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The Austral-Romanian Empire
Something amazing has happened this year with Orange Caramel's singing, though I can't put my finger specifically on what. All I've got is adjectives. Last year Orange Caramel had two terrific songs ("Bangkok City" and "Shanghai Romance"), each dragged down a little by vocals that I'd describe as "adequate": going for cuteness but sounding blah, not distinctive, a bit heavy for the material (analogous to how back in 2010 Orange Caramel had been too old for the kiddie clothes they'd been stuffed into). Now this year, on their latest two hits — "My Sweet Devil" in Japan and "Lipstick" in Korea — they're light and alive, just know where they are, zip right onto and dance right off of the lyrics. (See what I mean? Adjectives. Metaphors.) I can't tell if it's the singing itself, or just that they've been given the right songs and arrangements. But the arrangements on "Bangkok City" and "Shanghai Romance" were fine, are what made those two tracks zip along as well as they did.*

"My Sweet Devil" deserves attention on its own, but today I'm talking about "Lipstick," not for the singing per se, but for the rhythm (which of course includes the singing). In my mind, "Lipstick" is the fulcrum, or the apex (or something), of what I'm going to call the Austral-Romanian Empire. I figured this out when, over at the Jukebox, most everyone else was identifying "Lipstick" with "Mr. Saxobeat" and Europop, while I was hearing trot and "We No Speak Americano." Now, however, I'd say that "Lipstick" is drawing on all of those. Not that Orange Caramel have ever played a true trot, but they've been veering towards it, especially on the two "Asian"** singles, "Bangkok City" and "Shanghai Romance." Trots tend to move light and quick, emphasizing the offbeat almost as much as the downbeat, adding embellishments while running right along. In contrast, the Romanian beat sounds more like it's circling in on itself, a clippity-clop to trot's trot. (Or a clip-cloppity. Anyway, busier. It isn't as if there's a specific trot beat, or a specific Romanian rhythm — though maybe there is, and I'm just not perceptive enough to locate it. Maybe you can do a better job.)

I'm not really putting "trot" and "Romania" at contrasting ends of a spectrum, since trot's only tangentially in the picture. "Lipstick" is in the middle, with the "We No Speak Americano" beat (Australia) on one side and "Mr. Saxobeat" (Romania) on the other. Actually, no speak americano isn't a beat so much as a tendency for a synth riff or accordion riff (or something) to push along the music, as opposed to the Romanian predilection for having a sax-synth-etc. intertwine with the rest of the rhythm. Yeah, I know, this is still vague, and some of you may doubt that there's really that much of a difference between "push along," on the one hand, and "intertwine," on the other; I made myself a playlist that might illustrate this better. But bear in mind that it's all fundamentally similar. Both ends are willing to emphasize the pah as well as the oom.

The order isn't order of preference but rather a continuum: on one end, the two tracks that do the most emphatic "pushing along" and "running forward"; on the other, the track that "intertwines the most" and "is busiest." "Lipstick" lands in the center, doing both. 1 In-Grid "Tu Es Foutu." 2 Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP "We No Speak Americano." 3 Da' Zoo "La La La (Hot Girls)." 4 Bueno Clinic "Sex Appeal (Max Farenthide Remix)." 5 Gangkiz "Honey Honey." 6 Orange Caramel "Lipstick." 7 E.via "I Know How To Play A Little." 8 DJ Sava ft. Raluka "Money Maker (Extended Mix)." 9 Celia "D-D-Down." 10 Alexandra Stan "Mr. Saxobeat." I've also added, as number 11, LPG's "The First Train," which isn't part of the continuum but is a good example of trot, LPG being my favorite modern trot act. (Appropriately enough, they've done their own version of "We No Speak Americano," but it's their least good track.)

Here are the links, if you'd like to imagine the "playlist" yourself. (I want to get this post up rather than spend time making an actual YouTube playlist. But I may eventually make one, if I get motivated. [UPDATE: Done. YouTube playlist is here.]) I've embedded three of the four Korean tracks (embedding's disabled for "The First Train"), but I do hope to someday give the Celia video its own post, for the edifying zither strum and the hand (not hands) stand. If you don't have time to listen to all of these, I especially recommend "Money Maker (Extended Mix)."*** And, of course, "Lipstick."****

1. In-Grid "Tu Es Foutu" (Italy 2002). I'm starting in Italy — and therefore in French — rather than Australia, since Mat identifies "Tu Es Foutu" as a progenitor of the no speak americano syndrome. (The Gangkiz thread over on the SNSD Free For All was an inspiration for this post; that and Hyomin.*****) For further listening, I recommend "One More Time," with versions from both Italy and Korea.

2 Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP "We No Speak Americano" (Australia 2010)

3. Da' Zoo "La La La (Hot Girls)" (Puerto Rico 2011)

4. Bueno Clinic "Sex Appeal (Max Farenthide Remix)" (Poland 2010). Hyomin brought me here.

5. Gangkiz "Honey Honey" (Korea 2012). For reasons I don't get, this track engendered instant rejection and massive hatred in the YouTube comments.

