Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Flogged Beast Beats Best (Top Singles, First Quarter 2012)
A peculiar thing happened over the last eight months, while 2NE1 was being my official favorite band in the world, which is that T-ara became the group I actually listen to most. That's one effect of T-ara being worked like dogs: they're always doing something — songs being performed to death, new versions of songs that are three weeks old, videos, sequels to videos, and on and on. While 2NE1 are calibrating their impact, T-ara are flooding the market.

2NE1's "I Am The Best" and "Try To Follow Me" are top great songs, and nothing beats a good beat and CL in full exuberance. But T-ara have more day-in-and-day-out good songs.

I fear that T-ara are the idol act that will translate least well to America. There's no adult or even teen audience for bubblegum here. T-ara's brand of strength-in-cuteness and cuteness-in-strength — Hyomin may exemplify this best, 'cause she's not making round eyes and pouting but is really laying into it* — wouldn't even be comprehended as strength, or comprehended at all.** "Bubblegum" isn't even the right word.

From the fan chants, I'm deducing that in Korea young men and teen boys and girls are the core of T-ara's audience, and these are exactly the audiences who wouldn't touch 'em with a ten-foot pole in America. 2NE1, who in Korea seem to be mainly getting girls in their midteens, are no guarantee to hit here either, girl groups not being a dominant American thing. And 2NE1's American launch keeps not happening. But they could hit. They're aggressive in an obvious enough way to cross to American boy fans. And punks'll give 'em a chance, hip-hop'll give 'em a chance, the critics'll love 'em, and and Teddy seem to have worked up good material.

Not that I've spent much time on this, pondering how these groups might do in America; aesthetically, they'd probably be better off ignoring the U.S. market. But America provides a thought exercise: contrasting South Korea with the United States could shed light on each of the two countries. If you scroll down my list, you'll find Asian group Blush, whose members are from five different Asian countries. My take is that in Asia they're conceived of as a Pussycat Dolls type group, that is, fashionable and sexy and aimed at young adults. In the U.S. they have two parallel lives, making a splash on Disney (but not even appearing in the video), while getting dance-chart action too, with other, worse singles; so maybe they should be a teenybopper group. But my point is that in Asia they could potentially sound like this for the pop mainstream, and in Europe they could too.

I actually can at least faintly imagine a scenario where T-ara hits here first with a ballad, gets AC and Top 40 play, and, having hit, now has an audience at least tentatively willing to listen and who might give "Lovey-Dovey" and ilk a chance. All this is hypothetical, no K-pop group ever having triumphed here.

TOP SINGLES First Quarter 2012:

1. T-ara "Lovey-Dovey"
2. Trouble Maker "Trouble Maker"
3. ChoColat "I Like It"
4. Cassie "King Of Hearts"
5. Dev "In My Trunk." Note that at 1:07 there's an actual dope in her trunk:

6. Miss A "Touch"
7. After School "Rambling Girls"
8. Sunny Hill "The Grasshopper Song"
9. Davichi & T-ara "We Were In Love"
10. Clazzi ft. Koti & Jubi & MYK "Sexy Doll"

11. The Cataracs ft. Dev "Sunrise"
12. Nicki Minaj "Stupid Hoe"
13. Rihanna ft. Chris Brown "Birthday Cake (Remix)"
14. Tyga ft. Lil Wayne "Faded"
15. 2NE1 "Scream"
16. Jess Mills "Pixelated People." What made you want to look up pixelated? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible):

17. Teedra Moses ft. Wale "Another LuvR"
18. Melanie Fiona "4 AM"
19. Blush "Up Up & Away"
20. Bella Thorne "TTYLXOX." Disney introduces the old young to the art of texting:

21. Lil Chuckee "Wop"
22. B.o.B ft. André 3000 "Play The Guitar"
23. Kara "Speed Up"
24. Tyga "Rack City"

Btw, eligibility starts December 1, 2011, though if a song is still rising in 2012 I'll count it even if its release date is earlier than Dec. 1.

Three thoughts inspired by my list, hardly new ones, but they need to be elaborated on and challenged.

(1) Musical adventure isn't attaching itself to male vocalists these days.

(2) Popular music doesn't have a viable or credible adulthood.

