Aug 8, 2012

10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in July 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. 2NE1 - “I Love You

"I Love You" takes a theme that is familiar in pop music, unrequited love, and uses it to explore one of the great themes of art in general, the unbridgeable gap between ourselves and others. Those who experience the pains of unrequited love don’t just suffer because they are not loved. They also feel the anguish of their love object not knowing how they feel (because in that moment, what they feel is the most important thing in the world): in "I Love You," CL and Minzy both sing "Why don’t you know how I feel? / I still don’t know how you feel too." To suffer from love is to want to get inside the other person’s head, to feel exactly what they are feeling. In essence, it is to merge completely with them, or failing that, to switch places (the subject of Kate Bush’s song "Running Up That Hill"). Structurally, the circular "I Love You," which makes us want to listen to it over and over again, expresses that there is no way out from feeling like this, because quite simply, there is no way for the space between ourselves and others to be eliminated, even if it can be lessened. In this song, the women of 2NE1 occupy a completely liminal position, unable to step back out of love (because when is that ever possible?) but shuddering with fear that they will never find what they are looking for: "I’m still scared of love / So give me your trust."

It’s worthwhile to point out that this is the type of pop song a man would have a difficult time pulling off. This is because women are already automatically coded as vulnerable and because their relationship with men is, generally speaking, an imbalanced one. This is something that drew the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder to female characters. He felt that men were boring and predictable; they always did what was right or what they felt they had to do. Women were more capable of acting unpredictably, of giving themselves fully to the sway of emotions in the moment. It isn’t that he saw them as fragile (i.e. “weak”), it’s that he admired their prowess in being vulnerable, the strength with which they asserted this. One need only watch the scene in Lola where the eponymous character (played by Barbara Sukowa) is discovered to be a cabaret singer and prostitute by the man she is wooing (by pretending to be a “respectable” lady): rather than wilt with shame when she notices him in the crowd, she proceeds to perform a wild and uproarious number, almost as a “fuck you” to the world, refusing to be judged. There’s no guarantee that the world won’t crush a woman like Lola, but she refuses to be pitied, exposing herself fully (emotionally and physically) because there is strength in that too.

After watching the video for “I Love You,” I remarked that CL would be a perfect Fassbinder heroine. She combines that very same strength and vulnerability, and she is very much the star of this song. When she sings “I said ooh-ooh-ooh, jiltuhage haji mayo / Ooh-ooh-ooh, jipchakhage haji mayo” (“I said ooh-ooh-ooh, don’t make me jealous / Ooh-ooh-ooh, don’t make me become obsessed”), she stretches out that “ooh-ooh-ooh” in a way not unlike what Adele does throughout “Rolling in the Deep.” The latter song accomplishes something very similar to what I’m talking about here. When Adele stretches out the word “all” in “We could have had it all” or “deep” in “Rolling in the deep,” she allows her voice to wander out from safety to a very vulnerable place. It’s almost like the voice itself steps out of the shadows and onto center stage, naked and exposed in front of the audience. In that moment of the held note, Adele loses herself in her emotion, shedding all protection. CL’s “ooh-ooh-ooh” does this too: her voice becomes exposed and raw, exhibiting different shades of emotion, each telling a story like the rings of a tree might.

The same thing occurs during the “I love you” chorus, sung by Dara and Bom: these singers are putting something out there, throwing caution to the wind because they are so gripped by this emotion. It’s crucial to understand that while the song and its chorus might appear obedient and polite—after all, this is what girl groups are supposed to express, right: their devotion to the presumed male listener—it is actually very much in the vein of 2NE1’s previous songs, which emphasized a “girl power”-esque brand of strength and unyielding toughness. The “I love you” chorus is a confession, not a gift, and it’s one that we understand is not being returned (not yet anyways). On top of that, as sung by Dara and Bom, it attains a singular uniqueness: this is not the rote repetition of the phrase “I love you” but instead one of those cases where the phrase wants to seem spoken for the first time, the discovery of emotions and their utterance in a single gesture. There’s not only “I love you (but you don’t love me)” but also “I love you (and this love could never be duplicated, because it is my way of loving and no one else’s).”

