Jul 10, 2012

10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in June 2012


10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in May 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. Girls’ Generation - “Paparazzi

It may just be that I’m getting used to Girls’ Generation, but one of my favorite things about “Paparazzi” is how easy it is to distinguish each of the nine voices here. I can’t precisely identify all of them yet, but each has its own distinct sound and role to play. Rotating from one voice to another every bar of music has its purpose here: more than anything—and this is evident from the music video—”Paparazzi” feels like a show, more akin to the feel of stage musical than a cinematic one. There’s a wonderful showmanship to it, deeply grounded in the “show business” aesthetic upon which Broadway thrives. “Paparazzi” is also a heavily “meta,” self-reflexive song (beginning “With the Girls’, with the Girls’ Generation,” in case you forgot who you’re listening to), one that introduces us to Girls’ Generation and at the same time convinces us of their awesomeness (literally: these are powerful female figures of whom we should be in awe).

If I had my way and K-pop was introduced to American audiences through a live revue-type show, this would be the perfect number to introduce us to Girls’ Generation. But it doesn’t just impress knowledge of the group upon us. We are also introduced to the flavor of their world: “Life is a party from the garage to the suite room” and there are “flowers all around.” On another iteration of the chorus, they sing instead “Life is a party: the more damage it causes, the more it sells” (according to internet lyrics websites). Above all, I see “Paparazzi” as telling a very simple story about stardom: first, Girls’ Generation accept and embrace their status as stars—not just performers but legitimate, larger-than-life stars (though with them, there’s always a tension between their stardom and their girls-next-door quality)—and second, they don’t try to hide from whatever stardom entails, even when it is a force of upheaval and disarray.

The video begins with Girls’ Generation walking to a performance, surrounded everywhere by paparazzi. Before their performance starts, they are introduced by an emcee and a curtain is drawn back to reveal an elaborate stage that is the setting for the “video within the video.” In other words, to ascend to stardom is to become an image, not merely flesh and bone. Paparazzi want to capture and seize this image (or some shred of it), but at the same time, performance entails transforming yourself into an image and an object. Thus, the video acknowledges that the entertainment industry is partly founded upon the transformation of people into commerce. But this is late capitalism, and this process takes place within a world and a media environment in which images proliferate everywhere. Instead of seeing Girls’ Generation as unique for having ascended to the realm of the image, we might ask ourselves who of us does not participate at all in this process. Most of the people we “know” in life are people we encounter through images on television or the internet. In fact, thanks to internet dating, we might even encounter our future husbands and wives first as images—but isn’t this also what happens when we talk about “love at first sight”?

According to the video, Girls’ Generation recognize this state of affairs, and they embrace it: “Life is a party.” The song lacks the tortured paranoia over our obsession with images of the similarly titled song by Lady Gaga. Instead, Girls’ Generation’s song sounds positively ecstatic and, more importantly, empowering. By embracing their own commodification—it’s arguable impossible for any artist on anything resembling this large a scale to avoid some form of this fate—Girls’ Generation become images with their own autonomy, ones that look back at us. This is indicated in the video by the recurring use of the framing hand gesture (the way a photographer would frame a shot before picking up his camera). This hand gesture occurs in two important points in the video—I will always be referring to the original, longer version of the video here.

First, at the end of the first chorus, we see Tiffany make the gesture along to the words “Boom… boom… boom.” She raises one hand in an “L” shape during the first “boom,” then the second hand, and then we see her break the gesture, her hands snapping away fiercely in a shot of her surrounded by paparazzi. (The shot comes from some footage outside the main action of the video (i.e. the street scene), from when the members were first entering the venue.) Tiffany is one of the members who stands out most in this video, her confidence through the roof during the entire performance. She “breaks” this framing (the transformation of herself into an image) and resists the objectification. At the same time, she walks around with so much swagger that she clearly enjoys her star status and the aura it gives her. But the expression on her face as she “breaks” the gesture says it all: she stares right into the camera (which, because this particular scene takes place in a room where the members are surrounded by paparazzi, feels like an actual camera) and then looks away and continues walking. “You cannot control me,” she seems to be saying. Instead, we are in thrall of her as an image, one so powerful and confident that we lose whatever control over her that our voyeuristic interest in her would seem to bestow upon us. (Control, as Freud argued, is the primary motivation for voyeurism.)

