I've been a Kpop fan for so long that I'm losing count of the years, but I think I'm going on eleven years now. That being said, this is a topic that I rarely see being discussed properly. Yet it's so important to address in order for us to be able to enjoy the music of our idols without feeling bitter over things like line distributions.
Because a new comeback usually means new arguments over line distribution, and I have noticed that something crucial is usually left out of these discussions.
The Forgotten Fact
When discussing (what a nice word for it) line distribution there is something that I rarely ever see mentioned, and yet it's at the very heart of the discussion: Member Positions.
In a group, everyone has a role. These roles rarely ever change.
This is true for Kpop groups as it's true for other groups, like music bands and even groups of friends.
The drummer in a band doesn't suddenly become the guitarist.
Likewise, the joker in a group of friends usually remains the joker.
It's true for Kpop groups as well.
But as a fan it can be difficult to remember and hard to accept.
The usual member positions in Kpop and those that concern BTS are are as follows.
Note: I won't differentiate between Main and Lead as the differences between the two are subtle and irrelevant in terms of this discussion.
In BTS, this is none other than Rap Monster.
The Leader of the group has the responsibility of the group and serves as the main link between the group and their company. They communicate the wishes of the members to the company and likewise make certain that the group members respect the demands and wishes of the company.
Smaller groups sometimes don't have leaders, but the only circumstance under which I have seen the leader position change is if the Leader leaves the group, and someone else has to step in and take over.
Pre-debut, the Leader may change, as it did for Winner. Song Minho used to be the leader but was unable to perform the duties due to illness so the position passed onto Kang Seungyoon. But this was only possible because they hadn't officially debuted at the time.
In BTS this our very own Jin.
The function of a Visual is to draw people in with an appealing face.
This will often mean that music videos with storylines will focus on the visual and when a group of uneven amount of members split into pairs, the Visual will usually stand alone. Photo shoots will also often highlight a Visual.
But being a Visual does NOT guarantee screen time nor does it equate to being the face of the group and it's NOT to be confused with being the Center.
As BTS's Visual, Jin was the main character in the music video for Blood Sweat and Tears, and in the highlight reels too. Even for a Visual that's a lot. He isn't the face of the group, but as a Visual he is often given opportunities during group activities to visually stand out, and he is expected to always highlight his looks. Jin does especially well at this, giving himself the nickname Worldwide Handsome.
In BTS this is young Jungkook.
The Center is not to be confused with the Visual which is a very different position! The Center is the one who most often dances in the middle when they perform and who stands near the middle during talks or official events too.
They're usually given more camera time and music videos often focus on them to explain why they're in the Center during performances.
If you've ever watched Produce 101 you will know how crucial a position it is but also how many demands are put on the Center of a group. The Center usually has to be a Lead Vocalist and a Lead Dancer too, in order to be able to hold up the vocals during the chorus and the choreography as well. It's a position that holds a lot of demands, and equally receives a lot of criticism.
Unlike the Visual, a Center doesn't have to be handsome or pretty, but they have to draw people into their performance and excel at many different performance aspects in order to do so.
Main and Lead Rappers
In BTS this is Rap Monster, Suga and J-Hope.
This one pretty much explains itself, doesn't it?
They're in charge of rap.
However, there is something very unusual happening here within BTS!
It's highly unusual to have as many Main and Lead Rappers as BTS do.
Normally two is the absolute maximum amount of Lead Rappers, and often a single Lead Rapper is the preferred ratio, with the rest being Sub Rappers. This would mean that only one person would have a full rap verse and the others would have maybe one or two rap lines, if they were lucky.
In terms of positions this is where BTS stands out as a hip hop focused group.
In BTS this is Jungkook.
The Sub Rapper is there to support the Lead Rappers. They can rap a few lines, if a song requires it, but often they will not have more than one or two rap lines, and are there uniquely to support the Lead Rappers.
