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Pattern Recognition Vol. 11: Gangnam and Beyond

Illustration by Inka Gerbert

In this edition of his monthly column, Adam Harper—the premier writer on emergent, underground music—delves into the world of post-“Gangnam Style” K-pop and hallyu


“Oh… hey, Adam… I like your… outfit…”

Turns out it’s not particularly easy wearing leggings under shorts in your average postgraduate community (who knew). Or even in most of the real world, for that matter. But luckily I have the encouragement of my new spiritual mentors among K-pop’s boy-band idols. Cavorting and frolicking about on YouTube, Tumblr and in animated gifs, practically every K-boy-band video in 2013 featured shorts and leggings or some variation thereon: shorts and long socks, long tops and skinnies, drop crotch pants, even full-blown skirts. Beautiful, all of them. “K-pop,” I tell my drearily-clothed academic colleagues, “I can do this because of K-pop.”

2013 is the year that keeps on giving. While researching J-pop as part of my last Pattern Recognition, on cuteness, I dipped into its neighbor across the sea and discovered that the futuristic weirdness that was 2013 had extended into an incredible year for the South Korean charts, with mad offerings from the likes of G-Dragon, CL, f(x), Taeyang, T.O.P, Block B, Exo and many others opening up to me an elaborate, almost psychedelic world of ornately intense songs and bizarre fashions.

I had been aware of K-pop before then, but whenever I checked in on it I never managed to see it as offering much more than Western pop in a different language. A few things have changed since then. Firstly, this whole hi-tech turn in underground music of the past couple of years has opened my ears (and those of others, I reckon) to all kinds of complex, subcultural and technocratic pop sounds that had previously been out of bounds when lo-fi retro and connoisseur club sounds ruled. Like corporate mood music, cute hardcore or computer noise, K-pop is perfect for this new situation, and has already had something of an effect in the hyper-stylized masculinity and mesmerizing slickness of U.S. artists like Yen Tech.

Secondly, K-pop seems to have really come into its own. You might have heard of a video that got one or two views in 2012, “Gangnam Style”. While it’s easy for underground types to be suspicious and cynical about any video surpassing a million views, let alone one that invaded our lives as much as Psy’s “Gangnam Style” did, it surely deserved the success—it was witty, tuneful and simply great fun. You might say its basic exuberance provided people with welcome relief from the grimly hedonistic ultra-sexiness of so much Western pop. Last year Psy released a follow-up single, “Gentlemen”, which although still fun (its video featuring Psy being a massive bastard), was ludicrously similar to “Gangnam Style”—right down to the signature move.

Yet there is plenty beyond Psy. Like J-pop, K-pop has long had its hardcore fanbase in English-speaking countries who already knew that, and the spread of South Korean culture has been noted as a ‘Korean Wave’ (or hallyu) since the late 1990s. English-speaking coverage of K-pop is ample, especially on the website Seoul Beats, where you can read a range of insightful, socially aware and all-round brilliant long-form music-writing, and even an essay on the dangers of exoticizing Koreans entitled “Playboy Petrarch: Racial Fetishism and K-Pop”. And two years ago, Trevor Pinch (aka @loosejoints) wrote a great defence of and introduction to K-pop in his “Pop Utopianism” manifesto.

K-pop fandom tends to center around the performers themselves, who are called ‘idols’. Idols are typically scouted at an early age and enter boy bands and girl bands of between five and nine members. Working for companies with ominous names (almost always a few letters followed by the word ‘Entertainment’—SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment), they regularly appear on TV engaged in embarrassing activities or endorsing products, and although their lives are constantly documented on social media, their public image is strictly controlled for a society that is rarely as liberal as those in the West.

Again, like J-pop, K-pop offers listeners in the West a series of subtle but significant alternatives to our own pop. One major thing is that it seldom comes across as cynical as Western pop does. Whether it’s the cynicism of hedonistic or acquisitive lyrics, or the cynicism of suits manufacturing a succès de scandale, K-pop’s more generously-clothed idols just don’t seem as condescending or demeaning as the most notorious of their Western counterparts when they do what they do.

I’d also argue that the music’s better, or at least more mannerist—it’s certainly very good at its hooks, and more melodically, harmonically and structurally rich, often inventively so, at times recalling the classics of 1990s and early 2000s U.S. pop. Check out the gateau vocal harmonies in Shinee’s “Lucifer”, from 2010, for example. From composition to image to dancing, K-pop seems to put so much more craft into what it does—I don’t think I’d ever really understood the power of the dance routine until I saw f(x), Teen Top or Taeyang going at it.

