Infinite, “Back”. Both the song and video feel like classic pre-“Chaser” Infinite (compare: the orchestral sweeps of "Tic Toc", the ambiguous ending of "BTD", or "Paradise" for both); “I want you back” is a classic boy band lyric, and the instant-classic chorus is a perfect setting for it. The structure of this song, however, bewilders me:
(AA’ BB’) CC A’ BB’ A’ CC
where the part in parentheses is the part before the beat drops and CC is the chorus. The first part is over a minute long in a roughly 3:30 song; after a few listens, I can get into it, but only because I know “I want you back, back, back, back, back” is waiting for me on the other side.
Today’s Inkigayo stage, I think, had the right idea by inserting a huge break between the slow part and the beat; if nothing else, this allowed us to hear what the song might sound like if it just started at the beat drop, i.e. much better. I think the advantage of the current symmetrical, CABAC structure is that it gives us enough of a taste of the chorus without killing it, but I’m curious as to how one more chorus in the middle might sound. Or maybe I’m just addicted to that rhythm.
As for the video, it’s the group’s best since "The Chaser", though the “save the girl” plotline did make me go back to F.CUZ’s “NO. 1”, where a (strangely faceless) woman with a sword single-handedly saves all of the bloodied, beaten members - not that it’s mishandled here, though, just tired. However, with that said, the fact that they (seem to) fail to save the girl is refreshing. Purportedly, part 2 is coming tomorrow, but as it is, the open ending made me like it better immediately. In fact, the real triumph of this MV is that it makes the intro seem necessary: it bends the opening action sequences past “Acting!” and into full melo mode.
If you squint, this is also a “favourite singles of 2014 so far” list, albeit not in this order (and minus Psy). One thing that all of these MVs have in common is that their descriptions can double as descriptions of the songs, too.
1. Topp Dogg, "아라리오" (Arario). Takes something rote (the “girls, cars, higher status than you” type of hip-hop video), throws a traditional aesthetic on it, and becomes instantly more fun and interesting than the original. (See Radio Palava’s great analysis on the aspect of play in this video, too.)
2. 4Minute, "오늘 뭐해" (Whatcha Doin’ Today?). A wild ride through 4Minute World, where it’s always a competition for who can be the most over-the-top, and at the end of the day everybody wins.
3. Gain, "진실 혹은 대담" (Truth Or Dare). Cheeky and self-aware, from casting Gain’s friends as her haters to the obvious wink to (and one-upmanship of) “Blurred Lines”.
4. Orange Caramel, "Catallena". Sweet without being cloying, and while it’s not afraid of looking silly, silliness isn’t the end goal, which is what makes it work. The sushi/mermaids concept is played with enthusiasm, and the colours pop.
5. SPICA, "You Don’t Love Me". An homage that uses all the conventions of what it’s paying tribute to, but still feels fresh. Some of the asides fall a bit flat (the uncomfortably objectifying rap break; the toilet?), but most are played perfectly, props and all.
6. History, "Psycho". PROBLEMATIC SUBJECT MATTER ALERT! (I agree with the argument that at least the “I love you so much I’ll never leave you alone” thing is openly presented as problematic here, but the “psycho”/MPD concept ain’t great, either.) Aside from that, a gorgeous, cinematic and genuinely edgy aesthetic from the most adult boy group going right now. (Sorry, U-KISS, you tried it.)
As a bonus, last year’s "난 너한테 뭐야" (What Am I To You), which plays like a New German Cinema short, tops my hypothetical favourite MVs of 2013 list.
7. GOT7, "A". Bright and sunny, with appealing cartoon colours and perfect comedic timing (which in the song translates to perfect deployment of instrumental change-ups).
8. PSY, "Hangover (feat. Snoop Dogg)". THAT FEELING WHEN YOU ARE DRINKING TOO MUCH SOJU AND YOU ALREADY KNOW THAT WHEN YOU WAKE UP TOMORROW YOU WILL WANT TO DIE BUT YOU DON’T CARE BECAUSE THE FOOD AT THIS PLACE IS TOO GOOD AND THERE ARE AT LEAST 4 MORE STOPS LEFT ON YOUR ITINERARY AND YOU’RE HAVING TOO MUCH FUN TO LEAVE DO YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT WATCH THIS VIDEO AND YOU WILL KNOW
9. Akdong Musician, "200%". The nostalgic look and feeling plays off the freshness and energy of the song. Both are charming, and emphasize that one of AKMU’s best features is not showing maturity for their age, but displaying it to the fullest.
10. Beast, "Good Luck". Obviously, any Wong Kar-Wai homage is an instant contender for this list, even one that’s so blatant about it and has unnecessary streetwear costume choices. (What was wrong with the suits?) It doesn’t have the Tumblr aesthetic appeal of last year’s "Shadow (그림자)", but it compensates with a stronger song.
