[kpop] short thoughts on EXO’s “Overdose”

Part of me cannot believe how much EXO reminds me of early SHINee and how much better they are than early SHINee. SM seems to be lavishing them with good production; I usually run from the smooth R&B pop (including SHINee’s) but EXO’s selections seem to continually flout the typical run-of-the-mill sounds. It also doesn’t help that Chen– and the rest of EXO– is handing in better and better track performances.

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Watching the Overdose music video multiple times has made me realize one of SM’s biggest trademarks, which is surprisingly hard to duplicate (no matter how much plastic surgery)– looks. SM probably has potent combination of these three: (1) a killer team of recruiters (2) great plastic surgeons on speed dial (3) makeup magicians. Yet, despite this focus on looks, I must acknowledge SM for debuting artists that are not “typically” the ideal face, e.g., Onew, Tao, Kris, Amber. Think now: how many faces do you see like Hyoyeon and how many faces do you see like Tiffany?

Made popular in part by EatYourKimchi, I think a lot of people still sniff and complain about SM’s “music-videos-in-fancy-boxes”, and some made allowance for this type of video when the dance was “interesting”, most notably for Growl. Yet, in Overdose, just by their looks alone, EXO is captivating– in this case, a storyline would have cut down on the screentime of each member. From a business perspective, a standard box-music-video costs less in terms of concept development and set decoration; if you have fans that will lap up whatever you throw at them, why bother going that far? SM is a company that plays it safe– it will never be home of a Gangnam Style. I do feel that a lot of us in the West tend to have an elevated view of pop musicians and the art form– case in point, Lady Gaga’s release of an album expressly called ARTPOP and the legions of lesser pop stars trying to pontificate on points deeper than they actually intend (I see you, Lana Del Rey). Rather, kpop is less of an elevated art form, more like a vehicle for advertisement. It’s a means for getting the group’s face out there and not necessarily pushing an agenda of any deeper meaning. This is not a critique, this is merely reality. At times I feel incredibly frustrated listening to outside opinions because they continually project their own cultural norms without stopping to think– hey, there might actually be a reason for this behavior.

Favorite tracks on the album are Overdose, Thunder and Love, Love, Love.

my heart is breaking for Kris.

Kris has filed a lawsuit to terminate his contract with SM Entertainment.

This decision must not have come lightly; it is right in the midst of Overdose promotions and all around him, Kris sees idols who endure the suffering without saying anything. Those who chose to speak up were shut up, the most notable example– TVXQ.

Even if others choose not to complain about their situation, it does not make the situation any less worse. Kris had the courage to speak up about his situation, in an environment that discourages and shames such disclosure. From the various “reactions” of the EXO members and others, we can see that such shaming is actively occurring. At the end of the day, Kris is not Kris– he is Kevin Li Jiaheng, responsible only for Kevin’s well-being, not SM’s, nor his fans. 

Godspeed, Kris, and I wish you the best in all your endeavors. If you truly believe this is the right decision for you, there will always be people to support you.

[kpop] the state of debuts, 2013

Looking over the list of debuts this year, it was incredibly dismal. I recognized a few– HISTORY, Wa$$up, Royal Pirates– but I could not remember any of their debut songs. I could tell it was a terrible year for debuts, because though I do not really follow kpop, I do follow a number of Shawols who do. I remember when NU’EST and BAP came out, my Twitter timeline had more than a few mentions of both (more like a vomit and some people switched fandoms), but this year, buzz surrounding rookies has been small.

Instead of talking about disappointing debuts, let us talk about the kpop groups that finally broke through the barrier this year: f(x), Crayon Pop, and EXO.

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The release of Pinktape was the first serious album of f(x), and brought together what f(x) is good at paired with its oddly consistent, signature electronic sound. Listening to f(x)’s previous releases, it just all climaxes into that album, more mature and more confident. f(x) is fast emerging as a counterpart to SHINee, though they still do have a lot of catching up.

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Crayon Pop had a surprise hit with Bar Bar Bar, but the challenge in 2014 will be proving that they are not one-hit wonders, because frankly, their other songs are disasters and really shabbily produced. Crayon Pop hit the magic formula by a long shot with a catchy song and a funny dance, but I do not think they necessarily have the raw talent to push through (note: Bar Bar Bar is not in my music library).

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Last, but probably the most “wtf was that” group of the year, EXO. To me, EXO is the epitome of why S.M. is the 800-lb gorilla in the room. As the huge company, S.M. can attract the very best talents, and even if the material is a tad mediocre (cough, MAMA), once EXO hits their stride, they are fantastic. While on the surface, EXO may seem to be the reincarnation of Super Junior, they are far more meticulously crafted and far more talented as performers. Again, due to its 800-lb advantage, S.M. can increasingly reach for better songs, produced by a broad range of international professionals. Could Growl have been composed by in-house S.M. composers or Korean production houses? Decidedly not.

