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.
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.