Sunday, January 29, 2012

B.A.P's "Warrior": Ready for Battle

So last year I wrote a lengthy post about boy bands and how the market for them is getting seriously crowded. I predicted that boy bands would have a harder time distinguishing them from the pack, and would really have to bring it both musically and performance-wise in order to make their mark on the music scene. After Block B's debut, I pretty much stopped following the new boy bands (and girl groups) because there were just too many of them, and I couldn't bring myself to care.

However, after hearing the buzz about B.A.P, the new boy band from Secret's management, TS Entertainment, I decided to check them out. I have to say, I was pretty impressed. I'd been keeping my eye on Bang Yong-guk ever since his duet with Song Ji-eun, and he and his crew basically came in ready to fight their way to the top. I promise not to make any more puns, but I can't help but find their debut song and concept really appropriate: k-pop has become a very serious competition for chart awards, sales and fans, and if you don't go in willing to give all you've got to make it, you get left. B.A.P knows it, and the song almost comes across as a message: watch out world, we're coming for ya.

"Warrior" is a great track, though it may not be obviously good or immediately appealing. It's not particularly new in terms of sound, though it does stand out from the myriad of electronic, four-on-the-floor tracks, with it's mid-tempo hip-hop beat. It also starts off fairly low-key, slowly building until the last chorus, by which time you're bobbing your head and singing along. It's surprisingly un-catchy, yet I find myself listening to it over and over again. The vocals are solid, the rapping is on point, with Zelo giving Block B's Zico a run for his money in the speed-rapping department, and even the sub-vocalists/rappers make the most of their eight-second appearances.

Their performances are also great and full of energy, despite not having a dancey beat or particularly complicated choreo. There's something about the controlled aggression they bring with their performance that really appeals to me. It's a nice change from the "beast" concept that has been popularized by 2PM and has pretty much dominated the boy band scene in terms of strong masculine imagery. They're not dressing in all black, rocking guyliner and ripping off their shirts, but they're showing their strength and skill and discipline in a very controlled way. They're definitely influenced by the performance tradition of African-American fraternities in the US - the stepping that they do at the dance break is an obvious example of that. The performance also reminds me of the haka that the New Zealand rugby team does at the beginning of their matches. Check out the videos below for examples of stepping and haka.

(Ignore the over-dramatics in this video - it's from a movie, Stomp The Yard. Couldn't find a real-life example with decent camerawork.)

I like that B.A.P plays to their strengths and doesn't try to be too poppy, but still show that they can do a diverse group of songs. "Secret Love" (below) is a fantastic track featuring Song Ji-eun, who sounds particularly good here, foregoing the belting for a softer sound. It's all acoustic low-key goodness, with mellow rapping and a hint of Spanish guitar in the chorus. I think it'll be a hit with people who aren't big fans of the typical k-pop sound. It's definitely the opposite side of the spectrum from "Warrior" and "Unbreakable" but somehow fits B.A.P like a glove.

All in all, this was a strong debut. I went back and watched all of the boy-band debuts of the past year out of boredom/curiosity, and few stood out (CHAOS and MYNAME seem the most promising). B.A.P has definitely knocked out most of the competition with this one, and I suspect they'll weather the storm and stick around for a minute longer than their peers. It's funny because while I'm still skeptical about EXO's upcoming debut, I think SM may be smarter than I originally thought - their latest teasers showcase some decent rapping, which to me is a sign that they're getting ready to duke it out with B.A.P and other hot up-and-comers for the top spot. You can always tell that a k-pop group is serious when their rappers aren't just pretty boys with deep voices. Could it be possible that the saturation of the k-pop market is actually forcing people to make better music? I'll remain hesitantly hopeful on that point.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Did the Piggy Dolls Ruin Their Credibility?

Question of the day: What do you guys think of the Piggy Dolls?

Of course, I'm supposed to be working. But this thought just occured to me, and I wanted to bring this to a public forum for discussion. So if you read and have an opinion on this, feel free to share it here.

Two weeks ago, the Piggy Dolls released a new digital single "What Is Love" featuring Simon D. I only listened to it about 10 minutes ago, and all I could think is: this is amazing - WHY IS NOBODY TALKING ABOUT IT?

