A Musical Stew: The Reflection

Hi All,

Firstly, I’d like to thank whoever has been reading and supporting this blog so far, two weeks from its inception. What started as a brainchild with helpful doses of uninhibited curiosity in the early days of February has now blossomed into perhaps the greatest academic achievement in my life so far.

I never thought I could analyse anything to this depth, nor discover so much about something so mainstream and typecast that wasn’t there before. That isn’t to say that the whole process was easy. It turns out that it takes a lot more than a(n un)healthy curiosity to power research of this magnitude, and even more. It takes time, it takes hunger, and it takes sacrifice. I’ve noticed these last two weeks that I’ve become a different person altogether, someone who speaks with an authority built on humility, someone who is consistently stressed out while craving that very stress at the same time because it meant that I got to delve into a subject that fascinated me.

After two weeks of long nights and bittersweet compromises on scheduling, I’ve realized a few things:

1. The research project can be daunting.

It is not a simple task to research and research thoroughly and articulately. There are many angles, many stories, many sources and opinions that can and must be consulted. Even dissecting a video based on subjective experience is not enough. In my many video dissections I had to either stick with the obvious, or call in a source on the internet to back (or refute) my claims, heavily shaping the schedule of the research in question.

Despite my best efforts to time and plan out my resources, structures and writing beforehand, a lot of my research and investigation was done while writing. A lot of painful backspacing and a lot of sweet, sweet wisdom was uncovered during late night research sessions that could have gone into the sunrise if sense had not prevailed. And yet as a result, I’ve been able to get insight. Daunting as research may be, it is a challenge worth taking up because of the invaluable insight and skills that can be gained and honed during the process. I am now able to interpret news events more efficiently, developing a crucial skepticism that should be applied to all areas of daily life where perspective is involved.

2. Passion can be powerful

I never thought that I would be passionate about anything other than jazz. Even when I first heard “Gee” in 2009 I was convinced that K-Pop was for the inane and for the ignorant masses, yet another cash-grab vehicle pushed out by companies who scientifically analyse the puppet-like mannerisms of its audience. However, by slowly becoming exposed to what really interests me about K-Pop, I am able to understand at least a small part of its appeal. I am able to understand that there is always an endless network of influence, of homage, of artistic theft that is encouraged and weaponized in any great cultural institution, and I am confident that in K-Pop, this can only continue.

I realize mostly that my hunger to uncover these mysteries at least in part was what drove me to and through those late nights, and past the lingering questions of “You can just half-ass this” or “You don’t have to get an A. You’re not even sure if you can get an A.” I realized that doing this project was more than a grade and more than a requirement, it became a passion project, it became something I had to finish for myself, and that has made all the difference.

3. Working at an interest is humbling

I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt through this process is how humbling reading others’ work and “synthesizing” it into your own can be. There are so many brilliant people who have poured their soul in greater and more articulate ways to the things they are similarly passionate about that I have tried to represent here. Never again will I take an academic’s work, or even a general opinion, for granted, because all of that had to come from somewhere, and all of it came from someone who spent a few hours watching this and thinking a long time about whether it would fit anywhere that would make sense.

It really puts into perspective why anyone would be able to endure years of endless research in pursuit of a hopelessly specific yet groundbreaking piece of knowledge, because it is the amalgamation of these pieces of knowledge that make up the body of knowledge that the world can benefit from. I think today’s consumers can benefit from a deeper knowledge of K-Pop and its roots because it allows us to better understand what we look for and therefore help better shape the experiences we can have and enjoy, at least from a cultural standpoint.

There is so much I could have, should have, and wanted to get to, but with inconsistent scheduling and real life obstacles that logistically prevented my ideal entry-per-day model, that I believe this project has only scratched the surface of surfaces. If anything I think this blog stands for the the depths to which one can delve into any institution and discover that there are so many roots and influences at work that create something rich, artistic and powerfully popular.

I hope there are others who are with me and after me that will continue this pursuit.

Best wishes,

Your author,

Josiah Ng

[GROUP FEATURE] EXO: Marriages In Novelty

So in our last entry, we were able to talk about Big Bang’s status as a legendary super group because of the size and work of their individual stars. Today I’d like to talk about a super group in a very different sense, one that’s at the very forefront of the 3rd generation of K-Pop, and one that draws a lot of questions about the future of K-Pop.

EXO is (originally) a 12 member group that debuted in 2012 with their single “MAMA” to much hype and comparisons to Super Junior, which I will discuss shortly later. The group has been heavily marketed since and is considered one of SM’s bigger successes. Though they have recently been riddled with scandals in a tough 2014, they are still looked to as the mainstream future of K-Pop at home, especially as it begins to branch out and fans across the world are discovering other important sub-genres and scenes such as the K-Hip Hop or Indie scene (with acts like Busker Busker gaining popularity)

The 12 member group has not released much musical material compared to Big Bang and SNSD, which I have discussed in previous entries, but the smaller body of work, contextualized in the early stages of EXO’s career, are an important insight into how much the company controls the creative process. As the group hasn’t spent an overwhelming period of time in the limelight, their image has to be crafted, and with the lack of prominent solo activity, this group is sticking to artistic choices made by people SM hires and contracts to work with EXO.

Overall Aesthetic

“HISTORY” was released in 2012 as part of EXO’s parade of teaser material to hype up the supergroup before their debut

It’s hard to judge a group’s aesthetics or style properly when they’ve only had 4 official videos to their name, but EXO’s prologue and debut singles give us a good idea of what they were meant to be. “HISTORY” was the first video I was shown of this band, and, as opposed to “MAMA”, their proper debut single, this video is very intent on showing the gorup’s ability to dance and performer. It applies a standard K-Pop music video structure. There are tasteful and active cuts, and a good majority of the video is choreography.

What’s interesting is that in this, the 3rd generation of K-Pop, the major influences are surprisingly not directly Western. The gaudy fashion choices, unity with subtle distinctions, the chrome accents in an array of glam urban hoodies, shorts and whatnot, are all Big Bang inspired. The sets are geometric and sci-fi esque, which is more EXO’s image than anybody else’s, reminiscent of DBSK’s “Mirotic” and SHINee’s “Lucifer”. The use of synths and the “rhythm section” of HISTORY’s sound is also reminiscent of “Lucifer”.

None of these influences are directly western. Most of the aesthetic choices are perhaps a degree removed from everything K-Pop has done before, and in this way, “HISTORY” is more distinctly Korean than many 2nd generation music videos. EXO as a group are pushing the boundaries, and in fact these new(ly sourced) aesthetics are why people are labelling EXO and other groups coming out around 2012 as the 3rd generation of K-Pop.

In fact, Seoulbeats.com featured a guest piece about EXO’s prologue series, and about the “HISTORY” video specifically, making note of the “extraterrestrial” features of the set, which include rocks, snow and trees mixed with EXO’s outlandish outfits. It is again, a K-Pop tradition (spearheaded by perhaps G-Dragon) to clash aesthetic choices in order to create something new. However, when one looks deep enough, there are western elements in EXO’s material.

EXO’s 2012 debut single “MAMA” showcases western influence of a very different sort.

Obviously the first thing that sticks out about their debut single “MAMA” is the painfully long narration at the beginning of the video. While I think the narration is in the poorest taste and execution possible, it does a lot to frame the entire concept for EXO’s opening image. It also does a lot to explain the more head-scratching elements of “HISTORY”.

I think this time around, the western influences are in the concept of myth based sci-fi that the world is becoming steadily more obsessed with. In movies like Thor or Avatar and their monumental success, the 21st century audience loves their sci fi, especially when it is melded with “natural” elements, such as an alien race that has an intimate, biologically fantastic relationship with its environment. A similar “alien life” concept is applied in “MAMA”, framed by the opening narration of “two worlds” (in reference to the EXO-K and EXO-M subgroups catering to two different markets or “worlds”) and executed by the set with pillars and glowing logos.

Artistically the video is standard fare for K-Pop, but the flavor of the video has dramatically changed because of these new incorporations. Korea.com did a breakdown of the three generations of boy groups and cites the 3rd generation as taking on an androgynous image, following the 2nd generation “flower boy” aesthetic. Perhaps when put together, EXO’s main concept is the alien, androgynous male tribe, appealing to the 21st century audience’s fascination with attractive, alien aesthetics.

Coming Back Down To Earth

“Wolf”, EXO’s 2013 comeback single for their album XOXO, boasts a slightly altered aesthetic.

Despite that lofty and specific opening aesthetic, EXO turned to a more…earthly image for their comeback in 2013. “Wolf” and its later post-album release single “Growl” both draw from the glam urban image commonly used in Big Bang videos. The singles and the album were released with a drama video featuring now ex-member Luhan. The video uses school life and teenage wolf powers (not dissimilar to hit TV series Teen Wlf, which also stars an outcast student imbibed with wolf powers), bringing another texture to an already intriguing alien-teenager image. In fact, The Daily Dot published a piece on EXO after “Wolf” was dropped.

