I’m reaching old age in my K-pop listening, but it doesn’t help that the pace has been accelerating over the past year, as YouTube and the promise of an international audience (even pre-“Gangnam Style”!) drive more and more no-name entertainment agencies to seek a piece of the pie. (The folly, of course, is in their assumption that it can happen for everyone, which is not the same thing as the confidence that it can happen for anyone.) And even the big ones are looking to score more: EXO’s body is barely cold (though not yet buried) and there’s already rumours of SM Entertainment debuting a new boy group later this year.
All this is to say that as newly debuting groups have needed increasingly to turn to high-concept gimmicks to stand out, I’ve been increasingly needing those gimmicks to make me pay attention, too. So here are the two debuts this year so far that have caught my eye.
The above song is “Beatles” (yes, really) by GI (which, relevant to the above, is short for Global Icon), whose concept is a hard, aggressive, and, well, masculine sound and image (sample headline: “GI: Voluminous body? We’re real men who want to build shoulders like Julien Kang”). While I was initially impressed with their B.A.P-like readiness and aggression, my affection for the song has cooled over time. However, I’m still interested in seeing how they develop as a group. For better or for worse, I can see this turning into a Piggy Dolls-like situation where a group’s shocking high-concept debut image gets worn away over time, so it’ll be interesting to see how they attempt to sustain it - if they last longer than the end of the year, that is.
The second debut concept I’ve found interesting is for a boy group, History, whose video for “Dreamer” is below:
History comes from LOEN Entertainment, the same label as IU (whose voice is in the MV, but not her face - that’s Son Dambi). “Dreamer” is the kind of oddly structured song that often comes to maturing or offbeat girl groups (Brown Eyed Girls, who are both, come immediately to mind), and it has an appropriately nostalgic appeal when combined with the Busby Berkeley sets and outfits. Unlike with GI, however, this “musical theatre” concept doesn’t seem inherent to the group itself, and I can see History transitioning into a more generic image with greater ease. (Of course, I can’t help but wonder if that has to do with the gender divide as well. But rereading this, I’ve noticed that I’ve compared GI to a successful boy group and History to a successful girl group, so who knows.)
As I wrote last year, favourite = I wanted to listen to it, I enjoyed having it stuck in my head, and I thought about it enough to have something to say about it. (For some of these, I’ve copied or paraphrased what I’ve previously written about them; there are only so many thoughts one can have beyond “this is really good”.)
This is not a comprehensive list of everything that came out this year, nor is it a list of everything that was Objectively Good in K-pop this year; otherwise, we’d be here all month. Honestly, it’s partly just so I can say I have one of these. But it’s mostly because these are all songs I loved to listen to, and I want you to love them, too.
Alternate titles: Manpain 2012 (except two of these songs are not from 2012), Calling Double Side Kick On Their Shit, Calling Sweetune On Their Shit (if we’re being honest). Made for fun, mostly, and because what I really want is a megamix/mashup of these songs but this is the closest I’m going to get. Arranged according to flow, not chronologically. The two non-2012 songs are included for illustration: “BTD” because “Janus” is equal parts “BTD”, “Paradise”, and “This Is War”; and “Heartbeat” because 2PM basically invented this shit.
Bonus fun fact: Though Sistar’s “Alone” would make a great addition to this playlist (if it weren’t about manly tears), the song on Alone that Double Side Kick was responsible for was “Lead Me”.
Tracklist and composer/producer: 1. 2PM, “Heartbeat” (JYP) 2. ZE:A, “Love Is Gone” (Double Side Kick) 3. B1A4, “This Time Is Over” (Chance, one-half of Double Side Kick) 4. MBLAQ, “This Is War” (Double Side Kick) 5. Boyfriend, “Janus” (Sweetune) 6. Infinite, “BTD” (Sweetune)
If I’m missing anything, Double Side Kick or otherwise, let me know and I’ll add it in!
The place I hear pop songs most frequently is in stores, though I’m not sure if that’s just because it’s where I’m most frequently found. The group I’ve heard most often during my shopping trips is Beast - as I said in a previous post, both “Midnight” and “아름다운 밤이야” (It’s A Beautiful Night) get lots of play. Orange Caramel’s “Lipstick” and Kara’s “Pandora” are also strong contenders.
