With their reputation as 2011’s goofiest rookies, B1A4 seem to be unlikely candidates for igniting a revolution within the kpop industry. But with their most recent comeback, What’s Happening, B1A4 introduces a new way for fans and artists to think about each other and interact with each other. In this post, I’ll explore how the comeback has unfolded as a text (song and video) within a broader context where audience engagement is of central importance. In Section I, I’ll explicate the lyrics and visuals of What’s Happening as interlocking texts. In Section II, I’ll describe how the song and lyrics are embedded within a specific context of interaction with audiences, created by B1A4 and their company, WM Entertainment. And in Section III, I’ll explain how B1A4’s model of artist-audience reciprocity reimagines the work of popular music production.
What’s Happening centers around a single idea: “I can only love you as much as I know your truth.” The song itself contends that relationships (of all kinds) depend on authenticity, and its lyrics describe the difficulties of maintaining a relationship without authenticity from both parties.
The lyrics of the song set up a strong contrast between the speaker, who tries to live and love authentically, and the addressee, who fronts and fakes. The speaker honestly describes his sense of betrayal - “I knew this would happen,” “My heart is hurting” – and wonders how the addressee can be dishonest despite “giving you everything.” At the same time, the speaker is not shy about passionately desiring the addressee’s affections: “I want you, beautiful,” “Every day I think about you,” “I’m happy just by looking at you.” Love renders the speaker vulnerable to injury, but he continues to pursue the relationship. On the other hand, the speaker also points out that the addressee has been anything but authentic: “You’re acting strange,” “Whenever you get a chance, you lie every day.” He points out that despite his hurt, “you’re probably smiling,” and he wonders about her reasons for dishonesty: “Whose fault is this?” “Who is it that you link arms with so naturally?”
Although the speaker feels wronged by the addressee’s dishonesty, his message is not to chide or to punish. It is an earnest, longing entreaty for honesty to repair the relationship: “Tell me honestly,” “What’s going on, on such a good day? What’s up, what’s up, tell me, tell me, what’s up?” The relationship itself is more important to the speaker than his being wronged: “Before you go, before you turn around, come back to me, baby girl,” “Falling in love!” The speaker makes clear that he does not want pretend love: “It’s alright even if you’re not always bright, it’s alright even if you don’t look for me, I’m happy just by looking at you.” He would rather that she be honest about her feelings, even if it means she is no longer interested in him – no matter what her truth is, he needs to know it to understand how to relate to her. So, more than being about cheating, the lyrics are a plea for authentic self-presentation where truth sustains the speaker’s relationship with the addressee.
On a meta-textual level, Jinyoung’s liner notes make clear that this song asks for people to participate with their own truths. It was created to showcase B1A4’s “specialties and personalities” as well as the team’s unique “color,” thus prioritizing the authentic self-presentation of the performers. Even though the song is ostensibly about cheating, Jinyoung notes that Team B1A4 characteristically “met the situation in a pleasantly positive way.” Thus, the humor (“I should just eat – but what should I eat?”) and cheeriness woven throughout are not only critical to the message of the song, they are real representations of the B1A4 members and what they think is important. In addition to including the members in the composition of the song, Jinyoung also had audiences in mind: “The ‘good day’ part…could be interpreted in different ways, depending on who’s listening to it,” he writes. “To someone, it could be their special anniversary with their girlfriend, or it could be on a day with good weather.” And the song’s structure was designed “with hopes that people listening to it would sing along.” With both members and audiences in mind, Jinyoung uses What’s Happening to authentically engage everyone as participants in the music, just as the song’s speaker wants to engage the addressee as a full participant in the relationship.
