2012-01-02: Song of the Week!

Korea. (Well, South Korea.)

Specifically, Korean pop music. Today, I've got three songs for you (special new year's bonus!) as I document my discovery of a genre.

For quite a while, I'd kind of avoided trying to get into K-pop, because the rumors about it are that it is much more brash and generally insufferable and crazy than its Japanese (or even American/European) counterparts. Ultimately, I think this is what should have drawn me to it much sooner than when I did look at it.

K-pop, at least the artists I've looked at so far, follows one or two basic formulas. I will describe them, but you will probably pretty immediately recognize them as being quite similar to Western pop's formulas. I will admit I did not look very hard for the songs I found, which says one or more of a few things to me:

  1. Not very much Korean Pop music has made it to the USA, or more accurately, to YouTube.
  2. K-Pop is not as crazy as we all think it is.
  3. If I looked harder for more songs, I would love them all, acquire them, and the whole genre would instantly blend into a single playlist and I would never remember individual songs or artists. (Much like techno/trance, but we all know there are like only two songs therein anyway.)

The first formula is girl band. 2NE1 and Kara both (along with several others) fall under this archetype. It's a lot like Spice Girls. There are four or five of them, and no single girl (at least that I can tell) really claims the front spot. Songs seem to be about more generic struggles and concepts (rather than, say, really specific complaints about somebody with a name, or the recollection of a name, like a solo artist will do.)

The second formula is a of course the solo artist. This is incredibly familiar here in the United States. Think of almost any song by a woman I've posted on here, and there's a really good chance it was a solo act. One woman is the front of her act, and she uses her own name or an alias. She has a band, but let's face it: you rarely ever think about Lady Gaga's drummer or Britney Spears' flotist. (Except in "Criminal" where you thought to yourself about the fact that Britney Spears chose to include a flute at all.) Anyway: IU is my K-Pop solo act.

The first song I've got for you is "Hate You" by 2NE1. Our favorite source is pretty accurate in its description of 2NE1 as "a popular South Korean hip-hop/pop girl group..." Formed relatively recently, fans have a special name (very Lady Gaga-like, it will probably give them some staying power) and although it's composed of individuals (two born 1984, one born 1991, one born 1994, just for the record), the information about the individuals is confined to a table listing them as CL, Bom, Dara, and Minzy; and is nearly half-way down the page. Take that as you will -- but the identity here is pretty clearly a group one. It's an even more extreme example of a girl band than Spice Girls, where we at least knew each member's backstory and a few basic facts about them.

The song though is fantastic. The premise seems to be that our four heroes, rendered in what I like to call "Bratz Anime" style arrive at the pub (in their pink Hummer) looking for our anti-hero. He ducks out pretty quickly, a fight scene occurs, and then he hops in his silver sports car. His car is a convertible of course, because when you're driving through the desert and kicking up all of that sand, you want it in your face. One of our four heroes, who had all been named at the begining of the video -- but that was like two and a half minutes ago, starts attacking and is immediately joined by her friends.

Now, I'm not really in this to critique videos -- but our orange haired antihero definitely turns into a Fullmetal Alchemist-style robo-furry monster with crazy-reach arms. However, once they defeat him, he turns back to his former orange-haired self, and our heroes return to their car, looking for their next adventure.

Next up is "Step" by Kara.

"Step" and its video are pretty straightforward. Our Favorite Pop Cultural Reference says a lot of the same things about Kara as they do about 2NE1, minus the references to hip-hop. They started in 2007, and there are presently five of them. The song isn't even that crazy or outlandish, it's just really fun and makes me want to dance. It qualifies almost as much as, say, Sandstorm or Evacuate the Dancefloor as a song that (when played in loop) would motivate me to climb a hill or clean all of the things.

IU is a solo performer who (as per the cultural database) got her start on a television show in 2008. By the sheer fact that she's a solo artist, she's kind of more interesting than 2NE1 and Kara. She has her own identity! Unfortunately, other than an overview of the stuff she's done and the collaborations she has taken part in, there's really not much here about her. And because I don't live in South Korea, it's not like there's a big history of her craziness and adapting to modern times for me to look at, like I did with Britney Spears.

But that doesn't stop me from really liking her song "Good Day" -- it's probably a love ballad of some sort, and dang is it a good one or what? It's cute, there are musicians hidden everywhere and in a way that the girl groups don't (Unless they do and I'm just missing it because I don't understand Korean) it tells a really specific story.

And IU's story is pretty clear, even though I can't understand the words. She's in love with the boy -- hard. And she's going to do whatever she can to get him. And when she can't have him, she's pretty broken up about it. It's a fair change of pace from my typical desire to listen to dance anthems, songs about the end of the world, and angry break-up songs. There's a good possibility I only like it because it's not in English.

The whole thing, a brief foray into Korean pop music, hasn't quite been what I exected. Most of the artists, it seem, share more in common with American hip-hop artists than pop artists, and the artists/albums that are straight-pop share a lot more in common with someone like Celine Dion. Especially when you consider songs like "Only I didn't know." I'm sure there's something I'm missing, but this all looks fairly tame to me. Maybe it's just because I'm used to Lady Gaga. Sure, IU has a steampunk tardis that she and her goose use to travel through time to meet the boy of her dreams, but I don't think the song itself is anything that Celine Dion or Mariah Carey wouldn't do, sound-wise.