I have to hand it to Mnet, even with dogshit ratings and the walls bearing in, their ability to pull a shit-show out of a hat far exceeds any of my expectations. I should never have doubted them. After an interim ranking that caused the scant few die-hard fans to claw their own eyes out, the grand finale of Girls Planet 999 doubled down on that spectacle with a predictably one-sided final lineup. Nevertheless, we now find ourselves on the precipice of the debut of a new, internationally-focused Korean pop girl group. And the group name is…
I’m trying to think of worse group names but I can’t. I can already see de-facto leader Choi Yujin choking back tears as she explains what the hell Kep1er means for the 1000th time.
Before the reveal of the final Top 9, there are still two more songs to perform. They do the whole spiel about teams and parts and killing parts and main vocals et cetera, but who cares, we have much more important things to discuss. Like, okay, Sakamoto Mashiro had a bad time for a second, but hey, spoiler alert, things work out for her in the end.
I will, however, take a moment for the songs themselves. “Shine” is a rollicking, high-energy pop song with a few interesting names under the hood like Albi Albertsson (“Russian Roulette“) and Hautboi Rich (“Savage“). It’s got some cool drumline drums, and a fun chorus. Might be one of the best final songs in the series! Definitely better than the two trashcans from Produce 48. Their performance, which is totally acceptable, is also 100% lip-synched. Also, their costumes are very puffy and not in a flattering way.
The show flashes back to earlier, as the trainees gather at an outdoor theater, not knowing what they’re about to view. Suddenly, a video montage of their first auditions/interviews pops up on the screen, eliciting screams of surprise and embarrassment. Things grow more sentimental as they watch video letters sent to their future selves, as well as some words of support from their previously eliminated comrades.
Back to the live show. The ballad, “Another Dream“, isn’t anything special, but they make the decision to sing it live, which honestly does not go particularly well. Besides Kim Bora and Nonaka Shana, everyone seems to have some pitch problems, Shen Xiaoting‘s harmonies are particularly egregious.
Back to another pre-recorded pamper session as Mnet “tallies” the “votes”. The girls are surprised at their dorms with invitations to a makeshift art gallery, where they are given plastic flutes filled with vitamin water. Seo Youngeun demands real booze! And so do I. The art on display are portraits the trainees drew of each other. It’s not so great.
After laughing at each other’s sketches, the girls get to have a gourmet multi-course meal, possibly to make up for the hard labor they had to do a couple episodes prior. They eat, drink, laugh, and reminisce about their time on the show. After dinner they go outside to watch video messages from their family members. Guinn Myah‘s brother sends her a message, and immediately the rest of the trainees maybe get a little too excited about oppa. Wen Zhe bursts into tears seeing her father’s video message to her, and also calls out to her mother, who has already passed away.
They take one more second to appreciate each other before heading back to the dorms one final time.
The final lineup is announced. Kep1er’s final lineup as follows:
1. Kim Chaehyun
2. Huening Bahiyyih
3. Choi Yujin
4. Kim Dayeon
5. Seo Youngeun
6. Kang Yeseo
7. Ezaki Hikaru
8. Sakamoto Mashiro
9. Shen Xiaoting
Kim Suyeon and Guinn Myah just missed the cut.
That’s 6 Korean, 2 Japanese, and just 1 Chinese trainee, with the whole top 6 being Korean. After a season of fairly balanced top 9 rankings and a decent amount of buzz for both Korean and international trainees alike, the final lineup drops a huge deuce on the idea of any sort of global identity. Shen Xiaoting, who had been #1 for multiple weeks on this show, barely squeaks in at #9. While watching live I was actually preparing for a complete shutout of all the Chinese trainees.
The order of ranking is a big surprise as well. Kim Chaehyun ascending to #1 is a huge surprise. She’s a popular trainee for sure, but got maybe an average amount of screen time on the show, most of it focusing on her performance anxiety. I was sure Dayeon was going to be #1 with a bullet. Perhaps Mnet knows how much reverse-backlash they’re getting for propping her up on a pedestal the last 5 episodes or so, so they want to keep her out of #1 just to cool things off.
Bahiyyih got #2, because if she didn’t Mnet’s office would be on fire right now. Congrats! Yujin, I was expecting to get #2. And I had somewhat expected Kawaguchi Yurina to sneak in as well. Yurina fans cannot be happy about this result, considering the momentum they had mid-season.
