[Here are five K-pop songs from January 2012 that I loved. I might try to make this a monthly feature here on this blog, partly as a way to force myself to stay on top of the newest K-pop releases. Click on the song titles to download an mp3 of the song.]
Sunny Hill - “The Grasshopper Song”
When I first heard of mixed-gender K-pop group Sunny Hill, I thought that the name sounded like that of some American country group. And actually, even the cover of their latest single sort of makes them look like that too. And you know, there is something oddly country-like or even folky to this song, but given that I am completely ignorant of Korean folk music, I wouldn’t even know where to begin with figuring out how to trace this kind of sound. Beyond that, everything I learned about this group made them sound like “the serious K-pop group,” which made me wary, because most attempts to inject some kind of prestige and conventional tastefulness into pop art just flat-out fail. But after listening to this song a few times, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s really something special, I feel, and it’s another illustration of why K-pop is so great, making a “serious” song that doesn’t sound at all weighed down by its own self-importance. How frequently does that happen in the West these days?
I highly recommend that you watch one of the YouTube videos for this song that features an English translation of the lyrics (such as this one). This is the first K-pop song I heard that made me feel like I simply needed to understand what was going on lyrically. It’s a rather astonishing song about a theme that is at the core of East/Southeast Asian life (and likely will be for decades to come): the tension between one’s sense of duty to work hard (in service of the greater good) and the need to live a life that is personally fulfilling as well. Sunny Hill weave this theme through a fable that is well-known in the West, “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” in which the dichotomy between work and leisure is explored explicitly. But you also almost don’t even need to understand the words here to get the message. There’s this incessant, inexorable rhythm that sounds driving and almost robotic. Let’s say that represents the more responsible and diligent ant. But there’s so much propulsion and lift in each member’s singing that even within this strict rhythm, their melodic lines tend to break free and soar away centrifugally. The center cannot hold, and we cannot live our lives this way forever without something pulling us toward our own needs and desires. It’s such a giddily infectious song that our own experience of pleasure through it simultaneously instructs us of the very message being conveyed in its lyrics. I have a feeling like this could be an early contender for one of the best singles (K-pop or otherwise) of 2012.
T-ara - “Lovey Dovey”
T-ara are on some joyous space disco shit here. I really think that they might be some kind of intergalactic fairies sent to Earth to make our world a better place. I’ve already written about how much I love “Yayaya,” and they have loads of other great songs. They’ve been in the news lately due to increasing public knowledge of their grueling work schedules and lack of sleep. That’s definitely bad, but I don’t think it prevents us from recognizing that they are putting out some awfully good music lately. (Frank Kogan briefly discussed some of these other issues here, and I left a comment trying to make sense of how it is that we talk about stuff like working conditions when it comes to K-pop.) But also worth mentioning is how T-ara are never ones to be outdone: they’ve done a zombie version of the music video for “Lovey Dovey.” (Also recommended is this practice video showing the ladies of T-ara doing their “shuffle dance.”)
“Lovey Dovey” takes their disco influences to the next level. The ghostly “ooh”-ing heard through is absolutely wonderful, but of course, the clincher is the maddeningly ecstatic chorus. It’s all about the rhythmic precision, like perfect clockwork, of the “oh oh OH oh” following the “lovey dovey dovey.” T-ara manage to convey an almost amateurish, far from virtuoso charm despite the fact that everything here is carefully structured to a pinpoint level of detail. It sounds so simple, but singing along and you will find yourself being carried away by its manic, driving momentum. Just listen to the percussion on this track and you will find so much well-crafted detail, which gives the track some depth belying the simplicity of T-ara’s vocals. And unlike some of the more aegyo-heavy groups like Orange Caramel, there’s a slightly sinister edge to T-ara’s music, heard in the opening synths and the way their vocals occasionally sound ever so ghostly. It ends up sounding not much like anything else, and whatever planet T-ara are from, I want to go there.
Rainbow Pixie - “Hoi Hoi”
Speaking of aegyo-oriented acts, Rainbow Pixie are a Rainbow subunit dedicated to the fine art of aegyo. The video for “Hoi Hoi” is one of my favorites of the year so far, endlessly delightful and girly. The way the three Rainbow Pixie singers put so much energy into this song, taking themselves far too seriously for such a silly song, is sort of like young girls trying on their mom’s clothes, and this is especially apparent on the bridge (“Come to me, boy, hoi hoi”). I still have no idea what “Hoi Hoi” means and the internet doesn’t seem to be turning up any answers, but the song’s lyrical impenetrability works to its favor, creating its own silly and hermetic logic. A lot of K-pop girl groups appeal to me precisely because they project this vision of a sealed-off, feminine world where girls can be themselves and play around without any cares in the world (particularly without having to answer to the demands placed upon them by patriarchal society). The ridiculousness of this song is part of that logic, because it’s the kind of sound that male listeners might tend to dismiss as too girly and silly. It’s an obvious act whereby women reclaim some territory mapped out exclusively for themselves, because it’s simply a place where no men (except, um, guys like me, I guess) would want to tread.
B.A.P - “Warrior”
B.A.P is a new K-pop boy band, and this is their first single. It’s a strong single, very promising and just original enough to set them apart, with enough silly hooks (e.g. “Bow wow wow wow wow”) to make it stick in your memory. I really like the completely unsuccessful but totally endearing attempt to be tough (i.e. the chants and stomping beats) despite the utter ridiculousness of it all. It’s kind of like when musicals attempt to incorporate conventionally “tough” musical styles like rock or hip hop but, during the process of translation, turn them into something flamboyantly over-the-top. (This all goes to support my whole theory that K-pop as a whole is like some giant, extended version of movie musicals.) It’s performatively tough without being actually all that tough, and though it’s not intimidating in the way that genuinely “tough” musical acts attempt to be, it’s more liberating because the group is not committed to its poses, which become temporarily useful and pleasurable. Needless to say, I’ll be checking out for future releases from B.A.P.
Teen Top - “Going Crazy”
To me, this sort of sounds like if Justin Bieber formed a K-pop group after taking ecstasy and going clubbing way too much. It has definite hints of Hi-NRG (hey, remember Paul Lekakis anyone?), and if you listen closely, the sound is just too bright and energetic to fit the lyrics (“Stop, stop breaking my heart”), just like so many absurdly great dance songs. I’ve never really figured out what the point of this kind of subtle mixed-messaging is, but it often works really well. A lot of dance-oriented music (especially, for instance, house music) is about expressing some kind of pain, but on another layer, there’s this intense joyousness bound up in both the singing itself and the dancing that the music accompanies. I feel like this aspect of dance music is often ignored, or perceived as a flaw, and I’d really like to read more about it. The runaway beat on “Going Crazy” carries the song along so quickly that by the time it’s over, it sounds like it has barely begun. In fact, it sounds like it’s just getting going, introducing a new chant in the last 30 seconds (“Teen Top go go / Put your hands up high”).