So let’s talk about the obvious. Yes, Mnet‘s much hyped second season of Queendom ended the first week of June. Yes, you’re reading this in September (hopefully)*. I have reasons! Not great reasons, but reasons.
*Editor’s Note: Wow, August!
I actually had a quick, night-of article 60% ready to go, but that one was mostly just long paragraphs of “hahahahaha” and pictures of K-Pop Twitter being angry at everything and everyone. In retrospect, I should’ve probably just published that while working on this mess of a thesis, but at the time I was pretty confident I could finish something both legible and satisfying.
But, perhaps due to the overall “mid” response from the finale (and the show in general), it got harder and harder to really find some cogent thoughts to base this recap around. All the while, news kept trickling out about rigging and contracts and tours and comebacks and whatnot, so I kept putting it off, giving the season what I felt was ample time to breathe so I could come to a more satisfying conclusion to it. But the fact is, that conclusion never came.
At the very least, at this point in time it’s less likely that the comments are going to devolve into pithy fanwars, which is a good thing. We’ll go over what happened in the finale, what happened after, and what happened overall, and hopefully get closer to the heart of the matter.
Each group comes out to greet the substantial and frothing masses gathered in the studio. For some reason, Mnet chooses to use the first bars of BLACKPINK‘s “How You Like That” as walk-up music.
Barely present host Taeyeon explains the rules that will be used to calculate the final result. The first three rounds, i.e. the entire show prior to the finale, accounts for 40000 points of the total possible score.
Even though Hyolyn had a near perfect first couple rounds, her choke job in the third has almost completely erased any sort of lead she had accumulated going into the finale. On the other hand, Brave Girls and WJSN made large strides in the third round, giving them both fighting chances for the crown. Meanwhile, in order for VIVIZ, LOONA, and Kep1er to get within spitting distance of the top spot, they would each need a near-perfect final stage, in addition to a monumental collapse from all three front runners.
The last episode will account for 60000 points. This breaks down as follows:
- 20000 points for the single’s performance on streaming platforms (Spotify streams)
- 30000 points for the final single stage (live voting)
- 5000 points for fan choice votes (pre-show internet voting)
- 5000 points for full performance view counts (YouTube views)
After updating the viewers on the current standings, the hosts reveal results for the digital single score. LOONA take first place, followed by WJSN, VIVIZ, Kep1er, Brave Girls, and Hyolyn in last place. Unfortunately for Hyolyn, fans listening to her new single on 8-track or wax cylinder or whatever Jurassic technology they own doesn’t count towards her score.
Before getting to the performances, we must, of course, see how rehearsal time went. Hyolyn, chosen to perform first by third round champions Brave Girls, get the spotlight first.
Hyolyn says “Waka Boom” has been in the works for over three years. While she is very excited to premier the song, she says it needs a little bit of a tune-up thematically before release. She calls in frequent collaborator composer/lyricist Son Jieum to help her out, freshening up the lyrics with generic statements about her insatiable drive and purpose. Still, the rap-break remains a bit threadbare, so gets an assist from darling Mnet rapper Lee Young Ji. The two seem to get along great during the recording process.
Hyolyn goes full Super Bowl Halftime Show for her stage, boasting an Egyptian-ish theme while sporting a golden, form-fitting cuirass, very Madonna/Janet Jackson in a sense. She gives a typically strong performance, but it’s undone by “Waka Boom” intrinsically being a somewhat pedestrian song. You can tell this song is three years old, it’s a KARD B-side at best. Perhaps responding to the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm, it felt like Lee Young Ji had three times the stage energy than Hyolyn did.
The song kind of exemplifies Hyolyn’s solo career in it’s totality: undeniably well done but feels a step behind what is actually going on in K-pop these days. If you’re over 30 this can feel totally fine to you, but Hyolyn has said all season long she intends to hang with the young kids. She’s shown she can lap the field when it comes to talent and performance, but she still doesn’t aesthetically fully grasp the zoomer essence, and that’s what has ultimately doomed her in this particular popularity contest.
