Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in February 2012
We Need to Talk About K-Pop (my K-pop mix)
1. Big Bang - “Fantastic Baby”
I wrote about this song for Spectrum Culture’s Monthly Mixtape, but to follow up what I said: it’s really astounding how great each individual singer is in Big Bang. How many songs of theirs do you have to listen to before asking yourself, “Who are these guys?” (not as a collective, like “Who is Big Bang?”, but in terms of each individual member). I’d compare this with, say, Girls Aloud (who have long been one of my favorite pop groups): I still can’t differentiate them vocally or appearance-wise. (Granted, I’m sure this would be a lot easier if I lived in the UK where they are much more ubiquitous.) G-Dragon and T.O.P., for instance, are easily two of the most charismatic idols in K-pop: T.O.P. even makes saying “boom shaka-laka” sound possibly cool again.
So even if this sounds somewhat like LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” it improves on it in two ways: song structure and vocalists. And this is sort of a microcosm for K-pop’s relationship with Western pop in general. It’s as if, in the process of translating Western pop music to the Korean context, the artists, producers, and songwriters behind K-pop went “too far,” injecting more artistry than would be considered necessary according to contemporary Western standards. They take mere gimmicks—how is “Party Rock Anthem” anything but that? (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that)—and transform them into full-fledged songs. Even a song like “Gee,” which is heavily reliant on a gimmick, is fundamentally a well-constructed song. Look at it this way: could any serious artist actually “cover” a song like “Party Rock Anthem”? I mean, maybe, but it probably would sound pretty goofy.
“Fantastic Baby” is structured tightly and effectively, on the other hand. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are a lot of similarities between this song and any given 2NE1 song (same label, obviously, but also same writer/producer for many of their songs: Teddy Park, a true modern-day pop genius). This structure is typically somewhat unorthodox, and it would be challenging for another group (or solo artist) to cover their songs, because the songs are actually designed perfectly to suit the groups’ collective voices and personalities (which is something Teddy Park himself says he strives for). It’s not just that parts are divided up between Big Bang’s members, it’s that the parts themselves are tailored to suit each member’s personality (and the same is true for 2NE1). Take a listen to 2NE1’s “I Am the Best,” and it doesn’t even sound like a typical song in terms of verse-chorus-verse, etc. People complained that it lacked a chorus, but everything is the chorus: you are constantly being bombarded with new sonic elements every few seconds, each with its own distinct personality (Dara may not be the strongest vocalist, but is there anyone in K-pop that quite sounds like her?). That’s one reason why I think Maddie’s comparison of “Fantastic Baby” to “I Am the Best” is quite apt. This should be the type of song to have some crossover potential because not only should it impress U.S. audiences by doing some of what American artists already do (but in a much better way) but it’s impossible to ignore that the song’s being performed by five individuals who each have their own identity, begging to be known.
2. EXO-K - “History”
As much as I loved “What Is Love?”, I think this is even a notch or two above it. “History” has the air of monumentality, not solely because this is a new group (who, at the time of “History“‘s release, hadn’t even officially “debuted” yet). SM Entertainment obviously knows how to craft the debut of a new group, making the entire process seem like important news every single step of the way. I think “History” will end up being among my favorite singles of the year. The first thing I thought when I heard it was, oddly enough, Stevie Wonder: the rhythm and melody of the verses sound a little like “Higher Ground.” But the beat itself is some kind of mutated descendent of Prince’s stiff funk, machine-like with jackhammer rhythms (which EXO-K move to perfectly in their dancing). Beyond these influences, though, “History” sounds absolutely unique: I don’t think anyone could argue that K-pop doesn’t have a distinctive sound (or that it merely apes the West) after hearing this song. You may not like the K-pop sound, but it’s inarguably something distinct, with its own texture and logic.
What distinguished “What Is Love?” was partly the vocals. SM have assembled some really strong singers for EXO-K. (I suppose now’s the time to mention that I don’t really listen to EXO-M that much, even though some prefer them to EXO-K. The reason is simple: not knowing Korean nor Mandarin, I nonetheless have grown more accustomed to the sound of Korean. I have a hard time listening to, say, 2NE1 singing in Japanese for this reason (because I know each syllable and phoneme so well in Korean). On the other hand, I will say that Girls’ Generation in Japanese sounds quite good, if not necessarily preferable.) “What Is Love?” presented each member individually, as if doing that boy band thing where each singer takes turns serenading a woman, but “History” is more interestingly intricate, with vocal lines rising and disappearing into the mix and a chorus that features EXO-K singing in unison to devastating, electric effect. The bridge takes a step back into more delicate territory before the crucial rap section, which sounds better and better every time I hear it. I think this is a near-perfect single, the perfect syncing of vocalists, backing track, and song structure. It’s all one sleek, well-oiled machine.
