The concept of sing-dance groups comes most commonly marketed today in the form of K-pop. The term is self-explanatory, — a group of individuals who sing and dance at the same time — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the glitz and glamour of fancy clothes, attractive members, and polished performances, there lies an extensive network of factors that all have to work together to make a group breakthrough, much less be sustainable. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that the concept works. From the Spice Girls to BTS, groups that have 'made it' enjoy massive international fame, with millions of fans tuning in to watch their live stages, and booking out stadiums for their concerts.
Which brings us to the question: Why are there so few sing-dance groups in Singapore, and why has there been no such breakthrough from local groups?
How did sing-dance appear as a concept?
It’s evident many Singaporeans eat up the sing-dance group concept, but we only see this directed at the likes of K-pop, or if we go back in time, groups like the Spice Girls, Jackson 5, Arashi, and more. To understand the concept in its entirety, we have to trace the history of sing-dance groups all the way to the 50s, when the concept first began to take form.
The first hint at sing-dance groups began with girl groups then, with the likes of The Shirlies, The Marvelettes, The Supremes, and Lady Marmalade, to name a few. Sporting a soul-pop sound, these groups became popularised then as an acceptable form of pop for male audiences to consume, and an empowering form of media for females. In the late 1960s and 70s, groups like Jackson 5 solidified the concept of sing-dance by incorporating choreographed dance moves into their performances. The term ‘boy band’ then fully materialised in the 1990s with the likes of Bros, Westlife, Take That and many more, the 5ive's and arguably New Edition paving the way for modern male groups too.
The 90s were the decade for sing-dance groups, as both girl groups and boy groups dominated music and entertainment around the world. Due to the success of Western boy bands, Japanese companies followed suit, like Johnny and Associates did and formed SMAP in 1992, paving the way for more Asian boy bands such as Arashi and the wave of J-pop that's well documented. The popularity of boy bands in the 1990s came with the shift away from the common themes of drugs and sex in the 70s proliferated by rock (the dominant popular music at the time) to more wholesome topics of love, life, and dedication — think ‘I Want It That Way’ by the Backstreet Boys.
The catch was that female fans, which then made up the majority of the fan base, found the image of the 'sensitive guy' more attractive. Behind the change in popular preferences was the promotional team of the bands, hard at work. Boy groups were popularised due to the marketing of their brand: each member possessed a unique trait or style that appealed to fans — the heartthrob, the leader, the shy one, the cute one, the bad boy, with the list of personalities going on.
Parallel to this was the rise of girl groups, with En Vogue’s massively successful debut that spurred the advent of more groups such as British foursome Eternal, All Saints, and arguably the biggest female Western act so far by many metrics — the Spice Girls. The marketing of the Spice Girls members also leveraged on personas. Each member took on a different alias— Posh, Ginger, Sporty, Baby, and Scary — giving the group a sense of purpose alongside relatability, making them wildly popular. The image of a gang of five ordinary, young females having fun and expressing power through their music was attractive to young adolescent girls seeking an understanding of femininity with the rise of feminism in the mid-1990s.
Timing, it seems, was just as important for the group to break through.
On the other side of the world, Asian groups have been on the rise with Japanese groups SMAP, Arashi, and Tokio mainly due to promotional efforts as they appeared on TV shows, reality shows, commercials, and the like. J-pop focused on radio-friendly sing-along tunes that the public could easily digest, which differed from K-pop, which initially focused more on hip-hop.
The first South Korean sing-dance groups in Seo Taji and the Boys, HOT, and SHINWA, often prefaced themes of teenage angst and societal dissatisfaction that resonated with South Korean adolescents. K-pop then became more prominent with the creation of major talent agencies, as new groups in agencies underwent systemized vocal and dance training before debuting with all the qualities needed to be superstars — entertainment value, looks, and talent. Exacerbated by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, entertainment became a new export industry for the country as music was marketed as a cultural commodity, leading to the Hallyu wave in the 2000s with SNSD, After School, Super Junior, 2NE1, among many more, bringing us the K-pop we all know that still triumphs today.
