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Lady Gaga’s got nothin’ on this: KPOP 101

13 Oct

Once upon a time in a far away land called Denial, I listened to Korean pop (or better known as Kpop).

Yep. Slap that judgement on me, I bloody well deserve it. To be fair, I went into it  kicking and screaming, before my eyes turned glassy from the buffet of hot, chiseled men and ears turned deaf from auto-tune. I truly question myself  nowadays when I accidentally come across a new boyband/girlband- what the heck was I thinking? (I’ve come to the conclusion that I wasn’t.)

Kpop is slowly (yet, disturbingly surely) taking over the world. Some of it has already seeped into non-Asian shores, what with Rain making various stops in the States for his comeback tour, Lee Byung Hun as the kick-ass ninja dude in G.I. Joe, Jeremy Scott practically salivating for 2NE1 and – right here in Ozzie land – the 2011 KPOP Music Fest in Sydney.

This, dear readers, is called the Hallyu Wave. And it’s gonna take over your iTunes by storm whether you like it or not.

To make things simpler, this post will come in 2 parts, in an attempt to make you understand a) why it’s becoming so popular b) why I don’t like it even after spending nearly a year obsessed with it and c) why I won’t judge you even if you start to find yourself liking it.

1. THE PEOPLE/CULTURE

This may not mean much to non-Asians, but the Korean culture is a friggin’ big deal in Kpop-land. Y’know what, I’m not even gonna call the country Korea anymore, it’s Kpop-land now. The Korean culture has a massive influence in Kpop-land and can arguably govern what the artists can and cannot do.

I’m gonna take a stab in the dark here and assume that the only things you know about Koreans are that they love plastic surgery, kimchi and bow a lot.

Well, you’d be right. They love/do all of that, but that’s not all there is to them.

The important thing in Korean culture has to do with relationships. They have different speech levels, that is to say, the way they talk to their grandparents, parents, older siblings, younger siblings, same-aged friends, different-aged friends are all different. They speak in honorifics to their elders, and various other versions of speech when it comes to others. Age is a big thing in Kpop-land and it also determines the kind of relationships you have with the person.

With these relationships, you’ve also got expectations. As soon as you’re a relatively well-known person in Kpop-land, you’re gonna have expectations from practically everyone around you and even beyond that. You’d expect the normal expectations in terms of music of doing/performing well from your bosses, peers and fans. In Kpop-land, you’d also have to face personal expectations. Fans expect you to respect them and respect the culture, to generally be a good person and if you’re not, you can bet they’re gonna call you out on it. This is what’s majorly different from English mainstream music, because if people tuning in don’t like what you’re doing, they’re gonna say something about it.

2. THE MUSIC

It’s pop. It’s alllllll pop. Okay, no, I’m lying – there are occasional gems like indie-pop band Clazziquai Project and rap groups like Clover but the rest of it is pop. Kpop-land is run by pretty-boy boybands and sexy-cute girlbands.

Here, have some SNSD:

Don’t feel bad if you thought they all looked like the same person. So did I, the first time.

And while you’re at it, here’s some Super Junior:

No, I don’t know why they need so many guys in one band either.

These two songs (and bands) are literally the epitome of Kpop-land. They are the embodiment of Kpop today – catchy, upbeat songs that have signature dance moves. Each band you’re gonna come across in Kpop-land has this all in check: SHINee, KARA, T-ara, 2PM, etc. Soon enough, you’ll find that there’s nothing significantly different about any of these bands and any of their music. It’s become so general that one song blends into another, and it won’t be long till you lose sight of all the music acts that exist (they keep popping up like pimples that never go away).

What bothers me the most though is how most of their music is manufactured. It’s seldom written and produced by the singers themselves,  they usually have an “image” to go along with a song (see T-ara’s cute girl image for Bo Peep – a song that makes NO SENSE AT ALL), promote a maximum of two songs from their new album on music shows and then leave for 3 months, work on a new album, and then restart the entire process.

That’s not music; not to me. Their songs become a byproduct of who they are, a way to promote themselves and continue their stay in Kpop-land. It took me a while to realise that, but it’s obvious that the 84, 817, 886 people who viewed those two videos up there still haven’t.