6. Orange Caramel "Lipstick" (Korea 2012)

7. E.via "I Know How To Play A Little" (Korea 2012). Interpolates you-know-what, but the rhythm is no speak americano with a Romanian twist (though I don't know if that's where she got it from).

8. DJ Sava ft. Raluka "Money Maker (Extended Mix)" (Romania 2010).

9. Celia "D-D-Down" (Romania 2011)

10. Alexandra Stan "Mr. Saxobeat" (Romania 2010)

11. LPG "The First Train" (Korea 2009)

[UPDATE: I'm adding new tracks to this imaginary playlist as they come along. Miss A's "Time's Up" would go right before "Honey Honey," and Solbi's "Ottogi" ft. Jiyoon comes right after "Lipstick." The first is late August, the second is late October. UPDATING THE UPDATE: Well, "Time's Up" is just okay, so not going on the mix. "Ottogi" is definitely on. UPDATING THE UPDATED UPDATE: Well, I took "Ottogi" off, too.]

*I listened to the Japanese versions of "Magic Girl" and "Shanghai Romance," which presumably were recorded later than the original Korean releases, and in "Magic Girl" the singing is marginally more confident and less strained than in the earlier version, and in "Shanghai Romance" the difference is similar but stronger; except on neither is it strong enough that I'd have noticed if I hadn't been looking for it and hadn't decided in advance that that's what I was going to hear. On the new Korean album, Lipstick, "Bangkok City" is labeled "2012 New Recording," but on a couple of listens it sounds identical to the 2011 version. I've yet to pull out my microscope and examine it. Over on the recent Maxi Single† of main group After School (Orange Caramel being a subgroup comprising the three then-youngest members of After School††), Nana of Orange Caramel sings lead on the best track, "Eyeline." I wouldn't say she does anything special. In fact, I might again call her merely adequate. But she's right for the drama of the song; or the drama of the song carries her. Whereas the sparkle written into "Bangkok City" and "Shanghai Romance" shows up the nonsparkle of the singing; and vocal sparkle is what does show up on "My Sweet Devil" and "Lipstick." So, I don't know.

**I'm aware that Korea is already in Asia, but if you listen to "Bangkok City" and "Shanghai Romance," you'll hear what I'm getting at: those two tracks sound like what an Italodisco producer would have created had he wanted to signify "East Asia."

***I don't like the single version nearly as well. Not only is it missing Raluka, it's too irritatingly in-your-face and sexlessly sexy. I'd assumed this extended version with Raluka (posted by someone on YouTube in January 2011) was a remix, but it may have preceded the hit version (DJ Sava ft. Andrea D & J Yolo), which doesn't seem to have been released until April 2011, at least as a single. There's a live clip of Sava and Raluka performing this in November 2010.

****Apologies to Mat for not including Inna, but being a compelling upfront melodic presence, she gets in the way of the phenomenon I'm trying to illustrate.

*****See, I can work T-ara into almost anything.

†I'll be damned if I can tell you the difference between a five-song Maxi Single and a five-song Mini Album, the latter of which there are plenty of in Korea. In my parlance, either one is an EP.

††Raina, Nana, and Lizzy. Since then, After School have added two younger members, and three of the older have "graduated."

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I was just thinking about the influence of Mr Saxobeat in Kpop! Mr. Saxobeat on the one hand, and LMFAO on the other, haha.

The very beginning of "Lipstick" sounds just like that children's song. You know the one. "And the girls in France/They aren't wearing underpants/There's a hole in the wall/where the men can see it all" or something like that.

Also, even though I love the video and have no issues with it on its own, I wonder if it's a thing that Korean girls can only beat up on darker-skinned foreign guys (see also Tiny-G's last single).

Also also, the connection between Eastern Europe and Korea is "major drinking culture"? Like trot music is drinking music, right - that giddy spinning feeling you get at the end of the night when you've had too much to drink. In a gypsy movie, it's the scene in the bar just before someone smashes a glass on the floor, and maybe depending on the movie cuts open their hand, because there can be no pleasure without pain, or pain enhances pleasure, or life consists of both please and pain, etc.

Edited at 2012-10-07 07:00 pm (UTC)

When I was growing up — twas before the moon and the sun broke off their wedding engagement, that's how long ago it was — the lyrics went, "There's a place in France, where the girls wear paper pants/But the boys don't care, 'cause they're guaranteed to tear." But Little Egypt predated even that, and yet still wasn't the beginning.

Ha, thanks for this. Of course you guys are way ahead of me.

For your Austral-Romanian consideration, I submit Milan Stankovic at the Eurovision Finals in 2010, stumping for the Balkans. Op, op, op! Ovo je Balkans!

Edited at 2012-10-29 06:29 pm (UTC)

Don't know if it's got enough Australia in it. But does have certified impressive one-handed handstands, like that Celia video (though the one by Celia's comrade is far more impressive).

Here's "Dokrai" by Andrea, from Bulgaria, also lacking in Australianisms and sax, but combining folkloric sounds, the Eastern-European beat, and what sounds somewhat like the Cranberries' "Zombie." Vid nsfw.