WJSN is next, and it’s fearless/clueless leader Exy‘s time to shine as the composer for their track “AURA“. She leads them through the details of the recording, giving each member some nice direction, but also finding time to shade Dayoung, even after a job well done. Eunseo provides one last face for the show.
Exy works through the night to finish the production. Her members call her up, pleading for her to take a break from the studio for some surprise boozin’. Exy emphasizes how much they’ve grown during the show. The other members present her with a plaque filled with messages of thanks and their hopes for the future.
“AURA” extends sonically from the darker turn they’ve taken on “Unnatural” and “Easy“, and I think it’s a well-made take on a ‘coming of age’ song for a maturing girl group. Strategically, it’s definitely aiming for a (G)I-DLE “Lion“-type impact, though maybe not quite getting there; the stage décor doesn’t ascend to the level of WJSN’s previous round, opting to use those ugly white bleachers that keep popping up on this show. God bless Yeonjung though, she hasn’t missed a note all season and puts this performance on her back as well. “AURA” also makes me think about how much better WJSN’s rendition of “Navillera” would’ve been if Bona were around for it. “Good enough” about sums it up.
Kep1er starts off by reading the comments (don’t do this). The netizens say their performance of SNSD‘s “The Boys” was Kep1er’s best stage of the show. Might not be a compliment, if you think too hard about it. Meanwhile, Chaehyun took a lot of photos and shows them off. Mnet realized a smidge too late that she’s one of the members of Kep1er that people actually like, and verily make a last ditch effort to give her some spotlight before the show ends. She prints out her photos and arranges them in a makeshift gallery for her fellow members, and writes them notes about how much she loves them.
The wordplay the “boys”/”girls” one-two punch delivers ends up not being quite worth the effort, especially considering the quality of the song. This is definitely their best Queendom performance, not only because it’s a capably executed stage, but also because it’s a baggage-free performance: not done to death (“WA DA DA“), not hopelessly inferior (“The Boys“), and not just plain awful (“Pool Party“).
It’s too bad the song is a bit of a bore. Like I said in the track previews, “The Girls” has a big 300% of your RDA of Guanine/Taurine vibes, aka big mobile gamer energy, akin to what all the girl crush coming from China sounds like these days. On the upside, the line distribution seems fairer than ever, in that not every single verse is a Dayeon/Hikaru rap, thank heavens.
We take a short break to announce the results of the fan vote/video score, which accounts for 10000 points, or 1/10th of the total points possible. LOONA gets first place, less than 500 points from a perfect score. VIVIZ is next, then Kep1er, Hyolyn, WJSN, and then Brave Girls. All that’s left is the live voting.
VIVIZ is first to go after the intermission. For the flashback, Eunha invites SinB and Umji to lunch for some steamed monkfish. The restaurant they chose holds significance for them, as they would eat there as a trainees and pray for good luck. They reminisce about their time as trainees, and the freedom they have now as adults. Eunha starts to tear up thinking about how much they’ve accomplished on the show, and, like a good friend should, SinB immediately pulls out her phone and starts recording her messed up tear-face.
They go back to the agency and discuss the final performance. The agency imagines something strong, like the aforementioned “Lion”, but VIVIZ wants to try something different. “Red Sun!” is a song that almost made the last GFRIEND album, but was cut by their agency at the time. It’s a rollicking jazz-pop number, akin to IU‘s “The Red Shoes” or Son Ga In‘s “Carnival“. Their conviction (and aegyo) convinces the agency brass, and HYBE‘s publishing wing, to grant them permission.
Going with an outside-the-box concept like this for a finale stage is obviously a huge risk. I think, to VIVIZ’s credit, they almost pull it off. It’s in a sweet spot between LOONA’s “Shake It” theatrics and WJSN’s “Pantomime” overload, but without falling into pitfalls of either. The stage design and the choreography are both excellently put together.
