Pop tarts

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South Korean pop — K-pop for short — re­fuses to fade away. Dom­i­nant across Asia for more than a decade, K-pop has gained new fans in Europe, Latin Amer­ica, and points far­ther afield, and there are signs that this na­tional pop move­ment is also mak­ing in­roads in the U.S. What’s be­hind K-pop’s ap­peal? Pasa charts the rise and rise of K-pop in its sur­vey of the distaff side of this cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. Check out girl bands Crayon Pop, Brown Eyed Girls, (f )x, and Or­ange Caramel. On the cover is a photo of a few mem­bers of Won­der Girls.

Pre­pare for the K-Pop­ca­lypse! What once seemed just a fad re­fuses to fade away. As ev­ery­one knows by now, the gang­buster suc­cess of Psy’s “Gang­nam Style,” the most-watched mu­sic video in the his­tory of the planet, cat­a­pulted South Korean pop — K-pop for short — onto the global stage. Dom­i­nant across Asia for more than a decade, K-pop has gained le­gions of new fans in Europe, Latin Amer­ica, and points far­ther afield, fu­eled by the more than two bil­lion view­ers who got a thrill watch­ing Psy hors­ing around in his psy­che­delic romp. Here in the United States, K-pop has been slower to make in­roads, but dis­tinct signs point to its grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity. For the first time, head­liner K-pop bands are now mount­ing Amer­i­can tours and earn­ing in­vites to Austin’s SXSW and other pres­ti­gious mu­sic fes­ti­vals.

Not since the Bri­tish In­va­sion of the 1960s has a na­tional pop move­ment so be­daz­zled the world. What’s be­hind K-pop’s ap­peal, al­low­ing it to su­per­sede cul­tural ob­sta­cles and lan­guage bar­ri­ers? Many fans cite the splashy videos – sur­real, col­or­ful af­fairs in the vein of “Gang­nam Style” that boast lav­ish pro­duc­tion val­ues as con­cep­tu­ally rich as Hol­ly­wood block­busters and that push the outer lim­its of sen­sory over­load. The bands them­selves are hardly slouches. Mem­bers work their buns off, prac­tic­ing how to sing in uni­son and move in sync with one other, of­ten from a ten­der age, when they can be weaned from their fam­i­lies and en­rolled in a per­form­ing reg­i­men as de­mand­ing as any mar­tial arts train­ing.

But that’s just pre­par­ing for a pos­si­ble ca­reer. A band on the cusp of fame, or one that’s scored a mod­est hit, must main­tain a gru­el­ing sched­ule of con­certs, public ap­pear­ances, and stu­dio ses­sions. The band might re­lease a dozen or more new songs in just a few months — each fea­tur­ing its own in­tri­cate, sig­na­ture dance moves — with the big­gest buzz go­ing to the acts achiev­ing the catchi­est and most-copied new steps.

The songs, full of in­fec­tious hooks, con­vey a bub­bly in­no­cence that evokes a sim­pler past, but that doesn’t ren­der them shal­low or un­so­phis­ti­cated. What’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing is how of­ten K-pop breaks fresh ground by bridg­ing the con­ti­nents, rep­re­sent­ing a fu­sion of East and West and dis­parate eras and gen­res. Take “Ex­pec­ta­tion,” a soar­ing bal­lad of ro­man­tic heartache that sig­naled a com­ing-of-age for Girl’s Day, pre­vi­ously known for its bub­blegum fare and in­génue pos­tur­ings. It opens soul­fully, bring­ing to mind the Mo­town hits from yes­ter­year, but it evolves into some­thing un­ex­pected and dif­fer­ent. As the singers trade more fever-pitched and fast-paced falsetto high notes against a re­ver­ber­at­ing techno cas­cade, their re­frains achieve a tur­bocharged mo­men­tum that is, frankly, swoon­wor­thy. Pitch­fork mu­sic critic Jakob Do­rof has hailed it as “one of the most ef­fec­tive club bangers K-pop can claim.”

How­ever you want to parse it, “Ex­pec­ta­tion” is a rush – as stu­dio-mas­saged and hyp­notic as any­thing you’re likely to have heard since the dis­cred­ited pro­ducer Phil Spec­tor per­fected his Wall of Sound and squired in so many of the Amer­i­can girl groups that ruled the 1960s. De­trac­tors might carp about the au­to­tuned vo­cals in K-pop, in ad­di­tion to the enor­mous amount of sampling that goes on and the open in­fat­u­a­tion with Euro­dance and disco.

