K-Pop Roundup April 2015: Boy Band Legends and Girl Band Up-and-Comers
Comebacks from two major boy bands and exciting tracks from newer female artists highlighted the month of April for the K-pop genre.
Exo -- “Call Me Baby”
With so many dating scandals and members leaving, it’s sometimes hard to remember why Exo is one of the most popular K-pop boy bands, but the release of “Call Me Baby” does well to remind us. While its accompanying Exodus album is hit or miss, the title track is exactly the kind of boy band song I love. It’s got a great groove, tons of personality, and is insanely catchy. Most importantly, though, it allows the members to show off their talent both vocally and dance-wise. Lyrically, the song is nothing special, but what they do with their voices is particularly impressive, especially at the end of the bridge, where the hook gets extended by one measure as more vocal harmonies pile up, after which the track stutters a bit into a powerful dance break. The effect is strikingly unusual, adding a level of excitement to the already amped-up track.
The music video was preceded by weeks of cryptic video teasers, setting up an intriguing plotline that was completely dropped in the video that was actually released. Disappointment aside, though, the music video is just as exciting as the song. The boys dance around in an spacious building, which, on its own, is not a thrilling concept, but the execution is so remarkable that it doesn’t matter. It’s very similar to their “Growl” video, but with even more complex dancing and camera work. The amount of precision needed to get everyone in sync is apparent, and this is what sets Exo above so many other groups.
It could be argued that since the viral success of the EXiD fan-cam video of “Up & Down”, K-pop has been slowly moving into a "booty" phase. America got a strong year for booties in 2014 with “All About That Bass”, “Anaconda”, and “Booty”, so it only seems fair that Korea would get its own booty revolution. Hello Venus continued the trend with “Wiggle Wiggle”, but now the movement has received its very own pervy anthem from Park Jin-Young. More known for his work as the CEO of JYP Entertainment and frequent songwriter for JYP artists, Jin-Young seemed to feel it necessary to come out and declare his love for big backsides. Remarkably, the song has done extremely well in South Korea, topping the Gaon charts for the last two weeks of April despite its inane subject matter and mediocre music. Even Lucky J member Jessi, fresh off her coming in second place on the female rapper competition show Unpretty Rapstar, can’t save “Who’s Your Mama?”
But even if JYP has missed the humor and irony in “Up & Down” and “Wiggle Wiggle”, EXiD have certainly not. The group came back with a new mini album and the title track “Ah Yeah”, which is essentially “Up & Down 2.0". Seemingly saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “Ah Yeah” utilizes many of the same tricks as their previous hit. It’s driven by a wonky sax sample, its hook is a rapped chant by LE, it shifts styles throughout, and, most importantly, it’s a ton of fun. In many ways, “Ah Yeah” improves upon “Up & Down”, like the interplay between LE’s raps and Hani’s vocals in the verses and the more memorable chorus. But there’s something ineffably less interesting about “Ah Yeah”. It’s possibly its similarity to the previous song, but it also feels overstuffed and less inspired.
What’s really great about “Ah Yeah”, though, is the music video. Of course, they keep some consistency by focusing on pelvic-centric choreography, but they are self-aware about it and directly address their public image in the clip. The video plays with the idea of censorship, blurring out their hip dances and other images in the background. It’s all the more effective coming out the day after JYP’s “Who’s Your Mama?” to contrast their subversion and mockery of the male gaze.
Lim Kim, half of the folk-pop duo Togeworl (Two Months), has really made a name for herself as a solo artist with her hip brand of electro-pop. With her new mini album, Simple Mind, she brings an indie sensibility to big pop hits. “Awoo” finds Lim Kim obsessed with flirting. She seems in it for sport more than love, and in the video she stalks her prey like a cat. Her relaxed vocals add a sense of chill to the trap-infused indie pop track that is unusual -- but very welcome -- for K-pop. The hook is so infectious that it will undoubtedly endear itself to you on the first listen, but the track only gets better the more you hear it.
She quickly followed up the success of “Awoo” with “Love Game”. The song has a bit more energy than “Awoo” but keeps it cool vibe and electro pop inflections. She also keeps with the flirtatious theme, celebrating the game of courtship (“I want a long love game”). In the video, she takes EXiD’s playful subversion of male gaze to the next level with some lighthearted ribbing at the expense of men. Lim Kim finds creeping guys hiding in her apartment and cleverly destroys them. She pours hot coffee on them, sets them on fire, sends them flying out her window, crashes their elevator, burns their hand on a hot pop. All of this is accidental, of course -- with a wink to the camera. It might not line up exactly with the lyrics, but it’s a ton of fun to watch. With the songs on Simple Mind, Lim Kim brings out a cool swagger that has been missing from mainstream K-pop. Hopefully, we’ll begin to see more artists embracing this kind of hip style -- as long as they pull it off as well as she does.
“Cupid”, the debut song from B1A4 “little sister group” Oh My Girl, hasn’t been making huge waves since its release, but it should be. The track is the perfect distillation of everything K-pop should be: it is saccharine almost to the point of nauseating yet also unusual and unpredictable. “Cupid” is as catchy as can be, all the while turning a different direction than you’d expect. It shifts keys, floats over a strange drumline beat, and mixes disco guitars and overpowering synths, all while being cute as can be.
The eight girls sing about falling in love at first sight, just like “cupid has shot my heart.” The lyrics aren’t anything special, and neither are the girls. There’s some fine singing, but none of them particularly stand out from the crowd. It’s likely, however, that if they’re given a chance to continue releasing music, we’ll find more personality from some of them. As for now, they should be getting by simply based on the strength of this one song, which is certainly the strongest debut of the year so far.
There was a lot of excitement for the Exo comeback this month, but Big Bang is on a whole other level. They’re one of the most celebrated K-pop groups of all time, and they haven’t officially released anything together since 2012. It’s likely that their upcoming album, MADE, will be their last, and they’re rolling it out in an interesting way. On the first of every month, they’ll be releasing a single or two until the full album is available in September. This month we got M, which contains “Loser” and “Bae Bae”. Both singles got music videos, and while they’re not the most incredible tracks the band has released, it’s exciting that they exist at all.
“Loser” finds the five boys -- men, really -- being introspective and exploring their anxieties and insecurities. It’s a new look for the band, who normally put up a tough, hip-hop attitude, and it works well for them. Each singer gets their own verse, their own platform to air their grievances. G-Dragon sings about the loneliness of celebrity and feeling lost without love. Taeyang sings about shame and a loss of faith. Seungri gets frustrated and angry over a cheating girlfriend, feeling betrayed and isolated. T.O.P. feels guilt over his vicious cycle of meaningless affairs. Daesung sings about the difficulty of connecting with people and trying to find self-worth. The music is catchy and the video is stylish, but “Loser” is mostly interesting for its emotional power.
“Bae Bae” is expectedly a bit lighter in subject matter. Each boy tries to out-do the other with extravagant professions of love and lust to their “bae”. While neither of these songs are anything to get too excited about, it’s likely that Big Bang is saving their best material for later in the summer as we get closer to MADE.