Boyfriend are the latest group to find themselves at that precarious seven year mark, where contracts are up and the guys are forced to decide whether to stick together or go their separate ways. Whatever happens, they’ve left behind an incredibly strong (and underrated) discography. Their lengthy run of Sweetune-produced singles always gets eclipsed by groups like Infinite and Kara, but songs like Janus and I Yah deserve all the love in the world.
Whether or not Sunshower (여우비) is a farewell song, I’ve never been a fan of this type of composition. It favors sentiment above song, and veers toward the emotionally manipulative. Taking the same string of weepy melodies loved by melodramas everywhere, Sunshower is everything you’d expect it to be. Whether you enjoy it or not will depend on what you’re looking for in an anniversary single. I appreciate that the track was co-written by the guys themselves, but I would have preferred a more celebratory encapsulation of Boyfriend’s seven year career.
This emotionally-wrenching release might be forgivable if Boyfriend had been given a decent Korean comeback in the past three years, but it feels like we’re lamenting something that hasn’t been allowed to flourish for ages. The members deliver the song’s soaring refrain with panache, eliciting a series of impressive power notes that fully embrace their overwrought intentions. As electric guitar powers the climactic finale, you can practically see the confetti drop framing Boyfriend as they look out upon their audience with teary eyes. In this way, Sunshower gets its job done. It’s sappy. It’s slow. It’s a stereotypical anniversary single, through and through.
First of all, I apologize for the alarmist title. I don’t believe k-pop is anywhere near dying, nor do I think the concept of a fandom is a bad thing. I consider myself a massive k-pop fan, so much that I’ve written about it every day for the past two and a half years. I’d even consider myself part of a few fandoms, though I’m nowhere near as engaged as many.
Rabid fandom support has been a part of modern k-pop since its inception, and an integral part of pop music as a whole. But as k-pop continues to branch out from its Korean roots, I feel like we’re seeing a disturbing trend.
Take BTS, for example. They just released another solid album. I’d be lying if I said I loved every track on Love Yourself: Tear, or that I didn’t miss their older, less trend-driven sound — but by and large it’s a strong piece of work. There’s much to discuss and fawn over, yet so much of the social media attention the group has been getting this week has nothing to do with their actual music. It seems like all anyone wants to talk about are chart numbers, streams, and social media stats. And if we’re not talking about these metrics, we’re talking about how to increase them — how to play the video and song ten million times to inflate its standing and, inevitably, devalue its competitors.
Call me old fashioned, but does any of this stuff really matter? Has k-pop devolved into little more than a pissing contest?
I write this as two idols, Kris Wu (formerly of EXO) and Jackson Wang (of GOT7) sit comfortably atop the US itunes chart — a placement that has many accusing their respective fandoms of VPN-assisted manipulation. But whether this success is real or fabricated doesn’t really matter. I certainly wish the best for both artists. What bothers me most is that these songs are not topping charts because of their inherent musical quality.
I know that “musical quality” is a thorny topic, as its perception is in the eye of the beholder and very hard to quantify. But with Fendiman, at least, we’re talking about a two minute commercial for a clothing brand where the overarching hook is the word “Fendi” repeated over and over again. There’s no way this has suddenly gained massive appeal across America. It’s topping the charts because it’s Jackson, and we all love Jackson.
And that’s okay.
But I believe that truly loving something means pushing it to be the best it can be. Blind support, and blind adoration, only encourages mediocrity. Endless talk about charts and views and streams devalues the actual music. When the enjoyment of a comeback becomes secondary to the mission of chart dominance, was there really a point in having the comeback in the first place? Of course I want to see my favorite songs do well, but it’s better when this comes about organically. Blind declarations of “Yaaasss! It’s a bop! It’s lit!” only encourage trend-following and interchangeability. The movers and shakers within the industry are never going to commit to boundary-pushing, left-field material if they know they have an army of fans ready to push the repeat button regardless of what’s released.
