May 10, 2012

Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in April 2012


10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in March 2012

Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in February 2012

Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in January 2012

We Need to Talk About K-Pop (my K-pop mix)

1. 4minute - “Volume Up

Frank Kogan has already done a heroic effort in unpacking and analyzing this song in not one but two posts, and I suggest you read those. “Volume Up” has really grown on me over the last few weeks. Partly, it’s because the song itself is so complex, as Frank notes, and the more you listen to it, the more elements you notice. It has this rather byzantine sense of construction while also being really elegant and graceful. I’d also recommend reading Maddie’s writing on the song and how it fits into the overall 4minute aesthetic. She notes that “Volume Up” can be viewed as 4minute’s/Shinsadong Tiger’s take on K-pop’s “current fascination with belters,” and indeed, perhaps the most thrilling part of the song is Gayoon’s two sustained notes in the pre-chorus.

But what’s also great about those notes is how they blend so well with Hyuna’s rapping. The first of Gayoon’s notes carries over from the song’s previous section, taking its place in the background, with Hyuna in the foreground. You could almost forget that it’s there, as it blends in so well with the music, but when she sings the second note, it sort of takes over and assumes the foreground, engaging Hyuna’s presence in a sort of sonic combat, edging it into the background. There’s also something of a sonic-sapphic quality to their singing (the video’s imagery makes this more explicit) here and elsewhere, and the song’s lyrical emphasis on turning away from the metaphorical gaze of some accusatory male make this aspect take on a more profound meaning: despite the song’s energy and movement, “Volume Up” sounds like five women wrapping themselves into their own protective, hermetic world. Voices wrap around each other, the saxophone wraps around the voices, and the voices weave in and through the music with an uncanny assurance. The fact that the video takes place in some old, gothic castle/mansion just makes these themes all the more evident. In one scene, Hyuna is even seen intertwined with four anonymous female dancers, all wrapped together in an ego-less, womb-like union.

This aspect of K-pop girl groups always appeals to me, not for its titillation but for something much deeper and even more appealing. I’ve written about this before, in relation to Girls’ Generation, where it plays out in a way that is not at all sexual but rather more platonic and sisterly. It’s almost like something out of a David Cronenberg film, an amorphous melding of female subjectivities, except not horrific (except possibly from a dominating male perspective) because it is so sweet and (potentially) empowering. It also makes perfect sense within the context of the girl group, because what is a girl group if not a community of females who combine their strengths and identities to empower themselves as a whole? In fact, “Volume Up” has even been perceived by some as a response by 4minute to the criticism they’ve received. And there are men too in the “Volume Up” video, but they merely stand around like statues, powerless to have any impact on the scenes they are witnessing. I could easily imagine, without too much extra work, the video for “Volume Up” being turned into a mini-response to Last Year at Marienbad, from the female perspective.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about 4minute is that they perform without a lot of vanity. They’re willing to let their voices be used in service of the song, twisted up and rearranged in different ways. We can debate the question of agency in terms of the actual recording of their songs, but in terms of how they sound, 4minute’s songs feature their voices in often unglamorous ways, bouncing around, made manic, echoing, stuttering, filtered through effects, bent up or down… and then there’s always Hyuna’s idiosyncratic bark. So when you hear the “wah-ah-ah-ah-ahs” and such in “Volume Up,” it sounds like the voice being divorced from its usual embodied diva-ness and digitized, made into an instrument all its own to be played with like a synthesizer. In “Volume Up” as in many of their other best songs like “Hot Issue” and “I My Me Mine” (all either written or co-written by Shinsadong Tiger), the voice transcends its bodily home and, through the help of the benevolent producer Shinsadong Tiger, fashions its own protective sonic nest, a virtual reality above and beyond the physical fact of the singers and their voices. In the past, their songs were so busy and manic (sounding not unlike 2NE1 recreated from scratch by a team of producers doing way too much coke), but “Volume Up” offers similar pleasures in the most elegant form they’ve had to work with yet. Their voices still bounce around all over the place, but there’s a restrained undercurrent that pulls everything back towards the center in a warm, nurturing embrace.

