After K-pop's dark and turbulent 2014, January 2015 may have marked the beginning of a new direction for the industry.
The year 2014 was a troubled one for K-pop. Whether you want to join the many calling it the “K-pocalypse”, as some have argued, it’s hard to deny that it was a dark year for the industry. Even with some incredible music released, the amount of death and lawsuits surely signals change coming ahead, to say nothing of Jessica’s departure from legendary girl group Girls’ Generation. So January of 2015, then, is the first glimpse of what’s to come following those trying times. Perhaps there’s no majestic phoenix rising from the ashes just yet, but January 2015 was certainly not devoid of interesting K-pop.
The first release of the year perfectly encapsulates this entire drama. TS Entertainment was one of the many agencies to become wrapped up in controversy and lawsuits in 2014. Their main act, B.A.P., filed a lawsuit against the company in November to nullify their contract on the grounds of unfair treatment and unfair profit distribution, claiming that they hadn’t been paid by their agency since their debut in 2012. To distract from the controversy, TS pushed up the debut of their new seven-member girl group, Sonamoo.
Lead single “Déjà Vu” is itself nothing particularly special, but it has enough going for it as a debut to warrant sticking with Sonamoo to see what they do next. The track is a heavy-R&B and hip-hop flavored pop song, reminiscent of early-'00s Britney Spears. It’s a bold sound for a rookie group, and they perform it with a confidence and flair that sets them apart from other debut. D.Ana and New Sun trade off raps effortlessly; D.Ana uses a raspy low voice and the bobbed maknae New Sun spits with a machine-gun high flow. High.D shows off impressive vocal riffs in the chorus, while Euijin, Minjae, Nahyun, and pigtailed-leader Sumin trade off vocals in the verses. “Déjà Vu” is about the thrill of an erotic encounter you know you shouldn’t have. Of course, it's the danger of the situation that makes it so appealing, that gives the singers the “déjà vu” to their first time.
While “Déjà Vu” never gets too explicit, its theme is more sexual than a lot of K-pop, a trend that many other songs this month have continued. Hello Venus’s “Wiggle Wiggle” is not directly about a sexual encounter; rather it addresses the phenomenon of the now-ubiquitous “sexy” concept in female K-pop. In many ways, it is inspired by EXiD’s “Up & Down”; or, more specifically, a viral fancam video of a performance of “Up & Down”, focused on member Hani’s sexy dance moves.
When “Up & Down” came out in August 2014, it didn’t make much of a mark, despite its clever and subversively sexy music video. But in October, a fan uploaded a video voyeuristically fixated on Hani’s performance of the song, and it went viral. “Up & Down” eventually hit number one on Korea’s Gaon chart at the beginning of 2015. In the fall of last year, Hello Venus was in the midst of trying to recreate their image after losing two of their members, wanting to join the sea of girl groups going towards a “sexy” concept. Their first attempt, “Sticky Sticky”, failed to impress, but following the viral success of EXiD, the girls uploaded a very sexy video of them dancing in a rehearsal studio to Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle”. While the video did not go quite as viral as the Hani fancam, Hello Venus capitalized on the momentum and aesthetic for their new single, “Wiggle Wiggle”.
The music video for “Wiggle Wiggle” is intentionally cheap, shot to replicate the look of a fancam video from a live performance. The camera, often pointing up from a low angle like a spectator, allows us to see the edge of the stage, the cracks in the floor, the lighting rigs behind the girls, the cheap quality signaling their self-awareness. The effect forces the audience to recognize its inauthenticity. By so transparently adopting the male gaze, Hello Venus makes a joke of it.
But Hello Venus mostly sings to other females or expresses their own excitement. The verses instruct other girls how to "wiggle wiggle", urging them to do so “carefully”. Alice sings about the rush of excitement performing, as she prepares to “give you a great present”. In Lime’s rap, she addresses the gaze directly, saying “I know you looking at my apple hip / Your intense gaze is like a laser beam”, before making fun of the audience for drooling over her. A final post-chorus section finds the girls explicitly saying “I like it like it” to being gazed at, keeping them in control. Throughout the track, male voices interject from the background, matching the gaze of the video with heckling that sounds like a crowd at a rowdy strip club -- but the joke is always on the audience. The Hello Venus girls are aware of the gaze, and force you to become aware of it as well. “Wiggle Wiggle” playfully subverts the norm by reclaiming the girls’ agency in their pseudo-striptease.
