We’re done with the backgrounder and we’ve given you the must-haves, so this week on How To Collect Korean Pop Music, we dig deep – well, deep-ish; you know our usual disclaimers – into the subsets of K-pop. Today, we begin with, well, the boy groups. And let’s be clear: when we say “boy groups” we don’t just mean the One Direction types who look good and sing in harmonies – although there are a lot of those in K-pop. Of course. There wouldn’t be a very big following if not for that, right?
Anyway, genres aren’t quite as clear cut in South Korea. We mentioned Big Bang last week – you might call them a boy group but they’re really keen on hip-hop. Sure, there are the more straightforward pop records (think Super Junior) but some of the acts we’ve listed this week, and in the coming weeks, might be better called as rock bands or hip-hop groups. You could say it’s the manufactured nature of most K-pop acts. Not that we’re judging or anything. We usually frown upon overtly manufactured acts, but it’s what makes this whole thing fascinating, honestly…
Anyway, we begin with Exo, arguably one of the biggest boy groups in the scene today. If you think the promotional strategy around Super Junior is intricate, Exo’s is much more. It has twelve members, split along ethnic lines: the six Koreans perform as EXO-K, singing in Korean and promoting in their home country; the six Chinese perform as EXO-M, singing in Mandarin and promoting in China. They usually promote and record separately, but they went together to promote their 2013 debut XOXO (and its lead single, “Wolf”).
It was that album’s rerelease, however – led by new single “Growl” – that transformed Exo into a phenomenon, with huge followings not just in Korea and China, but elsewhere. Overdose, their third EP, was at 129 on the Billboard 200 – the highest placement for a Korean boy group. Their second full-length album, Exodus, was also received wildly. But of course, there’s a flip side: three of their members – Kris, Luhan and Tao – separately filed a lawsuit against S.M. Entertainment, asking they be let out of their contracts for varying reasons. It all boils down to “you’re treating us like shit, so we want out”. You could say it’s the whole “S.M. pushes everyone hard” thing we mentioned a couple of weeks back.
Bubbling under, but seemingly poised to also break out of Korea, are the Bangtan Boys, better known as BTS. Just two years younger than Exo (and under a smaller label, Big Hit), they have just wrapped up a relatively hyped world tour and are preparing for their comeback in a couple of weeks. You’d see the whole genre-blending we mentioned earlier: Exo’s more on a traditional pop sound (with some R&B folded in), while BTS has more of a hip-hop element.
Sure, K-pop tends to blend the genres, but – and this is true especially with acts from the major labels – there is a relatively intense electro sound running underneath it. That’s why they’re easy to spot (apart from the strange language and the occasional English they mangle). Fans would defend their favorites by saying they’re different from the rest- and it also depends on what era you’re coming into. Say, in their early days, Shinee was more of a flower boys act; later they would transition to a more electro sound.
However, not all acts have such homogenous beginnings. Hip-hop trio Epik High may be signed with YG Entertainment, but their members began in Korea’s underground (and then unappreciated) rap scene. They were supposed to say goodbye to the music industry with their third album, 2005’s Swan Songs, but it became this massive hit that sparked interest not just in the act, but in their contemporaries.
Epik High stands out because of their dark themes – darker than the rest, arguably, one that’s not lost when you translate it to English. (We’ve previously written about “Happen Ending” for Swap Week.) It’s also worth looking at their members’ solo work. Tablo, for instance, has an interesting oeuvre: listen to “Bad” and his take on “Eyes, Nose, Lips” with Taeyang of Big Bang.
Representing the rock side of Korea’s boy groups is CNBLUE. While a completely Korean act, they actually made their debut in Japan, with the 2009 EP Now or Never. Their sound has always had a lick of J-rock on it – properly accessible power pop, with a Click Five-esque swing that kids and their moms will like. Or, as Rainy calls it, “Fall Out Flower Boy”. I guess it’s because the “blue” in their name is an abbreviation not of the members’ names but of their images – “burning”, “lovely”, “untouchable”, “everlasting”, whatever those are supposed to mean.
CNBLUE is not, by all means, a loner. A lot of Korean male groups have embraced a more alternative sound: think of N.Flying or of LEDApple. But, well, yeah, they’re still mostly built for screaming female fans obsessed with whoever was chosen as the visual. (Watching LEDApple’s pretty boys was admittedly surprising.) Thankfully, some acts have somewhat deviated from that cute look, which is where our final act this week comes in.
F. T. Island – short for Five Treasure Island, admittedly a weirdly Chinese-like name for a Korean band – is pitched as a more mature pop-rock act, although they’re still very much an idol act. They have seen success in both South Korea and Japan – where they became the first foreign male group to top their Oricon charts in 42 years – and have written songs for dramas and anime programs, apart from their many, many albums.
There’s focus on the melody and the artistry, and less on the members’ looks – just look at the music videos for “Treasure” or “I Hope”. Rainy also wants you to know of an interesting hobby from the band’s vocalist Lee Hong-gi: he’s a surprisingly vocal advocate for nail art among men, having gone as far as releasing a book about it in 2013. It did work in extending the band’s reach in the Japanese market, though.
Additional listening: We cannot, of course, cover all the boy groups, so that’s where this section comes in. We mentioned Shinee earlier – good dancers, but not getting a lot of hype lately; their haters say they’re has-beens, an allegation Shawols will not have any of. Another act we like is Beast, initially notorious for being filled with music industry rejects, and suddenly being a big success. B1A4, formed in 2011, set the template that BTS is following today. Shinhwa are the longest running boy group in the scene, having been formed in 1998 and still active today. Finally, we also mentioned Ulala Session on this year’s Swap Week: known for softer tunes, they continue performing despite the death of their leader, Lim Yoon-taek.
Extra credit: Korean music labels have obvious looked beyond their borders in auditioning new acts. There are the obvious neighbors – there are a lot of Chinese members bouncing about, and some are from Japan – but their arms have stretched out to other Asian countries, and even Europe and the United States. Some have been tapped from the Korean diaspora, while others are not Korean at all. Acts under the JYP banner – 2PM, Miss A, Twice – tend to have a significant number of members with foreign connections. [NB/SY]
[Next week: we look at K-pop’s female groups.]