K-Pop has been making a splash in America in a big way. Although they have nearly subsumed all music in Asia and are getting big in parts of Europe and the Middle East, K-Pop in the USA seems to be about where J-Pop was during the height of the anime/manga crazy in the last 1990s and early 2000s. That is to say, huge within a niche group that’s made up of expat/second gen immigrants and Americans who love asian pop culture despite often not completely understanding all the lyrics. Of course, things were brought into mainstream attention with last year’s “Gangnam Style”. There are quite a few articles that examined why Psy emerged as the face of K-Pop. If I had to pick out the top reasons, I think it would be the easy and silly dance, the catchy beat, the fun of yelling “Oppa Gangnam Style!”, and the fact that he’s a pudgy Asian man who doesn’t threaten America’s notions of Asians. As to that last reason, Dan sent me a few articles during the height of the Gangnam craze that suggested part of the reason other artists like Rain have had a hard time penetrating is that American can only accept the goofy asian (Jackie Chan, The Donger, Kevin Jeong, etc) or the Karate Asian (Mr Miyagi, Jet Li). Even though the 1800s are long behind us, we can’t accept the pop star sex symbol Asian man. If there is interest among my dedicated readers, perhaps Dan can post links or do a followup blog post. At any rate, there’s a much higher chance of female-led K-Pop groups infiltrating the USA – given that we already have the stereotype of the sexy Asian woman coupled with the fact that there is a huge emphasis on gender, sexiness, and cuteness in the K-Pop system.
So just what is this K-Pop system? The New Yorker did an AWESOME writeup of the K-Pop system as well as why they think K-Pop is poised to make it big in the USA. (And if the New Yorker is covering it, perhaps there’s a chance it’ll break out of the niche market) That article’s pretty long, so here’s an overview: It’s like the old Hollywood movie system or the current Disney singer system, but on crack. The girls are found around 9-10 years old and are groomed to be K-Pop stars. The girls that form a group (and many of these are similar in composition to the Boy Band craze in the 1990s USA) live together and study together. They are essentially “owned” by the record company, although the record company does spend quite a lot of money to raise and groom the girls – it takes around $400k per girl (or guy – I keep saying girls because they’re doing a much better job of getting noticed in the USA) to get them ready for primetime. That includes teaching them English, Japanese, and Chinese so they can interact with their global fans. In fact, in Asia they often redo songs in Japanese and Chinese so that their fans can actually understand what they’re saying.
When I was at HoneyPig, a local Korean restaurant with Dan and family and friends, I could barely concentrate on the conversation because behind Dan, and in front of me, was a big TV constantly running a stream of K-Pop. On its own I have no problem listening to K-Pop. I was big into J-Pop in the 2000s, Dan got me into J-Rock a couple years ago, and I have German and Brazilian music as well. For me, not knowing the lyrics has never been a big deal because of how I grew up. As I mentioned a while ago, I was taught English before Spanish. So I spent my entire childhood going to parties with salsa, merengue, and bachata songs playing for which I didn’t understand the majority of the lyrics. I learned to just consider voices to be another instrument. So I don’t care that I don’t understand K-Pop (other than the 1% of lyrics that are random English words as the Japanese do in J-Pop), but what makes K-Pop actually worth experiencing is the music video. K-Pop videos often run the range from only slightly more extravagant and surreal than the rap and Boy Band videos of the 1990s to just this side of an acid trip. I’d say that K-Pop is like Lonely Island or, to some extent, Weird Al – the music goes from a 7/1o to a 10/10 when you see the music video. It is almost more of an audo-visual experience than a purely audio one.
The Wikipedia article on K-Pop (remember, it’s community-edited so it could be wrong) explains that the main method of gaining popularity for their songs is through getting popular on the net. In other words, nearly all marketing is viral marketing. I think it’s smart because the most popular songs get passed along without the company needing to spend any promotional money. That’s why you might notice that, unlike American music videos online, there’s a huge focus on the artist and song name in the video (rather than the MTV-style barely legible band name and song title in the USA) they REALLY want you to know who’s singing so you go pick up the single and support the band. Since Dan’s way into K-Pop and I only know what I’ve seen at HoneyPig, I asked him to submit the strangest K-Pop vids so I could properly illustrate my point with this article. He gave me a weird number – 7 – I think, so I added a couple to make it a nice, even 10.
Psy – Gangnam Style
This is one of the tamest of the crazy K-Pop vids, but I did talk about it a lot and, due to the nature of memes, it’s possible that someone who comes across this article in a few years might have forgotten the ridiculousness that was Gangnam Style. Of all the K-Pop I’ve heard, this is one where I wish I actually understood the lyrics because it’s meant to be a satire on people from the Gangnam region. It would be similar to the American song “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” by Good Charlotte. It’s worth noting that, with over 1 billion views, it was, at one time, the most viewed video on YouTube.