3. 2NE1 - “Scream”
As a huge fan of 2NE1, I’m anxiously awaiting their U.S. debut later this year. And when I say “anxiously awaiting,” I mean I do have some anxiety about it. As far as I’ve read, I’m still not sure the extent to which Teddy Park will be involved, and if he’s not involved, that will be a real shame. He’s been the mastermind behind their best songs, and he also co-produced this one, a new Japanese single. I wasn’t expecting this single at all, so it’s been a pleasant surprised and perhaps a glimpse into the direction they might be heading. A lot of it sounds familiar, of course, and if there’s anything that sounds different about it, it’s that Minzy seems to be officially growing up in the group and taking on more mature roles (she just turned 18 this year).
But if “Scream” sticks pretty close to the 2NE1 formula, it also sounds new enough too. I particularly like the “scream” hook that occurs throughout the song, but as I’ve listened to it more and more, I’ve come to appreciate the beat. It has this ultra-springy, bouncy sound, as if it’s ready to hop off its tracks any moment and descend into utter chaos. One final point: you know on those old maps where there’s sometimes a cartoonish, anthropomorphic cloud blowing a lot of air that represents the wind? That’s basically Park Bom, who’s sings the main chorus here. She’s 2NE1’s deadliest weapon, and I still get chills when I hear her really dig into a chorus as she does here. The force of her singing just knocks you over. Oh, and also she has puffy cheeks, so the analogy is doubly appropriate.
4. SHINee - “Sherlock”
The version of the music video embedded above is the dance version, which I vastly prefer to the original version. You should watch it. Although I think this song stands on its own, divorced from the experience of watching SHINee dance, the video is just the perfect accompaniment. It adds further weight to my theory that “K-pop = musicals.” Because really, what’s the difference between this video and a scene from a musical? I’m reminded of some of Lady Gaga’s songs, which I cannot listen to without picturing their choreography, as if its embedded into the DNA of the music itself. This is not so surprising when you think about how much this song sounds like Michael Jackson, clearly a key influence on SHINee. But that’s partly why I don’t expect this to have a lot of crossover appeal, though the single is doing really well in Korea. It’s a good example of a song with so much extra-musical appeal that K-pop fans go for but that casual, Western audiences mostly couldn’t care less about. It’s not only the dancing: SHINee have also been releasing provocative promo images, and in this video, even the fashion and hairstyles are worth savoring. It’s the complete package (yet another link to musicals), but if you’re a K-pop skeptic, it just seems like a lot of meaningless stuff added on top. Even so, that chorus is just so irresistible.
5. Nine Muses - “Ticket”
Nine Muses have had a quietly great 2012 so far. “News” was good, but “Ticket” is really good. Starting off with an exotic-sounding synth line (which reinforces the song’s long-distance travel theme), “Ticket” is carried along by a surging momentum that never really ceases. In the verses, the singing is slower, looser, but the percussion underneath maintains its steady insistence. The pre-chorus revs things up a little bit, propelling it forward into the chorus, which just explodes. I haven’t looked at the lyrics for this, but the single English phrase, “one-way ticket,” perfectly matches the feel of this song in its monodirectional, propulsive pace. The chorus benefits from some great group singing, full of boundless yearning and unrequited emotional intensity. There aren’t a lot of upbeat dance-pop songs like this that strive to deliver such a subtly emotional wallop. The rapping bobs along as a nice, hardy counterpoint to the chorus’ vulnerability.
6. Rainbow - “Gonna Gonna Go”
From what I understand, both Rainbow and Kara (who we’ll get to later) are both pretty popular in Japan. This is interesting to me because both groups can sometimes sound vaguely like J-pop. I’m not too familiar with J-pop in general, but I’m thinking of groups like Perfume that have a “cute” vocal style that is nonetheless different from the cute, aegyo style of some K-pop acts. I’m not sure quite how to describe what I mean, but it sounds slightly more artificial than the K-pop equivalent, processed and digitized as if being made to fit a cartoon, non-naturalistic image. Now, none of this is a criticism of J-pop or anything, but K-pop always seems to have at least one foot planted in reality, whereas J-pop can be completely untethered. It makes sense that Rainbow and Kara would be popular in Japan because they have that same vocal tone, high-pitched and girly. But both acts also maintain a sturdy maturity that seems characteristic of K-pop.