The bottom line is, I wish we were more discerning as a k-pop audience. I wish we could support our favorites by raving about their music and sharing it with others, not simply buying bulk copies of albums or looping music videos. This only escalates the stakes for each comeback, and sucks so much of the oxygen out of the k-pop conversation. I don’t want these songs and artists to become weapons of war between fandoms intent on proving superiority. There’s enough room for everyone, and chart success doesn’t make something automatically better.
What are your thoughts? Has this issue gotten worse in recent years? Or, has it simply been a staple of the idol-driven k-pop world since the good old days of H.O.T vs Sechs Kies rivalries?
Bolbbalgan4 have been an absolute force in the Korean music scene ever since their 2016 breakout hit Galaxy. Yet even as their music has become ubiquitous, I’ve continued to consider them too indie/acoustic to compare to the usual acts I write about on The Bias List. New title track Travel (여행) changes that. It’s their poppiest release yet, and the perfect opportunity to finally dip my feet into the Bolbbalgan4 universe.
We’re at the time of year where summer songs start to become the norm, and Travel kicks off the season with a burst up upbeat energy. Thankfully, the girls didn’t follow 99% of their peers and go tropical, though that would have been a potentially interesting addition to their repertoire. Instead, they’ve taken their usual acoustic sound and sped up the tempo to create a rousing, singalong pop track. This aversion to trends all but guarantees Travel‘s longevity, as it feels like the kind of timeless track that could have been released in any era.
Jiyoung’s quirky vocals are perfectly suited to the opening verse, imbuing the track with a clipped, rhythmic delivery that adds incredible spunk to the already bouncy melody. The chorus brings in electric guitar, utilized in a way that feels more country than k-pop. It’s a wonderfully organic arrangement that feels fresh in this age of overly programmed pop. The same could be said about Travel‘s straightforward hooks. Their uncluttered nature give the song a shot of vitality that is difficult to resist. This is a slice of summertime comfort food, plain and simple. It isn’t going to change the world, but it definitely makes you feel good.
The East Light’s January release Real Man was one of that month’s biggest growers, and its disco pulse proved to be a perfect match for the young band. With new single Love Flutters (설레임), the guys have reverted to the tropical pop they dabbled in last year, this time with an acoustic edge.
Love Flutters’ first impression underwhelms compared to something as catchy as Real Man, but its earworm hooks are likely to grow throughout the summer. The track has a breezy, lighthearted vibe driven by the strum of guitar and a few smartly placed synth loops. However, the instrumental’s percussive stomps steal the show. I’ve always loved big, resounding drum beats, and the ones here add unexpected excitement to what could have been a very humdrum arrangement. They’re most prominent during the song’s first verse, and instantly draw attention.
Flutters‘ melody is a bit more elusive – unfailingly jaunty but not immediately catchy upon first listen. Its chorus feels a bit odd, built on a continuously rising melody that never quite reaches a climax. Luckily, the whistle synth refrain that follows is pure beach-side bliss. The song paints its summertime vibe effectively, with each slyly addictive moment coming together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Eun Sung and Sa Kang’s vocals — as adolescent as they may be — are matched well with this lazy, island-like sound. This is a group that continues to grow, and I’m excited to see where they go next.
[MV] TheEastLight(더 이스트라이트) _ Love Flutters(설레임) - YouTube
I’ve long been fascinated by the story of Korean girl group The Ark. The girls debuted in the spring of 2015 with the very strong Light, but disbanded shortly after due to company troubles outside of their control. This is not a particularly unusual story within the k-pop industry. Rookie groups come and go all of the time. Yet, something about these girls inspired ongoing fascination. Over the years, fans have continued to lament their sudden demise. I’ve found this dedication surprising — not because the group doesn’t deserve it, but because it only took one song to secure this level of adoration.
Of course, Light was pretty darn good, setting expectations high for the debut of KHAN. This new duo is comprised of former Ark members Euna Kim and Jeon Minju, fresh off their stints on The Unit/Unpretty Rapstar and K-Pop Star, respectively. Take this untapped potential and wrap it up in a song composed by blockbuster producers Black Eyed Pilseung and you’ve got music worth waiting for. It’s a shame, then, that I’m Your Girl largely fails to ignite.
