Why FTISLAND’s ‘I Will’ is Important for K-pop
FTISLAND has released its fifth Korean-language studio album, called I Will. The album is full of self-written and composed songs, all very different from what Korea is used to from them. This is not just another idol album: this album is a milestone not only in the career of the band, but also in the history of K-pop.
Fans would know that the journey leading up to this piece of record was a bumpy road, to say the least. FTISLAND debuted in 2007, and had to face prejudice from all sides. Mainstream K-pop lovers questioned their ability to play instruments, Honggi suffered some unfortunate voice accidents on live stage that smeared his early reputation as a singer. Rock enthusiasts didn’t take them seriously, either, since they were playing something more closely related to pop than rock, with 80% of their songs being in the ballad genre.
Then they debuted in Japan, and they slowly built a reputation there, started composing their own songs, venturing into harder styles and experimenting with new music. They made reputable friends in the rock circles, like One OK Rock.
Alas, in Korea, they were forbidden to release “real rock”. They complained several times openly, sometimes subtly, hiding messages within the lines, sometimes not at all subtly. Honggi especially, who is known as a troublemaker that cannot keep his mouth shut, has complained loudly on broadcast as well, about their agency, FNC Entertainment, allowing them a free hand with their Korean releases. Instead, for years, they had to stick with mellow rock and roll and tear-jerking rock ballads.
No doubt, both suit Honggi’s voice extremely well, but that is not what the boys wanted to do. They wanted a freedom similar to their Japanese ventures. It was a long and sweaty fight, with their fanclub, Primadonna, suffering together with them. Some fans even accused FNC of being biased towards brother band CNBLUE and pushing back FTISLAND’s promotions in Korea, so the audience would prefer CNBLUE. Just recently, the fandom took to Twitter to pour out their anger on the agency to demand equal treatment of the two bands, after CEO Han Seung-ho’s words in a variety show implied he favourited CNBLUE’s leader Jeong Yong-hwa over Honggi.
After 7 years of struggling with their agency, numerous fights between the fans and the agency, FTISLAND was finally given a free hand. I Will is the culmination of the members’ careers to date, a reflection of their musical identity that is already well-established in Japan, but basically unknown in Korea. But the album is so much more than that.
Korea is no less a talent hub when it comes to rock than Japan is. In contrast with the island nation though, rock music is strictly underground in Korea. Even the best known bands appear less frequently on television and sell a lot less albums than K-pop idol bands. FTISLAND is a crossover band between K-pop and rock – they were intended to be one.
However, to me it seems FNC quickly forgot their original intention of creating an idol rock band when the market refused to open up and instead marketed both FTISLAND and CNBLUE as a K-pop idol band who can play instruments, with a distant rock-ish sound attached. As if they were afraid of letting them release true rock albums. The market is not easy, that is for sure. With 400+ active K-pop idol bands and ‘gayo’ (native Korean popular music) performers (the latter appeals to the older generations more than K-pop), this market is ruled by pop music. Some popular stars like Seo Taiji or JYJ’s Jaejoong have previously released rock pieces, but this is still a minority style.
Here the importance of this release comes in. FTISLAND is known as mainstream. They are not only ‘idols’, but actors and musical actors, as well, and Honggi has performed some well-known and well-loved OSTs, too. They are established in the mainstream, and now, this mainstream pop-rock band released a real rock album. A musically really strong and consistently good rock album, with self-composed material. The title song, Pray, has an edgy sound, something we got used to with their Japanese releases, but the mainstream Korean audience, who know them for ballads like Madly, are not used to this. It’s an insanely sharp contrast to their previous Korean image and in a good way.
A mainstream band introduces rock into mainstream K-pop, and this is an amazingly wonderful feat and much needed in this over-saturated idol market. A fresh sound, a fresh approach – and finally the members of FTISLAND can prove all of their Korean critics wrong about their song writing skills. This album rocks. Literally!