K-pop group Brave Girls performs during a rehearsal for the YouTube-livestream commercial event at a studio in Gwacheon, south of Seoul, South Korea, on March 27th. Photo: AFP
Then the pseudonym YouTuber called Viditor set up a compilation of their performances at South Korean military bases – and saved their careers.
“Rollin ‘rollin’ rollin ‘rollin’ / I’m waiting for you / Babe, just you,” they chant as wild enthusiasts uniformed conscripts dance and wave batons. It went viral and hit millions of chords across the country.
Less than a month later, the song came in at No. 1 in South Korea and topped the Billboard K-pop 100 in the U.S., four years after it was originally released – with their popularity boosted by their fight against chance story.
The rise led by fans is a reversal of the usual K-pop model, where bands usually gather, train intensively and run record labels, whose marketing and promotion are crucial to their success.
“Earlier this year, I thought it was time to put an end to it,” singer Kim Min-young told AFP.
“The reaction to our songs was always cold … It seemed like no one wanted to see us on stage,” she said tearfully.
Brave girls started as a five-legged friend ten years ago, but mostly fell on their ears. They re-launched them as a septet in 2016, but the reconstruction did nothing to increase their popularity.
Their five singles and two mini-albums were more missed than hits, and departures over the next few years reduced them to four members.
They were reduced to performances at military bases, which is the South Korean equivalent of a daily performance on the side stage at a music festival.
“All of our members felt an emotional burden,” Kim, 30, said.
“I wasn’t brave enough to give up my career or start something new. And I thought that if I left the team, it would be the end of the brave girls. So I wanted to keep the team together until the end.” But they turned out to have bypassed them.
‘We will definitely win the wars’
South Korea requires all able-bodied men to serve in uniform to defend it from the North, a period when they were often shipped to remote places and deprived of the joys of modern life.
As a common experience, it’s a unifier and a leveler, and Viditor’s compilation – along with witty captions like “Play this song during battles and we’ll surely win wars” – resonated with those who saw them in the military.
The clip garnered about 15 million views in just over a month.
“Viditor, you have rediscovered the Brave Girls,” one poster wrote.
“You’re nothing but the commander of 600,000 South Korean troops.”
The sender – who said he wanted to remain anonymous to maintain privacy – said she was stunned by the reaction.
She has compiled hundreds of compilations of songs by other bands, but has never had a similar impact before.
“I thought I could make an entertaining video with hilarious reactions from soldiers and funny comments,” she said via email.
“But I’ve never seen this. I’m still not in disbelief about what happened.”
The K-pop phenomenon – embodied in BTS’s global success – earns billions of dollars a year for the world’s 12th largest economy.
Dozens of groups made up mostly of teenagers run each year in hopes of following in their footsteps, but most of the works quickly disappear, leaving barely a trace on the results of music history.
Exposure to major television stations has long had ambitious K-pop idols. But cultural commentator Jung Ho-jai said the rough moves in the original “Rollin” video were too risky for the networks.
They had no choice but to take on any reservation, however remote and poorly paid, with Jung describing them as “rejected in what was basically the third tier of the English football league.” But when Viditor released her video, he said, “somehow YouTube algorithms saw the potential in the clip and started showing it to a wider audience.
“It proved how important YouTube has become as a media platform.”
K-pop companies are increasingly turning to social media sites like YouTube, TikTok and Facebook to develop fan bases for their bands.
“More than 50 new bands hit the market every year, but less than half appear on major TV stations,” said Kim Jin-hyung, CEO of Wuzo Entertainment.
“For idols to survive, we need to target online platforms that meet fan requirements.”
But for Brave Girls, the amateur poster made a difference.
Member Lee Yu-na said, “Something very miraculous and inexplicable happened to us.”