마마무 is 뭔들: one month in the life of a new MooMoo

Hwasa, fighting! Solar, fighting! Moonbyul, fighting! Mamamoo, fighting! (Wheein? Wheein?)

The original plan was to have Shalla write this essay. It would have been about how she became a full-fledged Mamamoo fan, or “MooMoo”, as they’re apparently called. She’s followed K-pop for a good ten years or so, but she said this is the first time she’s really had a favorite group. The closest she had to a bias was her crush on Super Junior‘s Choi Siwon, a thing that still stands to this day.

The story would start with an appreciation of the laidback rapping style of Kisum. One of her singles, “Love Talk”, featured Mamamoo’s Hwasa, who only appeared on a special clip of the song. She was hooked on the collaborator, and down the rabbit hole she went. It would follow her as the group promoted Melting, their first full-length album, watching the performances and everything else that went with it, for a whole month. I would be standing somewhere there, feeling pretty smug, as I’ve liked Mamamoo for a while now. “Hun likes something I like!” would be said at one point.

But then something happened. I ended up going down the rabbit hole myself.

I wasn't like this when I first discovered them, I swear: a still from the "You're The Best" music video.
I wasn’t like this when I first discovered them, I swear: a still from the “You’re The Best” music video.

I’ve written at length about how I became a Mamamoo fan. Monocle 24 had their first two singles, “Mr. Ambiguous” and “Piano Man”, on rotation, and that stuck out from all the other K-pop songs they played because it’s so modern vintage. That, and that the four members have pretty good vocals, and blend pretty well. This was when I knew little about the Korean pop scene, when I easily dismissed most K-pop acts as style over substance. (It’s not exactly an invalid argument, though, but, you know, the more you know.) And that was really just it.

As we prepared for our trip to Seoul, I had one thing I definitely wanted to buy: a physical copy of Mamamoo’s Pink Funky, their second EP, and the one that arguably broke them through. “Um Oh Ah Yeh” was doing well in the charts – they haven’t unseated anybody from the top, but they were up there in the charts. Single digits.

When news broke that Mamamoo was preparing to release their first full-length album, I was obviously excited – and so was Shalla. Great! My girlfriend and I share a favorite! We’d start making observations here and there about the members as we descended into short YouTube sidebar adventures, mostly of their live performances. The first pre-single off the album, “I Miss You”, came out – still a rare time when I like a very straightforward, feelsy ballad – and we’d compare notes about the vocals. The second pre-single, “Taller Than You”, got me: who writes a song, one that’s completely outside of their genre, dissing themselves and each other?

“It’s not really that funny,” Shalla said when she finally got around to watching it.

Granted, I was laughing hysterically.

Melting dropped on 26 February, and in an unusual fit of promptness, I decided to review it as soon as I could. I was up very late at night, listening to “You’re the Best”, trying my best to warm to it. It definitely wasn’t in line with their more retro singles – “Um Oh Ah Yeh” wasn’t either, but it definitely nodded to their earlier songs – but I liked how bassy it is. But, well, maybe I’ll really warm to it soon.

As it turns out, however, I didn’t really have to wait. I inadvertently prepared myself for a life of wholeheartedly embracing whatever someone does – something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do in the first place. But I’ve seen some clips of the group off stage, and I know they do K-pop medleys, and the next thing I know, I was watching every live performance they did, watching for those adlibs they do, each different from the next. It used to be that Shalla had to nudge me to watch those things. Now, I was doing it on my own.

Solar, Moonbyul, Wheein and Hwasa, not arranged by height, from the music video to "Taller Than You".
Solar, Moonbyul, Wheein and Hwasa, not arranged by height, from the music video to “Taller Than You”.

The official biography suggests Mamamoo’s four members were personally scouted by producer and songwriter Kim Do-hoon; I’m pretty sure the process has been more complicated than that. There’s no denying the group’s his baby, though. Mamamoo leads the roster of artists on his own label, Rainbow Bridge World; their pre-debut songs were stacked with collaborations from the likes of K.Will and Bumkey – what other way to show off those vocals?

This is the point in the essay when I start freaking out like, well, a MooMoo.

Solar, the leader, is the go-to when it comes to diva-like vocal stretches. Some interviews start with her being asked to sing a Whitney Houston song. Sure, she can pull it off. That up-and-down thing on the “I Miss You” chorus is not something you easily pull off. (Even Shalla is amazed by that, I must add.) But MooMoos would tell you that she doesn’t act like a leader at all. You tend to have an idea that they’re the responsible ones, the member who leads interviews.

But the thing with Mamamoo is that they’re four crazy people. It’s a thing the label even encourages them to embrace. You wouldn’t usually get the leader acting like crazy on a live performance. Off-stage, sure, perhaps; fan service, allowing these otherwise unreachable idols to become more relatable to their fans. But Solar dances hard on their first live performance of “Taller Than You”. And if you trawl YouTube you’ll see clips of her being trolled by her bandmates, sometimes with dire consequences.

