In 2020, music fans found a beacon of hope in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic through a sound whose entire ethos was to celebrate joy: disco. The genre—born within Black, Latin, and LGBT communities in the United States in the 1970s—was the foundation of hit songs like Dua Lipa‘s “Don’t Start Now” (issued in late 2019) and Doja Cat’s “Say So”. The trend reached the other side of the world last year, too, via several Korean acts; for instance, BTS released disco-driven songs like “Dynamite“, Sunmi & JYP put out “When We Disco”, and TXT’s unleashed “Blue Hour”. The explanation for the prevalence and success of this stylistic comeback was—as critic Han Dong-yun said to The Hankyoreh (2020)—as simple as the need to escape:
“When disco was trending in the 1970s, the US was facing a recession caused by the Vietnam War and two oil crises. That kind of resembles the social and economic difficulties we’re dealing with right now because of COVID-19. When people are having a tough time, what they turn to isn’t complicated music but simple party music that can help them forget their troubles. The best example of that kind of music is disco.”
Of course, 2020 wasn’t the first time disco had such a revival (in the United States, Europe, or Korea). Regarding K-pop specifically, the music and entertainment industry of Korean pop music and idols, the last time it happened was courtesy of girl group T-ara (티아라) and their second EP, John Travolta Wannabe (2011). At the time of the album’s release, T-ara had a two-year career marked by electropop hits like “Bo Peep Bo Peep” (2009), and “왜 이러니?” (2010), plus dance songs with ballad-shaped melodies like “Time to Love (TTL)” (2009) and “Ma Boo” (2010).
Even if the production of their music showed influences of 1980s European synthpop—and many of their melodies featured the melodic element known as “뽕” (“ppong”), which is a sad, nostalgic way of singing reminiscent of Korean popular music of the 1960s-1980s—”retro” wasn’t really a label or style often associated with T-ara. Really, South Korea’s true retro queens were the Wonder Girls, whose 2009 hit song, “Nobody“, offered a modern update on old school sounds like the music from Motown (Herman, 2017), the influential American record label that produced artists like the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and pioneered the girl group format.
For its melody, choreography, and music video, “Nobody” evokes 1960s girl groups like [Motown’s] the Supremes and the Kim Sisters (the first Korean group to land a career in the United States). With the song, Wonder Girls owned “retro” as an artistic concept and cemented it as a form of innovation in K-pop (Ribeiro, 2015). But T-ara was about to claim a place alongside the Wonder Girls in that respect.
John Travolta Wannabe was, as the name suggests, inspired by the 1977 American movie Saturday Night Fever and its official soundtrack (comprised of disco songs by the Bee Gees). Even the album cover art emulates a movie poster, and the whole package is classic, cool, and alluring to both K-pop fans and film fans alike.
Released in advance of the album, lead single “Roly Poly” would become the most downloaded K-pop song of 2011 (on the Gaon Music Chart) and one of T-ara’s all-time biggest hits. Its success propelled (or coincided with) the start of a disco trend in K-pop, as heard later in songs like Dal★shabet’s “BLING BLING” (2011) and 9MUSES’s “Figaro” (2011). Afterward, two more Roly Poly versions came out: “Roly-Poly in Copacabana” and a version with Japanese lyrics.
Like many other songs and creative concepts in K-pop, Roly Poly is an intertextual mixture that appeals to the nostalgia of fans who are familiar with the cultural references presented; and, of course, the track also presents those references to new generations. The track is a fusion of Bee Gees’ disco (it even snaffles the “ah ah ah ah” from “Staying Alive’s” chorus for its post-chorus) with the electropop T-ara was already putting out. Its tempo was more accelerated than actual 1970s disco songs, and the melodies were filled with easy, repetitive lyrics, just like previous T-ara hits such as “Bo Peep Bo Peep” (2009) and “Yayaya” (2010). It was all on-brand for T-ara: the disco remake sounded fresh yet true to the sound that they were becoming famous for. And, to this date, Roly Poly is still one of the catchiest K-pop songs ever made.
The second and only original track on the album aside from Roly Poly, “진짜 진짜 좋아해”, follows the same formula of Roly Poly (and deserved the same success despite not being released as a single and or performed live by the group). But it has its own charms, too. For example, the drumstick counting in the intro hints at rock’n’roll nostalgia, and the synthesized hook driving the song—reminiscent of Europop—channels the retro synth sound that would become of a mark of 2010s K-pop, as heard in songs like KARA’s “Step” (2011) and INFINITE’S “The Chaser” (2012).
As for the rest of John Travolta Wannabe, it features remixes of T-ara’s songs from her first two albums: “Yayaya”, “왜 이러니”, “Ma Boo”, “몰라요”, and “괜찮아요”.
At first sight, many people fall into techno-orientalist stereotypes when watching T-ara’s performances and/or listening to their music. Many of the song’s titles were made of onomatopoeias (“Bo Peep Bo Peep”, “Tic Tic Toc” etc.) or sentences that sounded straight off a Korean for beginners textbook (“몰라요” – “I Don’t Know”, “괜찮아요” – “It’s Alright”, “진짜 진짜 좋아해” – “I Really Really Like You” etc.). The members’ vocals were edited and mixed to sound unison. Some of the lyrics and accompanying choreographies can even come across as childish.
However, these creative choices suggest a key characteristic frequently seen in K-pop whose shape varies from artist to artist and from time to time: strategic songwriting.
The commercial nature of K-pop is often pointed by music scholars and critics (and K-pop haters, too) to question the legitimacy of its music. (John Lie’s 2014 scholarship depicts K-pop as “engineered to (near) perfection” and “functional”). However, K-pop music is hardly more industrial than other music scenes and genres found in many parts of the world. (Nevertheless, it’s not like music cannot be simultaneously profit-oriented and artistically fulfilling anyway.)
“Just because K-pop is not produced in the same way as fine art does not mean it does not have aesthetics and creative value”, Crystal S. Anderson (2020) writes. John Travolta Wannabe might not make the strongest case for that argument, but it makes several points when it comes to showing why K-pop attracts people from all walks of life and why T-ara became a force to be reckoned with.
Anderson, Crystal S. (2020). Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop. University Press of Mississippi.
Gaon Music Chart. 2011년 Download Chart.
Herman, Tamar. (2017, February 9). Every Wonder Girls Single Ranked From Worst to Best: Critic’s Take. Billboard.
Kim, Jihye. (2011, June 13). 티아라, ‘롤리폴리’는 ‘보핍보핍2’…이번엔 디스코. The Daily Focus.
Kim, Kyung-wook. (2020, August 27). A Comeback of Disco Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Hankyoreh.
Ribeiro, Ana Clara. (2015). Arte e seu Lugar no Tempo: uma Perspectiva Histórica e Metafísica da Música Retrô a partir do Álbum “Reboot” das Wonder Girls. Letrismos.