When Lady Gaga, Far East Movement, and Big Bang collide

GD and T.O.P. – “High High”:

I should probably preface this by saying that I’ve never been a huge fan of Big Bang. I respect their work enough, but their music isn’t really my taste, I’m not blown away by Taeyang’s voice, and G-Dragon has always rubbed me the wrong way. (I do appreciate Daesung, though. Figures, right?)

And considering both my relative apathy towards Big Bang and the amount of hype that’s been surrounding G-Dragon and T.O.P. (hereafter referred to as “GTOP”)’s comeback, I expected to be underwhelmed. Thus, I didn’t really check out “High High” until the MV came out. Truth be told, I like YG videos. If there’s one thing that YG always does well, it’s their videos. What YG lacks in musical originality they almost always make up for in image design and videography. I mean, T.O.P’s “Turn It Up” video. Need I say more?

Nonetheless, I’m always a little irked when fans go on and on about YG’s so-called ‘originality’ because, although I’ll readily attest to YG’s creativity, I haven’t really seen anything all that original from them. Original to the K-pop scene? Perhaps. But it’s pretty well known that YG is tight with trends in the American music scene – which can be both a strength and a weakness.

The advantages are obvious: American pop music is popular worldwide, and by modeling K-pop acts after Lady Gaga or the Black Eyed Peas, global audiences will pick up on the resemblance and thus become attracted to the music. It also makes it easier to cross over K-pop acts to the West. I’ll always continue to maintain that 2NE1 has best chances of crossing over to the Western market, and the fact that this may very well become a reality in the coming year just makes me giddy with excitement. However, judging from what happened with Se7en’s oh-so-illustrious American debut, I’m trying not to set my sights too high.

Se7en’s failed US debut seems to exemplify the follies of YG’s American-pop-love-affair to a T. I don’t think Se7en had such a huge change in image or style in his “Girls” music video. If anything, it was simply a hyped-up, more clubby version of his former K-pop self, which was already pretty American-hip-hop-friendly to begin with. YG’s American style is what makes its work “unique” in the eyes of Korean audiences. But to American audiences, YG’s work may simply look like nothing more than an emulation of American trends. In 2006, Big Bang showed up on the K-pop scene with saggy jeans and cornrowed hair to emulate what was popular in American hip-hop. G-Dragon came out with the “Heartbreaker” music video after Lady Gaga became a huge hit in the US. To Korean audiences, the notion of an American image being presented in Korean pop music is attractive in the same way that real American pop is attractive, with the additional nationalistic spin that this music was being made by Korean people on Korean shores.

So, in a sense, the exportation of YG music to the American pop scene is like importing an American product, rebranding it in Korea, and then exporting it back to America. For largely domestic acts like 2NE1 and Big Bang, the music is rebranded to appeal to Korean audiences. For exported acts like Se7en, the music is rebranded to closely emulate American pop music of the moment.

Western-style ‘rebranding’ is what killed Se7en’s style and turned him into nothing more than a generic wannabe act in the eyes of American audiences. Because – let’s face it – the American pop music industry is huge, and a huge industry means more opportunity for genericness. New songs are derivations of last week’s Top 20 hits. And more oftentimes than not, YG songs are Korean-produced versions of those derivations. The thing that sets YG music (as a whole) apart from Western music is the implementation of that unique K-pop style: sophisticated choreography, surrealist imagery, carefully coordinated set design. In K-pop, it’s the little details that matter. Therefore, while some YG songs may be clear emulations (e.g. the aforementioned “Heartbreaker” video), it’s the attention paid to detail – and the creative energy invested in that process – that can produce an end product with a degree of quality comparable to the original.

To bring my point home, here’s a side-by-side comparison of G-Dragon’s “Heartbreaker” video and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video. Although there are definite similarities in atmosphere and style, they are nonetheless unique and are both excellent MVs in their own right. “Heartbreaker” is a great example of a concept that was inspired by a previous idea popular in American entertainment, but was further refined and redeveloped by Korean staff to give it that unique K-pop flair and originality.

But once you start with a good thing, it’s easy to become disappointed by its successors.