So! Now that you’re more acquainted with Kpop-land :

i. It’s becoming popular because it’s different. You know what they say, change can be a good or bad thing and that’s up to the person listening to decide, but you can’t deny that this is a breath of fresh air from the repetitive mainstream music currently riding the airplays.

ii. I don’t like it because it’s too shallow. Girls feel this obligation to conform to fit the mold of the perfect Korean girl: fairskinned, slender, and long legs. Guys feel this obligation to always either be Mr.Nice Guy or Mr. Bad Boy; they’re never really portrayed as who they are as a person.These expectations that arise from the media and the public have no right being in a music industry, because they’re taking away the personalities of the very people in it. If one by one all of them start to conform, then wouldn’t we be figuratively listening to the same music over and over again?

iii. It’s easy to get caught in the Kpop-land web. It took me 2 days to give in, and the time I spent in it was undeniably fun. The thing about Kpop-land though, it’s not just about the music. It’s about the music and the people and the culture and the TV shows – it’s this one big ball of cohesion. Singers can be actors, actors can be hosts, hosts can be comedians, comedians can be announcers – it never ends. There is never just one job description for any of them in the industry – they’re all entertainers. And they do a damn good job of it.

So go ahead and venture into the world of Kpop-land. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Album Review: The Great Unseen by Kate + Max

8 Oct

Image courtesy of Sophie Richards Photography

The story goes like this: a hillbilly met a puppeteer. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which was Kate and which was Max.

I’m not sure what happened after, but the result of that meeting has sprung some sweet and charming melodies I can’t help swaying to. This folk-pop album doesn’t pack much punch, but I get the feeling that that wasn’t what Kate & Max were going for anyway.

The Great Unseen is the Brisbane duo’s debut E.P., six tracks of an easygoing adventure that reminds me of warm summer days and flyaway hair. That is to say, not everything in the album is a trip down happy lane. Max’s dulcet tones lend a heavier anchor to tracks like Lost Sea and Closed Eyes, purring “I’ve got closed eyes, so blind to what you want” to match Kate’s soulful and mature voice.

There’s an elegance in their songs that transcends the lyrics and simplicity reverbs in the whole record; down to the inquisitive guitar plucking and lyrics beautifully sang. The pair strikes a comfortable balance with their clear vocals and bright and expectant melodies.

Kate & Max remind me of a mellowed-out Florence Walsh (of Florence + The Machine) with a heavy dose of Bon Iver, sans their respective dramatic flair, replacing it with a bright-eyed and fresh new pair of eyes set on experiencing the world.

The title track of the E.P is youthful and spry, fusing well with its promise to escape into the great unseen. The lyrics aren’t much to write home about but I’ve found yourself murmuring “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know nothing” without meaning to and damn if it isn’t catchy.

The clear winner and takeaway of the record, however, is To Anyone Else. It punches a dolorous and melancholy chord, with Kate’s saccharine voice taking a back seat for a deeper and stronger cadence that brings out the emotion of the song. Laced with both an acoustic and electric guitar, this track doesn’t exactly make me want to hum along to it but it did leave me grasping at straws to find out what the heck made me so emo (for a lack of a better word) all of a sudden.

An array of local Brisbane musicians assisted the duo in the production of their E.P, citing friends from Millions and Moonfleet for background guitar and keyboard, with mastering done by Nick Peterson (Bon Iver).

The songs are distinctive in their own right but flow well throughout the album, which is no mean feat for a debut E.P. and for a band that’s been together for less than a year. The tracks don’t appear disjointed and jarring, and they give a pleasant and sweet trippy feeling, as if I’m lightheaded from too much helium and frankly, I can’t be happier with it.

This week’s playlist!

22 Sep

It’s been such a massive week in Brisbane music-wise; the Brisbane Festival has had some amazing performances, we’ve got Counter Revolution coming up this Saturday over at the Botanical Gardens AND Parklife coming up next week!

Alas, there’s a hole in my pocket where my wallet used to be so I won’t be going to any of those – but who’s to say I can’t get my own fair share of great tunes, aye?

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I can’t even.

13 Sep


I like pop music, okay? I do. I went through that whole boyband phase years ago just like every teenage girl out there, and yeah, I still know their lyrics, what of it? So after reading this, you can’t call me a music snob or deaf or say, “YOU JUST HATE POP MUSIC!” I don’t.

But this?

It’s sticky sweet pop music,  it’s a catchy tune, yeah, and it’s probably gonna get stuck in your head after you play that, sorry. Again, though, what is this? It’s ultimately an artist happily riding the coattails of his former success, that’s what it is.

Famous for his “lol I started making music in my parents’ basement” start-up story and accidental foray into Billboard for Fireflies and Vanilla Twilight, Owl City’s continued fame baffles me to no end.  All Things Bright And Beautiful clearly lacks that spark Ocean Eyes had – a clean, distinctive sound and addictive synthpop and indietronica beats. Actually, after Ocean Eyes, did you guys even realise he’d released another album?

I sure as hell didn’t.

His word-of-mouth sleeper hit inducing skillz were considerably less this time around and I can see why. Sure, there are great tracks like Deer in the Headlights and Galaxies but it seems to me that Owl City’s in more for a miss than a hit with his most recent album.

Like those one-hit-wonders, call me a one-hit-fan.