The article also mentions that a tree concept is used both from their debut and their 2013 comeback, where “MAMA”‘s opening narration described EXO as being two halves to the tree of life, and the opening formation for “Wolf” is much shaped like a tree, in a rendered silhouette featured in the Daily Dot piece.

It seems that as EXO goes on, SM seems very willing to continue using American media choices (Teen Wolf, fantasy sci-fi tropes, a distant future or alien concept) to power EXO’s appeal. Of course, EXO is an all-around group, as the Daily Dot piece also mentions, filled with very capable dancers and singers, so that when there are more members, there is just more to choose from to like.

“Growl” was a video so catchy that when my sister first showed it to me during the summer of 2013, it was THE video that changed my opinion on K-Pop for the worse better.

“Growl”, released after EXO’s 2013 album was dropped, is a catchy and unexpectedly throwback type of video for the boy group that seemed for a while to be all about the mysterious and alien. Filmed in all choreography, usually an honor reserved for groups that feature exceptional dancers and choreography (an honor that EXO most certainly lives up to), the video is set in an a warehouse, and the group is wearing school uniforms with liberal variations that show each member’s distinct traits. This return to standard boy band formula is crucial for establishing EXO’s appeal as a boy group, because it simply isn’t an artistic choice to use trees, mythology and superhuman powers as an image before they can show they can do what has already been done, well.

“Growl” harkens back to popping and locking traditions of current urban dance genres, choreographed by renowned dancer and choreographer Nick Bass. In a YouTube interview with RhythmAddictTV, he cites Michael Jackson as an influence, and speaks at length about Justin Timberlake, both of which must indirectly contribute to his choreography. Nick Bass working with EXO is just one of many Korea-West collaborations that shows K-Pop is receiving first hand influence from the US. Similar cases include SHINee’s Lee Taemin working with Ian Eastwood on his solo album “Ace”, especially on choreography for “Danger”, and Tony Testa with EXO on their 2014 comeback single “Overdose”, on “Wolf” as well as other videos with TVXQ, Super Junior and SHINee.

New Marriages from Old Ones

“Overdose” was a collaboration between SM regular choreographer Tony Testa and EXO in 2014

In fact, 2014 showed that EXO was willing to further explore a blend between future-urban styles and subtle cues to American media. Heavily drawing on a hexagonal fractal motif (as seen used frequently in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), “Overdose” blends a clear aesthetic reference to young adult dystopian media with flashy and colorful urban styles, a la G-Dragon in Big Bang. Obviously the styles themselves are rather reminiscent of boldly colored 90s and early 2000s hip hop, but it was G-Dragon who made them popular in his hit single “Heartbreaker”, again an example of 2nd degree K-Pop stylistic influence.

The song itself is synth heavy, again a trait found in both Big Bang’s work, and the genre of EDM in general which is popular globally. However, instead of a traditional verse-drop-break-second drop form as used in mainstream EDM hits, “Overdose” features quick drops using the 808 snare heard in many trap EDM works, to marry the traditional pop song form with EDM tropes. This form of music making is yet another example of K-Pop efficiently marrying definitive western cultural cues with intention to create a jarring “Korean”-ism about “Overdose”.

EXO I think is a definitive example a perfected K-Pop artistic formula, that is an intentional potpourri of western cultural ideas mixed to create a Korean flavor, taken to new heights in SM’s flagship 3rd generation boy supergroup. EXO has the potential to the point where they have even began to net scandals (a “core” part of American superstardom) to further have their names on headlines, whether these scandals are intended to any degree or not. EXO-M members Luhan and Kris left for logistical and business discrepancies, and in turn, the internet exploded when Swedish Boy Band “The Fooo Conspiracy” were accused of plagiarizing the choreography from “Growl” for their own videos (which have a faux K-Pop feel to them, featuring shots of choreography mixed with shots of the group moving about, all in all showcasing members)

Though it isn’t my work to delve into the scandals, the Fooo Conspiracy scandal tells me but one thing: that influence, whether rooted in plagiarism or not, is cyclical. Western influences are appealing to Koreans in now more ways than ever, but the appeal of K-Pop is reaching the world in turn; that a Swedish boy band would even consider filming their music video and employing choreography in a similar fashion to anything East Asian would have been inconceivable in 2009, yet because of the Hallyu Wave, here we are.


SPOTLIGHT: Final Theft

Spectrum – U-Know Yunho (TVXQ/DBSK), Eunhyuk, Donghae (Super Junior), Taemin, Minho (SHINee), Kai, Lay (EXO) (2012)

I’ve decided to spotlight this particular video for two reasons: a) EXO honestly does not have any more material that would be worth dissecting since they are shockingly a new group after all, and b) I’ve watched this video at least 2 times a day since last week.

Part of what impresses me deeply about K-Pop is the seamless and crisp performance-caliber choreography that the dancers of SM Entertainment’s guy groups (all of whom, some more than others, are represented here) have. Also, it’s incredibly telling and sobering to be reminded of Korea’s fascination with contemporary American culture. Mixing several well known EDM tunes of the last few years together in this video to amazing choreography (most notably by U-Know Yunho starting at the 2:04 mark) is a surprisingly interesting stunt when Korea has idols at home that produce original material that the country is more than proud of.

It shows that American influence is still alive and well in South Korea, and without getting too technical, the dancing and performance, plus audience response, are reminiscent of similar atmospheres during the heyday of the Beatles and Michael Jackson, whom I wrote an open letter to in the last entry about their indelible influence on the K-Pop idiom. However, it is also wonderful to know that K-Pop’s influence doesn’t stop at the structural or at the historical level; the translation of Zedd’s “Spectrum” into Korean in the ending vocals indicates two things: That yes, K-Pop is still fascinated with American trends and intends to use them to bolster appeal, and also that K-Pop is not willing to slow down. Though the stars in the video do not show huge differences in age, the generational gaps are apparent to one familiar with the dancers and the groups they represent.

The fact that Eunhyuk, Donghae and U-Know Yunho from 2nd generation groups Super Junior and DBSK, respectively, draw enormously larger amounts of applause than for Taemin, the single dancer from SHINee who received a solo routine. It shows that even the older groups DBSK and Super Junior have the moves and the talent to flawlessly perform cutting edge material to new music, and enthrall audiences still. Yet Kai and Lay of EXO, comparatively a much newer group, don’t lack love also. They are known for performing clean dance routines to EDM tracks as discussed in this article, and the appeal is not lost on this enthralled audience.

An Open Letter To Michael Jackson and The Beatles

Dear Mr. Jackson and Messrs. McCartney, Lennon, Starr and Harrison,

It’s impressive that through countless other videos and performances like the ones above, all of you have influenced K-Pop at its very core today. I highly doubt that any of you anticipated that your legacy would be permutated as such. Yet, Michael, many K-Pop stars owe their entire aesthetic to your influence and pioneering style of performing, as do many American artists. And, Beatles, that K-Pop companies owe their fervor to put out identical looking sets of performers to the havoc you wreaked in the 60s through Beatlemania.

I think it’s prudent to start with a paper that I read regarding first Messrs. Beatles and their legacy. Written by web-user virdant, his paper Now Twirl: A not-very-brief discussion on similarities and differences between boybands in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and The West opens up by discussing the Beatles and their primary influence on the Asiatic boyband scene. Although it discusses how you, The Beatles, revolutionized and repopularized the concept of original music (something rather far removed from K-Pop), as opposed to being manufactured, the key influences are still there. Four similarly good looking and talented individuals sell. However, there’s a bit more than that, I think.

During your Hamburg years, which Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book Outliers as being an outlandishly rigorous period of time essential to the perfection of your craft, you pushed your physical boundaries maybe not necessarily with a goal in mind, but because the music drove you and because it was work. I think that’s a sentiment many K-Pop stars share today, whether they’re in-training or in the twilight of their careers. Though certainly it didn’t originate solely with you, The Beatles, the fact that played a key role in your success cannot be overlooked.

In fact, John Seabrook wrote an excellent piece for the New Yorker about the entire K-Pop system as he encountered it, describing Tiffany and Jessica of SNSD in particular, the long hours and insane schedule they put themselves through to achieve stardom. While it perhaps cannot compare to the insane hours of actual performance and use of drugs to stay active and performing, one can’t help but identify the similarities in work ethic required to go to such extreme measures. Again, while morally questionable, there is in fact, no question that to reach stardom, one must work to extremes, and this is something that Messrs. McCartney, Lennon, Starr and Harrison have passed on in spades.

