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Evanescent Wanna One is ready to say goodbye: The first K-pop boy band to be picked by a popular vote heads into its final concerts

Dec 28,2018
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Boy band Wanna One performs at the 2018 MGA (MBC Plus X Genie Music Awards) on Nov. 6 in Incheon. [YONHAP]
The first boy band hand-picked by fans, a band with a finite lifespan from its very first note, but a band that succeeded nonetheless - the 11-member K-pop act Wanna One - meets its official end on the last day of 2018 after a fame-filled year and a half. From the summer of 2017, when they took their first steps together, to their very last concert on Jan. 27, Wanna One wrote a new chapter in the history of K-pop, one that has significance in several dimensions.

The idea of Wanna One started with the second season of cable channel Mnet’s “Produce 101,” which ran for three months from April 7 to June 16, 2017. Every Friday night, viewers watched the contestants compete for the last 11 spots - and those 11 victors became the members of what would later become Wanna One - the band’s name is derived from the number 101. The show started with a mere 1.6 percent viewership rating, which jumped to 5.2 for the 11th and final episode in which the fate of the contestants was decided.

The group was a success even before its debut, as the number of votes for members of the final group were almost twice those counted in the first season of “Produce 101,” which started off with 101 female contestants and ended with 11 members of a group dubbed I.O.I. Kang Daniel, for instance, scored the highest number of votes - 1,578,837 - almost twice the number of votes scored by Jeon So-mi in the first season, which was 858,333 votes. The total number of votes for the final episode of the second season surpassed 10 million, almost triple the number for the first season, which was 3.5 million.

Kang, Park Ji-hoon, Lee Dae-hwi, Kim Jae-hwan, Ong Seong-wu, Park Woo-jin, Lai Kuan-lin, Yoon Ji-sung, Bae Jin-young and Ha Sung-woon were named members of Wanna One on June 16, 2017. They made their official debut on Aug. 7 at a concert called “Wanna One Premier Show-Con” at the Gocheok Sky Dome, becoming the first boy band chosen by the public. The members were represented by different talent agencies and it was the first band to hold a debut concert at one of Korea’s biggest venues, which has been played by such big stars as Exo, BTS, Big Bang, Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Sam Smith and, most recently, The Weeknd.

Their debut album “1x1=1 (To Be One)” sold over 740,000 copies, its lead track “Energetic” storming local online music charts with an upbeat melody and quality of performance that surpassed all expectations for a group of rookies thrown together by a public vote. Their second album “1-1=0 (Nothing Without You)” (2017) was just as popular, with their lead track “Beautiful” topping online charts for weeks. Although the tracks that followed, such as “Boomerang” (2018), “Light” (2018) and their most recent, and last, release “Spring Breeze,” were somewhat less popular, they were popular enough to prove that Wanna One was more than just a bunch of wannabe stars.

As welcomed as they were by fans, however, the group provoked worries that they had disrupted the conventional method of breaking into the entertainment industry: in which an entertainment agency picks its members and helps them grow. The fame and fortune that were endowed upon the 11 trainees - excepting member Hwang, who was already a member of boy band Nu’est - were seen as dangerous for the whole entertainment ecosystem.

Since the whole idea of “Produce 101” was to have young trainees from various agencies break through with the backing of entertainment conglomerate CJ ENM, many worried that the members who were undertrained would get attention and recognition that should have come much later in their careers. For instance, member Lai had been trained for just a couple of months when he joined “Produce 101,” compared to the years of practice that would normally precede a debut.

And those worries came true on March 19, when the Wanna One members were caught live on an Mnet music show talking among themselves oblivious to the fact that the camera was on.

Though their conversation wasn’t overly vulgar or explicit, the deprecating way they talked about their fans - dissing a fan who followed them around in her car and complaining about the fact that they didn’t have more freedom - was enough to turn off many fans. Added to widespread disappointment with the album “0+1=1 (I Promise You),” which was released on the day of the accident, Wanna One failed to recover the full popularity they once enjoyed.

“They debuted too early when they weren’t fully prepared to take on the responsibilities that came with such popularity,” said an industry insider. “Though it’s hard to say that what they did was right or wrong, it’s clear that they wouldn’t have made those mistakes if they had enjoyed gradual success instead of the sudden and explosive popularity they found themselves in.”

Wanna One’s final concert “2019 Wanna One Concert [Therefore]” will be performed from Jan. 24 to 27 at Gocheok Sky Dome, the place where the whole story started. Their setlist includes songs from all their albums: “1X1=1(To be One),” “1-1=0 (Nothing Without You),” “0+1=1 (I Promise You),” “1÷x=1 (Undivided)” and “1¹¹=1 (Power of Destiny).” After the concert, the members will return to their original agencies and carry on with their careers with the memory of success that was as brilliant as it was guaranteed to end.

BY YOON SO-YEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]