Saturday, March 15, 2014

So... I'm breaking up with 2NE1 + thoughts on appropriation

An hour of procrastination from work on this particularly sunny afternoon has resulted in the following rant. I can't promise I'm back for good, or that it will be high quality writing, but it is some fairly somewhat thought-out thoughts on k-pop, so I figured it was better suited for here than the tumblr.

In other news, follow the tumblr!!! And on Spotify. Thanx.

I am a 2NE1 fan. My fandom has waned over the years, due to sporadic releases, mostly of the lackluster variety. But for some reason, while listening to their latest single "Come Back Home" I got really annoyed. While the production is decent and the vocals are fine, their use of the reggae sound as a backing track just pisses me the hell off.

(I do love the visuals in this video though.)

It's not so much the appropriation of the sound but the use of it in such a bland way. It's just one of the many sounds that they've rotated through in the past four years. And then they call themselves unique or iconic when they barely even try. Like it's not even like "we are interested in African-American culture and stories and are inspired by them." "African-American", a.k.a black music, is just another hat that they can wear to set them slightly apart from the rampant electropop of most non-YG k-pop (and I say slightly because pop music in general is heavily influenced by African American music) which is so damn pretentious. Like no other k-pop group does hip-hop/R&B tinged music.

It's not like their music is "more black" than other k-pop groups. Hell, the only black people ever to grace the hallowed halls of YG HQ are Will.I.Am and Will Smith - who are more mainstream than white bread, so they don't count enough to give YG "street cred" except maybe with the tiny subsection of the Korean k-pop fan population that gives a shit. Everyone else they've worked closely with have basically been the epitome of appropriative white people - Jeremy Scott and Diplo. Like, REALLY? And somehow your half-assed reggae is more superior than whatever sexy-but-not-really vibe SNSD is putting out these days? Please. Yang Hyun-suk needs to take several seats. 

Put your money where your mouth is, is all I'm saying, YG. There are tons of black artists who would probably be cool with working with you, and who will actually help make 2NE1 sound GOOD.

(No shade to Lydia Paek, whose has breathed intp 2NE1 the only wisp of life the group has seen in the last 3 years.

But really.)

Now, a word on appropriation.

I grew up in Nigeria in the 90s. And I'm from a minority ethnic group in Nigeria. I don't speak either of my parent's native tongues. My life is one complete smorgasbord of appropriation. I speak a mix of Yoruba/Igbo/Warri pidgin, I wear Dutch wax prints at home like it's my job, yet my dress is mostly Western. I grew up listening to contemporary gospel, hip-hop, R&B, and a hefty dose of US/UK pop music. None of these are particularly connected to my heritage. Yet I wear them like I own them. I am sometimes painfully aware of how none of these things are really "mine". But no one calls me out on being who I am, neither am I myself uncomfortable with my identity. Why?

Power dynamics, that's why. Power dynamics means that I am not in a position where I have subordinated these other ethnic groups, or where my race has insulted and discriminated against the very people whose trappings I now choose to wear. Power dynamics means that I wear Western dress because colonialism made it so that my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had to adopt this clothing to be upwardly mobile and "civilized".

Power dynamics, then, need to be taken into account when we talk about appropriation in k-pop. Because power dynamics in each situation, are different. It is important to note that k-pop groups who simply wear hip-hop as an accessory to push sales are not appropriative in the same way that the underground rapper hustling in Hongdae is.* Still appropriative, but whether or not you think that's wrong or not is a different question.

I can't speak to what is good or bad appropriation is in genera,l because that determination is super subjective - it's based on what you think the natural order of the world should be, and whether you think any deviation from that order is bad, or whether some cases are worse than others. But I can say what makes me uncomfortable and not uncomfortable.

The general use of R&B by non-black people does not make me uncomfortable - they do a good job of writing and singing the stuff. The preferential praise of non-black R&B singers over black R&B singers makes me uncomfortable. Why? Racism means music and TV execs prefer white faces to black faces. Adele over JHud or Melanie Fiona, for example.

