(cover image credit: fuckyeahkpopmacros)
I came across K-pop rather waywardly, but after a night of watching 2NE1 music videos, I became sublimely obsessed. 2NE1 are still my favorite K-pop group, and one of my favorite musical discoveries in years, but I’ve begun to explore the other great groups, with K-pop accounting for over 90% of what I’ve been listening to in the last three months (and closer to 100% in the last few weeks). Falling in pop love with 2NE1 is a little bit like my discovery of two other favorite pop groups, Pet Shop Boys and Girls Aloud. Pet Shop Boys, still one of my favorite groups, were significant to me because they taught me that pop music can be intelligent and as creative as any other type of music without sacrificing pleasure, without intellectualizing what pop music is all about—Neil Tenant, singer of Pet Shop Boys, is as much a fan of pop music as he is a creator of it. Girls Aloud fulfilled all the promise of girl group music in a modern form, inheriting the girl power rhetoric of the Spice Girls and transforming it into something more transcendent and pointed. (For more on the latter, see k-punk’s illuminating discussion of Girls Aloud.) But in both cases, the sheer surfeit of wonderful music—Pet Shop Boys’ first singles collection Discography is just too much good music in one place, spoiling us—felt a lot like how I feel about K-pop now. When you encounter so many perfect songs in one place, it goes beyond discovery and borders on revelation.
Many will probably wonder why K-pop is worth listening to, but it seems like a strange question to me: why not ask why we shouldn’t want to hear great pop music? And then, it soon becomes clear that the “pop music” part of “great pop music” is what really matters, not so much the “great” aspect. For some people, pop music represents a kind of aesthetic degree zero of tastelessness and artificiality, bereft of personality and identity, against which they define their own (supposedly superior) musical tastes. You look at the popularity of someone like Robyn and you have to wonder why she is so beloved when other artists making very similar music are unfairly shunned (even her fellow Swedes the A*Teens). Now, don’t get me wrong: I think Robyn is quite good—I am especially fond of “Call Your Girlfriend”—but I hate the double standard. The solution isn’t to begin disliking Robyn, of course, but to let yourself love other pop artists. Robyn’s image no doubt has helped her achieve this (niche) success, the irony being that those same fans portray themselves as superior to other pop artists by decrying that very focus on image. But as someone whose first love is the cinema, I have to wonder: what’s so wrong with image?
I think it says something disturbing about the time we live in when pleasures must be intellectualized in order to purify them sufficiently before consumption. Pleasure, after all, runs sharply counter to both intellectualization and purification in the most liberating sense. This makes some people distrust pleasure, but really, what can you do with people like that? Pleasure is all well and good for these people, but they are fine to live without it, or at least to live with it in only measured doses (which is hardly living at all, if you ask me). But these defining qualities of pleasures—its fundamental messiness and disobedience of intellect—are also what make it such a profoundly transformative element of our lives, thrusting us into liminality, the other side of which we emerge reconstituted as something changed, altered. In fact, it’d be harder to argue, then, that pop music has not had any effect of society than to argue its opposite, but once we’ve settled that issue, the real tension emerges, eloquently summed up by Richard Dyer in his essay “In Defence of Disco” for the journal Gay Left (“A Gay Socialist Journal”): “It’s not just that people whose politics I broadly share don’t like disco, they manage to imply that it is politically beyond the pale to like it. It’s against this attitude that I want to defend disco (which otherwise, of course, hardly needs any defence.” (Dyer’s essay is available online here, and I would encourage everyone interested to read it in full.)
Dyer’s essay is, for me, a foundational text on the subject of reclaiming pop music from this sort of seemingly leftist dismissal, holding it up instead as a cultural realm fulfilling an urgent role in our lives. Substitute “pop” for “disco,” and you already have the beginning of a theory (and anyways, much of pop today is so influenced by disco, this being true of K-pop as well, that it requires very little intellectual heavy lifting to do so). The first part of Dyer’s essay outlines the argument against disco, which is located in the “equation of [disco] with capitalism” and the idea of disco as “irredeemably capitalistic.” Dyer contrasts disco with folk and rock music, two genres approvingly held up as superior because they are produced for and by “the people” and are musical forms generally available to non-professionals. These biases play out even today, when most of the music approved by critics bears some resemblance to this general characterization of folk and rock (see: rockism), blindly considered to be more “authentic” (a concept in desperate need of unpacking and possibly demolishing). Dyer also looks at the idea of disco music as an ideological expression, and therefore politically suspect, by highlighting the “anarchic tendency of capitalism,” which makes ideological institutions—“the church, the state, education, the family, etc.”—necessary. I see this “anarchic tendency” as strongly connected to pleasure: is it any surprised, after all, that the ideological institutions Dyer names have all, in some form or another, aimed so often to repress pleasure? It is this anarchic tendency that opens up the possibility for disco (and pop music) to be something more than a mere reflection of capitalist ideology.
Dyer’s description of cultural production under capitalism as “necessarily contradictory” is essential, because it highlights the importance of our “use” of disco or pop music, in ways that differ from what was originally intended. There is a fundamental “dirtiness,” an impurity, in disco and pop music precisely because of their contradictory nature, their capacity and willingness to be used in alternative and subversive ways, and this partly accounts for the bias against these uncontrollable musical forms. The art held up as most superior according to highbrow standards prizes individualistic forms of cultural production—the artist, after all, must have a “vision” or else he/she is a phony—and often lapses into an instrumentalist view of art, that it can be used to reshape society in a very mechanistic, cause-and-effect manner. One fundamental difference here, then, is in who is given the final authority in “completing” the work of art, so to speak: is it the artist, who fashions a work narrow and tailored enough to communicate a very specific vision (that you either get or you have somehow missed something), or is it the audience, who takes a somewhat “incomplete” (read: open) work of art, such as a pop song, and repurposes it to suit a variety of needs. The former accurately describes the rockist standard—only such a view of art would take seriously something as potentially silly as the concept album—while the latter matches how people use pop music and disco. In fact, it’s precisely this aspect of disco that has allowed gays to commandeer it and repurpose it for their own ends. This would have largely been impossible to do with more closed-off musical forms, especially those that are the product of individuals rather than communities or cultures.
In discussing disco, Dyer makes a number of insightful comments, some of which relate strongly to pop music in general while others are tied much more closely to the specificities of disco, but for our purposes, I think what’s most relevant is his conception of a utopian drive in disco. Following this, I am organizing my own thoughts on pop music in terms of what I call “pop utopianism.” For Dyer, the experience of disco hinges on the division, within capitalism, between work and leisure. On the one hand, the separation of our lives in this way serves capitalism: as Dyer writes, “This to-and-fro [between work and leisure] is partly the mechanism by which we keep going, at work, at home—the respite of leisure gives us the energy for work, and anyway we are still largely brought up to think of leisure as a ‘reward’ for work.” But again, there is something anarchic and incomplete about this division and “what happens in that space of leisure can be profoundly significant—it is there that we may learn about an alternative to work and to society as it is.” As Dyer writes, “The movement between banality and something ‘other’ than banality is an essential dialectic of society, a constant keeping open of a gap between what it and what could or should be.” In the sense that pop music is distinguished by its emphasis on fantasy and even play, as well as what Dyer refers to as “romanticism” (the capacity of disco, for instance, to express “the intensity of fleeting emotional contacts”), there is something utopian about our experience of it: for Dyer, disco’s romanticism helps keep this aforementioned gap open, allowing “the experience of contradiction to continue.” In other words, by extending this gap, and partly by stacking the deck in favor of this kind of romanticism, pop music allows us to perceive the distance between how our lives are and how we would wish them to be. What’s meaningful about this, from my perspective, is that within the world of pop music this conceptualization of “how our lives should be” is always something to be believed in fiercely, never dismissed as it is in our everyday lives. Pop music can be immature and impetuous, but it functions in this way because it seeks at all costs to magnify this side of our emotional lives (the one rooted in desire, pleasure, and the fundamentally contradictory nature of our everyday lives), no matter what it must sacrifice in the process. This is important because it is impossible to create transformative change—whether personally (in our own lives) or politically (within society)—unless we can envision what kind of change we desire. Those who criticize pop music for being unrealistic are missing the point: of course it is unrealistic, because reality is not enough! As Dyer writes, “Disco can’t change the world, make the revolution. No art can do that, and it is pointless expecting it to. But partly by opening up experience, partly by changing definitions, art, disco, can be used.”
At this point, I think it is worthwhile to define a few of my own principles regarding pop music, considered more broadly than in Dyer’s exclusive focus on disco.
