[Reporter’s notebook] In Min’s world, she’s the artist — and NewJeans is her art

Posted on : 2024-05-02 17:49 KST Modified on : 2024-05-02 17:49 KST
The spat between Hybe and Ador highlights the possessive dynamic between creator and creation and poses questions about what the right path forward is for NewJeans
Ador CEO Min Hee-jin gives a press conference at the Corea Conference Center in Seoul’s Seocho District on April 25, 2024. (Yonhap)
Ador CEO Min Hee-jin gives a press conference at the Corea Conference Center in Seoul’s Seocho District on April 25, 2024. (Yonhap)

The highly public and extremely enthralling spat between Hybe and Ador has revealed something about Korea’s No. 1 cultural output: The real protagonists behind K-pop are not the artists but the producers and entertainment companies. 

The industry’s top three agencies are each named after their founding producers: SM (Lee Soo-man), YG (Yang Hyun-suk), and JYP (Park Jin-young). That pretty much says it all.

The Hybe-Ador conflict has shed light on an additional layer within the entertainment industry: the internal hierarchy among producers. Chairman Bang Si-hyuk of Hybe, which holds an 80% in Ador, is the producer with the capital behind Ador. Ador CEO Min Hee-jin is the creative force behind the girl group phenomenon NewJeans. Although Min is the CEO of Ador and the label’s main producer, she verges on being an artist herself. This latest ordeal has highlighted her own artist bona fides — ones perhaps even greater than NewJeans.

Where do K-pop artists get their reputation from? Seo Taiji and Boys, often referred to as the origins of K-pop, were not put together by a production company. There were three guys who got together and formed a band. They wrote and made their own songs, and managed their own concerts at the beginning. 

Later on came H.O.T, probably the first official K-pop group. H.O.T. was a product — carefully planned and crafted by a corporate lineup at SM. In fact, many critics of the industry labeled early K-pop artists as nothing more than corporate products. Yet as more groups like Big Bang, BTS, and (G)I-dle that wrote their own songs started receiving the limelight, people eventually came around to see K-pop groups as artists.

NewJeans represents a new type of K-pop artist. The relaxed beats of their songs, combined with the “newtro” vibe of their look and style, differentiate them from their industry peers. Many credit the creativity and insight of Min for NewJeans’ success. Even the charisma and appeal of individual members are evidence of Min’s keen eye when putting the group together. Min is often referred to as the “mom” of NewJeans. When Min and NewJeans appeared on the tvN program “You Quiz on the Block,” the girl group’s members clung to her affectionately, complete trust in their eyes. 

In her April 25 press conference, Min referred to NewJeans members as “my babies.” Emphasizing her essential role in the group’s success, Min reminded everybody: “I created them.” While Min’s language revealed a nurturing and caring aspect of her relationship with NewJeans, it also revealed the passive nature of the group’s members and the possessive dynamic between creator and creation.

A few days after Min’s press conference, I binged SBS’ three-part documentary “Behind the Scenes of Hakchon.” The documentary highlights one of the Daehangno theater district’s most iconic small theater companies, Hakchon, which shut its doors in March after over 30 years in the business, and its CEO, Kim Min-gi. 

Ador CEO Min Hee-jin (left) and Hakchon CEO Kim Min-gi. (Yonhap; Hakchon)
Ador CEO Min Hee-jin (left) and Hakchon CEO Kim Min-gi. (Yonhap; Hakchon)

Kim was also a respected artist in his own right, known for his folk hits “Morning Dew” and “Evergreen Tree.” Kim took the proceeds from his songs and invested them into opening Hakchon in 1991. From then onward, he acted as a producer and theater owner. Kim self-deprecatingly called himself the “behind man.” Acting behind the curtains, he directed the spotlight on the “front men and women” on stage, helping them shine. 

Kim devoted his life to providing systematic training to starving artists, often payment packages greater than his personal salary. Even the company’s name reflects this spirit: “hak” means “to learn,” while “chon” or “jeon” means “field.” It was an incubator for young actors.

“Whenever an actor or actress made it big, Mr. Kim would always send them on their way to make room for new aspiring talent. Once the crop matures, you pick it and sow new seeds. That’s how he operated,” actor Lee Hwang said of Kim.

“‘Once you make it, leave the nest and keep going forward. Don’t look back.’ That’s what he’d tell us,” Lee recalled.

Actors who trained under Kim would call him their “mentor” or “father.” Kim never referred to himself as their “father,” however, and he never claimed to be their creator.

The actions and demeanor of “behind man” Kim Min-gi and “front woman” Min Hee-jin made me reflect on the virtues of a producer. It made me wonder: What’s truly the best way forward for NewJeans members?

By Suh Jung-min, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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