Just listen to the intro for “Gonna Gonna Go,” where, just before the first iteration of the chorus, one member of Rainbow lets out a R&B diva-esque wail. It sounds not unlike a similar moment in Rainbow subunit Rainbow Pixie’s song “Hoi Hoi,” which is even more artificially girly than this one but which still maintains a commitment to the tropes of (mature) R&B singing, which is decidedly more womanly than girly. So “Gonna Gonna Go” sounds like a weird but pleasing hybrid, almost a parody of a R&B song: it’s as if the DNA of R&B was extracted and poured into the mold of aegyo-tinged K-pop. But it’s not really a parody because it lacks the knowingness of a parody. I stand by my description of “Hoi Hoi” as resembling the way a young girl might try on her mom’s clothes (a connection made more apparent by the music video, which emphasizes child-like dress-up). I think this comparison is even more tenable because not all Rainbow songs sound like that, making “Gonna Gonna Go” not an outlier but most definitely a constructed pose.
7. U-KISS - “Forbidden Love”
I’m not as familiar with U-KISS as some other groups, but my impression is that their music has a looser, less rigorously constructed feel. I’m thinking of a song like “Neverland,” which doesn’t necessarily work for me as a complete song but which has a fantastic chorus that should really be salvaged for some ultra-ecstatic dance remix. “Forbidden Love” works better as a whole, but still, it sounds somewhat endearingly slapdash. But just listen to it a few times and tell me you don’t have the uncontrollable urge to sing along to its chorus (especially the “this is forbidden love” part). Also, this song seems to me to have the best dubstep-influenced breakdown that I’ve yet heard in K-pop. It even bears the unmistakable influence of Skrillex!
It makes a lot of sense that K-pop would absorb dubstep, because the dubstep breakdown happens to be a fairly effective way of making a song’s bridge more interesting (another way that K-pop has adopted and mastered: rapping, of course). Moreover, since most K-pop songs tend to rely on very precise, regimented rhythmic structures, the dubstep bridge tends to break up this monotony, which serves another key purpose: you can dance to it more freely. As U-KISS do here, and as NU’EST do on “Face,” the dubstep bridge is treated as a dancing showcase in music videos or live performances (which are still the ways that a lot of people listen to K-pop). So I’m not at all surprised that dubstep has influenced K-pop, but I think this song makes perhaps the best use of it so far. It acts as a nice pause amidst a song that is all raging, soaring emotion.
8. Shinhwa - “Venus”
I’m not at all familiar with Shinhwa, but I know they’re one of the oldest K-pop groups (they debuted in 1998, if you can believe that). I’m not sure how “Venus” compares to their older music, but it definitely suggests the work of veterans. I suppose you could even say that it has an almost “classical” dance-pop sound (e.g. Ace of Base), as well as working within the K-pop convention of “quiet verses, explosive choruses.” In fact, the synth line that opens the song is almost stately and poised compared more recent K-pop songs. But boy does that chorus explode. Its contentment to offer you a well-performed, fundamentally sound fist-pump anthem is almost quaint and certainly endearing.
9. B1A4 - “Baby I’m Sorry”
The way this song starts out, you wouldn’t even know for sure it was a K-pop song until the vocals kick in. That opening synth line could have come from any number of “indie” electro-pop acts (e.g. Ladytron). Of course, the line separating “indie” (a word that means less and less every year) and “pop” is an ambiguous one, but I’d offer a few conjectures about the differences. What you get more often with these “indie” artists is an implied mood and less of the overall release that great pop delivers. Parallel to the “hip” dismissal of conventional narratives in literature, film, or television, some listeners might prefer to bask (or is it wallow?) in a sustained yet distanced mood, an affected pose, than to be taken by a song, be moved to jump around, throw your hands in the air, or sing at the top of your lungs surrounded by other people singing along with you. It’s almost as if the withholding of these pleasures is exactly what is praised and celebrated at times, even though there’s rarely something else erected in its place. But “Baby I’m Sorry” is a good reminder that anything negative that might be said about pop music could easily be turned into a positive (and the same is true for so-called “indie” music, usually held to be superior by virtue of its distance from pop).
