LE SSERAFIM Coachella Discourse Shows Big 4 K-Pop Groups Face Equally Big Scrutiny

Fair or not, the privilege assigned to groups under the largest K-Pop companies comes with the perils of fan microscopes.

LE SSERAFIM Coachella Discourse Shows Big 4 K-Pop Groups Face Equally Big Scrutiny
LE SSERAFIM lights up the stage during Coachella 2024. Source: Getty Images (Rachael Polack)

Generally, I tend to be able to avoid most of the wild discourse that is part of the hallmark of K-Pop fandom. Years of professional experience curating, muting, and blocking my way to a peaceful social media feed has ensured that I've been mostly able to fly above the fray. The way I've always explained it to fellow fans when they bemoan the toxicity of a platform is that it's like dieting. You wouldn't normally indiscriminately consume everything you saw that was food, constantly, every day of every hour, so why should you do it with your social media habits?

Yet sometimes, the discussion still reaches my feed despite my best attempts. The debate this week surrounds HYBE group LE SSERAFIM's live set at Coachella, one of the most well-known arts and music festivals in the US if not globally. The 30-40 minute set, punctuated by the group's best songs along with a surprise appearance by collaborator and well-known artist Nile Rodgers, was as well-received by the live Coachella crowd as any of the other talented performances for the event.

But you wouldn't know it reading opinions online, which have ranged from calling the group's performance an indictment on their supposed lack of vocal stamina and talent to ardent defenders saying that the disproportionate criticism of the group versus those of fellow Coachella performers and boy group ATEEZ amounted to misogyny - and everything in-between. And not even member Sakura's update on Weverse, which responded to the criticism respectfully but with some level of reasonable defense, helped. In short, it's a big mess right now.

If you want my opinion on the matter, I just gotta say as someone who has attended, worked, and been around live music and artists that:

  • Live is always going to have some variance to studio. Some artists come close to studio but generally, live is a different beast.
  • LE SSERAFIM is a two-year old group with little tour or live experience. It showed a bit here, in terms of managing vocals and stamnia. There's room to improve. The group improvised well for the moment.
  • If the live crowd loved it, it doesn't matter what people online who weren't even there think, after a certain point. And everyone in attendance, generally, seemed to like it, from fans to press attending the performance.
  • K-Pop groups have variance in vocal talent, within the group and in comparison to other groups. That's just reality and that's ok. LE SSERAFIM may not be the strongest vocally, but groups should be judged by the whole package (vocal, dance, stage presence) and not by one single thing.

So with that out of the way, with hopefully minimal nonsense ending up in my own social media feed, I do want to say that this, plus other recent discourse about K-Pop groups has reminded me that groups backed by the "Big 4" companies (JYPE, SM, YG, and HYBE) enjoy both a certain level of privilege and opportunity but that those benefits come with a price - that of being under a greater microscope. As I've said many times, there's nothing to be taken away from the talent and skill that Big 4 groups bring to the table. They are no doubt deserving of their spot. But they definitely get more opportunities to gain visibility, starting in a place that non big-4 company groups rarely enjoy - for recent evidence, look no further than brand new HYBE-backed group ILLIT, who was at the prestigious Paris Fashion Week event even before they even debuted.

But for all the visibility greater scrutiny can come as well. Take YG group Babymonster, hyped to be the eventual heirs to the throne that global juggernaut Blackpink will eventually vacate. Between their two debut tracks - "Batter Up" and "SHEESH", and some of the relative confusion about which is considered to be the group's true debut track (due to the absence of member Ahyeon from the former), as well some tepid reviews of "SHEESH" online, you'd think the group had some of the most controversial beginnings in the industry, when in fact the idea that they seem too safe and similar to their seniors might be the actual criticism.

Not even Big 4 groups I'd consider to be "made" in terms of being guaranteed long-term sustainability and success are immune. Discussion around JYPE group TWICE, one of 3rd generation's most successful girl groups has been occasionally critical over the past year. Fans worried about having "only" 26 million views for leader Jihyo's solo, or for infighting among the fandom over TWICE's promotion strategy for recent releases mean that even if you're pretty much set for your idol career, you're not free of the scrutiny that comes with a Big 4 company group - ever.

As someone who generally follows smaller groups, it's wild to see how closely and how scaled up the expectations for larger company groups get to be. But no matter what, I feel that the key to evaluating or having an impression of a group, regardless of size or fame, is to remember nuance and the big picture. LE SSERAFIM, it seems, will get a second chance to show off their skill at Coachella weekend two, and considering they were not ignorant to the mixed reception they received for their first show, I'm willing to predict that experience under their belt will mean a much more polished show this time around. If you can say anything about K-Pop idols, it's that they tirelessly work to improve, fix perceived issues, and come back stronger than ever. Like other idols, especially those of the Big 4, LE SSERAFIM didn't get to where they were without hard work, and I think they'll be out to prove that this weekend, and beyond, despite the microscope on them.

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