On the real though: their voices have majorly improved and matured in the year and the half since they debuted with "Trend". Vocally, these girls slay, and this song is only more proof of that. And I mean, if the mid-tempo ballad isn't you're thing, watch them out kick Joss Stone to the curb with their cover of her track "Tell Me 'Bout It". (I miss Joss Stone, by the way. Haven't listened to her last two albums. I should get on that...)

I mean, completely live with a band on top of that??? Do I have to say they're amazing one more time, or is it obvious?

So why the hell are they not getting more coverage? I mean, they're probably suffering from the usual bias towards the more prominent entertainment companies in SK. But you'd think they'd have garnered at least some sort of following. But I can't see signs of it anywhere - at least, not in the international k-pop interwebs. But then I remembered their PR nightmare from last year, where they denied, then admitted to going on a diet program for an advertising campaign before they released their second CD, Hakuna Matata. Facepalm doesn't even begin to describe my reaction. I wasn't a fan of their "concept" in the first place, but to then undermine your whole "body image doesn't matter" slogan by making the girls lose weight was just stupid, plain and simple. They were obviously pressured into it by the industry, but if their management had the backbone that they seemed to have by debuting the girls in the first place, then they should have stuck up for them and found a way for them to make it work. I mean, it's not like everyone on the idol circuit is skinny.

Piggy Doll's Debut Single, "Trend" with English subtitles

So I'm now wondering if they have undermined their credibility by that stunt, and whether that's the cause of the lack of interest. Management companies claim all sorts of things about their idols, including that they're all-natural i.e. had no plastic surgery, and don't starve themselves to keep their figure (even though it's obvious that surgery is rampant and most of the idols are underweight). And it's not new for idols to go on drastic diets. However, if you go out hoping to capture the attention of the industry with your plus-sized girl group, and then make them normal size, you lose the support of people who would originally be interested in that sort of group. You also lose the connection that idols work so hard to establish with their fans - whether it's a romantic connection or a platonic, elder/younger sibling connection. And finally, you signal to everyone else that you don't have what it takes to be a rebel, and would rather fit in with everyone else. Unfortunately, that means you disappear into the swarm of young idol groups around today, all vying for the attention of the (still fairly small) k-pop audience at home and abroad.

On a related note though, the pressure to be thin in the k-pop scene is overwhelming and disturbing. It's old news, but every time I'm reminded of it I become really upset. I just read about Brown Eyed Soul's Yong Joon losing weight for his solo promotions. This isn't a tiny girl competing with other tiny girls - this is a grown-ass man we're talking about here. And he wasn't even significantly overweight. I mean, have you seen the people on The Biggest Loser? Those dudes are big. He was slim in comparison. And with a voice like this, why do you even need to lose weight in the first place? Kim Tae Woo's a bit pudgy, and he's doing just fine. (Then again, he was in g.o.d.)

What are your thoughts? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

I hope that more people start covering the Piggy Dolls, as well as other "underrateds". Shout out to McRoth's Residence, Indieful ROK/Korean Indie, Luminosity, and all other k-pop blogs who devote time and energy to showing the world that there are more artists with great music to share outside of the mainstream idol sphere. Visit them, comment on their blogs, show them some love. And buy an indie CD!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Now Approaching: EXO Planet

Ah, finally - a relevant SM topic to write about. I've been itching to write about everyone's favorite entertainment company for the past two or three months, but I didn't want to bore you guys with old news about SNSD. So now I'm turning my attention to their newest group, EXO.

Right off the bat, these guys caught my attention. SM poured their money into their teasers, and for once, it was money well spent. The boys look good, sound good, and are singing, dancing, and staring meaningfully to some phat beats. It's clear that SM wants these guys to be a success, and I'm liking what they're doing with them so far. My favorite teaser is the first Kai one, for a few reasons: (a) he's kinda hot (new noona crush?); (b) I love his dance style; and (c) The song, "My Lady" slays me every time I hear it. I suspect that's Jino singing - I'm just waiting for his teaser so I can make him my bias and leave all these other dudes in the dust.

(People have been hating on Kai's many teasers - I guess he's the leader? It'd be annoying if he wasn't the leader, though, and just the chosen one, like Yoona.)

