What the Backstreet Boys Could Learn From K-Pop

Korea's longest-running boy band, Shinhwa, proves that staying relevant isn't about pretending you're young. It's about embracing your age.
AP Photo / Disney-ABC Domestic Television, David Steele

The Backstreet Boys release their 20th-anniversary album In a World Like This next week, the group's first record since This is Us came out in 2009. The members have been making the usual promotion-cycle rounds: going on a comeback tour, dropping by radio stations, appearing on morning shows.

But the fact that this group is turning two decades old means it's been together for longer than many of today's most plugged-in pop music listeners have been on Earth. And the band's popularity isn't what it once was; Backstreet's last album, This Is Us, debuted at No. 9 on the US Billboard 200 and only produced two singles of middling success. The group toured with New Kids on the Block in 2011, which cashed in on the nostalgia of people converted more than a decade ago but probably didn't mint many new fans.

The Backstreet Boys have discussed how the music market has changed significantly since the days of "As Long as You Love Me," so they are aware that grabbing young listeners won't be easy. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, member Kevin Richardson discusses how today's mass audience constantly expects new content from artists because of social media, which wasn't around when the Backstreet Boys were at their peak. So to attract new fans, the boy group of yesteryear may need to readjust its strategy.

Luckily, they have a model to imitate: Shinhwa, the Korean equivalent of the Backstreet Boys.

Korea's pop industry is much younger than America's own, but its trends mirror those in the U.S.: dubstep, autotune, music competition shows, etc. But unlike in America of late, Korea has latched onto group acts with particular ferocity. It has turned the production of boy and girl collectives (called "idol groups") into a science, designing them to do way more than sing and dance. While K-pop is beginning to incorporate more variety in musical styles and artists -- thanks in part to said competition shows -- idol groups still dominate and ultimately are where the money is. In 2012 alone, a staggering 61 group acts and duos made their debuts, 33 of which were male.

So K-pop knows a thing or two about boy bands. Rewind to 1998, when SM Entertainment debuted a group called Shinhwa. The six-membered boy band would go on to release four studio albums and win 17 music awards under SM before leaving the label in 2003. They are currently the longest-running male musical group in Korea, recently releasing their 11th studio album to commemorate their 15th anniversary.

As a group, Shinhwa is five years younger than the Backstreet Boys, but its approach to becoming the most prominent men-who-used-to-be-boys band of its home country is years ahead of Nick Carter & co.

All six of Shinhwa's members are in their 30s, and those physically fit to do so have completed their government-mandated stints in the army. In their 15 years together as a group, they've consistently released music, gone on tour, and appeared on television. Their 2012 album The Return sold more than 80,000 copies last year, which is a solid number in Korea for a group coming back after a four-year hiatus, competing against artists in an oversaturated market. Currently, some members act, others make music, and some are even involved in helping produce the next generation of idol groups. All of this keeps Shinhwa on the Korean public's ears and minds.

Aside from Shinhwa's omnipresence, an integral part to the group's longevity is smart self-awareness. In a recent episode of SNL Korea that Shinhwa hosted, the members poked fun of themselves in a skit aptly titled "A Night at the Museum." They play much younger versions of themselves, acting literally as relics from another time, on display for visitors to mock. Dressed in boy-band garb from a past decade, Shinhwa stand in formation as young museum goers express confusion at the group's identity, not recognizing who they are.

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Amy He is a writer and editor based in New York. She has written for Details.com and The New York Daily News.

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