The general use of hip-hop does not make me uncomfortable - while many people consider the only music worthy to me called hip-hop must be "rooted in the struggle", I am not one of those people. Likely because hip hop was not grown in my backyard, but was an import that deeply influenced my older siblings. Hip-hop is powerful music, made to give power back to an oppressed race. Not allowing those people who have felt its influence in their lives to access and use it to gain a little power back for themselves on a personal level seems counter to what it stands for. Hip-hop is no longer as counter-cultural as it used to be, but it still provides some friction oppositional to the mainstream waves of music, and diversity is important.

But, the use of hip-hop as a different colored stage outfit to be worn when convenient - that makes me fucking uncomfortable. Especially when its done by a group under a CEO who claims to house more "true artists" than other k-pop management companies.

I mean no disrespect - or compliment - when I say: Nigga, please.

2NE1 only hypes up the African-American bit because they think it makes them edgy and different. but it does not. At all. Other groups that claim the hip-hop/black music influence are at least consistent in their music, and are constantly finding new ways to blend that aesthetic into their pop music. E.g. Block B, B.A.P, YG's very own Big Bang and Seven.

2NE1 however, are crazy electro-pop one day, mopey ballad the next day, then faux-reggae the day after that, and have the fucking nerve to be all, "We take music from BLACK PEOPLE - omg we're so hip, not like those other girl groups." Like, my eyes could roll 360 degrees through the back of my sockets and to the front again and it still wouldn't be enough to express how much BS I think this is.

First of all, stop claiming African-American influence like you actually have black people working behind the scenes on making you sound more "authentic" than other groups. Secondly, stop feeling superior to other girl groups, because you're no different. Thirdly, MBLAQ tried the whole "influenced by black people" thing, and dropped it BEFORE THEY EVEN DEBUTED, because they knew it was BS. And yet YG is still making statements about this shit like anyone actually believes it, like it's anything other than media play. Come back with a Korean Music Award for hip-hop or R&B, and then we'll talk.

TL;DR: YG, you tried it.

*I don't know if the underground rappers actually hustle in Hongdae - I just like that image. And the sound of it - it just rolls off the tongue. Hustling in Hongdae.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Going Dark

Hey everyone!

It's been a minute - hope you're all doing well.

I'm officially concluding my run on this blog.

I initially started the blog to showcase my love for music from all over the world. Eventually I fell into k-pop, and I loved unpacking the sociocultural issues I encountered. But I kept trying and failing to give the blog a broader scope, mostly because I was in the honeymoon phase of k-pop where that was all I was listening to.

That period has ended, and I think it's about time to move on. I'm no longer immersed in the genre and the culture, and I haven't had a good idea about k-pop in the last two years. I feel that by keeping the blog open, I'm just putting unnecessary pressure on myself to come up with insights about it. I'm still developing my own scholarly interests, while at the same time trying to complete a law degree, and maintaining a sociocultural commentary blog on k-pop in addition to those things is simply more than my brain can handle right now.

It's been great, and I've met so many awesome, intelligent, insightful people through this blog, and I'm extremely grateful to you readers for making that happen. And I doubt this is the end - I can see myself coming back to k-pop commentary when the time is right.

I still plan on blogging: I just created and I'm planning on using that to do primarily music blogging: posting songs and videos that I like and find interesting (not just k-pop) - maybe with a bit of criticism/commentary, but nothing on the scale of the articles on this blog (hence why I'm switching to Tumblr instead of simply posting new stuff here). If you're interested, feel free to follow me. And I'm always on Twitter, where you can find me talking about all sorts of pop culture nonsense.

Thanks so much for reading!!


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cover Art and Preview Clip of Crystal Kay's "Dum Ditty Dumb"

There is sushi on this single cover. The. Fuck.