The current landscape...
Thus the question emerges — what proliferates a sing-dance group?
In addition to choreographed performances, there are a number of common factors sing-dance groups have evolved to embody. Generally, members of the sing-dance group are either all-female or male. Mixed gendered groups like KARD historically never did as well as opposed to boy or girl groups, perhaps owing to the notion that people seem more attractive to the opposite sex as a group. In other words, the 'cheerleader effect'.
Additionally, the group’s attire, promotional materials (television appearances, magazines, shows, social posts), and music are managed closely in order to push and sustain the group as a unit to the public. When we think of sing-dance groups in this image in Singapore, many often arrive at the label ‘cringe’. But Ling Yi, a Singaporean who used to be a K-pop trainee, points out the main reason: Singaporeans just don’t really support locals.
“The difference in being in a girl/boy group in Singapore and in Korea is the acceptance. There are quite a few Youtubers making content every day for — but it’s not globally recognised and people tend to look down or laugh at those content videos”, she says.
The lack of local support is one of the biggest reasons why Singapore sing-dance groups aren’t able to have a sustainable career. Singaporeans veer towards what is ‘trendy’ — commonly seen as synonymous with international acts — and have a sort of aversion for locally produced content. A sing-dance group is a large investment, and the sheer amount of time, resources, and money needed to sustain a group long enough to have a breakthrough just aren’t feasible in Singapore, where there is little chance for public reciprocation for the effort pumped into promoting groups.
Peng Sing, founder of Singaporean indie label WhereAreTheFruits highlights that the high cost makes labels hesitant to produce local sing-dance groups.
“I think local groups like The Sam Willows have been relatively successful -- they've created a handful of great songs that became an important part of young Singaporeans' lives during the 2015-2018 period. They're remembered as one of the most prominent local groups among those aged 25-34 today."
"The main challenge is always to run a profitable business around such groups because they're very expensive to maintain: you need to style them, give them the appropriate music and dance training, have a team of music producers and songwriters to churn out new hits, and a bunch of great business people to sell and promote them to brands and consumers. If any particular aspect falls short, the entire group's career can be jeopardized.”
Other than the high cost, the group has to be strategically promoted in addition to having the right culture and setting, and Singaporeans do not really make up for the most enthusiastic audience.
“Right now the demand for this kind of entertainment is being fulfilled by K-pop already. They've really proven themselves to be the master of their craft and nobody will dare to compete against them because it's far too risky. Plus, our local music consumers have fairly diverse tastes and are usually spoilt for choice thanks to how cosmopolitan we are. If you don't have a critical mass of hardcore fans needed to sustain such a group, you'll fizzle out eventually”, he adds.
At what cost?
Even as a solo artist, having a music career requires tremendous amounts of drive and effort; the few who ‘make it’ in Singapore have achieved large successes overseas before becoming recognised locally. The issue is that Singaporeans only recognize those who have already achieved considerable success, and generally dismiss everyone else.
To build a music career in Singapore, tenacity is key, and if the music isn’t your own — as in a sing-dance group, where every aspect of their image as artists are usually heavily regulated — then there is less of an incentive to push for a career in music, much less in a sing-dance group. In the pragmatic culture of Singapore, music is still considered something of an alternative culture societally. Perceived as going against the grain, it’s more about freedom of expression than manufactured groups. For Singaporeans who actually aspire for a breakthrough, being a member of a sing-dance group is merely a dream.
Dean, Director of Cross Ratio Entertainment shares that the culture is just vastly different in Singapore as opposed to the Korean culture, where entertainment was cultivated as a viable career option.
