The V Files: Rating K-Pop Idol Singers

On the previous installation of ‘The V Files, I broke down the distinction that people make between ‘vocalists’ and ‘singers’, and this time around I’ll be taking a look at the vocal ratings for K-pop idols.


What do K-pop vocal analysts believe is the correct way to rate K-pop idol vocalists?

The site has a couple of big charts that list made and female idol singers who have debuted before 2015, and a ranking of their quality. Every other discussion that I could find by K-pop vocal analysts about the quality of various K-pop idol singers inevitably linked back to this chart somewhere, so I’m going to take the chart as the absolute authority on what K-pop vocal analysts think about this issue (which they should take as a compliment). Sure, different vocal analysts may have differences of opinion and may place one particular singer slightly higher or lower in the order, but this post isn’t really about criticising the specific order of any one vocalist, but more talking about the rating methodology and selection criteria itself.

Each chart has a big list of criteria at the top, but it appears that K-pop vocal analysts have some kind of crazy robotic fucking super-vision because unfortunately it’s in white text which is bordered black on a blue background which is then surrounded by a red background, and it hurts my eyes too much to fucking read that shit. However, the specific criteria doesn’t really matter as much as the overall approach, which the site makes quite clear. Some selected quotes:

Most other rankings take into consideration tone, emotion, and the individual taste of the listener. They normally don’t take the time to search through every vocalist there is and truly evaluate whether or not they’re truly good technical vocalists. Most of the time, these rankings aren’t even put together by vocalists or vocal instructors. So long story short: we have taken the time and consideration to give each individual vocalist a fair chance and listen through many videos and performances in order to fully understand how they utilize their voices. Our only aim was ever to teach and help each fan be aware of the truth behind the vocalists’ singing abilities. This ranking is not to be taken out of context or to be used in any sort of way for petty arguments between fandoms nor to create fanwars. It’s a ranking created in order to give a visual interpretation and summarize the overall idea of the blog with each vocalist’s rating compared to one another. It is not created to offend anyone and is to be taken as seriously as one might wish to and should not interfere with anyone’s choice as a fan or affect how you see your favorite singer. We would also like to remind you that the ranking is completely objective and is solely based on VOCAL TECHNIQUE. Emotions, stage presence, entertainment factor, tone will all be ignored as they are purely subjective. If you feel that your bias is an emotional singer, someone else may not. Things that are subjective cannot be used as valid reasons for an idol’s rank.

The desire to focus on “objectivity” and also the appeal to discourage others from creating fanwars are certainly commendable, however one wonders how effective such disclaimers are. To a K-pop fan, being handed a list of “objectively better/worse singers, no really, we researched this and you can trust us”, regardless of the intent of the author, is surely like handing a toddler a loaded gun and saying “it’s not a toy” and we all know how well that works out. Some people just can’t control themselves and will use your list to go on a “my bias is better than your bias” fact-killing spree, no matter what the original context was. That doesn’t mean the rankings are “incorrect” necessarily at least when looking at those specific criteria of course, but there’s a deeper aspect here that nobody is even considering, which is that vocal technique itself has subjective value, even if it can be objectively measured.

To give an example, opera singers sing with a certain style, and it definitely takes skill and practice to sing like an opera singer does.

However, it also takes skill to do this:

Both activities have objective skill requirements but subjective value — society decides that an opera singer’s vibrato is a “good sound” and a controlled fart is a “bad sound”. It’s only our societal conditioning and upbringing that says that an opera singer’s voice sounds “nice”, and in a parallel universe people probably snort helium before singing and how well they can hold the gas in is the “objective standard of true quality”. Simon Cowell doesn’t care that Mr. Methane has practiced his controlled farting for many years and is probably the premier performing flatulist in the world today, he doesn’t like the result. The other two judges (I don’t know who the fuck they are, sorry) probably also don’t care how technically adept Mr. Methane is, they just think that the result is funny. The subjectivity is clear enough, and it’s completely unrelated to “talent”. Personally, I’d rather listen to Mr Methane fart “The Blue Danube” than Pavarotti sing that same one fucking song that he always sings every fucking time he’s on TV, but as this is a subjective determination, your mileage may vary. And that’s the point.

Singing technique has a high subjective value for K-pop vocal analysts, who enjoy analysing the technical aspects. However, it has a very low subjective value in the eyes of the pop music industry. Modern technology has changed traditional vocal technique from a must-have necessity to a nice-to-have optional extra (which I posted about here), so singers don’t really need to be able to “sing well” anymore. The sound of “correct” vocals can also be simulated, and in K-pop studio recordings this is the case approximately 100% of the time (discussed more here). There’s also a bunch of different ways to “cheat” good vocals, and these methods are used in K-pop often (read more here). Most of these methods are effective enough to fool nearly everybody when correctly deployed.

So how can I assess K-pop vocalists in a way that actually makes sense?

The short answer is that objectively, once you know how K-pop is produced, this isn’t genuinely possible. However, if you’re willing to admit that objectivity itself isn’t possible, then you can assess K-pop vocalists as you wish.

I often compare the K-pop industry to the Golden Age Of Hollywood film production, which was from about 1939 through to the 1960s. There’s a few reasons why I draw this analogy, but the main one that is relevant to this discussion is that actors and actresses in the Hollywood system were often very heavily “charm schooled”. You can hear it in their overly “correct” sounding voices, which suddenly vanished from Hollywood film by the 1970s. Did the entire speaking habits of a nation completely change in one decade? Of course not — people were just being trained to enunciate a certain way, and then the culture of society changed and that training was then perceived to have less value. K-pop’s culture has changed less, and therefore still has rigorous vocal coaching and behaviour schooling, at least in the larger labels, but it’s not the type of schooling that a vocal teacher might expect to see.

