I’ve been trying for a long time to write a post about why whether or not an artist can sing live matters so much in spectacle-based pop music, illustrated via the phenomenon of the MR removed video, which removes the vocals-included backing tracks from live performances. It’s sometimes discussed as “a way for fans to properly hear their favourites’ real vocals”, but it’s turned into a sort of test for whether idols can “really sing” or not, with actual singing being preferable to simply breathing and dancing - even if, as in the case of Miss A and “Breathe”, they are literally dancing too hard to sing properly. I was interested in why, in an often visual industry (cf. the number of K-pop group members whose entire purpose is to be “the face”), checking whether or not an idol’s vocals are live or not would be so important to fans. But of course Nitsuh Abebe has beaten me to it, on his way to talking about why some people hate Kreayshawn so much:
In a Village Voice review of the reality show “Platinum Hit”— a sort of “Project Runway” for aspiring songwriters— Mike Barthel hits on something basic about the way people look at pop. “The way music is discussed,” he writes, “seems to reject the idea that it could have emerged any way other than directly from God’s lips to your ears. When people don’t like music, it’s dismissed as being ‘manufactured’ or ‘fake’; the adjectives ‘real’ or ‘organic,’ meanwhile, are positive.”
I’d make one major revision to that idea— I think the source people look for is not God so much as the artist’s “soul.” This, after all, is why so much press about musicians focuses on their back stories, heartbreaks, and tragedies: We like to imagine that the sounds they’re making are some raw, uncalculated outpouring of the soul inside. (This is also part of why we marvel at voices— the literal breath from someone’s body— in ways we could never marvel at, say, keyboard-playing.)
Last weekend I was on a road trip with my family and my dad, whose musical taste is having a midlife crisis, put on Rihanna’s album Good Girl Gone Bad. It was the first time I’d listened to the whole album, and once we’d gotten past “Umbrella”, I started thinking: This would be really good as an SNSD album.
Specifically, I was thinking of how good “Push Up On Me”
would sound on SNSD’s recent Japanese album next to, say, “you-aholic”:
I can even picture which lines would be in English!
I think the reason Good Girl Gone Bad reminded me of SNSD’s Japanese album is because it has the same sort of formula of the singles being very distinctive and then the other songs being more clubby and similar-sounding (not in a bad way). Maybe this is just a pop album formula in general, though. I think it would be really cool if SNSD and maybe 2NE1 (for “Don’t Stop the Music”) covered all of GGGB song-by-song. We already know what “Shut Up and Drive” would sound like if they did it.
EDIT: Oh, I forgot the other insight Rihanna gave me into K-pop, which is: If “Umbrella” were a K-pop song, the “It’s raining/Ooh baby it’s raining/It’s pouring rain” part at the very end (3:25-ish) would be sung over top of the chorus after the bridge, rather than coming after it, because that’s always where the “ad-lib” vocal goes in a K-pop song! Even “Bubble Pop!” has an ad-lib in that same position, which Hyuna does not sing live (and possibly did not sing, ever), but it’s there because it needs to be.
Lee Hongki and F.T. Island, “신사동 그 사람” (The Man from Sinsa-dong). I’ve been thinking about the role of rock music in K-pop lately. Both K-pop and North American pop use rock sounds (electric guitars, drum kits, etc.) as a texture, but I think the rockist idea of rock sounds symbolizing or, to be cynical, creating authenticity doesn’t really factor in as much in K-pop. Firstly, there isn’t really a competitive popular rock music market that runs alongside the pop market, i.e. how Nickelback and Mariah Carey can be considered “popular music” at the same time, even if they do not necessarily share the same market. Secondly, in my opinion it’s rap and not rock that is the symbol of musical authenticity in K-pop (though good luck getting anyone to call themselves “rappist”). If anything, the popular rock bands that I’ve noticed in South Korea’s music industry - F.T. Island and C.N. Blue, mostly - fit into the idol industry, even if they play their own instruments. Think Maroon 5.
Anyway, what kept me thinking about it was this performance F.T. Island did on a show called Immortal Song 2, where members of idol groups who are known for their vocals perform against each other to see who is the best singer. Lee Hongki, singer of F.T. Island, decided to cover a pretty typical trot tune made famous by Ju Hyun-Mi, but said he wanted to perform it in a Britpop style. I was surprised when he said that (because of aforementioned preconceived notion that rock music doesn’t really matter in Korea), and even more surprised when he pulled it off. I definitely hear Britpop in this. At the very least, it sounds like the bands that came after Britpop, and maybe that’s a more authentic way to pay homage than a wholesale copying of the original form. It’s a lovely interpretation of the song.