HyunA – Bubble Pop
This video starts off pretty normally, although there is a bit of a hint of how it’s going to go strangely with some word bubbles. It’s interesting for having a dubstep section (2min 25s). I shouldn’t be surprised as the internet makes music spread globally with less friction nowadays, but it was an interesting surprise. Also interesting: the backup dancers wearing American sports team Jerseys that must mean nearly nothing to the Koreans other than representing the US. (Unless the presence of American GIs means they’re more exposed to our sports via GI Broadcasts) This video is a good showcase of one big trait of K-Pop vids: constantly changing and going back and forth between sets and location shots (which, again, I do remember from early 90s music vids in the USA). That seems to have fallen out of favor in the USA and most of the videos I see tend to either be short films (Michael Jackson pioneered this and Lana Del Rey seems to be at the helm now although Taylor Swift sometimes uses it), story-based (whether or not the story matches the lyrics or just the sentiments of the lyrics), or just concert-like. (There’s also the niche of the weird like OK GO’s Rube Goldberg device videos or Vampire Weekend’s “Cousins”) This video gets odd at the 1 minute 21 second mark when it suddenly becomes a comic book.
I took a look at the lyrics online. I’m not sure if the translator didn’t do a good job (meaning he/she didn’t know enough English to translate phrases rather than word-by-word) or if it sounds odd in Korean as well, but the gist APPEARS to be having the Bubble Popped represents HyunA seeing through the lies and fake personality of her boyfriend.
The video is also a great example of another thing I read in that Wikipedia article. Here in the USA, pop songs focus on catchy lyrics – especially the hook and chorus. That’s why they tend to be simple and repetitive. It’s also why, while pop is fun to listen to, it’s often the potato chips of music – devoid of any real value. According to the K-Pop article, K-Pop groups focus on catch dances instead of, or in addition to, catchy lyrics. While we were awed by our Boy Band’s and Girl Groups (Britney, et al) choreography (some groups were better than others), the K-Pop system seeks to create simplified dance moves that any of their fans can emulate. They want their fans to feel cool and empowered that they can do the same dances as their K-Pop idols. It’s like they figured out the video game system that makes video games so addictive way sooner than we have in the USA. (Although the popularity of songs like the “Cha Cha Slide” show that some people get it here).
HyunA – Ice Cream
This video starts off almost right away with the wacky. It also co-stars Psy. When I was reading up on K-Pop back when Dan was sending me all those articles, it mentioned a reason that Psy and HyunA might have a bit of a sense of kinship. It appears they’re both bad boys and girls within the K-Pop world. And not in the sense of a “bad boy” image as you’ll see with many of the K-Pop boy groups – especially if they are more in the rap and R&B realm. No, Psy was caught with drugs and some other things that were found a little too unsavory. Before “Gangnam Style” took off he’d been written off. HyunA has seen some scandal due to her tattoos and some dancing that was considered TOO provocative. Psy had HyunA in “Gangnam Style” as well as “Oppa is Just My Style”
Like the Tardis, it appears 15 seconds in, that HyunA’s ice cream truck is larger on the inside. I also love, because of having read it so darn much to my daughter, that there’s an ice cream machine in the background that is apparently of the brand “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. I love the ridiculous sound effects – it reminds me of Univision or Telemundo when I was growing up. Also, this is what I mean about the song title being front and center:
Also, interesting – I know that the Japanese consider ice cream to be a feminine treat (as do the Vietnamese) so I wonder if that applies to Koreans as well and if that’s part of the joke of Psy eating HyunA’s ice cream. I also wonder if her constant repetition of “cream” in the chorus is similar to Katy Perry’s repetition of “cock” from Peacock in one of her songs. Usually English phrases in Asian music seem to be throwaways that signify coolness. Is HyunA getting crap past the radar because it’s in another language? More examples of the insanity of K-Pop vids: Why the heck does she run over a clown at 1:29? “My ring so bling bling” – so they’re catching up with our slang from the early 2000s. Also, WTF is up with the signs people are holding:
Also….what? (OK, it’s not that crazy compared to Katy Perry….but I think I read somewhere she’s into K-Pop so… viscous circle?)
The way they’re sitting on the male backup dancers 2:28 is also weird, but strangely girl power, I think. The men are objects. (Although, I know that it’s not as though two wrongs make a right) And there’s no way that at 3:44 when she starts spraying the men in a face with a hose that it isn’t meant to be a reverse sexualization. The comparison with Katy Perry is apt as the lyrics translation is pretty similar to her “California Girls” – she’s so hot she melts the boys. And, unless I misunderstood the lyrics, some girls as well.