Yes, at its worst, K-pop can be ma­nip­u­la­tive and de­riv­a­tive. But isn’t it also a peak of cre­ativ­ity when a K-pop com­poser lib­er­ally lifts from Kanye West and Cole Porter, and then syn­the­sizes the mix to pro­duce some­thing that’s faintly and warmly familiar, but never heard be­fore?

Spec­tor’s hey­day may be long-gone state­side, but in South Korea, boy and girl bands still re­main all the rage — sex­u­ally seg­re­gated, although both boys and girls will sport an­drog­y­nous looks and fash­ions. In that spirit, here is a salute to some of the girl bands shap­ing K-pop and defin­ing it as such a ro­bust, eclec­tic move­ment. You likely won’t hear their works on Amer­i­can ra­dio, but you’ll find ev­ery last one of th­ese songs on YouTube, where some­times scores of live and staged ver­sions roost, vari­ably aimed at Korean, Ja­panese, Chi­nese, and, yes, even West­ern au­di­ences. If you’re more in­ter­ested in the boy bands, have no fear: I’ll be re­turn­ing down the road with an­other Pasatiempo sur­vey de­voted ex­clu­sively to them.

Brown Eyed Girls

Since their de­but in 2006, Brown Eyed Girls have pushed the en­ve­lope. Like Madonna, they are for­ever rein­vent­ing them­selves, try­ing out di­verse gen­res rang­ing from elec­tron­ica and rap to power pop and bossa nova, but of­ten with a se­duc­tive R& B over­lay and risqué lyrics. The band, which its fans re­fer to as BEG, has gone through many mu­si­cal phases; you can get a feel for its gen­eral aes­thetic in “Abra­cadabra,” “Sixth Sense,” and “Kill Bill” — all of them torch songs that hint at some su­per­nat­u­ral men­ace and are pro­pelled by elec­tri­fy­ing dance beats. The four band mem­bers are all well over thirty now — battle-scarred vet­er­ans on the youth-ori­ented K-pop scene — ex­cept for the youngest and most provoca­tive mem­ber of the group, Ga-In. You might have seen her op­po­site Psy in his “Gen­tle­man” video, where he pays homage to BEG by em­u­lat­ing their dances from “Abra­cadabra.” Much of K-pop is sweet­ness and light, but Ga-In is an anom­aly. She has a pix­ielike pres­ence but also a tough edge, as ev­i­denced by her solo hit from last year, “FxxK U.”

Girls Girls Girls

OK, I’m cheat­ing here. There’s no K-pop band I know of named Girls Girls Girls. But Girl’s Day , with its mirac­u­lous makeover from gang of teeny­bop­pers to ma­ture act in the form of that breath­less hit “Ex­pec­ta­tion” first in­dulged in “Oh! My God,” wherein the band­mates dodged their par­ents for a wild girls’ night out on the town — real school­girl stuff. And Girl’s Day wouldn’t even ex­ist if it hadn’t been pre­ceded by Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion , the mega­group that ac­tu­ally paved the way for Psy by ear­lier testing Amer­i­can, Ja­panese, and other over­seas mar­kets. Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion is most noted for its tales of teen angst and long­ing — for in­stance, “Gee,” “I Got a Boy,” and “Ge­nie.” But I’m par­tial to “Pa­parazzi,” which opens and closes with a tip of the hat to Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” To cap off the Girls’ tri­umvi­rate, watch the Won­der Girls’ “2 Dif­fer­ent Tears,” which of­fers mod­dish James Bond and Bat­man ref­er­ences and a zany cameo by MADtv co­me­dian Bobby Lee.

f (x)