As with all of 2NE1’s music, the individual voices are used by Teddy Park, the group’s main songwriter and producer, like an artist might use paint. Dara’s prickly, sweet-and-sour vocals give a bittersweet texture to the way love is sung about here. Bom’s characteristic way of making notes sound like they are uncontrollably leaping out of her convey the impossibility of holding back an admission of love. And then there’s Minzy’s youthful, precocious eagerness. She couples unquenchable desire with a willingness to throw herself into love, beginning the song with a request (“Only be good to me / Only always smile at me”) that suggests her endearing naiveté (believing innocently that the power of one’s experience of love ensures that everything will work out in the end). But at the center of “I Love You” is CL, whose combination of strength (only she could pull off the “look at me now” interjection) and vulnerability makes her an eminently modern heroine. On the one hand, she embodies the “independent woman” trope of contemporary femininity. Independence is crucial, no doubt, but on the other hand, as valuable as it is, it does nothing to solve the problem of the gap separating us from who we love, a gap which makes us all supremely “independent.” “I Love You” is the sound of that irreconcilable tension between independence and connection, strength and vulnerability.

2. Wonder Girls - “Like Money

I think “Like Money” is the most misunderstood K-pop song of July. The Singles Jukebox reviewed it and gave it a fairly low score. Their reactions point to one of the growing problems with K-pop’s engagement with the West (but principally the United States, as K-pop has already become fairly popular, relatively speaking, in various European countries). It’s understood that some groups might have a hard time breaking through in the West because their sound and image is so foreign (like, say, Girls’ Generation, who are distinctly more “cute” than we normally tolerate in the West), but when other groups try to craft a sound that adapts the K-pop palette for the West, as with Wonder Girls’ English-language “Like Money,” they get accused of sounding like carbon copies. Either you sound unique but worthy of being ignored because Westerners lack a sense of familiarity, or you sound somewhat familiar but worthy of being dismissed as imitators. And if you’re singing in English, as the Wonder Girls do here, and have a guest star recognizable to pop listeners (e.g. Akon), you are really just begging to be put back in your place (“How dare you?”) and punished for not understanding the pecking order. Even though we condescend to our own pop music, it scares us to think foreigners might be encroaching upon that space.

More specifically, the meaning of “Like Money” has just been very misunderstood. It’s understandable, given that the Wonder Girls appeared in a TeenNick TV movie, that some might assume the song to be mostly lightweight, vapid pop, too-immature girls pretending to be vamps. But the song is so much more than that, perhaps the darkest K-pop song so far this year. There’s a certain unmistakable genius in its “Love me like money” chorus, but this isn’t more of Western pop’s gluttonous decadence. Instead, it’s more like a mirror held up to us—late capitalist pop art par excellence—that exposes what happens when, as within capitalism, we consider everything in terms of its exchange value. If we have meant to make it clear that there are certain things more valuable than money—or more to the point: valuable irregardless of their worth in terms of currency—we have done a rather poor job of it. “Like Money” is the very bed we made for ourselves, and now we must lie in it.

It’s not just that love and money are put on the same stage, though. What “Like Money” gets at is something far more insidious, which is that love has become treated, in the contemporary world, like a game of calculations (as with a cost-benefit analysis). The latter is the subtext. The text itself—”I’m more precious than pearls,” “My heart is a treasure,” “Hold me like diamonds,” etc.—purports to tell us how valuable each of the Wonder Girls is, comparing them to objects of great value. That’s all well and good, something that’s been done many times before. But “Like Money” possesses an aura of cool, joyless calculation. There is, after all, a very real transaction that takes place in this song, i.e. between the Wonder Girls and Akon. I don’t mean to imply the transaction between them (or rather, their management) behind the scenes; what I’m talking about is much more simple and literal. It also explains why Akon is crucial to the song (even though most commenters thought he was superfluous at best, potentially even ruinous to the song). The first iteration of the song’s chorus (“Love me like money…”) is sung by Yenny and Sun. It is later repeated, nearly identically by Akon in the second chorus, but it is altered: he is saying not how he wants to be loved but how he will love the Wonder Girls (“Love you like money…”).

