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
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.
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
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.
Friday, September 21, 2012
Now hold on just a hot minute... where's Jooyi???!
Okay, so considering the main reason I cared about this group in the beginning is their awesome vocals, led by Jooyi, and their envelope-pushing version of sexy, I'm disappointed that both Jooyi and the sexy are absent here. At least, the version of sexy they debuted with. I hate people who do the sexy as a gimmick to get people talking, i.e. most k-pop girl groups. (Which I guess is why I like Hyuna - it's her MO, not something she only does when she's low on the search rankings.)
What is here, though, is some decent electro, some solid singers, and a girl group that still brings some of the sexy and some good performances. The verses are a little boring, but the chorus is decent, and I'm all about that middle-eight dance break. It's enough to get me to hit replay on this at least a few times. The YG touch isn't obvious, which means they can move on (and hopefully up) from here without necessarily changing their style. And the song's got enough going for it that it will keep them in the game. They just need to bring their A-game next comeback. I would suggest making the most of their vocals (can I get some harmonies, please?) and bringing back the choreographer from "Dr. Feel Good." And more Jooyi, please.
Tuesday, Sept 24: Okay, so I basically played this song all weekend. It grew on me unexpectedly. My initial impression still stands, but I'll add that it's actually pretty catchy with a nice melody, and the girls kill it live. You just go, girls.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
I feel like, aside from hardcore KissMes, I'm the only one still on the U-KISS train. Usually by now my t-list would be bombarded with OMG U-KISS SO HOT tweets right now, but there isn't a peep. Which is a shame, because this song is smooth and sexy like you've never heard U-KISS before.
The beat goes hard. The song starts off as bump-in-your-car R&B straight from US urban radio, then a little drama is added in at the pre-chorus to remind us that no, we're still in k-pop, despite the mostly English chorus with gorgeous harmonizing from the guys. Kiseop steps up to the singing plate, with much less processing than before, and nails it. Kevin works his lower register. Dongho slays his rap as if to say, "Noona, I'm not a little boy anymore." I love it all. Except, of course, for the lack of AJ, which would have made it all that much sexier. That being said, less members means more room for the others to shine, and shine they do.
I think part* of the lackluster response to U-KISS these days is that they haven't yet done something as epic as "Neverland" was last year. Songs like "Stop Girl" and "Doradora", while solid, are less in-your-face and may not draw much attention coming from a group who made their name making cray-cray dance pop. Before U-KISS's transformation into a more well-rounded (music and talent-wise) boy band, all they had to make them stand out was loud, brash electro-pop. But I think they stand out in a different way now - experimenting with different sounds in a way that doesn't make you tilt your head in confusion, while still maintaining fantastic production quality and improving in their own way. It feels like they've gone indie, actually - like they've decided not to slavishly pursue the number one spot with gimmicks and trendy music, but rather try out new things and see what fits them in their new iteration. While they may not be showered with confetti anytime soon - particularly with a DBSK comeback right around the corner - they're definitely setting the bar high for the competition in terms of the quality of their music, and it can only get better from here. Whether they'll pull a dark horse and get into the winner's circle with this release is hard to tell, but you can be sure I'll be rooting for them all the way.
*The other part being their small fanbase in comparison to other boybands. Anyone know if they've gotten more fans over the course of the last two years?
Monday, August 27, 2012
Okay, okay - I know what you're thinking. Mel blogs for the first time after like, two whole months, and she's reviewing ZE:A???! Whatever. I wanna talk about it.
I got on the ZE:A train after they greatly improved on their awful debut single with the follow-up, "All Day Long," which showed that there were actually some singers in this hot mess of a group. I decided to stick around and see what they could put together. Sadly, the string of singles that followed were either poorly constructed, forgettable or both. This is the first ZE:A single since "All Day Long" that I actually want to listen to again after the first go-round. It's also their first number one single, which is huge.
That #1 spot is well earned, if you ask me - though more for the improvements they've made since their debut than the song on its own. Relative to other releases from other groups, it's not all that, but it's a huge leap forward for ZE:A. For one thing, the song is constructed so much better than their older stuff. They finally moved the raps to the middle eight, allowing the vocalists to do the work in the earlier parts of the song. The vocal treatment is much improved, and the song's actually catchy and dancey. Basically, the producers finally figured out how to write a song, and ZE:A is reaping the benefits. Maybe everyone who's struggling to get to the top spot should name their albums after mythical creatures who rise from ashes.
The video is still boring and low-budget as all hell get out, but it's easy on the eyes, which is more than I can say for their promo photos (shudder). The choreo doesn't look awful, so that's a relief.
Also, Hyungshik looks amazing (the singer with the flipped up black hair), and since he and the Dongjoon (the Han Ga-in doppleganger) are the only ones I care about, I'm satisfied. Also, they do have pretty good live stages, so I think they can make this song work to their advantage.
I'll be real for a moment: The only reason they got to #1 is because they timed it really well. They're probably really happy that 2PM and Ailee delayed their comebacks, otherwise they wouldn't even smell the top 10 of the charts. That being said, ZE:A has put out good tracks before, and this is one of their better ones. They're coming closer to being contenders - we just need a few tweaks here and there. Like a better vocal trainer, a bigger MV budget, new stylists, songwriters, choreographers.... Kwanghee and Siwan's drama salaries can cover that, right?