2PM, “이노래를듣고돌아와” (Come Back When You Hear This Song). Trend alert? This also sounds and looks like it’s come out of a musical (complete with symbolism that can be seen from the back of the house), albeit with a more modern staging than History’s. JYP, at least, should be able to spring for a more lavish set for the comeback performances.
Significant information: This is 2PM’s first Korean comeback in two years, and it’s on the other side of the spectrum from “Hands Up”; their new album is called Grown; and this track, composed by JYP himself, bears a passing resemblance to their Japanese singles, which make a similarly good, simple and melodic use of their voices.
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.)
VIXX, “다칠 준비가 돼 있어 뮤직비디오 (On and On)”. If we’re calling “I Got A Boy” the K-pop “Bohemian Rhapsody”, can I petition for “On and On” to be called the K-pop “Thriller”? It’s not a perfect comparison: the confused music video isn’t nearly on the same level, and actually obscures how enjoyable the choreography is. But it’s got the same intense conceptual commitment, and the right combination of looming darkness in the verses and unstoppable force in the choruses. And, you know, it’s also a total jam.
For your Sunday viewing pleasure, Ailee covering Kim Wan Sun’s “리듬 속의 그 춤을” (The Dance in That Rhythm) for last month’s all-star episode of Immortal Song 2, a tribute to the grandfather of Korean rock, Shin Jung-hyeon, who wrote and produced the song. (It was previously performed in a very different manner by Huh Gak on the show’s Kim Wan Sun episode in 2011.) On one hand, Ailee’s version is the complete opposite of the original, substituting soul and dubstep for new wave and metal, respectively, and booming melisma for the teenage Kim’s thin vocals (and consequently erasing the original’s taut nervous tension, but leaving a different kind of push to the edge in its place). On the other hand, it’s a completely logical modernization - because of course the 2012 version would have a dance break instead of a guitar solo, and make the connection with “Rhythm Nation” (which was released two years after “The Dance in That Rhythm”, so don’t get any funny ideas).
Kim’s smooth and sinewy dance was nothing like Korea had ever seen at that point. Calling her “Korea’s Madonna” (as her fans like to do) might be an overstatement, but like Madonna, Kim defined how female sexuality is to be packaged and sold through mass media for a good decade.
But Kim’s importance goes much farther beyond being a sexy pop star. Her career is a prototype of a mainstream K-pop star today. The process of training Kim, as well as the career paths that Kim took, served as a model for the K-pop stars that will go on to sweep the world.
Epik High, “Don’t Hate Me”. There are quite a few potential storylines to a comeback. In the case of Block B, for instance, who recently returned after a few months’ unofficial hiatus following their Thailand scandal, their comeback was meant to announce their new maturity via the maturing of their sound. Epik High’s return, on the other hand, is meant to illustrate not the continuation of an arc but the beginning of an entirely new one.
After three years away, during which members Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz went to the army and frontman Tablo went through nothing short of hell as a group called Tajinyo set out to defame him, the group gradually reassembled under YG, who Tablo had signed with to release his Tajinyo-era album Fever’s End. Tablo has said he considered leaving the group around his scandal, but didn’t want the other members to receive flack for it. So their return as a group is a big deal, and the dramatic move away from their old, chill sound (“Fan”, “Love Love Love”) seals the idea of a fresh start. It’s no coincidence either that the move takes them to pop-punk.
It’s easy to read the shift cynically: conscious hip-hop trio moves from series of small labels (Woollim pre-Infinite, their own label Map the Soul) to one of the Big Three and loses their soul. But even as YG’s been moving in a more rock-oriented direction over the past year or two, Tablo has repeatedly named “Don’t Hate Me” as the song he most relates to on the new album, and presumably that includes the sound, not just the message. (In another tell, when confronted recently with the “Biggie or Tupac, Jay-Z or Nas” question his answer was “Nirvana”.)