Akon has taken their instructions and now intends to follow them. Tell me how you want to be loved and I will love you that way. This is a lot colder and less courteous than it sounds. In Yubin’s verse, she raps
Look, boy, I’ve been through some things
Seen a little sunshine, seen a little rain
My heart’s been through some pain
And I don’t wanna go back through with it again
So I’m letting you know upfront
If you plan on being the one
Listen to my instructions
'Cause I'ma teach you how to love
There’s a transactional quality here too: compared to the vulnerability of 2NE1’s “I Love You,” “Like Money” is entirely closed-off, hardened and weary from the pain of love, and perhaps unwilling to take much of a chance in the future. This is a capitalist economics of love, where two parties come together to minimize risk and maximize profit. While our culture prizes communication between partners as essential to any healthy relationship, “Listen to my instructions” is not that. The subtext here is “Love me how I tell you to love me, and if you don’t, I will drop you, because you are essentially interchangeable.” Not that Yubin is being a “bitch” or anything: her reservation is understandable, approaching this verse from the standpoint of someone who has been hurt too many times before. The tricky thing about that is it tends to negate any sense of unconditional love, which still seems to be a value we collectively hold (even if we struggle to achieve it).

In this sense, “I Love You” and “Like Money” are each the inverse of the other. The former expresses a near-constant awareness of the pain of loving someone (especially if the love is not returned), yet soldiers on, drawing strength from a commitment to unconditional love despite the potential hopelessness of the situation. “Like Money” boils love down to contracts and agreements, a cold exchange of vows between forever independent parties. And there’s no sense of rejoicing in this state of affairs: “Like Money” is not only dark and subversive, it’s also depressing. And it ends conveying, more than anything else, the desire to break free from this, so while the “Love me like money” chorus may appear shallow (whether intentionally, as subversion, or unintentionally, as zeitgeist-channeling cash-in), the dominant feeling of the song shifts from “like money” to “love me”: as Sun sings the final iteration of the chorus, we hear Yenny’s powerful background vocals proclaiming over and over “Love me!” By the time the song has ended, this cry for help stands out as the song’s emotional crest, triumphing over the chorus’ crass accounting.

This layer of the song’s meaning ties into how I view the music video. In it, we see the Wonder Girls as lifelike robots, created by none other than JYP (who appears in a wonderful cameo). I like to read this as K-pop’s retelling of the Frankenstein story, with JYP in the role of Dr. Frankenstein and the Wonder Girls as the monsters. In fact, K-pop often uses music video concepts in which a girl group becomes unexpectedly monstrous, despite their overall cuteness (see also: T-ara’s video for “Yayaya" or "Twinkle Twinkle" by Girl’s Day). On the one hand, it works as an interesting statement about the K-pop industry and pop music in general. Here we have the criticism that pop music is merely "manufactured" depicted in the most literal manner imaginable and turned on its head. Because when people say this, they mostly mean that the pop stars lack autonomy, being mere creations of the tyrannical label or producer. In the "Like Money" video, it’s not like this at all: JYP creates the Wonder Girls, but they are too powerful to be controlled by any man. Even Akon, whose stature dwarfs that of the Wonder Girls worldwide, looks weary and resigned in the video, most of the time not even facing the camera. His role in this song and video is literally to follow instructions and repeat the Wonder Girls’ words back to him. They are firmly in charge here, and he, exhausted, is merely playing catch-up.