2. Sister - “Alone

It took me a while to fully appreciate this song, and by that I mean that it took me a while to realize how profoundly sad it was. I realized this before reading the English translation of the lyrics, but doing so only confirmed my suspicions. A lot of what I like about this song also illustrates some of the points I have made previously about pop music and that were criticized in the rebuttal written to my “Pop Utopianism” essay. In particular, the thing that I wrote that was most thoroughly dismissed was my point about the potential authoritarianism and hierarchies of rock, in contrast to pop. This is actually just a slight reinterpretation of what Richard Dyer wrote, but I think Sistar’s “Alone” really illustrates why it deserves to be taken seriously. “Alone” is essentially a disco song, and one thing that separates disco from rock (speaking generally) is the relationship of the group itself (meaning the figures who we perceive as “delivering” this music to us, rather than the people behind the scenes who might actually be creating it) to the music we hear. In rock, every band member wields his/her instrument, which implicitly suggests an element of control in relation to their music. A guitarist holds the guitar in front of him, and when he strikes a power chord, we perceive it as somehow coming from him. Even rock vocalists who may not play any other instrument wield their microphones like a kind of weapon. There’s this sense of power and control, which is not necessarily authoritarian, but the hierarchy established is pretty clear: the music is what the group is doing to us (the audience); we are acted upon by the instruments wielded by the group.

There are disco groups (e.g. Chic), but when we imagine a disco singer or group of singers, we imagine them apart from the music itself. The music might often be created by an anonymous group of musicians, of whom the audience is not even aware. What matters is the singer, front and center, and because of this configuration, we perceive her as being inside the music, which surrounds and beseeches her, sometimes even antagonizing and haunting her. The singer is not in control of the music but set adrift within it. Part of the meaning of, say, “I Will Survive” is in the way Gloria Gaynor is buoyed about by the backing music. She’s not just surviving being alone; she’s also surviving the music, the performance. Likewise, Sister’s “Alone” is profound and meaningful partly because the singers seem vulnerable within the music, as if lost within it. We perceive that they did not create the music itself, so their performance is, in part, an attempt to survive inside it. Because, not owning it, they also can’t stop it, which means that it continues on perhaps against their wishes, forcing them to bear witness again and again to the fact of their own loneliness (the song’s omnipresent subject). The song is playing, so they must sing their part and reveal over and over again the pain and truth of their own sense of being alone and not in control.

It’s hard to see this as, in any way, authoritarian or rigidly hierarchical, as it is sometimes possible to interpret rock music. This is one reason why we can so often “look up” (notice the hierarchical meaning built into this phrase) to rock stars, but in disco singers, we sense equals (albeit really talented ones), gifted with the ability to express our own pain for us, living through it and suffering for us so we can see it all the more clearly and intensely. The difference between rock and disco is so evident throughout this song, but listen to the bass line in the chorus, the element that really ties together the song for me and drives its meaning home. It pulses and bounces along as in most dance music, but it also creates this unique tension, never fully resolving. It sounds exactly like the way a knot in one’s stomach feels, especially when one witnesses the disintegration of a relationship, the inevitable fate of one’s loneliness. Unlike with a rock bass player, the singers of Sistar cannot control this bass line: it terrorizes them, mocking their unhappy fate and teasing them with the idea that it is inescapable. It’s hard to see this music, this rhythm, as hierarchical or authoritarian because, listening to it, it is also happening to us, as it is happening to Sistar. This is why I can listen to this song and feel so gripped with sadness even though the song itself doesn’t reflect my actual state of affairs.

As singers, Sistar adeptly deliver the meaning of this song, pitching their vocals midway between a cry of pain and a sincere plea for help. They breathlessly wrestle with the words “na honja" (which means, essentially, "I’m alone," as in "I walk alone, watch TV alone / I get drunk alone…," etc.) and the way they stumble helplessly through "itorok swipge urin kkeuchingayo" ("Are we over this easily?") so clearly suggests disaster. This sense of drifting through life, never fully comprehending what has happened, and knowing that you lack the power to change it, all of this makes "Alone" truly heartbreaking. Despite (or perhaps because of) Sistar’s technically skilled singing, they convey the anguish at the heart of the song, the lack of control over one’s fate. They can all be good singers, in full command over their vocals (and, in the video, their dancing), but in confronting the nature of their loneliness, their mastery fails them. That juxtaposition between Sistar’s sleek good looks, their effortlessly sexy dancing, and their vocal control with the content of the songs (which suggest that none of these things could prevent the loneliness they are now suffering from) taps into the deeply sad undercurrent here, a reminder of how profound disco can be.

