(from the music video for “Blue”)
Ailee - “Heaven”
I have this theory, as I’ve mentioned before, that K-pop is sort of like one long, extended musical. There’s the singing and dancing, of course, and the fashion. All of that is obvious. But K-pop also seems to accomplish so well what Richard Dyer wrote about musical sequences doing, which is conveying a utopian sense of some emotional state perfected and heightened to an extreme. Ailee’s “Heaven” seems like the perfect illustration of this to me. I could envision the song being in a musical quite easily. Although it is, in many ways, a rather conventional song, there’s something special about it. It depicts a love between two people in a way not unlike hundreds of songs before, but it sounds fresh and sincere. Listening to the song, we can hear a variation of Dyer’s idea of musical sequences as utopian visions. The thing about love in the real world is that it loses its purity, and that’s why we turn to movies, stories, and songs. We start with an ideal vision of love, and over time, we modify this and add qualifications. We say “This is how I envision a perfect kind of love to be,” and then we convince ourselves that the real world cannot support this vision, so we deduct from it a few things here and a few things there. This seems understandable, but the problem is that you never know how far to go and when to stop. You can easily continue chipping away until there’s nothing left, because there’s no simple boundary that you know you cannot pass. (In some ways, I admire the films of Tsai Ming-liang precisely because he transcends this dichotomy, scrambling the ideal and the real together until they have mutated together into something strange but beautiful, e.g. The Hole, What Time Is It There?, and The Wayward Cloud.)
Ailee’s “Heaven,” right off the bat, tells you what love is: it is heaven. And there’s nothing greater, more perfect, than heaven. What moves me about songs like this is the desire to preserve this perfect vision in the face of all the horrible shit in everyday life. Cynics might see the song and Ailee as naive, but come on, she knows when singing this song, or at least part of her does, that she’s singing about something idealized. But that’s the problem: in believing that we must choose the real over the ideal, we grow to hate the ideal and love, however tentatively and unconvincingly, the real. Thus, we become mixed-up, turned around backwards. Songs like “Heaven” allow us to recapture not a belief in the ideal-as-real, but a connection, once again, to the ideal, because without that connection, we are lost in a sea of compromises that will never cease. Ailee sings the song as if presenting the ideal as an inevitability, an unavoidable conclusion, which is precisely the opposite of how it is in real life. She sings the first lines in a sing-song, interlocking pattern, as if to stress the foregone conclusion of these facts: “Where you are, I will be there too / Where you go, I will go there too.” You go, I go. One follows from the other, like a natural reaction. It’s a pattern written in the fabric of existence; it’s a metaphysical fact.
The chorus begins (in English) “You’re my only one way.” Thus, she shuts everything else out but this one person, this heaven. Later, she sings the phrase “I am happy with you alone.” And then: “If we’re together we will never cry, never never cry.” There’s a conviction here that seems fool-hardy. Everyone who’s ever said that they will never be unhappy again or cry again because of a boyfriend/girlfriend has lived to (partially) regret saying that. But there seems to be no intermediate space between “We will never cry” and “I will always cry.” There’s the ideal, which is thwarted, and then there’s the inevitable bad reality that replaces it. There’s no middle ground today, just naive belief in something perfect and cynical acceptance of the fact that absolutely no perfection exists. But really, these are just concepts, albeit ones solidly fixed in place, that rule over us and cripple us. The real crisis of modernity is our exile from transcendence. (The real crisis of post-modernity is in forgetting what transcendence meant in the first place.) Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that there would be some reward in fully embracing the real (or at least the phantom real that people who declare “I’m a realist” supposedly believe in), yet all it has really meant is the replacement of one fiction (the ideal) with another, more impoverished one (the real). This is the secret message, and warning, of every musical, reminding us that the real that we have come to believe in does not represent freedom but is actually a prison. The force of the ideal, a fantasy, in musical sequences, or in a song like “Heaven,” liberates us from the faulty real and frees us to wander in between transcendence and inevitability of coming back down to earth.