4Minute – Is it Poppin?
The last of the videos I added to pad the list Dan gave me. When I found it online, I didn’t realize this is the girl group that HyunA is a part of. Two things drew me to this video as an example of how odd K-Pop videos can get. First of all, there’s this shirt that someone is wearing:
and the 80s clothes (although the 80s ARE making a comeback in the USA, too). Specifically this Miami Dolphins jersey. They haven’t been awesome since before I was born.
Other than that, it’s actually a pretty straight forward video about a girl who’s man is always out partying. Well, except for when the place catches fire, but I’ve seen that in USA vids as well.
So let’s move on to Dan’s entries.
2Yoon – 24/7
OK….I had to stop this at 22 second. WTF?!? Let’s back up a bit.
Dan picked a real winner here. The lyrics are rap. The music is American bluegrass. They go to a dude ranch in which the guys look like Newsies. Can this get any crazier? (Also, let me say to American artists out there – I think the idea of rapping over bluegrass might actually be really awesome)
And it does get even nuttier when one of the girls brings out a 1980s Boombox:
This happens around 55 seconds and they do what appears to be a combination of K-Pop dancing and Line Dancing. My brain is almost literally exploding at all of this being combined into one. Then they’re at a campfire, a line dance with a mechanical bull, and a Saloon. All the while the singers of 2Yoon are wearing 1980s clothes. The best part of all this – the lyrics are actually depressing – they’re about how life is the same day-in and day-out. Too much dissonance. Let’s see what’s next!
Girls Generation – “Paparazzi’
This one starts off quite a bit more normal. Although I’m thinking, “WOW, this is a huge group. It looks like about 10 girls.” It is pretty odd that the framing device has them about to perform at an opera house in which the entire audience appears to be Korean, but a white dude introduces them in English. Oh, it’s more like a Broadway Show.
This song seems to have the highest English to Korean word ratio yet. It’s very weird understanding nearly every other word. Overall pretty tame compared to the last one. Which is good; didn’t want to overload on the crazy. The lyrics translate to gibberish in English, but it’s more or less what you’d expect with a title of “Paparazzi”.
???? (F(x)) – Electric Shock
Points right away for having a K-Pop club song while wearing Goth clothes.
About half-way in, the backgrounds seem very rap background – especially back when Puff Daddy was relevant. I do like the girl wielding the taser, though. Same girl, I think, the videos are hard to rewind to a specific spot was then holding defibrillator paddles.
This is actually a pretty good club song. Of course, they continue the electric theme by singing on a circuit board. Haha, I do love me some puns – one of the girls is wearing an AC/DC shirt – no better place for it! The lyrics are using electricity as a metaphor for love, attraction, and sex. So they have that metaphor too, neat. OK, next Dan wanted to show us what the guys of K-Pop get up to.
MBLAQ – Smoky Girl
Just the name of the band and the song title have me expecting something pretty weird. Interestingly, while all the other vids I’ve seen so far had views in the millions, this one only has 1,707 views as I write this. Also, only two comments compared to the hundreds on the girls’ videos.
In a black and white music video, that’s the first bit of color. What is going on? As it transitions from this into a wholly white room, I notice that these guys dance really well, there seems to be less of an emphasis than the girl groups on making a dance that the fans can copy. There’s, interestingly, a white, blond woman they seem to be after and there’s a weird rap section where everyone’s frozen but the singer. It’s a strangely abstract video, but nothing that the Boy Bands of the 1990s didn’t do. So far nothing as crazy as 2Yoon’s 24/7. The song’s about meeting a girl at the club.
Huh Gak & Eunji – Short Hair
An interesting song title. And it’s off to a promising start.
Oh man, if this whole video is finger puppets, I think it’ll be close to taking the number one spot.
Yup, it’s that crazy. Lyrically, it’s a ballad about people falling in love even though they don’t look awesome or, in the girl’s case, have makeup on. This one only has 281 views. More people need to see the insanity. OK Dan, let’s see what the last one will be.
Girls Generation – Love and Girls (Dance Version)
Ok, let’s see if the Girls Generation once again peppers their lyrics with just a tad too much English. (It’s a shame the video quality is so bad on this video, but it DOES have 2 million views)
The video almost looks like it was shot on a 1980s MTV Spring Break episode. It’s funny because the music and the way the girls are rapping almost seems like something out of the late 80s/early 90s when Fresh Prince was on TV and rap was added to way too many commercials and otherwise normal songs. The lyrics to that song also seem to be gibberish when translated to English.
So there we go, some were nutty and some were pretty tame. I know there are some really crazy ones out there so if you know about them, post them in the comments!