So Girls Planet 999 is finally over. We now have this group with a weird name and a hodgepodge lineup, and they’re going to be a thing for 2.5 years even though the show got Idol School levels of attention. It’s a good thing their first step is yet another reality show, so some of the members can begin to get screen time. Maybe we finally get to see what their personalities are like!
All kidding aside, Kep1er in all likelihood will be (eventually) successful. The poor broadcast performance means it might take a single or two, but CJ ENM will put the money in to make it work.
Shortly after the show aired, Mnet released the raw point/vote totals for the voting on the Universe app in the name of transparency. While netizens continue to pour over the math, currently there’s no obvious proof of rigging. What is fairly obvious, however, is that the mostly-Korean lineup is due mainly to the weighted votes of Korean fans, who basically voted down the line for all the Korean trainees (besides Ezaki at #9). The Cell system and the Group system mitigated these effects for the majority of the show, but when it came time for the one-pick, the trends that were visible during pre-show polling re-emerged: Bahiyyih’s international dominance and Korean trainees winning the day.
The extra voting weight given to an audience that didn’t particularly care for the broadcast show was mainly responsible for the incongruity between the show’s narratives and the results. I’ve ragged on the domestic numbers being terrible (the show never got above 1%) but sources indicate international viewership was actually pretty good. The AbemaTV numbers were particularly impressive for the finale, hitting 5 million viewers, according to some reports. In addition, the Creation Mission songs charted in Japan, as opposed to Korea where they failed to make an impression.
What did stick in the Korean voters’ minds was the news that traveled outside of the show. Controversies like Fu Yaning‘s “Helicopter” challenge and Cai Bing‘s stubborn leadership penetrated the voting consciousness more so than any day-to-day happenings on the show. Also, many of the Chinese trainees were never able to shake the pre-show controversy of their political statements. Mnet once again overestimated the power of their writing team, so I don’t think they’re entirely at fault for the results falling short of their global, utopian ideal.
Girls Planet 999 simply asked the question, “Are you ready for a truly, full-fledged international K-pop group?”
Korean netizens responded, “No.”
As long as Kep1er doesn’t do an X1 and disband before the Lunar New Year, I think Mnet can chalk this up as a win. “Enough” people watched the show (the numbers were actually pretty good for Japan) and they were able to find enough domestic viewers who forgot/don’t care about the previous scandals to survive. We often talk about the content churn in K-pop, but viewer churn is also very real. The reality show money printer lives on.
I think the perception of Japanese trainees is definitely improved in the eyes of the public. The talent system in Japan has made great strides to modernize and globalize, and the results showed in the meat of this season, if not in the final results.
Biscuit Entertainment (Tiny Companies)
One of GP999‘s hidden initiatives was to shift away (at least temporarily) from working with the agencies that were also wrapped up in the vote rigging scandal. Trainees from larger companies like Starship Entertainment, Woollim Entertainment, and Pledis Entertainment dominated in previous seasons, but this year was much more flat. CUBE Entertainment and FNC Entertainment did send some of their veterans, though seemingly mainly in order to fuel the spectacle.
Micro-agencies benefitted the most. Biscuit Entertainment started with double digit followers on IG, had 3 of the best performers on the show, and now they have a full inbox on their auditions page. 143 Entertainment is also a big winner, having placed both of their trainees (Yeseo and Mashiro) into the group. Expect a rash of new trainee signings to occur over the next couple months.
Note that trainees who had previous ties to larger agencies/projects did benefit from their resumes. Mashiro is ex-JYP Entertainment and Chaehyun and her SM Entertainment ties really pushed her into the limelight despite some shaky performances.
The really took a beating, didn’t they? I don’t know how you can look at the results and not see that this is a complete rejection of Chinese trainees entering the Korean idol market. Whether it be for politics, culture, aesthetics, or just the xenophobic frame used by Mnet, C-idols went through the wringer and didn’t end on a high note (unlike the AKB48 kids and Produce 48). The polite ones were too quiet and the loud ones were too outspoken.
Sunmi‘s stock was so high heading into the show. Now, her Instagram comments are a mess and no one who watched the program can take her seriously anymore. I’m not saying she’s going to take an anxiety vacation anytime soon but as a fan of hers this wasn’t a very good utilization of her abilities.
Universe / Nexon
Do you hear that? That’s the sound of ten million phones deleting the app all at once.