The obvious parallel, of course, is Lil Wayne’s Rebirth project and all its attendant commentary. What does it mean when a hip-hop artist decides to do rock, especially when he/they pick some of the least critically respected genres of rock? How does this fit back into their overall body of work? (Not that Epik High hasn’t done rock before - see “Run” - but it was in a way that fit more with their old sound, not in a way that became the sound.)
I think the video is a big clue: the 30-year old men of Epik High as bored teenagers working in a boring supermarket that then gets shaken up by a bunch of kids dressed as movie villains when the song comes in. Pop-punk is shorthand for teenage rebellion, and the idea of recapturing one’s youth figures significantly here - the group has said the sound of this album was influenced by the 90’s, when all of the members would have been teenagers themselves. But even though “everybody hates me” is typical of the oversimplified “me against the world” attitude of teenage pop-punk, in Tablo’s case it’s also, uh, sort of justified.
Perhaps pop-punk can also be a place where rebellion happens, more cause than effect. With “Don’t Hate Me”, Epik High aren’t just wishing they were young again - they want a more metaphorical rejuvenation, a release from three years of pressure and complications. Rather than a regression, it symbolizes a renewal.
Secret, “Poison”. “Poison” completes a trio of triads. For Secret, it’s a continuation of the throwback R&B style of “Magic” and “Madonna”, proving that despite brief forays into swing and surf rock, they’ve still got it. In the year of girl groups going adult, it’s the sassy counterpart to the melancholy of “Alone” and the ferocity of “Volume Up”. And the perfectly noir MV continues a setof videos in which the female protagonist kills a bunch of men for the good of all. Of course, it’s perfectly satisfying on its own.
Let me preface this by saying that I have great respect for G-Dragon as an artist; I think he’s a great and capable songwriter with an endless supply of interesting ideas and an obvious command of what it is that he does. I say this not to ward off attacks from stans (“don’t worry guys I like him too!”), but rather to excuse the fact that I’m inclined to view him charitably at all, or willing to take the time to understand what’s going on here. It’d be easy to watch this, say “screw this ego trip” and move on, but because I want to like G-Dragon, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. By the same token, it’d be easy to watch this, say “masterpiece!” and move on, but because doing that doesn’t quite sit right with me either, I want to understand why.
1. We could start with the song itself. It’s immediately recognizable as late-00’s hip-hop pastiche, with its the autotuned hook and the gimmicky vocal tricks. Acknowledging conscious influences is not the same thing as calling something a rip-off or drawing an equivalency; and in fact, it would probably be more insulting to G-Dragon not to bring up Nicki Minaj when talking about this song, as if he didn’t know what he was doing. (There’s “geeeeeeee”, of course, but he also spends almost that whole second verse occupying the role of a hater, bemoaning his own ubiquity before stepping in as himself: “So you just can’t live without me, huh?”) But he adds in a few tricks of his own, like the nice and chewy saturi rap and the various voices and styles he adopts throughout the song.
However: “One of a Kind” is not a title song, but a video-only advance release. So, in a way, it’s designed to be consumed with the video, and the meaning of one is linked to the meaning of the other. Therefore the rest of this post is about the MV, of which the song is only one element.
2. So what do we see when we look at the MV? It’s quite similar to the song, actually - a collage of hip-hop video tropes (the kids in tracksuits, the conspicuous luxury brand flashing), but also elements specific to YG and G-Dragon (it looks similar to GD&TOP’s “Knock Out”, and the black room with the glass cases is reminiscent of “I Am The Best”, with the glass-smashing signifying about the same thing as it does in that video). This is logical: as an artist, G-Dragon is a master synthesizer above all else, equal parts curator and creator.
That said, being a pop curator does not exempt one from participating in appropriation, and I see as much appropriation of specifically black culture as general hip-hop culture. The styling is a dead giveaway, especially the hair on Taeyang as he appears at 3:05. And this isn’t the first time this has happened with a YG artist, either, nor with these specific YG artists. The presence of black (or part-black) children is a step, but as has been noted by others, black adults are nowhere to be seen in any of YG’s videos, even as symbols and signifiers taken from black/rap culture abound. (Well, there’s probably a few in “High High”, but trying to see anyone in the background of that video is like playing Where’s Waldo at 100km/h.) Obviously, I’m not very qualified to talk about it since I’m closer to G-Dragon’s tribe than any other, but this is why this video does not sit entirely right with me.