“Heaven” may sound like a foolish song, at least foolish enough to believe that there can be “only one” for us, but it’s also wise to reject the only alternative available to us (i.e. that there’s not one person but infinitely many, and thus that the people suitable for us are largely interchangeable except for a varying amount of different plusses and minuses). At the conclusion of the song, Ailee sings the end of the last chorus, “Never gonna be alone.” For such an uplifting song, it sounds somewhat sad the way she sings it, almost as if she was singing “always gonna be alone” (in contrast to the triumphant way she sings this line elsewhere). This is followed by singing, once again, “oh, so alone.” The way she dwells on these final notes is somewhat odd and quite sad. It’s as if the perfect dream she was having is finally breaking and reality has intruded once again. She wakes up to find that she is, in fact, “so alone,” despite everything we have just heard. Or perhaps this is not at all the case but that the song cannot help sounding this way in its conclusion. But I like to interpret this moment as a kind of recognition, on the part of the singer, of the alternative to the perfect dream of her song. Perhaps in the context of the song, she has truly succeeded, ascended to this heaven, but her recognition of how sad it must feel to be “so alone” stamps the song with a wisdom sharply in contrast to the naiveté many might impute to it. The pain of the “so alone” lingers after the song is done, reminding us that, in so many ways, we have to treasure our dreams.
Big Bang - “Blue”
(I reserve the right to talk about some other songs off of Alive for the next monthly wrap-up, but I’ve spent the most time in February with “Blue,” so I’m talking about that here. I’d also like to write something about the “Fantastic Baby” music video.)
At first, “Blue” took me by surprise. I was used to gigantic hooks and overflowing energy from Big Bang. But “Blue,” appropriate considering its title, is restrained and relatively quiet. Every time it seems like one of the singers is going to explode, the song as a whole calmly pulls everything back into place. The lyrics mirror this feeling, conveying loss and a stoic hopelessness. The song makes an interesting companion to that other great single from Big Bang latest mini-album Alive (the key K-pop release this month, no doubt), “Fantastic Baby,” which is the fire to “Blue“‘s ice. In fact, at the beginning of the video for “Fantastic Baby,” we see a frozen Taeyang becoming unthawed. And then there’s that promo image of G-Dragon on a throne of ice. I see “Blue” and “Fantastic Baby” as two sides of the same coin, both reflecting on Big Bang’s position in K-pop at the moment. “Blue” is lonely (it’s always lonely at the top), almost self-effacing, whereas “Fantastic Baby” is fiery and passionate. But what unites both of them, perhaps, is the effortlessness that Big Bang convey, the total confidence they have in being the best there is right now, so much so that perhaps they play it off as a little trivial (a little too mortal for these pop gods).
“Blue” is so restrained, though, that it impresses deeply. It’s like watching any person who is really good at what they do, like seeing a basketball player execute a mere, tiny flick of the wrist to fling the ball in or like one of those martial arts movies where the hero barely does anything and yet defeats everyone in the room so easily. Some pop stars exert a huge amount of effort to project themselves outwards, to make the audience really feel their presence. What Big Bang do here is the exact opposite, withdrawing so that we want to move closer to them, like a person speaking in public who gradually lowers his voice to draw the audience’s attention and make them listen raptly. Here, I think it makes sense to mention that Big Bang are clearly heartthrobs. I don’t think this is merely a superficial point, and I also think it’s impossible to miss: I think even non-gays like me can recognize that these guys have something special. But it’s not just a matter of physical attractiveness or a cool persona. There’s something about them that draws you in, makes you feel their presence, and even makes you feel somewhat protective toward them here. I guess you could call it vulnerability, but it’s not just that, because simply being vulnerable is not enough. Of course, it’s a pose, but they execute it with such charisma here. There’s something solid to it. It’s a perfect pose that inspires our affection.
What makes up for the lack of big hooks here is the song’s sheer beauty. It’s almost classical in its elegance, and despite the omnipresent blue imagery, there is a quiet fire at its core, like an ember almost at the point of burning out. Throughout the track, there is this sound, which is some kind of instrument recorded and then reversed. It ends up sounding uncannily like raindrops, to maintain the “blue” theme. But raindrops are a lot like tears, so we could read this as the track itself weeping. This sound, and the consistent restraint of Big Bang’s performances conveys a sense of immobility and stasis. Consider the part after the second chorus, and after T.O.P.’s verse, where Taeyang is singing: his voice teases the possibility that it will explode out of the song and soar finally, but then Daesung comes in and pulls everything back again. Even T.O.P.’s verse is uncharacteristically restrained. And despite the sadness inherent in the performance and the lyrics, the song ends up being so exquisitely pretty that it might make the listener envious on some level, like he or she would want to experience a similar sadness if only it was as beautiful as Big Bang made it seem. What they achieve here can only be called alluring.
