Korean Actors Singing for Drama OSTs: A Trend with Curious Success

Korean actors lending their voices to their dramas’ official soundtracks is nothing new, but it’s impossible not to notice that it’s becoming such a trend that some popular actors are actually expected to sing at least one song with every new drama. Take Kim Soo Hyun, for example (you may have heard of his most recent role as a certain alien from You Who Came From the Stars?); thanks to the rave reviews over his previous OST tracks for Dream High and The Moon That Embraces the Sun as well as his skyrocketing popularity, many fans weren’t just hoping he would also sing for Stars – they were expecting it. Others like Park Shin Hye and Lee Min Ho (The Heirs), Joo Won (Good Doctor, Gaksital) or even A-listers such as Gong Yoo (Big) and Jang Dong Gun (A Gentleman’s Dignity) have found similar success with their OST contributions – if not on the music charts, then at least in fan fervour.

That begs the question: Why exactly have Korean actors found such success through singing for soundtracks? The general approval towards “singing actors” is particularly curious when one considers the widespread negativity that idols-turned-actors face – two sides of the same coin, but the reactions they garner are polar opposites. Is it due to difference in talent for their new craft, or is it really rooted in difference of perspective?

Difference in Talent?

The list of actors and actresses who have sung for their dramas are endless: Hyun Bin, Song Seung Heon, Ji Sung, Kim Sung Soo, Song Joong Ki, Kim Nam Gil, Kwon Sang Woo, Kim Hee Sun, Lee Young Ah, Kim So Hyun, Choi Jin Hyuk… and so on. It is obvious that productions often encourage their lead actors to participate in OSTs as a form of promotion, and it clearly has worked to the advantage of both the dramas and the actors themselves in the examples mentioned above. OST tracks being sung by a drama’s lead actor are usually worth a headline or two, fans are pleased to see their favourite actors display other talents and it tends to add juuust that extra bit of depth to a scene if the background track was sung by the actor as well – it’s an effective way for the actor to further convey his character’s emotions through music and lyrics.

But… let’s face it, many of these “singing actors” are not meant to be singers. (There, I said it.) At best, their voices are decent; at worst, the obvious lack of training and vocal power, range or control makes the result rather forgettable. There are, of course, also those who are surprisingly talented: Joo Won has a lovely voice, aided by his background in musical theatre, and Kim Soo Hyun has raw potential – not all of his OST tracks have worked to his strengths as “The One and Only You” had (my personal favourite, sung for The Moon That Embraces the Sun), but there’s no denying that he already sings better than many idol singers.

The bottom line, however, is that the situation is remarkably similar to that of idols venturing into acting; there are just as many misses as there are hits, if not more. And yet, our reactions to misses by “singing actors” are generally along the lines of “Well, he/she’s an actor/actress, so this is to be expected,” or “It’s not too bad, considering they have no singing training.” The reality is that there isn’t a particular wealth of actors/actresses who possess singing talent vs. a lack of singers with acting talent – there is simply a tendency for misfires to be quickly forgiven and forgotten when it comes to actors dabbling in singing.

Difference in Perspective

It all comes down to the difference in perspective with which we approach “singing actors” vs. idols-turned-actors:

  1. Drama OST tracks sung by actors target an existing (and therefore forgiving) fanbase, whereas idols-turned-actors have to win over their audience (one which is already predisposed to criticize).
  2. Drama soundtracks receive less exposure, while the actual drama itself garners far more attention.
  3. Actors singing for dramas are often one-off occurrences; idols-turned-actors actually seek to find an alternative career path.

Drama soundtracks are designed to be heard by its existing viewers and tracks sung by the drama actors naturally reach this audience as well as the actors’ own fans – this is essentially a group of people who are already predisposed to feel kindly towards a singing actor. If the actor sings well, their fans are happy and drama viewers feel a greater connection to the character; if the actor doesn’t sing well, fans are likely to be pleased to see another side to them anyway and (unless the actor’s singing resembles a shrieking chicken) it’s unlikely to drive viewers off.

Idol actors have it harder. Not only do they have to win over their audience, the majority of whom may not be familiar with them, but they are also working against a pre-existing bias against idols-turned-actors. The ones that are successful, like Park Yoochun (currently in Three Days), Yoon Eun Hye (Mi Rae’s Choice) or Jung Eun Ji of A Pink (Answer Me 1997) are lauded, but God forbid an idol make a less-than-stellar acting debut (see Kim Hyun Joong or Yoona of Girls’ Generation) – they will be thoroughly ripped apart and haunted by the “bad acting” label for the foreseeable future, regardless of improvement.

This leads us to the second point – a drama’s soundtrack receives far less exposure than the actual drama and its actors. At worst, a badly sung OST track may be heard a few times throughout the drama, making it easily forgotten. Bad acting, on the other hand, will be on display and in-your-face throughout a drama’s run; even if the acting was merely mediocre, your audience will be much less likely to forgive and forget when they’ve had to watch 16-20 episodes of it.

Finally, the motivation behind actors dabbling in singing for drama OSTs is usually one-off promotion for the drama and bonus exposure for the actor – once the drama ends, they generally do not seek to expand their activities to releasing albums or holding concert/TV promotions for their singing. In these circumstances, it’s easier to brush off “singing actor” misfires as “an experiment that didn’t quite work out” and take away the positives. A notable exception is Jang Geun Suk, and I think it’s telling that his singing activities have done his image more harm than good. On top of this, the music industry is so packed that another single or album (bad or not) is unlikely to prompt a serious negative reaction from fans; good music by established singers will continue to be released regardless.

Conversely, idols-turned-actors will more than likely be back for more roles; it is a good form of solo promotion for members of groups and idols are a good way for drama productions to raise their drama’s profile overseas (which hopefully leads to selling rights to China, Japan and elsewhere). In an acting industry that is relatively small, like that of South Korea’s, it’s not hard to see why passionate drama fans will feel that idols-turned-actors are encroaching upon the limited opportunities for young acting talent to shine. What is frequently forgotten, however, is that there are aspiring actors or former child actors amongst those who are now idols – Sulli from f(x) or Lee Hong Ki from F.T Island, for example, both started off as child actors. It is rather a shame that this difference in perspective have led to those who are slapped with the “idol-turned-actor” label being dismissed offhand.

The fact is that the music/entertainment and acting industries are seeing increasing overlap and the trend towards actors and singers dabbling in each others’ areas of expertise will likely continue. One has to be practical, after all; it’s no secret that being actors who are known for possessing good pipes have benefited Joo Won and Kim Soo Hyun, and on the flip side former idols like Yoon Eun Hye or Yoon Kye Sang have made such successful transitions into acting that one can hardly begrudge them exploring their options. It would be curious to see whether a growing number of successful idol-to-actor transitions may one day see opinions of that trend reverse and be considered as successful as that of Korean actors singing for drama OSTs.

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