The Achilles’ heel here is the song itself, which ends up being a lesser version of the aforementioned classics in every which way. “Red Sun!” is no doubt ambitious in its rekmusicality, but undoes some basic tenements as a pop song by acquiescing to its own jarring transitions. This ends up distracting from the performance; the stage’s big moments aren’t in sync with the song’s shifts in energy, and thus a sense of disjointedness permeates the entire performance. And while not having a resolution in your song isn’t a general crime, choosing to end like this on your very last performance of what was a very long season doesn’t quite feel right.
As an audience we’re left wondering if the song/performance was too ambitious or if the group’s talent wasn’t enough to push the concept to success.
It’s LOONA’s time now, and they begin by licking their wounds, recoiling after being bullied by their peers in the third round’s evaluations. Despite their intentions, the message is clear: everyone expected great things from LOONA and their performance of “Butterfly” fell short. For the final round they vow not to repeat this mistake. Having tried pretty much every concept available to them, LOONA feels free from the burden of any particular agenda, and “POSE” is their opportunity to go full, unapologetic LOONA. After some hard practice, they all go to watch the sunrise and say a last prayer for success.
It should’ve been obvious to me during the song previews, but the hidden trick of “POSE” is that it’s a boy group song. LOONA plays up the group’s current appeal, marked by their watershed cover dance of NCT 127‘s “Cherry Bomb“, which directly led to Lee Soo Man‘s involvement and their current divisive-yet-successful girl crush era. A pretty good strategy for the finale, I think. “POSE” is also the most listenable song of the set, and though I hear people mention TikTok over and over again, I am prone to ask that in 2022, is that a bad thing?
“POSE” has the most complex choreography of the six stages; watching the demo confirms this. The past round’s mistakes have been slowly iterated away, such as having the dance team positioned firmly as support this time around, rather than constantly going from background to foreground like during “Shake It.” The breakdown with the hats is a nice lil’ ode to Janet Jackson‘s “Rhythm Nation“. My only real complaint is that it’s a liiiittle long, like they could’ve cut the little Yves/Kim Lip bit after Chuu/Hyunjin‘s bridge. Also Olivia Hye looked pretty tired.
Back at their office, Brave Girls continue to bask in their third round win. Apparently, scuffing it for the first couple rounds was all a big rope-a-dope plot conceived by their CEO, Brave Brothers. Is the entire Brave Girls story just a long con orchestrated by BB? Are we simply ants scurrying under Kang Dong Chul’s magnifying glass? The concept is terrifying. On the other hand, you’d think with that kind of precognitive ability he’d be able to run a K-pop company at least half decently.
For the girls, philosophical ignorance is bliss, as they revel in the carnal benefits of being in first place. They get to choose the running order of the finale, and get to joyride to the beach on Mnet’s dime. It’s like they don’t even really give a shit about the finale, which … is probably an accurate assessment, editing be damned.
“Whistle” is a good enough song, but perhaps too close to “Chi Mat Ba Ram“ in sound, aesthetics, and function. Moreover, it’s objectively a less ambitious stage than “Red Sun“, which makes it feel like a downgrade. It’s a layup in a slam dunk competition. By taking it easy, they’ve forfeited any advantage gained by their tremendous third round performance.
To be honest, I can understand chilling out for the finale, considering what they’ve been through and if we’re to take their low low cumulative score at face value. Of course I’d like to see something different, brimming with confidence and spark from the group. But they don’t owe it to me. “Red Sun” was their narrative climax and they own that there. The fact remains that “Whistle” is the fourth-best ‘song of summer’ they’ve released. Enjoy the break, Brave Girls.
That’s it for the performances that matter, but no overblown Mnet reality show would be complete without an attempt at self-mythologization. And thus we get the requisite group ballad, with each unit sending a representative to the recording. We do get a final chance to highlight some group members who have had less-than-average screen time this season, like BG’s Yuna and Kep1er’s Yeseo, who I totally forgot was on this show for a little bit.