The music video for the song reinforces messages about authenticity, participation, and affection as an extended metaphor about B1A4, the industry within which they function, and the audiences with whom they interact. The video uses masks to set up a visual contrast between the authentic and the inauthentic. On one hand, the drivers of action in the video are the B1A4 members, whose bare, expressive faces look directly at us, the audience, as well as other participants in the video. On the other hand, the masked individuals in the middle room of the “doll house” are hiding their authentic selves from the world, relying on bland Barbie and Ken masks to shield their true selves from scrutiny. The members actively explore the physical spaces throughout the video, playing with each other, listening at doors, using surveillance equipment and even a makeshift periscope to figure out what Barbie and Ken are up to. By contrast, Barbie and Ken are hesitant to engage with both B1A4 and each other (initially). Ken has some agency and appears in the elevator to prevent Baro from making his way into the middle room; he also attempts to seal off the room and block the entrance of the members. Barbie waits passively on the couch.
Here is one metaphorical read on what this contrast stands for (there are many possible interpretations though!). The B1A4 members’ capers in this house are an attempt to authentically communicate with audiences, represented by Barbie, and to thrive within the kpop industry (the house) and its standards and expectations (Ken). Ken stands for “the way we do things around here,” and is noticeably fake, as well as a little predatory. As the video begins, we see Jinyoung as a “talking head,” with only a single hole in the wall by which he can communicate (over a phone held by someone else) with the audience. He is not at his most authentic in this form, and the box in which his head is contained speaks to the limits of true communication within a highly commercialized, celebrity-based music industry. But he and the other members can be authentic in the spaces within the house designed by them (note the couch with Baro’s cartoons, and the room with their bike and boombox). From these spaces, they launch their attempts to engage Barbie and Ken. In the elevator scene, Baro explores the issue of “paying one’s dues” to the industry, asking Ken, “Was giving you everything a sin? This isn’t right,” and sighing, “No matter how good I am to you, it’s all for nothing.” To me, this speaks to the group’s hard work to conform to industry expectations while also being true to themselves. In spite of everything they have done – seven title promotions, four mini albums, variety shows, and so on – they still have not had a music show win that would solidify them as a respectable act within the industry. Baro vents his frustration with this outcome and is thus asking, The time and effort we have put in to this work and the opportunities we have given up to be part of this industry, is it a sin? But he concludes it is not worth seeking Ken’s approval: “I should just eat something” instead of worrying. (And at the end of the video, Jinyoung, as talking head, addresses Ken with “You, be good to me, got it?,” as if asking the industry standards to treat B1A4 better.)
Beyond the elevator, the members work separately to hatch a plan to interrupt Ken’s seduction of Barbie (a metaphor for how “the way things are done” inures audiences to difference and innovation in music). As CNU and Sandeul crash through the doors Ken has attempted to block, and Baro ostensibly enters through the ceiling, they are metaphorically breaking down the barriers inherent to the industry that separate them from their audience. The pillow fight is classic B1A4: total goofballness and unadulterated joy. Baro uses his own pillow to knock Ken’s head off, ending the interference of strict standards that have prevented artists from engaging authentically with fans. And CNU approaches Barbie, the audience, inviting her to be part of the joy – the choice to engage is now hers, without the intimidating presence of Ken. Her body language (though not her face) suggests fear, and this makes sense because authenticity is radical: it defies norms and has nothing to lose, introducing uncertainty that many people are uncomfortable with. Taken together, the narrative of the video enforces the lyrics’ message about love and authenticity as it shows B1A4 symbolically overcoming the constraints that separate artists from audiences. The message: B1A4 wants you to join them, to engage in exploring all of our authentic selves through music. The choice is yours.
What’s Happening? The question B1A4 poses is present-continuous: it demands attention to events in progress. The comeback is not just a new text on its own; rather, it is a cluster of events that lend shape to the idea of authentic, inclusive engagement between artists and audiences.
Here is a resumé of the events that are part of this comeback:
1) The announcement of the comeback in April built up anticipation: B1A4 would be back with “a different color than standard idols,” something new and unique to the industry.
2) The release of the album art as a prelude to the teasers clued fans in that this would be no ordinary mini album: in addition to whimsical cartoons and the members’ animal avatars, the graphics include phrases in English that center on audience: 100% YOU, THANK YOU AND YOU, and B1A4 LOVES YOU. Jinyoung’s teaser photo shows him in a hat with MORE LOVE, MORE HUGS handwritten on the brim (this phrase also appears in the album stickers and on the stage background here).