Next, Michael, your influence is undeniably widespread among K-Pop. Countless stars talk about your overwhelming influence on their careers and their work. And there’s no need to mention how revolutionary your popularizing of choreography + flawless singing is to pop music in general, let alone K-Pop. You’re the reason why such stars as SHINee’s Taemin, in your tradition of pursuing a solo career after the Jackson 5, created this:

Taemin’s “Ace”, which came out in mid 2014, even features the same kinds of cloning techniques as demonstrated in Jackson’s seminal hit, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

Much of the choreography in this video is inspired by your popping and locking, blended with a prolific use of crotch grabs, pelvic thrusts and other such bursts of energy in subtle and concentrated places. In fact, Lee Taemin says in an interview reposted by WordPress user Minewi Shinee, that he used to watch and attempt to follow along with you, Michael, in your music videos.

Taemin isn’t the only star you have a hold over. Scores of other stars attribute their work to your influence, such as BoA, in this piece from a press conference, and Taeyang, who quotes listening to Xscape as “[reminding] me once again that he is my greatest inspiration.” In fact, Seoulbeats featured a piece by user Laura where not only are you called the biggest idol amongst K-Pop stars, but you are linked to such successes as the inaugural Seo Taiji & Boys, Taemin’s “Danger”, and the choreographer who was responsible for hits like SHINee’s “Replay” and SNSD’s “Genie”.

It may seem, however, that your influence as the king of pop is only limited to dance and choreography, but so often is your performance caliber mistaken as a footnote to your dancing abilities, so too does your performance acumen come as a footnote to the dancing that makes K-Pop so appealing to the general public. Efforts like this:

result in K-Pop’s efforts like this:

where even just at the solo level, we can expect a high level caliber of performance. Michael, you’ve set that bar, and you’ve inspired so many stars in your wake that your influence is undeniable. And, definitely not to slight Messrs. Beatles, the audience’s openness to scream while the star is performing must be attributed properly to Beatlemania.

In fact, Michael, your influence is so intricate and convoluted, that you’ve influenced pop stars that have in turn influenced K-Pop, and themselves in turn have been influenced by K-Pop to some degree. Take Bruno Mars for example. The chain begins where you, Michael, put out the video “Rock With You”

No one would argue that the disco-transitional, Motown-to-80s-pop sound from this video is iconic. Though this aesthetic is spread in copious amounts through this song’s album, “Off The Wall”, it is still a hugely captivating sound, and as such, has influenced such acts as Bruno Mars to create steadily more and more Michael-esque, and then late Motown/Soul Train inspired hits, as “Treasure”:

Treasure, as a hit, is a sure sign that the active basslines and steady grooves of 70s and 80s American music are still very, very catchy today, and play a vital role in catapaulting contemporary acts. Everything about this video is inspired by you, Michael, from the gratuitously acid-trip-inspired slide transitions to groove to performance style of Bruno Mars. The whole thing reeks of 70s funk, despite the video coming out in 2013.

In turn, the solo debut of SHINee’s Kim Jonghyun featured the massive all-kill hit “Deja-Boo”, which despite its occasional K-Pop trope, is largely inspired by Bruno Mars’ performance of Treasure, or at the very least, shares similarities with it. The red jackets, the backup dancers, the active bassline and groove. All of this come from just that one innocent “Rock With You” video, and the entire “Motown transitional” sound of “Off The Wall”. Michael, your influence is felt even 2 or 3 degrees outward, something few other artists can safely claim.

Jonghyun’s solo debut was met with massive acclaim, even more than the aforementioned Lee Taemin’s debut was met with, purely out of the strength of Jonghyun’s songwriting, artistic confidence, and performance acumen put together. All of these attributes are influenced, both technically and artistically, by you, Michael, and that influence is inescapable. This level of artistic conviction and excellence is perhaps the reason why “Deja-Boo” is consistently on repeat wherever I go, from my iPhone.

It’s safe to say, Michael and Messrs. Beatles, that your influence is felt and reverberated throughout K-Pop today. If it wasn’t for your revolutionary successes, we wouldn’t have K-Pop in the way we know and love it, and for that reason alone, this project would not exist, where a 21 year old would want to dissect even the most obscure K-Pop groups for every last detail of influence from home.

Yours truly,

A fan who wants to know more.


SPOTLIGHT: Seminal Influence

Thriller (Michael Jackson) – Gikwang, Taemin, Wooyoung, Chansung, Minzy

Though the choreography is short in this video, and heavy artistic liberties were taken with the sampling of this song, there is no doubt about the power of Michael Jackson in the lives of these young performers, especially whatever motivated them to perform one of Michael’s greatest hits in the best selling album of all time, Thriller.

While this is not a traditional Spotlight feature, which I feel usually involves a music video released by any one of the groups owned by any one of the entertainment companies in South Korea, I feel it is necessary to use this video to represent just the artistic power that Michael Jackson has on today’s K-Pop stars. In fact, there was a forum on Soompi.com, all the way back in 2009, dedicated to K-Pop’s mourning of Michael Jackson’s death. The fact that this existed in 2009, barely after or before K-Pop’s huge boom worldwide, is a testament to how impacting Jackson’s work is in the K-Pop universe.

Without Jackson, we would have no choreography matched with singing. Without Jackson, the standard is much lower or at least much different from what we expect stage presence to mean. Even Moonrok’s history of K-Pop has mentioned that SM executive Lee Soo-man’s experience in America with the Michael Jackson era influences how he operates his company, and how he produces new groups.

It is due in large part to Lee Soo-man that K-Pop survives and uses western influence the way it does, but it is primarily because of Michael Jackson’s performing prowess that has led him to be one of K-Pop’s legendary influences that shapes the K-Pop we know and love today.

[GROUP FEATURE] Big Bang: Greater Parts

I’ve got to open up with a disclaimer. Big Bang has a lot of work out. They’re perhaps one of the most popular, acclaimed and prolific groups out there. It is an impact that resonates through the generations and inspires newer groups time and time again. Also, the basis for much of the opinion and facts in this entry is thanks to WordPress site bigbangisforever, who wrote a piece in 2014 describing Big Bang’s illustrious career. I will try to emphasize artistic choices in terms of videos once again, but my opinion has been largely shaped in that wonderful analysis.

Big Bang is now almost a hallowed name, spoken when referring to the five strong stars that have emerged from its success. G-Dragon, T.O.P, Taeyang, Seungri and Daesung. Unlike SNSD which we discussed a few days back, Big Bang is a group of a very different sense. Their defining moments are not the comebacks which showcase their influences as a group, but rather for the two three-year periods in which all five members have pursued and succeeded in solo work. 2009-2011 set the stage for a wild aesthetic upheaval in the group resulting in 2012’s “Alive”, and 2012 until today should be setting the stage for their confirmed comeback (new release) in 2015, as 2012-2015 was yet again a time in which all members were able to build on their individual and continuing popularity.

In fact their solo periods are so important, it makes more natural sense to talk about those at length instead, but in order to understand how important those solo periods were for Big Bang’s aesthetic, it is important to understand where they came from.

Big Bang debuted in 2006 with the release of “BIGBANG”, a single album which became three, which became Big Bang’s first album “Big Bang Vol.1”. Much of the group’s sound and influence was made abundantly clear with numerous songs in these albums, some of which were made into music videos.

“We Belong Together” was released in Big Bang’s first single album and features a obvious, cookie-cutter hip hop influence

Considering that T.O.P was once an underground rapper that set the stage for rappers turning idols, it came naturally for T.O.P to drop an astounding verse around 1:54. In fact, the first noticeable quality about “We Belong Together” is its gratuitous mid-2000s hip hop/R&B influence. It is reminiscent of R&B star Ne-Yo whose clean and crisp drum-basslines coupled with do-wop synths create the quintessential mid-2000s R&B sound.

Whether Big Bang intended to fit in these influences is unknown, but it is clear that Big Bang loves to include hip hop elements into their music. In fact it is a connection with Western popular music in general that is a part of Big Bang’s appeal. Later videos in their solo periods see them individually using different elements of modern American music such as club rap and EDM to create new kinds of textures and gaudy aesthetics.

“Lies” was Big Bang’s first number 1 hit single and paved the way for successive number 1 singles. It was their gateway to popularity and widespread recognition.

Big Bang broke out with their hit single “Lies” in 2007, which stayed number 1 on Korean music charts for a record breaking 7 weeks, and lingered for 54. The song was written by G-Dragon, known today for his gaudy and edgy appearance, and was the group’s first foray into electronic music, and the fact that it did so well made electronic influences prominent in much of their later work.

Not much of their work from 2007-2009 is written about, mainly because of the significance of their solo periods overtaking their group success, and the fact that the K-Pop global boom didn’t take place until 2009. However, it is perhaps their solo periods that truly shaped their sound for 2012.

G-Dragon

“Heartbreaker” was a huge release for G-Dragon to kick off his solo career with.

If ever there was a personification of “hit the ground running” it would be G-Dragon’s solo career with “Heartbreaker.” His debut single as a solo artist charted number 1 on the Gaon music chart, and much of the video is retained in his performances today.

