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!
Snuper – The Star Of Stars
The Star Of Stars (유성) was released in July of 2017 as the repackage title track from Snuper’s fourth mini-album. Like all of their work, it remains criminally under-known, though this album and its repackage represented their commercial peak in Korea. It was also their last promoted single with production team Sweetune. Dear, released in November of that year, would act as a final cap on their collaboration. The group would go on to release one last Korean album before fading into obscurity.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why it’s so satisfying.
00:00-00:09 – I’m going to write a lot about “movement” in this post. So many of my favorite pop songs have one thing in common: their melody, rhythm or arrangement delivers a sense of lift.
The Star Of Stars moves right from the start, as an electro arpeggio twists its way up and down the scale. Underneath, percussion slams forward with ever-increasing intensity. This introduction might feel minimalist given its relative lack of fullness, but the track teases its energy right from its first second.
00:09-00:25 – The Star Of Stars arrived right as K-pop’s tropical trend was in full swing. Looking back, I think the summer of 2017 represented the peak of this style, right before those familiar synth sounds began to feel overplayed.
But even within this ubiquitous genre, Sweetune managed to find a synth-line that stood out amongst the crowd. The texture here is so unique, given a sense of distortion from its upward tug. Taken alongside the percolating electronics that open the track, the arrangement gives us layers of sound that really fills out the instrumental.
The melody of the synth teases what will eventually be The Star Of Stars’ post-chorus hook. This is a great way to pull us into the track without completely spoiling its knockout punch.
00:25-00:33 – I love how intentional the melody is during the verses. We’re not simply killing time before we reach the good stuff. This is the good stuff.
Returning to the idea of “movement” in a song, the construction of this verse gives us a satisfying, full spectrum experience. The melody dips down, then climbs slightly before resolving in a higher-pitched flourish. It’s like gliding on the winds of an air current, tugged gently up and down in a way that feels natural and freeing.
Complimenting this sensation, the song delivers an incredible amount of texture. I often complain about vocal processing in pop songs, but effects and filters can be used to enhance a performance as well. The arrangement of the responding vocals at the end of this segment is pure aural bliss, brisk and breezy and light as a feather. It feels delicate, as if it might evaporate right in your hand.
These two elements – movement and texture – combine to create that much-prized sense of lift.
00:33-00:41 – The second half of this verse is largely a repeat of the first. However, the melody surprises at the end, moving downwards with a hint of finality. This turns out to be a set-up for…
00:41-00:57 – … the pre-chorus!
Listen to how the instrumental changes here. Thus far, we’ve been gliding along that pleasant synth percussion without worry.
As we hit the pre-chorus, every element of the production ramps up. The drumbeat becomes a roll, played faster and faster as we begin to ascend. The percolating electro bleeps turn upward, as if sensing a change. Clipped vocals warp into synthetic interjections, ricocheting off the song’s frame with frantic energy. Then, we have one of those classic EDM filters, marking a steady incline as it grows louder and more domineering.
While every other element is charging forward on this unsustainable energy, the vocal remains remarkably calm. Its phrasing is slower than the verses, and the melody refuses to ascend with quite as much vigor as the instrumental. This contrast makes for a very engaging build. It’s a pre-chorus that simultaneously sounds exactly as you’d expect it to, and nothing like you’d expect it to.
00:57-01:13 – Every great build deserves an equally killer pay-off, and The Star Of Stars doesn’t disappoint.
The tension of that build resolves and we’re chugging along. This time, it’s the vocals that do the heavy lifting. As the production settles back to its core groove, Snuper add a sense of dynamic rhythm with a tight, triumphant melody. The opening refrain comes at us fingers clenched, fists pumping. It’s the first time the track has really layered the guys’ vocals in the classic Sweetune way, and this gives the chorus a ton of impact.
Like so many Sweetune hooks, this plays as call and response, with bright stabs of melody echoed by a more measured refrain. And like everything that preceded it, the chorus is stuffed with tons of movement. The way Sangil tugs on the end of his line? The choice to extend the notes during the second half of the chorus? It all gives the track an incredible sense of flow.
01:13-01:30 – If one brilliant chorus wasn’t enough to get your pulse moving, The Star Of Stars follows it with an even catchier post-chorus.