(3) I don't pretend to understand the concepts "aegyo" and "burikko," though from what I've read (by Trevor and others), the term "cuteness" hardly does those concepts justice: "it's really like a whole world in which what is for Americans a rather trite and shallow concept ('cuteness') takes on a whole new dimension." Question here, though, is how much are aegyo and burikko, like cuteness here, intertwined with women being financially dependent on men? Of course, beauty is too.

Obviously, these "thoughts" are in regard to countries and genres I'm paying attention to. My knowledge goes from little to zilch when it comes to the sociomusical landscapes of, say, Rumania and Turkey and India, not to mention the vast stretches of American and Korean music I know nothing about. And my three generalizations (number three being a question more than a generalization, and so are one and two, really) are crude and questionable as stated. But nonetheless they deserve to be stated, and I think they're fundamentally right. Regarding the first, sure, I can easily come up with arguments against it, in fact did so just the other day; and despite the male dearth atop my list, there'd be plenty of guy vocalists if I were to extend my list to 50. Glad to say that Bieber'd be on it with "Boyfriend," his best single ever (his restraint — fellow never oversings — and Posner's recessiveness combine into an architectural spareness that's almost stunning). EXO's "History" and SHINee's "Sherlock (Clue + Note)" would at least be candidates, and I do hear adventure in those tracks. For example, by framing the "Sherlock" tune in murk, Troelsen and crew created something new that doesn't just reiterate boyband moves of the previous 35 years. And the evidence of "History" live is that the EXO bunch can sing with genuine strength. Maybe my reservation is simply that the tune doesn't grab me. As for "Sherlock," it needs harmonic delirium that the boys can't quite deliver. The thing is, I'm making no claims for any special vocal skill on display in, say, "Touch" and "Rambling Girls" and "The Grasshopper Song" and "We Were In Love" and "Sexy Doll" (tracks 6 through 10 on my best-of). I wouldn't argue that any of those singers are better than the EXO boys. What I'd argue is that the vocals don't need to be any different from what they are in order to be terrific, to be perfect for the songs. So the zeitgeist seems to be helping them along, in a way that it's not helping SHINee.

Obviously this is my list, not yours, not someone else's. But I'm calling this "Top Singles," not just "what I happen to like at the moment" or "what I'm enjoying listening to these days." I'm saying that these songs are good, not just that I like them. That my judgments aren't universal or eternal and may not even last another month (but they likely will last far longer) doesn't mean I think they're mere taste. I think I'm right often enough, and that worlds that make good music are better than worlds that don't, other things being equal ("how good the music is" not being my only criterion for judging a world).

Number two, w(h)ither adulthood? While above I'm trying to make the case that non-America is better than America in at least one respect, which is that adults can listen to bubblegum and it's not specially categorized as bubblegum, just dance. But still, K-pop is veering young just like lots of everywhere is veering young, and I can't say it's wrong to do so. Try this: think of 2NE1's Lee Chae-rin, known as CL, the baddest female Seoul City ever had, my top hero of my musical today. Imagine her twenty years on, at age 41. Is the music she's singing going to have progressed to something better, deeper, richer than it is now? And if it has, does she have an audience for it? Is it grabbing people, seeming to be vital? Is the world's adventure still hers? What precedents or models are there for her, that can bring her to 41?

I realize that the word "adventure" doesn't have a lot of explanatory power.

I've been asking such questions for decades, spinning theories...

*By "lay into it," I mean lays into the sound, which you sometimes can take as fierce rather than cute. And how much she lays into it varies from performance to performance. Most of T-ara lay into it, actually, with no one except Boram going for round eyes and goo; and the one who refuses to lay into vocals, Jiyeon, is also the one who goes nowhere near cute.

**Well, am I myself sufficiently in touch with American culture to say this? The "strength-in-cuteness" thing, which I realize I'm not being very articulate about, might have had American equivalents in screwball turns by Harlow and Lombard and Hepburn (see my Jukebox review of Fat Cat's "My Love Bad Boy"), or in Gracie Allen's total demeanor. Not complacent or compliant. But those aren't really equivalent to K-pop, since they're played as extremes, while T-ara are straight-up normal. In any event, in America, the screwball extremes are a thing of the past.