The video itself is gaudy and bright beyond belief. Though his hair has not become the signature Skrillex cut we see today, much of his fashion finds its roots here. The entire techno-glam aesthetic of the video, in addition to the full-force use of EDM, is what makes G-Dragon.

In fact this video is so groundbreaking that it involves several sets and looks that are being used by K-Pop stars still today, and this video came out in 2009! While the other singles off of his 2009 album “Heartbreaker” did not chart as well as the title track did, it is clear that G-Dragon came out of 2009 with a mission. He is perhaps the brightest (literally) star in Big Bang’s cast, prompting Ludacris to say “Yo, this kid’s a star” on a piece written by The Hollywood Reporter on G-Dragon.

T.O.P

“Turn It Up”, relased in 2010, is the first single that T.O.P released as a solo artist, peaking at 11th on K-Pop music charts

T.O.P perhaps owes his entire career to his early rap work as underground rapper T.E.M.P.O. In Big Bang videos prior and current, as well as in his solo videos, hip hop is a concept he explores wildly, and his verses are always masterworks of meter and percussion.

Though mostly known for his work in the duo “GD & TOP”, T.O.P’s first single is significant because he explores a different flavor of hip hop than most Big Bang fans are used to seeing. Far removed from G-Dragon’s colorful aesthetic, T.O.P applies an edgy concept with black and white cinematography in addition to a more straightforward club hip hop sound. His rapping takes center stage as his style relates closely to those of rappers such as Wiz Khalifa, who uses the same kinds of “lazier” rap verses while featuring alternating shots of black and white filming.

GD & TOP

“Knockout”, released in 2010 as part of GD & TOP’s debut album, is the video that made Ludacris declare G-Dragon a star.

Perhaps the strongest act to come out of Big Bang, aside from G-Dragon himself, is the duo GD & TOP. There is something awe-inspiring about the blend of G-Dragon’s gaudiness and T.O.P’s edge in one video. Stimuli come in rapid fire, as there are scenes of bubble pop (to reinforce the hook) and there are scenes where dogs are eating bones. Though T.O.P is a rapper at heart, and G-Dragon claims that he owes his career to the Wu-Tang Clan, the marriage of these two distinctly Korean artists produced a distinctly K-Pop video. It is the planetary collision of these two aesthetics that really shape a majority of Big Bang’s sound and look today, and it is a style that makes both stars immediately recognizable. The fact that both come from distinctly hip hop roots seems like a footnote and yet it is of the utmost importance. An authentic hip hop background is what produced the star confidence that this duo has; one cannot understand Big Bang without understanding GD & TOP.

Taeyang

“Where U At” was Taeyang’s first solo single released in 2009. This and “Wedding Dress”, released the same year, are perhaps the most representative of Taeyang’s solo sound.

Where G-Dragon and T.O.P have released the most aesthetically important videos in Big Bang’s newer sound, Taeyang has released the most videos in the first solo period, going into the second. While T.O.P and G-Dragon have chosen to adopt more glamorous and YouTube famous styles of American music, Taeyang has stuck true to the roots of his cornrows. His hip hop influence is more straightforward than perhaps the two other aforementioned stars, featuring urban backdrops and gratuitous dance routines.

The music itself does not feature rapping, but is rather of a more straightforward hip pop song. His music is reminiscent of R&B singing with choreography a la Chris Brown. It draws from earlier Ne-Yo similarities, and this is an aesthetic that Taeyang has been able to build on. In fact, even the lyrical content of Taeyang’s music builds heavily on an R&B obsession with love, especially towards women.

“Wedding Dress” was released in the same album as “Where You At”. The piano melody is also reminiscent of Chris Brown, and this song further serves to solidify Taeyang’s sound.

The ever popular “Wedding Dress” is another, perhaps much more accessible example of this. The opening piano trope is a popular device used in R&B songs, and it is the source of hundreds upon hundreds of YouTube covers. Just purely based on that fact, it shows that the device of using piano riffs in the opening of an R&B song has a wide appeal.

Alive

Though Daesung and Seungri contribute immeasurably to Big Bang’s image both inside and outside of their work, especially in shows, much of Alive’s texture and popularity comes from the flavors Taeyang, T.O.P and G-Dragon acquired during their solo gigs. On their 2012 comeback album “Alive”, their most popular track “Fantastic Baby”, garnering 138 million views, melds all of these elements together.

“Fantastic Baby” differs heavily from their earlier tracks purely because of the solo period from 2009 to 2011 where each member was allowed to explore and experiment.

The urban grunge elements draw heavily from T.O.P’s style of rapping and Taeyang’s general color palette from their videos, which was in turn influenced heavily by their hip hop and urban roots. G-Dragon opens the video with his signature Skrillex cut, exaggerated with extensions that run all the way down the stairs. The potpourri of artistic elements, especially the goth techno aesthetics seen in some of the visors, in the video itself draw heavily from G-Dragon’s videos.

This video can be viewed as a unanimous success because of the flawless way it melds the experiences of the entire group over the span of 3 years. There is a new energy in their performance that is mightily close to American artists, and this can probably be attributed above all to the confidence each member must have gained from artistically striking out on their own. The gaudiness, unlike for newer groups, does not come off as a put on because each member believes in and is excited by the artistic choices they bring to this song.

Vestiges of their earlier, straightahead hip hop style can be seen in the occasional bandana and bling, but electronic dance music has largely replaced the earlier hip hop sound that the group started with. The syncopated synths further add to the appeal of the video and bring this group fully into the modern times as around 2012, EDM at its most fundamental, began to gain traction around the world.

Where are they now?

It’s safe to say that Big Bang is not going to stop experimenting, whether it be in solo acts or group performances. They have now gained a twofold reputation of being a group that constantly pushes the envelop in terms of innovation and spectacle, as well as being essentially a supergroup of five very strong solo acts.

G-Dragon and Taeyang released a collaboration in late 2014 in the form of “Good Boy”, showcasing the desire to never stop incorporating new things.

Right now, Big Bang is nearing the end of their second prolific solo period. While not as radically innovative as the first, it is safe to say that Big Bang is wearing its reputation proudly. With such tracks as Taeyang’s “Ringa Linga” and the above video, “Good Girl”, Big Bang shows it is keeping up with the times, incorporating deep club bass drops in the latter, and grungy hip hop dance moves in the former.

It’s hard to say where Big Bang would be without all these influences at their disposal, it’s even harder to say if they would’ve made it if they stuck with a strict hip hop diet in their videos, but it is undeniable that these solo periods have allowed these artists to fully come into their own in whatever Western capacities they have so chosen for themselves.


SPOTLIGHT: A Potpourri

Bad Boy – Big Bang (2012)

While in the last piece we talked about how dissonant and surface level K-Pop’s adoption of hip hop culture might be, there is a surprising wealth of knowledge and adoption in this, the dark horse comeback track for Big Bang’s 2012 album “Alive” (though that’s a hard claim to sympathize with, as each track is a potential K-Pop masterwork).

First off, the producers had good sense in doing a hip hop track in New York. Despite the mulling effects of the color scheme and the linear cinematography featuring a lack of direct cuts to different sets for dance, and despite the locale, the outfits still stand out in an endearingly Korean way. The song itself is a rather mellow R&B sound, though everything in the track seems to lend itself to G-Dragon’s vocals, supplemented by Daesung’s vocals and T.O.P’s rapping in healthy doses.

There is still dancing, there is still K-Pop’s signature gaudiness (even more so in Big Bang’s case), there is still the endearing synchronization and equal featuring we’ve come to expect from all groups, but there is something distinctly worldly or global about this singular track. The fact that it was filmed on a moving camera with no explicit cuts to dancing, plus an actual story in the lyrics quasi-represented in the filming, make it a video perhaps meant more for American audiences than Korean. It seems to hint that Big Bang has global aspirations in their music making, and we could be due for a bigger culmination of that in their 2015 comeback.

K-Pop and Hip Hop: Where Branches Leave The Tree

K-Pop has a complex relationship with Hip Hop. There is a whole spectrum of interaction between the K-Pop world, the hip hop world, and Korea’s own underground hip hop scene. There are stars like Jay Park who have entered the legitimate hip hop scene in Korea after making it as a K-Pop star, there are rappers turned idols as part of a group such as Bangtan Boys’ Rap Monster and Brown Eyed Girls’ Miryo, and there are Korean rap groups that get signed to K-Pop entertainment companies such as Epik High.

This not even to mention the plethora of hip hop influences in K-Pop proper’s music videos. Even from the beginning, the cinematography and dance choreography from Seo Taiji and Boys’ “Nan Arayo” way back in 1992 showcased deep American hip hop influence, drawing similarities with Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It” and New Jack Swing. Aesthetically many groups adopt variations of modern urban styles in their wardrobes, such as in Taeyang’s “Ringa Linga”, or at least film in urban scenery much like hip hop videos from the 90s and early 2000s, such as Big Bang’s “Bad Boy”.

Taeyang has become an international celebrity. With “Ringa Linga”, he exhibits a huge hip hop aesthetic influence.

