Nowadays, it is almost a given that K-Pop idols should participate in the music they record and perform. Not only should idols be able to dance well, sing well, and maintain their public images, but it is also expected that their music and performance leave room for their own artistry.
Fourth generation artists and idols who are known to participate in their music’s production include Stray Kids, (G)I-DLE, and ATEEZ. The number of idol artists and groups who produce their own music probably outnumber those who strictly stick to performing. Even without the “self-producing” label, it isn’t uncommon to see idols and their companies promote new songs that point out the artists who had a hand in its creation. However, that wasn’t always the case. Barring Seo Taiji and Boys, who were pioneers of modern K-Pop and creators of their own music, K-Pop idols for a long time were more focused on perfecting their performance skills. It wasn’t until recently that idol training programs began to add music composition, lyric writing, and music production to idol trainees’ lessons, too.
This article is organized into several sections. First, it will look at how this development came to be and what external factors could have influenced it. For clarity and cohesion, a large portion of this article will begin with second generation artists, as that is when idol trainee program formulas were perfected. It will then continue to fourth generation artists who have more recently debuted.
In this article, the term “self-produced” refers to any activity that contributes toward the production of music done by an artist that is for their own release and performance. This can include music composition and/or lyric writing. Because artist participation has become more prevalent in the last few years, a working definition is needed in order to maintain structure.
FIRST GENERATION AND EARLY SECOND GENERATION
Kangta debuted as the leader of first generation boy group H.O.T. in 1996 under SM Entertainment. They were one of the first K-Pop idols to lead the Korean Wave with their hit songs “Descendants of Warrior” and “Candy.” Though none of the members participated in the music production for those releases, after the group’s disbandment in 2001, Kangta went on to release his first solo album Polaris in 2001 in which he participated in 7 of 15 tracks. The following year, he released another solo album called Pine Tree, participating in both composition and lyrics of the album’s contents. Most notably, Kangta composed, wrote, and produced the H.O.T. song “빛 (Hope),” released in H.O.T.’s 1998 album Resurrection. The song is still regularly performed at SMTOWN and SM Entertainment events.
Kangta’s labelmate and junior artist BoA also had a hand at creating her own music, even if it wasn't from the beginning. BoA’s first writing credit in her discography is for the song “Nothing’s Gonna Change” from her first Japanese album Listen To My Heart. The album was released in 2002, meaning BoA was 15 years old at the time of release. She also wrote the lyrics for three tracks off her album No.1 (2002), “Moto” in Girls On Top (2005), four tracks in Hurricane Venus (2010), and in virtually every single one of her releases to this day. BoA’s 2012 hit song “Only One” was totally self-written and composed. She also self-wrote and self-produced the entirety of her recent studio album in celebration of her 20th anniversary, Better.
SHINee’s Jonghyun is perhaps the best known self-produced idol to come out of SM Entertainment. Jonghyun’s first writing credit is for SHINee’s 2009 song “Juliette.” From then, he continued to participate in songwriting for the group. He also began getting credited for music composition in 2013. Jonghyun participated in lyric writing and composition for his 2015 extended play Base, as well as his two other albums Story Op. 1 and Story Op. 2. Aside from making music for his group, he also wrote for other artists. He was a frequent collaborator with IU and wrote LEE HI’s song “Breathe.”
When you think of an idol group who has been very hands-on with their music since the beginning, your mind can’t help but think of BIGBANG. The 5-member group debuted in August 2006 with the studio album BIGBANG Vol. 1 - Since 2007. This album is where the very popular G-DRAGON rendition of Maroon 5’s “This Love” comes from. BIGBANG found mainstream success with the release of their mini-album Always. Their title track “Lies” was composed and written by the group’s leader. All of BIGBANG’s and particularly G-DRAGON’s music production could be an article in and of itself, but it can be summarized by saying that BIGBANG’s 2015 chart-topping album MADE was written entirely with G-DRAGON’s participation in lyric writing and musical composition. BIGBANG’s former labelmate CL is also known for writing her own lyrics and has been much more involved in her musical production since departing from YG Entertainment and embarking on her own solo journey. Even before the “self-produced idol” boom in the 2010s, YG Entertainment, known for their hip-hop roots, was debuting artists who were producers in their own right in groups like WINNER and iKON.