Now, I probably like a couple songs by, say, Ladytron, but I’d easily take “Baby I’m Sorry” over all of them. And one of the reasons is that some actual personality, rather than the suppression of personality, shines through here so easily. Take the sour moan with which B1A4 member Jinyoung begins the chorus: “I just want to be alone.” It’s a gasp, a release, and a wounded plea, all rolled up into one, and it instantly conveys something very precise and emotionally resonant, the kind of thing indie groups often attempt to conceal underneath layers of influence. Some might argue that the song’s upbeat, poppy sound or its use of Auto-Tune undermines the sentiment here, but I don’t see it that way at all. For one, the Auto-Tune attempts but fails to mask the emotion of the singing, and by not containing it, this attempted masking draws further attention to it. On the bridge, B1A4 announce “dancing party time (let’s go),” which of course sounds somewhat silly if you take it out of context. But in context, it’s like saying this: I can’t have you, I can’t forget you, but whoa, I’m gonna pretend like going dancing with my friends is so awesome that it’ll help me get over you, but of course, anyone can see through my pathetic attempt to move on from something that I can’t stop thinking about (and in the music video, the members of B1A4 look all sullen and hurt even though, cheer up, it’s “dancing party time”). To me, that’s actually really profound, because like all great art, it hints at the fullness of our experiences of life, rather than whittling those experiences down to suit some prefabricated, hyper-personalized (and borderline solipsistic) aesthetic. We can be super-sad about a significant other who’s gone, still try to have “dancing party time,” and fail gloriously because life is complex, yo.
10. Kara - “Speed Up”
Kara’s “Speed Up” is a bit of barebones dance-pop, with no frills but it gets the job done very effectively with its squiggly synths and Morse-code percussion. “Speed Up” adopts a distinctly nocturnal sound that might be similar to what’d you get if Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was made in Korea. It’s sleek and smooth, like a speeding vehicle, and you can almost taste the flickering neon. I actually think this sounds a lot less corny than that one song on the Drive soundtrack (“A Real Hero”), partly because it strives less for nostalgia than devil-may-care fun in the present moment, not worrying about the past or future, and so it gets less bogged down in the weightiness of authenticity (in relationship to the longed-for object of nostalgia). The irony, though, is that if you go to, say, Seoul, it’ll probably look more like “the future” than any American city. This is partly, then, what makes K-pop music so refreshing: it lacks the weighty nostalgia that is often unavoidable in Western music. It really feels like an alien object that came from the future, because when you look at its “roots,” all you can locate are strands of Western pop that have become mutated and creatively rearranged or traditional Korean stuff like trot, which never seems to inspire anything close to debilitating nostalgia.
Download all ten songs: http://www.mediafire.com/?1vgt9gm69151oe3
Honorable Mention: I’m not in love with rookie group Spica as much as others are, but you should definitely hear their singles if you haven’t already, including “Russian Roulette” and especially their new single “Painkiller.” I think they’ll make a big impact in the future, but I’m still waiting on the single that really sells me on them.
Two Rookie Debuts: Two rookie groups released their debut singles this month: BTOB and NU’EST. Of these, I definitely prefer BTOB’s “Insane,” which has grown on me. It sort of sounds like a combination between Big Bang (“Haru Haru,” anyone?) and MBLAQ. There’s even a spoken part that sounds remarkably like G-Dragon. What really won me over was the interplay of voices, especially on the chorus with the “I wanna hate you” part (and the rapping underneath). I like the song enough to check out whatever they do next, so I think that’s a successful debut.
NU’EST’s debut, on the other hand, I felt rather more ambivalent about. It seems that it’s primary purpose is to create an identity for them as the “dubsteppy” K-pop group, as dubstep’s all over their debut, especially lead single “Face.” This song is not bad, but I feel I must single it out as containing perhaps the very worst rapping I’ve heard in all of K-pop. Now, some of you might be like, “Wow, that’s gotta be bad,” but actually, rapping on K-pop records is usually really good, even when it’s coming from female rappers you would probably expect to be awful. But the closing rap (in English) on “Face” is just straight-up garbage. But NU’EST have a secret weapon to distract you from these problems: pretty boy Ren, who has already impressed a lot of people with his uncannily feminine looks. In a recent interview, he said, “The people around me tell me that I look like a girl. But I think these sort of reactions are fun, partially because it makes me hope that they will want to get to know me better.” I think that’s a cool attitude. So even if I’m not in love with their debut single, I’m glad they exist.
Catching Up: One single I definitely feel I underrated is Block B’s “NalinA.” I wish it had one more hook, but I can’t deny that it’s a lot of fun. Also, although I wasn’t enamored with Miss A’s latest single “Touch,” I would say that their Touch mini-album is one of the strongest K-pop releases so far this year. Every song on it is really good, and they tend to overshadow the understated but nice title track.