“Gangnam Style” is also everywhere - obviously, though I’ve heard quite a few stories from foreigners teaching English here who’ve received e-mails from home asking “Have you heard of this song???” But it’s everywhere in a way that seems more democratic or more part of the public than the implied imposition of shopping music. Unlike the songs I’ve heard in stores, I’ve heard “Gangnam Style” mostly in snippets - someone’s ringtone, or a clip playing in the metro, or the video playing without sound at a rest stop souvenir stand. And “X style” is a popular snowclone both in conversation and in advertising. (X is usually a place, though in most ads it’s a brand.)
Other “pop in the wild” anecdotes, by song:
A nice R&B remix of ZE:A’s “후유증” (Aftermath) surprised me in a cafe. (The original song itself is fairly popular in stores.)
I heard Super Junior’s “Spy” for the first time while shopping and I actually liked it a lot, though it doesn’t sound so great on this second listen I’m doing as I type. NU’EST’s “Action” also sounded a lot better to me in public than when I had sat down and listened to it, at least until the unnecessary dubstep breakdown, which remains unnecessary.
BTOB’s “Wow” also gets played pretty often in stores, but it sounds just as good on its own as in public.
Songs that have come up as a result of conversation are Secret’s “Shy Boy” (which a Korean friend sang the chorus of while we were talking about shy people) and Miss A’s “Bad Girl Good Girl”.
According to my friend, in some gay clubs they play American dance music in the first half of the night and K-pop in the second half. When certain songs come on, many people in the crowd do the choreographed moves, though it’s spontaneous and not like a line dance.
While taking the lift to Namsan, a tour guide on the elevator with us started playing Sistar’s “Alone” on her phone speakers before she walked out. Similarly, I encountered a couple on a mountain in Suncheon playing “Loving U” over the boy’s phone speakers as they walked.
At the Buso Fortress (near Buyeo), a group of girls on a school trip started singing Teen Top’s “To You” from “ireokke na honja” through the rap, all in unison.
In Jeonju, I woke up at 2:30 AM to a crowd of people singing Big Bang’s “Haru Haru” to a backing track with a keyboard playing the melody, something like crowd karaoke, I imagine. They also sang Wonder Girls’ “Be My Baby” before retiring for the night.
Given K-pop’s increasing international profile, it’s only logical that non-Korean songwriters have been working with the industry for some time now. (Teddy Riley and will.i.am are just the highest-profile cases.) SM Entertainment, in particular, has been buying the Asian recording rights for songs for a few years now, resulting in several songs that have both a K-pop version and a non-K-pop version (usually in English). Finding these re-recordings is something of a hobby of mine, so naturally, I decided to pit them against each other and arbitrarily assign a winner based on which I like more. This isn’t going to be a regular feature, but there’s a lot more where this came from.
Today, SHINee, whose frequent use of Troelsen/Remee songs results in quite a few of these doubles. Without further ado:
SHINee, “Juliette” (2009) vs. Corbin Bleu, “Deal With It” (2007) WINNER: SHINee. The production is the big difference-maker here; it’s hard to unhear “Juliette”’s layers of reverb and harmonies, and the more hip-hop-informed beat on “Deal With It” sounds bare by comparison. This is perhaps a consequence of pitting a group act against a solo artist: with a group, the harmonization is emphasized (even if the group members aren’t the ones singing), whereas in a solo it gets pushed to the background behind the main voice.
SHINee, “산소 같은 너 (Love Like Oxygen)” (2009) vs. Martin, “Show The World” (2008) DRAW! “Love Like Oxygen” is very faithful to Martin’s original recording in both style and tone, so it really comes down to which language you feel like listening to today. (The thing about chorus harmonies still applies, but it gives a less empty feeling here.)
SHINee, “Ready Or Not” (2010) vs. Michael Mind Project, “Ready Or Not (feat. Sean Kingston)” (2011) WINNER: Michael Mind Project. Besides the chorus, these are pretty much entirely different songs, and the difference between these two versions is about as clear of a summary of the difference between typical K-pop production and typical North American pop production as you can get. I like the hardness of SHINee’s version (I think they stole that verse melody from 4minute), but the “gurrrrl” hook seriously kills it for me. Neither of these are particularly memorable, but in the end the Sean Kingston version makes for a better pop song, or at least a more coherent one.
SHINee, “Lucifer” (2010) vs. Jelena Karleusa, “Muskarac koji mrzi zene” (2011) DRAW! SHINee wins on a TKO, since “Muskarac koji mrzi zene” is a plagiarism and not a licensed version. But the latter is still solid as a remix of “Lucifer” that forgoes the original’s graduated layering in favour of throwing you into a pit of writhing snakes and Eurodance. In both permutations, the song is slightly bizarre and fully enjoyable. * For trainspotters and sociolinguists, there’s technically an English version of “Lucifer”, which is Yoo Young-jin’s demo with the placeholder lyrics. As you can imagine, “never heard this before” got a lot of play when the plagiarism scandal came out. This version is also interesting because YYJ’s influence on the SM vocal style becomes very clear - his voice sounds like Key’s, Baekhyun’s, etc.
