[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.