[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.

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[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.

[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.