Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: November 2013

K-Pop 2013-Style

Happy news on the K-Pop Now! front —  we finally closed it and sent it to press this week. Christmas is a busy time for printers, but I think the book should start to appear on bookshelves in Asia in January. Then in the West a few months later

But with the book finishing, the Mnet Asian Music Awards last night and the year running down, it got me thinking about the state of K-pop in general. I honestly think 2013 could have been the strongest year ever for K-pop, from both a music standpoint and a general sense of the genre. I know many people have their pet periods they prefer (often corresponding to when they first got into the music). But as someone who is not a big K-pop fan and looks at it from more of a distance, I think there were a lot of great songs this year, fascinating videos, and more pushing of the envelop than ever.

G-Dragon’s Coup d’Etat may have been a step down from his last album, but the rest of YG Entertainment more than made up for it. Taeyang’s “Ringa Linga” was an excellent song, with a very strong chorus; interestingly, the dance video released the day before the “real” music video has done much better, getting 10 million YouTube clicks to the official video’s 5 million.

But TOP’s “Doom Dada” is just glorious strangeness. A pure rap track, you can barely consider it K-pop. And the video is full is bizarre images:

2NE1’s latest, “Missing You” is probably the group’s strongest song in quite some time. I hope they get around to releasing a proper album before too long.

But better than the group’s songs was singer Chaerim’s solo single “The Baddest Female.” A lot of people did not like it all, but I’m convinced that it was just too far out there to be a mainstream hit. I bet that in a few years, it will become one of her biggest songs. I love its sass and style, like old Missy Eliot:

The mistake many people make with YG, imho, is thinking it is trying to be authentically “urban” (or black or whatever). What YG and K-pop is doing to Western pop and hiphop today is basically what the Brits did to American blues 50 years ago.

As for non-YG music, there was plenty of memorable songs by other labels, too. SM Entertainment’s groups are selling bigger than ever. f(x)’s Pink Tape was almost experimental (by SM standards) and Exo has somehow acquired the most fanatical fanbase in the world. But the SM artist who impressed me the most was Chinese-Canadian Henry, from Super Junior-M. With his classical background and language skills, I could really see him breaking out and becoming a mainstream pop star in the West. (Cheesy video, but very good song).

The JYJ guys had some good songs. I think “Incredible” by Xia (Joonsu) was the most catchy (just ignore the rap halfway through):

2PM appears to have fallen out of fashion, but I still quite like “A.D.T.O.Y.”

Trouble Maker is very interesting, especially since they were the rare mixed-sex groups. I thought their performance at last night’s MNet Awards was very good:

And, of course, groups at the edge of K-pop did very well. Busker Busker’s second album was huge, and I continue to hear it at coffee shops all over Seoul. San E has sold very well. The Jay Park phenomenon continues to grow and impress. And the new Drunken Tiger was very good, especially “Time Travel” (which I consider more a Yoon Mi-rae song than a Tiger JK song).

As for me, Spica’s “Tonight” is my Kryptonite. Once I start listening to that song, my day is over. It’s like my Tetris addiction when I was 20. It must have been the most overlooked song of the year.

Oh, and conspicuous by his absence was the guy who really put K-pop on the map last year — meaning Psy, of course. Yes, “Gentleman” had more than 500 million hits on YouTube, but I cannot remember a quieter YouTube sensation; people were far more interested in what the fox says. I cannot say Psy’s disappearance makes me sad, as I never much liked his music. But maybe he’ll get his act together in 2014 and put out something good.

Considering how so many K-pop artists are getting more involved in songwriting and production — and how quickly imitators get caught these days (cough*Primary*cough) — I think this may be one of the strongest things in favor of K-pop’s future.

Yes, too many groups are being cranked out, especially by smaller, disreputable agencies. Yes, the artists are worked too hard (as is true throughout Korea’s entertainment industries). Yes, there are some very unhealthy ideas about appearance and behavior (especially for the young women trying to break into the business). And, yes, more diversity is needed for the long-term health of the Korean music industry.

All that said, I think this has been a very good year for K-pop. I wouldn’t be surprised if 2014 is the year a “real” K-pop artist attracts some attention in the West. Jay Park maybe. Or Henry. Perhaps G-Dragon. That’s the thing about art, though, you never know what is going to happen next.

Wednesday morning links

I don’t want to say much about the Ailee photo “scandal” (because embarrassing photos are not really a scandal). But I will add two things:

  1. The website that broke the “news” was neither ethnical nor journalistic. But, then, they started as a K-pop troll site, so people shouldn’t have expected anything different. Best to ignore them and move on.
  2. I’m quite impressed how Korea seems to be lined up squarely behind Ailee and against the people who leaked and published the photos. Ten years ago, maybe that wouldn’t have been the result. Way too many foreigners (dumb foreigners) really misread how Koreans would react (yet again).