In addition, Taeyeon finally gets to interact with the rest of the cast, bringing our participating singers some gifts during the recording session and holding a candid Q&A. She feels down about not really doing anything this season, but Hyolyn assures her just existing was enough to give them encouragement, lol. They all call her unnie and hug.
Pretty standard ballad fare. Pros: Yuna rap. Cons: Yeseo can’t sing live.
Sentimentality injected properly, Mnet still needs to drum up some content as they finish
rigging counting the votes. Thus, the producers force everyone in the audience to watch some prerecorded footage of the idols reading the letters they wrote to themselves at the beginning of the season.
At long last, it’s time to end this whole ordeal. Rather unceremoniously, Taeyeon and Lee Yong Jin begin by asking the top two teams to come to the main stage. WJSN is the first to be announced, followed by LOONA, which means of course that Hyolyn did not make it to the top two. Logically shocking, but ultimately not surprising.
After the required teasing and false-starts, WJSN are crowned as the winners of Queendom 2. Confetti and tears fall as each member thanks their fans, and then everyone trots around the stage, saying farewell to the crowd in attendance. Roll ending credits.
So how exactly did WJSN pull this off? While it’s true they failed to achieve first place even once during the entirety of Q2, WJSN was always within earshot, never placing below third in any round. With a solid voting base evenly distributed across global and domestic fans, WJSN was fairly impervious to any of Mnet’s mid-season tinkering. Compare this to say, VIVIZ, whose domestic votes were always below their global votes. WJSN ran a strong, consistent race, didn’t lose a whole round like LOONA did, only getting stronger towards the end.
Of course, this didn’t stop some fans from crying bloody murder about vote rigging, which is understandable given Mnet’s track record. Fans of multiple non-WJSN groups spent the days following demanding explanations from Mnet regarding how the digital scores were calculated, poring over Spotify data, right-click inspect-element-ing various polling sites, drawing lines of best fit over voting data, and overall not contributing to society or their own personal mental health in any meaningful manner. To add salt to the wound, Mnet did a FIFA and investigated themselves, clearing themselves of all wrongdoing.
What’s also funny is that Ujung’s attempt to fix the votes were fairly brazen, with multiple WJSN fans attempting to bribe random citizens to vote for their girls. They held raffles for meat, mobile game gifts, and online store credit for those who proved they voted. But if you look at stats dug up by the conspiracy theorists, MeatGate didn’t even affect the vote trends of WJSN all that drastically, at least compared to other rounds.
Meanwhile, LOONA fans were especially mad at Mnet for not allowing their group to accumulate any first round points due to their absence. Considering they ended up only a little more than 3000 points behind WJSN overall, and the lowest score in the 1st round was 4000 points, and also Brave Girls caught COVID-19 before the second round and still were allowed to compete, many considered these circumstances unfair at best and malicious at worst. Mnet’s reply to this seemed to be “sorry, sucks to suck”.
I don’t think Brave Girls fans or Hyolyn fans had much to say about their overall placements; most of them don’t use TikTok and go to bed around 7 PM.
But even the post-show controversies have been rote and unimpressive. Like I said during the Episode 1 recap, winning Queendom is the least important part of this whole enterprise. Success is measured by power of narrative, how each team can collaborate with Mnet to sell the story they’ve brought to the show. Whether it’s “we deserve to be here” (Kep1er, Brave Girls), “not girls, not yet women” (WJSN, LOONA), or “guess who’s back bitches” (Hyolyn, VIVIZ), each team pushed hard to inhabit tropes that would ultimately change the trajectory of their careers. And while the first season was an unprecedented success in that regard (I’d say every team except Lovelyz came out clearly ahead), Queendom 2 clearly had some big whiffs.