Despite these coincidences, Korea’s music scene vastly misappropriates hip hop culture in many instances, and yet parts of that same music scene adhere to the essence of hip hop. There is a healthy and rapidly growing underground for Korean hip hop, amidst K-Pop’s equally great efforts to stuff elements of the music and style into their videos to appeal to a wider audience.

A 1999 paper, written by Becky Blanchard for Ethics of Development in a Global Environment (EDGE), does an ample job of explaining the roots and reasons of classic hip hop. Titled The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture, the paper cites that rap comes from “a long-standing history of oral historians, lyrical fetishism and political advocacy.” It was a reminder to African Americans about their history and their identity. It is perhaps this, and another point the paper makes about hip hop today, that help illustrate the role of hip hop in K-Pop today, and it helps illuminate what K-Pop has seen fit to take, and what it has ignored, whether it could help it or not. Blanchard also writes that “The commodification of rap has allowed large paychecks and platinum records to erase the historical, social and economic contexts, out of which rap has emerged, from public consciousness.”

From these two ideas, we can understand that Korea has been swayed by the heavily profitable and appealing side of commodified hip hop and rap. Videos with an intentional rap aesthetic often coincidentally fall into the ratchet aesthetic as well, usually exploited in videos such as CL’s “The Baddest Female.”

CL of 2NE1 debuted in 2013 as a solo artist with “The Baddest Female”, achieving an “all-kill” that is, hitting no. 1 on all major music charts in Korea.

This kind of usage of hip hop elements, especially when the primary motivator is not political advocacy but to display the wonders of monetary excess, draws heavy fire from critics of K-Pop. Seoul Beats published a piece by a guest contributor in 2012 about K-Pop’s disconnection with authentic Hip Hop culture. In it, the article describes, using a Big Bang live performance of their single “Bad Boy,” that Korea just doesn’t seem to understand the implications of the tropes and aesthetics they are adopting. Big Hit Entertainment’s relatively new hip hop idol group Bangtan Boys were recently the stars of a reality TV series where the young group goes to LA to be educated in hip hop. Noisey, a sub-website of Vice.com, published a piece by Blanca Mendez in August 2014 about the series, shedding light on the fact that one of Korea’s rising hip hop groups knows very little about the music they’re performing and the aesthetics they adopt.

The Bangtan Boys adopt many hip hop tropes such as making and spending money, abandoned urban backdrops and others as part of their success as one of Korea’s frontrunning new hip hop groups.

However, all of the examples I’ve quoted so far, BTS, CL and Big Bang, have achieved great success for the use of hip hop elements in their work. Korea has a great love for hip hop, and it shows as an equally healthy underground-turning-mainstream true-to-roots hip hop community is well established in Korea’s music scene. Hip Hop groups that have been active for around a decade now are beginning to get major record deals, but those deals don’t seem to be taking away from the authenticity of their work.

Epik High is one example of this. Widely known as a rap group, they are known to use different kinds of sounds in their work. Their single “Love Love Love” is electropop and is wildly different from “I Remember,” an R&B track from their first album which showcases their rapping acumen, and still are widely different from their most recent hit, “Born Hater.” Released under YG Entertainment, Epik High seems to have retreated to the safe space of a full rap culture image, but the video is really a testament to the underground hip hop culture of battling and dissing other rappers and haters. “Born Hater” isn’t exactly true to hip hop’s original intentions as mentioned in Blanchard’s paper (which one could attribute to its association with YG Entertainment), it still reflects the real rapper backgrounds of all the artists who collaborated on the record, rather than the use of rap as a fishing pole for appeal by idols who are packaged by their companies entirely.

A lyric video is the best way to illustrate “Born Hater”‘s showcasing of the rap talents of all of the artists in this video.

Unfortunately, upon even the slightest delving, it seems that K-Pop uses hip hop elements without the best of intentions, and all of this research now makes it uncomfortable for me to watch anything overtly related to classic hip hop in K-Pop videos, but the influence of hip hop in shaping the aesthetics of K-Pop is undeniable. No matter the reason, it is a fact that hip hop permeates almost every aspect of the K-Pop industry and it is a huge vehicle of its popularity today. Many 3rd generation K-Pop groups such as EXO, Bangtan Boys, BAP and others utilize the varying elements of modern hip hop to shape their aesthetics (in Bangtan Boys’ case, whether they actually understand it or not) and that has maximized their appeal as idols.


SPOTLIGHT: BLURRED LINES

BAAAM (feat. Muzie of UV) – Dynamic Duo

I first heard “BAAAM” at Davis Dance Revolution 2014 when SoNE1 performed their medley of K-Pop hits, and that first impression is probably what leads me to continually put this track in that messy gray area between K-Pop and K-Hip Hop. On one hand, it was performed by a group of fans dedicated to dancing K-Pop hits, and the MV itself does feature dance routines. In fact the video itself is shot much like your average K-Pop video, with a signature blend of exposition shots, artist shots, and choreography shots.

On the other hand, Dynamic Duo, like Epik High, has been a hip hop group that’s been in the scene for a long time. Dynamic Duo have collaborated with many an artist on tracks, being featured and featuring others in the scene in turn. They have the facility, and the captioning in the video reveals that the images flow in an intertwined fashion, much like spoken word (which I imagine is much inspired from rap and the advocacy of hip hop), and is actually not something too common in other K-Pop videos.

Overall though, the fact that this is a gray area video, especially in the ways that I’ve described above, makes it all the more appealing. As written in the last entry on SNSD, it is the intentional (mis)use of Western ideas that give this video its uniquely Korean flavor. A lot can be said of the fact that Korea has adapted an American art form based on the rhythm and malleability of words, which marvelously lends itself to the plosive heavy Korean language. Korean syllables act as a secondary bass and snare drum set when Korean is rapped, and it is that which also makes Korean Hip Hop, whether it’s in the gray area or not, that much more fun to listen to.

[GROUP FEATURE] SNSD: Bubblegum That Hasn’t Popped

So last entry we were able to touch on the 2nd generation of K-Pop, and how it was largely spurred by the explosion of interest following two videos. One of them was Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” and the other was SNSD’s “Gee”.

While the Wonder Girls’ video came first, many K-Pop fans that I know today cite SNSD as their gateway drug, and I thought it would be prudent to spend my first Group Feature discussing SM’s flagship girl group.

In these group features, I hope to give a quick synopsis of the group’s career and accomplishments, dissect several videos for their influences and motifs and hopefully learn something about why this group is so influential or so representative of the western artistic foothold in K-Pop. I’ll generally close off with the Spotlight video being from the group, either another dissection or just my personal favorite video from the group. Additionally, in this Internet-based era of K-Pop, a lot of groups’ careers are tracked by their digital releases and music videos on YouTube. As a result, most of the conversation in these features will be primarily discussing music videos of that group, as well as subgroups and solo acts.

A Career Illuminated

SNSD stands for So Nyeo Shi Dae or 소녀시대. Their Korean name is taken from a 1989 hit by Lee Seung-chul, and it is translated to mean “Era of Maidens”. SNSD’s English name Girls’ Generation, however, is much more representative of their overall aesthetic. Interestingly enough, most of SNSD’s members were born in 1989, when Lee’s single was released, but this could be a coincidence. The origin of SNSD’s name is explained at the end of an SNSD fansite, SNSD Korean, as well as SNSD’s pre-debut roster changes.

Though in the last entry we talked about SNSD as simply a catalyst to the Internet revolution for K-Pop through their video “Gee”, their career marks much more than that. By many they are considered to have been the most influential girl K-Pop group in the history of K-Pop, and rightly so. Their aesthetic and musical style have influenced multiple girl groups after them, most notably A-Pink, which the website KpopStarz is hailing as the heir to SNSD’s cute aesthetic.

SNSD debuted in Korea in 2007 with their track “Into The New World.” The video itself is rather unremarkable compared to their later successes, retaining all the features of mid-2000s K-Pop, and of pop music in general, and the rest of their pre-Gee releases are of the same mold. However, one can argue that their 2008 video “Kissing You” does very well in establishing SNSD’s early “cute” aesthetic, the exact Korean term for it being Aegyo. Aegyo is used to describe an exaggerated and bubbly cuteness, best represented in certain gestures of innocent affection. It is a mainstay of SNSD’s early aesthetic.

SNSD’s rather unassuming debut track “Into The New World” was an artistically safe entry into the K-Pop scene.

Since the release of “Gee” in 2009 however, each Korean single has hit 1 without fail on Korea’s Gaon Music Chart, Korea’s homegrown version of the Billboard and Oricon charts used in the United States and Japan respectively. Additionally, with the release of “Run Devil Run” and “Oh!” both in 2010, SNSD was able to use a “Dark SNSD” and “Light SNSD” concept by showing the group in both aesthetics cloned in the last scene of “Oh!” In retrospect this seems to mark a departure from a strict adherence to the bright, pink, aegyo aesthetic fully realized in videos like “Gee” and “Oh!”