I would write more about how messed up this is - how disappointed I am that Crystal's A&R people thought this was a good idea, how ridiculous it is that there is still so little cultural knowledge about Asia that we're resorting to ancient clich├ęs, and how I was hoping Crystal would do something different so as to help expand that cultural knowledge in both directions - but it's so ridiculous to me that I can't be bothered. Here, listen to this clip of the single instead:

Crystal Kay is my forever fave. She's put out some killer albums in the past (Vivid available at your local iTunes store - get ON that shit) and I am expecting a lot from her US debut. This, however, sounds unfortunately like a milder version of Rihanna's Birthday Cake, and therefore does nothing to showcase all that CK has going for her. The girl has a killer voice - why resort to merely attempting to seduce listeners when you can blow them away instead? But no, some idiot said, "Well, she's black, she's sexy, she's Japanese... I've got it! Japanese Rihanna. Let's push that - give her a sexy lead single, and make the album cover REALLY Japanese - you know, chopsticks, sushi, the works." *sigh*.

The worst part is that, for all their "brilliant" pandering to popular stereotypes about Japan, and playing it safe with a derivative lead single, this song is probably going to flop. I wish I could say I felt bad about that.


Friday, March 8, 2013

[Review] Lee Hi, First Love / Part I

Hey everyone! I'm back!

It's been a minute (understatement of the year, I know) - things have been hectic on this end, but I am seriously thinking about getting this blog on a more regular schedule. That may mean switching things up a bit content-wise, but not to worry - I will still be bringing you coverage of k-pop, k-indie and k-WTF. That's all still in the works, though, so let's hurry up and get to what brought be out of my hermit hole in the first place: part I of Lee Hi's debut album, First Love.

So, upon hearing the intro track "Turn It Up," I was excited to hear more of those R&B realness with horns and everything on the album itself. This mini-album, though, it didn't quite end up being what I expected.

The lead single, "It's Over," is another one of those times when k-pop decides to do cabaret jazz. I generally ignore these tracks, because for the most part they're boring as all hell get out (though TaeTiSeo actually did pretty good with "OMG"). "It's Over" is more laid-back than "OMG" - a casual dismissal of a former flame that starts out cool and collected and becomes more firm in her decision to ditch the dude as the song progresses. It's a slow burner, and not as peppy as "1, 2, 3, 4," but it's still fun, and I love Lee Hi's voice so that keeps it interesting enough until the instrumental's fully fleshed out and I'm full engaged.

To my great disappointment, however, the energy level drops on the next track and never picks up. Everything else is a downtempo track. I'm baffled as to why this mini-album is so... dreary. Lee Hi is fifteen years old - she's much too young to be such a downer. Maybe I've been watching too much Sailor Moon recently, but even in my (distant) memory of being a teenager, no girl at that age is so serious.  And even if they are, I know that Lee Hi didn't write this mini, so it just comes off as an attempt to make her seem more mature than she is. (I mean, have they seen this video?) Which is totally unnecessary, in my opinion - let the kid be a kid. I feel like girls her age may not listen to this album, but older people would - another example of how I feel like k-pop's musical choices aren't targeted to the actual listeners, but to the critics and industry execs who dictate TV/radio appearances.

"Special" is musically an alternate iteration of Tablo's "The Tide" from Fever's End, and knowing that, it's hard to match the song to my image of Lee Hi. Also, it's kinda boring. I was hoping that the pace would pick up at the chorus a la Sammie's "I Like It" (still one of the better tween pop-R&B songs, btw), but it just drags itself through this snore-fest of a non-chorus. Heck, Hayi and Jennie sound like they'd rather be in school than singing this song. It's fine, but that's really all I can say about it. I've seen this kind of low-to-mid-tempo R&B song done just as well - and arguably, better - by countless young girl groups - Sugababes, 3LW, (twice), and Cleopatra name a few, so this doesn't do much for me.* Heck, even EvoL did better (one of my favorite k-pop songs from last year, btw).

"One-Sided Love" is the song that made me realize that they were going for an Adele vibe with this mini-album. It's... nice? But it's basically 19 and 22 rolled into one track - it's derivative, and I think this is a misstep. If YG wants to establish Lee Hi as a solo artist, she needs to have her own sound - and if she can't, it's not the greatest idea to copy her sound from the hottest pop vocalist at the moment.