IU is well-known for writing a majority of her own lyrics and inserting her personal experiences into her songs. IU debuted in 2008 under LOEN Entertainment with the song “Lost Child.” At the beginning of her career, IU did not participate in creating her own music. This includes her 2010 hit song “Good Day.” IU began being credited for lyric writing in 2011 with her second studio album Last Fantasy. In her 2012 single album Spring of a Twenty Year Old, IU is credited with her first musical composition for “Peach.” As time passed, IU continued to participate more and more in her albums, eventually leading to her 2015 EP Chatshire in which she wrote all the lyrics and participated in most of the tracks’ musical composition. Her latest release Love Poem also had lyrics totally written by her.
LATE SECOND GENERATION
In 2016, B1A4’s Jinyoung was named as being the idol performer with the most songwriting credits that year. Though he did not write much for other artists, he was very active participating in B1A4’s discography. Beginning with their debut EP Let’s Fly and up until their 2017 release Rollin’, Jinyoung had been a very active participant in not only the group’s lyrics and track composition, but also in their musical arrangements. In 2016 he also began to write for other artists, penning songs for I.O.I and Girls Next Door. Another idol known for his songwriting skills is Block B’s ZICO. Prior to his debut in the group, he already had songwriting credits writing for other Korean hip-hop artists. Having started out in the Korean underground hip-hop scene, ZICO had developed writing skills and contributed to the music production of their 2011 debut studio album Blockbuster alongside his group members. In 2016, he started to write for more mainstream K-Pop artists with the release of “Flower Road” by Sejeong. In 2017, he wrote for PSY, WINNER members MINO and Yoon, and in 2018 wrote for WANNA ONE. He also wrote for Super Junior’s most recent comeback, Timeless.
THIRD GENERATION AND FOURTH GENERATION
In this section of the article I will write about groups interchangeably with self-producing idols as it has become a more commonly promoted phenomenon. Idols making their own music has become such a normality that it is more accurate to discuss it as a whole movement rather than as individual entities. Groups that debuted in this era that are known for participating in their music production are BTS, SEVENTEEN, MONSTA X, and GOT7. BTS members RM and SUGA are known to have been underground rappers prior to their debut in the septet, but members from the other groups are not. Nevertheless, it seems as though in the mid 2010s entertainment companies had recognized that there was a demand for idols who were able to not only create their own music but to express their own opinions and ideas—and thus, the “self-producing idol” was born.
The timing of third generation idol debuts also coincided with a new era of Korean music exclusive to idol groups that include Korean hip-hop and Korean indie artists. Shows like Show Me the Money emphasize the “factory-like” characteristics of idol music and use the fact that their artists were writing their own music to convey an individualism and sense of ownership that, for a long time, K-Pop idols were not associated with. Stray Kids, ATEEZ, and (G)I-DLE are fourth generation idol groups that are known for their self-production. Of these three groups, (G)I-DLE is the only female group.
The term “self-producing idol” is a trendy and hot expression used nowadays with almost all idols that debut. The term comes with a sense of pride and skill; not only is that idol able to sing and dance and perform to perfection, but they are also capable of making the things they deliver. And on top of that, they can express their thoughts and feelings in catchy, chart-topping tunes. However, it is clear that even before this phenomenon, idols were participating in creating their music more commonly than assumed. The “K-Pop factory” stereotype is one rooted in an idol’s inherent inability to create their own music and that they are only products that help convey a message. The “self-producing idol” negates that stereotype and it turns out has been happening since before the 2010s, it’s just that nobody was talking about it. And anyways, even if an idol wasn’t making the music they were singing, it’s a well-known fact that K-Pop is not just about the music. It’s a whole package that takes into consideration performance, costume, staging, and so on. So that would mean an idol that didn’t take part in their music production still has just as much ownership over their music on the virtue that their performances carry the music, right?