A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
My first exposure to K-pop was my 40-something-Korean co-worker showing me the 2NE1 dance from Fire. “Eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh, twenty one!” she sang, wiggling her hips and waving two fingers, then one, at me.
It was 2010, two years before Gangnam Style dominated YouTube. She was telling me about the Hallyu “Korean wave”.
“Everyone in Asia likes Korean pop,” she said. “It’s trendy to be Korean!”
Three years later and K-pop has not only taken Asia by storm, but have also come to Australia and the US to the delight of thousands of shrieking K-pop fangirls.
I love music. I grew up playing piano and guitar, wrote for a local music magazine, hosted radio shows, DJ’d a few times, work at gigs and only venture out to the clubbing district of Brisbane to see bands. A big chunk of my job involves working with sound. As someone who mucks around with ProTools for a living, I’m in awe of the impeccable production values in K-pop. Everything bangs and pops and jolts this sunny, hyper energy through you. The style is very similar to Western pop and hip hop, but with a bit of Korean chaos thrown in.
Here’s a whole bunch of Korean songs I’ve discovered recently that I dig. Some of them are what most people would recognise as K-pop, and some are not.
Wonder Girls – “Nobody”
An oldie but a goodie. Sassy, sweet pop and so VERY clap-a-long-able. The video clip is a nice nod to Motown girl groups, which stands out amongst other glitzy K-pop videos.
CL – “The Baddest Female”
On the other side of saccharine sweet K-pop is CL, frontwoman of badass group 2NE1. The Baddest Female is more ego than aegyo, dripping with hip hop swagger as CL brags “boys call me honey, girls call me ‘unni’.” (‘Unni’, as you may remember, means “sister” but it’s also an affectionate term younger Korean women call their older female friends)
As for the video, CL can pop AND lock it, rock a moustache and get away with not wearing pants. What a lady!
The only problem I have with this video clip – and a few other Korean hip hop ventures – is the cultural appropriation of US hip hop culture. It’s just bizarre, especially in a song where the main hooks are in Korean.
2NE1 – “Ugly
Among 2NE1’s slew of dirty electro pop bangers with sassy titles like “I am The Best” and “Hate You” is this pop rock ballad. In this song, 2NE1 vocalise the feelings of women in Korea’s beauty-obsessed society, where plastic surgery is as normal as getting a tooth pulled, you can buy skin whitening cream from 7-11, and where beautiful K-pop stars are under enormous amounts of pressure to look good all the time. CL wails out the marvellously angsty chorus: “I think I’m ugly / and nobody wants to love me” over distorted guitars and it’s just so damn cathartic. My pick for the song you sing when you’ve drank way too much soju, think about how tragically single you are and end up screaming it out at a noraebang. Er, not that I’ve ever done that.
BIG BANG – “Fantastic Baby”
This song is just so exciting! The climatic buildup to the danceable chorus – with the lyrics being “dance! Dance! Dance dance dance, dance dance!” – is a hell of a ride. I don’t go clubbing much but if this song came on, this would be one of those “hold my drink I’ll talk to you in a minute I HAVE TO FLAIL TO THIS ON THE DANCEFLOOR IMMEDIATELY” songs.
Big Bang have been around for a while, but I think they totally nailed it this year. Each member has gone on their own solo jaunts as well, which neatly segues into…
G-Dragon – “Coup d’etat” (the entire freaking 2 part album)
WHERE DO I EVEN START?! How about the flawlessly badass collaboration with Missy Eliot? Or the angsty but catchy pop of Crooked?
The disjointed hip hop of michiGO? The soulful piano pop of Who You? One single I think is tremendously underrated is R.O.D with Lydia Park, but with CL in this video.
It’s got a Beyoncé and Jay-Z vibe, if they were Korean (me and my girlfriend / we ride or die). I’m sure that this song would be an international mega hit, if it was in English.
G-Dragon is his own producer and is damn good at it too. Snappy hip hop beats with dubstep and electro flourishes, sweet piano and guitar riffs (or samples of traditional Korean folk songs, in the case of Niliria) to calm you down.
LAME CLAIM TO FAME TIME: I asked Sister 3 if she met any awesome K-pop celebrities when she worked for a Korean TV channel and she met G-Dragon! Unfortunately I couldn’t think of anything to ask her about him because I was having a minor fangirl meltdown.
EXO – “Growl”
I haven’t felt this way about a boy band for a long time. The sexy keyboard riff at the beginning leads into sexy lines to a funky beat, capped off with sweet/SEXY harmonies in the chorus.
The video looks as sexy as the song sounds. I mean, the first few words of the song are ‘okay. SEXY.’ Those dance moves are impeccable. And their hair is so pretty. And I may swoon a little bit whenever they look into the camera/my eyes. Oh my.
Crayon Pop – “Bar Bar Bar”
When I first heard this, I admittedly thought it was one of the most stupid songs I’ve ever heard. But like most stupid pop songs, it’s catchiness wormed its way into my brain and now I have “jumping! yeah, jumping! yeah, jumping! Everybody! in my head every second day. Crayon Pop’s image is that of RIDICULOUSLY CUTE, but there’s a sense of self-awareness of how ridiculous they are and, as a result, genuine humour comes through in their videos and performances.
The above video is of their performance at the Mnet Asian Music Awards with Ylvis (the “what does the fox say” guys) and various K-pop stars in the audience losing their minds.
Epik High – “Don’t Hate Me”
This song features elements of surf rock and snotty pop punk and pleases my inner 15-year-old greatly. The chorus is dumb angsty teen genius: “Everybody hates me / but you love me / and I love you!”.
Supreme Team – “Supermagic”
Supreme Team are a hip hop duo. The cheesy synths and samples in this song combined with the aggressive vocals – then the sarcastic-sounding “la la la” bit – make this a fun party song to bounce around to. Unfortunately, Supreme Team called it quits earlier this year to pursue solo careers. Hopefully the duo’s separate endeavours sound just as awesome!
Dynamic Duo – “Fireworks”
Another hip hop duo. I love the old school-sounding snare in this. The production on this song is minimal compared to other K-pop songs with all the bells and whistles, but the drum ‘n bass feel and Dynamic Duo’s super fast rapping works well together
Rimi – “Rap Messiah”
Foul-mouthed, fast-talking Korean lady rapping over evil bass and a beat that punches you repeatedly in the gut. Although I love K-pop, I also love that there’s a Korean female musician making music that is very far away from the K-pop ideals of being cutesy or sexy.
YUKARI – “Marginal Man”
Dreamy, washed out (like the band, get it?) electronic indie pop by lady Seoul-based producer Yukari. So pretty!
No Brain – “A Glass of Soju”
No Brain are one of the few non-conventional K-pop bands (as in, not a pretty-boy dance group) coming out of Korea that have received international attention – they showcased at SXSW this year. Pop-punks seems to be their main style, although all of their songs sound different. This one is particularly ska-influenced, while others sound more commercial rock, or short ‘n fast Ramones-style songs.
So, what Korean music do you guys like? Let me know below!