(1): Pop music is at its most utopian when rooted in our experience of pleasure. This is because pleasure confronts us with an inescapable sensation of how we would like life to be like, a glimpse of utopia. Another of Dyer’s essay is also instructive here: “Entertainment and Utopia” (available in full here). In this essay, Dyer discusses the musical genre, particularly the movie musical, and argues that the contrast between straightforward narrative sequences and the performance of musical numbers hinges upon our recognition of the former as mundane reality and the latter as a utopian vision in which all the inadequacies of everyday life find a utopian solution. Abundance replaces scarcity, energy replaces exhaustion, intensity of emotion replaces dreariness, transparency of communication replaces manipulation, and community replaces social fragmentation. The song and dance sequences vividly portray life as it should be, and the unique power musicals have to move audiences emotionally rests on our recognition of the fundamental contradiction. These musical sequences are concretizations of utopian visions, delivered to us through our experience of pleasure. Far from being intellectual fantasies, they tap directly into our sense of pleasure and our desires, the vanguard glimpsing a transformed future. We might even define pleasure partly in terms of the absence of tensions, having been shaken out by the experience of ecstasy. Pleasure will not in and of itself lead to the realization of this utopian vision, but without pleasure, we cannot know in what direction we must head.
(2): Pleasure in itself is hardly controversial, but in order for this pleasure to be truly utopian or transformative, it must be ecstatic pleasure without imposed limits. We try to control, wield, and restrain pleasure, but in doing so, we necessarily limit and immobilize it. Deleuze and Guattari’s writing on desire (in Anti-Oedipus), a concept intimately connected to pleasure in their philosophical framework, is instructive here:
If desire is repressed, it is because every position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of calling into question the established order of a society: not that desire is asocial, on the contrary. But it is explosive; there is no desiring-machine capable of being assembled without demolishing entire social sectors. Despite what some revolutionaries think about this, desire is revolutionary in its essence—desire, not left-wing holidays!—and no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy being compromised.
What Deleuze and Guattari mean by “explosive” desire is precisely what I mean by limitless, ecstatic pleasure, and their discussion of desire/pleasure as revolutionary makes clear why limits are imposed in the first place. But if desire/pleasure is revolutionary, to impose such limits is necessarily to stunt it and turn it into something else, in the same way that love, which must ultimately be unconditional, is something that is not-quite-love when limits are placed upon it. This also relates to Dyer’s discussion of musicals and utopia: what would a utopian vision be if it wasn’t, as Dyer describes, a vision where our problems and inadequacies are solved completely and wholly? It would run counter to how musicals function for their song-and-dance sequences to present only a tempered form of pleasure, causing the distinction between mundanity and utopian existence to be lost along the way.
Pop music’s relentless focus on pleasure, to the exclusion of everything else, is its primary virtue, but some would see this as somehow “dumb,” in the same way that love is “blind.” It is because of this that many reject pop music yet favor what they regard as more “sophisticated” music, which strives for the pleasurableness of pop music but which intellectualizes this pleasure and subdues it. Every style of pop music (even disco) may find itself co-opted by pleasure-fearing cultural elites who seek to neuter it and content themselves with safe, intellectually satisfying half-pleasures. How many sophisticated consumers of music wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, say, the Beach Boys (to use just one example) until some pseudo-underground act robs them of their style and feeds it through layers of ironic distance, rendering it safe and mild enough for the discerning and tasteful consumer? It says something disturbing and unfortunate about our culture that the greatest strains of pop music can only be appreciated by some people when they have been given a sufficiently clever, yet ultimately tepid, spin. People like this don’t want to experience pleasure, which is uncontrollable, but are instead content to bask in self-importance and refracted enjoyment. Because pop music is not only anarchic but also social and rather tasteless (in the most democratic and utopian way), these faux-sophisticates position themselves above it because it cannot serve their fascistic, anti-social, and narcissistic (not to mention non-pleasurable) aims. The debate on pop music, then, is not really just about taste but rather about much broader, more resonant cultural tensions.
(3): I would like to suggest that pop’s unrestrained sense of pleasure strongly aligns it with play, as well as fantasy. Play is wrongly associated with childhood, and hence immaturity, but what this speaks to is nothing other than the effectiveness of repression in our society. We have forgotten how to play, and in play’s absence, we have contented ourselves to an endless, and humorless, game of one-upmanship centered around taste (see, for instance, Nitsuh Abebe’s excellent essay “The Rules of the Game: A Fuller Thought on J. Hopper and Vampire Weekend” for just one example of how this plays out). Ironically, this is all about game-playing but has nothing to do with play, in the pleasurable sense of the word: for many, the music we listen to is not just about pleasure but also about distinguishing ourselves from others. We hide the essentially anti-social nature of this phenomenon behind the veneer of individuality, yet in the way we are tied to separation ourselves from others for self-definition, we are not individuals at all. Contrast this with, say, the social sense of play found in disco and its derivatives, music primarily listened to for the way it can create a social space in which individuals can, essentially, play with each other. Even when pop music is listened to in isolation, it brims with social meanings, elevating us outside of ourselves.
Pop’s sense of play, like its production of pleasure, is boundless, limitless: we might compare it to Freud’s notion of polymorphous perversity, an uncentered relationship to sexual pleasure not tied exclusively to the handful of experiences that constitute “mature” sexuality. In discussing disco, Dyer makes the claim that disco’s eroticism differs from popular songwriting (e.g. Cole Porter or Burt Bacharach, as distinct from what I mean by “pop”) and rock in that it is embodied and physical, yet not simplistically thrusting and “phallic” in the way rock is but rather tied to the body as a whole. Disco’s rhythmic complexity, its funkiness and looseness, is the musical equivalent of polymorphous perversity: the body as a whole becomes a site for pleasure without limits. Pop music is very much in line with this, so influenced by disco and dance music and so often more “feminine” than rock music, and this opening up of our sites of pleasure, freeing the whole body, is radically liberating in its potential. It’s no surprise that, for this reason, dance music has been so profoundly linked with gay culture: this polymorphous perversity has an essentially “queering” effect because it loosens the restraints we place on pleasure, restraints that, for example, cause some straight men to reject dancing as “gay.” Despite American culture’s prizing of pleasure, the kinds of pleasure implied by pop music and disco could not be more “dangerous” to our repressive and conservative society precisely because they say to us that we should open ourselves to all sorts of pleasures, even and particularly the ones we have attempted to censor even before they have confronted us.
If we consider this in light of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, we can metaphorically tie rock to Oedipal sexuality and pop with pre-Oedipal sexuality (the realm in which polymorphous perversity is most evident, and which Deleuze and Guattari align with the realm of the Imaginary). Dyer suggests as much when he discusses the thrusting and phallic qualities of rock, which in turn suggests a verticality, an “up-and-down”-ness, that is very potentially authoritarian and hierarchical at root (hence the elitism so prevalent in rock music cultures). In contrast to rock’s up and down movement, disco and pop rely on a kind of side-to-side motion, a horizontality that replaces rock’s hierarchical worldview with polymorphous perverse sociality. This horizontality is plainly evident in any dance club, where dancers all interact on a level ground, socially speaking, and may slide in and out of contact with one another: this kind of movement is the source of dance music’s intimate relationship with sex and the promiscuity promised by many dance clubs.
Even at its most politically progressive (e.g. punk), rock music is still often woefully bound to the boogeyman of authority, like the Oedipal father that Deleuze and Guattari see as structuring us psychologically and socially. A society constructed in the image of punk rock might very well run the risk of exactly what Deleuze and Guattari warned revolutionaries about, essentially becoming nothing more than a new source of authority replacing the defeated father, whereas a society constructed in the image of pop and disco might very well be liberating in ways unimaginable within the former paradigm. And although play is very much about fantasy (the Imaginary), we can see in how it plays out in a number of contexts and social situations that play can influence and transform reality: the division between reality and fantasy is temporarily dissolved, just like Dyer’s notion of the gap opening up between what is and what should be (which, in opening up, points to the contradictions that plague us in mundane life), and reality can be productively corrupted, impurified, by fantasy. In this way, fantasy is an alter-reality, in some ways more real than “the Real,” that appeals to us precisely because it is a more ideal version of what we already know to be, on some level, possible. It is for this reason that, say, drag is not a matter of “pretend” or mere imitation but the creation of a new person, a liminal opening up of gender alterity that, in materializing for a brief moment, challenges and transforms our conception of the real.
(4): Perhaps more than most forms of music, pop music (including disco) is not only rooted in the body but is also embodied. It is the musical equivalent of Linda Williams’ notion of the “body genre”—moving us to dance, cry, or even have sex—but pop music is also intimately connected to the bodies of performers. The only exception here is perhaps something like Hatsune Miku, the Japanese virtual pop star, but even here, the body is still essential, merely simulated. Despite how much critics of pop music protest that the actual performers are not important, that producers behind the scenes have merely manufactured their stars, the way people actually experience pop music belies this. In recent years, pop singers have seemed more than ever to be pushing the limits of this fact: take the technology-drenched production that goes into Britney Spear’s recent records, distorting her voice to an almost unrecognizable point, or the soulfully robotic singing of T-Pain and his use of Auto-Tune. But in both cases, the music never strays from its original connection to an actual body. This partly accounts for pop music’s essential eroticism (which, in turn, connects it back to pleasure and play): pop songs, as with André Bazin’s notion of the ontology of a photograph, bear traces of the actual person whose vocal recordings constitute the finished product. Music is fundamentally tactile, and when we listen to a pop star, we are not only hearing sounds but are also washed over by vibrations that have emanated from inside the singer, rising out of the throat, passing through the mouth and over the lips. This is a form of touch, intimate yet virtual, and pop music is nothing without this sense that what we are listening to has somehow emerged from the depths of another person.
