As part of my “Top 100 K-pop Songs of All-Time” countdown, I took the effort to dive deeply into my top ten picks and break them down moment by moment.
But, there are plenty of other songs that deserve this same treatment. So, The Bias List proudly presents an in-depth feature: “Breaking Down the K-pop Song.”
As part of this feature, I’ll be taking a close look at some of the songs that really resonate with me. They could be personal favorites, or simply tracks that are too interesting to ignore. This feature will include title tracks, b-sides… even J-pop.
**Although I have a musical ear, I’m not technically trained. As a result, these breakdowns will often describe things in a more abstract way rather than use a ton of technical jargon. But as always, my passion for this music will certainly shine through!
Boyfriend – Janus
Released in 2012 as the title track to Boyfriend’s first full album, Janus (야누스) marked a midway point for the group’s work with production team Sweetune. Their bright, highly melodic sound was given a moodier makeover with orchestral flair. It stands as their second-highest viewed video on youtube, and their fifth highest-selling Korean single.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why it’s so satisfying.
Music: Han Jae-Ho, Kim Seung Soo, An Jun Seong
Lyrics: Song Soo Yoon
00:00-00:19 – Strings, whether real or synthesized, are an easy way to add drama to a song. They’ve kind of become a pop music stereotype, and can feel canned if used haphazardly. But, by opening with its lush strings section, Janus immediately makes it known that this is a vital component within the track – not just some fancy ornamentation thrown over the top.
This is an interesting introduction because it starts on a high, with a single piano note that feels as if it has been plucked from the middle of a song already in progress. It’s a tense, intriguing opener. The orchestra weaves downward before building up again, as a threatening synth line sweeps upward, mirroring the emboldened percussion.
00:19-00:40 – Here, we get our first big refrain. It’s not a verse, chorus or bridge. Instead, Janus delivers melodic bookends. This same refrain will be repeated during the song’s closing moments, but isn’t heard again until that point. This structure feels quite unique within K-pop. I’m trying to think of another song that does it. It’s certainly not the norm.
The melody here has a militant single-mindedness. In the wrong hands, it might even come across as droning. The delivery is relatively clipped, giving it a great sense of rhythm, but Sweetune’s lush vocal arrangement lends the vocals a clean texture.
In contrast to the simple, repeated refrain, the instrumental is doing somersaults and cartwheels in the background. Orchestral stabs give this segment great drive, and the strings become much more complex. Just listen to them twirling behind the vocals, taunting the melody on! And then there’s those touches of distorted guitar – just the right amount to bring some grit to the production and anchor the instrumental’s more whimsical instincts.
00:40-01:01 – Almost a minute into Janus, we finally approach the verse. The instrumental loses some of its weight, stripped to a thudding drum, sprinkles of keys and a surprisingly high-tempo synth rhythm. Despite that particular element, this verse has a mournful quality. I think that’s due to the ballad-like nature of the melody.
01:01-01:21 – We talk about pre-choruses a lot in the EDM age of pop music, and after awhile they all risk sounding roughly the same. But, Janus has one of my favorite pre-choruses ever.
Rather than let the instrumental do all the heavy lifting, the tension here is built by the vocal. The first two lines are nearly identical, except for the final two notes that raise the key. This allows the pre-chorus to have that surging quality of EDM, without simply getting louder or faster.
That’s not to say that this segment isn’t higher-paced than the verse preceding it. The vocal takes on a frantic energy as the melody becomes more staccato in nature. But, it’s clearly bookended on all sides. A galvanizing drum fill kicks off the pre-chorus, and the melody resolves into a declarative finish halfway through. Then, as that symphonic bombast sneaks in once more to buoy the second refrain, a cathartic power note carries us to a soaring exclamation point.
And though it’s probably not as consequential as the vocal performance, I’ve always adored that filtered guitar that runs under the bulk of this pre-chorus. It’s got such a satisfying texture, and appears in many Sweetune productions.
01:21-01:42 – And here we hit the chorus, and it’s time for me to rave about Sweetune’s vocal production for the thousandth time. They are masters aat drawing out texture and layering tones together to amplify the power of an already robust melody. Janus’s chorus isn’t particularly complex, but there’s so much packed into it.
To my ear, there are three separate textures going on here. First, we have that commanding collection of voices that kick off the chorus. They’re kind of like a vocal version of an orchestral stab, which perfectly suits the tone of the track. There’s a sharpness to this hook that requires it to be performed with utter conviction, imparting as much force into as few syllables as possible.
This is followed by a lighter texture, as Sweetune employ the kind of call-and-response structure used so brilliantly in Kara’s Step (and many other classics). The airy “yeah, yeah” is smooth as hell, and very much a part of Sweetune’s signature sound.
The second half of the chorus also uses call-and-response structure, but the interplay is much more rapid. The rather subdued “yeah, yeah” from before is replaced by a more anguished cry, and the texture becomes even more rich.
I’m telling you… diversity in vocal texture has become something of a lost art these past few years. Add that brilliant filtered guitar and swoops of strings and you have a feast of different sounds. There’s such a fullness to this production.
01:42-01:53 – In place of a second verse, we get a rather brief rap break. I’ve always loved this moment. It’s almost more spoken word than it is rap, and mirrors the rhythmic construction of the track. The performance comes across as exhausted and desperate (in a good way!), as if it’s a challenge to get out every single word.
The instrumental adds to this sensation, as a maelstrom of guitar distortion rips away the bulk of the production until we’re left with only percussion and that ornate strings section that opened the track.
01:53-02:13 – And we’re right back to the pre-chorus. There are a few notable changes this time around. We’ve picked up speed and energy, and the performance illustrates that clearly. Rather than the full-stop period we heard splitting the middle of the first pre-chorus, the key raises and we have Jeongmin and Hyunseoung singing in unison. There’s also a sneaky little “whoo!” ad-lib in the background, urging the melody on as we grow closer to the climax.
02:13-02:34 – Chorus number two, and it’s more of what we heard before. It’s no less powerful, though. Again, the production here is so all-encompassing and huge.
02:34-02:43 – We have another rap break, which plays off the structure of the first. This one brings in a few power vocals for good measure, amping the drama. Many songs would have slowed to a halt here, pulling away most of the instrumental to offer breathing room, but I love how Janus just keeps chugging along.
I also love how all of the song’s segments (except the chorus) come in pairs. It adds to that “bookending” structure exemplified by Janus‘s intro and outro. It’s so smartly constructed, placing its various pieces in the perfect order to maximize their effectiveness and draw out new emotion and charm each time.
02:43-03:03 – Chorus number three, which again doesn’t vary much from the first two. I do have to point out that beautiful, anguished vocal ad-lib in the middle, which is perfectly messy and fractured and really adds a jolt of emotion to an already searing pop sound.
03:03-03:30 – You know how I love songs that come full-circle! Janus ends with the militant refrain that opened the track, and it feels even more resonant after we’ve just been through three minutes of expertly-arranged theatrics. The instrumental filters out during the final vocals, leaving only the icy texture of the strings. They tug upward, and we end on a piercing note – not unlike the one that kicked off Janus‘s grandeur.
Full circle. It’s a beautiful thing!