The framing hand gesture returns at the very end of the song, again accompanying the refrain “boom… boom… boom.” The song ends suddenly with the members all posing together, holding up their hands in this gesture and staring at us. There is some tension in this moment about where these women actually are. Is this the world of the music video, removed from the real world, in which case they make their gesture towards no one in particular but also everybody who is watching? Or are we seeing them on stage, as the beginning of the video sets up, and they are making this gesture towards the particular audience watching them, who we see before the song begins? I would argue that the image of them in this pose is so strong, it seems to transcend the narrative itself: this is the image of nine powerful women who have grown famous partly because we want to look at them—and not just men but women too—returning our gaze in such a starkly assertive manner that we feel naked and self-conscious. It’s a stance that responds to the entire process of transforming Girls’ Generation into images.

It is rather like Lacan’s notion of the gaze: by our ability to look at something and turn it into an object, we ourselves become aware of our own susceptibility to being objectified. Kaja Silverman uses this concept in discussing the painting “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger. The painting contains an optical illusion that seems out of place considering its relatively mundane subject matter. If we stand in a particular spot in relation to the painting, we see that what formerly appeared to be a vague sliver instead becomes a skull. This skull is thus always waiting inside this painting to catch our gaze and throw it back at us, reminding us of our own status as potential objects and of our mortality. In the video for “Paparazzi,” Girls’ Generation do something similar, catching our gaze and throwing it back at us, accepting their status as image-objects and commerce (though not fully reduced to being commodities) but also embracing their life and their resilience within late capitalism. They can be commodified but they can still retain their autonomy. This is why it is so important that the song is an ode to their star life: they may be partial commodities, but they get to live a dream life, dress up in fancy clothes, and pretend to be goddesses. I don’t know about you, but it sounds pretty awesome to me.

At the end of the video, the “Singin’ in the Rain” music returns after briefly appearing before their performance begins. The music both places Girls’ Generation firmly within the realm of fantasy—they are stars like Gene Kelly—and reaffirms their own happiness despite the rigors and trials of a star’s life. Most importantly, it provides the perfect musical backdrop for the video’s finale: the women of Girls’ Generation dance, one by one, off the stage. But rather than appearing to go backstage, where they would presumably change their clothing and then drive off somewhere else, they seem to dissolve into the image itself, as if inhabiting this very special and very beautiful world they’ve created, one that is so exquisitely delicate and impossibly elegant. You, the audience, can try to own whatever part of the image you want—and if it is not sold, the paparazzi can capture it for you—but Girls’ Generation are still in control of that image, fading into the background whenever they choose to reassert their own privacy. This is a model for life in late capitalism and in an environment where images proliferate out of our control. And at the very least, Girls’ Generation can be proud to have created something truly beautiful: when images rule the land, that is the greatest achievement possible.

2. f(x) - “Electric Shock

Desiring-machines are binary machines, obeying a binary law or set of rules governing associations: one machine is always coupled with another. The productive synthesis, the production of production, is inherently connective in nature: “and …” “and then …” This is because there is always a flow-producing machine, and another machine connected to it that interrupts or draws off part of this flow (the breast—the mouth). And because the first machine is in turn connected to another whose flow it interrupts or partially drains off, the binary series is linear in every direction. Desire constantly couples continuous flows and partial objects that are by nature fragmentary and fragmented. Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn, and breaks the flows.
—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Desiring-machines is the concept developed by Deleuze and Guattari to talk about desire in terms that broke from Freud and moved beyond conceiving of desire in terms of lack (“I desire X because I lack X”). Instead, Deleuze and Guattari conceive of desire as productive: “Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack its object. It is, rather, the subject that is missing in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject; there is no fixed subject unless there is repression.” For Deleuze and Guattari, desire is a creative force, constantly finding new ways to interact with the world (“connections”), but in our society, desire doesn’t function like this because of various forces and social phenomena, among them the oedipalization of our sexualities (fitting our desire into the Oedipal structure and therefore creating lack, placing us into roles where our desires are already delineated for us, requiring us only to fill in this lack—which of course doesn’t work out all that well, for a number of reasons).

