Korean singer BoA is widely recognized as one of Asia’s top stars, with good reason. At the tender age of 13, BoA debuted in August 2000 with her ID; Peace B album after two years of intensive idol training with the then-fledgling entertainment company SM. More or less an instant success, ID; Peace B catapulted the super cute child prodigy to stardom and led to BoA selling at least 15 million records across Asia alone. Her success helped fund SM’s expansion and cemented the company as Korea’s top record label. BoA became known for her perfect harmonization of intricate, flawlessly executed choreography and undeniably catchy tunes. BoA’s career went from strength to strength over the years, seeing her headlining arena tours across Japan and becoming the first Korean to make it big there, to starring in her own movie alongside Derek Hough and representing SM Entertainment on talent show K-Pop Star. She was the first female idol to hold a concert at the Sejong Centre for the Performing Arts, produced and/or wrote several of her own hits and is known to have inspired several of your fave K-pop idols. In an industry which notoriously chews up and spits out its talent, BoA has maintained a gloriously fruitful and lengthy career and is extensively cherished in her field. But what happens when the queen starts to lose her power?
While her first three studio albums did huge numbers in Korea, My Name and Girls on Top sold considerably less. Although the albums were her strongest bodies of work, they alienated fans due to BoA’s image overhaul. No longer was she the cutesy teeny bopper singing about sweeties and princesses. BoA was a grown ass woman now and, with Girls on Top, she had declared war on “male chauvinism” and challenged ideas of Korean womanhood, all while donning a bohemian mullet. Needless to say, Korea was not here for that, and BoA not so subtly abandoned the K-pop scene to chase paper in Japan. Fortunately she could still rely on her trusty Japanese fans, since she was shifting millions there and performing in sold out arenas and halls. Slowly but surely, her profile in Japan began alarmingly mirroring her profile in Korea, with her success in the land of the rising sun facing serious jeopardy. Her sales there were rapidly plummeting, climaxing with the end of her #1 albums streak in 2010 (thanks for nothing IDENTITY). Inspiring future iconic flops like Bionic, E•MO•TION, and Superficial, her heavily hyped US debut in 2009 barely made a dent in the charts and was yet another blow to Asia’s princess. Even her second Japanese compilation album BEST&USA failed to sell much, and Japan loves compilation albums – just ask Koda Kumi. However, not all hope was lost.
In a deliberate attempt to capitalize on the new-found global popularity of K-pop, BoA made her homeland comeback later in 2010 with Hurricane Venus – her first in 5 years (a lifetime in pop music). The album was luckily a triumphant victory, topping the charts and selling over 56,000 copies. The title track, a hard-hitting electronic number, sold over 1.5 million downloads, whereas the sassy and mature masterpiece “GAME” sold just under 1 million downloads. Ironic that she would kick off the era with a teaser single called “GAME”, considering BoA was playing anything but one. The era ended with the modestly successful Copy & Paste repackage, and reminded us why we crowned BoA the Queen of K-pop in the first place (not that we forgot, but… you know). Hurricane Venus was followed up with 2012’s Only One, a colossal hit and BoA’s biggest album in Korea to date. The title track shifted a phenomenal 2 million downloads, whereas the album moved 34,000 physical units. In January 2013, BoA elevated her K-pop career to new heights by announcing her first ever live concert in Korea. Tickets sold out instantaneously, a true testament to BoA’s star power in the land of kimchi. Like a true queen, she played with this idea by rising on a throne at the start of the show. Yet despite these triumphs, BoA was still dropping singles in Japan. After all, that’s where the money is for K-pop artists. The thing is, they just weren’t selling though.
Between 2010 and 2014, BoA dropped a whopping 8 singles in Japan. Check out the stats for them below:
[2010.07.21] WOO WEEKEND – 12,459 copies sold.
[2011.12.07] Milestone – 7,722 copies sold.
[2013.02.27] Only One – 11,390 copies sold.
[2013.06.26] Tail of Hope – 10,957 copies sold.
[2014.03.05] Shout It Out – 7,515 copies sold.
[2014.07.23] MASAYUME CHASING – 8,947 copies sold.
Some of them were ballads. Some of them were upbeat dance numbers. All of them were great. Yet as you can see, they didn’t exactly fly off the shelves and blaze through the charts. But why? Was it the lackluster promotions from Avex? Japan’s fatigue of the Hallyu wave? Are all-singing all-dancing females out? Truth is, it’s all of them. Sure, Avex did various editions of the singles and pulled some strings to get the usual anime or drama tie-ins, but where were the grand TV appearances and billboards plastered ubiquitously and trucks cruising through Tokyo blasting the singles? So many K-pop idols have jumped over the pond to Japan, in the hopes of hitting the jackpot, that it’s pretty much been overkill. Combine that with Korea and Japan’s already rocky relationship plus recent events over the years, and you get the picture. Japan is still crazy for all-singing all-dancing chicks though – as long as there’s a hundred of them in the same group. To add insult to injury, Avex repackaged those 8 singles and their b-sides as the disc WHO’S BACK?, with just one new song. The ~new album~ was figuratively a giant middle finger to BoA’s remaining Japanese fans who had loyally supported her (and paid for those singles) over the years. It sold horribly of course, yet BoA embarked on a small tour to support this third greatest hits eighth original Japanese studio album. Since then, she’s released two more singles in Japan, selling just over 12,000 copies combined. It looks like Avex is still interested in BoA, and they clearly see her as a profitable artist with potential. Why else would they send her out on tour or fund new singles? The problem is, they just don’t know how to unlock that potential, and shoot BoA to the top of the charts again like they did with Namie Amuro.
Meanwhile in Korea, 2015 was a lot kinder to BoA’s career. Her eighth Korean record, the seductively titled Kiss My Lips, was a genuine expression of BoA’s artistry. She wrote all the lyrics, composed most of the music and produced the whole thing. Her sheer hard work paid off – Kiss My Lips sold over 15,000 copies, an impressive feat considering the title track’s frosty reception. Eventually, the two title tracks, “Kiss My Lips” and “Who Are You”, ended up selling 594,000 digital copies between them. Add this onto the individual album tracks selling a collective amount of 167,000 downloads, and you have one of K-pop’s hugest albums in 2015.
So what now? There is an obvious demand for BoA in her homeland. She has the freedom there to create the music she personally wants to, with the added luxury of it actually selling. BoA doesn’t want to create EDM music, so BoA doesn’t create EDM music. BoA wants to cameo in dramas, so BoA cameos in drams. While that’s all well and good, the reality is that K-pop doesn’t amount to much financially. It’s a bit of a catch-22, isn’t it? Should she continue releasing artistic bops, slaying the K-pop scene and being treated like the empress she is? Or keep releasing embarrassing flop singles in Japan which make way more money? Ultimately it’s BoA’s call. She’s reached a stage in her career that most of her dongsaengs can (and, honestly, will) only dream of having, and she deserves to do whatever she wants. Whatever her choice, Jumping BoAs will always be there frantically cheering “BoA-jjang!” and waving yellow balloons as they get their life, while SOUL members will stay perched for their exclusive merch. As for me? BoA, you’re still my NO.1 – and that’ll never change, ~saranghae~.