Are you all sick of my bellyaching yet?
This site has a storied history of rants against the K-pop industry – the very same industry that I profess to love. And yes, you can love something and be critical of it at the same time. In fact, I’d argue that the two often go hand in hand. But, this year it seems that I’ve been even more disgruntled with the changes I’m seeing happen in K-pop. Does that mean my love has grown? Who knows…
At the risk of being that old guy that yells at whippersnappers to get off his lawn, I can’t help but be honest. After all, that’s one of the tenants The Bias List was founded upon.
For the past few years, there’s been a growing trend of K-pop b-sides becoming more interesting and exciting that an artist’s title track. This wasn’t always the case. When I look back at albums from first or second generation K-pop, the title tracks seemed like obvious picks. Albums themselves were of decent quality, but often padded with quite a bit of filler. In this way, K-pop’s growing consistency is a good thing. I’ve always been an album person, and I love nothing more than a full body of work that I can listen to all the way through. In the age of streaming, that can be a hard thing to find.
K-pop has always been a high-concept art form, and that’s one of the things I love about it. When I first got into the music, I was taken aback by the expensive-looking videos and daring costuming. K-pop wasn’t just auditory – it was a full sensory experience. But importantly, those songs could still be enjoyed just as much when separated from their visuals. They weren’t yet beholden to a novel-length backstory and multi-album lore. First and foremost, they were great pop songs… that just happened to be accompanied by an iconic visual.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Bigbang – Fantastic Baby and Monster
These two music videos, along with their costuming and make-up, paint such a compelling world within which the accompanying songs exist. There’s a sense of backstory, but it doesn’t need to be expanded upon. The “stories,” such as they were, are supportive of the music – not the other way around. Both packages are high-concept, but you never get the sense that the concept came first. Fantastic Baby and Monster appeal on their own, and their visual treatment only enhances that.
Infinite – Back
This is another flawless melding of song and concept. It’s not connected to anything else in Infinite’s discography, and that’s okay. There’s a hint of a storyline, but it’s simple enough that it can be clearly delivered within the context of one song. You get the sense that Woollim Entertainment listened to Back, thought it was amazing, and brainstormed what kind of imagery would best support its appeal.
Lately, more and more focus has been put upon idol concepts, but it’s a different ballgame. Instead of a simple, one-song treatment, concepts have become long-winded storylines that can go on for years. Trilogies have become the norm for many groups, with a deepening sense of lore surrounding multiple comebacks. This is a very cool idea, and it’s no doubt brought many fans into the fold.
However, I’m concerned about what this strategy is doing to K-pop songs – and specifically, K-pop title tracks. Though I don’t have any insider, behind-the-scenes info, I get the sense that these overarching storylines and concepts are becoming the driving force behind many idol discographies. Rather than pick the best song to promote – the one that sounds like an obvious single — they’re too often choosing the song that best illustrates their concept. What’s wrong with that, you might ask? From a business perspective, I don’t think this is a horrible idea. But, from a purely musical standpoint, I worry what it’s doing to the sound of K-pop.
Let’s look at a few 2020 examples. Unsurprisingly, both have ties to Big Hit Entertainment, which popularized this long-form storytelling with BTS. But, there are many other agencies that are taking this same route.
GFriend – Labyrinth vs. Crossroads
If this comeback had happened years ago, I would have expected Labyrinth to be the clear title track choice. It’s the most impactful song on the album, and just sounds like a world-conquering pop single. Though not everyone agrees, this is the overriding feedback I’ve seen shared online as well. Yet, Source Music chose Crossroads, which fits more strongly within GFriend’s concept and an emerging sense of lore that they’re attempting to build. Crossroads is fine, but feels like a b-side when stacked against Labyrinth.
TXT – Drama vs. Can’t You See Me?
TXT have been moving through a planned trilogy, supported by a boatload of navel-gazing imagery and backstory. Much of it has been very cool, but as we arrived at their newest album Eternity, it became clear that it was time for the guys to “go dark.” Never mind that Drama was sitting right there, poised to soundtrack the summer and better highlight the group’s charms. Big Hit needed angst for this comeback, so they chose the track that best fit that storyline, even though I’d consider it to be one of the album’s least-engaging.
Of course, this is all subjective, and I understand that these multi-album, world-building strategies have many cheerleaders. I guess it just comes down to how you consume K-pop. I certainly watch the music videos – though not as repetitively as I used to because they all kind of look the same these days. But for me, at least 90% of a K-pop song’s experience is purely auditory. The songs I love best have stood the test of time on their own merits, supported by visuals but not beholden to them. A knockout performance can certainly elevate a track, but only by so much.
So in short, here’s my wish for the industry:
Less developed, but more iconic concepts
Rather than opt for depth of symbolism that spawns fan theories and backstories, give me a simple, one-comeback concept that really pops. I want to see more gripping, self-contained music videos like VIXX’s Error, paired with imagery and costuming that grabs attention and instantly forms an indelible image to go along with a song.
Pick the best song, and form a concept around that
Rather than looking for the right song to fit the message you want to convey, just pick the best actual song – the one that sounds like a classic, hit single – and build the message around that. In other words: music first, concept second.
What are your thoughts, dear readers? Am I totally missing the mark? Do you like the way that K-pop is currently handling concept, or would you rather see an approach similar to the ones I outlined?