By the way, again, she’s the leader.

MooMoos often ship her with Moonbyul, the one with the elusive singing voice (although she did this) and the less elusive rapping and the nose muscles. I don’t really like shipping people. That’s one thing I can’t do even when I surrender to all-out fanboying. But I get it when they all refer to Moonbyul as the “girl crush” of the group. She’s this shapeshifter: completely swag at one point, flustered unnie the next, puppy eyed at yet another point. Her more behind-the-curtains role makes her look like the more sane one among the four, but, really, not really. Just look at how she is towards Solar. Now you know why they’re shipped.

Wheein and Hwasa are of the same age, although Hwasa’s younger by three months, so she’s the maknae. The two have known each other since middle school, so the story goes, so their boundaries are quite blurred, so to speak. (Their “sub-unit” performance for Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook, a music show on KBS, is a very good example.) I always called Hwasa an aberration among all of K-pop’s maknaes, and not just because she looks surprisingly mature and sounds even more so.

Often maknaes have to maintain an innocent image, off-stage mischievousness aside; think of how GFriend‘s Umji will never change. Hwasa will never have that: she’s actually the sultriest of the four (thus the “Fatal Ahn” nickname). Vocally she’s hard to describe: she soars but always keeps it on a jazzy note. Shalla loved her because of how she purrs on that special clip of “Love Talk”. Her actions are also quite different: a nod to the label that they did not have her slim down. The first YouTube comments I saw about her praised how “thick” she was, and how nobody should do anything to her thighs. After a month of watching their every live performance, I can see why: she makes for a good silhouette, and one you don’t often see on K-pop, despite how sexy some songs have gotten lately.

I’m saving Wheein for last. If I have a Mamamoo bias, it’s her. It’s her. I know what MooMoos say about the group being bias-wreckers because it’s impossible to have just one. I get it, because Shalla goes through that herself. But Wheein is my bias. It’s not just because she’s as cute as a button; it’s because she’s really the craziest of all four members. I haven’t seen every episode of Mamamoo TV – the online series with behind-the-scenes clips they release intermittently – but I have seen both of their appearances on MBC Every1’s Weekly Idol, and a bunch of other clips too, and she often leads the band down the trail to chaos.

And she’s cute as a button.

And, surprisingly, she also has a good silhouette.

“Can you hear yourself?” Shalla told me at one point. I think it was a couple of weeks back. We were talking on the phone and I found myself talking about whichever Mamamoo video I watched earlier in the day.

A selection of adlibs from the first month of promotions for "You're The Best", also known as the hardest screen cap job I have ever done.
A selection of adlibs from the first month of promotions for “You’re The Best”, also known as the hardest screen cap job I have ever done.

If you’re looking to unwittingly, or otherwise, dip your feet into K-pop fandom, it’s actually easy. Once you know who you’re into, you just go to the Internet. It’s very likely that a fellow fan has established a website logging the group’s day-to-day activities. (It’s not as creepy as it sounds; it’s often a list of TV and live appearances.) Someone is busy putting subtitles in videos of those appearances and uploading them once they’re done. (The MooMoo community is lucky that their subbers are a diligent bunch.) Someone is busy making fan edits of those apperarances, putting them together into themed videos about why Moonsun ought to be a thing, or why Solar and Wheein should have a laugh-off. It’s, well, easy to get lost.

But you really watch the live performances. Thankfully, Mamamoo’s numbers often change every day, and not just in the outfits they wear. There are the adlibs, for one; in the case of “You’re The Best” it runs the gamut from cutesy to morbid. There is just so much going on, I once thought that Mamamoo performances are built for fancams, those videos focusing on one member at a time. All those camera cuts risk you missing out on something. (At the same time, you start understanding the tricks each show has. I’ll say the major networks’ shows love their crossfades, while SBS MTV’s The Show has caused a lot of headaches with its constant zooms.)

Those performances are an easy way to get invested. You start rooting for your idols. You want them to win those music shows. Korean television has music shows six days a week, and the line-ups on those shows only change when an act starts or ends its promotional cycle. On the upside, there’s always something new from your favorites every day. However, as the cycle slugs on, you really start to notice how tired the performers get. Two weeks into watching live videos, I was pretty convinced Hwasa’s throat was getting pummeled. It doesn’t help that Mamamoo tends to sounds the same recorded and live – apparently also unusual when it comes to K-pop acts.

Still, you hope to see them win. All but one (MBC’s Show! Music Core, in case you were wondering) names a winner at the end of the show: the biggest act on their stage, determined by in-house formulas that put into account sales figures, radio airplay, social media buzz, and online votes. Mamamoo didn’t get close during their “Um Oh Ah Yeh” promotion, but for “You’re the Best”, they had a shot.

