elsewhere, I hypothesize that it’s because Jinyoung’s pretty sure he’s hot stuff, and he doesn’t feel the need to justify himself. He’s now getting acknowledgement as an actor through the drama She’s Wow and upcoming movie Suspicious Woman. But, at the end of the day, Jinyoung’s focus is on promoting B1A4. He’ll do just about anything, including jumping off of tall buildings, for the sake of the team.

CNU

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Shin Dongwoo, alias CNU (pronounced “Shinwoo”), is B1A4’s lead dancer, sub vocalist, and sub rapper. That’s enough for him to earn the title of multiplayer, but if we’re being honest, his proficiencies in these areas don’t particularly make him stand out from the idol crowd the way that Jinyoung’s composing abilities do. CNU looks up to other multiplayers like Usher and Rain, but he also acknowledges that he wouldn’t thrive on his own – so much of the growth he’s done over the last two years has everything to do with being in community with the rest of B1A4, and without them, he’d stagnate. “I’m always glad I’m not a solo artist,” he’s said. (That said, on the rare occasions that CNU does get the chance to shine apart from the others, as in this performance or in Hello Baby’s English lesson [here at 11:10-11:24], he’s pretty impressive.)

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My theory of Shin Dongwoo is that he is “outside the text.” Essentially introverted at heart, but craving the adulation of millions, CNU is the most self-conscious member of B1A4. Unlike his compatriots, CNU doesn’t “lose himself” in performances – rather, he tries so hard, and he’s always judging himself, constantly evaluating everything from his appearance to his mannerisms to his words. This means that when he’s not prepared, he comes across as awkward; variety shows are really difficult for him. He’s trying to tune in with how the audience sees him, trying to get on the Usher-level of talent and the Jinyoung-level of cool – and never quite reaching it (he talks about it here!). In an effort to compensate for his lack of cool, he intellectualizes his experiences, to the point where the Sesame Player crew and the other members made fun of him for turning the show into a documentary. Though most people perceive him to be slow (which is why this is hilarious and poignant at the same time), CNU is reflective and deliberate: everything he does is carefully considered and vetted. He used to keep a diary that he wrote in every evening, describing what went well from the day and what he’d do differently (he no longer has time to write but says he reflects on the day before sleeping). If he’s not making a cupcake representing hopes for peace between North and South Korea (here, 8:30), he’s probably talking about the symbolism behind his not wearing glasses for the Tried to Walk comeback. Operating “outside the text” and reflectively analyzing everything has earned him the nickname “Classical Scholar CNU.”

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More than his words, though, CNU’s physicality frames his engagement with the world. For CNU, his body is a way of expressing himself, whether it’s through dance, showing care for others, or doing some hyung-ly behavior management. He’s always got his hands on someone, whether it’s holding hands with Jinyoung, patting Baro’s leg, or squeezing Sandeul’s neck or shoulder (this is especially moving during some of Sandeul’s tougher moments, such as the first fan club party or on the way to one of their Immortal Song appearances). Unlike other examples of idol skinship, CNU’s touchiness is not fanservice, and it’s not attention-seeking. It’s his transfer of energy from himself to the other; where saying the right words at the right time is difficult, CNU uses touch, a far more powerful tool, to encourage and support. This is especially important in his relationship with Sandeul, who perhaps needs that primal encouragement more than anybody else. CNU also employs touch as a way of managing behavior (and sometimes asserting authority), playfully fighting with Baro and Sandeul in Sesame Player and Hello Baby. On a metaphorical level, CNU understands his body as one of the ways through which he can protect and encourage: asked to name his strengths, he says, “I have large shoulders to hug you with!”

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CNU treasures his relationships with his family, with B1A4 (who he considers as family), with audiences, and even with his dog Malgeumi and the cucumber plants he’s raising. He’s said that if he could choose an acting role, he’d choose one where the character took care of his family; he wants his group to win awards not just for music but for teamwork, because that’s what really important to him about B1A4. He works on the details of group maintenance, from switching the lights and gas off before the group leaves the dorm to offering others snacks even if it means he won’t get any, and bringing home cup ramen for Gongchan after a late-night schedule. Yet he also attends to the broader significance of being a public figure: he’s spoken of interactions with fans that have made him feel a sense of responsibility, and he believes that B1A4 should work not only for its fans but to bring energy to all people. In one notable example of CNU’s execution on this global sense of responsibility, he replied to a tweet in which a fan told him she’d been considering suicide but B1A4’s music helped her. “Love yourself,” he advised. At the group’s first solo concert, CNU told the fans (4:29), “I dreamed of becoming a singer… my goal was just to sing on stage. But now I have another reason to sing: Because of you all. You all are my motivation to do better.” CNU’s sense of care for the people around him informs his work, and I expect it will become even more prominent as his career progresses.