As Deleuze and Guattari write, “desiring-machines work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down.” Hence, we have sexuality and desire conceived in terms of an “electric shock” in f(x)’s song of the same name. Take a look at the first verse:
The electric shocks are flowing down my body
About to faint, risky, electrifying
It’s enough, your love is too much for me
I know you violently value me

This is positively Deleuzo-Guattarian in flavor (right down to the invocation of “flows,” a core concept of theirs)! “Electric Shock” understands sexual desire—let’s leave love out of it at the moment, because while it is important overall in what “Electric Shock” is getting at, the song is primarily about sexual desire—in terms of this process of constantly breaking down, desire acting upon us as it grips our bodies (not only the desire that f(x) sing about but the desire we experiencing while listening to the song). The lyrics repeatedly compare the body to a machine (one that could only be called a desiring-machine): “I’ve already gone past the limit,” “Set the voltage, love me.” And this machine is one that is being broken down—shocks are a sign that something has gone wrong, that everything is not functioning “properly.” But it is also the entire purpose of this machine to break down and feel pleasure in this destructive way: “There is no desiring-machine capable of being assembled without demolishing entire social sectors.”

The song embodies this attitude towards desire perfectly. Like a lot of f(x) songs, it is built out of repetition and simple structures. Its structure is visceral and direct, making more complex song structures appear repressive by comparison. Not everyone likes f(x); you either get them or you don’t. But when you really connect with this song—again, there is the Deleuzo-Guattarian “connection”—it sends shivers of pleasure through you, much like the five women of f(x) are describing themselves feeling in terms of sexual desire. The chorus itself is a monster, pulsing and vibrating its way to your pleasure centers. Throughout the song, there is much stuttering and repetition, which gives you the feeling of both a circuit and of production-in-process (words, sounds, and pleasures forming in the moment, not composed precisely beforehand, turning on and off like switches).

To reiterate what Deleuze and Guattari write: “Desire constantly couples continuous flows and partial objects that are by nature fragmentary and fragmented. Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn, and breaks the flows.” Partial objects refer to the concept developed by Melanie Klein to describe, for instance, the infant’s attachment to his mother’s breast. Deleuze and Guattari use the term to describe forms of desire that transcend (or rather, precede) Oedipal sexuality (“partial objects are molecular functions of the unconscious”). Deleuze and Guattari describe partial objects as “that world of explosions, rotations, vibrations.” They are trying to get at the conception of a kind of desire not centered around “whole” objects (e.g. the Mother), because in a world of only partial objects (body parts, bodily processes, discrete actions, etc.), “nothing is lacking, nothing can be defined as a lack.” The fact that they are “partial” (i.e. a breast is part of a larger body) is not relevant to Deleuze and Guattari, who praise a form of desire consisting of flows within a permanently fragmented world of (partial) objects. 

"Electric Shock" is something like the musical equivalent of this. It may lack the strong structure or rigorous complexity of other, more conventional songs, but in listening to it, we are encouraged to fixate on individual elements that give us pleasure and hook us in. In fact, "Electric Shock" reminds me of being a child and how I used to listen to music then, zeroing in on specific sections without worrying about the idea of a "complete" song that functioned as a whole (this is a pretty rudimentary description of Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking applied to music, and of course, the desire of children, pre-Oedipal desire, is critical to their whole project, because it exists in a realm before our attachment to partial objects was repressed). At that age, I especially loved repetitive music like this, but when you grow up, it somehow feels "wrong" to enjoy one- or two-second snippets of a song: people would look at you like a crazy person if you kept replaying the same few seconds of a song.