San E and Hyorin’s collaboration “Coach Me” is more explicitly about sex, but the Sistar singer still manages subvert the power dynamic through her sexiness. She uses her sexiest, breathiest voice for her hook, playing into the male fantasy of the virgin who requires a more experienced partner to “coach” her. San E and guest rapper JooHeon can barely handle her sexiness, even as they bombard her with explicit come-ons in their verses. San E practically falls apart when he notices she’s waxed for the occasion, screaming “oh my god!” in the middle of his line. She’s the power-bottom here, getting what she wants by playing into prescribed models of femininity. As Hyorin sings the final words of the song, “I’ll be your good girl”, she smiles at the camera, successfully and simultaneously seducing not just San E and JooHeon, but the audience as well.
Lizzy, of After School and AS sub-unit Orange Caramel, used her solo debut to tackle the topic of female agency in a very different way. “Not An Easy Girl” is a trot-inspired disco track inspired by the classic pansori (a traditional Korean musical folk tale) “Chunyagga”, with the music video editing Lizzy into the 1961 film adaptation of the story, Seong Chunyang. The song focuses on the part of the story where Chunhyang is arrested and sentenced to be executed after refusing to have sex with the new lord of her village, played here by comedian Jeong Hyeong-don. Lizzy emphasizes the feminist nature of the story and adds modern lyrics to keep its themes relevant (“Don’t try to win me over / With those designer bags / Do I look easy to you? / Love is not a supermarket”). This sincerity sets “Not An Easy Girl” apart from Lizzy’s work with Orange Caramel, which has similarly mixed trot with retro disco-kitsch, but always with tongue-in-cheek irony. Lizzy embraces the silliness of the song, but is sincere in her delivery and commitment to the concept.
The girls weren’t the only ones getting attention in January. SHINee’s Jonghyun made his solo debut with a new mini-album Base. Before the album dropped on 12 January, Jonghyun released “Déjà Boo” featuring rapper Zion.T, whose video is actually live performance footage. This choice, however, seems less artistically motivated than the fancam-style of “Wiggle Wiggle” and more practical, as SM Entertainment was focusing on “Crazy” as Jonghyun's main single. But fans were so excited by the pre-release track that “Déjà Boo” went to number one on the charts instead of “Crazy”, with its (unintentionally) cheap-looking video. Like Taemin’s solo effort last year, Base mostly sounds like an album that SHINee could have put out, but with more focus on R&B and hip-hop than the dance style of the boy band’s music. If any track could seamlessly make its way back into SHINee’s catalog, though, it’s “Déjà Boo”, with its silky disco guitars and thick vocal harmonies.
Rapper Mad Clown put out his third mini-album Piece of Me, upon which the title track, “Fire”, became an instant hit. Featuring the star of the viral fancam, Hani, the song details a troubled relationship in which both partners try to make each other miserable. Hani plays a similar character to Hyorin in “Coach Me”, but with more malicious intent. Instead of the juvenile excitement that San E and JooHeon display in that track, Mad Clown is tired of Hani playing with his emotions. It exists somewhere between the playfulness of “Coach Me” and the sexual abuse drama of GaIn’s stand-out from last year, “Fxxk U”. It’s toxic relationship where both partners feel trapped and resentful. Taken with the other songs that were released this month, though, “Fire” reads like a pessimistic cautionary tale of what happens when these women exert their subversive femininity. This was likely unintentional, but it probably reflects a subconscious anxiety over the increased sexiness in female K-pop and how this kind of sexual liberation might affect relationships in the relatively conservative South Korea.
If January’s K-pop is anything to go by, this new, "post-K-pocalyptic" music scene is promising. Maybe none of the songs released this month are particularly incredible, but they’re interesting, especially given their darker sounds and their investing in meta-narrative. Perhaps we’ll continue to see K-pop reflect more on itself and give us more interesting material to enjoy.
Splash image: still from Mad Clown's "Fire" music video.