3) WM used the B1A4 website to solicit wishes from fans, allowing them to fill in the blank: “What’s happening? B1A4 ______ for me!” These wishes were displayed on the homepage in the weeks leading up to the comeback, thus changing the public face of the group to share fans’ voices. (Now the homepage shows fans’ feedback on the music video.)
4) WM created a Google+ page, moderated in both Korean and English, and invited everyone to follow. Unlike the Daum fancafé system, with its opaque registration procedures that require in-depth knowledge of random trivia about the group as well as proficiency in Korean, the Google+ page allows the company to communicate directly with anyone who wants to know what the group is doing. For the first time, fans outside of Asia are being acknowledged and have direct access to the group’s activities. After setting it up, WM used the Google+ page to announce a special event that would occur during the comeback week. It then asked fans to “write about what you think will really happen” during the special event – and fans responded, with over 500 comments on the page as well as their own pages, eventually trending the tag #B1A4whatshappening.
5) The mini album was released digitally on Monday, May 6, allowing fans time to listen to and reflect on the songs the members worked hard on. The audio functioned as an additional teaser for the music video.
6) The music video for What’s Happening was released via Youtube, WM’s website, and the Google+ page on Tuesday, May 7. WM continued to solicit feedback from fans. By using the song release to preview the music video, WM ensured that fans would be excited to see the totality of the work and the ways that the members were able to weave their authentic selves – lyrically and visually – into the larger text. Furthermore, the music video itself is visually rich and invites manipulation and interaction, such as screencaptures, edits, and gifs. Even if this element was not intentional on the part of WM, it is still significant because it provides an additional opportunity for fan engagement.
7) Most significantly, on Wednesday, May 8, WM unveiled the special event: B1A4 would fulfill fans’ wishes, streamed as a “hangout” through Google+ (starts at 28:55). This is key for several reasons.
a) The event itself was shaped by fans’ wishes from (3) above. It included a mini-concert at a school, a wish made by one of the visitors to WM’s website, and the members broke up the songs by fulfilling other people’s wishes. They kissed cameras; they did aegyo; they rapped; they sang; they tried to hug everyone. And they did it all with enthusiasm – even CNU, for whom aegyo is a challenge, fulfilled that wish with joy, twice.
b) The event was equally shaped by a desire to engage with fans beyond kpop’s immediate audience – the livestream allowed the group to break down geographical barriers and bring themselves into fans’ spaces.
c) The event privileged the periphery: it took place not in Seoul, but in CNU’s hometown. For an industry so firmly located in the country’s center, holding a comeback outside the city is a radical move. (I have written about the politics of the periphery regarding B1A4 here.)
d) The event privileged an audience (teenage girls) that is often dismissed by “serious,” “mature” people – yet it was not exclusive. Anyone could participate, and everyone was welcome.
e) We know everyone was welcome because the members gave several shout-outs and greetings to fans everywhere, from Taiwan and Japan to Kenya. (Yes, Kenya! B1A4 greeted Kenyan fans in Swahili! [Baro at 53:00] Africa is on the kpop map!)
f) When the audio malfunctioned during OK, the members kept performing and even got the crowd to participate. They were thankful afterwards: “We wanted to hear your voices!” they said.
8) WM released the liner notes written by each of the members as introductions to each of the tracks on the mini album. Making thinking transparent can be a risky move, but B1A4 demonstrates once again that their passion for their music runs deep. The liner notes are an invitation to give each track in (5) a re-listen and understand the music from the perspective of those who perform it.
Each of these events centers the audience as key participants in the comeback itself and privileges actual interaction between artists and fans. Taken together, these events spur further events, including creativity and relationship-building between fans. This is consistent with Jinyoung’s desire that BANAs form a community of individuals connected by their enjoyment of B1A4’s work and their mutual support for each other. The result is a radical shift of the artist-fan relationship from impersonal transaction to co-creation.
