Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thoughts on K-Pop Vol. 2: F-f-f-f-f-f-funky Music

Part two of my k-pop discussion. I don't know where to start because there are so many issues, so I'm just going to start off with this video.

This band is a new band on the K-pop scene - the one that I mentioned last time as being dismissed as ugly by kpoppers (that still gets me mad... they're so not ugly. They may not be bishies, but I'd totally date them.) Anyway, I wanted to start this post with this video because these guys are basically going on their own - not under any of the big management companies in Korea and not having gone through the rigorous training and preparation that other idols had to go through, they're very different. Their music is also different - Kpop today, while heavily influenced by hip-hop and R&B, is still mainly electropop and dance. These guys, however, are bringing in a sound that is much more similar to the R&B and hip-hop that exists in the States right now. The song above is reminiscent of Ne-Yo's Closer from two years ago (the plagiarism accusations will come up v. soon. will get to that in a bit.) what I found interesting, however, was that most people said that their music was too Americanized, and not really Korean. Thsi accusation was also made about my fave bishie band MBLAQ's debut single, Oh Yeah. THEN MTV Iggy (mainly web-based MTV section that deals in "world music" i.e. Europe and Latin America, with K-pop but no Africa *fumes) dismissed One Way for being unoriginal. WTF is everyone's hang up about originality anyway? All of these things make me wonder: what makes a genre specific to a certain country? Is there a difference between Korean hip-hop and Israeli hip-hop? (OMAGAH i just remembered i need to write about the concert I went to! I limped for a week because i was jumping up and down so hard - it was THAT good. But i digress...) I also have questions about originality - what constitutes plagiarism in the arts? (i'm taking a class on translation so i have a bit of theory to back me up but i'm probably going out on a limb here anyway)? If you're doing something similar to people in one country, but different from people in your own country, are you unoriginal? or an innovator for introducing new sounds and ideas to people? These are all questions that I hope to address in this post. My argument is essentially that originality, like authenticity, doesn't really exist, and trying to hunt it down will only result in stress and unnecessary categorizations. I'll eventually get to a defense of pop music, but maybe not just yet...

*Oneway + R&B/Hip-Hop - TaeYang comparisons - can they live, goddammit?

Justin Timberlake - Lovestoned + My Love (2006) -> Ne-Yo Closer (2008) -> One Way (2010)
Rihanna - please don't stop the music (late 2007 ) where does this fit in the matrix?
Seungri - Strong Baby (nov, 2008), Taeyang (2008/2009)
-issues of white performers copying black artists?
-fascination with black performance?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thoughts on K-Pop Vol. 1: So Addictive

I've been thinking about K-pop a lot lately and have meaning to write a post about it, but have struggled to figure out where to start - there's so much to write about! I figured I'd post an edited version of a rambling post that I wrote a week ago - it's mad late but I need to get this conversation started so that I can commit to finishing it. So here goes...

I am ashamed to say that I am somewhat of a music snob - while I will listen to everything once, there are some songs/artists that I refuse to patronize solely on principle, such as Miley Cyrus, (Yes, even though I put my hands up when they're playing your song, I can only enjoy it after at least one drink.) and I usually move from one musical genre to another after a few months of immersion. However, I am well and truly addicted to this k-pop stuff. By now I should have phased out of this music and found something new, but I keep coming back. It's partially because no other genre is offering up anything new and exciting these days (waiting for Erykah Badu's new album - coming out next month!!!) but it's also because k-pop fascinates me - as a genre and as a business model. I keep wondering to myself why it's so addictive, and I've come up with a couple of ideas:

1. It's ridiculously catchy. Even though I don't speak a lick of Korean, I can't help but sing along and bob my head to the infectious hooks and beats of the music. There's really an art to matching words to music in a way that gets songs stuck in your head and makes you listen over and over again. This is a universal characteristic of pop music, and anyone who gives it a decent listen, no matter what language it's in, would agree (I hope). Example: Ring Ding Dong by Shinee

