For western pop, January is usually a slow month. Most big acts wait for later in the year to drop big singles or albums, but in K-pop, January is the time to set the stage for the rest of the year. In 2013, Girls’ Generation kicked things off with its incredible “I Got a Boy” video on January 1st. So far this year, we’ve seen major comebacks from Rain, TVXQ, B1A4, Dal*Shabet, AOA, Girl’s Day, and more, as well as premiers by Rainbow Blaxx, Kiss&Cry, and others. After Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, 2013 was K-pop’s year to be recognized internationally, and it certainly succeeded. But that means that 2014 will be even more important: can K-pop continue to hold the West’s attention? Can it continue to get support, new fans, and media coverage? Or will it go out with the other fads? If the songs released in January are anything to go by, K-pop is here to stay, and 2014 is off to a great start.
TVXQ – “Something”
Returning for its thirteenth (!) album, TVXQ debuted its new single on January 1st of this year. “Something” takes on a swing jazz sound with acoustic bass, light drums, and a big band arrangement to go along with the duo’s infectious hooks. Like IU’s dip into jazz last year, “Something” is a little on the cheesy side of things, but Yunho and Changmin sell it with confidence and class. The style is a large departure from their usual electronic-pop fare, but stylistic eclecticism is where K-pop keeps heading, and the boys sound great in this genre. The instrumental bridge switches gears to a modern jazz fusion guitar solo for a great dance break before getting pulled right back into the swinging jazz-pop chorus, in which Yunho and Changmin sing about how a girl needs to have that “something”. The video, which features incredible sets and choreography, has been criticized for its use of white women and white jazz musicians as signifiers of class and wealth. But if you can set aside those issues, the video is fun, visually exciting, and sexy. And while most of the accompanying album,Tense, is focused on the R&B and pop that we’ve come to expect from TVXQ, the choice of “Something” as a single is an interesting and unique musical statement.
Rain – “30 Sexy”
The triumphant return of Rain. After taking time off to serve in the military, the veteran K-pop star started off 2014 by releasing two singles and a brand new full-length album, Rain Effect. Though the album is less consistently great than most fans were hoping for, there are plenty of standout tracks. “30 Sexy” embraces Rain’s Justin Timberlake influence with a FutureSex/LoveSounds beat and the singer’s sexy falsetto vocals. In the lyrics, he embraces the fact that he’s now in his 30s while trying to seduce—or at least dance with—a “sexy lady”. And the dance-heavy music video makes a pretty good argument for Rain still having what it takes to pull that off. Even though Rain Effect isn’t as musically successful a comeback as The 20/20 Experience was for Timberlake, it’s nice to see Rain back in the game.
Girl’s Day – “Something”
This “Something” is unrelated to the TVXQ “Something”, but it’s just as great. The song wonderfully captures the conflict between vulnerability and standing up for yourself in a relationship, using the contrasting vocal styles of Sojin and Minah to represent these opposing emotions. All four members of Girl’s Day sing, but Sojin and Minah are the real stars, which is emphasized by their appearance in the opening of the music video, while Yura and Hyeri are absent. The song concerns a woman who suspects her significant other is cheating but goes back and forth between blaming herself (“Maybe you felt guilty at my guess / Maybe I caught you off guard”) and breaking up with him (“It’s over”). It opens with Minah, in English, saying “Don’t you look into my eyes and lie again / I’m sick of being alone”, emphasizing how detached their relationship feels from his lies and deceit. But when the verse starts, Sojin’s breathy vocals are less sure of themselves; she sings that it seems like something is up. But for the chorus, her confidence builds again to Minah belting out “Nothing, it’s something, stop it!” We go back and forth again for the next verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, but then move to a new section all together to end the song. The group sings together now, “Was the love I gave a joke to you? / Were you sick of the love I gave you? / Are we over?” and then the music cuts out for Sojin to repeat the last line in her heartbroken, fragile vocal, “Are we over?”
For Girl’s Day, whose music is normally upbeat dance music, “Something” is a sign of growth and maturity. The ’90s-style beat and nuanced vocal performances bring them to a new level, and point towards great things to come.