The importance of the body elevates pop music to a social phenomenon. It’s become an unavoidable fact of modern culture that celebrity culture serves a very important social role, and it makes no sense to criticize this phenomenon categorically, because it seems an innate fact of human existence that we navigate our lives socially by talking and gossiping about public figures. In the absence of actually compelling pop stars, our celebrity culture coils around the admittedly despicable “famous for being famous” types, but these too serve a purpose, albeit not an admirable one, in defining the qualities we find most disreputable. Pop music engenders an idol culture that is not dissimilar from the star system of Hollywood cinema (and there is hardly a cinephile alive who doesn’t “worship” at least one classic star). It’s actually not that surprising that there has been a virtual pop star, because pop idol worship functions in a kind of virtual way: pop stars enact our fantasies for us but do so in an embodied way, pulling them towards reality. In this way, pop stars explore the limits of fantasy, constantly testing how far they can go in bringing alive something imaginary without lapsing into phony unreality; it is for this reason that we can speak about feeling “betrayed” by pop stars when they act in ways contrary to the fantasies that have developed between them and us, a relationship as contractual as any other.
One of the most potentially positive qualities about pop stars, then, is that they can try on our fantasies for us, wearing them like outfits and living them out in the flesh, and in doing so, they show us what is and what is not possible. This is another example of the gap-opening that Dyer privileges, and it also relates very generally to the notion of charisma, which for me is grounded in the idea of presence. Those who possess charisma have the capacity to extend their presence outside of themselves, sharing it with others. It makes no sense to discuss charisma, then, in terms of the real; it transcends reality and circulates within the social and purely intersubjective realm. Fundamentally, there is no essential difference between a pop star and, say, a charismatic drag queen, other than the fact that the first functions through an apparatus—the entertainment industry—that broadcasts this charisma more widely, aided by technology, and the fact that pop stars are selected or promoted because their charisma is more broadly appealing than that of a drag queen (and a whole host of social and cultural prejudices make this so). But what unites them is their shared embodiment of fantasies, to the point that reality is scaled back for a brief moment and we can dwell within the realm of the Imaginary. That charisma can fail (or work only for certain groups) suggests that this phenomenon is essentially a negotiated one in which both parties have limits beyond which the Imaginary crumbles and reality reasserts itself. But pop stars and their promoters are adept at finding a kind of cultural common ground in which the fantasies they enact can be made appealing to a wide variety of people.
In this way, a pop star is not an independent creation but a social product. Again, there is a dirtiness here—the impurity of an aesthetic vision not controlled and coordinated by a single (responsible) individual—that disturbs many who don’t understand pop music, but this publicity means that, in effect, we do have some say in our pop stars’ popularity and behavior. Pop stars and society walk together in lock step, each creating shifts in the other, and their publicity shines on us, reframing what it is allowable for us to do. Parents were right to fear such pop performers as Elvis or The Rolling Stones, because they certainly did shift the terrain of what was possible for young people, but this shift was possible only because these pop stars’ careers were actualized and made possible by the very youth they inspire: just as our dreams are composite images of material from our unconscious made visible, our pop stars are constructs pulling together material from a kind of collective unconscious, the actualization of social desire. It may seem trite to point out that the phenomenon of pop stars, say, coming out of the closet has had a positive impact on many gays (in addition to reframing the territory of their sociality and creating further tensions, but such is the flux of life and culture), because those stars didn’t really do anything all that noble by doing so. But this misses the point that pop stars don’t need to do much to transform society: better that instead of pretending to be real, they simply act out the fantasies that we ourselves cannot fully actualize in our own lives and mirror our desires in a manner so embodied that it becomes productive and, in Dyer’s sense of the word, “useful.” Pop stars don’t need to be good role models; they simply need to live out convincingly enough the fantasies we would like to live out ourselves. To echo Dyer, pop stars cannot push the revolution along, but they can visualize and embody the desires and fantasies that should form the foundation of all revolution and social change, the very psychic material that makes revolution possible, desirable, and necessary.
K-pop has a lot in common with the four points I listed above (as does American pop music), and its recent popularity will no doubt change Korean culture in ways that no one (least of all me, an outsider) will understand for some time. But it’s worthwhile to point out a few things about how it differs, as well as to point out why I like it (and why you should give it a chance). I think it’s wrong to speak of pop music as “changing” society; it’s something more like the soundtrack to a series of social and cultural changes that will occur regardless. But this is also too deterministic: pop music is neither solely a follower nor a leader. Really, it is something much more, to use Dyer’s term, anarchic. Pop music as an industry creates a series of possibilities, and individual musical acts, along with their producers, songwriters, and managers, explore these possibilities. These possibilities are shaped and created by social and cultural change. An example of this is the way economic and political strife in the UK in the late 1970s created the framework in which punk could materialize, but the individual artists who created and shape punk were not limited by this framework to only produce a series of pre-determined records. They operated with some amount of autonomy, and I think this is true even of the more “capitalistic” pop music, as Dyer notes.
Given the flurry of interest on my part in K-pop, I have tried to learn a little about the social and cultural context in which this music is made and enjoyed, but what I have learned is necessarily only piecemeal. For this reason, I will focus on what K-pop means to me personally (especially in the context of the ideas frame above). The first thing I appreciate about this music is its virtually complete lack of cynicism and nihilism, the very things that, for me, plague much Western music for me (pop or otherwise). There is a lot of truly nihilistic pop music being produced by the West, but I don’t mean to sound needlessly alarmist or old-fashioned here: it’s not the emphasis on sex, drugs, or anything else that makes me feel this way but rather the utter joylessness inherent in much of the music. Nihilism consumes and destroys pleasure, and I think it’s understood that much of this music is highly narcissistic, which is fine to an extent. But does it have to be so narcissistic that the social component of pop music is completely nullified? Pop music has always played into our fantasies, as I describe above, but a lot of pop music today has such a grim and guilty approach to this that it becomes utterly neurotic, making true pleasure utterly impossible. Many see nihilism and cynicism in the debauchery that’s never far away from American pop music, but these things per se do not trouble me. What bothers me instead is not their focus on pleasure, even in the form of debauchery, but that this focus on pleasure is incomplete, frustrated and unfinished. Because if the focus of our popular musical culture is going to be pleasure, you might as well go for it all the way without hedging. That dichotomy between work and leisure that Dyer highlights has become neurotic, and leisure is now enjoyed only with a lingering sense of guilt.
There’s something about this sense of guilt that seems to be distinctly a part of our culture as a whole at the moments. In an essay for the journal n+1 entitled “Short Story & Novel: American Writing Today”, Elif Batuman argues that the “single greatest obstacle to American literature today” is guilt, which “leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence.” She describes writers as “feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloane-Kettering, in Sudan?” Her invocation of writing as distinct from “real work” is interesting in light of Dyer’s discussion of the work-leisure dichotomy. In pop music, I see the same thing, an inability to embrace the productive side of leisure, its contradiction-highlighting, gap-opening qualities, perhaps because these gaps and contradictions are simply to disturbing to us, many of whom are bereft of any political ideology to guide them (unlike the rigorous socialist approach of Dyer, who nonetheless took complete pleasure in disco, of all things). Batuman describes writers as no longer guiltlessly believing even in their own work, sarcastically suggesting that every writer should “start every book with an apology for cutting down trees which could have been put to better use building houses for the homeless; followed by a second apology for the paper consumed by the first apology.” What Batuman hints at, then, is that our guilt is rooted in our (relative) economic prosperity (and implicitly, our political waywardness). Because of this prosperity, we feel wasteful (and, importantly, are taught by capitalism that pleasure is inherently wasteful) and no longer believe in creative work, particularly when so much work (e.g. “building houses for the homeless”) is left for us to do in order to atone for our own prosperity. Korea is an interesting case because their pop music has flourished at a time when they have become extremely prosperous, and it would be worthwhile to investigate whether or not these same tensions exist there. (My instinct is that they might exist but nowhere near to the extent they exist in America, where they cripple us.)