I’m happy that BEP gave the girls a more mature piece of pop/r&b, as their vocal color probably wouldn’t have been as successful on a quirky, Twice-like track. I just wish that I’m Your Girl pushed a bit at the seams to become as memorable as the duo’s story. Its chill, laid-back vibe feels right on trend, and allows for some pretty impressive vocal interplay. The chorus has a sweet lilt to it, underlined by faint traces of tropical percussion. But, stacked up against Light, this feels pretty forgettable.
Despite releasing a steady streamof material since their debut in late 2016, Victon have never really connected with me. That’s not a critique of the guys themselves. I’ve just been pretty unimpressed with the producers and style they’ve been paired with. New single Time Of Sorrow (오월애 (俉月哀)) doesn’t do much to turn those feelings around, even though it points to a more mature, introspective side of their music.
Time Of Sorrow does everything it can to replicate the success of BTS’ Spring Day, down to its pensive melody and atmospheric soundscape. This is an odd move for Victon, who have thus far traded in more upbeat fare. The guys give a strong performance, but Spring Day’s formidable shadow looms large. I would have preferred a more unique instrumental palette, as the overly-familiar trap beats and tropical synth accents cast Sorrow as more of a follower than a pioneer. Still, the production feels suitably wistful — forever on the cusp of breaking into a full-on dance track but never losing its sense of chill.
Sorrow‘s languid melody also takes the subdued approach. Its verses unravel with palpable restraint, providing measured glimpses of emotion without ever trending towards the overwrought. This extends to the rapping, which is delivered with a softer energy than we find in most title tracks. It’s a nice opportunity to spotlight Victon’s voices, but fails to deliver the standout moment a group like this needs to break into the k-pop a-list.
[MV] VICTON(빅톤) _ TIME OF SORROW(오월애 (俉月哀)) - YouTube
Though Mamamoo have always been a vocal-centered group, their secret weapon is rapper Moon Byul. With her ultra-cool, gender-bending performance style, she’s brought fans of all persuasions into the group’s fold — even if her voice is often relegated to a short verse or two within bigger pop songs. She seems like the perfect candidate for a solo career, finally given room to flex her skills. And with Selfish, she takes a break from the Mamamoo sound to hang out with Red Velvet’s Seulgi. This is a dynamite pairing, but the two deserve a stronger track.
Selfish falls into a category of songs I like to think of as “melody-averse.” Yes, Seulgi is crooning something during the chorus. There’s a structure. It’s polished and layered. But, when it comes to the idea of melodic construction, there seems to be minimal effort. Rather than craft a unique and engaging hook, the chorus feels offhand — like the traces of a song wafting in and out of your mind days after hearing it. It’s the kind of chorus anyone could come up with simply by humming absentmindedly for a few minutes. I guess that accessibility is part of its appeal. It’s cool and breezy, but it ain’t memorable.
Of course, Moon Byul’s always had an unbothered appeal as a rapper. It never feels like she’s trying too hard, and that confidence makes her verses a highlight within any Mamamoo track. But without a strong counter punch, the entirety of Selfish feels almost apathetic. It floats by on an air of pleasantness without leaving its mark behind. It’s perfect for those long, hazy summer afternoons — coincidentally the same part of the day when a short nap feels most tempting.
[MV] 문별(Moon Byul) - SELFISH (Feat. 슬기 of Red Velvet) - YouTube
TST (formerly Top Secret) are one of a handful of boy groups who’ve enlisted production team Sweetune to craft their discography. But compared to the top shelf material recorded by Snuper and Golden Child, I feel like TST continue to get saddled with the bargain basement dregs. New single Love Story follows this trend. Sweetune ensure a certain level of quality, but the song feels more like a strong b-side than a title track.