11. Taeyang, "눈,코,입" (Eyes, Nose, Lips). (AKA “chain, nipples, abs,” tbh.) Starts small, then builds until it overflows. Sure, the burning poster is a cliché, but in the moment, it’s the only ending that satisfies.
12. Girl’s Day, "Something". If you’re gonna do a Park Ji-yoon homage, you might as well go for the fucking Park Ji-yoon homage.
Special mention: VIXX, "기적 (Eternity)" dance version. The atmosphere is nice and all, but what’s really important is the choreography, which supports the song and lifts it towards the sublime (especially when done live).
Madeleine Lee: In the year of the female president, the adage “All men are wolves” (or “dogs,” translated more colloquially) has taken off in Korea. Whether spoken as a boast or a warning, the message is the same: boys will be boys, so girls, watch what you wear and what you do. Enter Lee Hyori, herself no great fan of the female presidency, who’s written a song about girls who wear and do what they want over a Norwegian Dick Dale-lite beat. But this is not a retort or a revenge fantasy; that would make it about the men. Just listen to the overwhelmingly female fanchants for Hyori’s comeback stage. This is a song for the bad, bad, bad, bad girls themselves: cool like surf rock and hot like mambo, talking shit but still cute, not hiding their wits and smarts, “showing a little skin to be sexy.” One caveat: the virgin/whore tropes of the lyrics are regrettable, but all lobbed bombs lose accuracy for the sake of impact. 
This was my Amnesty pick for this year! One day I want to go into a bit more depth about that Gag Concert corner and Infinite’s “Inconvenient Truth” (which I admit to liking musically, even as the lyrics make me shrivel up inside - and there’s a reason I didn’t link to any fancams of the music video, which is that I didn’t want to look at it again). In fact I’d like to write a few things about Gag Concert and women, but…time…
Madeleine Lee: Four years ago, "Turn It Up" was left for dead, baking in the desert; now it returns, staggering, loopy and vengeful. The heavy beat and one-note chorus have warped and darkened into a drone. Fashion (Givenchy, McQueen) has aged into art (Basquiat, Kubrick), and the preening messages of seduction have dissolved into a cut-up that layers images of nuclear apocalypse against a recitation of the Korean alphabet in the space of a verse. In the end it’s more noise than signal, but the endless repetition of the title is true dada: an incantation against order, an excitation to an action that never arrives, and ultimately, its own obliteration. 
Alternate blurb: “How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada.”
And just 14 hours after the VMAs, it remains PROBLEMATIC O’CLOCK!
Madeleine Lee: What to make of this level of cultural appropriation — not the flash style-skimming we’re used to from the YG roster, but one that comes perilously close to invoking the word “soul”? For “Badman” is not entirely the product of some context-poor upper-level corporate decision. B.A.P’s leader and creative nucleus Bang Yongguk, whose Neruda-quotin’, Kahlo-admirin’ ways have surely earned him a Complex interview by now, has made reference to MLK in his lyrics, once citedBlack Like Me as a book he reads several times a year, and is the kind of guy who tweets about "becoming one through music beyond race." So this is coming from a more enlightened place than it may seem, but enlightened fetishization is, well, still fetishization. If anything, the problem with “Badman” may be that it knows too much, and so tries to do too much. The song stumbles from post-Kanye electronica to dub to generically “exotic” breakdown to their usualslogan-shouting, all without apparent forethought; the last one seems more like a default safe stance than an attempt to bring things together. The video is just as confused: Is it helping Detroit or exploiting it? What’s with the painfully obvious kissing white couple/violent black men parallel? Does its portrayal of a riot glorify violence or glorify the struggle, and which is worse? Half a black face doesn’t count, right? Of course, expectations can be adjusted. This is still pretty bold for a mainstream idol group, and for the other stuff, stans have continually invoked the cultural relativism defense, which is fair. But the thing is, “Badman” positions B.A.P as global saviours. And when you’ve decided a bunch of people need saving, but insist your own cultural standards be upheld, that’s not aid — that’s imperialism. 
Neither here nor there: As an ex-Givenchy-head, I like the drapey costuming a lot. And I feel the need to pre-emptively emphasize that I like Bang Yongguk - the art appreciation thing goes very far with me - it’s just that I’m not always willing to back him up when I don’t agree with him.
After some new rules introduced in August 2012, every Korean music video uploaded onto YouTube or broadcast in Korea needs to have a rating shown at the start of the music video in a corner.
The ratings are assigned according to content, though as we would see later, the criteria by which the music videos are judged are pretty muddled. One thing that is certain though is the ruling for music videos rated “19″ are slapped with age restrictions for online viewing, as well as only being allowed to be broadcast on television after 10pm in Korea.
Despite the initial controversy surrounding the rating, we now have companies that openly encourage the rating (if only for the news worthiness), and now we have reached the point where a company (Star Empire) does not bother to dispute the ratings and just rolls with it, despite the potential for reduced commercial success.
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.