K-pop Round Up: July 2015

Summer continues in K-pop with July releases from major artists embracing the heat, fun, and wistful nostalgia that comes along with the season.

Girls’ Generation – “Party”

What’s great—or horrible, depending on your perspective (maybe a little of both?)—about the internet quickly shrinking our nostalgia cycle is that in 2015 you can get a song as clearly nostalgic for 2010 as Girls’ Generation’s “Party”. Specifically, the single has all the trappings of a Teenage Dream-era Katy Perry/Dr. Luke song: Fizzy synths, disco-lite guitar and slap bass, and a chord progression that cleverly avoids resolving to tonic. I didn’t know I could get pangs of nostalgia for auto-tuned vocals, but the subtle inclusion of the vocal processing effect when the girls sing “P-A-R-T-Y” is the perfect amount to bring the song to a different level. The lyrics too, focus on Perry-esque Summer fun, with a chorus about drinking and traveling to beautiful beaches around the world (“Lemon soju, tequila for me, mojito for you/Let’s go to Jeju, California, Rome/Let’s go to a white pearly beach with great waves”).

This was Girls’ Generation’s first Korean comeback since losing (or kicking out, it’s still unclear) Jessica Jung and expectations were high. While they haven’t been away as long as Big Bang, they’re one of the few veteran groups from that era to still be going, so any time they come back it’s a big deal. That it was the first proper release without one of the group’s most popular members made fans and critics even more scrutinizing. “Party” was certainly a successful release, but there was still a feeling of disappointment by many who felt the song was too much fluff for an SNSD release. And it’s true that the group hasn’t put out too many singles that could be classified as “Summer songs” or pure, sugary, pop confection, but “Party” is executed with the level of perfectionism and skill that we’ve come to expect from Girls’ Generation. Plus, Sunny in a red bikini.

SM Entertainment is planning two other comebacks for the group later this year, which based on the teasers that have been put out, seem to be more of the interesting dance-pop associated with Girls’ Generation.

Got7 – “Just Right”

Earlier this year, Inside Amy Schumer had a music video sketch where a boy band sang a song called “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup”. In the video, the boys tell Amy she’s beautiful just the way she is. At least until she actually takes off her makeup and they change their minds. The video was parodying Nice Guy Misogyny in recent boy band songs, specifically One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”, though it felt wildly untimely. That song in particular was released in 2011, Bruno Mars’s “Just the Way You Are” was released in 2010, and nothing since has stood out in that regard. But Got7 are here to make it relevant again.

Unironically, “Just Right” follows the same formula. The boys—shrunk down to miniatures to avoid the creepiness that can come along with grown men singing to a pre-teen girl in her bedroom—tell a young girl that she’s beautiful just the way she is. JB sings, “If you just stay the way you are now/I want nothing more, so don’t change anything.” Jackson reiterates, “I want you just as you are/You’re the only one.” The sentiment is simple and cliché, at least in Western pop. But in the highly-visual, often-objectifying world of k-pop, you don’t get a lot of Love Yourself anthems like this, which makes “Just Right” feel special. Additionally, the trap-infused pop track is infectious and odd. On first listen it can be a bit off putting, but by the second time around, you’ll be eagerly singing along to that wordless “ooh ooh ooh” hook.

Infinite – “Bad”

Infinite is a group I usually don’t pay much attention to. It’s not because I have anything against them, just that they tend to get lost in the sea of boy bands for me and rarely do anything to catch my attention. “Bad” changes that. The song itself is nothing too special, but the music video is one of the most exciting k-pop videos all year. At least the 360 VR version.

Just like it sounds, the 360 VR version of the video allows you to control what you’re seeing, and you can circle around the set as you please. Each time you watch the video, you get something new, which is incredibly exciting. It encourages you to interact with the video, and subsequently the music, in a more engaging way. If you were to let it go without moving the virtual camera, you’ll end up staring at walls, or at one point a taxidermied deer. You have to keep the camera moving to keep up with the action. Luckily, the action is interesting to keep up with. There’s no real plot, but the choreography is intense and the sets are elaborate enough to want to explore. You might get some buffering issues though, so Infinite has also released a Standard version of the video, which chooses angles for you and cuts in some more shots and set pieces. The song isn’t fantastic, but it’s definitely good enough to make the incredible music video worthwhile.