  • 1
2NE1's CL has the self-awareness to know she's making music only young people can make, and to know when it's time to move on - eg her parts in "Scream" are about wanting to get off the pop music treadmill/production cycle because the highs and lows are habitual therefore "meaningless", and she doesn't need your (the audience's) permission to do so.

She's got kinda that visual-artist side to her so 20 years on I think she'll be doing performance art pieces like Yoko Ono, if she's still performing.

The place for older women in Kpop is to sing ballad-y songs about the heartbreak they have experienced in their lives? I'm not sure, but that's the impression I get. Meanwile, the adult version of "bad boys" is like Psy or Park Myun Soo, this kind of I went out to the club and did what I wanted and had a good time persona?

Actually I can think of a some male idols in their 40s, like the rap duo One Two at Happy Face Entertainment (but they are like teenagers at heart)... and BoA, but there can only be one...

Or you can do what a lot of 20s performers seem to have done, and become a songwriter in your 30s sending out the next generation of young sacrifices to perform your songs while you rake in the royalties, lol.

All the relationship stuff in kpop is really juvenille - especially the way Teen Top etc jump straight to the "I can't let you leave/why do you hurt me" abusive part of the relationship without even bothering to establish the honeymoon phase first, because that kind of intense love is romantic. (Until you are in one of those relationships...)

Of course, it's not like US pop is any better about this, lots of love songs that prize intensity over stability. I think there might also be a cultural component here too, like the "adult" ideal in the US is independence (Beyonce) while in Korea it is mutual dependence ("I can't breathe without you")? And it's also way more acceptable for parents (for example) to guilt-trip and emotionally manipulate their kids? So even though I have this kind of ingrained urge to pathologize, I try to restrain myself, lol.

T-ara in next comment

What I like about T-ara, on an aesthetic level, is they take the "I'm crazy about you" kpop thing that Girls Generation has in Gee, or Girls' Day has in Twinkle Twinkle, for instance, to its logical conclusion where instead of seemingly like a fun fantasy it really really really doesn't seem that fun anymore. ^^ Eg the guy tied up in Yayaya does not look like he is enjoying himself, and the lyrics to Roly Poly are sinister (no mater what you do, I will keep coming back AHHHHHHHHH!) And then of course, the video for Lovey Dovey, where the sense of being stuck on a carnival funride that is about to be crushed under the weight of sonic doom is fulfilled when half the audience turns into zombies and devours the other half.

Anyway, I admire it aesthetically, but I stay FAR, FAR away from it when I'm choosing what to listen to, unless I'm in a situation where I actually need that adrenaline... I can't even imagine living in a world where you might get accosted by something like Lovey Dovey at the supermarket. It really would be like being in a George Romero movie, I'd start looking around for a weapon or an exit... (adrenaline fight or flight).

Anyway I was wondering the other day how T-ara (or whathisname Tiger, the songwriter) achieve this affect. Part of it are these kinds of spooky sounds built up like they are about to crash down on you, and part of it is the way the songs sound like they are getting faster and faster... I had to bust out a metronome to check that Lovey Dovey does not actually get faster and faster. (It doesn't, but the chorus speeds up 1 BPM each time "Lovey Dovey" is repeated, starting at 128 BPM and going to 130 BPM. "Roly Poly" on the other hand, does actually speed up (to 130 BPM) over the first half of the song, and then again over the second half of the song. "Yayaya", finally, stays at 132 BPM the whole time. A simple thing, but I'll note that this is exactly the rate your heart would be at if you were running for your life from the zombie hoard...)

All the stuff we know about T-ara, how they promote their singles tirelessly and don't sleep more than 2 hours a night and their company president is this abusive Svengali type, etc, actually also supports the image of their music, which is of fun taken so far that it is no longer fun anymore. Just a thought.

(Also that look in their eyes when the camera zooms in on Cry Cry, "can't you see the look in my eyes" is PTSD and it's probably as much from having Jiyeon in the group as from whatever insane schedule and abuse their boss is putting them through. In my opinion XD.)

My apologies for not responding sooner. Even when I don't reply, that doesn't mean that I'm not learning, and this definitely enriches my sense of T-ara.