This segment echoes the synth-line from the song’s introduction, adding vocals to flesh it out. The result feels incredibly anthemic, both complimenting and contrasting the hook that came before it. In fact, the melody here is almost flipped from that preceding chorus. The drawn-out notes come first, punctuated by a staccato arrangement that brings more rhythmic appeal at the end.
That textured synth-line is used brilliantly here, underpinning the performance without dominating it. There are all sorts of fun vocal ad-libs spliced in between the lines, giving the melody even more punch.
01:30-01:47 – The second verse brings us into K-pop’s inevitable rap breakdown, and this transition is so, so smooth.
See, producers? You can incorporate rap without completely changing the structure of the instrumental. And, this actually allows for a more interesting flow that compliments the song rather than feeling shoehorned in.
Most of the production fades during the initial moments of this rap verse, but those percolating synths remain prominent, acting as a necessary through-line to keep the track’s momentum intact. As Taewoong passes the baton to Sebin, the percussion returns. This matches Sebin’s faster flow, sucking us back into the song’s addictive wind tunnel of propulsion. This is all so brilliantly executed.
01:47-02:01 – Second verses are difficult. For me, they’re often where a song lives or dies. They can also be some of the best moments a K-pop track has to offer.
Just like when writing a novel, it’s vital to keep interest high during this mid-point. The Star Of Stars achieves this by offering a few surprises that feel novel but never subtract from the song’s overall soundscape and structure.
We’re back to that fantastic melody from verse one, but the synth undertones are joined by a brighter texture. It sounds almost like marimba to me. This further develops the song’s tropical base, and adds a shot of interest to a melody we’ve heard once before.
In an even more daring turn, this verse is transformed into a pre-chorus build. That sweeping EDM filter we heard during the first pre-chorus is moved here, bringing a completely different appeal to the verse. It’s only here that we realize how in-sync the verse and pre-chorus are in this song. They resolve in the exact same place, yet hit so differently. This mix of continuity and unpredictability works to the song’s immense advantage. It’s just masterclass songwriting.
02:01-02:19 – The second chorus plays almost identical to the first, with a few switch-ups in vocal distribution. Sweetune don’t often play around with their choruses. With melodies this strong, they really don’t need to.
Instead, let’s take this opportunity to acknowledge those exciting bursts of synth distortion that pepper these choruses. The sound makes for an unexpected addition to the rhythm, and feels a bit like an engine revving up in short blasts. It adds to both the texture and lift of the track.
02:19-02:34 – Rather than explode into that post-chorus hook once more, The Star Of Stars dips into its bridge. The key changes and we’re back on the ground, only to experience the song’s biggest lift of all.
The keys play a prominent role here, punctuating the track with an ascending riff that feels almost like house piano.
Everything is in ascent, here. The wisps of vocal melody tug upward, echoed by celebratory blasts of rap. The EDM filter is turned up to eleven, growing into a euphoric siren as it overtakes every other element. A drumroll builds constant tension, repeated often as a tease of what’s to come. A chirpy synth line rattles over the top, flashing warning signs. This is the song’s build of all builds.
02:34-02:42 – And… we have catharsis! It’s the chorus again, but the energy is so high and celebratory that we don’t even need words. The lyrics are replaced by simple “na na na’s,” encouraging audience participation as The Star Of Stars reaches its euphoric climax.
The refrain quickly settles back into its expected arrangement, but for a brief moment we’re sailing along the clouds, touching pop nirvana.
02:42-02:51 – As if that wasn’t enough, the second half of this chorus brings back that ascending EDM filter, adding an extra sense of lift to the segment.
02:51-03:08 – This pulls us back to the post-chorus refrain… with added power notes! Those ad-libs from earlier have burst wide open into celebratory exclamations, like fireworks free from their casing. This is The Star Of Stars’ final climax, and the song is going out with one hell of a bang.
03:08-03:20 – Sangil’s final vocal is pulled and twisted and faded into the ether as the instrumental winds down. There’s an incredible airiness to this resolution, as if the song is being sucked back into whatever wonderful dimension it first sprung from. The synths sputter into the distance, and we’re left holding our collective breath, eager to experience the ride once more.