When you think of experimental K-pop, the acts that come to mind will have one thing in common: they come from years-long established, big-budgeted K-pop labels. f(x), a mandatory mention in any conversation about experimentalism in K-pop music, is from SM Entertainment, one of the pioneer companies of K-pop as we know it. And so is aespa, which is the current generation’s main reference for innovative music production.
But sometimes cool experiments happen in small labs too. Farther from the spotlight, groups like GSWN and OH MY GIRL have been quietly exploring quirky possibilities in their music. These efforts often fall under the radar as innovation is mostly heard on the b-sides rather than in promotional singles.
OH MY GIRL’s singles are either aegyo pop (“cute” pop) or party dance songs (which are still aegyo to an extent too). They’re fun, but rarely surprising (“Closer” is an exception). Dig a little deeper into their albums, though, and you’ll find some cooler gems, from the emo-rock of Coloring Book (2017) to the alt-pop of Dear OH MY GIRL (2021), which ranked #7 in PopMatters’ 20 Best K-pop albums of 2021.
Real Love (2022) doesn’t experiment as much as its predecessor, but it’s not a detour. Most tracks stick to EDM and disco-pop. But it surprises in its song structures, and its fashionable revamp of the bass-boosted house music that reigned through acts like David Guetta circa 2009-2012. Fans of Britney Spears’ 2010s albums might enjoy “Drip”, and “Replay” too.
In K-pop the electronic dance music made in Real Love never really went out of fashion. Still, Real Love converses with its time in how it explores fragmented song structures (such as in “Drip”).
PC music, bubblegum bass, and bedroom pop are strong influences in Real Love too. They lay the ground for melodies and lyrics that explore dreamy themes (but only illustratively). For example, “Kiss & fix” uses the metaphor of a broken doll to sing about the uncontrollable nature of relationships.
OH MY GIRL plays well in the midfield of angelic and eccentric. “Kiss & fix”, “Eden”, and “Dear rose” sound shy next to “Drip” and “Replay”. Still, they have their alternative charms. The melodies are sugar high, sung in a mannequin-like way. The chorus lines in “Dear rose” sound like a lullaby melody, but they contrast with a darker bass. “Eden” is lounge, ambient music, mixed with dance beats but it also has guitars in the singer-songwriter style. There’s an innocence to it, which goes curiously well with the robotic, overly processed parts.
The disco-pop “Real love”, “Parachute”, “Blink”, and the ballad “Sailing heart”, are the safest slice of Real Love. Although they shine a little less, they are a nice break from the glitchier sounds.
Real Love is moderately innovative and overall fun. It reinforces OH MY GIRL’s position among K-pop groups making songs that sound like two or three songs combined into one (such as aespa, NMIXX, Purple Kiss are doing). It also brings a fresh spin to dance music that could easily have fallen into average.
Real Love underpins a side of OH MY GIRL that makes them stand out from the rest: experimental, oddish, electronic pop. If there is such a thing as “alternative K-pop”, OH MY GIRL are strong contenders for the title of this genre’s queens. But you have to get past their promotional singles to know that.