2. It's emotive. Koreans don't skimp on feelings. A love song is a LOVE song, not a flirt song, and a break up song is a break up song, and it's pretty easy to tell which is which. I've discovered that some chords or series of notes strike at the heart and evoke emotion without words to it, and Koreans use these to full effect. Emotion in music is what really gets me hooked to stuff, even if I have no idea what the hell they're saying. I'm sure there's some explanation of this in those cool musicology books I keep seeing in the bookstore, and I intend to go find out what it is. Koreans also play out the emotions with all seriousness in their music videos and live performances. Example: 2AM - Can't Let you Go Even If I Die.

Speaking of...

3. It's largely based on performance. I've often found that a lot of k-pop songs would not be as appealing to listeners if they were never performed. The music is made for performers, with beat switches and dance breaks and random pauses that are there solely for the artist to strike a "charismatic"* or sexy pose. If you listen to 2PM's Heartbeat, it probably wouldn't appeal to you as a listening song because it's short and it doesn't flow smoothly. It starts off slow and ominous, goes into a fast paced chorus, a slow verse followed by another fast paced chorus and a dance break to top it off. It doesn't make sense, until you watch the video (below) and realize that the song is made to be performed and watched, not sung and listened to.**

Also, the choreography to most songs will feature a simple dance move that can easily be imitated by fans. Most (in)famous are the Kara "butt dance" and the BEG Abracadabra hip-swaying dance, but there are myriad other instantly recognizable dances out there. The best analogy I can draw is that Korean pop music is like Broadway music or the soundtrack to a Bollywood movie - if you separate the music from the performance, you are only getting a part of the whole experience. It's a good analogy too because Broadway and Bollywood music is chock full of emotion.

4. It's quirky. What other country do you know has every major pop group doing reality/variety shows where they cross-dress, do limbo, try (and sometimes fail) to speak English, dance like "dorks", "marry" other celebrities, "adopt" a kid etc etc etc? It's crazy. And fascinating. If you want to see some of this madness, I suggest either watching clips of TV shows on, or going to this site and picking a random show to watch. Why aren't US reality shows like this? It would be HILARIOUS.

This brings me to my last and most important idea:

5. The Korean music industry is a well-oiled machine capable of selling you pretty much anything. The Korean entertainment industry is probably the most interesting example of successful marketing I have ever seen. Pop groups, actors and comedians saturate the airwaves, print media and internet in such a way that you HAVE to know who they are. It's not lost on most k-pop fans that the main reason we love these idols is that they are constantly in the public eye - it's like a perpetual performance where they're constantly playing at being themselves. They "perform" their personalities and often become known for a specific trait (e.g hot abs or unbelieveable cuteness or nice thighs. Yes, thighs.). This way we get emotionally attached to these people, and this often leads to unhealthy behavior (topic of an upcoming post: the madness of k-pop fans).

Another important thing to note is that the Korean music industry is populated mainly by groups of at least five members. With a main audience of between 10 and 19, this is a brilliant idea because all the kids will have at least one person they like in every band, are enthralled by their personalities as seen on numerous TV shows, and will not hesitate to buy their albums and merchandise. This works for other industries as well, as phone, food and clothing companies almost solely hire celebrities to star in their commercials. They also record songs and shoot music videos (and short films) for these products and then endorse them on their numerous TV appearances. Basically, the celebrities become the only people you see on screen and in print. They become ridiculously popular really quickly, and then are sent around Asia to maximize their worth because all the other countries have succumbed to the "hallyu wave".