The first K-pop band ever to ap­pear at SXSW, (f)x has a con­tem­po­rary, in­ter­na­tional flair to go along with its func­tional moniker. That re­flects the band’s cos­mopoli­tan roots — it’s a mix of Chi­nese, Tai­wanese, Korean-born, and Amer­i­can mem­bers. The synth-pop “Elec­tric Shock” is the girls’ mon­ster hit, pre­saged by “Hot Sum­mer,” their swel­ter­ing, blast­ing-fur­nace com­pan­ion piece to Hyun-a’s “Bub­ble Pop.” It’s so solid, the ac­com­pa­ny­ing mu­sic video has a black-striped hot-pink army tank serve as some sort of back­drop for all the bling th­ese young women are wear­ing. The band’s songs tend to be frothy and escapist, but do not write (f)x off as a light­weight. Its har­monies are tight, and its mu­sic has a gos­samer qual­ity, like see­ing a dragon­fly skirt­ing across a pond. And, as Pitch­fork critic Do­rof at­tested, “f(x) is the most re­li­ably risk-tak­ing act in K-pop.” At least it’s one of the few K-pop girls’ bands I’ve ever seen com­pared to Th­elo­nious Monk in­stead of the Shangri-Las. Yes, (f)x has a jazzy, ex­per­i­men­tal side — and that’s all for the good — but the girls are still walk­ing in the sand, fol­low­ing the tracks first laid by the Shangri-Las, and that’s all for the good, too.

Or­ange Caramel

This is one of those rare in­stances in which a side ven­ture, Or­ange Caramel, has sur­passed the band from which it sprang. In this case, the orig­i­nal, larger group was Af­ter School, which, for a brief spell, reigned as the undis­puted di­vas of K-pop, pat­tern­ing them­selves af­ter U.S. en­sem­ble the Pussy­cat Dolls. But when Kahi, Af­ter School’s charis­matic for­mer leader, “grad­u­ated,” the act lan­guished — un­til some mar­ket­ing wun­derkind at the Pledis En­ter­tain­ment la­bel plucked out three of the live­lier prin­ci­pals to form the dreamy, ab­sur­dist Or­ange Caramel. The group’s songs are pas­tel-shaded fan­tasies. K-pop doesn’t get any stranger, or more sub­lime, than in the be­witch­ing “Catal­lena,” in which the singers mas­quer­ade as hu­man-sized sushi to sing the praises of a girl so chic that no one can re­sist her charms. “My Copy­cat” is also a lark. It has an em­bed­ded “spot-the-dif­fer­ences” game, chal­leng­ing view­ers to sur­vey side-by-side vis­ual

pan­els to lo­cate miss­ing or re­ar­ranged ba­nanas, lizards, and sundry bizarre ob­jects. An­other seg­ment of the video fea­tures a se­ries of Where’s Waldo-es­que tableaux, and you have to spot the Caramels against a blur of danc­ing nuns, ping-pong play­ers, skele­tons, and cos­tumed fig­ures. Now, how cool is that?


If I had to choose the K-pop girl band most likely to break out big in the U.S., I’d lay odds on hip-hop stylists 2NE1 (an acro­nym al­ter­nately said to stand for “twenty-one” or “to any­one”). The girls have clearly stud­ied at the al­tars of Ri­hanna and Bey­oncé, and mod­eled them­selves ac­cord­ingly. In fact, they have al­ready recorded some songs in English, col­lab­o­rated with the Amer­i­can singer will.i.am, and done a joint pro­mo­tional tour with Nicki Mi­naj for the Adi­das brand. Be­fit­ting their West­ern lean­ings, they’re bold and swag­ger­ing and prone to ag­gres­sive bravado, at­tired in spiky or Gothic out­fits and out­ra­geously colored wigs. They come out fight­ing, shrouded be­neath hooded boxing suits, in “I Am the Best,” their an­them of fe­male em­pow­er­ment. “Can’t No­body” is as tough, de­fi­ant, and hard-driv­ing as Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.” Their act may all be a con­cep­tual cha­rade, but when the youngest mem­ber, Minzy, belts out, “I’m so bad-bad, I’m so good-good,” you’d bet­ter be­lieve her, be­cause she looks like she means busi­ness.