Recently, the debut of a new girl group named Chocolat has been announced and a few MV teasers released. Their main shtick is that three of the five members, Melanie, Tia, and Juliane, are of mixed Euro-American and Korean descent, and they’ve been frequently referred to as a “bi-racial group” in the press. (This has led to some confusion as to whether it is the group itself that is considered bi-racial - one Omona commenter said she would not consider a group to be “bi-racial” unless one of its members was fully non-Asian, which is a different train of thought for me that I will leave for now.) The other two members, Jaeyoon and Min Soa, are “full” ethnic Koreans. Soa is ostensibly the group’s leader, but both her and Jaeyoon’s presence has been minimized in promotions (unless, of course, it’s on a Korean-language talk show) - they’re the two members whose full profiles have not been released, and they are always placed nexttoeachother in the debut photos released, as the three mixed girls are almost always placed next to each other. The focus of this group’s publicity is clear.
In this video, Melanie goes around and introduces the group and its members, all in English (I suspect “Korean” in the video’s title is only there to indicate that this is a Korean group):
Where I became interested was at 1:23: After Jaeyoon’s awkward introduction, Melanie says, “She’s not so great at English, but she’s getting better.” Clearly this is an environment in which English is dominant (even if “this” is just the video that Melanie is making) - and all three of the mixed girls are native English speakers, and American by nationality to boot. So it’s the two native Koreans who are the ones that don’t belong. (While the English language is generally treated with reverence in the industry and variety show audience requests of Korean-American idols often include “a conversation in English”, Korean is still, of course, the dominant language. I recall watching several interviews with Korean-American Jaebeom and Thai-American Nichkhun of 2PM in which their poor Korean was held up as an issue, more for Jaebeom.)
However, the way the mixed girls are being promoted as the centre of interest, given what we know of South Korean pop’s general attitude toward Caucasian women, makes me think that they are being thought of as interesting for their exoticism. So they’re both dominant (among themselves) and Other (in the society into which they are about to launch). Until their single drops, I await more talk show appearances and subsequent netizen reactions to see how this dual (hybrid??) identity plays out once they start doing the rounds.
* For an earlier example of how this played out as well as insight into how it might play out now, see this interview with Isak, one half of defunct SM girl group Isak N Jiyeon. Also worth noting, there are more “foreigners” in the industry now (mainly Chinese nationals and Korean- and Chinese-Americans).
Super Junior, “Mr. Simple”. I appreciate that in the leadup to and release of this video, SME did the opposite of what they usually do with f(x) and SHINee. This time it’s the video that is fashion editorial-like and looks shot on film, and the teaser pictures that are shiny and garishly coloured. (See: f(x)’s NU ABO promo pictures vs. the actual result.)
As for the song itself, it’s actually 5 songs, none of which match.
Right now for some reason I find myself wanting to listen to really manly songs, by which I mean songs not meant to be sung by twiggy flower boy types, but for men with big lungs and a suit in their closet. Most of them are moody, slightly scary, and consist of near-shouting mixed with showoff vocal lines, and maybe involve Remee and Troelsen. (Seungri is just slick, but still doing something I can’t imagine a rookie doing.)
MBLAQ, “Mona Lisa”. For some reason I always tried to avoid MBLAQ as much as possible. Maybe it was G.O.’s douchey facial hair, or secondhand embarrassment from listening to them sing “Give it to my Y”. (Unrelated: I just watched the “Y” video again and as ok as the song is, damn that is a pretty good video.) But this is a really, really good song. The flamenco guitar-accordion combo makes it stand out from the usual K-pop boy band formula. This has been lodged in my head to the point where I sing it as I bike, even though I don’t know any of the words besides “baby say yes”.
Super Junior-M, “太完美” (Perfection). I almost wrote a post about this song because it’s my theory of the perfect pop song (“hooks on top of hooks, as long as they all fit like Lego”) taken to the extreme, with the result being something less than perfect. I think all of this song’s components are exactly right for each other, but there are just so many that the end result is overwhelming - “Too Perfect”, as another translation of the title claims. Rock guitar! Stop-and-start pre-chorus! Vocal acrobatics! Sudden melodic middle eight! English rapping! To me this feels more like a 5-minute song than a 3 and a half-minute one. I find it exhausting to listen to it repeatedly, but at the same time I can’t stop hearing it in my head. There’s also a Korean-language version (Super Junior-M being a subgroup of SJ that promotes in China), which is neither superior nor inferior to the Mandarin.