I like the idea that the catchiest group in K-pop can also sound the most desperate. Recalls my love for Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes way-back-when. If you've got the time, go to my Disco Tex Essay and search "i voted for the sex-o-lettes," to take you through to "Oh yes! I heard it — the dolls, the glitter babes — in 'I Wanna Dance Wit' Choo,' and I was right! I heard a sound! — the Sex-O-Lettes 'You got to got to got to get dat' (?) — which was equivalent to the way the New York Dolls looked. And that's it, the Dolls had a whole look and attitude, a way of moving, but they never found a sound to embody that look. They were party girls who never got their party. 'We're out there and we're outrageous' is how they look; 'we're out there and desperate' is how they sound, the party barely discernible near the horizon." There's an accelerating-treadmill aspect to the live shuffle dance in "Lovey-Dovey" — actually, there's an accelerating-treadmill aspect to any shuffle dance, but it's T-ara's I find most touching.

But I've not dived deep into lyric translations for T-ara. I glance at them sometimes, but they're not yet a focus. In general, with lyrics, although the plot they're giving us can be crucially important, the words are often merely pretexts for or embellishments to more interesting stories that the music sets in motion. When Kelly Clarkson sings "I can't breathe" in "Addicted" you can really feel her Houdini effort in trying to break out of her self-suffocation. But take the exact same line in the live performances of Miss A's "Breathe" and what you've got is merely a set-up for some of the greatest hamming-it-up in dance. The boy referred to in the lyrics and what he's supposedly making someone feel are just some distant, abstract impetus for a whole bunch of girl-on-girl solidarity and silliness. Which doesn't mean you can't have all meanings at once if you want, breathless crushes and dexterous mastery and goofy comedy. But to me there's something pro forma about the situation described in "Breathe"; that doesn't make the lyrics not good, just that what's good about them isn't the depiction of a standard scenario from the romance songwriting handbook, but the word-play and fun-play and dances and dance covers that the scenario gives rise to.

I've seen dance floors full of people gleefully waving their arms in mock despair and chanting along with Diana Ross when she says "And there ain't nothin' I can do about it," in the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On." And I remember the time, it was 1990 and my marriage was disintegrating and my friend Patty and I were improvising an interpretive dance to Diana Ross's version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and there's the part where Diana says "Remember, if you should fall short of your desires," and Patty and I each decide independently, on the word "fall," to collapse onto the ground.

So far, for me, T-ara lyrics, at least on their speedy dance numbers, are fundamentally words that repeat and words that rhyme, rolling around each other like somersaults and Ferris wheels — the words being part of an overall mechanism that allows the tossing of syllables and the moving of feet.

Edited at 2012-04-14 09:02 am (UTC)

American equivalents in screwball turns
I got into a conversation with greywing a while, one of the subtopics of which was the "manic pixie dream girl" trope, of which the "Bringing Up Baby" Hepburn stands as a classic example. Most of the examples I could think of were either Asian media or classic cinema, but that turned out to be just my lack of knowledge about more recent movies. Today's "manic pixie dream girl," however, usually tends to be broken rather than strong, as the writers choose to use angst to develop their characters. So I don't know that there are still true "strength-in-cuteness" American characters today.
One thing to note though, that a common phrase employed in the Asian media featuring this kind of character, is the hapless male protagonist muttering something along the lines of how the manic pixie dream girl is "not cute," despite whatever she may think of herself. It's implied that her displays of overflowing confidence and energy are the reasons for not being cute, and it's during the rare moments of calm or showing vulnerablility that the male protagonist will be bewildered that they find the girl cute...until her manic demeanor kicks back in again and the protagonist breathes a sigh of relief, glad things are "normal" and dismissing the previous moment as a fluke and that they don't have to worry about developing feelings for the non-cute crazy girl after all.
I've also read interviews by a J-idol who explicitly states that although she's been characterized as the kind of athletic girl who can do anything, and that others have said that when they found out she can't do certain things that they found that really cute. And yeah, I've myself experienced where an idol's cutest moments are when they're flustered or feeling a little helpless about something.