And there’s something to be said for listening to pop music in a language that (as in my case with Korean) you don’t understand. Although K-pop lyrics are increasingly peppered with English phrases—often to entertaining effect—their inscrutability conceals from the non-Korean speaker what might be their off-putting predictability. There are plenty of K-pop translations to read out there, and though their awkwardness can be intriguing, I haven’t seen many lyrics that go far beyond the usual anodyne pop themes of courtship, parties and braggadocio. What’s more, void of their lexical meanings, the language becomes music too— the slightly pinched, detached sound of Korean phonemes seems to add something spine-tingling to f(x)’s “Pinnochio (Danger)” [embedded above] or Taeyang’s “Ringa Linga”. With only the intonation and expression to go on, the words can mean whatever you feel they mean. (It makes me wonder what English sounds like to non-English-speakers.)

But for me the main appeal of K-pop is its overall intensity. It’s pop, only more so. It so often feels like an accelerated form of the pop most Westerners are familiar with. The West has long considered the future to lie in East Asia, either technologically or politically, and South Korea has among the most developed internet usage and infrastructure in the world. It also holds and televises tournaments of the sci-fi computer game Starcraft, and uses robots to teach kids English, guard prisons and do battle with jellyfish swarms in what they’re calling “co-operative jellyfish removal strategies.” K-pop regularly reflects this futuristic image—to many Westerners at least—by being stranger, catchier, more elaborate, more complex, more unreal and just generally going harder than Western pop. It’s like a glimpse into the future, or at least a deeper, more intense present.

Turns out this has been especially the case recently. Perhaps the best representative of the New Weird Hallyu, and the most famous K-pop idol world-wide underneath fellow YG Entertainment idol Psy, is G-Dragon, the leader of the hip-hop-leaning boy band Big Bang. Formed in 2006 as teenaged sensations, Big Bang are now a bit older than the average K boy band, and each of them have started coming into their own as solo artists lately. Prior to 2012, Big Bang’s music and videos were decent enough but seem fairly unremarkable in their quasi-macho heartthrob way. Starting with April 2012’s “One of a Kind”, G-Dragon began to uncage his wilder side, resulting in some of the most eye-opening videos and lurid pop in recent memory.

G-Dragon—who has been in K-pop since the tender age of five—is known most of all for a crazy-but-cool fashion swag that has been garnering plenty of Western attention, but he also plays a larger creative role in his music and videos than many K-idols do. The guy carries on like a cross between Nicki Minaj, Agyness Deyn and Jim Carrey. The best term to describe “One of a Kind” was coined by Dusk and Blackdown: ‘ghetto ridiculous’ . Bouncing over a beat that chops up succulent slabs of thrash-wobble, it’s what hip-hop might look like minus the key element of ‘keeping it real’: crisp oversize hoodies, children, a tiger, a bear, a sequence featuring a tennis tantrum in a fashion museum, and a color-scheme that suggests a barcode angrily losing its mind. There’s a lot to criticize about K-pop’s use of African-American culture—as Seoul Beats knows—but there’s more than a few tongues in cheeks here, and G-Dragon is keenly aware of the unrealism of swag, of swag as a dream that is performed.

From “One of a Kind”, G-Dragon’s videos got madder and more energetic, his music incorporating various EDM-related characteristics in a similarly ostentatious manner (there comes a point where EDM’s ridiculous so-called ‘dubstep’ elements become more than just an intensification, and become a new and lurid world). “Crayon” was a day-glo rave pop madness, and “Michi-GO” saw GD rocking a series of unexpected hairstyles in a subway carriage, a doctor’s office, a library and a urinal. Meanwhile, Big Bang regrouped for a new album, yielding similarly bats videos for “Fantastic Baby” and the anthemic “Monster”. In Autumn 2013, G-Dragon released the patchy Coup d’Etat, and his latest video, for the soppier “Who You?” is built around a nightmarish scenario that could’ve been conjured by the mind of Charlie Brooker: GD trapped in a perspex cage surrounded by a thousands fans, all gazing at him through the smartphones that capture much of the video’s footage.