Rainbow Blaxx – “Cha Cha”
Debut single from Rainbow sub-unit Rainbow Blaxx, “Cha Cha” is a sexy disco track with catchy hooks and pristine production. But there’s a lot more going on in “Cha Cha” than just “sexy”. The song captures the complex emotions that occur in the flirting period before a relationship, or more likely, just before sex. The girls sing that they “wanna feel you, wanna love you” but question, “Are you confident that you won’t regret it?” Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on visibility. He wants to “look a little more”, she promises to “show a little more”. This theme is strengthened in the video, which is heavy on the male gaze (cinematic and literal). The Rainbow Blaxx girls—Jaekyung, Woori, Seungah, and Hyunyoung—appear to be upscale prostitutes. They’re incredibly sexy and obsessed with eating sweets, but their Madam criticizes them for this and measures their waists and arms. We can see the video as both fitting into the current South Korean fad of muk-bang (watching people eat online), as well as dealing with themes of food insecurity and eating disorders associated with societal pressures on young women. But the fun dance music keeps the whole thing light-hearted. Or as light-hearted as that topic can be, I suppose.
While “Cha Cha” isn’t as strong as some other material by Rainbow, like “Mach” or “Sunshine”, it competently embraces the trend of sexy girl-group music and is much stronger than their other sub-unit, Rainbow Pixie.
Spica -“You Don’t Love Me”
Spica is a group that has been struggling to find its identity since it debuted in 2012, but with “You Don’t Love Me”, it seems closer than ever. The group has always had catchy songs and great vocals, but what its last two singles have highlighted is its sense of humor. “You Don’t Love Me” is a neo-soul throwback song, complete with call-and-response vocals, a brass section, and ‘60s dance moves. It’s very different from the inspirational rock-pop of 2013’s “Tonight”, but both videos show off the five girls’ silliness, which sets them apart from a lot of K-pop girl-groups. Like Girl’s Day’s “Something”, “You Don’t Love Me” is a send-off. But here, there are no doubts — she knows he doesn’t love her, and she tells him, “You better go”. The song opens with Bohyung’s belting vocals accompanied by rolling piano chords. When the verse begins, each phrase is answered by the group chanting “You don’t love me” before changing keys into the chorus. The video is filled with ’60s clichés, but also satirical shots of the girls seductively eating junk food (or figurines) and a scene where they wear huge, fake butts under their form-fitting dresses. As much as this sound and style highlights Spica’s strengths, it’s unlikely that the group will stick with it. Each single it has put out has had a very different sound, but hopefully it will continue to show its sense of humor and fun in the future.
Ga-In – “Fxxk U (ft. Bumkey)”
Ga-In has always been making progressive and provocative music and videos, and “Fxxk U”, as you might imagine, is no exception. Returning to solo music after putting out another Brown Eyed Girls album last year, Ga-In tackles a huge topic: abusive relationships. The song seems to take place after the abuse, possibly rape, and Ga-In starts with “Where do you think you’re putting those bad hands?” But, like many women in abusive relationships, she’s not given up hope that it can work out. The song is made more interesting by featuring male vocalist Bumkey, creating a dialogue between the two. He tries to convince her that he really loves her, to which she retorts, “I’m sorry, but fuck you!” She concludes her chorus with that same resolve: “I don’t wanna do it like this / This isn’t how I feel”. But in the second verse she shows how trapped she feels (“If it’s not you, no one will touch me / We will be a destiny”). And by the final chorus, things have begun to change. She replaces “fuck you” with a plea for him to “love me…love you”, while he sings, “Oh please believe me!” Heartbreakingly, the song doesn’t end with the chorus, it ends with another verse. Actually, its the same as the first verse, implying that the two are caught in this cycle and will likely never get out.
The music video, which features actor Joo Ji-hoon in place of Bumkey, emotionally and realistically captures the powerful song. It believably shows their emotional and physical dependence on each other, the brutal violence, the manipulation, and, twistedly, their genuine love for each other. “Fxxk U” is almost definitely the first K-pop song to tackle such a heavy topic, and it handles it remarkably well. As always, Ga-In continues to prove herself to be the boldest, most interesting, and most impressive K-pop artist working today.