Lovelyz are being told off in this video for exhibiting too much individuality and ego in their singing. They’re told to work as a team, not individually … which seems paradoxical as they’re being assessed while singing solo, so this seems like a no-win situation for the girls and might be some sort of way for the label to crack the whip on them psychologically. If the label can break the girls down mentally, then they can build the girls back up into whatever it is they want them to be. In any event, the aim is to get the girls to basically sound and act the same. But why would a label do something like this? The answer may be the “vocal soup”.

Most multi-girl K-pop idol productions use a blend of female voices for the lead vocal, rather than just one voice. A while ago a producer for T-ara responded to questions about T-ara’s vocals and referred to this type of production technique as the “vocal soup” (I can’t find the link to this interview at the time of writing but if someone links me it I’ll put it here) and that’s a pretty accurate description of what actually happens in a lot of melodic lines in K-pop vocal and a lot of sonic production in general. That sound that you like on that rock band recording may in fact be a blend of up to six different sounds, some real and some synthesised or sampled. Any medium to high budget recording session has audio engineers playing around with mixtures to get “that perfect sound” and vocals are no exception. Common studio practice for recording girl groups is to get each girl into the studio individually to sing the entire song, and then mix and match the results to fit, also using ghost vocalists where needed. Obviously if all the girls sound more or less the same, this is a benefit, because it means that they can be blended together and substituted for each other easily. Equally good or equally bad doesn’t really matter as long as they’re equally equal.

While the “vocal soup” is definitely an asset for ease of production, my personal preference is for a vocalist who sticks out more. As I’ve been raised on a diet of Western music genres where the vocalists are extremely unique, that’s probably influenced my K-pop listening preference. Of course, a lot of my favourite songs are produced using the “soup” methodology, but this doesn’t really bother me much as vocals don’t make much of a difference to how I appreciate a song. However, if I have a choice, I’d like for vocalists to stand out and be unique, just because it makes things more interesting to my ear, and what I think are the most interesting recordings in K-pop on a purely vocal level are the ones where the producers realised that they had someone who there was no way they could fit into a “soup”, so they played to the singer’s uniqueness. So if I had to rate a vocalist by any technical standard at all, I’d rate them by their level of “unsoupability”. I can’t rate K-pop vocalists by any objective standard that makes sense because objective technical standards for singular pop music vocal in 2017 don’t exist once you factor in the tech and modes of production, but I can rate them by a subjective standard that makes sense to me.


G-Dragon and T.O.P are two very “unsoupable” voices. Can they sing or not? I couldn’t give a shit, what’s important to me is that they don’t sound like anybody else. Big Bang was the first male idol group to have very, very distinct male voices, and whether their songs are good or bad, they at least bring some uniqueness to the table that other groups do not.

To a lesser extent the guy who raps at the start of B.A.P’s “Warrior” is in a similar boat, and he’s kind of ‘T.O.P lite’.

We know that Skull is legit reggae because whether singing or rapping his voice sounds so crusty and marijuana-infused that it’s amazing he can still talk.

…And that’s it for the guys. Seriously, everyone else sounds the fucking same to me and I couldn’t pick any of them out in a blind listening test.

Let’s move to the ladies.

Park Bom can’t sing really much at all, and she’s technically one of K-pop worst singers, and that’s what makes her great. She pretty much just yells. As someone who grew up listening to thrash metal I can dig it.

All the talking parts in this song are LE from EXID. LE is actually on dozens of K-pop tracks, pay attention to your collection and you’ll be amazed where she turns up. Of course the rest of the song is standard T-ara soup-production and like all T-ara songs could be any combination of the six girls at any time regardless of who you see on the screen or what the alleged line distribution is.

Jimin is the leader of AOA for a reason — she carries the entire group on the back of her light-speed raps and squeaky “Hey!” chants. Sometimes the videos try to pass off Chanmi as Jimin but nobody is fooled. AOA would look different without Choa, but it’d sound different without Jimin.

Oh and CL. Of course.

And that’s it. Now you have a list of all the unique voices in K-pop, at least to my ear. Don’t ask me any questions about why your fave wasn’t included, as the answer is “not unique enough”. Note that “unique voice” doesn’t necessarily mean “producing songs that I like”, that’s a separate issue to the uniqueness of a vocalist.

But what does this list mean?  Let’s go back to the quote from before:

We would also like to remind you that the ranking is completely objective and is solely based on VOCAL TECHNIQUE. Emotions, stage presence, entertainment factor, tone will all be ignored as they are purely subjective. If you feel that your bias is an emotional singer, someone else may not. Things that are subjective cannot be used as valid reasons for an idol’s rank.

Notice the use of “entertainment factor”. K-pop is an entertainment form. Imagine excluding “entertainment factor” when assessing the quality of entertainment content. Seriously, what the fuck.

If you’re confused, let’s put that into context properly. In the debut of The V Files, which tackled the myth of resonance, I compared vocal analysis to assessing mobility scooters for their racetrack performance — the argument being that while yes, you can do that, there’s also no point because nobody is putting mobility scooters on a racetrack. In this context, the above quote translates to the following:

We would also like to remind you that the ranking is completely objective and is solely based on RACETRACK PERFORMANCE. Durability, ease of access, battery life, ability to help the disabled hang out the washing, will all be ignored as these are purely subjective. If you feel that your scooter is useful, someone else may not. Things that are subjective cannot be used as valid reasons for a mobility scooter’s rank.

Can you imagine?

By the way, the controlled farting video is real, but the opera singer in the other video is miming the whole thing — and so is the orchestra behind him.

Did you notice?