And if the Wonder Girls are Frankenstein’s monsters, they are distinguished by their insatiable hunger for love. In the opening verse, Sohee sings “My heart is screaming out,” asserting that “I deserve all you got, babe.” Following her, Lim sings “Give me all you got, I want everything” with enough conviction that we might actually believe she really means “everything” (i.e. there’s no end to her hunger for love). What defines the relationship between a pop idol and her/his fans is its oddly one-sided nature. We see so much of them, but they usually see nothing of us. We experience the greatest of intimacy as we share moments with them—and the more obsessive we are, the more we search the internet for information and photos of them, creating a mental data bank dedicated exclusively to them—but no matter how much love we show them, we rarely feel that it is returned. For the most part, this doesn’t bother most fans; in fact, it’s precisely what makes this relationship so powerful, especially for those of us whose need to give love outweighs his/her needs to receive it. Because of this relationship, the pop idol can seem like an insatiably love-hungry figure. Lim’s “I want everything” is literal: give me all of your attention (“Hold me like diamonds / Treat me like a star”). The irony here for those who are most critical of pop: the idol-fan relationship more closely resembles the unconditional love that this song yearns for than the actual, more realistically calculating love it depicts (and which plagues the modern world).

3. T-ara - “Day by Day

In a few months, who knows, perhaps T-ara won’t even exist anymore. It’s a shame, because I really like them as a group, though I never really bothered to figure out who is who, which is why when this scandal broke, I didn’t even know which one Hwayoung was. I still don’t even totally understand it, and I don’t really have much to say, so let’s talk about this song…

One of my favorite things about K-pop is the way it incorporates rapping into a very classical sense of song craft. The rapping in “Day by Day” functions as a well-integrated element of the song, not as a frivolous ornament. This is very different from the way rapping is incorporated into pop songs in the West. And I guess I can’t not talk about Hwayoung here because she’s the one doing the rapping! Her sing-song rapping plays into the song’s tone perfectly, kicking it off with a lightly galloping rhythm that suits its adventuresome, searching, and calmly desperate feel. As her verse ends, with the words “day by day” (“Kiss me, my baby / Before this night is over, hurry to me day by day”), her voice trails off into a delicate whisper: here rapping conveys intimacy, not boisterous swagger, like words spoken softly to one’s lover. This is echoed in the section after the chorus where Boram/Qri sing another delicate near-rap—I especially like the way they sing the words “haru haru” (“day by day”) with breathless hurriedness. Hwayoung’s rhythmic patter contrasts nicely with the sung parts that follow, which slow the tempo and give the song a lovely sense of simmering restraint. Adding to the song’s dreamy, hazy feel is the weirdo Engrish of the chorus: “Kiss me, baby, I’ll must be stay here day by day.” It’s not perfect, but you want to sing out this nonsensical sentence because it’s shrouded in such a mystical aura.

"Day by Day" is a love song, but it’s a flavor of love song that is quite different from what we’re used to with K-pop. For one, there is the backing track, which conjures up images of not only Renaissance faires but also, for me, video games. I specifically think of Final Fantasy III (known as Final Fantasy VI in Japan) and how when I was really young, I was kind of in love with the character Terra. What I’m getting at is that “Day by Day” has a kind of dreamy feel, like an out-of-this world fantasy. This is acknowledged by the music video, which constructs a whole 10-minute sci-fi story around the track. Sometimes, fantasies like this are not about escaping our own world but about giving the emotions we feel a proper setting, one dramatic enough to sustain them. The “Day by Day” video is somewhat confusing, but there are enough wonderful moments in it to justify its existence. I particularly like the love story plot between Dani and Hyomin, during which the video essentially becomes a lesbian romance. I mean, I get how you could explain as something other than a lesbian love story, but come on! (Incidentally, I’m wondering if they used a lesbian angle here in order to sexualize Dani, the new 14-year-old member, without making the whole thing seem overtly perverse, as it would if she was being taken care of by a man in the video instead of Hyomin. Here we have a beautiful romance but one chaste enough to seem innocent because there’s no threat of anything “too gay” happening in a K-pop video.)