3. Sunny Hill - “Is the White Horse Coming?

Sunny Hill have positioned themselves as the “thinking man’s K-pop,” which, to me, sounds kind of awful (not because thinking is bad, but because anyone who denies that all the other K-pop songs are thoughtful is probably not someone you’d want to trust), but I’m amazed by how great they are, really untouched by the pretentiousness that could plague their music (and probably would if they were a Western pop group). I was a huge fan of “The Grasshopper Song,” which, like this, is another song with a “big message.” But Sunny Hill evade mere didacticism in at least one critical way: they make pleasure the main avenue for delivering their message. “The Grasshopper Song” was about how the drudgery of day-to-day life and responsibilities can sap a person’s soul, and Sunny Hill contrasted this with the joy of their own song, which was initially locked into the never-ending cycle of drudgery evoked by the lyrics but which then spirals out in joyful spurts to suggest the need to break free from this.

"Is the White Horse Coming?" sets its sights on the dating world, asking whether or not the high standards we carry with us in our quest for a romantic partner might actually be destroying us. They don’t reject dancing (the song itself is very danceable) nor do they assert that in rejecting society’s standards, you can’t also be pretty. Every member has their own unique style, and I have developed quite a crush on the elfin Kota. Instead, Sunny Hill present the “radical” idea that not being a douche can, you know, feel good and that fighting against the tyranny of society’s view of you can be fun. You can see in the video the joy that Sunny Hill take in throwing a giant letter A into a garbage truck (the A is a reference to lyrics about men and women who “diss” each other if they aren’t “A-class,” a nod, as in “The Grasshopper Song,” to our relentless drive for perfection). Musically, I wasn’t sure about the song at first: it didn’t seem to have enough hooks and the horns seemed misplaced. But all of that gelled pretty quickly: in fact, almost every aspect of this song could be thought of as a hook of some sort, and the horns work well to punctuate the song rhythmically. I think it helps if you see the video as well, because I now find it almost impossible to listen to it without also picturing their infectious dance moves in each section.

4. Girl’s Day - “Oh! My God

I was a pretty big fan of Girl’s Day’s previous mini-album, especially the songs “Twinkle Twinkle” and “Nothing Lasts Forever.” The former had a really great video that’s become one of my favorite K-pop videos, and the video for “Oh! My God” is something of a follow-up to that video (it carries over some aspects of the narrative and the same tone). Girl’s Day are very heavy on the aegyo, but they use aegyo in a somewhat self-parodic way, drawing attention to the ridiculousness of it and the fun that can be had in playing with it. Both the “Twinkle Twinkle” and “Oh! My God” videos are very cartoonish in style, almost live-action animations. Girl’s Day aren’t particularly strong singers (something which seems particularly evident in their live performances), but I like that they are nonetheless able to create their own world quite vividly through other means (the shots of them playing air guitar to the bridge of “Oh! My God” suggests how aspirational being a pop star is for the endearingly amateurish Girl’s Day).

Musically and through their videos, Girl’s Day emphasize bright colors and tones that push beyond the boundaries as they have been calibrated for the delivery of conventional pleasures, and in doing so, they enter almost monstrous territory, where what was once a dream becomes a nightmare. It’s not that their videos are dark or anything, but if aegyo is meant to convey the relative weakness, lower status, and malleability of its performer, then Girl’s Day’s parodic aegyo becomes something more overwhelming and uncontrollable (“the return of the repressed”?). It’s similar to what filmmakers like Frank Tashlin and Joe Dante did, bending their scenarios and characters to cartoonish extremes (Tashlin got his start in cartoons, notably): where we once regarded cartoons as controllable, contained forms of pleasures, they become, in the hands of Tashlin or Dante, chaotic and destructive elements, an entropic form of entertainment. Girl’s Day take some of the ideals of femininity, such as, for instance, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and turn these ideals into nightmarish extremes, too much for any man to handle. In their videos, their actions are frequently sped up to suggest that this manic quality, once appealing, has gone a little to far. I can’t imagine that this, taken literally, would appeal to the typical heterosexual male, and indeed, in the videos, Girl’s Day frequently play the roles of the active protagonists, with male characters relegated to passive, auxiliary roles. The ever-continuing evolution of aegyo continues unabated.

5. EXO-K - “Mama

Conceptually, this song is amazing. It’s like a K-pop “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and it’s just so epic-sounding. But I don’t actually listen to it as much as I should. Maybe that doesn’t really matter: as the first official single from EXO-K/EXO-M, it does its job of making a big statement, which the much superior “History” doesn’t exactly do in the same way. I don’t really have much more to say about this song. Bonus points for bringing shouty raps to K-pop.

Download all five songs