If I’ve missed any, let me know; I collect these, after all.
Anonymous asked: asking b/c I'm very curious and feel that you'd be most knowledgable, but do you know which K-artists write their own lyrics? Specifically the rappers? I'm just wondering
Thanks for your question! As far as I know, all non-idol rappers write their own stuff, and Phantom and M.I.B (who are on the fence between idol and non-idol) do as well. Among idol groups, there’s a trend nowadays of male rappers in the bigger groups writing their own lyrics, so the list is rather long. Off the top of my head, the more frequent/prominent writers are: Big Bang’s G-Dragon and T.O.P (of course), B.A.P’s Bang Yongguk, Block B’s Zico and Kyung, Beast’s Junhyung (who also writes songs), B1A4’s Baro, Dalmatian’s (former member) Day Day, Infinite’s Dongwoo and Hoya, Jay Park (of course), and MBLAQ’s Mir.
It’s much less common among female idol rappers - the only ones I can think of are Miryo and Wonder Girls’ Yoobin. (CL can freestyle, but she doesn’t write her own raps for 2NE1.) I can’t say I’m too surprised at this gender split, given the traditional division in the pop industry between women as performers and men as creators.
Also, because this seems relevant and I love linking to random Youtube clips, here’s a clip of the JYP trainees that would become 2PM and 2AM being put through a sort of boot camp with rapper Mr. Typhoon, where they have to write a rap, perform it, and perfect it until they’ve written a good one and they’re free to go. So it seems that lyric writing is something taught as part of training, at least for certain companies. (Despite this, none of the 2PM members write their own lyrics, except for their solo work.)
An excellent editorial from Gaya at Seoulbeats on kpop encountering other cultures - and how kpop generally succeeds in offending the cultures it attempts to integrate. To date, I actually don’t know of any examples in which kpop has creatively and acceptably showcased another culture.
I completely agree with and support the request of the author of “Four Minutes to Make a Case for Cultural Sensitivity,” namely, that if an artist is going to incorporate/appropriate elements of other cultures into his work, that it be done respectfully. In fact, I think that doing so actually enriches the work, adding levels of meaning and connecting with new audiences. For me, that’s a huge part of why hiphop is so incredibly rich - it’s full of appropriation that takes on new meaning, both in words and in samples. One of my favorite examples of this is Modenine’s “My Skinis Black,” in which Modenine samples Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to generalize a message to people of African descent all over the world. Even though Modenine has no personal claim on the black American experience or culture, he recognizes commonalities between their struggle and his own and respectfully builds on the work of black Americans to make his argument. (That’s Pan-Africanism!)
But in the case of kpop, there are two structural/cultural problems that prevent this kind of synergy from happening, and that is why we see the same offensive mistakes repeated over and over again.
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.
Consider this: between 1999 and 2005, fifty new groups debuted. This may sound like a lot, but more than fifty new groups debuted in 2011 alone. This was preceded by a boom in 2010 that saw the emergence of more than thirty new groups. When SNSD debuted in 2007, they only had to share rookie status with twelve other groups; conversely, today’s rookies compete with dozens of industry hopefuls, and it is very difficult to carve out a niche for themselves amidst not only a bunch of newbies with dreams, but also industry seniors whose positions and careers have already been well established.
Not enough numbers for you yet? Here are some more. Though initial trends seemed to indicate otherwise, girl groups now hold a slightly dominant position in the market: of all idol groups that debuted in the past three years, 52% were girl groups. An additional 24 girl groups (including subgroups comprised of members of pre-existing groups) debuted in the first quarter of 2012, and many more are set to debut as we enter the year’s third quarter. No mixed-gender groups debuted between 1999 and 2006 (Sunny Hill, which is barely a mixed-gender group as it is, and 8eight hit the scene in 2007)…
Looking at K-pop’s history through figures undeniably yields some interesting trends. First of all, entertainment companies active during K-pop’s nascent years were more willing to give mixed-gender groups a shot, but unisex groups are the name of the game today. Additionally, contrary to the idea of a slow buildup, the idol music industry was fairly consistent and relatively small until 2009/2010. The number of groups that have debuted since 2009 far dwarfs the combined number of groups that debuted between 1996 and 2008.
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.