Stage presence – what it is, what it isn’t, and why your bias doesn’t have any

I dropped a comment a while back stating that CL was the only female k-pop idol who displayed anything resembling stage presence.  This horrified nearly everyone – fans of 2NE1 were concerned that this praise for CL was uncharacteristic of my normal online behaviour and perhaps indicative of massive hard drug use or mental breakdown, whereas everyone else was like “b-b-b-but, what about MY bias?  I think they’re great!  Doesn’t [insert bias here] have stage presence?”

Oh the wailing and gnashing of teeth when you tell a k-pop fan that their bias doesn’t have stage presence…. but they really don’t.  This post will explain why they don’t have it, and also why you shouldn’t care.

As it happens, most people who inhabit the k-pop online-o-sphere misunderstand stage presence simply because they have no real idea about what the term “stage presence” actually means.  Let’s start off with a few things that stage presence is not.  Stage presence isn’t:

  • being charming
  • being pretty
  • smiling and waving a lot
  • being a “good singer” (in technical vocalfag terms, ugh)
  • wearing a cool outfit
  • not wearing a cool outfit (i.e stripping)
  • doing little heart signs and aegyo and shit
  • crying or showing other emotion
  • stunning stage lighting
  • loud volume
  • great staging props
  • being above a certain height (you’d be amazed how short a lot of well-known western rock stars are)

Of course, stage presence doesn’t exclude any of the above factors either.  You could have all of the above list working in your favour, or you could not have any of it, and you can still either have stage presence, or not have it.

So what is stage presence, then?  Well, as per usual all the people asking me about it could have just used Google:


However, your average one-eyed k-pop fan will look at this definition and go “b…b…b..but my bias is impressive!” – well yes, of course he/she is – to you.  You’re so deeply in love with them that they could be in an office building downtown trimming their fingernails like Hwayoung and you could be watching them through the window using a telescope from Sasaeng HQ five miles away and you’d still be ‘impressed’ by their ‘presence’.  The key words here to remember in the definition above are not “impressiveness” or “manner or appearance” but “theatre audience”.  Ahhh.

Here’s Bruce Dickinson, from well-known heavy metal group Iron Maiden, and probably one of the world’s best practitioners of “stage presence”, explaining perfectly how it works.  Relevant parts at 3:13 and 4:18, and also observe his stage manner, where he completely dominates the (huge) stage and audience.  Ignore the statement from the vocalfag in between who has been brought into the documentary purely for academic “metal should be taken as seriously as opera yes it should” brownie points and misses the point a little.

Contrast that to the following performance from k-pop nugus Bob Girls.  Look at the girls, from 8:45, carefully adjusting their costumes and making sure they’re in the right spot to start the choreo.  Their strictly choreographed routine that they’re not allowed to deviate from means that they have to play strictly by the stage’s rules.  They don’t own the stage, the stage owns them.  It’s not their fault, nor does it reflect badly on them as performers – they simply have no choice in the matter.  The tight format of idol pop that most groups have to work with simply doesn’t allow traditional stage presence to exist.

Speaking of vocalfags (and this is relevant), a while ago I wrote a post explaining how the vocalfaggotry that Korean fans as well as western vocal thread creators use is all just personal taste and obsessive-compulsive-disorder because the techniques singers use for projection simply aren’t needed in the 21st century when you’ve got a microphone right up to your lips and a team of audio technicians armed with the latest toys in vocal tweaking at your beck and call.  Vocal techniques were developed in pre-modern days when getting that voice to the back of the hall without microphones was important, but nowadays it doesn’t matter because the technology does it for you.  Yes, you can make a subjective determination “I like singer X because they’re using techniques that singer Y doesn’t have any idea about, and that sounds nicer to my ear” or you can say “because singer X is using better techniques they won’t hurt their throat or lose their voice as much as singer Y, and gosh that would be a shame if Y had to quit singing for this reason” but there’s no objective reason why X is better than Y sonically from a listener’s point of view.  You could write a whole thesis about vocal techniques and how Mariah Carey has better technique than Bob Dylan and it’d all be correct but if the listener likes listening to Bob Dylan’s voice more, why does it even matter?  In the 19th century yes it would have mattered because Bob wouldn’t have been able to be heard beyond the first two rows of audience whereas Mariah could be heard to the back of the room, but in the 21st century where everyone’s all amplified and shit, it does not matter a bit.  This is why I refuse to get drawn into arguments with vocalfags – the mere act of discussing these points is giving their perspective a relevance that it objectively doesn’t have.  Nothing that they are saying is technically wrong or untrue by default, it just simply doesn’t matter to the hyper-technology world of modern music in any way other than subjective taste.  That’s why the new girl selected for KARA was the prettiest one, not the best singer… as if it was ever going to turn out any other way.

