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.

[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.