2018 in K-pop: EDM Until You Drop (Part 1)

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Welcome to Part 1 of the big 2018 round-up, and the first collection of songs! As with all large undertakings, there was quite the delay, and I apologize. (Please read the introductory post for more context about this project as a whole if this is all news to you.) To recap, each post will be centered around a concept, along with discussion of the individual songs. There are rather extensive footnotes, so you’ll have the joy of scrolling to the bottom if you are inclined to having the full experience. Lastly, a huge disclaimer: I’m not an music or music production expert! I’ll address some technical stuff here and with that territory comes an obligation to express both what I know AND what I don’t know. I’ll point to people who are more knowledgeable than I as much as possible.

EDM (“Electronic Dance Music”), and I’m using “EDM” in its pop-iest pop-crossover sense, has moved from pseudo-niche to mainstream in K-pop over the last few years. For a medium that at is core is a performance art, EDM not only acts as a means by which hooks are developed, it also becomes a great tool for structuring performance and fan-artist interaction (i.e. fan chants, concert attendance, etc.). How the EDM style ultimately translates into each artist’s music however, is a beast of a topic to deal with and naturally I will avoid getting too much into it. I think the best way to compartmentalize this dysmorphic concept is by societal context (e.g. girl vs. boy groups, K-pop vs J-pop, pop-EDM vs. traditional EDM), conceptual context (what the core vibe, or “concept,” of the group is), and temporal context (how trends look over time).

In my discussion of the individual songs, I’m going to hit on the “conceptual” and the “temporal” pieces as is relevant, but before I do that, I’m going to touch on the  “societal” part for a moment, because it drives several of my choices on my list. It’s pretty easy to figure out that “the drop” (or the “pop-drop”) is near ubiquitous among boy groups at this point, and thus what we think of as mainstream-pop EDM is very much the baseline for that sub-genre. So what is the “pop-drop” exactly? I’m not sure if it’s a real term–the “drop” is what you would think it is in traditional EDM, but as EDM has worked its way into pop music, the incorporation of the EDM drop as a chorus or as a post-chorus evolved into its own beast. That particular application of the drop was supposedly coined the “pop-drop” by the folks at the podcast Switched on Pop (Episode 43, “Pop Drops and Chipmunk Soul”).¹

The upshot of the growth of the pop-drop is that when we discuss EDM for most K-pop boy groups, it’s going to be perceived as more generic than something similar for girl groups. Given that most of the music presented here will be by female artists, that means that music choices are going to be influenced by relative (not absolute!) scarcity. That is not to say that girl groups can get away with generic music or that there’s something inherently inferior. What I’m saying is that the presentation of conceptually similar structure (“the drop,” etc.) is going to be different for girl groups and thus that is going to be inherently interesting. Boy groups simply more regularly use EDM elements and thus take advantage of the drop. I don’t need to display that. That said, we’re going to see everything from very classic EDM to more structurally wild EDM over the multi-part EDM series (yeah, there’s a lot to cover…)–so don’t think that we’re skimping. There’s pop-perfection in here.

APink, “I’m So Sick (1도 없어)” (One & Six)

Firstly, a soapbox aside: Talk from several people in the music-writing sphere about APink “maturing” by evolving their concept into EDM and leaving behind (further, since this is not the first time) the “cutesy-pop” that made them the first set of third generation girl groups to become household names, is a disgrace. Both styles are equally valid, and demonizing music that isn’t in line with cool forms of femininity codes a pattern of categorization of women into “cute” and “sexy” and by extension, objectification into “mature” and “immature.”

“I’m So Sick (1도 없어)” is great for a lot of reasons, but to me the highlight is that it does a beautiful job of threading the drop throughout the song.  On trend with chorus previews², the drop shows up right at the beginning with a slightly different synth layer than what is used in the chorus. Then there’s a stripped back frankenstein version (i.e. male sounding) tacked to the end of the verse phrases as a transition piece. That is then followed by the classic drop in the post-chorus. The drop itself is pretty unique as well, emphasizing processed vocals rather than merely transforming the vocals into synths (which the song also does).