Love Story is on the fizzier side of the producers’ work, drenched in layers of bright synths so feather-light that they threaten to drift away entirely. I had similar criticism for Golden Child’s It’s U back in January, but that track has gone on to become one of my favorite releases of the year. I’d be surprised if Story does the same. It lacks an energetic pulse, preferring to shuffle along as a pleasant mid-tempo confection rather than kick into gear and take things up a notch.
As always, Sweetune salvage any shortcomings with their gift for melody. Love Story is POP through and though, and its sing-song chorus quickly becomes infectious. There’s some brilliant synth work buried within this segment, retaining those trademark 80’s influences that never get old. TST seem to lack the tonal variety to make this material really soar, with a vocal performance that feels just as bubblegum as its instrumental. This, coupled with the song’s throwaway nature, makes it a treat for Sweetune addicts but limits its appeal when it comes to a more mainstream audience.
With over 2,300 songs on my iPhone’s “K-Pop Singles” playlist, I thought it would be fun to add a bit of unpredictability to my song review posts. So as a result, we have the brand new “Random Shuffle Review” feature.
The rules are simple. I fire up my playlist, press “shuffle,” and whatever song plays first gets the full Bias List treatment!
Year Released: 2009
For as popular as they are in Japan, BIGBANG never released all that much original material in that market. However, from 2008 to 2011 they recorded a number of exclusively j-pop tracks, most of them composed by European hitmakers. Let Me Hear Your Voice (声をきかせて) is the exception, written and arranged by in-house YG producer Teddy. In this way, its sound is closely aligned with the group’s Korean work of this era — albeit more melodic and pop-oriented.
Comparing Let Me Hear Your Voice to any of BIGBANG’s recent tracks reveals the sound of a different band entirely. From its gentle, synth strings-assisted beat to the sentimental vocal performance, the song lacks the edge and attitude we’ve come to expect from the group. In its place is a beautiful, lilting melody that embraces generic pop tropes without shame. This makes for a pleasant — if not particularly galvanizing — mid-tempo. There isn’t a whole lot for TOP or G-Dragon to do beyond the cheesy angst of their English-language rap verse, but the three vocalists pick up the slack. Daesung is especially suited to this style, foreshadowing his successful Japanese solo career with a an assured performance during Voice‘s pre-chorus. Three years later, the group’s Love Song would build on this sound to stunning effect.
Most of the time, a k-pop group’s title track is the best song on their album. But, sometimes b-side tracks deserve recognition, too. In the singles-oriented world of k-pop, I wanted to spotlight some of these buried treasures and give them the props they deserve.
It’s a wonder I enjoy BTS’ new album as much as I do. Love Yourself: Tear is generally very trendy and mid-tempo — two aspects that aren’t strongly aligned with my taste. But, the same could be said about BTS’ music as a whole. The fact that so many of their songs have ranked high on my personal charts is a testament to how well they pull these sounds off. I’m still firmly behind 2015-2016’s HYYH as the strongest of their eras, but Tear holds a few surprises that hint at exciting things to come.
Longtime readers will not be shocked by the track I’m featuring today. So What comes at the tail end of the album, and offers the shamelessly uptempo burst I’d been waiting for. Someone on Twitter described the song as BTS produced by Sweetune, and that’s not too far off. There are obvious differences, but the pounding instrumental definitely harnesses that unflagging Sweetune energy. Honestly, I never thought we’d get to hear BTS deliver this kind of straightforward dance track. They came close with 2016’s Wings Interlude, but its full “outro” version eventually retreated to the group’s usual hip-hop. With So What, the hip-hop is present in the verses, but the tempo never drops.
Then there’s that galvanizing chorus, underlined by the most propulsive club beat the guys have ever given us. You could make a case that the whole thing is pretty basic, cut-and-paste house music — down to its chugging “oh oh oh” post-chorus — but it’s delivered with absolute panache. I doubt whether BTS will suddenly move full tilt in this direction, but I wouldn’t be the least bit disappointed if they did.