The formation of groups is also very structured. Artists are "trainees" under one of a few large management companies for at least two years before joining a group or debuting solo. The training is rigorous, and the hours are long, even after they make it. Their appearance is strictly monitored, and you'll often see skinny dudes going from flab to fab in less than a year in order to appeal to squealing teenage girls, and girls getting plastic surgery (ranging from mild to extensive) to obtain the "aegyo" look. It's insane. But the management companies have a very good feel for what sells, and set very high standards for their artists so that they never fall short of their goal - WORLD DOMINATION. (I wish I was kidding about that last part, but I'm not.) This often becomes problematic when independent groups try to break onto the music scene. Since they're not hand picked for stardom based on their attractiveness or dancing skills, k-pop fans are often unimpressed, and even go so far as to say they are ugly and untalented***.

In the end, I think I can safely say that I, along with Eccentric and other international k-pop fans, have been captured by the power of the marketing juggernaut that is the Korean entertainment industry. And I'm not mad at it at all, because I actually like the music. It may not always be original or innovative, but it always makes me feel good listening to it. And in the end, that's what you buy music for, right?

Okay, end post. Next up: plagiarism, defining a k-pop genre, exporting genres and a defense of pop music all rolled into one. It's going to be a long one...

*"Charisma" is a favorite word among Koreans/k-poppers. I think what they mean is someone who is attractive and cool or suave or mysterious even (they use it a lot in a lot of different contexts so sometimes it gets confusing as to what they really mean, lol.). It's usually used when describing male idols.

**Heartbeat is my all-time favorite k-pop video - I love the zombie concept as a fresh take on heartbreak, and the video is AMAZING. Love it.

***On a post about a new Korean R&B/hip-hop band called One Way on allkpop, people commented that their members were ugly. I got so mad. They're actually pretty good looking guys when compared with the general populace, but because they're competing with people who look like models, they're being demeaned. I can't stand k-pop fans sometimes. Topic of another post.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rihanna Sits on A Zebra, And the Crowd Goes Wild

This video is amazing, but it weirds me out. The most mainstream pop princess ever in a video that fits best in the underground scene that birthed M.I.A. I mean, props to her for doing something different despite being mainstream, but... is it possible that the underground aesthetic loses something when it is appropriated by the mainstream? What's gonna happen now is that everyone is going to hop onto the "edgy" bandwagon (as they have already done with the shaved head fad) and credit it to Rihanna. She's alright, but she is by no means original, and credit should be given where credit is due (M.I.A., Grace Jones, Keith Haring, and all of the other people referenced in this video). The song itself is good, but not AMAZING, you know? It doesn't blow me away, so there's a kind of incongruity between the video and the music in terms of quality. I'm probably going to watch it over and over again though - maybe at the end I'll figure out what exactly Rihanna's appeal is, because I still don't get it.

Edit: Now thinking about it, maybe the underground doesn't lose anything - maybe it's just way ahead of the mainstream, and comes up with things years before anyone else finds out about it. So by the time it's appropriated by the mainstream, they're already off that.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why Are Asians So Good At Hip-Hop?

Check out this video to see an amazing yet underrated performer do his thing.
2PM, we want more Junho dancing, and we want it NOW.

Monday, February 8, 2010

On Bishies

Why I am a fangirl: Korean boy-band MBLAQ - a beautiful sight

I have recently come to the conclusion that I like bishies. "Bishie" is an English slang word for the Japanese "bishounen", i.e. "pretty boys". During a late night conversation with my white female friends after a few (too many?) drinks, I decided to share with them my affection for cute Asian pop stars. Upon seeing photos of the dudes I had been spazzing about for the past month or so, they were horrified. "Eeeek! He's so pretty! You're attracted to that?!" I was not expecting such a strong reaction. We had an extended conversation where we touched upon evolutionary reasons for attraction, cultural differences in what is considered attractive, and hipsters, but I left my friends that night still feeling a little confused. Mainly because once again, it was shown that I am a weird, weird person compared to the general populace, but also because the idea of Asian dudes being attractive was one that my friends just could not fathom. While I am comfortable with the idea that I am particularly strange, I don't think that finding pretty Asian dudes attractive is abnormal. Why was there such a difference in our assessments of what is attractive and what isn't? I can offer a few ideas, but I'd love to hear someone else's take on this.

