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. JJ Project - “Bounce”
One of my favorite things about pop music is that it is much less beholden to restrictions than other genres. Pop music cannot really be controlled because it is motivated in a primal way by desire, which is always changing and which obeys no rules. As a result, pop music is anarchic and polymorphous. Other genres feature experimentation, of course, but they often get stuck in a rut: even practitioners of, say, free jazz—theoretically among the freest form of music imaginable—warned against about the possibility of stagnation. As musicians seek new forms (or form-as-formlessness, as with free jazz), these harden and ossify into dogma. Pop music sustains very little intrinsic sense of form other than perhaps the verse-chorus-verse structure, which is so mutable as to be liberating in its own way (and anyways, a little structure is always necessary with art). Pop music is instead like some Cronenbergian monster, which retains no essential structure because it is always in the process of becoming something else, motivated by desire and primordial drives.
You can hear this in “Bounce,” a song which effortlessly switches between genres without losing its step. It incorporates rap and rock without ever being anything like “rap-rock,” and its impulses are squarely aimed at making you dance (e.g. “Now everybody bounce” and “Shake it and shake it for me”). It plunders these genres for their pleasure-inducing potential without getting stuck in the mire of each genre’s structure of signification. In other words, the “rapping” doesn’t necessarily convey anything like it does in a convention hip hop context, nor does the “rocking.” It’s not even that these genres act as fashionable signifiers or coded distillations of certain attitudes. JJ Project deftly incorporate the sounds of both genres, all the while ignoring what this may mean: they play with these genres like toys. This is probably a good example of what some people hate about pop music, its fundamentally irreverent attitude. After all, if you love rap or rock, you may find this superficial and crude.
But I see it in a different light. For me, there’s nothing sadder than, say, a couple of self-described “punks” arguing about what “real punk rock” is and is not. The same debate occurred with much the same flavor within hip hop, and it rages on today (making the phrase “real hip hop” one of the most tiresome you could hear). In that light, I find JJ Project’s “Bounce” irreverence to be the source of its tremendous sense of joy and freedom. Because fundamentally, this is a song about joy, the kind that cannot be contained and so much be expressed physically (and socially, because it’s “shake it for me”) through dancing. In its subtext is dance music’s often tenuous relationship with rock and hip hop, but “Bounce” is the sound of being beholden to absolutely no sense of authority whatsoever: you can “rock out” or adopt the attitude of a rapper—or, well, just dance—without any concern regarding whether or not you’re doing it right.
The song is distinctly pop utopian in this sense because it eradicates the genre-territorial lines of music in favor of an open and even plane on which all are equally welcome. This is evident in the video, where people of all types are enjoying themselves freely. Importantly, the song isn’t directed specifically at women (“shake it for me”), as it would almost certainly be if it were an American rap song. In the video, men and women are both dancing, and when JJ Project sing, “Shake it and shake it for me,” they are truly talking to everybody (and they are “shaking it” themselves). And so “bouncing,” “shaking it,” and “rocking and rolling” all become drained of all meanings other than the basic one of “express joy.”
That process of draining all signifiers of their meaning is exactly what people hate about pop, the way it can consume other musical genres and forms and effects a process of mutation whereby they come to serve pop’s ambitions and drives. But with a song as infectious as “Bounce,” none of that seems like a flaw but rather its greatest strength, because while it severs its connections with rock, rap, or whatever, “Bounce” never sacrifices personality. This sounds like one huge, magnanimous invitation to enjoy yourself and be yourself. In fact, the brilliance of “Bounce”’ is in the way it robs genres of their formal elements in order to reorient them to its own purposes, shedding their dead weight. Every borderline-clichéd element of “Bounce”—every mock-rock wail, every pretense to hip hop swagger, every seemingly hollow “I want to make your body move” (all of which are pregnant with anarchic joy)—is rerouted to serve “Bounce“‘s basic cri de coeur, which is something that will never get old or lose its meaning.