Far East Movement’s recent success in the American pop scene was probably orgasmically good news to YG’s marketing staff. Never mind the fact that FM was a pretty independent act prior to “Like A G6,” nor the fact that FM’s humble creative staff holds little resemblance to the industry titan that is YG Entertainment. But YG probably saw the Asia-plus-hiphop-equals-success equation and went nuts. They saw how FM portrayed Asians in a traditionally Western context – that is, the clubbing, typical hip-hopping context – and they saw that, somehow, it became a huge hit in the American pop scene. The music video for “Like A G6” was a formula for an image of Asian hip-hop that would be appealing to a Western audience, and they adopted that formula for “High High.”

I won’t go as far to say that “High High” was a ripoff of “Like A G6,” because it certainly wasn’t. Let’s be honest: it’s not as if “Like A G6” is the only music video around that’s shot at a club. But this time around, it was far too obvious that “High High” was modeled after “Like A G6.” Rather than adopting just the trend alone and adding their own creative spin to it like they did in “Heartbreaker,” the concept designers for “High High” seemed a little lazy about their creative efforts this time around.

What kills me about it is that they already had a really great concept for the GTOP comeback – the really cute passport and airline thing – and they could’ve totally played that up in the “High High” video. That could’ve been their creative spin. But I saw about three seconds of that near the beginning of the video and after that… nothing.

I was also kind of bothered that it looked like the producers rounded up every single Caucasian woman in Seoul and put them in the music video. Look, I’m all for breaking the stereotype that Asians can only hang with Asians and whites can only hang with whites and blah blah blah…but putting G-Dragon and T.O.P amongst a sea of white girls not only looked completely contrived, but it made YG’s whole American-pop-scene agenda a little too obvious. To put it at an extreme, it’s as if YG was trying to take away everything that’s uniquely Asian about G-Dragon and T.O.P. and make them not stick out amongst a Western Caucasian crowd.

Which brings me back to my previous point about K-pop and what sets it apart from American pop. K-pop isn’t K-pop just because it comes from South Korea. Its individual style and its focus on detail is what makes it unique. But by dumping everything that’s uniquely Korean about a K-pop song and exchanging it for a Western aesthetic, it not only kills its unique qualities as a Korean product, but also makes it yet another generic wannabe-American pop hit. And, of course, a wannabe-American-pop-hit will certainly fly in Korean markets – it’s how YG has survived as an entertainment company up until now. But with its ambitions to appeal to the American market, YG could easily fall into dangerous territory where it will churn out songs that are increasingly similar to American pop songs and attempt to export them to the American market. And those songs will land into the giant sea of genericness in American pop, because there are literally hundreds of other artists that are churning out similar songs and expecting similar results. If K-pop ever makes it to American shores, I’d rather see it arrive in the form of Korean pop music – not repackaged American pop music with a Korean face stuck to the front.

You know what I did appreciate, though? GTOP being so friggin’ adorable in the MV. If there’s anyone keepin’ it real in this video, it’s probably them.

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  • Korean pop music will probably never succeed in the United States for a very simple reason, which is that most Korean artists don’t know English that well. Oh sure they can sing english songs and some of them can even string together a few sentences, but American culture is certainly not ready to embrace music in a different language. It might never be ready. There are tons of American based fans of asian styled music, but they unfortunately don’t compromise the majority of casual listeners out there. Every single asian group that has tried the great venture out west has failed miserably. Wonder Girls were supposed to conquer the charts on their amazing American debut. After a somewhat lukewarm response from the handful of US fans accumulated at most concerts and a much prolonged stay in the foreign country, they return to Korea where they don’t even have a place on their own charts anymore. At least bands like SNSD have stuck to their guns and somewhat diversified talent in order to be a pretty long running and successful pop band in Korea. Which is amazing really – considering members like Hyoyeon who contribute no singing talent to the group whatsoever would seem to spell out disaster for the band. Still, they keep not giving her any lines and the other members just smile while she does a hip-hop breakdown in the middle of every song. coming back on topic though – GD actually had some semblance of hope to achieving at least mediocre success in the Asian-American circles over in the States. He is probably one of a handful of Korean pop artists that has ever written anything for himself. Thats pretty amazing when you think about it. Bands like Shinee, where even the members have that glazed over look in their eyes that tells you even they don’t know what the heck is going on, are a dime a dozen in the k-pop scene. You can only imagine the agony that Key was going through when they explained the concept behind his hair during the Lucifer promotion. That is where GD succeeds in my opinion. He has always had varied looks in Big Bang and in his solo debut. No matter how many times he switched it up though, it always seemed like by the end of the video the styling almost felt natural. It was like you almost expected him to have bleached white hair all of a sudden, or a mohawk, or bangs, or a fro’.. whatever it felt right AT THE moment. Not a lot of artists can own their image as well as he does, and that is a large part of his success.