In this sense, Kep1er’s brute-force counter against the internet’s criticism was an abject failure. From Episode 1 they were on the defensive, and the episode that started with Q2‘s staff literally consoling the girls about mean stuff on the internet was possibly the worst cringe Mnet has ever broadcasted. I don’t think Kep1er is worse off for doing Q2, but a second single/repackage would’ve been just as effective and probably wouldn’t have goaded their haters like the Queendom appearance did on a weekly basis.
More controversially, I also think VIVIZ didn’t quite get there either, at least not according to their own criteria. Despite wanting to “stand alone as VIVIZ,” most of their success during the show was hitched firmly to GFRIEND nostalgia. “BOP BOP!“, the stage most firmly in the VIVIZ camp, was objectively their worst-received performance of the season. VIVIZ performed valiantly, but every time we witnessed the limits of their abilities, it was hard not to think about what their former groupmates were up to.
Brave Girls and Hyolyn had A+ narratives, but finished their arcs before the finale, petering out for the finale, or in Hyolyn’s case basically after the second round. At that point, WJSN took it upon themselves to do the heavy meme-lifting, playing directly into the solution for their biggest issue, which is that many of the individual members lack an identifiable qualities to 90% of the population. Eunseo, Dayoung, Soobin, Yeoreum, Bona, and Exy all got substantial focus at one point during the season. Contrast this with LOONA, who flunked the personality portion of the exam. Besides Yves, Olivia Hye, and maybe Heejin, none of the other members could get much going for the entirety of the program.
Ah yes, let’s talk a little more about LOONA. Coming into all this, I thought they were the group with the most to gain from being on Queendom 2, representing a real page break in their aesthetic journey. LOONA’s narrative was clear from the get-go, a showdown between the ‘Girl Of The Month’ part of their career and the “So What?” part. Q2 was going to be a space for the group to acknowledge what long-standing Orbits loved about LOONA, while at the same time bidding that era goodbye. And the decision was decisive; “Butterfly” was their worst stage of the season, perhaps an intentional poison pill for their most loyal fans, a clean break from the LOONA of yesteryear. “POSE” getting a perfect score rubs salt in the wound.
Believe me, I’m a huge “Girl Front“/”Heart Attack“/”Singing In The Rain” fan, but if a group I liked found an escape route out of nugu purgatory? Get that bag.
Soon after the show ended, LOONA announced a world tour and dropped their comeback record. While “Flip That” is a brighter concept than their last three or four comebacks, it’s still strictly within the more conventional structure they’ve adopted in the last couple years. I actually like “POSE” better than the single, but seeing how they’ve yet again taken home a couple show trophies, I can’t argue with their continued success.
And of course the post-show coverage wouldn’t be complete without talking about Blockberry Creative screwing up the whole Chuu situation. From announcing she won’t be on tour, to allowing the rumors to get out of hand, BBC has everyone all but convinced Chuu will be out of there ASAP. I almost kind of believe BBC’s straightforward take on it; maybe “Chuu Saves The World” is the golden goose keeping the whole endeavor alive. Unfortunately, admitting as much publicly would give Chuu all the leverage in contract discussions.
Kep1er also came back with a new, brighter comeback in “Up!“, claiming a music show victory shortly thereafter. Maybe there’s no new fans, but they have enough old ones to still be a profitable group. Wake One Entertainment did receive valuable market research from Queendom 2, and are now giving Chaehyun and Xiaoting a little more close-up time while reducing Dayeon’s. This also could be a natural product of the lighter concept, but who knows?
On the other hand, instead of crapping out a quick comeback, Brave Girls did a July tour of America. As a fan of vacations, it’s a move I respect dearly. Hyolyn put out her post-Q2 comeback and it did what most Hyolyn releases do, as in not all that much of anything.
I won’t go into an in-depth review of WJSN’s comeback (I like it), but the grand prize, ultra-deluxe Mnet special comeback concert ended up being fairly substantial, surprisingly. Not only did they get to perform the single and multiple B-sides (“Done” is a very very good song), but they also got to do “Save Me Save You,” “Super Yuppers,” and “Easy,” all songs I wished were performed on Queendom 2 proper.