In BTS, Jungkook rarely raps anymore, but he still sometimes takes on this role in live performances by creating an echo like effect when the lead rappers do their verses.
He also sometimes use rap techniques to give his vocals an extra hip hop flair.
Main and Lead Dancer
In BTS this is J-Hope, Jimin and Jungkook.
This one also explains itself.
The Main and Lead Dancers will be most likely to dance in the middle of the group, with the Center, to make the dance stand out with their skills.
They're there to highlight the choreography and catch the attention of viewers.
Main and Lead Vocalist
In BTS this is Jimin and Jungkook.
Simply put, they're in charge of singing.
Lead Vocalists often have to be good dancers too as they are in charge of the vocals and that usually means the bridge and the chorus, during which choreography tends to pick up.
This is why some amazing singers sometimes end up as Sub Vocalists, because their dancing isn't strong enough to carry the song while being at the front of the choreography.
In BTS this is V and Jin.
Exactly like Sub Rappers, the role of Sub Vocalists is to support the Lead Vocalists.
Jin and V rarely get the chance to sing a lot during songs. This is because they're both Sub Vocalists. But even as Sub Vocalists, their positions are slightly different.
Jin is not only a Sub Vocalist but also a Visual, and although V is a simple Sub Vocalist, he has the advantage that he has the lowest range, and a deep voice, so sometimes he gets more lines to cover those lower notes or supplement the song with deep vocals.
A change in position rarely ever happens in K-Pop, for the same reason that you rarely see a drummer in a band challenging the guitarist for his position.
If you start as a rapper, making the transition to become a vocalist, for example, is a hard and dire road that almost never bears fruit.
If it does happen, it's a change that rarely sticks. An example is J-Hope who managed to become a Sub Vocalist for Spring Day. But his position is still a Lead Rapper.
Even so, I highly applaud him for managing to change positions even if it was only for one song. A lot of effort must have gone into making that shift and it's a proud achievement!
The only way to truly make a permanent transition though, is by becoming a vocalist independent from the group, because group dynamics rarely shift, and even less so with an idol group, like BTS.
Theoretically speaking, a group where the Lead Vocalists change would be problematic because their sound and performances would also change a lot and it would feel very inconsistent.
Equally, a group with only Lead Singers is, first of all impossible, second of all boring, as there is no vocal support from Sub Vocalists to strengthen the main vocals. Songs would not have the same vocal depth without sub vocals.
The Sub Vocalist Struggle
It's tricky to have a Sub Vocalist as a bias because you know that they can sing and do well, but they aren't given chances to sing more in the group, simply because that's not their role in the group.
Historically speaking, Sub Vocalists in Kpop often didn't have a single line, and they used to only do the background stuff (much like J-Hope in Spring Day). You rarely ever heard their voices in group songs.
So as a long time fan of K-Pop it is not surprising to me when a Sub Vocalist doesn't have lines. However, it is hugely surprising when they do!
Even if they just have four short lines, it's a huge deal, because that's not how it always is nor how it's traditionally meant to be.
That doesn't change the fact that as a fan it's super frustrating to not hear everyone's voices, and that's why this context is so crucial to remember.
Companies aren't sleeping on Sub Vocalists!
Sub Vocalists simply have different responsibilities and roles within the group.
Jin and V aren't being held down by BigHit, they're fulfilling their roles beautifully.
The company also does a little extra to get them opportunities outside of the group. Like V being lucky to fit the role of Hansung and hence getting an acting role (which can be very difficult to secure as an idol with no prior experience), and Jin going out on many variety shows as a guest, and even starring on Law of the Jungle.
Equally, it's no coincidence that the OST for Hwarang was sung by the two Sub Vocalists. It was a great opportunity for them to show off their voices and vocal capabilities!
Considering how young a group BTS is, they have both gotten a lot of opportunities outside the group unit and likely those opportunities will only increase in order to provide them with the sort of exposure they can't have within the group unit because of their roles.
Are Sub Vocals Appreciated?