This guilt complex is fundamentally neurotic because we feel compelled to enjoy our prosperous lives but at the same time cannot embrace these prescribed pleasures fully, given that there are so many others who are less prosperous than us. (It’s interesting to speculate, then, that part of what made gay communities’ use of disco so unneurotically pleasurable was the absence of either of these drives: for gays to embrace the “work” of pleasure was inherently subversive (and in some cases, illegal), not necessarily a duty as it is for many today, and required struggle in order to actually enjoy these pleasures while also dealing with various forces of oppression, resulting in the exquisiteness of well-earned pleasure rather than guilt over one’s own enjoyment.) Even so-called indie musicians—whom we would expect to be creating more on the margins, socio-economically speaking—are plagued by this neurotic sense of guilt, albeit in a more complicated way. Their music often yearns to produce the pleasure promised by pop music, but it frequently wraps these pleasures in an intellectualized and “tasteful” package. The prevalence of “scenes” in relation to this music produces another form of oppressive authority: the fact is that at any given “indie” show, there may be a large number of people who aren’t quite sure of whether they “should” or “should not” dance, uncertain of the scene’s rules regarding bodily pleasure. Given the intensely neurotic quality of both mainstream and “indie” music, it’s hard to decide which is the more grim and joyless culture, but let’s not waste any more time on this humorless phenomenon. (It’s worth point out that while hip hop is, like disco and dance music, largely free of this guilt complex, underground hip hop often mirrors indie rock/pop’s predicament quite closely.)
This neurotic guilt does not mean we should reject pop music and its pleasures: on the contrary, it means we should embrace them even further. We must develop a way of thinking about the economy of pleasure, how it is produced and used. Many of us halfheartedly walk around disbelieving in capitalism on an ideological level yet fall prey to its tendency to reduce everything to an economy of profit and production. Our very notion of waste, not just in terms of production but in a more metaphorical sense (e.g. “That’s a waste of my time”), has been inherited by capitalism, and it frustrates our attempts to embrace pleasure. It just might be that pleasure is wasteful, but it is “productively” wasteful, burning off excess dissatisfaction accumulated over the course of our lives under capitalism. We are taught by capitalism that leisure in the form of rest and relaxation, or a vacation, is what we need in order to regain the energy consumed by our work, but a worn-down body can only be revivified through pleasurably productive use (e.g. dancing). We no longer believe that money and profit alone can bring us happiness, but we are still tied to a view of our lives inherited from this ideology. Consider instead what I call the intersubjective economy of being found in indigenous cultures, where gifts are exchanged and food is shared not to reallocate resources but to share our being and presence with one another, producing pleasure and strengthening social bonds. This is most evident in certain customs of gift-giving where the participants largely end up with, more or less, what they started with: the gifts are not as important as the social act of exchange.
The first prerequisite of an economy of pleasures is the absence of the guilt described above. As I described above, pleasure is only truly utopian when it is limitless and unbounded, but guilt frustrates this by hierarchically placing duty—which can be a positive virtue, yes, but in our culture, for what is our duty?—above pleasure. It is evident from listening to K-pop (and observing the reactions of fans) that the guilt complex plaguing American music is absent (or exists in a way of which I am unaware). K-pop may encounter initial resistance from those in the West because it completely ignores the standards of taste prevalent in the West, standards that alienate and frustrate our drive for pleasure. An economy of pleasure, like an economy based on profit, should be efficient, and K-pop truly excels in this regard. It is hook-filled to a mind-boggling extent, recalling the pure pleasures of, say, classic Motown or ABBA. Every song seems designed to make us dance or sing along, to move us to tears, or to squeal in delight at our favorite K-pop idols’ use of their aegyo (full disclosure: for me, the queen of aegyo is undeniably Girls’ Generation’s Sunny, who is one of my favorite K-pop idols). People who categorically refuse to dance are an interesting sort, but their resistance is partly understandable: when we listen to music like this, it bonds with us, fusing with our bodies and taking them over. The music may make us move in ways that we dislike because we cannot control them, though of course this is exactly what makes it so pleasurable too. We use our bodies in everyday life for work—serving whom?—but through pop music, we give our bodies to a form of use completely different, in which each of the song’s hooks riddle our bodies with pleasure, emotion, and delight. Compared to American music, for me, K-pop sounds positively sane and unneurotic because it does exactly what it is supposed to do without equivocation. Do we really have to explain pleasure intellectually in order to convince each other that it’s worthwhile?
In my experience, I have found East/Southeast Asian music cultures to be predominantly melodic and song-oriented. This approach to music is also highly social, as a song necessarily implies an audience, whereas, let’s face it, a lot of music that becomes popular in America is really nothing more than glorified novelty records with gimmicks that are “catchy” enough, though displeasingly so, to earn the requisite airplay needed to become successful. It’s almost as if, given our not-so-secret cynicism toward pop music in general, we have rejected the song as a musical form, but K-pop reclaims it with an innocence that is remarkably refreshing. What does it say about us that we no longer cherish the song, so able are we to enjoy music that makes a mockery of that form? There’s a parallel here with the way many American audiences no longer take seriously the standard form of storytelling seen in narrative cinema, dismissing it as emotionally manipulative (yes, but: what if we want to give ourselves over to this ecstasy?). Chris Fujiwara’s essay about the differing reactions to Douglas Sirk’s films in America versus Japan is instructive here. There’s something shameful, then, about our not being able to enjoy our own past cultural products. What’s at stake is our capacity to be members of an audience or fans. Today we mock fandom, but perhaps there’s something innately human about this phenomenon, the loss of which impoverishes us. From what I’ve seen of fandom in Korea, I much prefer it to our own in America, and it’s particularly refreshing to see fans show their appreciation for their favorite stars, whereas in America, we take particularly delight in nihilistically wishing our stars ill.
Another interesting aspect of K-pop is the Korean approach to rhythm. In American popular music, so much is influenced by black forms of music and rhythms. This approach often favors a rhythmic looseness or funkiness, one of the aspects of disco that Dyer has praised. K-pop is also heavily influenced by black American music, particularly R&B, disco, and hip hop, but the Korean approach to rhythm seems much more precise, as opposed to the looseness of funk. I have found K-pop to be meticulously exact in its rhythms, as if in imitating various forms of black music from America, K-pop artists have sought to replicate them as precisely as possible, with stunning efficiency. K-pop artists excel in this replication, and this is one reason, it seems to me, why there are so many good dancers within K-pop (or perhaps instead: this is why dancing is so important to K-pop in the first place). This approach to rhythm is no less compelling than any American pop music, and it perhaps explains the tendency to favor four-on-the-floor beats in K-pop. Even when K-pop artists rap, they predominantly do so in a very staccato, pointillistic manner. This rhythmic approach seems to also favor layers of rhythm, as distinct from how funk is rooted in one monolithic groove around which everything revolves, and many K-pop songs are notable for the intricacies of their construction (another element that distinguishes their songwriting and demonstrates the care of their approach). This possibly extends to the fact that many K-pop groups, both boy bands and girl groups, are composed of over five members (e.g. Girls’ Generation, a nine-member girl group). The large number of voices songwriters have to work with often yield songs that are structurally complex and layered. There is something almost machinic here that I appreciate, as it conveys that sense of efficiency so important in the production of pleasure. Lest the word “machinic” strike the reader as inhuman-sounding, let’s remember Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of desiring-machines. So in a way, of course pop music is “manufactured”: we might think of pop songs as cultural machines designed solely to produce pleasure. And what’s so bad about that?
I also think it’s worthwhile to briefly discuss the extra-musical culture surrounding K-pop, something which fascinates me. K-pop stars are explicitly referred to idols, so there’s little confusion about our presumed relationship to them. The idea of “idol worship” makes many uncomfortable—presumably because it conveys religious overtones so distasteful in our supremely atheistic culture—but I think a full discussion on the subject is the topic for another essay. (It’s worth mentioning that worship aligns quite closely with Deleuze’s notion of masochism, which many scholars (e.g. Gaylyn Studlar or Torkild Thanem and Louise Wallenberg) have taken up as a rather productive force, but a fuller theory on this as it relates to pop idols needs to be built.) I have discussed the productive possibility of pop stars as embodied fantasies, but I think it’s also important to mention how K-pop frequently caters to and creates space for female fans. A fuller understanding of the Korean concept of aegyo needs to be developed, as many outsiders will likely view K-pop notion of femininity as hopelessly and regressively infantilistic. I think this is a rather offensive stance to take, personally, as not only is it undeniably ethnocentric but it suggests no desire to understand how these concepts play out on the ground. (Not to mention the fact that American culture, so obsessed with growing up, is also simultaneously one of the most infantilistic and immature cultures I can think of.) I think a strong case can be made for K-pop’s feminism, and I think it’s pretty remarkable that K-pop has opened up such a large space (especially through music videos) in which female experience is foregrounded and, in a way, left untampered with. It goes without saying that pop music almost inherently opens itself up to being used for nefarious purposes, but what’s partly so useful about pop music is precisely its ability to “open up” our cultural space, rather than to foreclose possibilities. This naturally leaves open less-than-desirable possibilities, but you can’t have both at the same time, being completely safe and completely open. There’s a lot more to pop music than mere exploitation of these possibilities: a lot of what is opened up can help fans reshape their lives in positive ways and reclaim some of the autonomy deprived of them.
