Although the network’s other manufactured music shows such as the The Rap of China and The Big Band have been hit with delays in the wake of Covid-19, iQIYI has still been attracting millions of views in recent weeks with its pop production line hit Youth With You (formerly Idol Producer). The show, which aims to craft a new pop group from 109 hopefuls, reached its finale on May 30, adding nonet THE9 to the Mandopop world.
Here’s a quick-fire guide to one of the last few months’ most buzzed-about TV shows (and now pop groups) in China.
Youth With You followed what by now is a well-worn format of whittling down a large field of contestants and turning the winners into pop stars. Judges, or “mentors / coaches” as the show prefers to title them, included Kpop star Lisa from Blackpink, Taiwanese Mandopop singer Ella Chen (of SHE), rapper Jony J and Cai Xukun, himself an Idol Producer graduate.
The episodes were watched and discussed by millions online, including some 300 million views on YouTube, with the winner of the final vote — who we’ll come to in a moment — racking up 17 million public votes.
“Social media posts with hashtags related to the show achieved a readership of 51.66 billion,” according to iQIYI.
After more than two months of build-up the grand finale ended up being something of a mess. Multiple audio issues resulted in some fans lambasting the final performance as a “car crash” on social media. Meanwhile a (hastily-deleted) post from cosmetics brand Dove congratulating one contestant on making the final cut before the results had actually been announced sparked allegations of a fix. They later apologized and dismissed any suggestions of wrongdoing.
Yet few aspects of the show were discussed as much as eventual winner Liu Yuxin.
Liu’s final vote tally of 17 million put her a clear 4 million ahead of second-placed Yu Shuxin, yet she’d already been the subject of fervent social media chatter for weeks by that point. While previous boyband-focused seasons of the show have been accused of helping fuel the rise of “feminine male celebrities” in China, Liu’s tomboyish looks helped this year’s Youth With You but a different spin on things.
In contrast with the cutesy aesthetic of many of the contestants — and of many an idol group in China — Liu offered something different. The Guizhou-born singer certainly stood out from the crowd of hopefuls and that distinct, refreshing look helped carry her to victory. A hashtag specifically about her “boyish” looks amassed more than 10 million views on microblogging platform Weibo, for example, with numerous comments about how “handsome” she is.
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The 23-year-old singer has even inspired makeover videos, with some claiming that “unisex fashion” is now trending thanks to her win.
For some, Liu’s sudden rise to popularity comes with a sense of deja vu. The winner of China’s first-ever Pop Idol-style show, Super Girl back in 2005, was also a short-haired, tomboyish singer who was supposedly shaking up the country’s gender norms: Li Yuchun.
As much as there’s been huge amounts of buzz around the final make-up of THE9, inevitably some attention has fallen on those who just missed out. It’s unclear exactly what path these almost-idols will now take, but there are some suggestions that runners-up Zeng Keni, Liu Lingzi, Aria Jin and Flora Dai will form their own pop group. The quartet are set to appear later this month as the 172 Girls for a Jiangsu TV and Tmall show promoting the 618 shopping festival.
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Predicting the shelf-life of a pop act is never straightforward, but it will be interesting to see just how long THE9 stick around given the rapid demise of boyband Nine Percent, who were spawned by 2018’s Idol Producer.
The nine-member boyband lasted just 18 months before disbanding, shocking some fans, although lead star Cai Xukun in particular looks set to be in the public eye for some time to come.
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Complicating matters for THE9 is that many of the members are already contracted to other pop groups — Kiki Xu for example, is part of Shanghai-based unofficial AKB48 spin-off SNH48.
Will THE9 outlast Nine Percent? Are they signed to similarly short contracts in the hopes of breaking out as solo stars? Will anyone remember them by the time a new season of Idol Producer rolls around? Time will tell. But for now, expect them to be making the most of multiple endorsement deals and to be sharing their music all over the Chinese airwaves.
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