III. PROPOSING AN ECOLOGICAL MODEL FOR POP MUSIC PRODUCTION
B1A4 have demonstrated through the What’s Happening comeback that their priority is to share love and build community with their audiences through authentic engagement. With this focus, they innovate on the standing model of pop music production in meaningful ways.
In the typical framework, artists release songs and music videos, and audiences consume those works. There is a one-way movement of ideas, which is compensated with money. The system is set up for the relationship between artists and fans to be purely transactional. Such a system is spiritually draining for all parties because it denies the importance of meaning-making as a shared, relational activity; for this reason, many idols leave the industry, and many audience members outgrow pop music or choose not to engage with it at all. The model is depicted in the diagram below:
However, pop music production does not have to follow this formula. Through the What’s Happening comeback, B1A4 and WM have put forth an ecological model that takes artists’ work as embedded within and inherently dependent on a larger context of audience interactions. In particular, the Google+ event allowed fans to see themselves reflected in the group’s work, while providing B1A4 the opportunity to share authentically with fans and engage more directly with them. The work of this comeback honors fans because it is embedded in participatory contexts. This diagram depicts the embedded nature of What’s Happening:
What’s Happening starts from an idea about the relationship between love and truth; that idea is the center of all other activities related to the comeback. Fan engagement permeates every level of the comeback, from Jinyoung’s consideration of the song itself to the music video’s gif potential to the execution of the Google+ event. Each layer strengthens relationships between B1A4 and their fans, and among the fans themselves.
While the comeback places interaction and relationships front and center, it is important to note that this is only a continuation of B1A4’s passion for supporting their fans and even audiences who are not (yet) fans. Baro and CNU have spoken of taking fans’ feedback from the fancafé and putting it into action, letting fans know that their opinions are valued; CNU has discussed his sense of responsibility and desire to use music to strengthen others and make them smile:
I wish to see more people who would smile at our song or performance even though they are not our fans. I think it’s our duty to share energy with others. (from here)
Fanaccounts describe members’ willingness to engage with fans of all types and to follow their lives. Perhaps most revealing is this fancafé post by Jinyoung, in which he expresses his desire to interact with fans face-to-face, as well as the group’s interest in the lives of their fans, not as fans, but as human beings.
Whenever we are done for the day and are waiting for our turn to shower, the members will monitor the fans.
When we see the thoughts of BANAs at places like the official cafe, personal blogs, fanpages and SNS, we feel as if we’re together and closer to each other.
Fans who post up their grades
Fans who got accepted into a good school with scholarship
Fans who found boyfriends (Even though we’re a little sad, if BANAs are happy we are happy too ^^)
When we see news with happy stories, we smile together.
On the other hand
There seems to be many fans who are having a hard time
So we think a lot, and worry about what could have happened.
When you are tired, it is good to take a rest.
Don’t be impatient.
They say that if you think good thoughts, only good things will happen~
Shall we try to think only good thoughts?
Since B1A4 and BANA become each other’s strength by just our existence
Let’s trust and depend on each other… Got it?
No matter where and when, let’s smile when we meet… Until then, B1A4 and BANAs will work hard at what they have to do in their respective places
And on the day we meet again, we smile at each other~ Got it?
This post demonstrates the reciprocity of the artist-fan relationship: by framing their relationships with fans as ones of authentic caring, and by acting on that caring in a participatory comeback, B1A4 and WM have begun a quiet revolution. Fans are explicitly part of the music, and they are valued. For young people who often feel brushed aside by society, this valuing can be life-changing as it supports hope and the development of resiliency. The love and joy expressed here transcend the music industry, and capitalism, and haters, creating a space of positivity and trust that holds tremendous meaning for those who choose to participate in it.
- I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Izzy @ b1a4gy for the idea that “B1A4 is a fanclub for BANAs.” Co-constructing the discourse!
- If you’re curious about the group or enjoy thinking about them, this meta study invites you in.
- I am a fan of the WM staff. What is their fanclub name and how can I join?
- Here have some B1A4 monitoring the fans:
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