In order to share some of the music I have fallen in pop love with and to illuminate some of the ideas I have been discussing, I have chosen to share with you a CD-length mix of K-pop. I have decided to choose only one song per artist, except for 2NE1. This is for two reasons: first, they are my favorite, so I think they merit more than one song, and more importantly, I wanted to include not only the song of theirs that is most popular in the West (“I Am the Best”) but also the one English-language song they have recorded (“Can’t Nobody,” which also exists in a Korean version), as a way to accommodate those who have trouble connecting to music in a language they cannot understand. (Nonetheless, despite the music being performed largely in Korean, there’s quite a bit of English thrown into these songs.) I have arranged the songs in chronological order based on release date. They are all singles, so I have included information about their peak position on Korea’s Gaon Chart. (Wikipedia has an entry for the Gaon Chart that is notable as it allows you to easily look up weekly and monthly number-one hits.) I have also included label information to give you a sense of the record labels in Korea (the “big three” record labels being SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment). I will also be embedding the music videos for each song: K-pop music videos are exceptional and were the way I was first turned on to the music. I am including a link to all the songs at the end, but if you click the title of any of the songs, you can open them all individually should you want to hear them first or download any by themselves.
1. Girls’ Generation - “Gee” (1/9/2009, SM Entertainment)
Peak Position: The Gaon Chart did not track singles on a weekly basis until 2010, so we only have monthly charts for 2009, and “Gee” was the number one single for both January and February 2009.
It is fitting to begin with this group and this song. Girls’ Generation is one of the most popular and successful K-pop groups, as well as one of the groups that best defines the distinctiveness of the music. “Gee” is not only arguably their best song but also perhaps the defining song of K-pop. James Joyce once described his singular “novel” Finnegans Wake as a literary work that, if the world ended, could be used to reconstruct it, as it is so vast and comprehensive (incorporating dozens of different languages and referencing various phases in human history). This is a quintessentially modernist impulse, as art in the 20th century has seemed to expand beyond its limits, ever reaching towards the edges of possibility and intelligibility. The best pop music does this as well, but in the complete opposite manner. Some of the best and most wonderful pop songs are thus built on linguistic nonsense and opacity of meaning: rather than striving, like Joyce, to construct something vast enough to contain everything, they give a snapshot, through the experience of a tiny but intensely felt fragment of the world, of a vivid state of being.
“Gee” is one such song, its title simply a phrase that communicates a familiar meaning that transcends the limits of language (as in “oh gee,” used to express excitement). K-pop couldn’t have chosen a more perfect song and title as its anthem, given that so much of the genre’s sensibility rests on the youthful and enthusiastic innocence conveyed by that word “gee.” The song is performed, after all, by the unchallenged masters of aegyo, a concept that partly conveys this very innocence (along with a dollop of cuteness). You can connect “Gee” transcendence of linguistic limits through sheer intensity to a song like, say, the Tammys’ immortal “Egyptian Shumba,” which similarly revels in girlish nonsense. Telling the eternal pop story of falling in love (“my first love story,” as the intro notes), “Gee” is rooted in pop classicism while creating something startling new and brilliant. Its repeated phrase “gee gee gee gee baby baby baby” is pop poetry at its finest, a phrase that simultaneously means nothing and everything. Girls’ Generation benefits from its nine-member girl army, which creates a practically three-dimensional effect where lines are echoed or taken up by background singers in such a way that the melody is carried and passed from one member to another. Small production touches—such as the skittering percussion leading into the chorus or the way the music drops out at certain points for a split second (such as, in the chorus, before the first and second singing of the word “banjjak” (“bright”) or “jjarit” (“tingly”)) before crashing back—complete what is one of the most perfect pop songs of the last decade (in any language).
2. Super Junior - “Sorry, Sorry” (3/9/2009, SM Entertainment)
Peak Position: The Gaon Chart did not track singles on a weekly basis until 2010, so we only have monthly charts for 2009, and though Super Junior did not hit number one on the monthly chart, it did hit number one on a number of other charts and was very successful (see here).
If my enthusiasm for this mix’s first song “Gee” makes you think it must be all downhill from there, you are wrong. “Sorry, Sorry” is perhaps the best single by one of the most popular boy band in K-pop, Super Junior. They were also one of the earliest-formed groups of all the ones in this mix, having started back in 2005. “Sorry, Sorry” is a massive, undeniably brilliant pop song, and everything that I wrote about K-pop rhythmic precision can be heard here. With an intricate structure, each part of “Sorry, Sorry” falls into place perfectly with laser-like focus. Relying on repetition, the song is hypnotic in its structure; the first half of the chorus is worth quoting in full to illustrate this: “Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry / naega naega naega meonjeo / nege nege nege ppajeo / ppajeo ppajeo beoryeo baby” (“Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry / First of all I I I / Fell for you you you / Fell fell completely baby”).
Many boy bands in K-pop alternate between more robotically precise sections like this (almost half-rapped and half-sung) and more classically emotive singing, which they can pull off with characteristic aplomb. In a way, this could possibly speak to an ambivalence in masculinity within Korea, where “traditional” masculinity coexists alongside forms of behavior we in the West might label “feminine.” One of my favorite things about Korean boy bands is precisely this seamless transition between a more “hard” style and one that is quite “soft.” (K-pop boy bands can get quite wonderfully melodramatic, after all.) And like Girls’ Generation, Super Junior smoothly transition from one singer to another, each getting a brief spotlight. This quality of K-pop can seem quite foreign, given the value placed upon individualism in the West, but when you hear it in action, as with “Sorry, Sorry” or Girls’ Generation, the effect is awe-inspiring: you instantly realize these groups can do together something far more powerful than they could do by themselves.
3. Brown Eyed Girls - “Abracadabra” (7/1/2009, NegaNetwork)
Peak Position: The Gaon Chart did not track singles on a weekly basis until 2010, so we only have monthly charts for 2009, and “Abracadabra” was the number one single for August 2009.
The mix continues unabated with another classic from girl group Brown Eyed Girls. You’ll notice that the sound here is a lot different from Girls’ Generation. Just as I wrote that K-pop boy bands incorporate a certain softness, many girl groups in Korea have a fierce and commanding presence (something even super-cute Girls’ Generation accomplishes on, say, their single “The Boys”). This is most evident in my favorite of all K-pop groups, 2NE1, who in their most famous music video are shooting guns at some invisible target beyond the frame—is it us? “Abracadabra” is reminiscent of “Sorry, Sorry,” with a similar rhythmic intricacy hinging upon the repetition of the word “naega” (which means “I” or “me”). This rhythmic catchiness is so overwhelming that once you’ve seen the music video for “Abracadabra,” it’s nearly impossible to hear that first verse without associating it with the swaying hip-shaking dance they perform. (This video, by the way, was somewhat controversial, as many K-pop videos have been when they feature sexually suggestive dancing like this, but seen from an American perspective, it’s hardly explicit at all.)Structurally, “Abracadabra” is brilliantly composed, each section transitioning smoothly to the next one, with each being as hook-filled as the last, but the real victory is the triumphant, ascending chorus. When the first line of the chorus hits (“Bring bring neoreul naege gajyeoda jwo” / “Bring, bring, I want to hold you in my arms”), it is gloriously transcendent. It is the fitting response to the previous verse’s pleading “Do you love me? Do you love me?” Yet another virtually perfect pop song, according to me.
4. Big Bang - “Gara Gara Go!” (7/8/2009, YG Entertainment / Universal Music Japan)
Peak Position: Since this is a Japanese song (yet one made by a Korean group), I’m going to use the Japanese Oricon Chart for this, and “Gara Gara Go!” hit a peak of five on that chart.
Big Bang are one of the most popular boy bangs in K-pop, and they are labelmates with my favorite group, 2NE1. In fact, 2NE1’s first single was “Lollipop,” which featured Big Bang. The group combines three singers with two rappers. One of these rappers, T.O.P., is my favorite male vocalist in K-pop, primarily for his deep voice, while the second is G-Dragon, one of the most popular male idols in Korea. (You’ll hear T.O.P. at around the 1:50 mark on this song, and G-Dragon’s verse follows his.) Together, T.O.P. and G-Dragon are hugely charismatic, and they have even recorded an excellent album together, a single from which will appear a little later on in this mix. (Big Bang also perform and record parodies of K-dramas together, a lot of which seem to revolve around homoeroticism and cross-dressing for some reason; a scene from one of them, involving sit-ups, never fails to crack me up.) “Gara Gara Go!” is one of my favorite Big Bang songs, with a three-part chorus filled with giant hooks. It perfectly combines the delicacy of Big Bang’s singers with T.O.P. and G-Dragon’s more aggressive and charismatic rapping, and T.O.P.’s gruff forcefulness balances G-Dragon’s squeaky mischievousness. Also, you’ll notice that I mentioned this song is sung in Japanese. Many K-pop artists have fanbases in Japan as well—Japan, after all, has one of the largest markets for music in the world—and record singles and albums in Japanese for them. Some artists’ Japanese singles sound a little different from their Korean music—and you can read one take on the difference between K- and J-pop here—but for the most part, “Gara Gara Go!” sounds like classic Big Bang.
