January set the tone for a darker, more serious year in K-pop. Songs and videos that are more introspective and conscious of the issues within the industry are becoming more commonplace. To a certain extent, February has kept up with this theme. Though there are some exceptional splashes of color and fun, many artists returned with somber tracks set to black and white videos to emphasize that this is Serious Music. Possible pretensions aside, they usually succeed in making their music as interesting as it is presented to be.
Zion.T and Crush — “Just”
The month started off strong with Zion.T and Crush teaming up for “Just”. The two artists have collaborated before on 2013’s “Two Melodies” and last year’s “Hey Baby”. Like the former, “Just” opens up with smooth chords played on a Fender Rhodes. Lush vocals spill over a simple R&B beat as the two sing of romantic loneliness. Zion.T sings lines like “Every night in my bed alone / I hug my blanket and it’s cold.” Later, Crush raps, “It’s not going to work. Obviously, I know / Pity, I don’t even ask for anymore.”
The video, set in the arty black and white referenced earlier, captures the cold lyrical theme, countering the warmth of the silky production. It’s mostly cliché. They sing in an empty warehouse and leave flowers at a grave, but there’s a certain sleekness to it all that saves the video. There’s an instrumental bridge with a tasteful piano solo during which a male ballet dancer dances in a spot light. It’s something that’s just different enough to make it unique, but without feeling too gimmicky. His dancing strangely captures the pedestrian heartbreak of Zion.T and Crush’s emotional vocal performances. But it’s those vocal performances that really shine through on “Just”.
4Minute — “Crazy”
4Minute also went the black and white route, but likely not with the same film school aspirations. Instead, the choice was probably made to set the group apart from the typical K-pop girl group image (which becomes ironic given the number of K-pop videos toning down the saturation levels). But this is a new direction for 4Minute, more in line with its break-out star HyunA’s latest solo release, Red. It’s loud and aggressive. “Crazy” is a trap-influenced dance track that changes directions on a dime and apologizes for none of its sonic indulgences. Everything about the song, from the rapid-fire rapping and the twisted horn hook to the quick editing, constantly moving camera angles, and sharp choreography adds up to something, well… crazy.
Hip-hop has been moving more and more into the center of K-pop, and with that comes a complicated web of cultural signifiers. 4Minute obviously allude to many hip-hop visual tropes in the video, along with the sonic references on the track. The hair styles and fashion, along with many of the girls’ postures and poses, specifically recall American hip-hop culture, and subsequently African-American culture. Though they are far from the only K-pop artists to do this of late, as one of the more popular groups, the video has caused a resurgence in the dialogue on cultural appropriation in K-pop. The issue is not simple enough to settle here, but as K-pop continues to grow and mature in more self-reflexive ways, I hope that groups begin to do more interesting and nuanced things with their appropriations.
Amber — “Shake That Brass (feat. Taeyeon)”
It’s no secret that f(x) is my favorite K-pop girl group, so naturally I was excited for Amber to make her solo debut. Amber is one of the most liked K-pop idols within the industry and with fans — to the point that, honestly, even as a huge f(x) fan, I’m not sure I understand why — and this mini album, Beautiful, is a chance to show off what she can really do. In her group, she’s been pigeonholed as the rapper, but with Beautiful, she gets to show off her vocal and songwriting talents as well. Unfortunately it’s not all we hoped for, with too many filler ballads and not enough excitement to really make a statement.
Still, the title track, “Shake That Brass”, is at least a ton of fun. Clearly, Amber didn’t get the Serious K-Pop memo — or she did and decided to just cut it up into confetti instead. “Shake That Brass”, much like its cheeky word play title would suggest, is silly, over-the-top, and infectious. She recruits an almost countless number of fellow K-pop idols to appear in the video, and they all play a rag-tag big band under Amber’s baton. Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon makes a proper feature, singing a verse towards the end of the song, and almost steals the show. Amber’s charismatic rapping and chanting throughout carries the song well, though. And even if the music is a little forgettable — albeit fairly off-kilter — it’s the kind of track that you can’t help but dance to. f(x) is one of the many veteran groups with possible disbandment rumors, and I hope they’re not true. But if Amber is going to continue releasing solo material, I hope we see more of her range and charm in her comeback.