I didn’t put Huening Bahiyyih as a winner or a loser because her situation is a bit more nuanced. Coming out of the finale, there is a lot criticism targeting Bahiyyih present in the K-pop thoughtscape. I, even as someone not particularly bullish on her talent or appeal, would say it’s an inordinate amount. But her popularity wasn’t a secret; just a casual look at any polls official or unofficial showed she was going to be a monster come one-pick. The real question was if she’d get to the final rounds; if Mnet was going to let her pass through the middle gauntlet unscathed. If so, pending vote manipulations, she was going to be a lock for the final lineup.
I actually think a lot of the people who are mad at Bahiyyih aren’t actually mad at Bahiyyih. My between-the-lines reading is that the frustration stems from the dissonance between the final lineup and the narratives presented by Mnet throughout the season. Even with all their trash edits and strange sojourns into specific trainees’ backstories, only a couple of these storylines led to a satisfactory conclusion during the finale. We spent a lot of time with Yurina, Kim Suyeon, Wen Zhe, and Bora, and they didn’t make it. Conversely, we spent no time with Bahiyyih and she’s #2.
A K-pop fan can handle a lot if they feel their time is being respected. Vote manipulation in previous seasons was a morally-grey band-aid to achieve a cohesive narrative. So now we get frustrating dissonance, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
My final thoughts about this show (until I reminisce and maybe do a podcast about it come 4 or 5 years time), is, what did we learn from all this? Why do we continue to watch, and why are we (I) such gluttons for punishment?
For many, it’s the thrill of victory. To select one of ninety-nine trainees, graft your identity upon their hopes and dreams and then go blue in the face defending their skill/talent/beauty/honor to everyone in earshot. Navigating the gauntlet that is Mnet’s media machine while feeling like everything is at stake is a thrill in of itself. And to feel the sublime joy of victory as your anointed one ascends those stairs, with the show itself patting you, the devoted superfan, on the back for helping them achieve their dream. They succeeded because of you; you have meaning, a purpose. I told you so. Well done.
For others, it’s the pleasure of getting to know these characters, the trainees. Being introduced to talent like Seo Youngeun, Yoon Jia, Nagai Manami, etc., inspires some optimism for the next couple years in K-pop. I’m sure Dayeon’s fans absolutely loved going to her mom’s house, just as much as I might have enjoyed watching Bora come into her own, or seeing Su Ruiqi receive praise for her introduction stage. Even CLC fans haven’t seen this much Yujin content in, maybe, ever. It’s not hard to believe it when a contestant says this might be the best time in her life; the industry is notoriously brutal and lonely.
But I think what makes the Produce format in particular one we return to is how it functions as a nexus for all the tiny tributaries that run through Asian pop music, like a Royal Rumble of K-pop. I don’t know of another program where you can learn so much about the entire state of the industry. From concept paradigms to agencies, training regimens to recording, there’s an unprecedented amount of infrastructure visible through this type of show. And even with all the changes in structure and direction through the years for Produce/Girls Planet, the show has never failed to deliver on this aspect.
And this information market is a two-way street. These shows throw concepts, genres, bias dynamics at us in spades and then through the guise of democracy, they get instant feedback. And it’s entertaining as hell to watch an exquisitely crafted concept fall flat on its face. During Produce 48, the creators went in thinking they were going to make TWICE 2: Electric Boogaloo. But when no one gave a shit about all the cutesy girl concepts and resonated most with moombahton twerk time, they ended up moving the needle towards the “deep house elegance” we got from IZ*ONE‘s first few singles. Alternatively, it’s obvious they wanted to go hard girl crush for GP999, with so much Avengers-esque focus given to teams like “Snake” and “The Eve“. But with things like “Shoot!” and “Pretty U” doing pretty well in view counts, I won’t be surprised if they soften the debut image a bit.
The Produce-type show currently serves as a necessary incubator for a lot of nugu groups. After the horizontal boom of K-pop in the 2010s (by horizontal I mean the falling cost of content production and distribution leading to many smaller companies picking up trainees/starting groups), discovery shifted away from shows like Inkigayo (now dominated by the top tier) and towards online, cheaply produced content. What Produce 101 did was illuminate the edges, giving fans just the right amount of mainstream and nugu in the same serving to perpetuate the content churn.
Uniquely, Produce provides on-the-cusp trainees with one of the most elusive keys to success: an identity. From the first season, Mnet quickly mastered the art of trope-tizing the cast. From the mega-pedigree sure-thing, to the unpolished diamond-in-the-rough, to the performance savant, to the ugly duckling, Mnet took trainee-after-faceless-trainee and gave them a recognizable persona, often pulled entirely out of thin air. And once they found out you could bring in the washed-up, twice-cooked pork narrative into the format with dazzling success (thanks Nu’est!), it was game over. Whether it was Idol School, The Unit, Unpretty Rapstar, Boys24, Mixnine or whatever, the formula was set.
