There were a lot of strong k-pop releases throughout the month of June, but two separate competitions dominated the conversation. A battle of the top boy bands played out through the beginning of the month, only to be followed by three highly-anticipated girl group comebacks in the second half.
The Boy Bands
Exo and Big Bang are probably the two biggest boy bands in k-pop, but in different ways. Exo is newer and younger, but they have an intense fanbase. Big Bang, on the other hand, are veteran artists, beloved by pretty much everyone. Additionally, Big Bang haven’t released music as a group since 2012, and their return—consisting of a release of two tracks per month throughout the summer leading up to the release of their new studio album, Made, has all but officially declared this the Summer of Big Bang. The Exo song competing in the beginning of June was a new single for a repackage of their Exodus album which came out earlier this year, and as such, really didn’t have much of a chance against the two Big Bang tracks—not that this stopped the Exo-L (what Exo fans refer to themselves as) try their best to get the song to the top of the charts and win on the music shows.
Big Bang – “Bang Bang Bang”/ “We Like 2 Party”
After the first two comeback singles “Loser” and “Bae Bae”, which were both somber and low-energy, Big Bang came back with two explosive songs for the second month of their releases. Sonically, though, the tracks are as different as can be.
“Bang Bang Bang” follows recent G-Dragon solo singles with a dirty, hard-hitting trap style. Opening with a driving synth line and crowd hand-claps, the track takes a number of hard left turns for each section, which can make the song feel disjointed and confused. But each part goes hard and makes for an intense experience. The video amps it up even more with flames, tricked out cars, Kubrick references, and zombie dancers.
“We Like 2 Party” is a different vibe entirely, with a guitar-driven summer sound. The track opens with an old-school hip hop sample but then moves into a Sublime-esque acoustic verse and a shouted chorus reminiscent of “Teenage Dirtbag”. The music video for the song shows the boys partying—of course. But instead of in clubs with girls, we see the members hanging out together in the sun, trashing hotel rooms, driving around, and filming themselves with a selfie-stick. It’s an odd sound for Big Bang, but a welcome change from the club-oriented style we’ve seen on the rest of the Made singles so far.
Exo – “Love Me Right”
After the success of Exo’s Exodus album, the group—while continuing to lose members and endure lawsuits—released a repackaged version, adding four new songs to the tracklist. To promote the rerelease, Exo put out a single and music video for the new track “Love Me Right”. The funk guitar-driven track has all the hallmarks of a classic Exo song: lush vocal harmonies, dance-heavy beats, and massive hooks. It’s more conventional than some of the best singles, which indulge in unusual structures or off-kilter chord progressions, but it’s undoubtedly a solid pop song.
The video, however, is a bit lackluster. Exo teased the song with a very confused sports concept. The members wore football pads, Yankees caps, and stood on a soccer field. When the video finally arrived, the concept wasn’t much more refined than that, and without a plot or any of the memorable choreography we’ve come to expect from Exo, it’s a real let down.
It’s impossible to compete with Big Bang commercially, especially when you’re promoting a repackage of an album and they’re promoting some of their first new music in years. But artistically, “Love Me Right” is certainly the best song of the bunch, even with the forgettable music video. Let’s call it a draw.
The Girl Groups
Fans of girl groups tend to be less nasty to each other online than fans of rival boy bands, but still, when three popular girl groups all have anticipated come backs the same week, it’s fun to indulge in a little competitive spirit.
Mamamoo – “Um Oh Ah Yeh”
Somehow, I didn’t take notice of Mamamoo until earlier this year with their single “Ahh Oop!”, despite there being positive buzz around the group’s debut last year. The four-piece girl group really staked their claim as a noteworthy group with the release of “Um Oh Ah Ye” and their second mini-album Pink Funky, which features a more polished mainstream sound while retaining the focus of their powerful vocals. The song takes the traditional love-at-first-sight trope and flips it on its head by revealing towards the end of the song that the object of their affection is actually a girl. In addition to being a clever plot twist, it can also be seen as a fun way of acknowledging the androgynous look of so many Korean men, especially idols.
The music video plays on this idea in kind of a bizarre way, though. Hwasa, Moonbyul, and Wheein are dressed as men, complete with fairly convincing prosthetic makeup. Solar, who becomes obsessed with Moonbyul’s character, accidentally drugs her—thinking it’s a him—and decides that she might as well take advantage of the situation and try to make out with the passed-out body. But then Superstar K contestant Park Bo Ram shows up in the hotel room and reveals that Moonbyul is, in fact, a woman. Honestly the video raises more questions than it answers plot-wise, but it’s a fun—if problematic—clip to accompany the catchy pop track.
AOA – “Heart Attack”
In 2014, AOA released three pretty great title tracks written and produced by Brave Brothers. Unfortunately, history doesn’t always repeat itself and the latest collaboration between the girls and the hit maker is a bit of a mess. With loud synths and pumping dance beats, the track not only sounds outdated but also cluttered and too generic. Luckily, though, the music video makes it all worthwhile.
Following EXO’s poorly executed sports concept for ‘Love Me Right,’ AOA show the boys how it’s done with their own take on the theme. The video opens on the AOA girls playing in a lacrosse match against a group of boys and losing pretty bad. When the song begins, we see that Choa is smitten with a cute boy she was playing against, but he—and all the other boys—instantly fawn over new student Seolhyun. Instead of descending into a typical Mean Girl Competition narrative, Seolhyun joins forces with Choa and her teammates to show them how to be hot and how to play lacrosse, because she’s an expert at both. When they play the boys again at the end of the video, AOA use both their new found hotness (Yuna as goalie blocks the ball with the blow of a kiss) and their honed athleticism to easily beat them. The biggest disappointment, though, is that Choa sort of ends up with the boy at the end instead of Seolhyun, with whom she had way more chemistry and sexual tension.
Sistar – “Shake It”
We’ve come to expect summer bangers from Sistar, and many people have accused “Shake It” of being a rehash of “Touch My Body”, the group’s hit from last year, but that’s not entirely accurate. Both songs are brassy, sunny, and feature a lot of butt-shaking, but where “Touch My Body” draws on HyunA’s “Bubble Pop”, “Shake It” has more in common with Sister Sledge. The song may not stand out immediately, but on repeated listens “Shake It” is undeniably infectious and dance-inducing.
And like “Um Oh Ah Yeh” and “Heart Attack”, there’s some pretty gay undertones in “Shake It” — especially with the Sister Sledge disco grooves. The chorus finds Hyorin singing “Shake it, shake it for me” but who is she singing to? It’s unlikely that she’s asking a guy to shake it for her, and the music video certainly supports this. It’s got plenty of women shaking it, but all the Sistar girls harass, make fun of, or just ignore the men in the video. They’re shaking it for each other. Just like in “Touch My Body” where the only touching going on is between the members or in “I Swear” where the girls sing declarations of love but the video shows only the four of them spending a day together. Here, the girls are shaking it in their yoga pants and Skechers (who make sure you know they sponsor the group by having a giant banner in the background) just for themselves.
From my perspective, “Shake It” is definitely the best song of these three girl group comebacks, even if it feels familiar and a tad unoriginal. AOA’s music video is the most memorable and entertaining. But Mamamoo gained the most from this release. That we’re even talking about then as competitors of groups like Sistar and AOA who have been around for years shows that, with “Um Oh Ah Yeh”, Mamamoo is a group to take seriously and keep an eye on from now on. The song might not be the strongest, but it shows the most promise. Let’s call Mamamoo the winners here.