Sunday, 9 March 2014

Pattern Recognition Vol. 11: Gangnam and Beyond

The latest Pattern Recognition hopefully captures something of my recent obsession with K-pop (click here to read). Introducing you to (if you haven't already been introduced to) Big Bang, G-Dragon, T.O.P, Taeyang, Seungri, Block B, B.T.S, Teen Top, 2NE1, CL, f(x), GI. You have to check out some of these videos!

The futuristic weirdness that was 2013 had extended into an incredible year for the South Korean charts, with mad offerings from the likes of G-Dragon, CL, f(x), Taeyang, T.O.P, Block B, Exo and many others opening up to me an elaborate, almost psychedelic world of ornately intense songs and bizarre fashions...
For me the main appeal of K-pop is its overall intensity. It’s pop, only more so. It so often feels like an accelerated form of the pop most Westerners are familiar with. The West has long considered the future to lie in East Asia, either technologically or politically, and South Korea has among the most developed internet usage and infrastructure in the world. It also holds and televises tournaments of the sci-fi computer game Starcraft, and uses robots to teach kids English, guard prisons and do battle with jellyfish swarms in what they’re calling “co-operative jellyfish removal strategies.” K-pop regularly reflects this futuristic image—to many Westerners at least—by being stranger, catchier, more elaborate, more complex, more unreal and just generally going harder than Western pop. It’s like a glimpse into the future, or at least a deeper, more intense present...
G-Dragon—who has been in K-pop since the tender age of five—is known most of all for a crazy-but-cool fashion swag that has been garnering plenty of Western attention, but he also plays a larger creative role in his music and videos than many K-idols do. The guy carries on like a cross between Nicki Minaj, Agyness Deyn and Jim Carrey. The best term to describe “One of a Kind” was coined by Dusk and Blackdown: ‘ghetto ridiculous’...

Bouncing over a beat that chops up succulent slabs of thrash-wobble, it’s what hip-hop might look like minus the key element of ‘keeping it real’: crisp oversize hoodies, children, a tiger, a bear, a sequence featuring a tennis tantrum in a fashion museum, and a color-scheme that suggests a barcode angrily losing its mind... G-Dragon is keenly aware of the unrealism of swag, of swag as a dream that is performed...

With his deep voice, mature looks and gentlemanly suave, you might be forgiven for expecting T.O.P to lean over a grand piano with a whisky and pour his heart into a good old croon. Nope. Appearing as a gelato-haired Capital-of-Panem dandy general in “Fantastic Baby”, T.O.P becomes an early-twentieth-century gentleman adventurer for the existentialist fever dream that is “Doom Dada”.This one has a particularly intriguing beat, with its minimal Space Invaders synth, swooping ice-cold textures and child crying out at the bottom of a well (fortunately, the instrumental’s out there). T.O.P raps over this at an intimidating pace, dribbling wantonly surreal lyrics such as, “you with the sleeping cells, have you seen the last weapon… shower that washes the eardrums, you unstoppable hot souls...”
The idol that makes f(x) particularly special is the androgynous Amber Liu, who flouts gender norms by rapping and singing in a deeper voice, having short hair, and flaunting her straighter silhouette in more male-gendered clothing (typically, the same type of thing streetwise boy bands like BTS would be wearing), even though it means she doesn’t match the others. But watch any video and you’ll see that that’s far from a problem. The idea that someone like Amber would not just be welcome but celebrated in a girl group alongside women with a more conventional image is pretty liberating. Can you imagine such a thing in Western pop? AND Amber speaks three languages fluently and has a black belt in Taekwondo. Best idol ever...
Sound progressive? Some recent K-pop videos have been downright revolutionary. In what is probably something of a response to the Arab Spring, Occupy, austerity riots and recent Hollywood films (e.g. The Hunger Games, Elysium), there’s been a spate of them depicting violent dystopian uprisings against oppressive regimes—Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby”, BTS’s “NO” and B.A.P’s “Badman” for example. These images, as well as K-pop fashion’s recurrent interest in military-style clothing, become particularly resonant when you remember that South Korea has an oppressive regime very close to home. Taeyang’s “Ringa Linga’” begins its otherwise merely let’s-get-this-party-started lyrics with the intriguing simile, “Put your hands up like the country’s been liberated.” The video for G-Dragon’s “Coup d’Etat” arguably sees him become a despot, but at its conclusion he destroys a giant concrete wall, donning a red balaclava and standing in front of giant red flags...


  1. K-Pop is too much like a re-run of 80s ''New Wavish'' stuff on steroids, like a chance encounter between Thomas Dolby and Sigue Sigue Sputnik on an operating table.

  2. Hey -- just found your blog looking for more info about Tielsie (loved the Dis Mag mix), and just wanted to say: it's great! the extent to which there is (human) intelligence in *all* of this post-everything music is certainly up for debate, but there is no doubt that as a social phenomenon, it is certainly a very interesting reflection of the contemporary world -- and changes in it. Thanks for bringing more than a modicum of intelligence to your analysis. (And for sifting through Soundcloud for me.)

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