It’s also this unique devotion to narrative that is the source of all of Produce‘s troubles, from editing to vote rigging. And while Mnet more-or-less got rid of the voting shadiness (you know, since it was deemed to be illegal), the classic Mnet editing foibles are never going away. They’re baked into the formula. Girls Planet 999 taught us that no rebrand or commitment to “doing better” will change things. They’re features, not bugs. But it’s always interesting to watch Mnet develop new techniques in this pursuit. Using wrong subtitling to do the heavy lifting in an evil edit is really impressive. Kudos to the brains behind that one.
Girls Planet 999 was a slog. At times, it could be playful and fun, reminiscent of earlier seasons of Produce where they didn’t know what they were doing. But mostly the show was all business, and the appeal suffered immensely for it. Mnet wanted to operate the show as a multi-platform entity, putting most of the lighter, behind-the-scenes content on YouTube and in the Universe app. But the pacing of the show itself suffered for it, with many episodes often too dry for even the most devoted viewer. I don’t know the numbers for view counts or subscriptions or whatever, and the voting numbers are obscured behind a veil of “points” and some somehow still inscrutable linear algebra. But everything indicates votes during the finale were in line with previous seasons, so there’s that.
The production quality of the show was also incredibly up and down. I remember the elaborate, triple ramp planetarium they had in episode 1, and then I see the “doors and masking tape” situation for selecting the Combination Missions and I’m like, what happened? The stage set-ups fluctuated wildly in complexity, the production team sometimes devising full fabrications like for “In The Morning” and then, uhhh, nothing for “Ice Cream“. Cheap costumes, cheap excursions, cheap execution. Again, whether it’s the hosts, mentors, Xu Ziyin or the production crew, I’m not sure who on the show actually wants to be there.
But, like every occasion I watch one of these shows to completion, I’m hesitant to call it a complete waste of time. I’m always introduced to so many new and interesting characters, meetings whose value typically extends beyond the show itself. I got to see old favorites like Yujin, Bora, and Kim Doah shine for a few more precious minutes. I felt rewarded for my experience with Chinese idol reality shows, being familiar with quite of few of the Chinese trainees coming in. I thought it was cool to see the night-and-day difference between the Japanese trainees from this season compared to Produce 48. Most of all, watching the dynamic between trainees from the three cultures never failed to be interesting, even though Mnet tended to not focus on that aspect of the show unless it served a trainee’s narrative.
Regardless, the basic premise of the show still succeeded, despite all the bloat Mnet piled upon it in order to “distance itself” from the Produce scandals. It’s probably best if Mnet rips the band-aid off and considers GP999 a one off; Boys Planet 999 doesn’t need to exist, just call it Produce. Close the book on the Girls Planet 999 moniker and let the concept fall into trivia oblivion.
For me? I get to
rest catch up on Street Woman Fighter (hahahahaaaaaa).
- Host wise, I think Yeo Jin Goo basically was a narrator we could see, Sunmi was alright and Tiffany was kind of a Lee Seung Gi-type absentee parent. Onestar and Back Mihawk really came into their own by the end; the footage of them doing extra lessons with the trainees was some of the best interactions on the show. Their character development is as just as good to watch as that of the trainees’.
- I stick by my position that this batch of contestants was the most talented cast in years. Maybe less dynamic personality-wise, but there were a few bright spots.
- Actually the personality thing probably wasn’t even the fault of the girls themselves, been watching a few of the IG clips and some of them are really funny on their own. Liang Jiao is super hilarious.
- Kep1er was rumored to be performing at 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics for a second but everyone took that news down. I did a double-take when I saw that tweet though.
- Saying that edits are “voting manipulation” is like saying commercials are “wire fraud”, which is an argument I’m sympathetic to but really only on a “no ethical consumption under capitalism”-type deal.
- I think we have a high likelihood for some “loser groups” to come out of the show. It’s all rumors right now, but hearing whispers that a lot of the JPN contestants will be signed. Ikema Ruan, Yurina, Kishida Ririka, Kamimoto Kotone to name a few.
- Thanks for joining me this season, I need to finish uploading to the PD48 podcast and then we’ll see what other garbage Mnet drums up for the wintertime.