Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: K-pop
Why it’s daunting: Time moves pretty fast in the K-pop vortex. From the 140-plus BPM rate of the songs themselves to the short shelf life of its idols, to love K-pop is to be constantly exhausted. Just consider the output of one of K-pop’s most successful exports, Girls’ Generation. Since 2007 the group has released four South Korean studio albums, three Japanese studio albums, and four EPs. In the same amount of time, the indolent and laurel-resting Rihanna has only released about half as much material. Without endless time to devote to YouTube, where K-pop dwells, it might be better to never investigate the genre, especially because there’s one other core truth inherent to K-pop: It’s addictive.
Seemingly created out of Pringles and cocaine, K-pop is engineered to seduce and distract. It’s so easy to relax into K-pop’s airtight grip one might not even notice they’re suffocating until their heart rate has match the same psychotic rhythm as the 808. Even more alarming, fostering an unhealthy addiction to this music seems to be the K-pop masterminds’ sole intent.
Possible gateway: Girls’ Generation
Why: Girls’ Generation is K-pop’s premier, ubiquitous provider. Though the nascence of K-pop struck long before Girls’ Generation’s 2007 genesis, the genre hadn’t reached its full potential until the release of the group’s hyperactive, bubblegum electro-pop single “Gee.” “Gee” is a K-pop “all-kill”—a term that denotes a single having reached the No. 1 position on all of South Korea’s top music website charts. As well it should have. At its center are nine frosty, gorgeous figurines who spent at least three years each training before dropping “Gee.” The song is awe personified or “awwww” personified, depending on whether the listener’s age is 12 or 42, the approximate ages of K-pop’s two most popular fan bases. Its opener is a deep, slow inhale: Twinkling chimes and stretched-out swaths of synthesizer precede a three-minute aural mélange of techno, bubblegum pop, and hip-hop.
“I Got A Boy” is another stunning single from Girls’ Generation with an equal number of dazzling features. Its opening moments possess the same addictive boom-boom-snaps that made “Wait (The Whisper Song)” a dance-floor banger, but the track quickly pivots. Crunk rap turns into anthem rock ’n’ roll when the boom-boom-snaps are swapped for blustering piano strokes and propulsive drumming. Despite the shift in influence, the fingerprints of hip-hop remain visible in the girls’ on-point step dancing, which is more convincing and less nerdy than newcomers might anticipate. Two minutes in and another pivot occurs, this time leaving listeners facing an amalgam of Bhangra, new rave, and dubstep. In other words, it’s something that sounds very similar to M.I.A. Had the song not preceded “Come Walk With Me,” it would be easy to believe “I Got A Boy” was merely an amplification of M.I.A.’s 2013 single. It features the same head-spinning changes in rhythm and hodgepodge of influences, and it’s louder. If “Come Walk With Me” is a bark, then “I Got A Boy” is a bellow.
The music video for “I Got A Boy” is no less a feat than the song. It’s a lunatic’s spectacle with an assaultive barrage of choreography and close-ups. There are futuristic elements similar to the Rainbow Road level from Mario Kart and enough color in the background to make a Lisa Frank binder seem mellow. The video has some structure and story as well, but the plot to any K-pop video is almost always some variation on “girl wants boy, girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl wins boy back.” The unambiguous music videos of K-pop are reminiscent of the music videos of the new jack swing era. They have a middle, beginning, end, and a whole lot of dancing that inspires a resolution. Michael and Janet Jackson would likely be proud of the way the members of Girls’ Generation dance themselves into a solution time and time again.
Next steps: Speaking of new jack swing, that dated style is omnipresent in K-pop’s deeper cuts. Though likely to be met with derision stateside, new jack swing is white hot in South Korea. Teddy Riley, who is as much an American artifact as acid wash jeans are, has found new life in South Korea as a sought-after producer. He and his signature swinging beats were the brains behind the (albeit failed) attempt to bring Girls’ Generation’s single, “The Boys,” to America. The fledgling song caught a little air when the girls performed it on Late Night With David Letterman but eventually failed to fly. Despite this, Riley’s influence in South Korea is soaring. He is currently producing a new single for another member of K-pop royalty: F(x).
F(x) is what’s up in K-pop. The group performed at SXSW in 2013, and its second album, Pink Tape, was praised by the few American outlets that didn’t immediately dismiss it. On tracks like “Rum Pum Pum Pum,” F(x) more deeply defines what it means to be K-pop. No longer just a mix of influences held together by pivots in pacing, K-pop sounds convincing in F(x)’s hands. All of the same influences are present, but they layer better. The sound is seamless as opposed to sutured.
F(x) also has a rapper—a unique privilege allotted to the group by its music overlords at S.M. Entertainment because management needed a response to the runaway success of YG Entertainment’s rival group, 2NE1. The group 2NE1 is the edgy foil to Girls’ Generation’s purity. Where Girls’ Generation uses bubblegum-pop influences, 2NE1 implements reggae. The members of Girls’ Generation know how to smile with their eyes, while 2NE1 is more into the eye roll. 2NE1 is K-pop’s answer to girl power and was packaged as such, hence the image-aligning song titles of their three biggest hits, “I Am The Best,” “I Don’t Care,” and “Go Away.” The latter is particularly well-suited for insular ears as it name-drops Beyoncé and features an Auto-Tuned rendering of a hip-hop lyric—“act a fool”—from lead singer CL.
Finally, there is Crayon Pop, the most in-vogue addition to the K-pop genre. Sometimes the group members look like Power Rangers; other times they resemble a gang of Russian grandmothers. There is a persistent Devo influence to everything Crayon Pop does and, just like with Devo, it’s impossible to tell whether the group is one of the most avant-garde cultural offerings or merely a novelty band. Crayon Pop is also opening for Lady Gaga on tour this summer, which only further confuses the issue. Implementing a strategy similar to that of “Gangnam Style,” Crayon Pop’s viral hit, “Bar Bar Bar,” features hammy choreography and hilarious oddities. Throughout the video there are random inexplicable factors, like a painted version of Bruce Springsteen from the cover of Tunnel Of Love, but the best is saved for the end of the global version of the video when the girls rocket into the Seoul night sky on exploding pogo sticks.
Where not to start: As with almost any kind of pop music, don’t start with the boy bands. They require acclimation and a certain amount of K-pop priming. Regardless of how culturally sensitive you are, witnessing a scene of fresh-faced, fist-pumping boys washing a VW bug together takes some getting used to.
The biggest problem with K-pop’s boy bands is that they are as equally manufactured as the girl groups but much less convincing. Manufacturing charm is feasible. Manufacturing sex appeal is a no-brainer. But manufacturing grit (a relatively necessary quality for men if you are working within the heteronormative boundaries of a conservative culture like South Korea’s) is nearly impossible. It always turns into cheese. Remember ’N Sync back in the Lou Pearlman days? It was all raindrops falling on bare chests and songs about heartbreak that don’t stand up upon a later visit. That’s exactly what K-pop boy band songs are like, but worse, because in comparison to the K-pop engineers’ approach, Lou Pearlman’s was practically hands-off.
The good news for future K-pop acts and current K-pop haters alike is that the genre is constantly shifting. It’s ephemeral, which means that every second presents a renewed opportunity for an up-and-comer to step into K-pop’s DayGlo spotlight, become an idol, and in turn be idolized—if only for a brief moment.