“The concept (of sing-dance groups) is hard for our Singapore audiences to accept as the population or fanbase is too small to sustain the support. Labels need to put in a lot of money into the group and if there is no return, then it will be hard for the label to carry on pushing the group. K-pop labels put in a lot of money to the group and the talents who are chosen are very disciplined and hungry to ensure they can breakthrough.”
“Singaporean acts are brought up in a different environment as paper chase and stable jobs are the norm, so if they feel they are not able to breakthrough they tend to give up. Mirai is an example. The company S2S pumped in a lot of money into (the group), and this is something I know as I worked for them at the time. Due to the artists having different views, the group had to be disbanded. Only Olivia Ong worked hard to carry on her dream to breakthrough into the music industry."
Not many Singaporeans themselves want to be in a sing-dance group, preferring more practical jobs over the less stable job of a musician. Not only is there a lack of demand for sing-dance groups, but there is also a lack of supply. The culture in Singapore hasn’t grown a substantial base for the production and promotion of sing-dance groups.
This could be attributed to the lack of state support for the local entertainment industry. In the cases of Japan and Korea, culture was marketed as an export commodity intentionally by the state, leading to the J-pop and K-pop waves. In the case of Singapore, despite its entertainment industry harboring its own extensive talent pool, not much support is going into the promotion of local artists to the public.
Do sing-dance groups have a space in Singapore's society?
On the topic of whether sing-dance groups might have a space in society, Dean doesn't cross out the possibility, but stresses the hurdle of creating such a culture in the local music scene.
"We are able to go in this direction if we are able to get the talent pool, funding, and public support. It takes 2-5 years for a group to break, so it is a long road ahead and a lot of funding to keep on pushing. Singaporeans are very practical, we need the whole society; labels, and individuals who are willing to take this long journey to be able to push this through."
Peng Sing highlights that our export industry isn't geared towards entertainment.
“I don't think Singapore really has a funding problem because we have lots of VCs, investment funds, EDB, GIC, Temasek, all of whom are confident enough to invest obscene amounts of money to bring big tech companies and IPs to set up shop in Singapore. But for our State-directed capitalists, the preference is always for conventional industries — tech, high-end manufacturing, REITs, defense.”
Getting local music out into the international audience or the public eye is much easier today, making outreach easier on aspiring artists. However, it seems Singapore artists haven't jumped onto the bandwagon. Social media and the proliferation of the internet has seen Asian influence on the rise now, revolutionizing the ways in which people interact with pop culture, diversifying the routes of pop culture and influences.
The rise of Asian culture was mainly driven by the increasing cultural awareness in the West, as seen from the development of sing-dance groups, but the same is occurring in a reverse manner today. Western cultures are becoming more aware of the attractiveness of other cultures, pushing for it instead of locals. If culture flows both ways — why not here?
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The reason can perhaps be circulated back to the lack of public reception for sing-dance groups, or local artists, for the matter. For one, in some societies, the increased visibility for Asians only concerns a certain 'brand' of Asian. These complexities in inclusivity make a barren breeding ground for the development of sing-dance groups, and branding is all the more difficult.
“Another aspect that some people miss is the existence of a celebrity culture and media machine to create the larger-than-life image of a "Popstar" or "Sing-dance group". Even if we have the talent and initial investment, we also need to have the right mix of variety shows, late-night shows, music festivals, venues, magazines, fashion brands, movie/film industry to fully monetize the 10-year career of such a group”, Peng Sing shares.
Sing-dance groups may be all the rage now, but Singapore isn’t one to jump on the hype train any time soon — there’s simply too little support and not enough pumped into the industry alongside a multitude of variables that make starting a sing-dance group daunting. Not to be a party pooper, but maybe sing-dance groups aren’t for Singapore (for now at least). Meanwhile, there are plenty of local musicians who love their craft, and do it well. All we have to do is support them — our own brand of Singaporean music already exists, it just needs more nudges in the right direction, and maybe someday we'll witness more of our very own sing-dance groups on international stages.