5. B2ST - “Shock” (2/28/2010, Cube Entertainment)
Peak Position: 3
B2ST (or simply Beast) is represented here with “Shock,” an apt title for a song that sounds a little like you’re hearing it from a headphone jack stuck straight into your brain. The strong electronic beat sounds a little like vintage video game music, complementing the melodrama of the singing. “Shock” is wonderfully over-the-top, right down to the stuttering vocal effect right before the last singing of the chorus. For me, this sounds like one of the songs that may be least appealing to Western audiences because of how delightfully cheesy it is, but I appreciate its earnestness: ten times out of ten, sincerely giving it all you’ve got and believing in the music you’re singing (rather than playing it off through ironic distance) will always win out. Here, B2ST bring the ‘tude, and in the end, there’s really no tension involved in taking a song like this seriously because of how they pull it off and sound like they’re actually having fun. And as one pithy internet commenter put it: “damn u song for being so catchy, yet so grammatically incorrect.”
6. After School - “Bang!” (3/25/2010, Pledis Entertainment)
Peak Position: 2
If I’m allowed to speculate, I think one of the super-secret influences on K-pop has been Timbaland, and it’s a song like this that really makes me think that, even down to the goofy cartoonishness of the intro. (Timbaland, one of my very favorite musicians of the last, let’s say, two decades, has an approach to rhythm that is arguably very much in line with K-pop’s in its staccato precision.) You can imagine how someone in Korea must have heard something like Lil Kim’s “The Jump Off” (produced by Timbaland), or any number of songs from the period in hip hop (when producers were constantly recycling that marching band sound), and simply adapted it to K-pop’s sensibilities. This adaptation process involves speeding it up a lot, making it a little manic in general rather than Timbaland’s relaxed slump, and pushing all the hooks to 11. Another point of reference might be Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” (produced by the Neptunes), with its cheerleader vocal style, but again, that song sounds positively relaxing in comparison to “Bang!”
One thing I love about K-pop girl groups is precisely the ferocious sound of their vocals when they’re all singing together, especially when you have a large group like Girls’ Generation or After School (which currently has eight members). The cumulative effect is intimidating and intense, especially in certain sections such as the “T-R-Y, do it now! Can you follow me? Yes, uh-huh!” refrain or the reverberating and disembodied “a-ha!” Rhythmically, “Bang!” reiterates many of the points I’ve been making: it sounds so rigid yet simultaneously rhythmically compelling and complex, nothing like what we think of marching bands as sounding like. And yet, they are still able to sound soft and feminine, as in the bridge. Think of how, in “Hollaback Girl,” Gwen Stefani must butch herself up somewhat in order to appear tough enough to fit in with the tone of the record, and yet, in “Bang!”, After School sacrifice none of their characteristic femininity and yet sound no less tough (more so, even). As with Girls’ Generation’s “The Boys,” this is not just girl group music: this is a girl army, and they sound powerful enough to take everyone on.
7. f(x) - “Nu ABO” (5/4/2010, SM Entertainment)
Peak Position: 1
K-pop girl group f(x) is notable, image-wise, for member Amber Liu, an American-born singer and rapper of Taiwanese descent who has a very androgynous and boyish image. This is distinct in K-pop, where girl groups members are nothing if not super-girly, and yet, Amber seems to fit in just fine. It’d be interesting to investigate, based on what I wrote earlier, how someone like Amber might influence her fans to dress and act different because of her image, but it would just be speculation at this point. And anyways, let’s focus on the music: f(x) have a number of very good songs, but “Nu ABO” is perhaps my favorite. Its title is a play on blood types, with f(x) essentially saying that they are going to bring new blood to K-pop. “Nu ABO” continues with the eerily funky rigidity of something like “Bang!”, and this effect is even suggested in the vocals, which at certain moments take on a robotic-sounding tone. Aside from “Nu ABO,” some of my favorite songs from f(x) include “Chu~♡” (how can I resist a song that has a heart symbol in its title?), “Pinocchio (Danger),” and “Hot Summer.” The latter is particularly interesting for its video, which features a pink camouflaged tank, a symbol that perhaps represents K-pop better than any other I can think of.
8. miss A - “Bad Girl Good Girl” (7/1/2010, AQ Entertainment / JYP Entertainment)
Peak Position: 1
This is the first song on this mix written and produced by Park Jin-young (aka JYP, founder of one of the “big three” labels, JYP Entertainment). Park is something of a pop mastermind, responsible for a good number of classic K-pop songs (and who has also produced for American artists such as Will Smith and Cassie). For me, “Bad Girl Good Girl” is interesting because it has followed a common pattern in my K-pop listening habits. I’ve found that most K-pop doesn’t really register completely until after about the third listen, but then somehow, between the third and fourth listen, I fall absolutely in love with a song. It’s happened like clockwork with a number of songs, and “Bad Girl Good Girl” is one of them. I didn’t really care for the song the first time I heard it, but it’s grown on me as much as any K-pop song. I guess I should be too surprised: it was the number one hit for 2010.
What’s special about “Bad Girl Good Girl” is its relaxed, almost loping rhythm. It has plenty of attitude (such the “You don’t know me” refrain), but the overall effect is rather relaxing and remarkably pleasing. Around the time that I started to really like this song, I realized that listening to it simply made me really happy, and I think this is one of the defining qualities of K-pop for me. There’s an astounding absence of anything negative or cynical here; it’s all pure pop warmth and generosity of spirit. Kent Jones describes film critic Andrew Sarris as arguing that the magic in cinema was “more a question of sensibility than visual, verbal or aural splendor,” and “Bad Girl Good Girl“‘s sensibility is really the stuff pop magic is all about too. (Considering that JYP is responsible for another song on this mix with a similarly wonderful sensibility, “Be My Baby,” we might want to think of him as a kind of pop auteur.) One of its lyrics is “Shut up, boy,” and yet there’s no real anger here, just the awakening of self-respect and awareness (the song’s lyrics affirm the singers’ own self-knowledge, apart from what boys may think). The interplay between the group’s vocalists strengthens this overall sensibility, drawing together a kind of solidarity that, for me, defines a good part of what makes K-pop girl groups so wonderful. Considered as pure music, apart from the meaning contained in the lyrics, it’s simply beautiful.
9. 4minute - “I My Me Mine” (7/2/2010, Cube Entertainment)
Peak Position: 9
B2ST’s labelmates 4minute are a distinctive girl group whose sound is hard to describe. They have a wonderfully bratty approach that is on display here, and a lot of their hooks, for me, draw their power from various tics relating to word sounds and pronunciation (such as the “re- re- re- re- reset / Click click click click” refrain in the chorus). One of their members is Hyuna, who we will see two more times later on in this mix. She’s one of the most distinctive female rappers in K-pop, having gotten her start with the Wonder Girls. She’s also one of the most explicitly “sexy” pop idols in Korea, which means that she draws a lot of criticism. (In Korea, pop stars are often attacked or criticized for dressing or acting too sexy.) 4minute have a lot of good songs—even their non-singles are quite strong—but this is perhaps my favorite. It’s a lot of pop nonsense like “Gee” but with a very different tone. They are more influenced by electronic music and hip hop and, thus, have a more aggressive sound, but at heart, there’s something delightfully silly about their often brash music. Even songs like “Heart to Heart” or “Sweet Suga Honey!” from their debut Korean album try to sound sweet but overdo it a little (in a wonderful and enjoyable way) and end up sounding rather manic and nutty. In other words, I can’t stop listening to their demented music.
10. SHINee - “Lucifer” (7/9/2010, SM Entertainment)
Peak Position: 2
How could you not like a boy band song called “Lucifer”? The song is perhaps the apotheosis of a certain kind of over-the-top and melodramatic boy band sound, a little more flamboyant than something like the harder-edged “Shock” from B2ST. As a group, SHINee perform together impeccably here, producing a stomping and massive pop anthem that is undeniable (down to the wonderfully silly refrain “Loverholic, robotronic,” which in its own strange way captures something quintessential about K-pop). The singing here is amazing and awe-inspiring, and the group harmonies almost sound like something out of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Just when it gets a little too flamboyant, a rapper comes in to balance it out, but flamboyant it really does get here, sounding almost like a disco anthem (and really, shouldn’t there have been a disco anthem called “Lucifer” anyways?). It uses the classic pop song trope of a woman so irresistible that she merits comparison to Lucifer, and yet from the way they are singing, it doesn’t sound like they are that upset about it. Rather, it sounds positively joyous. This is a song that doesn’t hold anything back—and thank God for that!—and everything about it, down to its lyrics, describe so accurately the pleasures of pop music, devilish and irresistible. We cannot help but give up our resistance to it/her, and somehow, that’s the right thing to do. When I talk about ecstatic pleasures that is limitless and boundless, I am talking about something like this.
