[UPDATE 12/24/12: The Top 10 K-Pop Videos of 2012]
No matter how the borders of the world might divide us, all of humanity shares one thing in common; we all know a catchy pop song when we hear it. The head bobs, thoughts become light, fluffy clouds appear and, after three minutes, we are not necessarily any better people but we’re damned sure happier. The current axis mundi for such music is Seoul, South Korea. Known as K-Pop, it’s a strange and potent amalgamation of the last 15 years of Western pop, dance music, hip-hop and R&B manufactured with startling precision.
As American record executives continue to drown in their own ineptitude, confused and frightened by the digital age, desperately seeking a way to keep selling music to the masses, the bosses in Seoul have found a winning formula: Killer hooks, wicked choreography, visceral aesthetics, meticulous production, global-fusion youth fashion, and attractive young Koreans make for a wildly compelling confection. By sifting through the detritus of the West, pulling out the gems we’ve inexplicably abandoned, then adding their own unique sensibilities, South Korea has given birth to a truly global 21st century pop music, where all that matters is your head keeps bouncing, your body keeps moving, and you finish with a smile on your face. With that in mind, we’ve chosen the Top 10 K-Pop music videos of 2012 (so far). Since K-Pop is as much about performance and aesthetics as it is about music, all three criteria were given equal weight.
This is not F(x)’s most compelling track but the video has all the elements which makes K-Pop so oddly vital. Crisp choreography over dance ready synth in a pseudo-futuristic setting while the girls themselves look like really clean versions of American street kids. The hook is a curseworm. It will nest in your brain and emerge when you least expect it. Also, this is not the last time on this countdown careful observers will see a sleeveless AC/DC shirt. Further Reading: The pink tank in “Hot Summer”.
“Bounce” by JJ Project is like N-Sync and Linkin Park became two 18 year old Korean boys and wrote a song to play at the beginning of basketball games. Also, the glimpse of South Korean high school fashion suggests a world designed by circa 1991 Corey Feldman. Further Reading: License to Drive.
The premise of this video seems to be a group of attractive young Korean girls all dressed like adorable strippers gleefully rob a bank while breaking in and out of choreography which is mostly an excuse to look at their butts in jean shorts. Only K-Pop could make armed robbery seem wholesome and inappropriately sexy. Further Reading: Adorable Strippers
“Life is party/Kinda edgy, kinda sweet/Boom.” True that. Along with Bigbang, Super Junior and Wonder Girls, Girls Generation is one of the biggest exports of K-Pop (they were on Letterman in January doing a Teddy Riley produced single, The Boys). The premise behind them is so brilliantly simple it’s amazing no one’s thought of it before. Instead of four to six cute girls singing insanely catchy pop songs in unison, Girls Generation has nine. Nine is better than Six. That’s just math. While Paparazzi is not The Girls’ catchiest song nor their most addictive video, it is a welcome addition to the canon, including the opening slice of Americana set to “Singin in the Rain,” made slightly disturbing by the evocation of the exact era when the U.S. was bombing their country. Luckily, when the Girls begin to deliver their sweet, sweet candy-pop, all such concerns are washed away on a stream of nonsensical English and electronica. Further Reading: “Gee”, “Run Devil Run”, “Oh!”
You gotta hand it to the boys from Bigbang; they’ve got swagger. In contrast to most of the other massively successful K-Pop groups, Bigbang offers up more than simply super-polished, bombastic Western style technopop. Theirs is a style set apart. In this video, the boys walk around Williamsburg trying to holla at American women with little success. The track itself has got a groove what grows on you. If New Edition was a Korean Idol Band sent from 8 years in the future, they’d be Bigbang. Further Reading: #2 on this list, T.O.P.’s ridiculously awesome diamond skull necklace and the G-Dragon/T.O.P. rap collaboration “Knockout” from 2010, produced by Diplo.
While not as glossy as all the other videos, “Like This” is on the list for two reasons. One, it is proof positive the best pop music producers in the world currently live in Seoul. There isn’t one part of this song which isn’t maddeningly catchy. Two, have you ever wished you lived in a musical, where you could just break out in song and everyone around you would know the words and choreography? Apparently, South Korea is that place. It’s as if you went to the mall and 200 people started doing a 21st century version of The Time Warp. Further Reading: “Be My Baby” & Ralph Lauren Polo stores in South Korea.
Pop Music from another planet. Xia is like a genetically engineered crossbreed of Annie Lennox and Bad-era Michael Jackson. The video might be a snapshot of how the aristocrats entertain themselves in the far-flung corners of the Dune universe. I’m not sure what a Tarantallegra is but if one thinks too carefully on the specific of K-Pop, it will lead to psychosis.
If D.M.X. and the Ruff Ryders were a K-Pop boy band, they would be B.A.P. (which, by the way, stands for “Best Absolute Perfect”). I dare you to listen to this and not start bouncing your head. The video seems to take place in a ruined world where Voltron failed but the incorporation of cans of hairspray into the choreography is brilliant. Further Reading: “Warrior”
The world of Akira is closer than you think! Making their second appearance on this list, “Fantastic Baby” is a proper Ibiza meets Chicago club thumper mash-up with the boys trading Brooklyn for a (not-so) distant dystopian future. Why is Daesung chained up? Why is T.O.P. a living painting? Why are riot police fighting an army of people in gas masks and what does any of it have to do with the song? I suspect nothing, which is absolutely fine. In these fluid times, neither internal logic nor intelligibility is neccesary, only visceral images, head-bobbing beats and a killer hook. Thus is the great epiphany of K-Pop. And unlike nearly every other K-Pop band, Bigbang has a strong hand in producing their own music which one suspects is what makes them so vital.
1. EKO- K – “Mama”
“Mama” is the debut single of the band Exo, which comprises 12 teenage boys split into two group. They do the same songs, have the same singles, records, etc. But Exo-K is for Korea, Exo-M for China. This is K-Pop in all its nonsensically epic splendor. A 2-minute English introduction (which I’m convinced is the voice of Michael Gambon) introduces the “12 Legends”, who split the Tree of Life and form different yet similar worlds. “The Legends shall now see the same sky but stand on different ground, shall stand on the same ground but see different sky.” There’s Gregorian chanting, fiery Phoenix wings, superpowers, rock-rapping, a techno dance break, a guy with a tattooed face, a butterfly in a sandstorm and lots of teleportation. I can only pray the people behind Exo intend to keep this whole “pop group as superhero elementals” thing going. Further Reading: Exo-M’s version of the same song/video.
Jared Thomas is an author and scriptwriter living in Brooklyn. His works include The Street Dreams of Electric Youth, The Last Amesha, and Gre & The Devil. A regular FP contributor, his eclectic pieces include an account of drinking 100 Rieslings in One Day, a mythological analysis of the Avengers and the most anticipated geek movies of 2012.