So yeah, cuteness in Asia is somewhat linked to weakness. But there's also the self-aware kind of cute, the kind that ascribes itself to the term "sassy" instead. In Kpop this is usually manifested through the juxtaposition of fierce and cute, winking and making cute faces and gestures at the audience while you lay into the lines as T-ara does best.
In the initial interviews for SNSD's "Gee" promotional period, people were actually saying that "Gee" was a more grown-up concept, where the members were now women instead of girls. snsd_ffa had a short discussion on the maturity of "Gee," as well. SNSD definitely perform "Gee" today with the same level of cutesiness as "Oh!" but it wasn't so much in 2009. For their comeback stage for "Genie," there was first a boyband cover of "Gee" segueing into the real thing, and there you can see that the girls' version wasn't as cutesy as the boys'.

Jpop girlgroups often color-code their members, with the girliest member with the helium voice usually coded pink. But I've found that the pink members are usually also the most aware and self-confident. Yes, it does manifest in their assuredly manipulating men using cutesy gestures, but I've also found that the pink members tend to be very willing to proclaim the sexiest member as well, with the sassy demeanor to back up their words. The fans of such members also tend to be more aware than those who might prefer a "little sister" character, and they'll be just as enamored with the sexy poses as the cute ones, and not be in denial of their desires about it.(Less trying to hand-wave the male-gaze as platonic) More importantly, though, is that they recognize the manipulations as manipulations, submitting themselves to it not out of being swayed, but out of admiration for the deft way the girl performs her caricatures. In other words, the way many Sunny fans treat her aegyo.(And they often find her the sexiest SNSD member, as well) Technically, this kind of self-confidence in cuteness is still intertwined with a dependence on men, but that's merely the idol being up-front on their dependence on fans, not as in denial about it as other artists may be.

Can you elaborate on "adulthood?" Do you mean of the star, of the music, of the career? Where does Britney Spears fall into this, or is she/her music/her career still too young yet to qualify? Or Madonna?
Just yesterday, I was thinking about how Sinatra was in his late 20s when he became an idol. The Rat Pack's heyday was when its members were in their 40s.
One of the most common complaints about Jpop is about how its bubblegum is stagnant, stuck in the genres of the past. It's this kind of stalled development, though, that has allowed boyband SMAP to still be significantly mainstream popular in Japan 20 years after their debut, and several still-mainstream artists passed or approaching 10th anniversaries. But does that fall under non-credible adulthood? Most of the time, the artists sound the same as in years past, but someone once pointed out to me that in some cases it's because the sounds and styles on their albums are so widely varied already, as only bubblegum can do, that it's impossible to measure any kind of growth other than vocally.

Amuro Namie would be a good model for CL, I suppose. Her career turns 20 this year, and she's stayed on top by evolving from being a girlgroup member(she's basically Japan's Beyonce/Lee Hyori) to basically defining Jpop dance sounds through the 90s and early 00s, before declaring herself "Queen of Hip-Pop" and switching to hip hop and R&B, pioneering "J-Urban," and currently has a focus on electronic dance tracks.

Interesting list. I certainly can't argue with a lot of the choices, especially "Lovey Dovey" and "Trouble Maker". I like "The Grasshopper Song" but I really loved the first song on their release, "Bad Boy".

I didn't know "In My Trunk" was released as a single. It should be all over American radio with that addictive chorus.

My list for the first quarter but including albums and non-singles while still using your "not just what I happen to like" criteria:

1. Sinead O'Connor - "How About I Be Me and You Be You" l.p.
2. Cassie - "The Other Side" (can I count this since I just learned of it's existence a few months ago and it was never released? Also, what other unreleased Cassie don't I know about?)
3. BigBang - "Blue"
4. T-ara - "Lovey Dovey"/"Funky Town" e.p.
5. Trouble Maker - "Trouble Maker" single, not e.p.
6. Black Bananas - "Rad Times Xpress IV" l.p.
7. Miryo - "MIRYO aka JOHONEY" e.p.
8. VCMG - "SSSS" l.p.
9. "Shangaan Shake" e.p. (especially the Anthony Shake Shakir remix)
10. Dev - "In My Trunk"
11. Paul Wall - "No Sleep Till Houston" mixtape
12. Mouse on Mars - "Parastrophics" l.p.
13. Cassie - "King of Hearts"

Not sure why that was posted anonymously but it was me.