The astonishing thing is that as many times the drop shows up, the listener doesn’t feel like they’ve heard it a million times because variation, the placement, and vocalized element makes the drop act as a melodic continuation of the real vocals. This plays into why “I’m So Sick” is a masterclass in unresolved phrasing³. I often get frustrated with such songs, because constant build up to incomplete phrases is very exhausting. “I’m So Sick” does two things to combat the fatigue. First the pre-chorus, which traditionally hosts the unresolved phrase, is barely left on the ambiguous side. The “ooh” at 00:59-01:01 is suggestive of resolving to the note that started the phrase (00:54) but there’s a vocal bend that leaves things in the uncanny valley. That little piece of uncertainty is able to be picked up by the instrumental and the beginning of the chorus and build flow. The second element is the aforementioned vocalized drop. By lying on the vocal side of the balance, its place on the lower end of the song’s scale grounds the melody. and serves as a foil to the incomplete phrasing. To put it all bluntly, “I’m So Sick” is undoubtedly one of my favorites of the year both as something really fun to listen to, and unassumingly intellectually stimulating.

TL;DR: Crown “I’m So Sick” for pop-drop of the year.

Oh My Girl, Twilight” (Remember Me) [studio audio linked in title]

It shouldn’t be surprising that the ladies of mystical cult hit “Closer” have inconspicuously tucked in this piece of majestic EDM in the B-sides of Remember Me, the album (we’ll address “Remember Me” itself in another space). Seunghee is undoubtedly the star of the song, from the exuberant chorus to the elegant middle 8. She is not alone though, for as usual Hyojung is wonderful, and along with surprise standout Binnie, and YooA‘s earthy timbre, we have the makings of a gorgeous vocal performance. Oh My Girl as a whole is rather underrated for their singing ability, and the concert live for “Twilight” brings to front stage just how good they are. The song doesn’t break new ground compositionally, but all the pieces are so pristine that the collective can only be good.

Chungha, “Roller Coaster” (Offset)

“Roller Coaster” and “I’m So Sick” share the same composer, Black Eyed Pilseung, and the melodic similarities are definitely there. While the composition and mixing is wonderfully clean, and the gratuitous use of synthetic(?) xylophone is much appreciated, this does not have subtle intricacy of “I’m So Sick.” Like with Oh My Girl and “Twilight,” it’s Chungha’s voice that is key to the success of this house love-fest. She has just enough richness behind the delicate, melodic delivery to let the chorus melt you and balance the bubbly whistle of the synths. And the healthy chorus is 80% of why you listen to this song. It’s great.

Yuri, “Into You” (The First Scene)

A lot of people, myself included, were disappointed, to put it mildly, that despite a rather interesting album, Yuri’s title ended up being…bland. The reason for that boils down to relying on overused chord structures, a boring instrumental, repetitious melodies, and, sigh, the uninspiring drop. My personal pet peeve was the synth pause between the chorus and the verses which was awkward even after the 15th listen. For a better technical description of the strengths and weaknesses of “Into You,” I highly recommend React to the K‘s review of the song.

So why is “Into You” on this list? Kevin and Umu (React to the K) mention something in their reaction video that stood out to me:

Umu: If this song feels comforting and familiar to you, this is the reason why. You’ve heard this progression before.

I actually spent a good several days seeking out “Into You” and listening to it non-stop for the aforementioned comfort. Not only is “Into You” comforting, it is an unusual reservoir of somber and anticipatory feelings. The vocals float and cut, and synths bounce and whisper with flickers of color. Yuri’s delivery also balances syncopation with the underlying beat without sacrificing the pervasive smoothness of the song’s intimacy. I don’t often listen to electronic K-pop to satisfy a craving for a quiet conversation but here we are.

H.I.N.P/IZ*ONE, “Rumor”

I had the misfortune of first hearing the trendy moombahton⁴ of “Rumor” from a clip of the MAMA performance of this song with all of the IZ*ONE members–in other words, very late. This is one of those songs that is more seen than heard, and if you haven’t heard the song before, I highly recommend watching the dance practice above before hearing the song any other way. I cannot listen to the chorus anymore without hearing the footwork and mentally trying to do the choreography because the groove of the song is woven so intricately into it.