4. GLAM - “Party (XXO)

At times, I want to award this song the #1 spot on this monthly wrap-up because it just came out of nowhere for me, becoming K-pop’s best surprise of July. GLAM are on a label called Big Hit Entertainment, which I guess is a subsidiary of JYP Entertainment. I haven’t heard a lot of hype or promotion surrounding them, and actually, I first found out about them on Tumblr. Someone had put up a video of this song (from a live performance, before the official music video even came out) with some commentary about how this is K-pop’s first explicit song about same-sex love. So naturally, I was all ears. But the cleverly named “Party (XXO)” (clever because Google-searching “glam party” will not turn up anything on this group, but “glam party xxo” certainly will) is so much more than a gimmick, and in fact, the song wears its same-sex theme only lightly. Nonetheless, it is pretty unmistakable: the first words of the opening verse are “Can I kiss you, baby girl?”

"Party (XXO)" does something that I’ve praised K-pop songs for in the past: it captures the energy and joy of being "in the club" (or at a party) without sounding deadened and debauched. In its recurring refrain "Party’s a heartbeat away" it folds its two themes (having fun, love’s gender-blindness) into one another to create a purely pop utopian space: the free love espoused by the group seems to carry them further into their dance-party frenzy, a form of righteous, unprejudiced partying—”anyone can be a Romeo.” One need only look at the crazed energy of their live performances (see, for instance, this one, which is honestly one of the best live performances I’ve seen in all of K-pop) to see that this is a song (and group) that emanates joy. Formally, this is evident in the song’s pure inventiveness: I tweeted that the singers/rappers manage to approximate, in vocal tone, not only Nicki Minaj but also Life Without Building’s Sue Tompkins… and if you know me, you can probably imagine that I fell in love with it instantly because of that. For evidence of K-pop at its most creative—throwing the rulebook out the window and letting itself be guided less by hierarchic aesthetic and more by pure instinct—look no further than “Party (XXO).” These girls need to keep on making music for many years.

5. PSY - “Gangnam Style

Perhaps the biggest story in K-pop throughout July, aside from maybe the T-ara drama, is the viral spread of “Gangnam Style,” particular its music video, in the West. Gawker covered it, CNN covered it, and T-Pain and Josh Groban, among others, have tweeted about it. The strange thing (to me at least) is that everyone who watches the video thinks it’s just about the best thing ever. I mean, I’m happy for K-pop in general and PSY specifically, but I’m just kind of surprised by this response. And I think a lot of those with a perspective from within K-pop are too. Idols try so hard to be perfect and poised, but here’s this chubby guy with a goofy video who surpasses them all. It’s ironic, considering that PSY is relatively unique within K-pop, so while the exposure is great, will it really get people to pay more attention to K-pop in general? Perhaps not, but I feel like all of us K-pop fans should be a little proud that the hottest video of July (I mean, that’s what it is, right?) came from Korea.

Of course, the video for “Gangnam Style” really is great, no doubt about that. Specifically, it’s just a really well-shot and well-edited video. You may not think about that technical side of things, considering how comical it is, but it’s absolutely essential: most of the jokes and humorous moments draw their impact from the fact that the people who shot it and edited it really know what they are doing (which is largely true for K-pop videos in general). But you don’t really need me to talk about the video, which transcends commentary. (Okay, one more thing: somehow, when female idols do PSY’s little horsey dance, I find it incomparably sexier than many of the dances they do in their videos, but then again, Hyuna (who is featured in the video) is always at her sexiest when she lets her guard down and acts a little goofy. And I especially love this live version of “Gangnam Style” because seeing Hyorin doing the horsey dance is something I needed in my life.) The Singles Jukebox was surprisingly split on “Gangnam Style,” and many of the dissenters seemed to imply that while the video is great, the song itself isn’t really so worthwhile. I disagree with this on two levels. For one, it seems an injustice to separate the song from the video (something which, notably, The Singles Jukebox didn’t do when they reviewed Le1f’s “Wut”). I think it’s indicative of an aesthetic bias to view a song so narrowly (as just an aural document, as pure sound). “Gangnam Style” is not just a song, but it’s also not just a video either: it’s a performance, with a dance and a social context (and I don’t just mean in terms of lyrics). Divorce the song from PSY himself and what are you really listening to? The myth of pure sonic abstraction is silly anyways. This is one reason why the video has become so popular: “Gangnam Style” is a work of art that transcends the medium of the song, in the same way that opera does, for instance. PSY’s personality is integral to the song, and unlike many other K-pop songs, it’s hard to imagine how “Gangnam Style” could be interesting without him (unless it’s some form of direct parody that ultimately references him).

