13. Boyfriend, “Love Style”. I’m in the throes of a Sweetune obsession, and this song epitomizes why: catchy melodies, sparkly synths, hooks everywhere. That said, it also epitomizes Sweetune’s weaknesses - it does the same “let’s stop the song to change the key” thing that KARA’s “Step” does, but without being brave enough to really go for it.
11. EXO-K, “Mama”. From the beginning, everything about the EXO project has been ambitious, extravagant, oversized, and coordinated down to the last detail. It’s only natural that their debut single is all of those things too.
10. B.A.P, “Power”. In which power is the sum of confidence, control, and total commitment.
9. Dalmatian, “E.R”. Dalmatian’s previous singles were fluffy and fun, so it’s a pleasant surprise that they can do angsty melodrama just as well. (They’re like Sistar in this regard.) Big Bang and Beast have been herebefore, of course, but neither quite as mournful nor as willfully optimistic.
8. f(x), “Electric Shock”. This is where I confess that I don’t love f(x) nearly as much as I’m supposed to, because to me their singles (yes, even the great "NU ABO") always have that one tangent too many, the same thing Super Junior’s been plagued by post-“Bonamana”. But “Electric Shock” is the opposite: it’s so unified, so self-contained, as if everything was carved from the same block of marble right down to the syllables.
7. Hello Venus, “Venus”. “Venus” thumbs its nose at the millenia-old dichotomy of cute girl group/fierce girl group (which is only code for another millenia-old dichotomy imposed on women, anyway). Instead, it brings a stompy minor-key cheerleader chant into a sisterly bond with a resolutely sunny chorus. V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!
6. Teen Top, “To You”. Breezy but not insubstantial, youthful but not immature, catchy as hell.
5. Wonder Girls, “Like This”. One of the only songs that can make me forget myself and dance while walking down the street. (Please don’t use this against me.)
2. 4minute, “Volume Up”. Because K-pop is having a “music for grownups” moment and 4minute totally called it.
1. Sistar, “Alone”. There’s not really much I can say about this song other than that it is perfect sad summer disco. So since this blog is also about my ongoing personal development, it’s an important milestone that I could understand about 10% of the lyrics right away without looking up the translation (mostly the chorus - “I eat alone, I sing alone, I watch TV alone, today I’m alone”). If you squint, this could say something about its universal appeal, but that’s apparent from the sound itself.
After School, “너 때문에” (Because of You) & Infinite, “추격자” (The Chaser) (mashup by donfaustino2010). Obviously I really like mashups, but I particularly like the narrative quality to this one. There’s a story and a progression, and at 5 minutes it feels like watching a short film more than listening to a song. The two songs enter into a dialogue with each other, alternating lines and beats. They’re not singing about exactly the same thing - one’s about nostalgia for a relationship that ended badly, the other’s about going to the ends of the earth to win someone back - but there’s a sense that the two parties understand each other. “You told me to leave, and when I did you called me crazy,” she says, “but I still want to be with you.” “Yes, I let you go, despite my instincts,” he replies, “but now I know I was wrong, and I have to get you back.” (The transformation from direct address to narration also makes the Infinite lyrics sound remarkably less creepy; the threat of “so she won’t forget me” is softened when she seems to reply, “I’ll never forget you, boy”.)
In honour of SPIN naming H.O.T’s “Candy” the greatest K-pop song of all time(of all time!) and in protest of the idea that Smash Mouth had anything to do with it (not least of all because Smash Mouth’s first major-label album was released the year after H.O.T’s), here’s a YouTube playlist of 8 different covers of “Candy” arranged from oldest to most recent. The fact that it’s become practically a rite of passage to cover this song is testament enough to its greatness.
The idea of a rock-influenced K-pop mix was suggested by Trevor a few months ago, and it stuck with me. I thought a research-oriented approach would be best, starting at the beginning and working my way through to the present. As such, the tracks are arranged in more or less chronological order, with some fudging to accommodate the categories I want to discuss.
Rock music came to South Korea via the United States military around the time of the Korean War. That’s how Shin Jung-hyeon first heard it, while he was performing for the American troops in the late 1950’s under the stage name Jackie Shin. Shin would go on to more or less found psychedelic rock in South Korea, but his influence was not long-lasting in popular culture. After he demurred from writing a song celebrating president/dictator Park Chung Hee in 1972, his music was frequently banned for being “vulgar”, and he was arrested on vague drug-related charges and banned from all public performances in 1975. Following Park’s assassination in 1979, Shin returned to find that popular music had changed: “It was all ‘Let’s work hard’ and ‘Let’s be happy’ kind of stuff. It was completely physical, with no spirit, no mentality, no humanity.” (source) Nevertheless, he did work with some artists of this new era, such as a young, pre-dubstep Kim Wan Sun, whose track "리듬 속의 그 춤을" (The Dance In That Rhythm) he wrote. With this background in mind, this mix will cover the modern era of K-pop (from the 90’s to the present), which is not only descended from the music of singers like Kim Wan Sun but incorporates and synthesizes outside influences like American R&B and pop.
What I found was that rock is generally used for two things in K-pop, and those two things should not be surprising to observers of North American popular music: It was initially used to signify transgression, aggression, and individuality, but over time it has also come to represent artistic credibility and authorship. Of course, sometimes it’s just used as a new and different texture, especially once the definition of rock expanded outside of metal to include pop-punk and alternative rock. Currently there’s a move toward idol musicians having more artistic control, and in an era where rock acts can top the American Hot 100 by the grace of Spotify, the line between indie rock and idol pop is getting fuzzier in Korea too. (The definition of “rock” I am working with here is, admittedly, vague: basically, a general feeling of what “sounds like rock”, along with the use of electric guitar and a 4/4 drum kit sound, and sometimes a guitar-bass-drums rock band setup.)
Track list: 1. Seo Taiji and Boys, “난 알아요” (I Know) (1992) 2. Seo Taiji and Boys, “교실 이데아” (Classroom Idea) (1994) 3. H.O.T., “아이야! (I Yah!)” (1999) 4. DBSK, “Tri-Angle” (2004) 5. Super Junior, “Don’t Don” (2006) 6. EXO-K, “Mama” (2012) 7. SNSD, “힘 내! (Way To Go)” (2009) 8. C.N. Blue, “외톨이야” (I’m A Loner) (2010) 9. Infinite, “BTD (Before The Dawn)” (2011) 10. G-Dragon, “악몽 (Obsession)” (2010) 11. B1A4, “O.K” (2011) 12. 2NE1, “Ugly” (2011) 13. FT Island, “신사동 그 사람” (The Man From Sinsadong) (live on Immortal Song 2, 2011) 14. Jeong Jinwoon, “라라라” (RA RA RA) (2011) 15. Wonder Girls, “Me, in” (2011) 16. Miryo, “Party Rock (feat. Gary of Leessang, The Koxx)” (2012)
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.)