I think it is a combination of differences in culture, experience and exposure. It's a cultural thing in the sense that the Western heterosexual norm that has spread to most parts of the world is that you're more attractive if you're more feminine (for girls) or more masculine (for guys). Points are taken off for any deviation towards an opposite pole, and too much deviation will earn you the label of "queer" even if that's not accurate. Adhering strictly to these norms becomes a problem, however, when one encounters a non-Western culture. In Asia, ideas of masculinity are very different. Men are expected to put as much effort into their appearance as women, and even the most masculine men wear skinny jeans and have nice hair. I recently heard a hilarious story of a guy who couldn't find anyone to date when he travelled to Asia because the abundance of dudes with stuffed animals in their cars messed with his gaydar. People consider different things attractive because they have different ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine, and these ideas stem from the culture that they have grown up in.

It's also a personality thing because different people want different things in a potential partner. They choose them based on their needs and desires at that particular point in time. For example, when asked which celebrity she would hook up with, my (white) friend immediately said Penelope Cruz. However, when it came down to men she was attracted to, she went for big beefy guys who made her feel protected. I found it interesting, but not surprising that she went for aesthetics and sex appeal for the random hookup, but security when it came to actually dating. Also striking is the 180-degree switch when it came to masculinity/femininity. You'd think she'd be satisfied with some happy medium, but no mas. Thinking about my own preferences, I decided that I'm cool with dudes who aren't all the way at the "MAN" section of the spectrum. I'm not looking for a protector. I'm looking for a partner in every sense of the word (I'm reminded of this song that I really shouldn't admit to knowing...)*, so I'm not hung up on whether a man is "manly" enough for me. (I also don't believe more "masculine" dudes are better in bed.) In fact, I'd rather he wasn't so "manly" in the Western sense, because then he'd likely see some need to assert his superiority over me to prove this masculinity. I've always wondered why dudes were so obsessed with this issue, especially after watching ad after ad during the Superbowl advertise products that promised to save men from emasculation (here's the best one).

On to the exposure thing. I've heard many black women complain about the dearth of "good black men" and then proclaim that they are "branching out" (i.e. dating outside of the race) to solve the problem of their singleness. I think it's interesting that in the US, where society is slowly becoming more and more multicultural, interracial dating is still seen as an adventure or act of courage (or desperation) of sorts. It's understandable since our evolutionary tendency is to go for people who look like us, and there are cultural issues of background and experience that can't be ignored. But I don't see why it's such a big deal still. There are good-looking people in every race - you just have to take a second look. I admit that when first coming to college I only looked at the black men, but after being here for a while, and being initiated into all things Asian, my horizons are expanding and I'm beginning to appreciate different types of attractiveness. It's kind of like being exposed to a new art form or type of music - even if you don't get it at first, if you give it a chance you eventually come to see the beauty in it. And even if not, the idea that someone else likes it is no longer shocking. Sugabelly is a great example of this - when I first showed her the bishies in Revolutionary Girl Utena, she dismissed them as being too feminine. However, after finding an anime that she loved featuring bishies, she came to appreciate them, and is now a fangirl like Eccentric and me :)

So it's about personality, culture and experience all intertwined. But attraction is about more than what's on the surface. We really do judge people based on more than their looks, and we should try to do that more often. Some people say that they can't get over their non-attraction to people of a certain race or body type, but I don't think that it's completely impossible. You just need to keep an open mind (and possibly heart?) and build your opinion/impression of people in a well-rounded way. Love is universal - and even though that's the corniest thing I've ever written in my life, I actually believe it's true.

I close this post with this awesome and funny video from Asian-American vlogger KevJumba which I think is pretty appropriate.

Have a good week y'all! And Happy Valentine's Day, since this is probably the closest thing to a Valentine's Day post I will ever write. I refuse to be a romantic - pink is not my color.