As for some real news:

  • The newest branch of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art — Seoul has just opened. There are some pretty funky looking exhibitions, and the building itself is pretty wonderful. Well worth checking out. But demand is expected to be high, so you might want to schedule a reservation at the MMCA — Seoul website before going down, at least for the next couple of weeks (Korea JoongAng Daily).
  • MMCA — Seoul English website is here. But I don’t think the reservation option is working on the English section yet.
  • There’s a new issue of the MMCA’s magazine Art:Mu. Which includes a translation of their interview with actor Lee Jun, star of Rough Play. (Art:Mu)
  • The last issue of Art:Mu also had translated interviews with MMCA curator Yoo Joon Sang and architect Choi Moon-gyu (who did the Ssamziegil complex in Insa-dong)
  • And, since I’m on an Art:Mu kick, here are interviews with Face Reader director Han Jae-rim and actor/director Ha Jung-woo and artist U-Ram Choe.
  • Sorry, one more Art:Mu link — I had no idea the people behind Salon Jebi in Hongdae were part of such a big urban community, Cultural Topography Research.
  • Interesting interview with Seoul mayor Park Won-soon (not Art:Mu … it’s the Korea JoongAng Daily)

Wednesday morning links

  • It’s a great day to be from Toronto, as the fine city’s mayor finally admitted to smoking crack last year. He’s not an addict, he says, he just did it once because he was so drunk. So, yeah, that looks pretty terrible. On the other hand, why should I care? He’s hardly the only politician who drinks too much or uses recreational drugs.
  • Anyhow, here’s an overview of the Rob Ford crack situation. (Globe and Mail)
  • As I’ve said before, I’m far more shocked that Ford was elected mayor than that he drinks too much or smokes crack.

As for non-Toronto, non-cocaine news:

  • Usually, I hate attempts at “modernizing” the hanbok, but here are some funky examples. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • My wonderful Hongdae neighborhood gets strangely singled out for all its litter. And it can get filthy at times, especially in the center of town on the weekend. But here’s a thought — if you don’t want trash in Hongdae, put out some trash cans. That’s true for pretty much all of Seoul. Also, how about cracking down on room salons and others who crank out those smutty fliers? That’s not even a Hongdae problem (at least compared so some other “entertainment” districts around Seoul). (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • I find it hard to believe that Korean kids today are just 24th out of 60 countries for English ability. Young people have gotten so much better in recent years. (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • An interview with conductor Gum Nanse, who, in addition to all his orchestral commitments, helps run the Korea Young Dream Orchestra, a program that sets up youth orchestras in the poor countryside areas around Korea. (Korea JoongAng Daily)

New Music: Juck Juck and Pigeon Milk

It was a great weekend for new music in Hongdae last weekend, as two of my favorite Korean bands, Vidulgi Oooyoo (“Pigeon Milk”) and Juck Juck Grunzie, both had album release parties.

Vidulgi Ooyoo is a very good post-rock shoegazer band. Their album Aero was a favorite of 2008. And at last they’ve released a new full-length album, Officially Pronounced Alive. The show I went to was at Badabie, but the group plans on having two more album release parties, so you still have plenty of time to check them out.

Hey, someone posted a video of Saturday night’s concert already. Here’s the opening song (like many Vidulgi songs, it takes a couple of minutes to really kick in):

Another long-time favorite of mine is Juck Juck Grunzie (né Juck Juck Haeseo Grunzie). How much do I like them? They were the first band I ever wrote about over on my Korea Gig Guide website.

Juck Juck Grunzie came out with an EP a couple of years ago, but despite their being together for seven years, Psycho is their first full-length album.

Shawn has a great write-up about their new album over at the KGG, btw. You can buy Psycho at Hyang’s Music (and hopefully at iTunes before too long).

Monday morning links

Sorry for taking last week off. Deadlines loomed, once again. But just as it is darkest before the dawn, so too is it deadline-iest before the publication. Or something like that. Anyhow, links ahoy:

  • I had a good time last week as part of a round-table discussion for the JoongAng Sunday about branding in Korea. We started off talking about such majestic blunders as “romantic mushrooms” and “fit milk”, and things just sort of spiraled from there. (JoongAng Sunday – only in Korean for now, sorry).
  • Although more middle-aged white guys telling people what to do? Sorry about that.  :-/
  • 74-year-old feminist artist Yun Suk-nam, painting images on old hanok roof shingles (Korea JoongAng Daily)
  • I knew there were areas around Seoul that were getting heavily foreign, but 58,000 out of 87,000 people? That’s pretty crazy. That would be Wongok-dong in Ansan, at the far end of line No. 4, far to the south of Seoul. On the plus side, think of how easily they’ll soon conquer Songdo. (Korea JoongAng Daily)

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