How about Crazyno (pronounced cray-ZEE-no), Musiche, then? It reads pretty much like the entertaining guys on East Europe/Central Asia TV - or like trot performers - to me.

Eastern Europe videos are crazy-sexual. Like they took the lessons of capitalism and ran with them. I like how this one combines that hyper-sexuality with "I Whip My Hair Back and Forth" (or actually probably "Bo Peep Bo Peep") type insistent repetition.

New link for "Dokrai." Still sounds like "Zombie." Still nsfw.

I love Orange Caramel, but can't stand After School. Orange Caramel are quite funny and fun, whereas After School is too serious and wannabe sexy for me. I think that OC are knowingly cute and coy in a way that seems to subvert the usual kawaii kind of pandering. To me it seems like they're having a hell of a time playing with K-pop tropes and stereotypes and making kind of a joke of them; there's that trot influence and the campiness of "Bangkok City" and "Shanghai Romance" or the unabashed "asianness" of "A~ing" and "Magic Girl". It's something in K-pop that I feel like only T-ara before them have seemed to approximate in their music.

I think that's why the saxobeat/americano-styled beat on "Lipstick" works well with them. It's goofy, a little exotic, and corny. Whether that's just because the beat seems to recall those hits is perhaps a question worth raising, but regardless it's a totally slippery and wild arrangement that lets them cram in all their weird vocal ticks and hooks. Kind of feels like the aural equivalent of them making little heart symbols with their hands or winking in schoolgirl outfits and stuff.

It's too bad the whole album couldn't be like the singles (or have "My Sweet Devil" and "Funny Hunny" on it) because that's clearly the niche Orange Caramel works best in. The ballads and R&B love songs seem to be the total antithesis of their whole shtick, and I have no idea why K-pop labels always shoehorn that kind of stuff onto an album. Maybe that's what's popular in Korea and my view of Orange Caramel is skewed because I'm not a native, but I just think there's a dissonance between their ballads and singles that's more than just "dance song" and "love song".

Despite my liking After School a whole lot, I love your comment. I'm definitely feeling the "too serious and wannabe sexy," which could describe 75% of the world's pop music right now. See what I said to Dave the other week about Dawn Richard, hard-style r&b toughies, and their grimly "sexual" dancing.

I would argue that by now After School's music has pretty much escaped whatever their concept was once supposed to be. I'm not sure what "the Korean Pussycat Dolls" even was meant to mean anyway (nor the actual Pussycat Dolls, for that matter*). The concept of "Bang!" — to me — was basically just plain bang! Never knew if it came out right before or right after 2NE1's "Try To Follow Me," but in my mind it managed to scale 2NE1's mountain and leap above it from there, "Top this!," braggadocio brought in from the days of the mid-'80s Roxannes. (And of course "I Am The Best" did top it.)

"Eyeline" has actual pang, "Rambling Girls" is touching for its desire to bury itself in stomp, "Flashback" is light and lighthearted in its genuinely sexy siren call, more so than any American equivalent I can think of. But only since the middle of last year, with the Red and Blue flipsides, have After School been reaching me with any consistency.

Agree that when the ballads appear the Orange Caramel album goes to the doldrums, even if tedious ballads are a pop music tradition. T-ara are the only group whose ballads seem of a piece with their dance-pop, are slower and achier but are still a dance rather than a slog. Similar to how T-ara's raps follow up the rhythm and repetition of their nonraps rather than being an announcement of cred.

*Though their "Halo" beats Beyoncé's; their one emotional moment, don't know where it came from.

it's a totally slippery and wild arrangement that lets them cram in all their weird vocal ticks and hooks. Kind of feels like the aural equivalent of them making little heart symbols with their hands or winking in schoolgirl outfits and stuff.

This is a tremendous description; "Lipstick" really does feel unfettered and even a little unhinged, yet with no strain. Has somersaulted right into my top ten.

... if you listen to "Bangkok City" and "Shanghai Romance," you'll hear what I'm getting at: those two tracks sound like what an Italodisco producer would have created had he wanted to signify "East Asia."

Have you heard Funny Hunny? It's a collaboration between Orange Caramel and a songwriter called Cho Young-Soo, and like you said about those songs it has a trot-ish rhythm. The blurb on the MV describes it as a "funky retro song of the 80s euro disco".

Final track on the new Miss A EP goes for a bit of trot too.

Being fairly new to K-pop, I don't really know if this is a trend, K-pop pulling trot into the mix. Did Super Junior-T have an impact? They seem more defined as a trottish novelty than do Orange Caramel and the like, who seem to be treating trot as a potential ongoing element that could be belong to K-pop just as much as any other element does. Super Junior-T's version of "The First Train" is limpid and dull compared to LPG's, though I get a kick out of Super Junior T's "Rokkugo."

It's belatedly occurred to me that "Japanese Boy" by Aneka is probably the prime example of the kind of musical Orientalism you were talking about.

(Further examples: just about anything by Shanadoo.)

I like these. I definitely need to learn more, especially about Shanadoo.

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