Amber/LDN Noise, “Countdown”

I’m not cheating by including a song entirely in English, am I? Rules be hogwash, “Countdown” is an example of embracing every cliche in the book and coming out with something unabashedly slick and relentlessly happy. LDN Noise’s London Garage roots display very prominently, and you might be able to pull out instrumental similarities with their other works with f(x) (namely, “4 Walls”).  It’s also a nice contrast to Amber’s other releases this year, which tended to eschew classic pop-structure. So get up, dance, and say “yeah, yeah”–I won’t say anything, I promise.

Blackpink, “Forever Young” (Square Up)

If you want to meet the king composer of EDM in K-pop, look no farther than Teddy. Those are some rather choice words, actually, coming from me, a person who doesn’t like his music all that much. I think the lesson here is that you can admire a person’s talent while recognizing faults as well as acknowledging personal taste.

What makes what Teddy does different from most, if not all, of the other composers of EDM in K-pop is that he tends to create pop-EDM that embodies the axiom “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” Though for him, that often means relying on pleasant but tired musical tropes. “Forever Young” is probably the least ambitious Teddy tracks when it comes to putting together a sonic journey, yet each piece has a cohesive hook and density developed into it from intro to outro. The dense sections are then all held together with high quality production. You never feel that at any point of the song there is a desire to move onto something else, even the within the pre-chorus, which is supposedly designed to pull the listener into the chorus. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is rushed, including the fade out of “Blackpink is the revolution,” (03:00) which lasts a solid nine seconds. And that’s why Teddy can get away with so many compositional choices that would be normally perceived as boring. Since your focus is on the moment-to-moment experience, most of the time you don’t care about how “interesting” it all is unless you look.

And lest I make it seem like this song is entirely about the composition and not about Blackpink’s own abilities, I have to say that you can’t have a song like “Playing with Fire,” “Whistle,” or “Forever Young” without the performers. Blackpink has charisma; in dance, in performance, in rap, and in vocals. The proof is in the organic popularity of the group. Or is it the pudding? Take your pick.

Footnotes:

  1. I highly recommend listening to this episode because 1) the commentary on “I’m So Sick” in particular will become far more interesting and 2) you get to hear just what happens when a drop is composed. But for those who aren’t already experts in the topic or don’t have 40 minutes on hand, here’s the key point: part of what makes an EDM artist’s (MC? DJ?) mark was the manipulation of voices into instrumentation. Therefore, some of what people may (well, at least I did) think of as a non-vocal “synth” is in fact the exact opposite. These drops are very often heavily processed vocals that have been put into an algorithm and used as unique instrumentation. The computer is able to manipulate pitch without changing the tempo and thus can map a vocal selection to a scale.
  2. A “chorus preview” is a term I presume I made up, so don’t try finding it in a dictionary or textbook. It means to use the chorus or part of the chorus as the intro to the song. There are plenty of examples of this from songs this year: Red Velvet‘s “Butterflies” has a partial preview, while Exo‘s “Tempo” and Blackpink’s “Forever Young” have an intro AND a full chorus preview before kicking into first verse.
  3. Don’t get “unresolved phrasing” confused with “unresolved chord progression,” firstly because I also made up the term “unresolved phrase,” and secondly because of one specific meaning of unresolved chord progression. When we talk about resolving the chord progression, we’re talking about finishing the chord cycle where it started or, in a more liberal definition, moving from unsavory chords/musical progressions back to a cleaner one. “Unresolved phrasing” is directly referring to core vocal melody, NOT the underlying progression. It’s a subjective assessment of whether the phrase ends without completing the musical statement or by implying a continuation (especially if that is observed in other parts of the song). It’s a common technique in popular K-pop songs because it a great way to transition between song sections and not lose momentum. Several Twice title songs (“Cheer Up,” “TT,” “Likey”) are nearly abuse it and ironically they have the same composer as “I’m So Sick.”
  4. Moombahton is more or less the combination of house, dancehall, and reggaeton. Its name comes from the song “Moombah” whose remix and then slowdown of said remix was reportedly the genesis of the genre. Here‘s a Washington Post article that explains a bit about its history.

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