youngji cy

It’s relevant to the stage presence discussion because there’s a similar kind of analogy that can be made with stage presence.  In the old days of theatre performance, stage presence was a vital determining factor as to how effective a performance would be.  If you’ve ever seen anyone with “theatre makeup” in any other environment than on an actual stage, you’ll know that theatre makeup often looks fucking disgusting up close, and that’s because such makeup is meant to make an impression from far away.  Correspondingly, theatrical performers also tend to exaggerate their movements, speech and gestures, to make their stage presence as large as possible, so they can make an impact across the entire hall.  Just like there’s no point in a 19th century opera singer affecting a fey, whispery vocal tone, there’s no point in a theatrical performer making a small subtle movement that only the first two rows are close enough to see if they’re performing in front of an audience of 500.

eunjungcin cy

Once again however, just like with vocal performance, modern technology changes everything.  Actors for TV don’t ham it up as much as theatrical performers because cameras can zoom in and capture those small details that will be missed by a live audience, making the old exaggerated techniques for presence projection irrelevant (not to mention often silly-looking).  Makeup for televised performances is also more subtle than the old-style theatre makeup, and is designed to enhance and/or cover small details rather than make a bold impression at range.  Likewise, the k-pop performer doesn’t actually need stage presence to reach the back of a room because there are a bunch of compensatory factors:

  • Performances for TV only really need to be played to the cameras, not the live audience
  • A large group of people dancing together in synchronised fashion makes a bigger impression and can be seen from further away, which is one reason for those big boy groups and also why even solo performers have backing dancers for upbeat songs
  • On live stages camera feeds can be shown to the audience on projected screens to make the idols’ image more up close and personal
  • Modern arena concert stages often have gangways so the performers can walk out into the audience and get closer, reducing the need to project as far
  • Emotional attachment to the idols will make the idol seem larger than life in the eyes of the audience regardless

The last one is important in k-pop.  Watch a fancam for someone you really like, and then watch another similar fancam for some idol you really don’t give a fuck about, and see if you can detect any difference in stage presence.  If you’re as biased as the average one-eyed k-pop fan you’ll probably detect a ton, but in reality there isn’t any difference at all.  Both performers are working within the same kind of strictly regimented system and displaying equal stage presence (motherfuckin’ zero), it’s your aching libido and mental attachment to the idol fantasy that is doing the rest.

Companies know all this, so they don’t bother to train idols in stage presence… instead they train them to interact with cameras, and only the first few rows of audience – that smiling-waving shit we all know about.  Companies know that the combination of their technology and your deludu brain will fill in the mental blanks required and you’ll have the false impression that they have stage presence anyway (as well as moral virtue, riches, a clean-living lifestyle, intelligence, emotional maturity, etc).  CL probably has stage presence by accident by virtue of having a highly aggressive alpha personality that’s usually whipped mercilessly out of idols long before they debut so they can be more “charming” (it’s easily visible on their “Nolza” live DVD, she stands apart from the other members massively in this area whenever she gets the chance to break from the choreo) and she is the only idol who has it, and don’t waste your time linking me examples of other idols who you think might have it because:

  • I’ll tell you right now in advance that they don’t and
  • If you’re still even thinking that this question is even important, you’ve just missed the point of this entire post.

CL’s stage presence, like Ailee’s voice, while nice, doesn’t really have any meaningful function – it’s wasted in a genre which doesn’t require it, it may as well be absent.  Other performers in Korea who occasionally exhibit stage presence (PSY and Tiger JK are good examples) are not part of the idol system.  No coincidence.

Glad that’s settled, then.


19 thoughts on “Stage presence – what it is, what it isn’t, and why your bias doesn’t have any

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. The most important thing a kpop idol needs is an attractive face and the cookie-cutter interaction with the audience. And most stage actors these days do wear mics for that very reason. In a venue with more than 100 seats subtlety is wasted. As a theatre teacher I know exactly what you’re saying.

  2. And I’m sure most fans after reading this will say “you are so wrong, my bias totally have stage presence” and I’m even more sure they havent heard that before
    Nice article, so glad I found this blog

  3. Pingback: But maybe THEY should care | My Other Blog

  4. When I read the first sentence I thought you were hacked.
    In the end all stage presence is learned. Rockers learn how to make those constipated faces when they play a guitar solo, rappers to act like stereotypical gangsters and kpop idols to show aegyo.
    Because in kpop most of the act is strictly choreographed there is little time for this kind of interaction while a rocker, a rapper or a DJ and even a solo singer need to do something to draw attention to themselves. For a typical idol investing time and effort to improve stage presence is a waste of time, so, like always, you are perfectly right.
    Subjectivity in judging stage presence is normal in all genres. I’ve seen Iron Maiden live 3 times and they bore me to death, but Rammstein make me want to become a groupie and follow them around just to see their live shows.

  5. Why don’t you create a course for kpopfags and try to school them with all these facts? And why do you have to be straight? >.< Just kidding, but your articles, may be a pain in the ass for those who don't like to read (?), but they're true as it can be, also with the gifs/pics, are quite entertaining. :3

  6. I decided to watch a fancam of Sulli when she gave a shit a tiny bit more, then I watched a fancam of Minah. Watching a fancam of who you care about and then who you don’t care about is a good idea. Glad to know I am not deluded by the thought that Sulli is better than Minah when comparing stage presence. They looked exactly the same.

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