That criticism non-withstanding, "Dream" - the other Adele B-side track on this mini - manages to be my favorite track on this album after "Turn It Up," solely due to Lee Hi's vocal performance. There's a tension and urgency in her voice here that's absent in the other tracks - every syllable is heavy with significance. It's only here that a comparison to Adele is a positive one as opposed to a negative one - technical proficiency meets conviction, and Hayi delivers my favorite ballad performance of hers since her cover of Lim Jae-bum's "For You". Of all the tracks on this album, this one felt real. It may be that she has a personal connection here that's lacking in the other tracks, or it may just be that this was the only song where she was 100% on during recording, and not sleep-deprived and overworked. But them's the breaks with idol music: you throw them into the studio and simply hope that they turn up diamonds.

I'm guessing/hoping that the uptempo tracks are on the full album. I don't mind YG using this tactic as a means of upping their physical sales, but the mini-album version of the album should be cohesive on its own - and that doesn't mean everything has to be ballads. First Love / Part I is slow and it drags on - 3/5 songs seem a full minute longer than they need to be. Overall, I find it just as dull as the minis released by Hayi's fellow K-Pop Star alumni last year, so I'm hoping that the full album brings us the energy that "1, 2, 3, 4" showed us Hayi was capable of.

*The songs linked in that paragraph are essentially what I used to bump on my big sister's stereo in middle school. Totally making a Spotify playlist of these.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bad Girls Do It Well: Policing Korea's Idols, Part I


So, clearly, I suck at keeping this blog updated. Many apologies. Working on a plan for more regular updates. 

Ever since the T-ara fiasco hit this summer, I've been thinking about k-pop's "bad girls" and how the Korean media and populace treats female celebrities that don't fit the sweet, inobtrusive images we expect from them. This post is a mishmash of all my thoughts and related on the issue, so bear with me if it isn't very coherent, and please, share thoughts, corrections, disagreements in the comments section. Part II will look at Seungri of Big Bang's situation in comparison, and the cultural context surrounding all these scandals that may/may not have been addressed yet.

I generally refrained from commenting on the whole T-ara debacle, because I feel like there wasn't enough information for me to make any judgements either way. Save for the very obvious fact that CCM doesn't know how to run an idol group without running them into the ground, all I could surmise was that Hwayoung, as the maknae and newbie, bore the brunt of the stress that the CCM CEO placed on all of T-ara, which was clear from his statements the beginning of the year publicly shaming his main moneymakers by saying they weren't working hard enough - despite them hitting a career sales high at the time with "Roly Poly". The netizen backlash is still going strong months after evidence of bullying in the group first surfaced - Hyomin has recently been outed as a former member of a group of high school delinquents who were involved in "sex parties", for example - and they just won't let it go. It seems that Korea has a real issue issue with girls behaving badly.

The types of things that get idol girls in trouble with the web mob range from looking uninterested in a talk show and getting overly enthusiastic during a competitive game. While the first two may not seem that big of a deal to a lot of us - maybe annoying or mildly irritating, but not necessarily worth a public apology - these sorts of things can cause greater offense in South Korea, where the age and professional hierarchy of the entertainment industry, as well as general standards of public decorum, mean that public figures are held to higher standards. Unfortunately for women, they don't have the advantage of just drafting into the army and spending two years in repentance if the heat gets too much. They generally tend to apologize, and then, if it's really bad, lay low until the incident blows over. Han Ye-seul did that after ditching her drama in the middle of filming, but T-ara, surprisingly, has not. CCM may simply be ignoring how much damage netizens are prepared to do to their public image and the company's bottom line. But it's still an interesting stance to take, regardless of the motivations behind it - it almost demands that we "get over it".

