Infinite, “추격자” (The Chaser). This is very much an Infinite-Sweetune single, albeit messier than we’re used to from this pairing; it takes a few listens to unlock the melody of the chorus from amid the solid block of sound, where everything’s been mixed to the same volume. (I feel I should add that Infinite is my favourite group at the moment, so I still enjoy this song a lot.)
My initial impulse was to link “The Chaser” to their previous singles like “내꺼하자” (Be Mine) and even to other Sweetune singles like KARA’s “Step”, and the synths are sufficiently Duran Duran-ish to point to an 80’s pop influence. But the group has made it clear that there’s something else going on here style-wise. Rapper Dongwoo, in an interview:
“We were wondering a lot about the song’s style, but we wanted to try out (a new feel) and work it well. K-POP is extending out in the world, and we hope it gives us the chance to inform people about the traditional Korean style.”
As for what “tradtional Korean style” means, this fan gives the most thorough explanation I’ve seen:
That “weird” noise [in the intro] is from a Korean traditional music instrument called 해금 (Haegeum), also the intro part of “The chaser” is kind of similar with Korean traditional music too. Loent said that Sweetune has used some elements of Korean traditional music to compose the song, thus explaining why they draw Infinite logo in the calligraphy way [link added], use some Korean old words in the “The chaser” lyrics and even use Korean traditional music & instruments in the song.
The idea of using a song as a venue for teaching international fans about traditional Korean culture is interesting, especially since I would argue that Infinite are Hallyu-era idols without being a part of Hallyu itself (though they’ve had some success breaking into the Japanese market). If anything, they’re very Korean-focused: with the exception of “BTD (Before The Dawn)”, the lyrics of their singles contain minimal English (even the ones titled in English, like “Paradise” or “She’s Back”, are mostly in Korean aside from the title phrase), and last week’s promotions for their comeback had them flying by helicopter to showcases in five different cities, beginning in Gwangju and ending in Seoul. (But likely this Korean-ness is what makes them the ideal group for a song like this.)
Though Infinite haven’t been riding the Korean wave outside of Asia, the influence of traditional Korean music on “The Chaser” and the way it’s been positioned as a teaching opportunity is an interesting development, given the ongoing speculation over how much K-pop groups should/need to change their sound in order to break into Western pop markets. Should they try to blend in, become more American chart-sounding? Should they keep the sound that’s brought them all the Youtube hits? Should they do both and/or neither and let their music act as an extension of their role as cultural ambassadors? (will.i.am tinkering with gayageum sounds comes to mind.)
All this reminds me that for all that we perceive K-pop as something which imports things from other cultures, Hallyu is first and foremost a nationalistic enterprise, one that cares less about sparking cross-cultural dialogue than about disseminating Korean culture abroad. There’s a reason yesterday’s MBC-Google concert ended with everybody singing “Arirang”. (See here for more on Hallyu and nationalism, particularly in terms of Hallyu as propaganda.)