2. Infinite - “The Chaser”
The other K-pop masterpiece of May 2012 is on the opposite side of the spectrum from “Bounce.” Infinite’s “The Chaser” is an impassioned and deeply heartfelt anthem about the women who got away and who the narrator will chase after until he finds her again. I’ve often wondered why pop groups sing songs that are clearly about the intimate relationship between one man and one woman; after all, doesn’t it seem cluttered to have a group of seven men singing it rather than one lone vocalist? What Infinite are doing, I think, is acting like a kind of Greek chorus, working together to voice the inner feelings of their narrator. This narrator is obviously not literally one of the members of the group—we know that this story doesn’t reflect anything specific that has happened to any member of Infinite (though one or more of them may privately identify with it in their own way). Instead, this song functions like a piece of poetry in the same way that a poet may give voice to a narrator without actually being identified as him.
In performing this song, Infinite act as this character’s surrogates, bringing to life his emotions better than he ever could (because that’s exactly their gift). In doing so, Infinite bear witness to his story and suffer for him, because although they function as expressing his suffering, the intensity of their expression amplifies and brings this suffering to life all the more, making it affect them too. This is why so many boy band songs like “The Chaser” sound so tortured, which can appear to those skeptical of pop as somewhat ridiculous. But this is one way that pop is truly artistic and, more importantly, empathetic. Again, this is like some piece of poetry from a previous century, which perhaps is why many of those with “refined” aesthetics may not be able to understand it: they are looking for art that functions as the introspective expression of an individual. But the latter can often devolve into the narcissistic, whereas “The Chaser” is superlatively generous. Its sense of concern for its characters is overwhelming, enough to bring tears to your eyes (not because the story is sad, which it is, but because here are these seven men who really, really get this story and are suffering because they have absorbed it to their core).
Musically, the song pivots back and forth between verse and chorus, each of which plays a distinct role in the song. The verses express the pain felt by the narrator and even betray some of his anger and human weakness. They scale back the tension of the chorus—just listen to the way the rap kicks in after the first iteration of the chorus, halting the momentum ever so gently—and creates a brief respite before the storm of the chorus. The song shifts in the chorus to express the transcendence of the love hinted at in the verses. For example, the chorus begins, “Protect her, so she won’t forget me.” The narrator is concerned that she will forget him by the time he has caught up with her, but who is this directed at (“Protect her”)? In one sense, it could be the narrator imploring Infinite themselves to look out for her, but more likely, it’s directed at some higher power, a divine providence that also represents the purity of the narrator’s love (he loves her so much that his first concern is her protection). The chorus is like a fire that’s so bright and powerful that it burns off all mundanity and preserves only the essence of this mighty love. It’s a stunning performance of a great, great song, and every time I listen to it, I’m overwhelmed and moved to such an extent I want to shout the song’s story from a rooftop so everyone can understand its importance. Infinite, after all, make it sound like the most important thing ever.
3. G.NA - “2 Hot”
A sterling pop number that echoes my previous sentiments about K-pop being like a musical (which I seem to bring up every month because there’s always something that reminds me of this), “2 Hot” is a song that expresses something very simple with a lot of style (and with the dancer’s grace of a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly). It’s all about female sexuality, and though that wolf-howl reoccurring throughout is attributed to a male (“Hey you, wolf, who’s looking at me and howling,” the song opens), it’s actually the perfect indexical indicator of this song’s primal instincts. “Hot, hot, I’m so hot” G.NA sings in the chorus, but she’s describing not so much how she looks (“hot” as “sexy”) as she is the simmering sexuality growing inside her (as in “too hot to handle”), threatening to make the mercury pop out the top of a thermometer, cartoon-style. And this song is very cartoonish, albeit in a way that deflects the reality at its core, because as with Medusa, we’re not capable of looking female desire straight in the eye, so the song does its fan dance and explodes in the rollicking chorus, which is propelled by a throbbing dance beat in sharp contrast to the daintily groovy beat for the verses. G.NA’s ability to switch effortlessly between the various sections of this anarchic song, which sounds as though it is threatening to fall apart at any moment, reinforces the fundamental message: given freedom of expression, female sexuality is too powerful, too sovereign for anyone to control it.