*Starts at 0:44. For some reason, the more feminist lyrics in the chorus of this song (by Play) are changed to less militant ones in Disney's Cheetah Girls version. Does Disney hate feminists? (*gasp!)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Why BoA Still Rocks

Okay, so taking a break from studying to give you my promised post. I haven't done as much research as I should have since I've been studying all week and watching k-pop reality TV shows in my free time. But, I figured I'd give you my preliminary assessment, and I'll update it later if necessary.

Okay, so for those of you who don't know who BoA is, she's a 23 year-old pop singer from Korea. Her music is primarily R&B/hip-hop inspired, and dancing is a huge part of her music videos and live performances. She broke on to the k-pop scene when she was only 13, and has been active ever since, gaining a huge following all over East Asia, and the nickname "Best of Asia". Make no mistake, this girl is mad talented. Peep the video below:

I'm writing this post in defense of BoA over the topic of her US debut. In 2008, BoA made moves to break onto the US market. She released a few singles with accompanying videos, then a self-titled album, all in English. Unfortunately, she failed to make huge waves in the US. Her album only got up to #127 on the Billboard 200, though manages to be #3 on the Top Heatseekers chart, #11 on Top Internet Albums, and her single "Eat You Up" got to #8 on the Dance Club playlist. Some fans blasted the album because her image and music were distinctly different from what they were in Asia. They compared her US image to Britney - all dance and glitter, but no substance. A particularly unimpressed reviewer even went so far as to say that she has no talent whatsoever.

I decided to look for BoA's own opinion on her US debut, since most of the press available were only statements from her management that didn't really go into the concept behind the album or the target market. The one that I did find had this quote from BoA: "I just wanted to make fresh, hot dance music." And I think this quote is what people need to focus on when looking at BoA's US release. She wasn't trying to become a star in the US - she was only experimenting. And that makes complete sense - why would she worry about the US market when she's already ridiculously popular in Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan? Many people have blamed her management company's US branch for messing up BoA's image, but it's hard to tell how many of the decisions surrounding the US album were made by the management or by BoA herself. That being said, I definitely question some of the decisions made for the album. Mainly the production and release of this video for "Eat You Up":

As opposed to this one:

The second version ended up being released later, but the whole breaking into the dance competition and bringing the house down (literally) was removed. Awful decisions on both counts. Though now if you go to Youtube, this remains as the only official video for the song.
BoA does succeed in making fresh, hot dance music that people like. Popularity doesn't always correlate with quality, and her failure to make big waves in the main Billboard charts doesn't means that her music was crappy. Her performance on the digital sales and dance charts is proof that, contrary to many opinions, her music is popular in the US. And she was going for danceability and catchiness as opposed to some high artistic standard, which she definitely brought in a big way. People may not like it, but you can't knock her for it.
On the topic of image, the truth is that fans never like it when their favorite artists switch up their image. You get attached to an artist in one incarnation, and so it's hard to like them as much in another. This already happened to BoA as she began to grow out of her "teenage popstar" image some years back. People didn't like it then and they don't like it now. But she's allowed to make her own decisions about how she wants to be presented. Yes, her US image is a kind of "Britney-fied" image, but it's not her only image, or even her primary one. She continues to mature and grow, as seen in this new video and song from her new Japanese album, Identity:

Another interesting point is that she produced "Possibility" herself. The song is pretty good, which makes me think she must have picked up a couple of things from working with big US names such as Sean Garrett, Britney and Justin Timberlake. So it's not like she went to the US, made a crap album for fun and then went back to Asia to continue doing her thing. She went into the US market to try something new and learn new things at the same time to help her develop as an artist.
Despite the criticisms, you can't deny that BoA is a talented, hardworking artist who allows herself to experiment, grow and change as she moves through her career. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING, and people simply need to let her get on with it. As another blogger aptly put it, "F- the haters. BoA ROCKS."