I underrated "Blue" tremendously when I reviewed it for the Jukebox (in fact, I underrated a lot of these at first, including "Lovey-Dovey" and "Trouble Maker").

My guess is that the dope content of "In My Trunk" is so obvious that radio won't play it; anyhow, the song seems not to have been released as an official single; but as far as I'm concerned, if it's got a video, it counts as a single. Of course, Dev releases a lot of videos, and I just now see on Wikip that "Take Her From You," my favorite track from The Night The Sun Came Up, has a recent video — maybe to compensate for its being left off the American release of the LP. (American version not as good as the British, since it deletes that song and also "Bass Down Low," and replaces the original version of "Kiss My Lips" (my second favorite) with one that features the unfabulous Fabolous, and it adds a lousy single she did with Enrique Iglesias and a mediocre one she does with Timbaland.) "Take Her From You" will go onto my list.

Have never heard of Cassie's "The Other Side," but as for other unreleased Cassie you might not know about, almost all Cassie since 2006 is unreleased, and there are gobs and gobs of it floating around cyberspace including most of my favorite tracks by her. Here are just three, I think from 2007 through 2009, more or less:

"Turn The Lights Off"

"Summer Charm"

"In Love With The DJ"

There are another 20 or so that I know of, all good, and probably an equal number I've never heard.

I'll hunt down Black Bananas and VCMG (neither of which I knew about) and "Shangaan Shake" and the Paul Wall, which I didn't know existed.

Edited at 2012-04-14 09:12 am (UTC)

"The Other Side" seems to be a collection of unreleased tracks (and a few official singles) put together by a fan. It's surprisingly cohesive as an album, though. I'm sure you've heard most of the songs already.

I hadn't heard "Turn the Lights Off" or "In Love With the DJ". Good stuff. Also didn't know "Summer Charm" was a The-Dream track, though I should have guessed. It's my favorite off of "The Other Side".

VCMG is the collaboration between Vince Clark (Depeche Mode/Yaz/Erasure) and Martin Gore (Depeche Mode). It's pretty much straight techno with some nice rich sounds.

Black Bananas is the current project from Jennifer from Royal Trux. It's a glorious mess of an album. I find it addictive but if you were never a Royal Trux fan, you might not enjoy it. I think it's the best post-Trux release from either member so far. Reviews are somewhat mixed.

If you haven't heard it, you should also check out the "Shangaan Electro - New Wave Dance Music From South Africa" record from which "Shangann Shake" spun off. It was one of my favorites from 2011 and I have never heard anything else like it.

Paul Wall is as predictably consistent as always. If you like his thing, which I do, you'll enjoy the new mixtape. He also keeps up his tradition of inappropriately using the word "jurassic" to mean gigantic instead of referring to something really old.

Shangaan Electro made my albums long list a couple of years ago, same year that Ayobaness! made my top ten. I don't really have a line on what's going on in South Africa, though. It may well deserve the excitement and interest that South Korea is getting in these parts.

Coincidentally, it was South Korea that knocked South Africa out of the Pop World Cup in 2010.

I'm a bit confused as to what Shangaan Shake is — seems to be a remix alb, but I can only find four tracks on YouTube.

Was a big Pussy Galore fan in the mid '80s; Right Now! was the first album I ever got paid to review, and Sugarshit Sharp still sounds sharp as ever. (Jon Spencer hated the review, even though it was a rave.) I recall liking the bits of Royal Trux I heard, not totally unlike the music I'd been making myself several years earlier; but I didn't follow up on Royal Trux; freestyle and various whole other similar worlds swept me away. I'll see what Black Bananas reminds me of.

Yes, "Shangaan Shake" is a remix album. They were releasing remixes in batches of 2 as 12 inch singles, and I had downloaded a bunch from emusic before they released the whole batch together on CD. Looking at the track listing now I realize I've missed a few.

Beyond these records, I know nothing about South African music. There's barely enough time to keep up with new South Korean music, not to mention all of the back catalogs in k-pop.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say BigBang's "Blue" is the greatest boy band single since the Backstreet Boys' perfect "I Want It That Way".

  • 1

Log in

No account? Create an account