Though variety shows aren’t his strength, CNU does have a wacky sense of humor that emerges in the group’s selcas and video diaries (such as BABA, Behind the Show, etc.). He’s done some classy trolling on Baro and Sandeul on Twitter, and his and Baro’s version of Dynamic Duo’s “Don’t Obstruct” is more remarkable for CNU’s dance moves and embellishments than the rapping itself (the bromance continues here). Also, he’s the originator of an inside joke among the group and fans: whenever fans would say “I love you” he was the only member of the group who wouldn’t say “I love you” in response, instead opting for the more neutral “I like you” (this is a function both of his awkwardness and, I think, his desire to be authentic). He still hesitates to say “I love you” publicly, and the members often make fun of his hesitation in notes to each other and to fans (see here). He’s in on the joke, but behind the joke there’s sincerity.

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Sandeul

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Lee Junghwan, alias Sandeul, alias Deullie, is B1A4’s vocalist extraordinaire. In fact, there’s very little about Sandeul that isn’t extraordinaire; if his life is like a sitcom, as Jinyoung says, it can also be a melodrama. Sandeul has a strong preference for extraversion and an equally strong preference for feeling, which means that he emotes everything, everywhere, at all times. His over-the-top reactions make him easy to get to know and easy to love both for audiences and for other idols and people in the industry; unlike CNU, there’s no front or evaluation or planning that goes into the way he presents himself. He laughs hard; he cries when he needs to. His body is a conduit for whatever he feels at the moment.

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Sandeul is perhaps best known for his singing skills, but he’s said he’s never considered himself good at singing – though plenty of kpop critics have. “I just love to sing, and I’m always thinking about being better at singing,” he’s said. Singing is what makes him happy, and the other members comment that when he sings, he’s completely in the zone. The silly switch turns off, and he channels all his emotion into the expression of the song. A great example of this is his Immortal Song 2 solo performance of Forgotten Season, which he recorded after two days without sleeping. After an early slip-up, he let go of all the pressure on himself and just went with it – and brought down the house. (A masterlist of his post-debut performances outside of B1A4 is here.)

Sandeul’s journey from country bumpkin to mainvocalist is one of overcoming the odds. As a teenager, he didn’t fit in with his peers because he was focused on singing instead of studying. Despite his talent and work ethic, Sandeul was unsure if he would ever debut because of his looks; indeed, he was nearly passed over to become a WM trainee. And his Busan roots and satoori didn’t help either. But to watch him perform now, whether in B1A4’s solo concert, Immortal Song 2, or the musicals he has featured in, it’s clear that Sandeul has chosen to focus on what he loves - and has tons of fun doing it - rather than letting others’ negative words determine his destiny. His 2013 run on Immortal Song 2 showcases his growth as vocalist and has provided him with many connections to sunbaes in the industry who recognize and support his talent.

By kpop’s draconian standards, Sandeul (like many idols) entered the industry “overweight” and worked very hard to lose weight so that he could debut; he also got contacts and braces, which altered his appearance (but not much). Shortly after debut, when some fans and news agencies began to comment that he must have had plastic surgery, Sandeul took it personally and was extremely hurt. After attempting to stand up for himself, denying the rumors, he distanced himself from pre-debut Lee Junghwan, saying, “He’s a strange boy… he’s my close friend… he appears in the night sometimes.” (here, from 3:25) People still needle him about his weight – this is the only thing that makes Sandeul want to be alone. However, Sandeul’s view of Sandeul has changed since that interview. He has spoken of being satisfied with his weight because it is healthy, and he also considers himself sexy (here, and working his stuff here). Now when faced with predebut pictures of himself, Sandeul proudly declares, “That’s me!”  (Sandeul is also well-known for his love for food, and there are lots of hilarious incidents that involve Sandeul either losing food or taking someone else’s [for example].)