We're very lucky to have two great Sub Vocalists in BTS, and we're equally lucky that their voices are so different from each other as that means that they rarely compete for lines.
They're a crucial part of making a song sound right and they hihly facilitate good live performances.
They are crucial to the group unit, so within the group they are loved.
Whether it feels to us like they are appreciated or not depends on the fans.
It's up to us to support them in what they do and be happy when they get good lines or get other opportunities outside of the group.
It's easy to get angry or upset over things like line distribution, especially for for Sub Vocalists (or Sub Rappers), but a big amount of lines isn't what the artist were promised when they joined the group, nor what is demanded in their contracts.
Being a Sub Vocalist and getting less lines also isn't something to be ashamed of, nor is it a position that just anyone can do.
Are Sub Vocalists bad singers?
Being a Sub Vocalist does in no way mean that the member is a bad singer.
The argument for this usually is that if they were good singers they would be Lead Vocalists, but that's not how this works. Singing skill is not the only thing that determined if someone is a Lead Vocalist or a Sub Vocalist.
It's a combination of things. Some elements that may influence the choice of role are as follows (although there are many other factors to consider too): Voice type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), overall sound of group, dance abilities, clash with other positions, stability, etc.
It takes a lot of skill to be a Sub Vocalist and match the tones and voices of Lead Vocalists.
Daesung from Big Bang is a good example. Seungri and him are Big Bang's Sub Vocalists, and they were told that they were bad singers.
Seven years after debut, Daesung's high notes were the focus of Fantastic Baby, and the high notes were impressive enough for him to prove his skills as a singer, even though he was still a Sub Vocalist.
Now he is a successful soloist in Japan. But it took 7 years for his vocal skills to be centred in a Big Bang title song. Even then, Daesung had the least amount of lines in that song (a total of 12 words).
Even now it's not like Daesung has the most lines in Big Bang, or the best. He is still a Sub Vocalist. But thanks to his solo career in Japan, his experience with musicals, and other activities outside of Big Bang, everyone acknowledges that he has vocal skills.
The key here is that it's his activities outside of the group that made this possible and in Big Bang he will always be a Sub Vocalist.
Opportunities for a Sub Vocalist to show their singing abilities is something that usually comes OUTSIDE of group activities.
Within the group, these will always be the conditions, and shouting "line distribution!" does not change that fact.
But Sub Vocalists too can gain great recognition and strong singing careers through solo activities, and for many, that's to be preferred, since solo careers can give greater creative liberty.
Let me also stress that when I say outside of the group, and solo activities, I don't mean after disbandment or that they have to leave the group, I mean promotions on their own while the group isn't promoting.
Solo activities like the Rap Line's mixtapes, for example, or Jin going out on Law of the Jungle, or V acting in Hwarang. These are solo activities that can raise their individual profiles.
But within the group everyone has very definite roles and these only shift a minimal amount.
That doesn't mean that the role with more lines is the only important one.
Sub Vocalists are as important as Lead Vocalists. One couldn't exist without the other. They support each other and come together as one group.
In truth, BTS are among those who make the most efforts to close the gaps between Subs and Leads! And that’s important to acknowledge.
As K-Pop fans we need to remember that line distribution is not a question of a member being a good or bad singer, it's a question of their role in the group.
In other words...
What we have is what we've got.
So let's appreciate it.
I'll say it one last time for the people at the back:
BTS are among one of the K-pop groups that makes the most efforts to shorten the gap between Sub Vocalists and Lead Vocalists, and even between Vocalists and Rappers, and they continue to make more efforts on this front. For anyone who doubts: look at the line distribution for the Love Yourself album.
But the real lesson to learn and remember from this is: a group wouldn't be complete without all of these positions and they're all crucial, in the same way that the bread, steak and salad in a cheeseburger are just as important as the cheese. It wouldn't be a real cheeseburger without all of those things. And I do so like real cheeseburgers.