I believe 2014 holds the most promise for EXO, because as they are a boy group, they tend to get more Westernized, mainstream pop, whereas f(x) and Crayon Pop are girl groups and must play up the high-pitched aegyo expectations of Korean society from time to time. It is no coincidence that the enduring gold standard for girl groups in kpop is SNSD’s Gee, not 2NE1’s I Am The Best. Speaking of YG, I have no idea what happened to the “you pick who debuts” game, which was largely unpopular, pathetic, and needlessly mercenary. YG could have spent that time building up rookies’ popularity, as surely in 2014 S.M. will be assaulting us with new groups as they have revealed new rookies as well.

As for debuts in 2014, I only have one question: where is Jino? (Apparently he is starring in a musical in Japan and still is under S.M., but seriously. What about his Korean activities?)

[review] SHINee’s EP Everybody

At first look and listen, the album Everybody felt a bit deja vu. The styling concept reminded me of the red and blacks of Ring Ding Dong, and the empty-R&B-70s sound embodied by the song, Y.O.U. Well, to tell you the truth, I absolutely hated Y.O.U. despite many reviewers saying it was the surprise gem of the album, 2009, Year of US. There are just some songs that cannot be saved, no matter how silky Ontaejongminkey are. Sad to say, Everybody was much like that too.

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Everybody 

I am ambivalent about the title track– I have a strong suspicion that if it were not SHINee singing this song, I would probably never listen to it. It seems to be going along with SM’s trend of “how loud and obnoxious can we make it?” with EXO’s Wolf, SNSD’s I Got a Boy, SHINee’s Why So Serious, and TVXQ’s Catch Me. Careening at breakneck speed, there seems to be little balance and finesse in Everybody, with everyone singing as if their veins are popping at all times.

Because of this, there are not really any memorable or beautiful moments in this song; even Jonghyun sounds strained. All together, I felt that SHINee was unable to inject much personal flavor in such a lead track. The name Everybody is quite ironic, because everybody, or at least, a good number of boy groups, would have been suitable candidates for such a single. With a few minor tweaks, TVXQ, EXO, and Super Junior would have been able to promote such a single.

Moreover, I also think that inclusion of the dubstep or “complextro” added to Everybody‘s weaknesses. It is not necessarily the dubstep itself that ruins the song, rather the overuse and misuse of dubstep in kpop makes SHINee feel behind trend– even more so because Everybody‘s use of dubstep is rather ordinary. Continue reading

[kpop] 2013 retrospective: top 10 singles

I always claim I am out of kpop, but I never really left. Limiting SHINee to three spots, here are top 10 singles sung by Korean artists that I have (embarrassingly) played the most this year. Note that this list is only based on play counts– if I were to do a top 10 based on my actual judgment, this following list would be very different.

10. Rum Pum Pum Pum, f(x): Finally, a girl group manages to crack my listening habits. f(x) shed most of the cute with Pinktape, and the result is a solid electro album.

9. Coffee Shop, CNBlue: Blame Lee Jonghyun. Nonetheless, the rest of the album was lackluster and sounded increasingly similar to their previous work. I am getting worried that CNBlue is running out of ideas.

8. Black Pearl, EXO-M: I panned XOXO when it came out, but I still kept it in my library. I rediscovered it this fall and have fallen in love since, and also gotten a lot angrier that some of these amazing ballads were not given to SHINee. Shawol through and through, eh? Nonetheless, EXO-M continues to surpass my expectations, and I think vocally (not counting the rapping) possesses the edge over EXO-K. Continue reading

[kpop] best rookie groups 2012

This very biased selection is based on quality of members–mostly dance and singing, but looks are considered as well, debut track(s), and live performances.

EXO was easily the most anticipated group to debut this year. Though not of epic proportions, their tracks are slickly produced and the groups are well-balanced with many talented individuals in each. At any rate, their debut was more solid than f(x), Super Junior, and even, SNSD. If SM plays their cards right, 2013 could be a very large year for EXO.

NU-EST played their cards extremely well, despite holding a few weak cards. A well-written debut song, one of the first to capitalize on the ‘new’ europop invasion, and including one very intriguing member, Ren. Dancing and lives are unspectacular though, and the shock of a pretty face will not last forever.

Regarding true singing talent, Lunafly and Busker Busker, in this respect, are both promising.

I hesitate to include BAP, but I see way too many BAP fans around me to think of them as a minor rookie group. They did have a nice, unified concept in debut; but alas, their track to me was stuck in the 2005, way too brassy and heavy, trying out a 2PM concept that barely fit.

A.cian‘s whole debut album is a beautifully crafted imitation of europop. That’s about it. Due to the constantly changing nature of kpop, I doubt they will release a europop album like this next time– if there is a next time.

Like A.cian, Cross Gene delivered an amazingly crafted imitation of europop for their debut. The facts that they have Japanese, Chinese, and Korean members and released simultaneously in Japanese and Korean are very nice bonuses. Another great bonus? Their live singing is A-OK (but please hire another choreographer).

Rounding out the last of the europop imitators, we have A-JAX. Someone fetch them a new stylist.