The point of the song, its effect on the (implied) male audience, is to confront them with something so dazzling and overwhelming that they are rendered immobile (the legendary effect of Medusa’s gaze, after all). In the video and in live performances, G.NA and her dancers perform a series of dance moves, including crotch thrusts, that are supposed to have an eye-popping effect on us. But G.NA is not interested in the simplistic, pure spectacle of something like Rania’s crotch thrusting in “Dr. Feel Good,” which leaves nothing to the imagination. Instead, G.NA practices the art of the tease, and you hardly have to see the video or any of the live performances to know this: you can simply listen to the song (what is it but an extended tease?). After the first chorus, in the video and live performances, two dances bend over and expose their behinds to the audience, as if to say, “We know this is what you want, but you can’t have it,” and G.NA, their benevolent den mother, stands in front of them, daintily keeping guard and making sure you know that you can’t get too close. The power and joy of the song comes from them going nearly all the way to acknowledging what’s on everyone’s mind but holding back at the last moment.
The video for “2 Hot” has a clear story: G.NA and her friends are getting ready to go to the club, they meet some guys who stand around in awe of them as they make their way to the club, then while in the club they set the place on fire (the heat, of course, radiates from their sexuality as if by spontaneous combustion), then some super-muscular firemen come by to put out the fire (and I hardly need to tell you what that part means!). I particularly like the song’s stuttering “Oh my my my” and, later on, “Ma ma ma boo,” which convey the nervous, simmering sexuality bubbling up underneath the surface, waiting to be let out. Taken together, what all this points to is the rather feminist message that women must be in control of their sexuality and must possess the freedom to express it however they wish. When G.NA and her dancers strut and dance on their way to the club, the men just stand and stare because, presumably, they are not used to such self-confident expression of desire. This gets to another point I’ve repeatedly been making: contrary to what those who simplify pop music would like to believe about videos like this and objectification, “2 Hot” (the song and video) doesn’t objectify women at all but instead puts them front and center as the subjects to the ritual taking place here. This gets at why men engage in the practice of “slut-shaming”: it reasserts their control over a woman’s sexuality. And that’s why “2 Hot” needs its sexualization of women (even if this means that men may ogle them): it enables G.NA to take back control and reaffirm that she has desires too and is not just a means for men to satisfy theirs. This couldn’t be any clearer than in the appearance of the firemen (male eye candy that shifts the video’s gaze to one that desires the male body) during the finale: it’s as if G.NA’s sexuality is so powerful, she causes her fantasies to materialize right before her very eyes!
4. A Pink - “I Got You”
One of my pet peeves surrounding the ways Westerners talk about Korean music and culture is the accusation of infantilization. People see girl groups dressed in cutesy outfits and performing child-like or desexualized dance steps, and they think there’s something immature and possibly regressive about this. (Male idols indulge some of the same, but no one ever seems to talk about that as much.) But my particular academic background has sensitized me to ethnocentrism, and a large part of the infantilization charge seems to be motivated by mere ignorance and ethnocentrism. When talking about infantilization, what always matters is what we understand to be the norm. Americans are so quick to make that accusation, yet with reality television, we frequently give attention to adults who act in shamelessly immature ways that, I’m pretty sure, would easily embarrass any sensible Korean. More to the point, while there is a lot of K-pop that is very girly and cutesy, A Pink being a prominent example, the charge of infantilization has everything to do with how we think a group of people, in this case young women, should act. In that sense, the charge of infantilization often disguises itself in good intentions but it has everything to do with unchecked assumptions about how people should act (and coming from Westerners (that is, outsiders), these assumptions shouldn’t be given much weight).