Not that I actually would do that now, but I’ll certainly listen to “Electric Shock” and enjoy every single “nanana” and “E-E-E.” “Electric Shock” sounds like a song that takes the pleasure we derive from music on the most micro-level and lays it bare, a fragmented world of continuous flows. And so of course it’s a song about desire. The reason I said earlier that it’s not really a “love song” is because this is desire as pure affect, preceding any social use or context. The fact that, in the song, f(x) sings to the “doctor” “What is this? I’m out of breath and I have a fever” suggests that this kind of instinctive, pre-conscious desire somehow feels wrong and improper (because we don’t control it). We are the desiring-machines constantly breaking down, and it feels like we need to be fixed. Of course, Deleuze and Guattari would champion this state—they argue, for instance, that schizophrenics are “created” through repression—but it’s definitely something “dangerous” (as an electric shock could be). This is why Deleuze and Guttari speak about desire as revolutionary (“no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy being compromised”). But in the moment, when we experience this desire, or when we listen to “Electric Shock,” it sure does feel really good.

3. Big Bang - “Monster

I was kind of annoyed by the Singles Jukebox’s coverage of this song. I guess it’s probably not a good sign of how insular K-pop can tend to be, but I felt like some people misread this song, seeing it through the lens of Western pop, where such a song would be an opportunity for the group to play the bad boys (but then again, they already have the masterful “Bad Boy”). K-pop appeals to me because the girls can act hard and the boys can act soft, so here we have a classic boy band trope played to its fullest: the point of “Monster,” it seems to me, is to provoke sympathy and even pity among the audience, who weeps not for the group’s monstrousness but for how wounded they sound, capable of thinking that they are monsters (when every fan is so firmly convinced that they are the greatest beings on the planet). Even given this interpretation, it’d be possible to read cynicism into this: are Big Bang just playing the self-pitying nice guys who score with women because they provoke precisely this sympathy (with the implication that this stance is fundamentally dishonest)?

As you can tell, the relationship between a pop group and its fans can often resemble a romantic relationship, an extended period of flirtation followed by more formal courting. The extent to which we “believe” in any given song mirrors the way a woman might believe in a man’s seduction of her (and as with any seduction, there’s always an interplay between our desire to believe and our awareness of the game). But “Monster” is not really a game: I think it’s rather impossible to enjoy the song unless you firmly believe in the sincerity of each member’s singing. In that sense, it’s a very traditional song perhaps—it even sounds rather timeless—and it creates the image of something firm for us to believe in, an expression of love’s power measured in the pain it causes to our five singers. Everything about it suggests an artful approach to song and expression that is not very much in vogue in the West today (like “Blue” but unlike “Fantastic Baby” or “Bad Boy”): “Monster” has more in common with a soliloquy in a play than it does with the directness of most Western pop today, where the artist is explicitly offering an image and identity to us to take as our own or reject. “Monster” isn’t directed towards us but towards its love object, and we in the audience occupy a privileged position wherein which we are able to glimpse this expression. This is the very definition of intimacy: to see a person express something of himself that is normally hidden from the public gaze. Our role as the audience is to watch this spectacle and affirm its genuine nature… and to feel so moved that all we can do is swoon.

4. Jo Kwon - “Animal

When Jo Kwon performed “Animal” live, he did so wearing 19.5 cm high heels (which converts to about 7.7 inches). (Here’s some video of that performance.) I mention that because it’s almost impossible to separate this performance from the song itself. I think I’ve heard more speculation about Jo Kwon’s sexuality than I’ve heard about any other K-pop idol, and of course, when you watch him perform, it’s almost like he’s daring us to speculate. But really, “Animal” is not about one’s sexuality at all. It’s about gender expression, and the really stunning thing about the song and its live performances is the way Jo Kwon balances masculinity and femininity. He makes the former lithe, the latter fiercely powerful. Above all, “Animal” is about freedom of expression, the need to be able to do anything you want because you simply cannot be tied down and boxed in. If Jo Kwon wants to perform in gigantic heels, he’s going to do so, and not only that, but he’s going to make it look awesome and impressive.

