For January and February’s round-ups, we focused on the shift towards serious and dramatic K-pop that’s occurred. After the rocky year the industry had in 2014, it was to be expected that so many artists were turning towards introspection. Well, it’s seemed to have worn off. March essentially returns to status quo for K-pop: bright colors, killer hooks, and tons of fun. But it was also a month dominated by female artists. Typically, I try to strike a balance in the round-ups between male and female artists, but March has seen an overwhelming amount of incredible music by female idols and groups, such that it seemed impossible to leave any of them out. Sorry boys, maybe next month.
The month began with five-member girl group Fiestar releasing their first mini-album, Black Label. The group had reinvented themselves last year with the threesome anthem “One More”, and the title track “You’re Pitiful” follows up with the mature, if less explicit, perspective. With incredibly alluring and suggestive choreography in the music video, Fiestar taunt and tease an ex who’s still obsessed. They emasculate him, and subsequently the audience, with lines like “You’ve become so small” and the titular “you’re pitiful”. The song similarly uses the male gaze for subversive purposes, much like Hello Venus’s “Wiggle Wiggle”, but the song is a bit more standard fare. Written and produced by Shinsadong Tiger, “You’re Pitiful” is simple and subtle, but it becomes incredibly infectious on repeated listens.
Cube Entertainment’s new girl group CLC (Crystal Clear) take on a similar subject matter with their debut “Pepe”. The track is one of the strongest debuts in a long time, and shows a lot of promise for the group to get even better. They complain about how “guys are all the same” and instruct them to “never look for me again” over pleasantly retro beats.
Conversely, Girl’s Day’s Minah makes her solo debut with “I Am A Woman Too”. Her song finds Minah heartbroken over her break up, still pining for the man who left her. To be sure, Minah is an incredible vocalist, and her ability to shift from breathy fragility to powerhouse belting makes her always interesting, but “I Am A Woman Too” is mostly forgettable. She’s sexy as always, and the “I love you love you love you” hook that is introduced in the second half of the song is truly spectacular, but this would be much better suited as a B-side on an upcoming Girl’s Day mini album.
The pining concept is handled better by Shannon Williams in “Why Why”. The British-born singer takes on the standard crush song trope, complete with school girl outfit and clichéd lyrics of unrequited love. But she does so to perfection, with a well put together retro track and incredible Ariana Grande-styled vocals (a comparison that becomes even more obvious on the rest of her Eighteen mini-album). She swoons and stalks the object of her affection. On her way to give him a love note, however, a new boy passes by. She drops the letter and the cycle begins again.
Red Velvet take a darker, sexier approach to their desires on their new track “Ice Cream Cake”. After their debut last year, SM Entertainment brought in a fifth member for the group and changed up their sound. This debut mini-album sounds more like label-mates (f)x, which is never a bad thing. But they have a younger, more demure vocal delivery that gives them a different flavor. And on “Ice Cream Cake”, Red Velvet definitely embraces all their flavors. The track combines childlike music boxes and schoolyard taunts with thinly-veiled sexual innuendo. The abrupt stylistic and harmonic shifts recall Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy” (though not quite to the same extreme), and show off the group’s skill as vocalists and rappers.
Red Velvet also released a video for “Automatic”, a slower, more R&B-leaning track that showcases a ’90s sensuality. If last year’s “Happiness” left you on the fence about Red Velvet, “Ice Cream Cake” will surely convince you that this is a group to take very seriously.
Outside of the relationship focus, Stellar released a Sweetune-produced track to dismiss the haters with “Fool”. The video begins with the members reading nasty comments on their controversial videos from last year. They then work on a new song and put on a concert with the help of an anthropomorphic stuffed gorilla. It’s silly, sure, but it’s a playful way to acknowledge their public perception and shrug it off while still managing to be incredibly sexy. The song itself is a bit basic, with a ’90s R&B groove and lush harmonies. It’s maybe forgettable, but it’s also more palatable than the brash sexuality of last year’s “Marionette” and “Mask”.
The real focus of March was the new mini album from Ga-in, Hawwah. Ga-in is known for always taking on challenging concepts, and as alluded to in the mini-album’s title, this time she takes on the biblical story of Eve and original sin. She released two title tracks from the album, “Paradise Lost” and “Apple”. Ostensibly, “Paradise Lost” is from the perspective of the snake and “Apple” is from the perspective of Eve (or her Hebrew name, Hawwah). But producer Cho Young-chul has stated, “Was the snake not a real snake, but a symbol of her own inner raw desire?” Similarly, we can think of these two tracks, as different as they may sound, as different reflections of the same idea.
“Paradise Lost” is dark, gothic, and sensual. Ga-in writhers on the floor like a snake. She crawls amongst clawing, naked men. She seductively sips water from a dripping pipe, becoming the personification of original sin and the temptation of the snake. We, as an audience, are tempted by Ga-in with her powerful vocals and sexual appearance. With “Apple”, though, we get the more playful side of the story. Hawwah dances by herself in the Garden of Eden. She rides bikes, plays with a bouncy ball, and suggestively holds a water hose. The jazzy pop music contrasts the epic backdrop of “Paradise Lost”, but the goal is the same. Despite the protests of Jay Park’s rapping Adam, she eats the apple, and we root for her as she does. The videos and concept take on a feminist stance, turning the story of sin into one of female liberation. In the same statement, Cho Young-chul asks, “Wasn’t Eve an amazing woman who rejected the heaven told to her by others and carved out her own life?” In “Paradise Lost”, Ga-in reminds us that “they’re making up a story so they can control you and me.” As always, Ga-in is the most interesting artist in K-pop, continually pushing the boundaries musically and thematically. Hawwah is no exception.
Closing out the month is Crayon Pop and their incredible “FM”. At this point in their career, we’ve grown to be able to count on Crayon Pop for always coming out with something to cheer us up: something irreverent, silly, and astonishingly well-crafted and genuine. “FM” finds the girls transforming into superheroes, kicking ass, and taking names. Based mainly on the Japanese pre-cursor to Power Rangers, Choushinsei Flashman, but also alluding to Sailor Moon and other retro superhero action TV shows, “FM” is Crayon Pop at their most awesome. They fight a wide range of menacing bad guys and still find time to perform ecstatic tight choreography. Produced by Shinsadong Tiger, the song is not quite as cheesy as some of the group’s previous material, but still amps up the campy qualities to make it unmistakably Crayon Pop.
Now that K-pop has seemed to return to some of its normal practices, it feels like the threat posed by 2014’s “K-pocalypse” has subsided for good. Now we’ll just have to wait and see what the rest of the year brings us.