With each release after “Run Devil Run”, SNSD has been more bold and overt in displaying different influences and aesthetics in each of their videos, becoming more forward thinking with each inevitable chart topper. Most recently, 2013’s “I Got A Boy” and 2014’s “Mr. Mr.” have been absolutely groundbreaking and texturally rich, showing a maturity in performance and effortless synthesis in styles expected of one of K-Pop’s now legendary groups.

SNSD’s most recent hit, “Mr. Mr.” blends an eyepopping pink grunge aesthetic with gratuitous heavy synth fills and drum patterns closely associated with EDM or Electronic Dance Music, a recently widespread phenomenon

Early Styles

SNSD’s 2008 video “Kissing You” Though when compared to SNSD’s later success, this video seems lackluster, the single actually hit number 2 on the Gaon music charts.

Aegyo. A core part of SNSD’s early and even continuing appeal is that as a young group, they’ve established an image of innocence and youth, which also helped their impact worldwide as Aegyo is hugely similar to the “kawaii” subculture in Japan. “Kissing You” is a littler known example of their early Aegyo example as it predates the impact of “Gee”, but it proves an equally, if not more illuminating, example than the 2009 viral video.

The music itself is very very upbeat, featuring a rhythm section and strings reminiscent of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and other such 70s hits, supplemented by the equally 70s opening I-Iaug-I6 (also used in the intro of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” and verse) opening cadence/progression in the chorus (0:44). In fact, “Mamma Mia”‘s influence spills over into “Kissing You”‘s lyrical content as well. Both talk about irresistible attraction when the love interest is seen:

Mamma Mia: “My my, how can I resist you?”
Kissing You (translated lyrics): “When I kiss you while closing my eyes / my cheeks turn red / I have already fallen for you”

Admittedly this is a common topic across almost all of American Pop as well as pop music in Korea of any era, but adhering to the lyrical theme of “Mamma Mia” seems to compound the stamp that ABBA has on this song. Additionally, though the filming is simple, there is a huge emphasis on the choreography, and because of that, the viewer sees the almost-entirely white set and white outfits quite often. The pure white aesthetic used for the choreography is also used in ABBA’s “Mamma Mia.” The color white is often associated purity and innocence, as that of sheep and sheep’s wool, which only adds to what appears now to be a masterful synthesis of a specific American influence to further establish the image that SNSD has parlayed into international stardom.

Of course, this is not the only iteration of SNSD’s “innocent” or aegyo aesthetic. Up to “Oh!”, SNSD’s image has been definitely that with variations distinct to each video. “Gee”‘s premise is in its use of shocking primary colors and the mannequin-girls’ obsession with the male employee (SHINee’s Choi Minho), and the way they go about their attraction is definitively aegyo. In almost stark contrast but certainly in continuity, the white backdrop plus white outfit choreography scenes seem almost out of place, but most definitely harken back to “Kissing You”‘s use of white to show innocence.

The 2009 hit single “Gee” catalyzed the explosion of the Hallyu Wave all across the world.

In fact, K-Pendium has done an incredibly precise and meticulous analysis of “Gee”‘s musical form analyzed from a Western musical tradition’s perspective, complete with musical and stylistic reductions to illustrate their point. You can find the article here, and I highly encourage anybody who’s interested in the success of “Gee” as well as exploring one reason it pulls in audiences.

Departures

However, like all aging youth, there comes a time when a K-Pop group, even one as illustrious as SNSD, must grow and adapt to changing times. At the head of the K-Pop global explosion, SNSD finds themselves at 2010 to 2011, caught amidst success and groups rapidly forming around them in response to the world turning their heads.

Emboldened by the success of “Gee” worldwide and also by the pop culture sensation “Genie” at home, SNSD became steadily more overt in referencing Western culture in their later and newer videos, amidst attempting new styles and aesthetics. “Genie” utilized military outfits as opposed to the pop-teenage outfits the public was used to seeing, although “Genie” retained a largely pink aesthetic, with intercalary scenes showcasing yet more aegyo. Even “Oh!”, while largely retaining the pink, aegyo aesthetic, show the girls as cheerleaders rather than lovestruck teenagers a la “Gee” and “Kissing You.”

Written by American songwriters and guide-recorded by Ke$ha, “Run Devil Run” is a deeply pop oriented song.

The first video that used a distinctly “Non-SNSD” theme would be “Run Devil Run”, released in 2010, the same year as “Oh!” It is one of the premier examples of American-Korean collaboration on a K-Pop track, as Run Devil Run was written by American songwriters. Ke$ha recorded a guide track before SNSD released their version, and it showcases the “schaffel beat” as described in Ian Martin’s piece for The Japan Times. It is a rhythmic device that has become a mainstay of American pop music over the last 50 years, characterized by stresses on the 1 and 3 of every bar, rather than 2 and 4, the latter idiom being derived from Jazz music.

The impact of the schaffel beat is immediate. Paying an homage to “Gee” levels of pop simplicity, the song is driving, and modern; a perfect fit for SNSD’s then “new” aesthetic. They continue to utilize the white dance sets, but now share that screentime with choreography performed in an all black set with black outfits. The song gives the group enough edge for them to finally explore a more mature and edgy style. Even though this song was a chart topper as much as any of SNSD’s video, it is also a valiant attempt to stay abreast of the times.

The significance of this song, however, is in its collaborative backstage details. The fact that this song was written by American songwriters and sung by Ke$ha, shows that SM constantly keeps an eye out for American audiences, and chances to make it big worldwide. In fact, something like “Run Devil Run” is probably what SM and K-Pop as a whole continually works towards; exploring and exhibiting new ways to integrate American influences and make something distinctly Korean.

“Run Devil Run” set the stage for SNSD’s license in overt usage of American idioms and styles in their music. “Hoot” may be the most notorious example of this, utilizing a 60s spy aesthetic in both composition and video production. Colors are dulled to replicate 60s television, and the song itself uses a minor diatonic ascension (going up the minor scale) to replicate the ever famous James Bond Theme. Additionally, the use of a faux-surfer guitar sound in the rhythm section of “Hoot” further accentuates this aesthetic without undermining SNSD’s pop roots. The dance sets are colorful and neon-heavy to at once show that it is a Korean production with American overtones, and the wardrobe reflects a similar ambition, using 60s American design tropes at modernized lengths and cuts.

“Hoot”, released in 2010, may be a prime example of K-Pop’s modern willingness to gratuitously use American cultural ideas in their videos.

Finally, SNSD released “Paparazzi” in 2012 exclusively in Japan, which again shows that willingness to use Western cultural hallmarks in production to achieve a surprisingly Korean feel. The video uses a 30s Hollywood wardrobe which includes a red-black ensemble reminiscent of cabaret wear, trenchcoats, and tuxedo-inspired outfits in the alternate dance sequences. The song is highly electro-pop, and it is perhaps the clash between the visual aesthetic and the music style that makes this video distinctly Korean. Additionally, the video opens with Ravel’s “Bolero”, and then Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ In The Rain” as the group members asssemble on stage. There isn’t an attempt to hide or mask the use of these two landmarks of Western music, they are just gratuitously pasted at the beginning of the video and have nothing stylistically to do with the rest of the video.

“Paparazzi” was released exclusively for Japanese audiences, but the use of American ideas is obvious.

So what is the point of SNSD’s steadily more gratuitous use of American ideas in their work? It shows that K-Pop can keep up, and that it has a worldwide audience in mind. Many people will have hummed at one point in their life “Singin’ In The Rain”, and it’s use, set in contrast to SNSD’s now heavily electro-pop style, makes the video all the more endearing. How do these videos retain their Korean-ness? Simply for the way and intention that these Western ideas are used. They are used as footnotes, to maybe put on airs that K-Pop has a chameleon method of reproducing pop ideas and tropes from American pop, a sort of artistic submission if you will. However, there is no doubt in my mind that there is a level of intentionality in how K-Pop chooses to include Western influence. There is enough to draw the viewer in, but not enough to take away from its ability to represent Korea today.


SPOTLIGHT: GROWING SOPHISTICATION

I Got A Boy – SNSD (2013)

I originally decided to have this as part of my dissections for SNSD, but I realize that the reason I’m interested in this video falls a bit short and goes way beyond, academic dissection. By many accounts, this video is highly ambitious. It seems to blend the hot pink aesthetic from “Oh!”, “Genie” and other videos of that period, and a gaudy urban wardrobe.

As Mark James Russell says in his book, K-Pop Now!: The Korean Music Revolution, “There is something distinct and special about K-Pop. It’s like everything just a little bit louder, the images brighter, the style flashier – it’s just more.” “I Got A Boy” is a very good example of this. Taken individually the outfits are outrageous, just a bit gaudy and would stand out on the street like a sore thumb, but here in a video, with 8 other equally jarring outfits, it becomes an exciting norm.