Which leads me to my next point: even if we consider “Gangnam Style” as merely what you hear coming out of your headphones or speakers, it’s still very much deserving of our attention. (Time out: next time I hear a Western music critic compare any K-pop song to LMFAO, I’m going to flip out and y’all are going to have to restrain me!) Again, it’s all about PSY’s personality, but even as a song, “Gangnam Style” is compelling because of the way PSY sells it. He reminds me a lot of Jack Black, partly because they are both chubby, kind of dorky guys who act 100% like they aren’t, without ever acknowledging the irony and mismatch. And as Jack Black proved with this year’s Bernie, he transcends what we usually mean when we say “irony” because he is entirely committed to the sincerity of his performance. This is also true of PSY. We may initially hear “Gangnam Style” as something outrageously goofy, but the more you listen to it, the more you hear PSY’s conviction and sincerity. A work of art might be deemed worthwhile if it allows us to experience some well-worn feeling in an entirely fresh way, as if experiencing it for the first time. If that’s the case, PSY’s “Eh, sexy ladies” refrain more than make “Gangnam Style” qualify. When he sings this, there’s no cheesiness, no awareness of how clichéd his come-on is; instead, he maintains utter conviction in his performance/persona, which here is some kind of cosmic ladies man who’s been sent to Earth to rewire how we think of charisma. The fact that all the charisma of K-pop put together could not have achieved a similar breakthrough in the West suggests that PSY is now the one writing the rules for us.

6. Younha - “Run

In her appearance on the Korean TV show Sketchbook, Younha performed this song, as well as a cover of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” (a pop song I actually like quite a lot). Both performances, but especially the latter, were immensely impressive. Younha has the type of voice you’d want to hear sing anything and everything, and she is also a natural performer, carrying you along with her as she tells a story through each song. As I listen to her latest album, I continue being impressed, especially with the single “Run.” You don’t really need to understand the lyrics other than the one English phrase (“‘Cause I love you”) to grasp the meaning. Younha sings with desperate breathlessness, building up tension before she explodes on the chorus. Her voice soars and effortlessly enters the upper register and just ends up sounding like a pure thing of beauty. Here, flawless virtuosity is used not to show off but to deepen the song’s sense of earnestness: the sense that Younha’s focus is absolute suggests a similarly undying commitment to love (“I want you like this, the one person in the world”). In a just world, this should inspire countless young girls to begin singing careers or else to weep countless rejuvenating tears of love’s faithfulness.

7. BoA - “Only One

"Only One" has a lot in common with "Run," but where the latter is impressive and flashy (without being in the least ostentatious), the work of a hungry young artist, "Only One" is the perfected product of a veteran. BoA is the Queen of K-pop, and this song is an effortless showcase for her mastery of singing (just as the video similarly highlights her absolute mastery of dancing). The song itself is a trifle, most likely something that would be unimpressive in other hands. Indeed, its structure and melody are so simple, but BoA uses this simplicity to her advantage, devouring it entirely, playing with it like putty or like a cat with a ball of yarn. Every vocal inflection is perfectly poised, pushing the melody ahead, then behind the beat like only a master vocalist can. At various moments (such as right before the chorus), BoA lets loose that husky vibrato, fully enveloping the listener with a sound approximating what it feels like to hold back tears. This languorous quiver, rendering tempo meaningless for an instant, seems to me like one of BoA’s trademarks, and I fall for it every time. In these moments, her voice absolutely aches, while at other times, it sounds nimble, almost shining. Either way, BoA’s voice moves like the supple body of a dancer, and when she puts both of these skills together, as in the video for "Only One," a stripped-down performance video, it’s just impossible to deny that she is a master.