In 2013, G-Dragon’s bandmates followed his lead, returning to solo material that GD often had a hand in producing. With his deep voice, mature looks and gentlemanly suave, you might be forgiven for expecting T.O.P to lean over a grand piano with a whisky and pour his heart into a good old croon. Nope. Appearing as a gelato-haired Capital-of-Panem dandy general in “Fantastic Baby”, T.O.P becomes an early-twentieth-century gentleman adventurer for the existentialist fever dream that is “Doom Dada”.This one has a particularly intriguing beat, with its minimal Space Invaders synth, swooping ice-cold textures and child crying out at the bottom of a well (fortunately, the instrumental’s out there). T.O.P raps over this at an intimidating pace, dribbling wantonly surreal lyrics such as, “you with the sleeping cells, have you seen the last weapon… shower that washes the eardrums, you unstoppable hot souls.” He starts by double-tracking himself over a weird major seventh and at the chorus leaning dissonantly on the word ‘yeonghon’ (‘souls’) in a way that crawls right up your neck. The video is another surreal spectacular, with giant babies, nuclear broccoli and a skeletal zoetrope, but in the absence of a clear message, its retro-colonial, post-Darwinian Heart of Darkness vibe does leave a slightly offputting taste in the mouth.

“Doom Dada” was swiftly followed by Big Bang member Taeyang’s “Ringa Linga”, an awesome mix of corny sentimentality and street-level partying with a video equal parts Tron: Legacy and the Lost Boys from Hook. The dance routine, featuring a wiggly version of Usain Bolt’s signature pose, particularly shone out and like many K-pop routines gave rise to a supplemental video focusing only on the moves, which was a little bit breathtaking. (Don’t you wish they did that for, say, grime?) “Gotta Talk to U”, featuring another solo Big Banger, Seungri (or VI), was more of a buttoned-up melodic song—but that didn’t stop it from prominently featuring an eerie recorder riff, glitchy vocal science and affixing a terrifying out-of-nowhere EBM-ish remix onto its end. The whole thing is kind of like a tranquilized Terence Trent d’Arby stumbling blearily into a club where people brandish riding crops.

The nearest to a female equivalent to Big Bang would probably be their YG colleagues, 2NE1. They were one of the first to enter a Gaga-like zone with 2011’s “I Am The Best”, and of many more recent videos, “Falling in Love”—a rap ‘n’ R ‘n’ B number sutured to a perky ska number—stands out for its opulence, which, though it owes a thing or two to Nicki Minaj, reaches a level few in the West would dare to go for. Last year 2NE1’s CL gave a charismatic performance in the ghetto-ridiculous “The Baddest Female”, where southern-styled production mixed with the minimal synth-worms that are beginning to become YG’s trademark.

One band to find success last year, and definitely on the same stuff as G-Dragon, was seven-member rap crew Block B (Zico, Kyung, B-Bomb, Jaehyo, U-Kwon, Taeil and P.O) whose “Very Good” was one of K-pop’s funniest and most high-energy tracks and videos of 2013. Watch the boys ram-raid a bank, freak out the customers and explode their way into the vault—whereupon their leader Zico, sporting white hair in a double bun, pushes his way to the front of the team, pulls up his puce-colored velvet pants and leaps around in synchrony with the band, yelling, “I’m very, very good!” Then see them turn the whole thing into a party of bulldogs, boxing, KTZ and boys in skirts. Another boy band proudly showing off their legs was Teen Top in “Rocking”, featuring an instrumental drop with footwork-like moves that seem to occur faster than the mind can process them. And boy band BTS (or Bangtan Boys), another seven-member rap crew, made a strong debut in 2013 with two albums and videos such as “N.O”, “We Are Bulletproof”, (with its gorgeous glassy chorus beat) and the ghetto-gothic “No More Dream”. Despite the tame title, BTS’s most recent single “Skool Luv Affair” is a boisterous jam with a hook that sounds like was it made out of samples of people throwing up.

If Big Bang’s path is anything to go by, groups like BTS and Block B could be headed for great things as they mature and explore solo work. But one of the major boy bands of recent K-pop times is Exo (where have we heard that name before?), who debuted in 2012. Exo have an amazing twelve members, but they divide into two groups, Exo-K, who sing in Korean, and Exo-M who sing in Mandarin Chinese. If YG Entertainment have the best/weirdest characters, fashions and videos, Exo’s label SM Entertainment, though a shade stylistically conservative in comparison, have the best music. Exo’s album XOXO was sublime pop complexity, a labyrinth of sugary nineties melodies and shards of EDM, everything from crystal-blue heavenscapes and gritty plastic ruggedness. While the videos don’t offer a huge amount more than immaculately adorned dance routines, songs like “Wolf” and “Growl” are meals of several courses, one delectable hook after another. “Wolf” is a half-step EDM thrasher with a fun howling gimmick, while “Growl” evokes millennial R&B and features a supremely catchy hook over the words, “na eureureong eureureong eureureong dae” (“I growl, growl, growl”).