I’ll come clean. I can’t be ob­jec­tive about T-ara, pro­nounced “tiara.” I’ve been hooked on the band since it sur­faced in 2009, and it re­mains my num­ber-one K-pop pas­sion. I can gladly while away many hours soak­ing up the girl’s sil­li­est songs, like “Bo Peep Bo Peep” and “Crazy Be­cause of You.” I’m not alone. T-ara’s re­cent col­lab­o­ra­tion with China’s Chop­stick Broth­ers, a comic re­make of “Lit­tle Ap­ple,” has racked up nearly half a bil­lion views on Youku, the Chi­nese an­swer to YouTube. At home in South Korea th­ese days, T-ara’s pop­u­lar­ity has sagged un­der a cloud of scan­dal af­ter an in­tra­band dis­pute led one of them to re­sign. For a tra­di­tion­ally minded pocket of K-pop die-hards, that proved an un­par­don­able sin. Too bad, be­cause T-ara’s “big room” blast from last fall, “Sugar Free,” is a heav­enly con­fec­tion, eas­ily de­serv­ing the ac­claim pre­vi­ously ac­corded to their string of cer­ti­fied hits that in­cludes “Num­ber Nine,” “Lovey-Dovey,” and the rol­lick­ing, disco-themed “Roly Poly.” If you’ve got the time, check out the 16-minute mu­sic video they cre­ated for “Day by Day.” It’s an es­tro­gen-laden Mad Max , posit­ing a bleak, post-nu­clear, trib­al­is­tic fu­ture with svelte Ama­zo­nian war­riors en­gag­ing in sword­play. Beats a hag­gard Mel Gibson.

Crayon Pop

Re­mem­ber that car­toon se­ries The Pow­er­puff Girls ? Crayon Pop is their living em­bod­i­ment. The girls are cute, whole­some kew­pie dolls who wear bright, monochro­matic track­suits and hel­mets. They don’t un­du­late so much as mount math­e­mat­i­cally pre­cise dance move­ments that more closely re­sem­ble a cal­is­then­ics work­out. Their dit­ties might be in­nocu­ous, but they are so much fun to watch that you wish all the world would bob up and down in uni­son to “Bar Bar Bar” or “Bing Bing.” They rep­re­sent what Kore­ans call “ae­gyo,” a pure and un­cor­rupted youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance. Crayon Pop didn’t achieve suc­cess through the usual route: by com­pet­ing in bat­tles of the bands on Korean va­ri­ety TV shows. In­stead, the group grabbed the public’s at­ten­tion via a more vi­ral means — a se­ries of free, guer­rilla con­certs they staged on the streets of ma­jor cities. It was some­what sur­pris­ing, but ul­ti­mately apro­pos, when Lady Gaga tap ed the girls to be one of the open­ing acts for her ArtRave: The Art­pop Ball tour last sum­mer in the United States. The five mem­bers in­clude twins Choa and Way, who front their own sub­unit, Straw­berry Milk, guar­an­teed to melt the hearts of even the most jaded and cur­mud­geonly lis­ten­ers. If I had to spend a life­time as a char­ac­ter in an ar­cade game, I’d want Crayon Pop as the eternally

loop­ing sound­track.

4 Minute

This is the girl group led by Kim Hyun-a, who broke loose af­ter be­guil­ing Psy in the train sta­tion in “Gang­nam Style.” 4Minute is more generic than the other bands I’ve sin­gled out here, but there’s no deny­ing the spit­fire al­lure of Hyun-a, who is still quite young (just twenty-two), con­sid­er­ing the enor­mous ex­po­sure she has en­joyed since her pas de deux with Psy. Her solo “Bub­ble Pop” is ar­guably the ideal an­ti­dote to a dreary win­ter. It’s as light and breezy an ode to sum­mer as any­thing by the Beach Boys. She re­unites with Psy in the mu­sic video “Ice Cream,” which is hardly sub­tle but over­heated and sexy in a cir­cus­like fash­ion Nino Rota (Fed­erico Fellini’s film-score com­poser non­pareil) un­doubt­edly would have ap­pre­ci­ated. In her col­lab­o­ra­tions with 4Minute, “Hot Is­sue” and “Mir­ror Mir­ror” em­pha­size Hyun-a’s sul­tri­ness, but the hummable bal­lad “Heart to Heart” lingers long af­ter you’ve heard it, of­fer­ing con­tra­dic­tion to the naysay­ers who make out that she’s sim­ply an at­trac­tive young woman with no re­deem­ing depth of tal­ent.

Mem­bers work their buns off, prac­tic­ing how

to sing in uni­son and move in sync with one other, of­ten from a ten­der age, when they can be weaned from their fam­i­lies and en­rolled in a per­form­ing reg­i­men as de­mand­ing as any mar­tial arts train­ing.

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