Held up to the mirror, the credits read, “Mr. Mister - ‘Girls Generation’” 1
Madeleine Lee: This year marks Girls’ Generation’s 7th anniversary,2 and SM has spent the last few promotional cycles searching for a way to keep their star girl group fresh, grafting new-era schoolyard rap3 and/or maturity-signifying retro sounds onto the girls with varyingdegreesof success. Little did they realize that they’d had a workable prototype for the group’s mature sound this whole time: Girls’ Generation, their first Japanese full-length from 2011. Half the album is remakes of Korean singles — standard procedure for most K-pop groups debuting in Japan4 — but the other half is dance pop of a type the group had barely touched before: glitchy, dark, and not so much futuristic as ultra-modern. The trick is that while SNSD were never built for hip-hop,5 the members’ professional air and well-developed voices translate excellently into this kind of haughty electro. “Mr. Mr.” is the first post-Oh!6 single to capitalize on this (even Girls’ Generation's lead single was the cheeky "Mr. Taxi"), giving an echoing, bass-heavy backdrop to the group’s synthesized harmonies. But rather than rejecting the previous few experiments as failed, it incorporates them as new skills. The rap is distributed to make the chorus a snappy call-and-response; the vocals don’t blend into the soundscape like before, but sound out in your face, and by the end Tiffany and Taeyeon have summoned enough lung power to haul the key up twice. The lyrics are the usual cheerleading for dudes,7 but that’s to be expected. Girls’ Generation haven’t changed; they’re finally taking advantage of what they’ve already got. 8
Annotated version (or “Singles Jukebox: The DVD Commentary”, to quote Jonathan Bradley):
1. I didn’t write the subhead, but I still maintain that MR.MR (the Koreans, not the Americans) should have named their diss track “Girls’ Generation” for best chance at running Naver interference. (But I guess they wouldn’t want to tread on someone else’s claim to the name there.)
2. Since fellow Class of ‘07 groups Wonder Girls and KARA are more or less on hiatus, SNSD is one of the most senior active girl groups, along with labelmates CSJH The Grace (2005), Brown Eyed Girls (2006), and Sunny Hill (2007).
3. Prior to “The Boys”, SNSD’s deepest foray into rapping had been giving Tiffany a verse in live versions of “Tell Me Your Wish (Genie)”.
4. As in other countries, there are already Japanese fans of K-pop groups before these groups debut, so for entertainment agencies this has the double benefit of using the fans as a soft entry point into the Japanese market and saving money by sticking Japanese and English lyrics onto a pre-existing song.
5. While SNSD does not have a member with the official title of “rapper”, they’ve filled that role with dance; Hyoyeon’s dance break in "Into The New World" is as much a stand-in for the rap part as anything.
6. I picked Oh! to represent a certain peak point in SNSD’s career: they were still running high on the success of “Gee” and “Genie”, which appeared as bonus tracks on the album, and "Oh!" is their last Korean single to continue the sweet, fresh concept they’d started with. Then "Run Devil Run" canonically destroyed its house, and it hasn’t properly returned since.
8. I’m still trying to find my balance on the 0-10 scale (and let the record state that I should have given “What’s Happening” a 7, “Fxxk You” a 6, and “The Fox” a 5). My most accurate score for “Mr. Mr.”: 8 for everything up to the dance break, 6 for the dance break, and 9 for everything after that. (“I Got A Boy” would be either a 7 or an 8 from me, but using a different metric; “Bad Girl” would be an 8 or a 9.)
1. "소원을 말해봐 (Genie)". Over “Gee”, which I’m honestly tired of at this point (but would also slay at karaoke, just saying). The layering is wonderful and I think SNSD are at their best when they’re smoky, not too bright and not too dark.
3. "Bad Girl". If you couldn’t already tell, I like their electro-pop songs the best, and I’m glad that they seem to be focusing on that for their Japanese-only songs. This was the highlight of their first Japanese album, lush and moody.
4. "The Great Escape". On a similar note as the last, but harder. This is the kind of fierce I wanted “Run Devil Run” to be.
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)
TTS (TaeTiSeo), “Twinkle”. What a great idea: take the three biggest-lunged members of SNSD (Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyun, as the name indicates) and let them loose on a Stevie Wonder-ish block-party-funk joint. The girls all sound amazing, and their vocals are sufficiently thrilling as each tries to keep up with the others.
The one thing missing is some structure. The song has only one dynamic level, and by the end it seems to be looping back on the chorus over and over again because it doesn’t know what else to do. And I never thought I’d have to say this (and I might be thinking of the Moulin Rouge version of “Lady Marmalade” too much here, though that’s definitely something they’re going for), but it could really use a rap break after the middle 8. (Even the song knows it, throwing in a half-hearted “Yeah yeah” in rapper voice.) But a jam’s a jam, and anyway this is more of an event than a single - the moment is more about having all these voices in the same place than the song itself.
The live stages should be awesome, but unfortunately a live performance without a backing vocal track is probably too much to hope for, even though it defeats the entire point of this. Can we at least get the EXO-K boys dancing on stage with them?
Follow-up to the last post: Here’s Seohyun of SNSD singing “난 사랑을 아직 몰라” (I Don’t Know Love Yet) at SBS’s 2007 Gayo Daejun, with half of her bandmates in drag as schoolboys checking her out. It’s meant to be funny, which leads me to suspect that it’s actually rarer for drag to not be done humourously.
Anyway, this could also be seen as schoolgirl or little-girl drag, though Seohyun was still only 16 when she performed this, and 17 in Korean age. The use of this song, which was first performed by singer Lee Jiyeon in the 80’s, is certainly a reference to the film that popularized it, My Little Bride, in which the 15-year old protagonist sings it at a noraebang for her 20-something husband and his soldier friends (long story). Interestingly, the lyrics themselves are not as wide-eyed as the title makes them sound; it’s more like “I haven’t found the right man yet” than “I’m too young to know love”, but the way it’s been used is certainly intentional.
For contrast, here’s IU performing it straight, without affecting her voice or dancing. (Not that this is a “better” performance, just one with different goals. And note the poster of My Little Bride visible behind her.) (Homework: What’s the difference between little-girl drag and aegyo? Are they related?)
why are you surprised that a korean woman can speak english? and then after she says she was born in america you said “YOUR…ENGLISH…IS…REALLY…GOOD.” the fuck are you doing?
props to fany for sassing him back. ily<3
This exact exchange (at 3:48) happened to me once - I told someone English was my native language, and two minutes later he complimented it. It was unbelievably irritating and it hurts to hear it being said again. (And then he goes into the “I learned some of your language too” thing! Though as a Canadian it’s not like I was unprepared for Howie Mandel being obnoxious.)
Some have tried to cast Tiffany’s sarcastic response as uncalled for, saying the group was being presented as a South Korean group and so it was normal for Mandel to assume they were all native Korean speakers. But guess what? His assumptions about Tiffany’s identity don’t change her actual identity, and she has every right to be offended that he doesn’t treat her as a (linguistic) equal when she really is. If anything, her “turn this into humour” response is accommodating, not confronting. I guess his repetition of “Your English is very good” is meant to cover up his mistake by turning it into a joke before she does (“I’m going to act like I’m complimenting you anyway, rather than just straight-up being racist”), but honestly I’m not that eager to make excuses for him.