    • Patricia

      I agree with what you’re saying – despite the immense amount of cultural diversity America claims to boast, I don’t think that Asian pop will ever expand outside of niche circles and become a part of mainstream American pop culture, like it has throughout East and Southeast Asia, and even parts of South America. I guess you could say that America’s pop scene is a little bit weird – that is, I don’t think a lot of people take American pop music seriously as an art form. To most Americans, pop music is nothing more than fun music to blast while driving or at parties. Most Americans will readily admit that most of today’s pop music is terrible, and I don’t think that that’s really a fair judgment – it’s more a matter of an increased amount of music snobbishness/elitism in American culture that is making almost everyone run to the hills of boring indie music or 50’s rock. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

      I think the main reason why Asian pop has failed so miserably in the United States is simply because American audiences are a really tough crowd when it comes to pop music. And let’s face it: a lot of Asian pop is, by Western standards, fairly mediocre. The funny thing is, Asian pop can get away with being mediocre because in Asian pop culture, it’s not just the music being sold; it’s the idol, as well. Even I can attest to this: if I’m presented with one DBSK song and one Big Bang song, both of equal artistic caliber, my personal, fandom-based bias will cause me to prefer the DBSK song. This fandom-based bias is nearly inexistent nowadays in American pop. Consequently, American pop hits aren’t determined by artist popularity – it depends on how much the general populace enjoys a random song they hear on the radio. “Like A G6” was probably the first Far East Movement song that most Americans had ever heard – and it will also probably be their last.

      The Asian pop industry has always been built on the fact that once fans get hooked on an artist, they’re in it for good. That’s how the idol industry works. Therefore, producers don’t have to worry about bombing one promotional single because they know that the extreme devotion of the fans will keep the artist afloat until the next single rolls around. This isn’t the case in the United States. The extreme popularity of Lady Gaga is giving me a bit of hope that the idol industry may be reviving – she even has a fanclub name! – but until the idol industry makes a good, solid comeback in the States, K-pop idols won’t stand a chance in America unless their management understands the hostile conditions of the American pop scene as it applies to idol stars, and adapts their techniques and mentality to fit this new scheme. I keep saying that I believe 2NE1 has the best shot of making it in the States. Why? Not because their music is good, and not because the members are particularly likeable. That’s not what really matters in American pop, anyway. 2NE1 has a high(er) chance of succeeding because a) their songs are catchy and club-friendly, and b) they’re not a boyband. If there’s one big thing that will not fly in the American pop scene as it stands, it’s the boyband thing.

      So I get what you’re saying about GD having a unique personality and a solid, well-groomed image, but let’s face it: American audiences just aren’t that into their pop. Most Americans didn’t even know that “Like a G6” was performed by a bunch of Asians until the APA community went nuts and pushed FM’s APA-ness in everyone’s faces. If 2NE1 makes it in the States, I doubt that American audiences will ever pick up on the fact that the members are Asian, either – Bom and CL’s English are nearly unaccented, which is pretty amazing when seeing the Engrish that has plagued the rest of the K-pop sphere. So unless GD is going to produce a really catchy pop song that, by chance, hits the US airwaves by storm, the rest of the country is not going to care about his cool style, his charming personality, or him as a person or artist, period. Sad, but probably true.

      Man, I shoulda totally saved this for another blog post….

  • n.

    (presses like button)

  • omg Key tried to explain his lucifer hair?
    what about t-ara’s yayaya or f(x) nu abo? if im correct, both companies were like “idk” and f(x) actually admitted they had no idea what was going on