SM Entertainment are also home to my personal favorite girl band, f(x). Their 2013 album Pink Tape had an almost militaristically fierce raviness, perfectly condensed in the single “Rum Pum Pum Pum”, though 2011’s “Hot Summer” and the aforementioned “Pinocchio (Danger)” are (I think) slightly better. An aesthetic of cuteness often surrounds K-pop bands, but it’s not quite the same as Japan’s kawaii—it’s called aegyo, and tends to refer to conventions of (human) female behavior, particularly a kind of infantilism considered to melt the hearts of men. While potentially entertaining and empowering, in a country where one in five women have had plastic surgery, aegyo is hardly an aspect of K-pop to be celebrated uncritically. What I like about f(x) is that they’re female without being reducible to such specific ideas of femininity, cuteness and sexiness, and confidently so. Elsewhere, as noted by Seoul Beats here and here one girl band soloist, Ga-in, has recently been drawing attention to the ways in which women are physically, socially and aesthetically oppressed in her songs and videos.

The idol that makes f(x) particularly special is the androgynous Amber Liu, who flouts gender norms by rapping and singing in a deeper voice, having short hair, and flaunting her straighter silhouette in more male-gendered clothing (typically, the same type of thing streetwise boy bands like BTS would be wearing), even though it means she doesn’t match the others. But watch any video and you’ll see that that’s far from a problem. The idea that someone like Amber would not just be welcome but celebrated in a girl group alongside women with a more conventional image is pretty liberating. Can you imagine such a thing in Western pop? AND Amber speaks three languages fluently and has a black belt in Taekwondo. Best idol ever. (In fact, though less so than Amber, a whole band of more tomboyish women, Global Icon or GI, debuted last year with a wonderfully cold rap single “Beatles”.)

Although aegyo works to consolidate traditional gender roles, the melting of gender norms is one of the particular delights of K-pop. The male equivalent of Amber is Ren from the boy band Nu’est (try “Sleep Talking” or “Action”—you can’t miss him). It’s common for men to wear make up in Korea, and practically all boy-band idols have an androgynous look and can be seen with shaven legs. Block B’s “Very Good” introduced skirts and lipstick, but full cross-dressing is a regular occurrence, too: G-Dragon’s “Crayon” saw him appear in full drag, while CL wore a sharp suit and an impeccable moustache in “The Baddest Female”.

Sound progressive? Some recent K-pop videos have been downright revolutionary. In what is probably something of a response to the Arab Spring, Occupy, austerity riots and recent Hollywood films (e.g. The Hunger Games, Elysium), there’s been a spate of them depicting violent dystopian uprisings against oppressive regimes—Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby”, BTS’s “NO” and B.A.P’s “Badman” for example. These images, as well as K-pop fashion’s recurrent interest in military-style clothing, become particularly resonant when you remember that South Korea has an oppressive regime very close to home. Taeyang’s “Ringa Linga’” begins its otherwise merely let’s-get-this-party-started lyrics with the intriguing simile, “Put your hands up like the country’s been liberated.” The video for G-Dragon’s “Coup d’Etat” arguably sees him become a despot, but at its conclusion he destroys a giant concrete wall, donning a red balaclava and standing in front of giant red flags.

With this piece, I haven’t provided a comprehensive account of current K-pop—only noted some of the things I’ve found particularly interesting in its recent development. Many would rightly point out that K-pop is not an inherently ‘accelerated’ or ‘unreal’ pop, or much different from any other pop, and that plenty of music was released that was far tamer or more conventional than what I’ve mentioned here, even by the same artists—scores of romantic, more adult songs for example. Instead, hopefully this piece has been a product of a moment where certain K-pop and certain underground pop (and fashion) styles are in alignment and have begun to resonate with each other. K-pop has started to turn heads with its distinctiveness, and hopefully Western pop both underground and overground can learn a thing or two from K-pop.

But why pop? And why has it got me wearing shorts and leggings? Well, pop may be a commercialized, commodified monster, and even a tool of cultural oppression, no less in South Korea than anywhere else. But it can dissolve norms as well as encourage them, and there is definitely something about the imagination, achievement and luxury of the most decadent pop (particularly noticeable in K-pop, perhaps) that we ought not to allow ourselves to leave in the hands of the most disgusting capitalists, and that can be ours and part of our everyday lives and desires through something as mundane as a YouTube link. Loosejoints put it brilliantly: “Pop music allows us to perceive the distance between how our lives are and how we would wish them to be… One of the most potentially positive qualities about pop stars, then, is that they can try on our fantasies for us, wearing them like outfits and living them out in the flesh, and in doing so, they show us what is and what is not possible.”

That is why you and I can wear—and do—more than we thought possible. ~


Adam Harper is the Rouge’s Foam blogger and author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making. For more editions of Pattern Recognition, click here.

Published March 06, 2014. Words by Adam Harper.