Am­ber Liu’s show of strength and solo plans

K-pop star has de­signs on US star­dom

The Korea Times - - FEATURE - (Los An­ge­les Times/ Tri­bune News)

In a ware­house in an in­dus­trial stretch of Long Beach, a man dressed in black slunk up to Am­ber Liu and tried to grab her.

The wiry, wary Liu was ready, though, and kicked his legs out from un­der him. She pinned him to the ground, their shouts echo­ing through the hangar-sized build­ing as a small crowd cir­cled to watch.

The two tan­gled for a bit, and Liu fi­nally got the up­per hand. Con­fi­dent the guy was sub­dued, Liu let him up. They smiled and sep­a­rated, ready to go in for Round 2.

Liu, the K-pop star and mem­ber of the foun­da­tional girl group f(x), wasn’t smack­ing the guy around en­tirely for fun. She was shoot­ing some mixed-mar­tial-arts moves for a work­out video to raise money for the Spe­cial Olympics. Be­hind her, Long Beach Mayor Robert Gar­cia watched them tus­sle, then joined her on-screen for a quick PSA about the char­ity.

Liu, one of the most rec­og­niz­able stars in one of the world’s most pop­u­lar gen­res of mu­sic, has never been afraid to take some hits. The 26-year-old Chi­nese Amer­i­can singer was born and raised in L.A., be­fore a a South Korean la­bel dis­cov­ered her at a Kore­atown fes­ti­val and shot her to star­dom half­way around the world in a third, new cul­ture. But as Liu tran­si­tions into a solo artist with an eye on U.S. pop fame (she head­lines the Be­lasco The­atre on Dec. 13), she’ll have to take up a whole dif­fer­ent fight.

“I was ter­ri­fied to go solo. It’s lonely do­ing it by my­self,” Liu said, sit­ting on a weight bench af­ter her com­bat ses­sion. “But I wanted to chal­lenge my­self. Sit­ting on my butt wait­ing on op­por­tu­ni­ties won’t do me any good.”

The last two years were tran­si­tional for K-pop and “hal­lyu,” the um­brella term for the glossy, fan-deliri­ous pop cul­ture orig­i­nat­ing from South Korea.

On one hand, the genre fi­nally had its U.S. pop break­through when the group BTS topped the Bill­board al­bum charts in May (2012’s “Gang­nam Style” was ar­guably its first crossover hit, but Psy’s fol­low-ups haven’t had the same im­pact). The KCON fes­ti­val in down­town L.A., the largest K-pop event in Amer­ica, now draws well over 100,000 fans every year for con­certs, dance work­shops and pan­els on cul­tural is­sues.

Liu comes from a gen­er­a­tion of K-pop singers who have risen to the pin­na­cle of genre fame, yet now find them­selves at a cross­roads. Many of the first-wave K-pop groups ini­tially tipped for U.S. suc­cess in the 2010s have re­cently stum­bled or bro­ken up . 2NE1, Won­der Girls and BigBang all dis­banded per­ma­nently or tem­po­rar­ily in 2017, and Girls Gen­er­a­tion, AOA and T-ara all had mem- bers de­part the same year.

And while many new acts have risen in their place, Liu, rather than wait for the Korean ma­jor-la­bel ma­chine to de­cide her fate, is strik­ing out on her own in Amer­ica.

As a solo act in South Korea, she’s still signed to SM, the Seoul-based la­bel con­glom­er­ate that’s shep­herded some of the genre’s big­gest acts. But this year, she’s test­ing a no­tably new sound, a new U.S.-fo­cused man­age­ment firm and a cre­ative au­ton­omy that few K-pop acts have ever en­joyed (or risked).

“Be­ing on a K-pop la­bel and agency, ev­ery­thing’s taken care of for you. The mu­sic is set up for you. Your food, man­ager, prac­tice room, record­ing stu­dios, all these things are in the palm of your hand. How­ever, you know the com­pro­mise of what you can ac­tu­ally do or say,” Liu said.

K-pop la­bels have a rep­u­ta­tion for con­trol­ling nearly every minute of their artists’ lives, from their mu­sic and tour sched­ules to their fash­ion choices, and have been re­ported to in­clude clauses that reg­u­late an artist’s ro­man­tic life.

But now, Liu said, “I’m driv­ing the artistry. I get more free­dom, but my head’s go­ing crazy. I have no idea what I’m do­ing half the time now.”

Liu al­ways stood out in f(x) be­cause of her tomboy­ish aes­thetic and her nim­ble, as­sertive rap­ping.

The group was fairly ex­per­i­men­tal in its gen­er­a­tion of K-pop, with head-spin­ning pro­duc­tions and melodies that dropped the genre’s sweet­ness for stranger hooks.

In 2013, it was the first K-pop act to per­form at the South by South­west mu­sic f esti val in Texas, and its al­bum “Pink Tape” topped many year-end lists of the best Asian pop (or any other kind).

Liu re­leased her first solo ma­te­rial in 2015 and in April dropped “Rogue Rouge,” a six-song EP on Soundcloud that felt like a de­par­ture from that work. Her rhymes were edgier, the styles brasher, the mu­sic less pol­ished but per­haps more am­bi­tious.

It set the tone for a pair of new Septem­ber solo sin­gles, “Lost at Sea” and “White Noise,” both sung in English and much more akin to the blood­let­ting elec­tro-pop of Halsey, Lorde or Tove Lo than any K-pop peer.

“Lost at Sea” is, by K-pop stan­dards, an un­com­monly de­spair­ing take on a fail­ing re­la­tion­ship: “There’s no help for us in sight / Noth­ing, no pos­si­bil­i­ties / ’Cause no mat­ter what I do / It don’t get through to you.” It fits right in with the de­pressed yet steely sounds of much main­stream U.S. pop at the mo­ment, like Bil­lie Eil­ish or Mag­gie Rogers.

“I’m an adult, I can talk about more ma­ture things that you don’t ex­pect in what the group might do,” Liu said. “There’s a fi­nesse to f(x) that I can’t do without those girls. [But] every song I had writ­ten was on the darker side, and look­ing back, maybe it’s be­cause that’s who I was then.”

BTS’ suc­cess proved that K-pop acts can suc­ceed in Amer­ica without pan­der­ing to what tastemak­ers see as a “main­stream” (read: white) U.S. au­di­ence. But Liu’s turn to­ward English-lan­guage, Western-ready pop isn’t cyn­i­cal ei­ther.

Liu grad­u­ated from El Camino Real high school in the San Fer­nando Val­ley, and SM scouted her at a lo­cal fes­ti­val in 2008. Amer­i­can pop, rock and hip-hop come just as nat­u­rally to her as K-pop, and she cites home­town he­roes Linkin Park as a for­ma­tive in­flu­ence. Her mul­ti­lin­gual back­ground (English, Korean and Chi­nese ) gives her a unique van­tage to speak to dif­fer­ent crowds.

Korea Times file

Am­ber Liu poses in this file photo to pro­mote her 2015 solo al­bum “Beau­ti­ful”

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