8. B2ST - “Beautiful Night

It’s difficult to measure “effort” in a musical performance, though we all seem to believe it exists and can often pinpoint it when we hear it. This suggests that we often cripple our ways of understanding music by divorcing our experience of it from the interpersonal, the active effort of listening to the people singing/performing, attentively searching for signs that they really “mean” what we are hearing. I would say that effort is a huge strength of K-pop, understandable given that there is a greater motivation there than elsewhere to put 110% into every song (because it’s impossible to coast or rest on one’s laurels). “Beautiful Night,” the terrific new single from B2ST, seems a perfect example of effort putting a song over and raising it to something truly great.

There’s nothing too special about the production here. It’s merely functional, which is okay, and in fact, we place too much emphasis on sonic innovation when the track here is clearly meant to provide the ideal foundation for B2ST’s singers. The song is also rather formulaic, surely well-written and energetic, but by itself, nothing that stands out. But the singing here, oh my: each member of B2ST is clearly bringing their A-game, and it seems pretty obvious to me that there is something significant going on effort-wise. Each member contributes something essential and sings with the kind of conviction that pushes this song toward greatness. This is one of the miracles of the medium of song and of pop music: through effort (through putting as much of themselves into something as they possibly can), a group of singers can redeem formula and transform it into something truly special. Formula serves merely as a template, but all the magic happens in the performances here, which exhibit various sides of seduction from the comforting and coy to the cocksure and transcendentally assertive. The result is a kaleidoscopic swirl of beautifully confident masculinity, layered gracefully atop a disco thump.

9. B.A.P - “No Mercy

This is the month I’ve finally understood B.A.P. I’ve liked them before, but I’ve gone through their entire catalog and find myself impressed in ways that I wasn’t before. Put their three EPs together, and you have a stunningly strong full-length. What I failed to understand before is the exact manner in which they combine the various strands of their music: pop, rock, and rap. “No Mercy” has clarified that B.A.P is essentially striving to “rock” from within a pop structure. This isn’t rock pastiche but an attempt to use the tools of pop and rap, within the context of the pop song, to sound like a rock band. I think I was right when I wrote that “Warrior,” their first single, sounded like rock as seen from the perspective of a musical, all performance, but “No Mercy” deepens this oddly abstracted understanding of rock even more. Here they truly achieve rock’s swagger, whether it be through near-operatic vocals, rock chants, or rapping (Yongguk’s gravely baritone complementing Zelo’s impish squeak, one of the more distinct voices in K-pop). Or through the “samul nori” percussion we hear in the bridge, which adds another layer of sonic influence. Everything is rerouted to serve this flamboyant embodiment of (mostly pre-grunge) rock. There’s the hard rock stomp, the hair metal wail, and the cocky strutting of the “glammier” side of rock. Put it together and it’s joyous and wild but entirely in keeping with the rules of pop music.

10. NS Yoon-G - “I Got You

As with “Run” and, in a different way, B.A.P, it’s good to hear more of a rock influence in K-pop (and of course, I can’t fail to mention Maddie’s K-pop/rock mix on the subject). It mixes things up and offers new opportunities for artists to express themselves (and as Maddie writes, rock carries with it certain connotations like “self-expressiveness” and “authenticity”), but more importantly, it makes it clear that K-pop isn’t a genre but an industry and culture that can adapt any number of different sounds and styles. “I Got You” uses rock as a signifier of sincerity and earnestness because it suggests, unlike pop, that the song emanates from a single individual/consciousness, rather than being the product of a team of writers and producers, amplifying the intimacy of the song’s meaning (“I finally caught you, don’t worry, now be happy / If this is a dream, let’s not wake up like this”). This is ironic, of course, because “I Got You” is just as much a product of the K-pop industry, just as Younha’s “Run” is as well (and the latter song pulls this effect off even better). The lesson here, as always, is that rockism is silly. If we go all the way back to the first song on this list, 2NE1’s “I Love You,” can we really say that it feels less personal because the singers themselves did not write it? As with “I Got You,” what matters is what the singer does with what she is given, imprinting her identity onto material that is not entirely in her control, which just seems, if you really think about it, much more true to life than the artist in the guise of the all-powerful creator.

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