There are many online music stores in Korea, and they’re nice enough to provide hourly sales data for people to peruse. There are actual line charts. There are actual line charts that dedicated Twitter accounts cover. Three days after Melting was released, Shalla sent me an excited text message.

“We got a perfect all-kill!”

Apparently, this means that at one point, “You’re the Best” topped all the charts of all the Korean music stores.

Winning the music shows is harder. This was the time when GFriend’s “Rough” was everywhere – I think they have won thirteen times at this point. Also, SHINee’s Taemin made his solo debut, and being an S.M. Entertainment release, that was bound to be incredibly buzzy; he prevented Melting from topping the Gaon Album Charts. So, in the first week or so of Melting‘s promo cycle. GFriend was winning, and then Taemin was winning.

But then, things shifted. Mamamoo’s sales figures stayed relatively steady. On the tenth day of the cycle, they got their very first win, on SBS’s Inkigayo, a show that traditionally puts a premium on sales figures.

I sent Shalla a very, very giddy text message.

We won!

I watched the moment they were announced as the winner, and I, well, I was really glad. Mamamoo’s first ever win. When I first heard the group I wouldn’t have thought they’d be in that tier of K-pop groups. I also didn’t think they would win again; they did, seven times more. I was engrossed at the girls’ reactions. This crazy four are suddenly speechless. In tears.

And then confetti gets inside Solar’s mouth.

 

Mamamoo got their first ever music show win on Inkigayo’s 6 March episode, beating solo efforts from SHINee’s Taemin and Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon.
Mamamoo got their first ever music show win on Inkigayo’s 6 March episode, beating solo efforts from SHINee’s Taemin and Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon.

 

Early on Shalla and I decided to get ourselves a copy of Melting. I paid for half and she paid for half, but I get to keep it, because I have the shelf space. (Well, not really. Putting Melting on the shelf meant I had no space for any more CDs.) It’s a no-brainer for both of us, really. I already had a copy of Pink Funky. Us getting a copy of their other releases is harder, considering geography and all that, so we’ll take what we can get.

Shalla had her colleague do the ordering as he’s done it before. (Thanks, Chris!) It took a month to get here. We paid for tracking capabilities but all we’re really told is that it’s on the plane, and it’s on the plane for a week. At least it arrived, and while there was a little tear – unfortunate but, you know, I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my albums – it came in intact.

We didn’t get the poster, and we didn’t get the more expensive package which had lots of postcards. Our copy of Melting merely came with the CD, which was hard to remove; a photobook, nicely decorated and thankfully detachable, unlike the Pink Funky one; and a photocard, selected at random.

Fittingly, it was a photocard of Wheein.

It’s weird having that in your possession. Yes, Wheein is my bias, but having that – even by accident – suggests a step further has been taken. Like, you still deliberately went out of your way to do that, or wished to get that. But then, there’s the photobook; eighty pages of images from the group shooting their music video in Thailand.

Here it is: our copy of Melting, surrounded by stuff from a Starbucks branch somewhere at the Fort.
Here it is: our copy of Melting, surrounded by stuff from a Starbucks branch somewhere at the Fort.

That’s the least we could have. It’s amusing going on YouTube and seeing another MooMoo comment in Filipino. Of course, Shalla and I are not the only MooMoos in this country; the contingent is large enough to warrant a Filipino MooMoo community on Facebook. But fan clubs are always an exercise, I think, in asserting oneself as a bigger fan than the other.

At least I can take comfort knowing that we’ll not be the only ones disappointed when Mamamoo flies to other countries. Will they fly here? It’s very much a long shot. If you’re a K-pop fan hoping to see your favorite acts live, you have to either go to Korea, or be a fan of more senior acts, or those from bigger labels. Red Velvet – another group I’m starting to like, because it’s Wendy’s fault – got here last year, for one; they filled the Philippine Arena with BTOB, Super Junior and Girls’ Generation. Or, you have to be a fan of male groups. That will always sell out. Just look at Exo‘s two nights early this year. Bring Mamamoo here, and you will likely struggle earning something out of it.

I don’t think I would act like all those other international K-pop fans, always saying to any Korean they meet that they’re lucky to be Korean because they get a chance to meet their idols. Jeany’s had enough of that.

So all we can do is stay glued to our screens, watching out for a new video, at least until the promotional cycle wraps up, in which case, we either move on or not. The “You’re The Best” cycle is winding down in a couple of weeks, safe to say. Mamamoo already fulfilled a promise, for one, to perform as radishes in a radish field if they win their first music show – the weird concidence of “moo” being the Korean word for radish. Yes, the end is coming, and I think it’s a good thing. There’s something amazing seeing the first performance and seeing a see of radish light sticks from the audience. I think I need a reset.

Or maybe not. As I wrote this, it was confirmed that Solar will be joining the case of We Got Married, with fellow singer Eric Nam as her on-screen husband.

“It’s official,” I texted Shalla. “We will be watching We Got Married.” [NB]

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