Miryo - “Party Rock”
A lot, and I mean a lot, of pop songs are about having fun. This is kind of a frivolous theme, if you think about it. I mean, how important is it to have fun (that’s an open question with good points on each side), but more to the point, how important is it to sign about it (about this there can be no question: it seems very trivial)? But songs about having fun are never just about having fun because having fun is about something more than just “fun.” And so people dismiss songs like “Party Rock” because, for them, they amount to little more than vain and frivolous gestures. But songs like this one capture something rather essential, and that is that “having fun,” a concept long degraded in many contemporary cultures, is important. Some songs have us respond to them with little more than “That’s so awesome,” but we forget that there is something important and essential to “awe.” The yelping “woo” of “Party Rock“‘s chorus perfectly captures that sensation of rejoicing, of completely leaving behind everything else, to bask in the awe of being alive. All of us have felt this during certain moments, perhaps at a party even or while dancing (especially dancing, for me), but we tend to dismiss this feeling because it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of our lives. You can’t go to work the next day and tell your boring coworkers about it because, first of all, it’s hard, probably impossible, to really convey that feeling, and second of all, no one really cares about whether you had fun or not. Back to work.
Songs like “Party Rock” remind us that this sense of fun is wholly foreign to the way we have been taught to live our lives. It’s like those extra screws you have left over after putting a piece of IKEA furniture together, which you stow away and never think about again. No figure of authority will ever cheerily remind you “Hey, don’t forget to have fun in life or your life will be really boring and you’ll hate yourself.” It’s considered largely inessential. But “Party Rock” bursts with such life that you can’t help but be reminded of this feeling. The song itself is like a dance track superimposed with a rock track, uniting the two forms of music most concerned with fun into some unwieldy beast ridden perfectly by the eccentric Miryo. I’ve really been enjoying this mini-album from Miryo, largely because of her voice. It’s perfect here, exhibiting a puckish glee and her own exquisitely brash attitude. Her voice is one of the most unique I’ve heard in modern pop music. I’m not sure if I’m imaging it, but the Korean language sounds particularly “mouthy” to me. And Miryo adds on top of this a delightful garbled, chewy quality, punctuated every once in a why with some punchy exclamation. I could listen to it again and again, and still never get sick of listening to the odd ways she uses her voice.
Dal★Shabet - “Fire It Up”
I was mostly familiar with Dal★Shabet from their song “Bling Bling,” which I loved (but which I can imagine would irritate a great many people). So their new mini-album Hit U is a bit of a surprised, swapping goofy aegyo for some serious attitude. I don’t like the lead single “Hit U” as much as I do this opening track, “Fire It Up.” What’s really remarkable about this song is how hard it hits. If you listen, the rhythm of the beat closely follows the rhythm of the singers. It’s like the two are united into one, entirely synced force, which lends these girls a lot of power and heft. It’s like the sonic equivalent of high heels, so that a woman’s every step is amplified and given extra weightiness. I think it works really well here because it makes Dal★Shabet sound so commanding, like some musical dominatrices. Their singing sounds delightful muscular, pulling the beat around and making it conform to their vocal patterns. The effect is similar to what After School achieved with “Bang!” Dal★Shabet sound simultaneously very feminine—sleek and curvy—and very powerful and dominant.
EXO-K - “What Is Love?”
EXO is a twelve-member group, half of whom perform in Korean as EXO-K and the other half of whom perform in Mandarin as EXO-M. I think I like this version better, but maybe I’m just more used to hearing Korean singers. This song starts with an unusual riff, a twangy guitar that, to me, sounds like it could even be something from some post-punk record slowed down (but it totally works in this context). EXO-K are super smooth singers, and this is a fairly typical love ballad type of song, but it’s executed really, really well, culminating in a wonderful, delicate chorus. Together, they sound very poised, each line pristinely and prettily delivered, every once in a while straying beautifully into the upper registers. The rhythm here is gentle and swaying, pushed outwards every so slightly by that central riff, and I really like the restraint they show, serenading their love object with the utmost of care. It’s a flowery, sentimental-sounding song that succeeds because of the care of each individual performance.