"I’m an animal," Jo Kwon sings in the chorus. We might say that human beings are socialized, civilized animals, which suggests that animals are instinctually more honest and free, incapable of doing anything other than expressing themselves naturally. This is something of a red herring, though: Jo Kwon uses the naturalistic implications of what it means to be an "animal" to add ferocity to his otherwise idiosyncratic form of expression. And as this is a dance song ("The disco ball makes me free"), he convinces us of the value of this form of expression through his live performance. Watch the practice video for this performance, and you will see a man dually embodying the masculine and feminine in a manner that is positively intoxicating. Perhaps men in our (American) culture might want to ridicule Jo Kwon after seeing this, but you can clearly see that he is a rather muscular guy, easily demonstrating strength. But take a look at his lower body, and he moves with the supple grace of a diva, not unlike a performance by Beyoncé (who, frankly, would be impressed if she saw this guy perform).

Everything about “Animal” is cognitively dissonant in subtle ways. The beat (courtesy of Swedish DJ and producer Avicii) is rubbery and pounding, providing the perfectly buoyant surface for Jo Kwon. Every time he seems to stray into the territory of camp, he pulls himself back and demonstrates such a musical toughness, creating a fearsome effect. The song would be nothing if we didn’t somehow believe his assertion in the chorus, but unlike with “Monster,” it does actually sound like we’re listening to someone becoming wild and unhinged. Thus, Jo Kwon reroutes feminine modes of expression to produce masculine effects; rather than parodying femininity, he uses it rather remarkably to amplify his own masculinity. And he’s fully in control here, using the spectacle of near-drag-like performance to draw in and capture our attention, commanding the audience with his presence: the fact that he performs in those heels makes him appear strong rather than effeminate, because few man could watch that and feel capable of duplicating such a feat.

5. Sistar - “Loving U

Sistar are really showing their versatility, following up the heartbreak-disco isolationism of “Alone” with the most delightfully summery K-pop song we’ve heard yet in 2012. The video for “Loving U” was filmed in Hawaii, which is perfect as this is sun-dappled pop at its finest. When I first watched the video, I loved the part right before the bridge when you hear seagulls and the sound of the waves crashing against a beach. It seemed perfect for this song, which transports you to this very place so well that you feel you can step out into it while listening to the song. And I was delighted to find that this part actually occurs in the song too (not just the video): it’s like pop striving for the quality of an aural document of a place. Everything about “Loving U” is the opposite of “Alone”: perfect summery cheer replacing never-ending loneliness. “Loving U” is a song of perfect surfaces, like staring out at a beautifully calm ocean. There’s the funk guitar that opens the song and Hyorin’s impossibly lovely vocalizing at the end, but my favorite part is Bora’s rapping after the first chorus, simultaneously a bit of aegyo at its finest, while retaining sufficient attitude to come off sounding tough and carefree.

6. Wonder Girls - “Like This

"Like This" was another song that I felt was underrated on the Singles Jukebox. Written and co-produced by label head and all-around pop whiz JYP, “Like This” is hopscotching, playground pop that is deceptively simple. Most of what’s great about it is in the rhythm, a daintily girl yet snappy groove that has all the heft and precision of click-clacking high heels but that also feels tough and street-smart. The video, of course, is a real delight, a simple but effective illustration of “pop utopianism.” You create a dance song, you perform it, and you get others to dance with you: somehow, through the democratic spirit of the dance floor, the distinction between idol and fans, performer and audience, disappears (or at least blurs). Like every great pop song, it’s a gift to the audience that no longer belongs to its creators. I feel like I’m missing out, though, on truly enjoying this song because I’m only ever listening to it alone, whereas it practically begs to be played amongst a group of people, danced to. Even though I’m listing this at #6 for June, in any other month it would have easily made the top five; it’s just that June has been a particularly strong month for K-pop. “Like This” should also remind us all yet again how much Yubin’s voice is one of K-pop’s greatest treasures.