I know, I know, I know nothing

6 Sep

STEP 1: Press “play”.

STEP 2: Think of:

  • Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and not thinking about anything
  • Frolicking in the grass, summer warming the tips of your fingers
  • Enjoying an ice cream cone on the beach, feet lazily drawing circles in the sand
  • Staring at the one you love; how can so much wonder be in one person?
  • Listening to the roar of an airplane flying over, knowing it’ll be your turn one day

STEP 3: Smile.

Kate & Max are a lovely local indie duo performing at this year’s Brisbane Festival with Shugo Tokumaru. Their EP The Great Unseen is out now, and can be listened to and downloaded here.

She be trippin’.

31 Aug

The Luna Lovegood of the indie music scene is back. Granted, you’d think that everyone in the indie scene is pretty trippy but Florence + The Machine always take it upon themselves to notch it up; whether it be intentional or not.

What The Water Gave Me spins a heavy flair of drama, tipped with declarations of undying love and the notion of death weighing down her words and it’s no wonder, because the song was inspired by the suicide of novelist Virginia Woolf, who had drowned herself.

Despite the nature of the song, Welch’s gospel pipes manage to strike a balance with the gravity of her words and the lingering fairytale notion that has quickly become distinct and second nature to the band.

I’ve always found an ethereal flair surrounding the music of Florence + The Machine, something that makes the songs stick to you, a clear haunting reverberation. Not gonna lie, this is some pretty trippy shit, but I’m pretty much sold anyway.

Their second album comes out November 7th.

Oh, Nostalgia, I don’t need you anymore

25 Aug

A social stigma surrounds Patrick Stump.

The name? Fall Out Boy. Also, Pete Wentz. You can’t go talking about one without mentioning the other two, it’s a strange factor. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s get serious.

As the former vocalist of a now-rumoured-to-be-defunct-pop/rock-band (let’s be honest, he was never the frontman), Stump has resurfaced from the ashes of an extended hiatus and emerged a soft-worn musician with his edges chipped off. Citing his eclectic taste in music and long-spanning love for soul and all things Michael Jackson, Stump is in the throes of a musical overhaul with the debut of his first solo album, Soul Punk, coming out this October.

The first single from the album was released last year, with two incredibly different renditions for the fans to choose from to go on the record. Spotlight (New Regrets) is an upbeat pop, accompanied by synths and punctuated with addictive drum beats that’ll have you humming the song long after you’ve heard it.

Its counterpart, Spotlight (Oh Nostalgia) has a darker slant to it, a semi-sinister twist to the heavy placement and gravity of his words and deeper voice.

Is the song a personal jab at his former music career? Who knows. And honestly, who cares? The one man band is happy to distance himself from his former musical endeavours of emo-punk and pop/rock. Now that he’s broken away from the grasps of what the music industry expects from him, he can do anything he damn well wants and it looks like his efforts are paying off.

Sort of.

His second single from the album is, aptly titled, “This City”.

The Chicago native has never been shy nor secretive about his hometown. You’ll often find him talking about it during interviews, especially when he starts recounting his childhood. His love for the city is commendable, but the song says different. It’s sad to say that while he collaborated with fellow Chicago native Lupe Fiasco to up the ante, he’s actually being overshadowed by Lupe’s lyrics.

Stump’s own lyrics are lackluster at best. The absence of raw emotion, impressive coded meanings and twisted words that came from the pen of Pete Wentz leaves Stump’s musical efforts, for the lack of a better word, bare. There is no doubt that Stump is a talented musician in his own right but that’s the thing. He’s a musician. That doesn’t make him a good lyricist.

Case in point – a verse from This City: “This city is my city, And I love it, yeah I love it, I was born and raised here, I got it made here, And if I have my way, I’m going to stay” which makes it pretty clear how much he loves Chicago, but, really, Stump? Really?

Stump’s practiced ease with instruments and a sensitive ear honed by years of extensive exposure to different types of genres has made him an aficionado in producing music. Key word: producing. Every tune he churns out is a hook for more of his brilliance, and is a constant reflection of who he is and, ultimately, who his influences are.

His voice is a machine; a fine-tuned and well-ranged machine. The clarity in his voice is wondrous, with a smooth tinge of soul and a confidence that leaves you breathless when he hits the notes.

In all honesty, Stump has been one of my favourite artists since he started out, and I’m eagerly anticipating his solo album. Bare and straightforward lyrics aside, I’m proud to see that he’s gone this far without the help of his former bandmates. He’s gaining his own following now, no longer hiding beneath the hats and the once-iconic sideburns he constantly sported. He’s finally grown comfortable to having the spotlight on him, and is now happily making the music he wants to make.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s still got some ways to go, but I’m happy (and proud) to call myself a fan, and, really, how often do you hear that from a critic?