And actually, one of my favorite things about K-pop is actually that it creates a space for young women to express themselves in ways that differ sharply from the hyper-sexualized norm in the West, where there is a sharp division between childhood and adulthood. One moment you’re in the former and then, without a pause, you’re in the latter, and that line separating the two is creeping to earlier and earlier points in a person’s life. A Pink specialize in music that expands and fleshes out this liminal zone between childhood and adulthood. They don’t differ all that much from Girls’ Generation’s more aegyo-filled concepts, except perhaps that they are a little more down to earth: they seem a little less like superstars and more like the “girl next door” type (without the sexual connotations). If Girls’ Generation’s music often plays out in the realm of fantasy (“Genie,” for instance), a fantasy taken to an absurd and cartoonish extreme in the concepts of a group like Girl’s Day, A Pink stick to the realm of the real. They make music that actually sounds appropriate for this group of girls, whose ages run from 15 to 21. In other words, they are creating somewhat “realistic” music that evokes the state of being more than children (yet still able to act “child-like” in certain circumstances, because none of us should ever lose that entirely) but not yet fully adult. And there’s nothing infantile about it, because it’s okay to take your time growing up!
A Pink’s new album Une Annee is one of the strongest releases from May 2012. Lead single “Hush” is playful and sexy, and it displays A Pink firmly in control of their own agency: the first part of the chorus goes “Hush Hush Huh Hush Hush / It’s not time, I want to wait / I want to look at him a little more” (they are actually telling themselves to hush and not tell the boy they like how they feel about him, because he may not feel the same way). It evokes that same liminal state of mind in a romantic context: I want to heed whatever this is that I feel (adult sexuality, which is best represented by the “ooh-ooh” leading into the chorus), but I’m afraid of getting hurt (the vulnerability that all children feel and that many of us, it must be noted, have still not entirely overcome). But “Hush” is not the only good song on this quite consistent album, and I think I slightly prefer “I Got You,” co-written by the ever-reliable and always-brilliant Shinsadong Tiger. “I Got You” takes the sparkly teen-pop of “Hush” and answers it with thumping, girly disco: this time we’re perhaps in a dance club, and the A Pink girls are singing “This is the first time I feel this way, so it’s a bit perplexing / But I don’t want to let you go like this.” The chorus, sealing the deal, goes “Come to me, come to me / Come to me, I-I-I got you.” Taken together, these two songs tell the story ignored by those who see only infantilization in the cute concepts of K-pop: I feel so many different things, they say, and I’m going to be the one to decide what’s right for me, on my time and not yours.
5. Xia - “Tarantallegra”
A “tarantella” is a kind of dance, and “allegra” means happy. But “Tarantallegra” sounds dark and constricted, or maybe conflicted is the better word. Yet the title makes sense, because this is a very physical track and one caked in pleasure, albeit of the oozing, grimy kind. Read Maddie’s write-up of the song and video: according to her, this is an “auteur-driven” piece of music and cinema, reminiscent perhaps of Lady Gaga. To me, the Gaga comparison makes a lot of sense because like her music, “Tarantallegra” sound devoted to self-expression as the reigning ideal. But unlike G.NA’s “2 Hot,” which is about sexual expression, Junsu (or Xia, as he is known for this release) is more interested in expression in the holistic sense. Certainly, sexuality is a key component here, but gender is there too, along with creativity and pretty much anything and everything else. So the dance of the title becomes a dance of someone escaping constrictions. Or rather, it’s the dance of someone sparring directly with these constrictions, willingly allowing himself to become ensnared in them but trusting his capacity to break free, destroying them in the process: as Maddie points out, there’s a brief shot of Junsu, camera in hand, filming himself, followed by an implied shot of this footage (K-pop is deep, yo!).