A big topic over at Seoulbeats has been the unique marketing strategy for this group: made up of twelve Chinese and Korean performers, they will be split into sub-groups, EXO-K and EXO-M to promote simultaneously in Korea and China. They will be singing the same songs, only on different languages. Some have called this strategy genius: I call it poorly thought out. The marketing that's been done so far seems to indicate that they're thinking more strategically about this debut - unlike f(x) who were kind of just thrown onto the scene with a smorgasbord concept that they haven't quite figured out yet, and no directed marketing beforehand. However, I've learned not to get my hopes up when it comes to this company. People have already pointed out the fact that k-pop hasn't gotten hold of the mainland Chinese market just yet, so EXO-M might not do as well as EXO-K. They've also been throwing SNSD onto every continent with mixes featuring a random mix of American talents, which just seems lazy to me. Without a good picture of the foreign market and what they're willing to pay for, they're unlikely to capture the market the way they want to. SM may say that they don't want world domination, but they're making moves that only support that assertion. Probably don't want to be embarrassed when they flop.

Regarding China though, I think there may be a chance for them. If EXO-M can market itself to the younger generations who listen to rock bands instead of the dreary pop ballad singers, and position themselves as a group that plans to change the status quo as opposed to fitting into it (which is what SM tried with no success in China and in the US) then maybe they have a chance. I wonder how they'll deal with censorship though - they probably don't have Chinese TV broadcasters in their back pocket like they do the Korean ones, so they have to be careful about content. Oh well, if it fails, at least Taiwan will take them.

Who'd reject these cuties though?

Anyway, this all looks good, but I'm not confident that SM can deliver the way they are suggesting they will. Here's why: they kind of just do stuff. They don't put much thought into their actions, but simply put out albums and flash their cash for the world to see. This is my main beef with SM, aside from their restrictive contracts and questionable marketing of SNSD. Occasionally you see growth in their artists, but in those cases I would give credit to the hard work of the individuals as opposed to the company's philosophy as a whole, which essentially boils down to "F**k bitches, get money." Release albums with lackluster songs, collect the profits from a rabid fanbase, and then turn around and do it again with the next group the next month. Cycle through the artists and simply wait for the cash to fall into your pocket.

Clearly this is working for them, so I won't knock it too much. However, apart from the possible human rights violations being committed in order to get these albums out so quickly, as a music fan it leaves me disappointed. SM is fantastic at picking out the most talented people the world has to offer. Yet they seem incapable of producing consistently good music. Huge amounts of talent are being wasted over there, shafted to occasional special performances, or the off chance that someone actually knows what good music is and works with the artists to help them get a glimpse of their full potential. So while it looks like someone actually cares about the music this time, I plan on remaining detached from this new group, because I will be let down, as usual.

Sad face.

To be honest, I think EXO is simply a replacement for Super Junior. Down to nine members, which will soon decrease to eight as Leeteuk approaches the age of army enlistment, SM needs another super boy band to keep the fangirls emptying their pockets for merchandise and concert tickets. So far, it seems like the k-pop world is ready to accept EXO as their new deities once they land on Earth. Maybe if we're lucky, they bring with them some awesome music from their planet.

... though if they don't, I suppose there's always the pretty.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rainbow Pixie: Half-hearted Girl Group Mashup

So I actually like Rainbow as a group. I think they're talented, and when they're given a decent song, they rock it like nobody's business. However, I am NOT a fan of this video and song:

The song had potential until the wtf-ery that was the middle eight a.k.a Rainbow's Achilles' heel. It wasn't terribly annoying, didn't sound like Orange Caramel, and Jisook and Hyunyoung have pretty good voices. The video however seriously jacked Orange Caramel's swag. There were also hints of Dal Shabet, A Pink and Girls' Day in there. Once you start imitating your dongsaengs, you should stop and think if this is a good choice. Usually, it won't be.

I've always liked Rainbow for not following trends, but it seems they think the cutesy sub-unit is the only way to be relevant these days. Dear DSP: there are other ways to keep making your money. The most obvious suggestion - MAKE GOOD MUSIC. Also try hiring a decent choregorapher - Rainbow always gets the short end of that stick, not unlike SS501 when they were still with you. I have other great ideas of how you could save this girl band, but I'm still trying to find someone to pay me for all the effort I put into my k-pop obsession. Till then, I'll be saving them for my own entertainment company (a.k.a Mellowyel's plan for world domination).

Sorry for not posting sooner guys - was going to wait until I came up with something brilliant before starting again. But I figured it was better if I just got to posting and forgot about being organized, since I clearly can't manage that. I'll try to post more frequently with short opinion pieces like this, but I'm working on some longer posts that will also go up... hopefully. *sigh. Happy New Year!