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Sandeul loves to receive love from others. Throughout B1A4’s conversations and interactions, he’s constantly looking for approval from CNU and Jinyoung. In Hello Baby, he got Eunsol to give him a peck on the cheek and promptly freaked out. And when others offer him praise, he accepts it with tremendous gratitude and a typically-Sandeul over-the-top reaction - when he and CNU and Baro won their first round at Immortal Song, he literally did a flip on stage. image

Though he tries to claim toughness as a “Busan namja,” Sandeul thrives on affection. The other members know this, and though they’re fond of teasing him, they clearly love him very much.

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Baro

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Cha Sunwoo, alias Baro, alias Squirrel Princess, is B1A4’s rapper and resident hustler. There’s literally nothing Baro can’t do: he raps, he sings, he draws (an alternative career as a cartoonist could be a lucrative one), he designs clothing, he bonds with children, he’s a variety show regular and radio host for Shim Shim Tapa, he wins at idol sports, he models, he speaks English, he acts (catch him in Reply 1994 as Binggeurae!)… and he’s pretty consistent at winning everything in every competition set for the group. And somehow he manages to be a great talker and self-promoter without appearing arrogant. Often described as the group’s vitamin, Baro takes the lead in charming the socks off everyone who comes in contact with the group through his simultaneous humility, enthusiasm, and competence. He feeds off of being around others and he can’t sit still, which makes him an excellent foil and partner-in-crime for Sandeul. The two have owned the role as B1A4’s gag couple, and even within the group they’re acknowledged as besties.

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Although Baro is a quick thinker, fast on his feet and great at improvising, he also has an eye on the future and its many possibilities. “My antenna is always up,” he’s said, and he works to develop skills that will move him and the group forward. He carries with him Japanese and English phrase books, as well as something to write rap lyrics in, and he takes pride in penning his own verses. Beneath the gregarious exterior, Baro is reflective and sensitive, thinking hard about his own mistakes and how to do better in the future. He takes his work very seriously and is always looking for opportunities to improve himself.

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Baro is also a huge softie, despite the “bad boy” image he’s cultivated. He’s a romantic at heart, and his handwritten messages to fans at the BABA concerts elicited just as many tears from him as they did from the fans. He reports being very moved by the movie The Notebook. And he’s the captain of fanboying – in Sesame Player he takes care of a Girls Generation poster  that he “feeds,” protects from cameras, and addresses as sunbae-nims. At one fansign event, a fan gave him the latest Girls Generation album, and during an appearance at 1000 Song Challenge, he couldn’t hide his delight over other idols performing one of the TaeTiSeo tracks (here, 0:02). His work for Star Column further reveals his sentimental side as he reminisces about the group’s trainee days.

Gongchan

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Gong Chansik, alias Gongchan, alias Channie, is the ’93 line maknae who’s perhaps best known for his five-piece aegyo set and paucity of lines in songs. He’s also the linchpin of the entire operation, and he doesn’t get enough credit for that – together with CNU, he keeps Jinyoung sane while at the same acting as an additional playmate for Baro and Sandeul. Unlike his hyungs (except for Baro), Gongchan is the oldest sibling in his biological family and as such is well-practiced in helping other people get their business together. The other members comment that Gongchan frequently helps them find items they’ve lost, and he keeps everyone grounded and on task.

Like CNU, Gongchan has a preference for introversion and brings a child-like shyness to the group’s activities (based on the responsibility he takes behind the scenes, I don’t think he is particularly shy outside of B1A4). In the Hotline video, he’s so embarrassed to praise himself that he covers his face to do so. He rarely speaks first about anything, and he tends to keep his troubles to himself (including pains that led to his kidney being removed over the summer). This is consistent with the maknae role, but it also reflects Gongchan’s general preference to wait and see what others have to say before jumping in (the polar opposite of Baro and Sandeul). But he’s often lurking in the background, either being cute or causing some kind of mischief. Gongchan’s humor is quiet and quirky, in contrast with Baro and Sandeul’s bold slapstick – see, for example, his sports massage from Hello Baby, or his costuming in Sesame Player.