7. Boyfriend - “Love Style

Along with After School’s “Rip Off,” “Love Style” has been bringing some genuine New Wave sounds into K-pop. Combining that synth-heavy, nervy sound with ultra-smooth vocals, “Love Style” creates an interesting hybrid, one that in tone and effect doesn’t have all that much to do with 80s pop from the U.S. or the U.K. As with what I was saying about Big Bang’s “Monster,” this is a song that you must view as a form of flirtation and courting. “Love Style” is bright and shiny pop with serious feminist credentials: “The love style that you want,” Boyfriend sing, “I’ll be it now now now.” I mean, if your group is called Boyfriend, it makes sense. Here are some more lyrics:
If you want a love, prettier than memories (I’ll give it to you)
If you want a love, prettier than a movie (I’ll give it to you)
If you want a person, stronger than others (I’ll be that person)
If you want a person, who won’t make you cry

Me me me me me me
Me me me me me me
That’s me

Girl groups might try something like this, but it might end up sounding a little creepy and too-eager, but coming from a sweet and cuddly boy band, it’s a nice message, full of enthusiasm rather than a dour sense of duty (they are doing this for you because they want to, not because they have to). So while groups like Girl’s Day may bombard male fans with cutesy and adorable imagery, they push it into extreme realms where it becomes chaotic and anarchic. Boyfriend can do what they do in “Love Style” without neuroticism because there’s no expectation that men should act this way; in fact, they get away with being assholes quite often. Boyfriend portray themselves as going above and beyond what’s expected, all for love like perfect gentlemen, and they shame every other heterosexual male nearby by just being so into it.

8. After School - “Flashback

After School have had a quietly strong year so far, partly because much of their activity has been in Japan, where they released the very strong “Rambling Girls,” followed by “Dilly Dally.” They also released their first Japanese album and then this Korean single/EP (which is quite strong, particularly “Rip Off”). “Flashback” is a chirpy, hyper-driven, and monochrome banger not unlike Rainbow’s “Gonna Gonna Go,” although After School have always had a harder, more glamorous persona than Rainbow. I must admit I have a hard time getting a read on them, even though they have produced at least two legitimate K-pop classics: “Bang!" and "Shampoo.” Their sound is usually heavily electronic, certainly here on the dubsteppy “Flashback,” but where their best songs have distinct musical identities (“Bang!“‘s drumline stomp, the synthy elegance of “Shampoo”), “Flashback” is most effective in the small touches: the sighing coos, the cute-tough sweetness of the “baby” right before the chorus, and the nervous stuttering of the chorus (“b-b-boy I miss you,” they sing with beating-heart trepidation).

9. Gangkiz - “Mama

K-pop goes Ennio Morricone (as filtered through Asian action film soundtracks, perhaps?). Rookie group Gangkiz follow up the strong release of their debut EP with a repackaging of it, producing a song stronger than anything on the original. Pleading and tortured but kind of badass overall, “Mama” would not sound out of place in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and it benefits from a strong, no-nonsense dance video that unabashedly revels in bare midriff. But it’s hard out there for a rookie group (unless you’re, say, EXO-K or B.A.P), because while I think Gangkiz have released some very strong music, I still don’t have a good sense of their identity as a group. I am, however, expecting something really great from their next release.

10. Crayon Pop - “Bing Bing”
(can’t find an mp3 for this one yet)

Crayon Pop are another rookie group, and I can’t find much information about them. Their label is Chrome Entertainment, a label that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have any other groups associated with it. But I was pleasantly surprised with this single. “Mama” may be the stronger single overall, but I think “Bing Bing” has a little more personality than Gangkiz (who sound just a tad composed in comparison). I imagine that years from now, someone will release the K-pop equivalent of Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection or Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era—we’re gonna need at least four discs!—and I could see a song like this making it into the collection. It has a retro feel, and the girls of Crayon Pop really put their all into their performance. And the video is super-adorable, with fun fashion and silly dance moves. If I had to describe them, I would say they are a cross between A Pink and 4minute.

download all of June 2012 K-pop (minus “Bing Bing”)