Lizzy and Park Myung Soo — “Goodbye PMS”
This is another exception to prove the rule of K-pop getting darker and more serious. Then again, Lizzy always plays by her own rules. In January, she finally made her solo debut with “Not An Easy Girl”, a kitschy disco/trot feminist anthem, and now she’s back for a new one-off single with comedian Park Myung Soo called “Goodbye PMS”. The track sounds like a lo-fi J-rock song, with pop-punk distorted guitars and bratty vocal hooks. It’s catchy as hell, of course, but the real selling point here is the music video.
Park Myung Soo, dressed in a red spandex devil costume, plays PMS (his initials, get it?), inflicting his cramps on unsuspecting victims everywhere — even a cute little dog. Lizzy gets frustrated with her breakouts, binge eating, and terrible pain that’s so bad it knocks her out of her chair. In her head, we see PMS as a giant attacking the city with his pre-menstrual syndrome laser vision. Lizzy takes a Midol and grows to his size. The two battle it out, Godzilla vs. Mecha Godzilla style, until Giant Lizzy forces PMS to take the pill, causing him to shrink down so she can stop him with her foot and throw him into the sun. If fun is what many of these recent K-pop songs are missing, Lizzy’s here to balance out the scale.
Niel — “Lovekiller (feat. Dok2)”
Teen Top’s Niel also makes his solo debut with the mini album oNIELy, like “only, but with Niel…” Alhough the music video is not strictly black and white, the tone matches the somber quality of Zion.T’s “Just”. Lyrically, “Lovekiller” is standard unrequited love fare. Niel’s girlfriend seems to be cheating on him, and he loves her so much that he’s willing to look past that if she just stays with him. He knows it’s wrong, he knows she’s a “love killer”, but he can’t help but cling to the good memories and crave their toxic relationship.
Even the music video seems to recognize the thinness of the lyric’s thematic material. Niel spends far more time copping Michael Jackson dance moves than looking lovelorn, even though everything is still shot with dramatic lighting and muted hues. The really interesting thing here, however, is the music itself. The track begins as a mid-tempo acoustic track, nicely melodic and jazzy, but fairly straightforward. After a full verse and chorus, though, a groovy disco beat comes in. It’s the kind of switch you might expect after a short intro, but after almost one minute and 30 seconds it feels unexpected and makes the track interestingly unbalanced. The new dance beat retroactively makes Niel’s MJ moves more understandable, too. “Lovekiller” is not the kind of song that stands out from the crowd, even with its unusual structure, but it’s so expertly executed that it deserves more attention.
Rainbow — “Black Swan”
You know K-pop’s chromophobia is reaching extremes when a group like Rainbow, whose whole concept is based on each member representing a different color of the rainbow, makes a comeback with a practically black and white music video. Innocence is the group’s first album since 2013’s Rainbow Syndrome, following last year’s underrated sub-unit Rainbow Blaxx. The new release finds the seven-member girl group returning to the sleek electro-pop dance music of their massive hits “A” and “Mach” rather than the cutesy fair of Rainbow Syndrome.
“Black Swan” is darker than anything they’ve released before. The song is loosely related to the film Black Swan, just in that it contains allusions to ballet dancing and quotes the final line of the film, “It was perfect”. However, the tone feels similar as well. The lyrics are filled with anxiety, but they never clearly state what they’re anxious about. This vagueness adds to the sense of distress, and the minimal music to which it’s set is perfect to bring out the panicked atmosphere.
Everything about the production and songwriting is simple and stripped down, almost to a fault. It has received criticism for being too generic, but I think that its simplicity is its greatest strength. At first, it feels forgettable, but the more you hear “Black Swan”, the more it gets under your skin. The anticlimactic pacing and long held notes in the chorus are hauntingly unsettling. In the first lines of the song, Hyunyoung references being trapped in the same place every day. The incessant, cyclical music is the perfect manifestation of this claustrophobia and fatalistic dread.
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It’s unlikely that this trend of dark K-pop will continue throughout the rest of the year, and it’s not like we haven’t seen dark subject matter from k-pop groups before. But it will be interesting to see how groups and artists continue to react to the turbulent year the industry had in 2014. Many major groups like Infinite, Girls’ Generation, Brown Eyed Girls, and even Big Bang are slated to make comebacks in the coming months, and it’s improbable that they’ll return like nothing has changed.