11. Rainbow - “A” (8/12/2010, DSP Media)
Peak Position: 8
If there wasn’t a K-pop group called Rainbow, somebody would have had to invent them. (Notably, there is a Rainbow subunit called Rainbow Pixie, which specializes in irresistible and over-the-top aegyo.) To me, this song sounds slightly reminiscent of Girls Aloud (one of my favorite girl groups), down to the ringing surf-style guitar riff. It’s possible that K-pop has been influenced by them: after all, there is a whole musical world outside of the United States, and in the UK, where Girls Aloud are from, they are hugely popular, so why not assume their influence could have traveled to Korea? It’s not just Girls Aloud’s music but their general style that seems so appropriate for Korea, where girls can be super-cute yet also sing girl power anthems. Everything about “A” is irresistibly pop, yet another example of a K-pop song that is basically non-stop hooks. Even the groovy/silly rap in the bridge is perfectly poppy while fitting in with the song’s overall style. One thing you also always count on K-pop groups for is very good singing: Rainbow may not be as distinctive as some of the other groups on this mix, but they really give the singing their all here (and it shows!). Dedication to pop craftsmanship is its own reward, folks.
12. 2NE1 - “Can’t Nobody (English Version)” (9/11/2010, YG Entertainment)
Peak Position: 2
Here is the first of two songs by 2NE1, my favorite K-pop group. It’s an English version of a song on their debut album, and I think it really showcases what makes them great. Like a lot of the songs above, “Can’t Nobody” seamlessly transitions from section to section and vocalist to vocalist in a way that doesn’t let up. Every vocalist here is distinctive—2NE1 was also the first group whose members I learned to distinguish—but perhaps the scene-stealer is CL, 2NE1’s leader and main rapper. She’s the most distinctive female rapper in K-pop for her unique vocal tone, both raspy and nasal, but also for her edginess. One of the most charismatic figures in K-pop, CL might just have enough presence to become a successful solo artist (who are far more rare in K-pop than in American pop), but she also ties the group together really well. And the way 2NE1 functions as a group is what makes them so good: in videos and in concert, they work together so well that you wonder why we in America love solo performers so much. Each member of 2NE1 contributes something different to the mix, and in their videos, they are often seen together as a group with nobody else present, as if in their own little world. The effect is eerily powerful, as if their videos illustrate a secret fantasy world where feminine self-sufficiency has finally triumphed. “Can’t Nobody” is one of 2NE1’s catchiest and most addicting songs, especially with its stunning finale: after each of the four members sings her section twice, in the final 45 seconds the songs warps into a coda featuring them singing together as a group, an irresistible pop anthem. The effectiveness of this song in English—I almost always listen to the English version—is important, as 2NE1 is one of the handful of K-pop groups who, in 2012, will debut in America. After being crowned “Best New Band in the World” in 2011, I have high hopes that they could be the group to bring K-pop to the West.
13. T-ara - “Yayaya” (12/1/2010, Mnet Media)
Peak Position: 5
I have already discussed how many K-pop songs are nearly non-stop hooks, but even within the genre, something like T-ara’s “Yayaya” should be considered illegal, as it is so packed with outsized hooks that you should have to purchase it on the black market. Along the lines of “Gee” (the songwriters/producers of which also created this song), “Yayaya” revolves around nonsense hooks (one lyric, appropriately enough, is “Oh go it go it go it go,” which makes sense only on a purely pop level). The opening chorus is worth quoting: “Let me see ya la-la-la-la / Love me hey ya-ya-ya-ya / Shoobie doobie sha-la-la-la / uri duri ya-ya-ya-ya.” If you don’t like that, it’s possible you just don’t like (or understand) pop music. Another outrageously odd hook is a spectral-sounding cry that, in the video, the T-ara girls sing while pretending to whoop like Indians of some sort. For me, “Yayaya” demonstrates another influence on K-pop that I think is important: ABBA. T-ara’s song “Roly-Poly” (another wonderfully worthwhile song that doesn’t seem to actually contain its title phrase, sounding more like “lolly polly,” a fact you can’t help but love) makes the disco influence on K-pop as obvious as it could ever be. (The album “Roly-Poly” comes from is entitled John Travolta Wannabe, which I can only presume to be a reference to Saturday Night Fever, because if that’s not it, I’m totally lost here.) I don’t have much more to say about T-ara, other than the fact that they are definitely one of my favorite K-pop bands, a group I couldn’t live without now that I’ve heard them. If you like pop songs that make you want to lose your mind and, I don’t know, jump around like a crazy person, then “Yayaya” is probably for you. And if that’s not for you, what’s wrong with you?
14. G-Dragon & T.O.P. - “High High” (12/15/2010, YG Entertainment)
Peak Position: 1
You might remember these guys from Big Bang. They make an excellent team, and their album GD & TOP is one of the best K-pop albums I’ve heard. I mean, you really can’t go wrong starting off with a Slick Rick sample (not to mention the samurai sword sound effect right after G-Dragon says “ninja”). G-Dragon and T.O.P. have voices that work so well together that this album seems like an inevitability: G-Dragon bounces around the beat and attempts to wiggle outside its constrictions, whereas T.O.P. drives forward through his verses unstoppably, with a ferociousness that makes total sense when you realize he’s also done some acting (in K-dramas as well as movies). A lot of Big Bang’s music sounds like it “takes place” in the dance club, and here, G-Dragon and T.O.P. take that to an endpoint (as portrayed in the music video): this is a perfect club banger that translates the celebratory cockiness and bravado of American hip hop almost perfectly to the Korean context. Even though I can’t understand all their lyrics, they are compelling enough rappers that they never sound remotely dull. The man who co-wrote and produced this song, Teddy Park, is also the mastermind behind 2NE1, writing and producing most of their music, as well as also writing and producing for Big Bang. I would say that puts him near the top of a short-list of important Korean producers/songwriters. He also raps on a song from G-Dragon’s solo album Heartbreaker called “The Leaders,” whose third verse is rapped by none other than 2NE1’s CL. The video for “High High” is also a classic display of male K-pop fashion at its finest.
15. MBLAQ - “Stay” (1/10/2011, J.Tune Camp)
Peak Position: 16
And here we are in the year 2011. MBLAQ’s name stands for Music Boys Live in Absolute Quality, and if you don’t think that’s awesome, then what the hell is wrong with you? This is classic boy band K-pop, as soaring and romantic as you could possibly want. The aching and tender background vocals at various points in “Stay” make it for me, as does the breakdown about two-thirds of the way through with some wonderful falsetto singing followed by a rap (there is that soft-hard dichotomy again). You could imagine something like this from an American band, but it would probably be slowed down to the pace of a ballad (which it does sound like, for the most part). Instead, “Stay” begins a little like that, only to graft itself onto a driving, thumping four-on-the-floor beat, until it explodes in the chorus in the vein of classic dance-pop. The few English lyrics (e.g. “Stay with me” or “Stay in my heart”) make the meaning of this song understandable enough to any English speaker, and what I like is that MBLAQ combine this pleading and vulnerable tone with an aggressiveness that belies the song’s meaning. Are they asking this girl to stay, or are they going to force her to stay through the overwhelming power of their soaring vocals? Small touches like this are one way that K-pop boy bands navigate between a more “masculine” and a more “feminine” approach. It’s always both at the same time, and it’s pretty undeniable.
16. Jay Park - “Tonight (feat. Kang Min Kyung of Davichi)” (4/27/2011, Sidus HQ)
Peak Position: 22
This song is one of the first non-2NE1 K-pop songs that I really liked (although I heard it because I was listening to the 2NE1 Pandora station). Jay Park is an American-born singer and rapper who used to be in the boy band 2PM until he was kicked out because of a controversy involving messages on his MySpace account. Like the song “Abandoned” from the same EP, another worthwhile song, “Tonight” is very sweet-sounding, with Jay Park’s voice featuring an ever so slight quaver. The song’s theme is common from American pop music—it’s an “I’m going to the club and going to have fun” anthem-type song—but Jay Park’s delivery render it tender and gentle. You don’t feel like he’s going to get drunk or take advantage of anyone at the club—probably he’ll just dance and have fun—but the song is good enough that you really do feel like he’s going to have fun. K-pop artists have been able to pull off what American pop stars cannot: write a song about the club that is utterly lacking in anything sinister or nihilistic. (Even a very good song like Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends” is pretty dark, if you think about it, given its apocalyptic theme.) “Tonight” makes the club sound like a positively bright place, whereas American artists tend to portray it as some kind of den of debauchery. (I actually like The Weeknd precisely because singer/songwriter Abel Tesfaye doesn’t try to hide this fact at all but instead accentuates it to its extreme endpoint.) And really, when I think about it, every great time I’ve had at a dance club—and I am a really, really pro-dancing person—has been just about dancing and having fun, as represented in this song. Jay Park’s “Abandoned” is a similarly sweet R&B take on the theme of being lonely that, despite its sad theme, is downright beautiful in its construction and performance.