APink – “Remember”

Girls’ Generation’s nostalgia for five years ago manifested itself in a Katy Perry-styled Summer pop song, the kind that really wasn’t popular in k-pop at the time. APink’s latest, though, pulls a lot from half a decade ago in k-pop (as the chorus asks, “Do you remember?”). It’s got bright colors, soft vocals, and a demure innocence about it that’s reminiscent of 2008-2009 k-pop. Expectedly, the lyrics of the song look back as well, as the girls ask a former lover, or at least a lover with whom their relationship is no longer great, if they remember what it used to be like. Throughout the song, tension builds as they continually ask, “Do you remember?” They never get an answer.

“Remember” is also one of the structurally weirdest songs to come out in k-pop this year. It begins with a slow version of the chorus sung to a quiet music box as the sound of waves crash on the beach. The beat kicks in, and in a brand new key, a house-style synth melody floats over a dance beat. Back to the first key, the verse finally begins. It cycles through a standard chord progression and goes back into the chorus, now at full speed with a full dance beat, but it’s just a fake out. After two lines, the song kicks back up to the higher key, and that house synth comes back in to act as a counter melody for the rest of the chorus. It’s like they show you a standard version of what you’d expect the chorus to be, then say, ‘No, it can be way better than that,’ and then give us a way better version. The whole cycle repeats and then we get a bridge in yet another new key. We return to the instrumental interlude in the high key and then get a final chorus in an even higher key to finish the song. Much like the lyrics, though, there’s no musical resolution at the end. The whole song builds and builds with tension as the girls repeat, “Do you remember?” and are never given a satisfying, climactic ending.

Super Junior – “Devil”

For their 10th anniversary album, Super Junior have returned with “Devil”, a catchy track driven by funky guitars and sleek vocal hooks. I’m not always a huge fan of Super Junior, but this song caught my ear more than a lot of their songs, and the accompanying album is stellar throughout.

But on closer inspection, there are some problems here that should be addressed. Lyrically, the song is about a woman who is a “devil” for tempting them but refusing to go all the way. They sing, “You’re hot and cold, devil.” They tell her that they want to “taste the wet you” and demand that she “listen to me/accept me.” The rest of the song is similar, and these lyrics alone are enough to raise some eyebrows. It’s all made worse, though, by a revelation about the casting in the music video.

The video, which is fairly well done, shows the Super Junior guys in a number of fake movies. There’s a noir, a high-action motorcycle film, a mob movie, etc. In each, the boys—men, really, they’re all about 30 now—compete over the same love interest: a white woman who plays the devil, complete with red eyes and a tail. Many people get (mostly justifiably) sensitive about the use of white actresses in k-pop videos, because they’re often fetishized for their whiteness and used as status symbols (though, honestly, any girl in a k-pop boy band video gets the short end of the agency stick). But it was later revealed that the actress they used is also 14. While there’s no actual kissing or much touching at all in the video, it makes lines like “Taste the wet you” and the whole atmosphere of the song pretty inappropriate.

Stellar – “Vibrato”

Speaking of female agency, Stellar’s “Vibrato” is a track that puts the women’s sexiness into their own hands. At least that’s what it seems like (though there’s more to say about that later). K-pop’s premier provocative, sexy girl group continues to push the envelope with their latest, but luckily, this one really works. The song is by far their strongest, and the video, while very very sexy, is also interesting and incredibly shot.

In the song, the Stellar girls acknowledge how sexy they are and how bored they are with every man desiring them. But they meet a new man, and while they’re prepared to dismiss him like the rest, they become drawn to him. Throughout, though, they have control over the situation, and the sexy images in the music video are supplemented by the lyrics. In the bridge, the music slows down and they sing about lowering their defenses, slowly opening themselves up to a new sexual relationship. Accompanying the liberation is a series of images that would make even Georgia O’Keeffe blush: a slowly unzipping purse, a sideways eye opening its lid, fingers slowly peeking through blinds, etc. The video ends with a watermelon, split down the middle and gushing its insides out. It’s not very subtle. Honestly I’m not sure how they got away with it, but I’m glad they did.

But an interview with No Cut News, translated by AllKpop, found the girls talking about how they really have no choice but to release sexy music videos. They weren’t getting any attention before last year’s “Marionette” and “Mask”, and even when they tried to move past that image for “Fool”, it was largely a failure. So although the character in the song has a lot of agency and control over her sexuality, the real Stellar girls might not. Unfortunately, this song probably wasn’t enough of a hit to allow them to transition into other kinds of concepts, though it should. They prove here that they are talented and interesting and deserving of a much larger platform.