The Big Issue : Edition 469
34 THE BIG ISSUE 10 – 23 OCT 2014 IT’S RARE TO see music videos broadcast on TV, now that YouTube is so readily accessible. That is unless you watch the SBS TV program PopAsia on a Sunday afternoon, in which case you’ll encounter a barrage. While plenty of PopAsia’s playlist comes from Japan and China, the focus increasingly is on music from South Korea: K-pop. You might see Girls’ Generation playing shop- window mannequins who come to life at night, or Orange Caramel dressed as mermaids – then turned into sushi. Colourful, attention-grabbing videos like these are the first step into K-pop for a growing legion of fans around the world. That Girls’ Generation video, ‘Gee’ (2009), has 126 million views on YouTube, and held a Korean record only broken by PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ (2012), now at more than two billion baffling views. Beyond the novel videos is music surprising in its depth. There’s a particular sound global pop often repeats: ballads with drama-building key changes common to Eurovision contestants or Disney soundtracks, which can easily cross language barriers. And while those are performed by K-pop stars as adroitly as anyone, there’s more to K-pop than another iteration of that formula by singers with great hair. K-pop blends genres with aplomb, sometimes making a three-minute radio-friendly single seem like five songs mashed together. These miniature ‘Bohemian Rhapsodies’ are ear-bogglingly infectious, made that way because they’re designed for dancing. While Western pop stars are singers first and get routinely outdone by backup dancers, in Korea the biggest stars are expected to master both skill sets (and spend their teenage years in gruelling training). The songs are designed for well- choreographed set pieces, with tempo changes a necessity. Plus, Korea’s club DJs are infamous for short attention spans, switching songs after one chorus if they don’t get people moving. This flickering chameleon quality makes Australian pop seem repetitive and lazy. If you don’t like part of a K-pop single, wait 30 seconds and something completely different will emerge. That’s something that makes K-pop stand out from Japan’s pop – J-pop – which has already won over international fans. But a J-pop act like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who played her first Australian show to an audience of thousands in Sydney this year, delivers sugar-rush intensity. Her 2011 single ‘PonPonPon’ is a barrage of cutesy syllables that doesn’t decelerate until it’s done. But K-pop favours shifting dynamics and sophistication. Despite the fact that much of it is aimed at teenagers, K-pop feels more adult. A group like Big Bang might occasionally dress like post-apocalyptic warriors, but usually they’re five pretty-boys in suits and sneakers. K-pop idols tend to dress like people their audience might grow up to be; J-pop stars look like people you might ‘cosplay’ (use as a model for outlandish fancy dress). Pop music evolves as fast as its audience’s attention moves, but K-pop upgrades and outdates itself even more rapidly: an influx of hip-hop and R’n’B, big-room dance music production and racy content pushing against the country’s strict ratings system have all made marks in the past five years. Trends from the rest of the world are adopted, but are reflected as if through a funhouse mirror. It’s different enough to be refreshing – especially for palates jaded by sameness – but not alien. The lyrical language may be different, but the musical language is the same: banging hooks and big choruses with universal appeal. by Jody Macgregor K-POP: A BEGINNER'S GUIDE ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW... 15&, ‘SUGAR’ (2014) IN K-POP EVEN A HIGH-ENERGY SOUL SONG WITH A BIG-BAND SOUND HAS A FLAWLESS RAP BRIDGE LEADING INTO THE CHORUS. THEY MAY BE A TEENAGE DUO BUT 15&’S ‘SUGAR’ NODS AT MATURITY, MIXING GROWN- WOMAN SOUL GROWLS WITH A CHORUS OF EFFERVESCENT ADOLESCENCE. BIG BANG, ‘FANTASTIC BABY’ (2012) ‘FANTASTIC BABY’ IS BEST EXPERIENCED THROUGH ITS VIDEO, IN WHICH BIG BANG STOP WEARING SUITS AND BLOW THEIR BUDGET ON TRON VISORS, ARMOURED SLEEVES, ROBOTECH MILITARY UNIFORMS AND SCEPTRES. WITH STRAIGHT FACES AND KNEE-LENGTH COLOURED HAIR, THEY SING A CLUB BANGER WITH THUMPING BASS, THEN PAUSE, TURN TO THE CAMERA AND SUM IT ALL UP: FANTASTIC, BABY. F(X), PINK TAPE (2013) ONE WAY K-POP RESEMBLES WESTERN POP IS THAT IT’S STRONGEST IN ITS SINGLES; ITS ALBUMS TYPICALLY PADDED WITH SAWDUST BALLAD FILLER. UNUSUALLY, F(X)’S ALBUM TRACKS ARE SOMETIMES THEIR BEST, LIKE THE WOOZY ART-POP OF ‘SHADOW’ FROM PINK TAPE. GIRLS’ GENERATION, ‘GEE’ (2009) ‘GEE’ IS A LOVE SONG THAT ROLLS AROUND IN THE TUMBLE DRIER OF YOUTHFUL PASSION SO ENTHUSIASTICALLY THAT IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO DISLIKE. A VERSION RE-RECORDED IN JAPANESE (A COMMON TACTIC IN K-POP) WAS A MASSIVE HIT IN JAPAN, BUT THE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE VERSION WAS LESS POPULAR IN AUSTRALIA THAN THE SUPERIOR ORIGINAL. ORANGE CARAMEL, ‘CATALLENA’ (2014) K-POP, LIKE BOLLYWOOD, IS ALL ABOUT HIGH EMOTION AND INCREDIBLE CHOREOGRAPHY, AND THE TWO BLEND PERFECTLY IN ‘CATALLENA’, WHICH EVEN THROWS IN LYRICS FROM A PAKISTANI WEDDING SONG. PSY, PSY 6 (SIX RULES), PART 1 (2012) THE EP THAT GAVE US ‘GANGNAM STYLE’ CAME 11 YEARS INTO PSY’S CAREER. BEGINNING AS A HARDCORE RAPPER, HE GREW INTO AN ODD PRESENCE ON THE EDGE OF K-POP – HALF NOVELTY AND HALF RESPECTED CAREERIST, LIKE PHIL COLLINS CROSSED WITH SNOOP DOGG. POP Goes Korea MUSIC JUGGERNAUTS COME AND GO, BUT THE PHENOMENON THAT IS K-POP (POP MUSIC FROM SOUTH KOREA) SHOWS NO SIGNS OF STOPPING.