Netizens clearly have no intention of getting over anything, however. It's a huge shame that they are focusing on the girls's bad behavior, and not on the stress that being an idol has placed on them, and how the system itself can cause these sorts of incidents to happen. A concerted effort to change idol management practcies would make much more of a difference, but for now it just seems like a hate parade. Which is why I'm reminded of the various "nyeo" incidents in the Korean media - dubbed "Ladygate" by the writers over at KoreaBANG. Again, you have women behaving badly - drinking, smoking, swearing on the subway, clearly not caring what anyone thinks of them, and people are recording the incidents on their cellphones and uploading them onto the internet, basically setting the women up on the internet firing range. Of course, the men probably behave badly as well, but why the focus on women? KoreaBANG postulated, and a Korean news outlet concurred, that likely the disgruntled netizens out to hate on wayward women are unemployed, single males with a bone to pick with society. They target men who are more successful than them, and women who won't date them (or are simply easy targets). There's enough hate to go around, so why not vent it on the internet?


This explains why Krystal from f(x)'s disinterest on variety shows makes headlines: people apparently actually care about this, or are simply using her as a target for their anger at the world. Interestingly, SM has made no attempts to make sure she behaves properly, or at least that broadcasts get edited to cut out her "I'm so bored" look. And in her most recent "rudeness" incident, unlike the first, there was no official apology. So SM, like CCM, is staging a resistance of sorts against the web mob. Others are also beginning to speak out against netizens in support of the idol girls, such as this university professor, and the producer of Eunji's hit drama, Reply 1997.

Krystal intrigues me as a public figure because she clearly is not into playing the game for the cameras. She can't be bothered, and has no problems being called a bitch. I'm sure if you called her that to her face, she'd probably just smile and say "Yeah, well, I'm not here to be nice to people." I have to say, I have a little respect for that. Not that girls should go about disrespecting people, but that she is one of the few idols who is singlehandedly waging war against those who target girls for misbehaving, simply by not giving a fuck. It's not as interesting or as revolutionary when other idols do it. Take, for example, Super Junior's Heechul - well known for his mean streak, yet people would probably still love him even if he ran over a puppy. Krystal's older sister, Jessica, is often the subject of whispered conversations about diva idols as well, but her "ice queen" persona doesn't get her any netizen hate, and is in fact much cherished by dedicated SNSD stans. For them, and most other "mean" idols, their tendencies towards bitchiness generally don't come out on television broadcasts, and when they do appear in other instances, they only serve to make them more popular. Heechul, is also a guy, so I guess he doesn't get targeted by the woman-hating netizens.

While I may not ever like Krystal as a person, I like that she plays against the general opinion of what appropriate celebrity behavior should be. She reminds me of Kristen Stewart, actually, who also refuses to play the fame game. Her cheating scandal with the director of Snow White and the Hunstman has had people labelling her "trampire" and burning their Twilight books, and like T-ara, people refused to on her, as reports of her boyfriend Robert Pattinson being "heartbroken" keep pouring out into the media. Unfortunately for T-ara though, there's no evidence that Hwayoung's booting from the group was part of an elaborate PR stunt to get them publicity for their latest release while simultaneously severing an artificial relationship.

Bullying is wrong. Rudeness is not behavior that I endorse. But when faced with a misogynistic public which will mercilessly skewer you unless you play by their rules, how should idols  and their management respond? Ignore the problem and keep trucking on, hoping that at least they can stay at the top of the searches and gain notoriety that might translate into sales; or apologize and lay low until the public finds another target? I think working out your issues in public is a bad idea - CCM's CEO should have learned that from Rihanna and Chris Brown. But micro-resistances against a netizenry whose sole purpose is to shame women? That I can get behind.