The edginess of the outfits combined with the vibrancy of the video are a culmination and an homage to SNSD’s success and various styles over the years. They have the bravado and the confidence to do edgy, and they have the aegyo history to make it pop and make it cute. “I Got A Boy” is all of these things visually, and that is only part of the reason it’s such an influential video.

Musically it’s ambitious. Most tracks attempt to blend tempo changes together, but “I Got A Boy” introduces them by stopping the music altogether and having a single voice introduce the next tempo (“Bring it back to 140”). Removed from the very real and true issue of K-Pop groups being professionally and artistically restrained, the effortless musical control amidst performance, as shown by many live versions, showcase SNSD’s incredible depth of performance facility and acumen.

Of course, many would agree with me on some points and delve into others in which they disagree with me. SNSD Korean, a dedicated SNSD website mentioned earlier in this entry, contains a piece written by WordPress user “dreadtech” that analyses “I Got A Boy”. It is a fantastic dissection in its own right, and just showcases how much artistry goes behind the creation of a great work of K-Pop.

What Is K-Pop? A Short History: Pt. 2, Changing With The Times

When someone asks me how I get my K-pop fix, my answer is either from YouTube videos, or from friends and family who send me YouTube videos. For many people outside of Korea, especially relative laymen like myself, this is the truth. Apart from news sites and forums and social media posts, YouTube makes up the majority of international K-Pop exposure, and for good reason. This is what contributes to things like this blowing up:

In fact, multimedia distribution has always been at the core of the success of modern K-Pop. Even dating back to the days of Seo Taiji and Boys, the primary means of distribution for modern K-Pop is not the radio or records, but by performances on TV. Methods of distribution and exposure have diversified since then; while groups still debut on TV (shows like Inkigayo which feature live performances of new songs and routines) and are subject to several music rank system (similar to America’s Billboard charts), YouTube and online music retail among others are hugely important to the modern distribution of K-Pop.

However, K-Pop’s internet presence didn’t come by chance. Rather, there were several events during the 2000s that helped shape the way K-Pop is distributed today. According to moonROK’s History of K-Pop Series, “By 2002, over 10 million households – roughly 70% of all households in Korea – had either DSL or cable Internet connections.” This is important because it helped spur the piracy of music in Korea, leading to a serious plunge in hard record sales. Long story short, new laws got passed and streaming services were introduced, changing monthly fees to stream music online.

This sudden switch of profits from hard album sales to digital sales caused two things: One, it became imperative for companies to use their idols to advertise to bring in revenue that could not be brought in from albums, and two, it set the stage for a wide array of alternate distribution and exposure channels for all of its stars. Mobile phone advertisements, ringtone sales, mass appearances on TV for an audience that is exponentially making it easier to access TV, variety shows and subsequently forays into acting all define the 2000s for K-Pop. It could be said that in order for K-Pop to have the influence and media savvy that it has on the world, it had to learn how to saturate media at home.

SHINee showcases their adaptable dancing skills on variety show Weekly Idol.

This all came at a time when K-Pop was beginning to reach other countries. As mentioned in the last article, BoA has had much to do with popularizing K-Pop outside of Korea, bringing it to Japan, China, and even cutting an English album. Though her success in the West has been lackluster, she is largely revered for her success in Japan and the significance it has had for Korean stars in Asia. She is hailed by numerous sources as the Queen of K-Pop or the Queen of Hallyu.

And rightly so. Many 2nd Generation K-Pop groups benefit from international exposure as a result of BoA’s success. Super Junior, TVXQ/DBSK, SNSD, 2PM and 2AM, BigBang, KARA and many, many other groups forming in the mid to late 2000s have found success in either China or Japan or both.

DBSK released Japanese exclusive tracks in the same fashion as BoA, though later groups seeking success in Japan often just re-released their Korean material in Japanese.

It’s additionally safe to say that 2nd generation K-Pop is tied closely to the Hallyu Wave, a term that is associated with the rush and influx of Korean culture that becomes popular in other countries. While this movement includes TV dramas, soaps and other media, K-Pop plays a pivotal role in shaping it. Beginning in East Asia around the early 2000s (of which BoA was a huge part), the spread was mostly contained to Japan, then steadily outward into the rest of the world starting around 2008 as K-Pop began using YouTube as a means of distribution.

Later groups from the 2nd Generation (that debuted around 2007 or slightly earlier) got to ride the wave as scores of people around the world began to hear and absorb K-Pop purely through the Internet, YouTube specifically. The Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” and subsequently SNSD’s “Gee” took the internet by storm, and for many (including myself) were the first of many tastes of K-Pop for audiences abroad.

The Hallyu Wave, especially Hallyu 2.0, is crucial to understand K-Pop as it is now and as it was then because overwhelming international reception is causing companies and groups in Korea to consider the online and international demographics in new ways. Dal Yong Jin wrote a fantastic piece on Hallyu 2.0 for the International Institute Journal of the University of Michigan, found here. In it, Jin describes the crucial role that social media has played in advancing Korean culture worldwide, and at the forefront of this movement are massively popular online multiplayer games, and K-Pop.

SNSD’s Gee was, before Psy’s Gangnam Style, the most viewed K-Pop video on YouTube, fully representing the aesthetic of 2nd generation groups at the time, and the virality of Hallyu 2.0

So where are we now? At this point it makes a bit more sense to view Psy’s Gangnam style as a culmination of a whole decade’s worth of work by Korea’s music industry, rather than a the catalyst for K-Pop’s explosion on the internet, though Psy’s Gangnam style has its role. It brought K-Pop to the masses of the world, and it also coincided with a time when an explosion of new K-Pop groups in 2010 began making a name for themselves.

We are still, in 2015, living in the wake of the 3rd Generation of K-Pop, an era built completely in the influence of the Internet and of amplified global exposure. There are countless videos of Brazilians, Malaysians, Thai, not to mention Japanese and Americans dancing to videos that came out in the years after 2009, videos that they might not have otherwise seen because of the explosive popularity of “Nobody”, “Gee” or “Gangnam” style, and certainly would not have seen if it wasn’t for BoA’s pioneering efforts in the mid 2000s to help bring K-Pop to East Asia first.

We are living in a time where the 2nd generation of K-Pop are slowly dispersing and doing different things with their lives, while the 3rd generation of K-Pop groups are gaining more and more acclaim by the month. Jessica Jung, a core icon of SNSD (as all of them are), is no longer a part of the girl group, and is now working with her own fashion line, while EXO, a guy group debuting in 2012, is taking its place as SM’s flagship group, their videos raking in 30 to 40 to 50 to 60 million views each drop. Members of BigBang (from YG) and SHINee (from SM) have launched solo debuts in Korea to much acclaim, where A Pink, a girl group from A Cube Entertainment, have cleaned up awards over the last three years and are a sort of heir apparent to SNSD’s aesthetic.

As more and more online journalistic sources write about the 3rd generation of K-Pop at an excruciatingly detailed level, the world of K-Pop is wider than ever for everyone in the world to jump in and enjoy the best of the Hallyu Wave. The point of this blog is to understand the stylistic, aesthetic and cultural roots, specifically those of western origin, of these groups, but to talk about K-Pop without talking about its impact on the world, and its unique history will make it difficult down the road. The truth is, K-Pop has a huge influence on the world as it is, and it would be entirely plausible for American artists to take a huge aesthetic chunk out of the K-Pop phenomenon as K-Pop has done for itself. In the next entry, I hope to discuss one of the groups at the head of this globalizing movement, perhaps not in excruciating detail as I’ve done with this history, but in such a way as to highlight what makes up a K-Pop group, and what that means for the world.

K-Pop is by no means history, as these last two entries might also have implied. It is a changing scene, and while forums are arguing that it is coming to a close, its impact is undeniable. The world is different because of K-Pop, and I am going to attempt to understand why.

K-Pop comes full circle: Red Velvet, an SM girl group that only recently debuted, covers SM girl group S.E.S.’ “Be Natural”


SPOTLIGHT: WHAT STARTED IT ALL

Nobody – Wonder Girls (2009)

I still remember clearly when the lyrics to this and the lyrics to “Gee” echoed mercilessly in the halls of my high school. To be honest it was a toss up between featuring this video or “Gee” as both are milestones for the internet distribution of K-Pop, but Nobody has had the greater influence by far.

The Wonder Girls debuted the same year as SM’s SNSD, topping charts with the single “Tell Me” and then releasing this bombshell of a video. While the opening narrative/backstory is a bit strange, involving JYP’s preseident Park Jin Young being upstaged by his own girl group, it was the live version of this video that went viral first.

This video is mainly known by itself; it is known as the video that started K-Pop’s explosion over YouTube, and paved the way for SNSD’s success with “Gee” and Psy’s success with “Gangnam Style” though the latter was only released 3 years later. One could argue that the Wonder Girls are the internet counterparts to BoA in terms of influence and pioneering but the Wonder Girls have not had comparable success in America that BoA had in Japan (which in terms of opening the Internet and the world to K-Pop, America would be the field of success comparable to BoA’s influence in Japan).