Junsu is joined on this track by Flowsik, a Korean-American rapper who is part of a group called Aziatix. Flowsik’s role, it seems to me, is to ground Junsu in his own masculinity, acting as a kind of surrogate for him that enables him to act that much more “feminine” because there’s always a degree of balance between the two. The feminine is most certainly on Junsu’s mind: at one point in the video, we see a female dancer mouthing the words that Junsu is singing, appearing to be him for that moment. And the video presents a disorienting mix of male and female bodies, not always clearly delineating between them, so by entering this world that Junsu has created, we are, to some extent, relinquishing our sense of one separation between male and female (in a sense tied to both gender and sexuality). The point is not whether or not Junsu is gay (for all I know, he’s not): the point is that it’s the hypothetical speculation about whether he might or might not gay, based on the way he acts or dresses, that he seems to be rebelling against. He’s saying, in effect, “I need to be able to do what I want (and be allows to do anything) in order to fully express myself.” So the “dance” of the song’s title is a happy one after all, because it’s about liberation, and it’s directed at us too: there’s a sensuousness to Junsu’s singing that implies a sexual, intimate closeness that is not solely directed at women, it seems. Junsu sounds like he is, in the language of hip hop, “feelin’ himself,” and that shot of him filming himself suggests a possible borderline homoerotic auto-sexualization (which the gender-switching complicates). Echoing this, Junsu’s singing does sound very feminine here at times, as if he is enjoying occupying the role of object (as Maddie suggests), and however we want to label that, there’s something positively queer about it.
6. Teen Top - “To You”
Teen Top are kind of like those bad boys you hate to love (and their awareness of this fact is part of what makes you love and hate them), and that image really feels essential to their music. “To You” has that breezy self-confidence of a charmer, but it lacks the passionate devotion that another boy band might give it: these guys are ready and willing to love you and let you go. But damn, are they charming or what? This mini-album aRtisT is a great little summery collection, the sound of a casual romance. I don’t know if it’s a trend, but I’ve been starting to notice more K-pop productions that sound lush like this, which I really like. I see no reason why something like this (written, produced, and performed entirely by Koreans) couldn’t become a hit in the West.
7. VIXX - “Super Hero”
Speaking of lush, take a listen to this song. VIXX is a rookie group, and if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed that there are a lot of new rookie groups out this year. Some are not so good, but many of them have been producing quite good music, showing a lot of promise. VIXX is one of four rookie groups whose debut singles I’m covering this month. “Super Hero” has everything you could ask for in a debut single: great beat, powerful and memorable chorus, and superb group singing. It starts off hazy and cloudy and builds through the verse, anchored by a searing bass line, before locking into an incredibly strong, surging groove in the chorus. They sing excellently together as a group, and even though they may not have much of an identifiable personality at this point, this single is much better than it has any right to be.
8. IU - “Every End of Day”
IU is a very special singer, and although this song doesn’t represent her at her very best, it still has all the hallmarks of what makes her great. She treads the line, on the one hand, between virtuosity and very simple, pure singing, and then she works the tension between sounding really vulnerable (in a way where the music tends to act as an oppressive force surrounding her and threatening to drown her) and sounding really powerful, albeit in a compact, tiny, but nonetheless forceful way. The fact that she can balance these tensions is a sign of her skill as a singer, and listening to her music is pleasurable on a very basic level just for hearing her express herself quite simply through her voice. Her music often has an old fashioned feel to it, not hip and retro but from a distant era, and yet it is so fresh and young-sounding as well. My dream, which will never happen, would be to see her collaborate with Van Dyke Parks, whose sensibility, I think, would suit her well.
9. Gangkiz - “Super Love”
“Honey Honey” is the debut single of rookie group Gangkiz, whose mini-album is pretty strong for a rookie group. But I think I prefer “Super Love.” “Honey Honey” has a great ska-like rhythm, but it doesn’t feel loose enough, like this one does. I really love the first verse, especially how it culminates in the phrase “bingeul bingeul,” which means “round and round” and which conveys the song’s dizzy, spinning feeling. Whereas “Honey Honey” is clearly a dance track, this is virtually power pop, punctuated by some great guitar strumming and a bouncy organ groove, and of course, there’s some psuedo-dubstep (because, of course there is). It has a great, gleeful edge to it that “Honey Honey” is lacking.
10. Hello Venus - “Venus”
Somewhat reminiscent of the Gangkiz song, this track by Hello Venus has a delightful bouncy feel, propelled by clattering, skipping percussion. It has a march feel, which goes along with its “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y” chant. Even though initially it doesn’t sound very convincing, the squiggly hook on the chorus will win you over. All in all, it’s good enough to convince me to check them out in the future, and of course, they are really, really cute.
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