There’s also been a slight uptick in variety opportunities, but not a substantial amount, especially for members outside of Bona and Exy. However, Soobin’s meme train keeps chugging along, to my delight.
So why take three months to wrap this up? I won’t lie, it’s been difficult to tie a bow on all this, not just because the content was by all measures mid, but moreso the after-effects were disappointing as well. The show really has had a negligible effect on the current K-pop meta, which continues to move away from episodic variety content. Besides the success of Street Woman Fighter, Mnet can’t claim many victories. I, and most people who watched, were definitely hoping something momentous or substantial would come from all of this, whether intentional (album sales, memes) or unintentional (scandal, jail time), but really it’s just been a whole lotta nothing. And since I’ve spent maybe 10 weeks and 30000 words on this endeavor prior to the finale, that is a bit of a bummer, yeah?
Through my time watching Queendom 2, I kept asking myself just who exactly this show was for. Even if we ignore the execution portion of this program, I think there’s an innate failure on Mnet’s part to recognize that shows like this don’t have much power anymore. In a simplified sense, Queendom 2 is like a reverse SWF: instead of taking something niche and elevating it to the mainstream, Q2 took mainstream content and scrutinized it, to the point where it was hard to care. Hardcore fans hoped Q2 would be a springboard to greater relevance, but since only hardcore fans were watching, it really didn’t do much of anything. Sure we enjoyed our SinB faces, our Eunseo shrieks and our Hikaru weirdness, but this type of content is only marginally better than your typical promo offering chunked out to YouTube.
It’s foolish to think that every marquee Mnet show is going to be content gold, but even I didn’t think the fall into palpable impotence would be so precipitous. But after thinking about how K-pop works in 2022, and the things that are coming out that actually excites the people who follow it, I don’t think the issue is entirely within Mnet’s control. At least not just in the production of these shows.
We talk a lot about the TikTok-ification of K-pop, how nonsensical choruses and strange drops permeate the landscape, how content is built for bite-size consumption, and how a lot of people feel left behind due to the impermeability of this new media dynamic. And though there’s definitely a (hopefully science-backed) discussion to be had about the effect the hyperspeed pipeline of content has on the mental health of the youth, facts are that this is simply how youth culture is most effectively delivered, and K-pop is primarily a kids’ market.
So my biggest takeaway from digesting this season, and seeing how things have not really moved much post-Queendom, is that of course my interest in dumping word vomit over the next Mnet marquee shows has definitely dulled. Street Man Fighter is starting up, but unless they have some world-shaking memes in store, I don’t think there’s going to be much to talk about there. Expectations for Boys Planet 999 are similarly low. Maybe a news update here or there, but it’ll be a bit before I dive into a show like I have been for the last half year.
It’s been fun witnessing the decline though. To go from an era of peak audition show to the point where it barely matters anymore, to watch a whole media empire stare its demise in the face, I’m kind of excited for what happens next. We’ll see if the out-of-the-blue content dump remains in vogue, if the new blueprint is “no blueprint”.
So thank you Mnet, thank you Queendom 2, you’ve wasted my time, but you’ve also wasted your own money. Good luck and godspeed.
- God DAMN Haseul looked great.
- WJSN’s Dawon feeling gigabrain by joining the team a week after the end of the show.
- These PTSD simulations with the bad English that preface each performance were tired before they were invented.
- Hosts: “What was your favorite part of Kep1er’s performance?”
Hyolyn: “Ahhh, uhhh, all of it. I definitely remember everything that happened.”
- lol @ when they cut to Yeoreum during VIVIZ’s performance and catch her sleeping.
- Hyolyn’s trust fall off the risen platform was wild, mostly because Korean television does not have the best track record when it comes to idols falling off of things, intentionally or not.
- Kep1er’s bravery in walking on some elevated chairs is notable, for the same reasons.
- Face Award for Episode 10 goes to Eunseo, of course.