3. To elaborate on that point: YGE’s relationship with blackness is complicated. (The country’s relationship with blackness is too much to get into here; regarding the depiction of blackness in popular media, I strongly recommend Gusts of Popular Feeling’s post on the history of blackface in Korea.) Of the Big Three, they’re the agency that’s built the most on rap culture (a quick, extremely oversimplified breakdown: YG = electro + rap; SM = R&B + pop + rock; JYP = soul + R&B). They probably use the word “respect” a lot when talking about hip-hop culture and black culture. They have been known to employ stereotypes with a straight face, such as in the video for “How Gee”. But when Papa YG was a judge on TV talent show K-Pop Star, both he and fellow judge JYP championed half-black, half-Korean contestant Lee Michelle despite her unpopularity in audience polls. After the show ended, YG signed her alongside other contestants on the show, and is planning to place her in their upcoming girl group Su:Pearls. So as a company, YG puts its money where its mouth is - even if that mouth sometimes likes to engage in blackface.
4. But there’s another obstacle to my being able to read this video properly, one that actually must be cleared before the topic of appropriation: How much of this is serious?
After all, this year especially, YG has proven they’re not above releasing a satirical MV. (I’d argue that SM is the only one of the Big Three that is always earnest in everything they do, and I’d also argue that that correlates to my earlier equation of companies to genres.) And G-Dragon is known to approach idol work as dress-up - there’s thevariousguises he adopted for his last solo album, Heartbreaker, and his recent tendencies towards androgynous dressing and gender play. And the video he released a week after this one, “That XX”, has an entirely different visual tone, more “Blue” than “Fantastic Baby”. Then there’s the past examples of what appropriating rap culture in earnest looks like, namely Big Bang’s videos for “La La La” and “Good Bye Baby”. So it’s clear that “One of a Kind” is at least a little ironic, not 100% serious.
But the lyrics aren’t joking around, and G-Dragon’s persona is nothing like Psy’s - if Psy is the rapper as gagman/everyman, bringing the viewer in on the joke, G-Dragon is the rapper as tastemaker/insider, whispering the joke in the viewer’s ear so nobody else knows it. Punchlines like the dining table scene from 2:05 to 2:15 lose their impact as commentary if it’s all meant to be a joke. (It may well do to bring Nicki back into this, as she has a similarly outsized, cartoonish approach as “One of a Kind”, but her context is entirely different: she’s a woman, for one, and operating in a musical culture that historically 1. is masculine and 2. equates artistry and skill with seriousness.) Visual cues don’t clarify anything: returning to the YG MVs this looks like, “Knock Out” is meant to be fun, but “I Am The Best” is not. “That XX” complicates things, as well; that video is entirely G-Dragon as Artist, so what does that make this one, which is so different?
5. The problem of how seriously to read this MV is further complicated by adding appropriation back into the picture. If we read it as entirely satirical or ironic, it dismisses the appropriation that’s happening here and trivializes whatever actual hurt it causes (“I’m just kidding! Don’t take it personally”). Conversely, if we take it entirely at face value, it ignores whatever artistic/intellectual credibility G-Dragon does have in favour of a blanket dismissal of ignorance that’s all too common against Asians in hip-hop, not to mention Asian pop in general. (Imagine how disappointing it would be if “Gangnam Style” were being taken at face value.)
6. Perhaps, then, the most logical way to read this video is to follow my first impulse and call it what it is: a 3-and-a-half-minute ego trip, reflective of G-Dragon in all his irony and all his earnestness, the places where he unfairly appropriates rap culture and the places where he successfully reinterprets it. Perhaps that’s the only way to read it.
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.