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In addition to being the maknae, Gongchan also holds the dubious role of visual for the group, which unfortunately doesn’t set him up to showcase his talents. As the visual, he’s automatically a subvocal, meaning he has few opportunities to sing on his own in the group’s songs; in addition, he has talked about feeling anxious while recording or performing. While his confidence has certainly increased since debut, Gongchan continues to work hard to develop his performing talents (note his clear voice in Sketchbook and in With You). He hasn’t yet had the opportunities for development outside of B1A4 that the others have (Sandeul acted in a musical, Jinyoung and CNU were in dramas, and Baro does radio and variety regularly), so it’s difficult to be precise about what kind of entertainer Gongchan is. If nothing else, Gongchan is a master of silent, smiling toughness: he danced his way through promotions with a kidney problem, and on an episode of All the Kpop, he cheerfully bit into an entire lemon, as if it were an apple, and gracefully chewed and swallowed.

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What stands out most to me about Gongchan is his social intelligence: he senses people’s needs and empathizes with them, and because of that, he comes across as a profoundly kind person. He hands out refreshments at interviews, he helps fallen fans at the airport, he promises to memorize all the fans’ names, and, according to the others, is an all-around extraordinarily thoughtful person. In other areas, Gongchan’s social intelligence and ability to read people works to his advantage. He rarely loses a game of Rock Paper Scissors because he can predict everyone else’s moves, and at a Weekly Idol appearance, he picked up on body language cues to subtly respond to the host’s moves before the host had even made them (here, 4:58). 

Conclusion: Team B1A4

All the members of the group recognize the unique ways in which they mesh as a team, and they prioritize working together above stardom. Every weekend, they set aside time to meet together and discuss any issues that have come up (here). They cement their friendships with each other through games of ping pong, bingo, and Mafia, and they love to engage in friendly competitions. They also punk each other constantly (especially “hidden camera,” but I don’t think there’s actually a camera involved most of the time). Jinyoung has said that they like to make everything an event so that their life together stays exciting. Furthermore, they support each other and feel proud of each other’s solo work, attending each other’s events whenever possible (for example, see them cheering on Gongchan, for example, as he tackled his fear of heights on a diving show!). As CNU puts it in this interview,

“I read it somewhere but they said that the secret behind Senior Shinhwa to stay together for a long time was to become fans of each other. Those words really touched me. Without accepting the strong points of each members and respecting each other we can’t stay together for long. Respecting and loving that person as if we are fans. I believe we could stay together as long as Senior Shinhwa if we do it that way. And nobody is perfect and everyone has lacks in any form but because we are a team we will correct and fill the flaws.”

In the same interview, Sandeul discusses a “slump” of wanting to do things only his way but not being able to progress. He says that the other members talked to him but let him figure out his own decision about what to do: “I’m telling this only now but what I was most thankful was that my members were trusting me even then.” The members respect each other’s autonomy and trust each other to play for the team, recognizing their interdependence. They need each other, and they’re not shy about it. In helping each other shine, I think they’ve also begun to recognize the ways they can help people outside the group shine. A great example of this is Sandeul and Baro’s collaboration on Immortal Song 2’s holiday special with child actress Kim Yoo Jung. Sandeul, normally in the spotlight as a mainvocalist, was totally content to do jazz hands while Yoo Jung occupied center stage, and she looked to Baro and Sandeul for reassurance, which they provided with smiles. On a broader level, Jinyoung’s fan café messages (from here) reveal his hopes for the construction of a larger community:

“Since you became a BANA because you share common interests like B1A4 and our music, we think we will be very happy when BANAs create new connections with other BANAs. When you’re upset because your parents shout “You’re always talking about B1A4 without studying!” (but our BANAs, please try to understand your parents’ mind too), when you’re worried because your grades are lower than you expected, and when you are stressed at work… like so by talking together here, I thought it would be nice if the ties which began between B1A4 and a BANA would lead to another connection with a different BANA BANA BANA BANA BANA BANA…” 

In observing B1A4’s activities, it’s clear that this group runs on participatory leadership by all team members (facilitated, no doubt, by great management). Not only do they model joy, hard work and perseverance in everything they do, they also demonstrate how individuals with vastly different personalities and preferences can come together to build a community with each other and with a much larger set of people. Their care for each other and for their fans sets a powerful example for how the producers of popular culture can engage audiences and add love and joy to a world that needs it.

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