17. 2NE1 - “I Am the Best” (6/24/2011, YG Entertainment)
Peak Position: 1
Along with “Bubble Pop!” (the next song on our mix), “I Am the Best” is one of the K-pop songs to make the most headway in the West. I have to think part of this has to do with the music video (which is simply one of the best music videos, K-pop or otherwise, that I’ve seen in recent memory), because although this is a really great song, an anthem that defines 2NE1 so well, it’s not head-and-shoulders above the rest of their music. I mean, it’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also part of an EP, their second mini-album, that is pretty much one great song after another. (That I can’t fit one of their ballads like “Lonely” on this mix is an absolute tragedy.) But then again, “I Am the Best” is undeniable, from the very beginning, with its title refrain, sing it along with me, “naega jeil jal naga” (“I am the best”). The song, like “Can’t Nobody,” highlights each members’ voice perfectly, such as Dara’s sweetness, and the stomping, bulldozer-like beat just about crushes all competition. Like “Can’t Nobody,” the songs shifts about two-thirds of the way through, bringing out some more percussion, before ending with CL’s “Oh my God” (a suitably impressed exclamation that pretty much captures how we should feel about what we’ve just heard). Even though I don’t understand Korean, this song is so catchy, and I’ve listened to it so many times, that I’ve pretty much memorized the sounds of every lyric here. It’s wormed my way into my brain, and you should let it do the same for you. This is the sound of the future of pop music.
18. Hyuna - “Bubble Pop!” (7/5/2011, Cube Entertainment)
Peak Position: 4
If you’ve gotten to this point, and you listen to “Bubble Pop!” and still remain unimpressed by K-pop, there’s really nothing I can tell you. Like “I Am the Best,” “Bubble Pop!” has caught on in the West, and it’s not hard to see why, though I do think there are a lot of other K-pop songs that are just as good (and even some that are a little better). Beginning with a driving beat that sounds very retro, “Bubble Pop!” is all about Hyuna’s cooing hook, the “ooh OOH ooh-ooh ooooh,” and its wonderfully, perfectly summery chorus. This song radiates such joy (even though it’s about a lack of communication between the singer and her boyfriend, comparing his “heart’s lies” to bubbles that she pops), so much so that it’s hard not to sing along. The brattiness that Hyuna brings to her group 4minute is evident here, but it’s the kind of brattiness you can’t resist. The song is also notable for a dubstep-influenced breakdown that I like to see as a sort of battle of good versus evil with pure pop music rising from the ashes like a phoenix… or something. The video is a must-see, not just for Hyuna’s sexy style but for its brash, vibrant colors. I mean, this is basically everything I have wanted from pop music, and I’m so glad that it exists.
19. Sistar - “So Cool” (8/9/2011, Starship Entertainment)
Peak Position: 1
First of all, Sistar is a great name for a girl group, and it’s a wonder why someone hadn’t thought of it before. “So Cool” is super-catchy, from its repetitive and spiky rhythms (e.g. “niga niga” / “cool cool”) to the untransliteratable and cute girly-pop grunting on the chorus (not to mention the subtle background vocals toward the end). I could see an American version of this song that wouldn’t sound all that different, but what would probably be lost is the effort and intensity in the vocals here, a hallmark of K-pop. There’s not much more to say about this song: it’s just really fun and addictive.
20. Kara - “Step” (9/6/2011, DSP Media)
Peak Position: 1
This is another pop banger, an unstoppably catchy anthem that has a slightly rock-like feel, albeit fed through an ABBA influence that really makes the song. Kara is a K-pop group that is also really popular in Japan, earning the #1 Rookie Artist of 2010 by Oricon. The singing here is passionate and unbelievably intense, perfectly riding atop the bouncy, springy beat. Various shouts and screams through add to this intense feeling, and though the bridge pulls back and restrains the song a little, it comes roaring back in the final chorus. For me, this sounds like a great lost song from the 1980s; in fact, a lot of K-pop sounds like some of the best pop music and feels like it’s been hidden from me for an eternity (even though the oldest song here was released only three years ago). The last line of the chorus translates as “Turn up the volume, baby, my baby,” and this perfectly captures the feeling of the song, which makes you want to do just that. It’s the sound of pure adrenaline coursing through your veins.
21. Wonder Girls - “Be My Baby” (11/7/2011, JYP Entertainment)
Peak Position: 1
Another song from producer/songwriting genius JYP, “Be My Baby” steals some Ronettes swag and perfectly justifies borrowing their song title. This song is unbelievably sweet and bright, sounding almost like a Christmas song (except, you know, one of the good ones). The beat is thumping and driving, a runaway force that the Wonder Girls ride atop perfectly. “Be My Baby“‘s chorus is notably for its virtually perfect use of melisma, never showing off but always perfectly appropriate. I can’t tell if this sounds like classic K-pop or just classic pop, but now that I’ve heard it so many times, I can’t believe how many pop enthusiasts are sadly living without it. It features a near-perfect pop rap from Wonder Girl Kim Yubin, whose astounding control of rhythm and pace are everything you could ask for from a pop rapper. I’m amazed by how effective K-pop’s incorporation of rap has been, especially considering how often rap fouls up a perfectly good pop song (and hey, pop just as often fouls up a perfectly good rap song). Already, this sounds like a song I’ve been listening to my entire life.
22. Trouble Maker - “Trouble Maker” (12/1/2011, Cube Entertainment)
Peak Position: 1
Trouble Maker is a collaboration between Hyuna from 4minute (and “Bubble Pop!”) and Hyunseung of B2ST. It’s kind of a perfect combination, and given that it came out just over a month ago, we are talking about one of the very latest big hits in K-pop. The sliding, rolling disco-influenced beat is delightfully retro, and yet the song sounds perfectly contemporary. The whistling is undeniable, and you’ll probably find yourself imitating it. Aside from the Western influences that I’ve tried to point out, one big influence on K-pop seems to be Michael Jackson (no surprise there), and while this song doesn’t quite sound exactly like him, it doesn’t really seem like it would have been possible without his influence. It’s a breezy, effortless song that thrives well off the chemistry between Hyuna (who performs a rap as cocky as ever) and Hyunseung (whose swagger here is particularly likable). There’s a lot about “Trouble Maker” that is really catchy, but none of it is the kind of catchiness that makes you hate yourself for not being able to get a song out of your head. Its hooks are sparing and restrained in a way that Western pop music rarely is today, when so much of it sounds like the artists are simply trying too hard. I mean, if you’re going to make a Michael Jackson-esque disco banger, it has to sound as smooth and easy as this. The video is also really good, and you have to watch it if only for Hyuna’s fierce cat scratching and strutting.
23. ChoColat - “I Like It” (12/3/2011, Paramount Music)
Peak Position: 81
(I can’t seem to find a music video for this one and don’t know if one exists, but here’s a live performance video from their official YouTube account.)
This song didn’t do so well on the charts (common for new groups, like ChoColat, in Korea, where artists have to build an audience before racking up the hits), but I have found much to like about it. It’s a fitting song to end this mix with, because it shows you that even the lesser-known groups in K-pop have a lot to offer, and its lyrics (particularly: “I want it all / All or nothing”) couldn’t be more appropriate to some of the ideas I have tried to sketch out about pop music. This is another K-pop song that seems to take a very American sound and simply does it so much better, from the sour, squelchy synth riff throughout and the anthemic vocals to the electronically-altered vocal stuttering that begins and ends the song. (After all, I’m a sucker for chopped up disembodied vocals.) It’s also exciting to find that this song was released after the point I started listening to K-pop, making ChoColat one of the new bands I’m going to keep an eye out for in the future.
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Well, that’s the mix, and I hope you like it. To download, click one of the links below.
Maddie Loves K-Pop (so happy a blog like this exists)
The Grand Narrative (gender, sociology, and Korean pop culture)
Mixtapes and Liner Notes
Email me at email@example.com
POP UTOPIANISM: a manifesto /
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT K-POP: a mix
Depression, Melancholia, and Me:
Lars von Trier’s Politics of Displeasure
Masochism, Sadism, and the “Perverse Pleasure
of the Cinema” in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive
A Radical Narrative Disguised as a K-Drama:
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