Aesthetically this video borrows heavily from the 60s, something that isn’t found with the Wonder Girl’s debut single. 60s bobs, glitter dresses and circular frame ribbon microphones all dominate the video. The stage itself is reminiscent of show stages from Motown, where the band and backup singers are all on stage at the same time.

What’s interesting about this video however, is that they combined that aesthetic with an otherwise generic dance/bubblegum pop track. It has a grove, synth fills, and a very very memorable chorus (something my high school friends can attest to). It is pretty reminiscent of Britney Spears and other early 2000s bubblegum acts, a style which has been a mainstay of K-Pop influence since the 1st generation of K-Pop.

Perhaps the appeal (and virality) of Nobody can be explained simply by those two aspects coming together; the glam and nostalgia that comes from the 60s aesthetic, which is romanticized as K-Pop is wont to do, and the catchiness of bubblegum pop played next to it. That and the clever use of a simple and repetitive but memorable hook allows the song to stay stuck in one’s head for days at a time, adding to the video’s staying power. All of these ideas did originate from American pop innovations, though it took America 4 or so more decades to reach these understandings that it did for K-Pop to assimilate and then merge it into something that is uniquely theirs.

What Is K-Pop? A Short History: Pt. 1, Beginnings and Foundations

I’ve been listening to K-pop for something over a year now, and every time I see a new video, whether it’s from 2009 or from yesterday, I always wonder how we get from here:

to this.

Between these two videos there is a host of difference and a subtle kinship in terms of musical styles, aesthetic and cinematography (you might find that I will use these words plenty over the next two weeks).

At the bottom of my queries is that in the two or so decades K-Pop as we know it has been around, it has changed significantly without deviating from a core formula. I realize additionally that in order to make any sense of the musical culture we are about to delve into, we first have to have an idea of where everything came from.

K-Pop as we know it today first originated with Seo Taiji & Boys, a three-man boy group that includes the aforementioned Seo Taiji (born Jeong Hyoen-cheol), Lee Juno, and Yang Hyun-suk, the now-president of one of the big companies in K-Pop today, YG Entertainment. They were the first group in Korea to practice some of the key elements of K-Pop. Billboard wrote a feature that briefly but succinctly discussed Seo Taiji and Boys’ influence on the K-Pop world, as well as describing other groups and their influence on modern K-Pop, found here.

They first debuted in 1992 on television with their single “Nan Arayo” (난 알아요) or “I Know”. Far from the high-production, crisply choreographed and meticulously shot products of today, the trio’s appeal came largely from its blend of fresh American pop styles (specifically their New Jack Swing influences), hip-hop influenced choreography, put together for a Korean audience.

A lot of the mainstays of K-Pop today are seen in this video; alternating shots of choreography and gratuitous shots of the idols posing, solid vocals interspersed with rapping, wrapped in a diverse but unique wardrobe, and in fact, the video bears a lot of resemblance to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” Nan Arayo stayed on top of the charts for 4 and a half months, and their popularity paved the way for companies to begin to adopt to the idol group formula; SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment (started by Yang Hyun-suk of Seo Taiji and Boys), DSP and JYP Entertainment all followed suit and by the mid 1990s all had hugely successful groups of their own.

These groups aimed to do what Seo Taiji and Boys had already set out and done, and that was to take American pop music, and add the Korean idol group formula to it. Groups like SM Entertainment’s H.O.T and S.E.S, DSP’s Sechs Kies and Fin.K.L. and JYP’s g.o.d are all considered, along with Seo Taiji, to be part of the first generation of modern K-Pop idol groups, and many groups today are still influenced in all aspects and at all levels by these early groups.

Of these groups, H.O.T was the first largely successful boy group to use the full formula as we know it. MoonROK has an excellent series on the history of K-pop, and describes how Lee Soo Man, founder of SM Entertainment, at the time asked teens what they wanted of their idols, scoured the world for audition tapes, brought promising talent in, and then trained them in every last aspect of stardom possible, including how to act and how to look and how to handle the media.

Also under SM’s guidance, K-Pop’s first international star bolstered acclaim for the now proven SM idol formula. By the numbers, BoA was a much wilder success in 2002 on the release of her Japanese album, Listen to My Heart, and with it, SM Entertainment, as well as the rest of the Korean entertainment companies, could set their eyes worldwide to achieve success.

Because of BoA, many K-Pop groups and talents look to make it worldwide. SM Entertainment’s EXO is split into EXO-K and EXO-M with EXO-M focused on reaching Mandarin  markets, and Super Junior, ever famous for their subunits, has a similar Super Junior-M group built to reaching Mandarin audiences.

By the early to mid-2000s, the K-Pop idol group model had been tested and perfected; many second-generation groups that debuted around this time such as Super Junior, TVXQ, DBSK and etc benefited from the established model to explore new aesthetic and artistic choices, continually changing where American musical influences can meet Korean interpretation. In our next entry, we begin to explore the second and third generation of K-Pop groups, and begin to arrive at K-Pop as the international phenomenon we know today.

Mark James Russell’s book K-Pop Now!: The Korean Music Revolution aptly recalls a unique Korean term describing a mix of old and new. “That’s always been a defining part of Korea, the mix – combining new and old, fancy and simple, loud and quiet, cutting edge and retro. Koreans call it jjamppong, ‘all mixed up.'” (Russell) So too is K-Pop. It reflects that attitude of mixing it all up, and I hope that in these two weeks we can explore what that means.


SPOTLIGHT: MY NEWTONIAN APPLE

Love Like Oxygen  – SHINee (2008)

Since we talk a lot about firsts, I thought I would use this section to highlight a video that first made me realize that K-Pop was rife with western influence. Before I had first seen this video, I had already heard quite a bit about SHINee’s members being hugely influenced by Michael Jackson, particularly their youngest member and most popular dancer Lee Taemin.

This song just confirmed that for me. Musically there are many homages to Jackson’s musical style. The opening vocal part contains Jackson’s signature growl singing, and throughout the song there is a subtle guitar riff whose sound is found in early-to-mid 80s Jackson songs such as “Billie Jean” and anything from Jackson’s debut solo album “Off The Wall”. Furthermore, the rhythm section features the same quarter note pulse signature to many of Jackson’s tunes such as “Beat It”, “Smooth Criminal” and others.

The final nail in the proverbial coffin is probably the series of dance moves starting at 2:57, which include a hand-leg pop sequence in a semi-parody of Jackson’s immensely popular moonwalk (Also noticeable in that link is the uncanny resemblance between Jackson’s outfits and the outfits worn by SHINee at the 2:57 mark. Hmm). The moves following that, at around the 3:06 mark, are also reminiscent of Jackson’s effortless but rigid poses that involve the limbs in geometric formation, which are all also featured in “Billie Jean”.

Of course, Love Like Oxygen could just be a huge parody/homage to Michael Jackson in general, but it’s undeniable that, considering SHINee dances quite like this many of their other videos (which I’m sure I will discuss), that Michael Jackson is a huge influence on this group, and perhaps on many other groups as well.

Introductions and Purpose

Hey all,

Over the last two decades, K-Pop as we know it has grown considerably. It is a grab-all title referring to popular music in Korea, but it has a distinct worldwide image. One immediately associates the word “K-Pop” with highly stylized cinematography and visual aesthetics, coupled with a group of identical looking singer-dancers performing incredibly synchronized choreography. Korean Pop music is this and more, and above all it is an art form that is modern yet uniquely Korean. It draws heavily from Western influence while retaining a modernized, east Asian flavor, and it is the nature of this synthesis that draws audiences from around the world, both online and in person. K-Pop is talked about and absorbed at an alarming rate, and it is my humble desire to figure out some of the sources at work.

I am undertaking research on K-Pop as a final project in an undergraduate class at UC Davis concerned with East Asian musics, primarily from an ethnomusicological standpoint. Core to this study is the concept of intertextuality and globalization, specifically how Western music, dance and culture have influenced K-Pop, and also how K-Pop continues to influence the world as we know it. There is a unique and powerful interplay between K-Pop and the rest of the world, and I am anxious to get started digging in.

Over the span of the next two weeks, I’d like to cover a variety of topics, including but not limited to musical influences, dance influences, the history of K-Pop, worldwide influence, and media collaborations, highlighting the ways contemporary Western aesthetics have permeated the elements of K-Pop we know to day. At the end of each blog post, I will also do a spotlight feature on a group, a song, or a video that discusses some of the aforementioned subjects as a supplement.

As of now, I only know enough tidbits of information to make me insanely interested in what we’re about to study, but as the days move forward, I hope to grow in my knowledge and understanding of how everything we are now listening to and watching are linked in ways we are yet to discover.

Thanks!

Josiah