Lee Hi, "1, 2, 3, 4"

Not having followed K-Pop Star, I had no idea this girl even existed until she did "It's Cold" with Epik High for their new album. So coming into this with no expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. Given that I had said earlier that JYP was the entertainment company who had the best chance of delivering a song with some soul, I was not expecting this from YG at all. I was expecting some sort of synthed-up pop track, but instead I have a stripped back soul instrumental - funk guitar, drums, a little electric piano - that allows Lee Hayi's gorgeous voice to shine. Don't expect elaborate vocal gymnastics a la Ailee here - Lee Hayi is all about the low, gravelly, laid-back delivery, and it works for the track. She has a truly unique voice, and that really sets this song apart in the sea of retro-inspired tracks that have come out of k-pop in recent years. Credit goes to Lydia Paek, Choice37 and MastaWu, who are (finally) bringing some new-new to YG's musical repertoire. This song is very clearly in the vein of Duffy's stripped down soul sound, but that's not a bad thing. K-pop desperately needs some soul and sass, and Lee Hi is bringing it... even if her video only gives us a glimpse of that. Besides, Duffy was riffing off of the sound of many black singers before her, so it's not like anyone's reinventing the wheel here.

Even though she has issues emoting (there since her K-Pop Star days, apparently) as the video progresses Hayi gets better, and is actually pretty adorable and engaging in that last scene outside the theatre. While this is not my favorite of director Han Sa-min's work (that'd have to be BIGBANG's "Blue") I do like the gradual transformation she makes from from regular girl to fresh young star. And I LOVE the elevator projection at the first chorus.

She's still a little rough around the edges, but Lee Hi has delivered a solid track that should put her fellow K-Pop Star graduates (Park Ji-min and Baek Ah-yeon) on notice. Dull ballads and short-lived star power aren't going to cut it when you're competing with girls just as vocally talented, as well as older, more established stars for the solo singer spotlight. Sisters better recognize.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

DBSK, Catch Me (album)

HoMin returns with their second album after the departure of JYJ from DBSK - still a sore spot for many Cassies, and a thorn in the Korean courts' side. (Why they don't just end the case, I don't know - waste of time and money, if you ask me.) Something about this album feels very different - it almost feels as if this album represents a growth, a moving on, a maturing of the group. Thinking back, much of DBSK's music was very youthful in that intense, all out raw emotion way, and also very fun. But the boys have grown up, and they ain't here to play.

The lead single, Catch Me, is really good, but it's bogged down by the long dubstep break. I mean, as far as compulsory dubstep breaks in pop songs go, it's pretty good, but it takes away from the lovely piano lines and booming electropop of the rest of the song. It also extends the song's runtime to four and a half minutes - way longer than any pop song it needs to be in this day and age. Dubstep is best utilized when it's placed in unexpected places, like at the beginning of the second verse, or bookending the chorus in the hip-hop tinged Viva. (Shout out to the boys for what might be my favorite rapping from them ever in that song.) It works for the video, but if there was an album version or radio edit of this track that got rid of the dubstep break, I'd be a happy camper.

What strikes me the most about this album is how much I like the mid-tempos and ballads. Usually SM ballads are sweet, sweet filler - meant to be pretty and nothing else. But these seem like they have more substance - they feel very romantic and sincere in a way that many ballads that came before them did not. I kept thinking "OST track", and that makes sense since that music is meant to set a mood and evoke a feeling more than anything else, and these songs are wildly successful in that regard. And they feel very suited to this duo, who have grown a lot in the last two or three years - as opposed to the ballads on their last album, which seemed like they belonged to a different DBSK (some of them probably did). My favorite by far is Like A Soap, but I also love the mellow R&B jam Destiny, which does much more for me than the YYJ leftover, Good Night; and How Are You, which is the perfect background music for a chance meeting with a former flame on a city street.

All in all, I think this is a stronger album than Keep Your Head Down. It's a simpler, more cohesive album than anything else that SM has put out recently, concentrating on two different vibes - you could call them "romantic" and "masculine" - rather than throwing everything and the kitchen sink in there. And Changmin and Yunho's vocal progress is well-highlighted. Great addition to the catalogue. But now I'm beginning to wonder - how long before these two are shipped off to the army? *sob*

The "Catch Me" video is your typical SM MV-in-a-box video, differentiated only by its uber-dark color palette, the "Doc Ock Tentacle Of Hell" and the choreography which seems halfway between interpretive dance and imitation tribal dance. The boys look good and make the whole thing look good, but it will only be getting a few replays from me.