SHINee, “Lucifer”. I have such a love-hate relationship with this song and this era of SHINee in general, but I’m mostly in it for the chorus: the gang vocals, harmonies, and the choreography where they put one arm up in the air while keeping the same leg/hip movements. (Which, come to think of it, MBLAQ does in “Mona Lisa”, too.) I admit though that I didn’t start liking this song until after listening to Serbian pop singer Jelena Karleusa’s alleged plagiarism of it, which I find scarier and more thrilling, but it doesn’t have that chorus.
Seungri, “Strong Baby”. Seungri, I’m sorry I ever compared you to Enrique Iglesias. Clearly you’re Justin Timberlake. (Taeyang is Usher.)
Skip to 6:35. Context: Super Junior and the Wonder Girls have both been selected by the variety program Come to Play as idols that represent the nation, and they’re telling anecdotes that are evidence of their pride in being Korean.
I thought this part was interesting because I used to get “ni hao’d” on the street all the time, where passing non-Asian strangers would say “ni hao” to me as I walked by, usually without continuing any other conversation. But where I would scramble for comebacks, the Wonder Girls are very gracious, which is probably the best comeback of all:
Ye Eun: In Asia, the perspective of Korea, China, and Japan is different, right? Everyone: Yeah. Ye Eun: In America they are not specially differentiated. [CAPTION: In America, most people will think that all Asians are the same.]
Ye Eun: So when 5 of us are walking, they [white? Americans] will say “Konnichiwa” (Japanese). Then we’ll definitely tell them we’re Koreans. And we’ll teach them “Annyeonghaseyo”, such Korean language.
SNSD, “Kissing You” (vocals isolated). I always thought “Kissing You” was way too cutesy for the vocal powerhouses of SNSD, but it seems there’s more to the song than I thought. Apparently: “taeyeon and jessica were in charge of the main chorus, taeyeon did all the chorus harmonizations, jessica did all the hook harmonizations, taeyeon and jessica were also in charge of the adlibs, and the rest of the girls did everything else!” See also: “Genie” vocals isolated.
Growing up, I could always tell when my mother was talking to my grandma on the phone because she would switch to Korean. I never learned how to speak it myself, aside from my grandma teaching me how to sing “Santoki”, which I’ve since forgotten (though the melody has never left my head). Oh, and “pongu”, which got used in my house a lot (it’s the word for “fart”).
When I asked my mother why she never taught her children how to speak Korean, she said it was because 1. she immigrated to Canada at a young age and had only a child’s knowledge of Korean herself; and 2. she didn’t think it was necessary for us as average middle-class Torontonians. Also, our dad came from a Cantonese-speaking family but with more comprehension of the language than ability to speak it, so I think learning only English and French was the simplest option for all of us.
Though I still resent people asking me, “Do you speak ___? Why not?” as if language knowledge were something encoded in my genes, I can’t help but feel as if I missed out on something - even if it’s just because I envied the polyglots among my fellow linguistics students (their knowledge was so much more comprehensive!) or because I felt awkward every time I was introduced to a visiting distant relative who knew about as much English as I did Korean. Of course, since I’ve started listening to K-pop, I have some new things to feel like I’m missing: the untranslated jokes in the fan-subtitled variety programs I watch; the song lyrics as they mean directly, not as someone else has translated them; the things that don’t have any subtitles at all. And I think my academic interest in Korean pop music is all the poorer for it, too, since I can’t actually read Korean articles or netizens’ discussions, let alone ever hope to conduct a productive interview with a Korean person.
Recently one of my younger brothers, who has the same aptitude for and interest in languages that I do, told me that he wants to learn Korean too. We’re planning to do a program like Rosetta Stone together. Since it’s been my goal for a long time, I’m excited to finally start (thankfully, one thing he does not also have is my uncanny ability to keep postponing something that doesn’t have a deadline - for instance, going for a jog).
One thing that K-pop has done for me that I’ve noticed is expand my Korean vocabulary (though not my grammatical knowledge). A lot of this comes from the songs using the same terms over and over again (you have two minutes to find a song that doesn’t contain the word “love”), or from watching and listening to subtitled programs. What I’ve learned from my linguistics training is that as you become more familiar with a language, you can discern individual words out of what is otherwise a continuous, unpredictable sound wave, and this is what is starting to happen as I listen to more Korean media. So, I thought it would be constructive for me to compile a list of all the terms I’ve learned in Korean just from listening to K-pop idols talk or sing. Also, it will really satisfy my OCD.
No hangul because I’m too lazy to look it up, although I am ok at reading it. (This reminds me of another story about my mother, but that’s for another time.) And I’m sure I will add more to this as I learn/remember it.