The Year In K-pop

Meth busts, accusations of abuse, death, litigation, and tragedy, 2014 was the year K-pop got seriously dark.

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Dec 19 2014, 8:17pm

In terms of music, 2014 might not have been K-pop’s personal best. As ink on the page—a narrative in sweating, breathing motion—2014 was K-pop’s most astounding year yet. It was the year K-pop became the first season of a cable drama about drug trade intrigue and shady motivations. It was the year K-pop met Michael Bay, and became allegory in an impossibly expensive film about robot skyscrapers perceiving abstract virtues and killing one another over them. It was the year K-pop replaced a Book of Revelation epigraph in another Hunter S. Thompson essay about hellbroth and certain doom. It was the year K-pop arranged itself as a wall of text identical in appearance to so much endlessly reblogged fanfiction, its authors waking up the next morning to find real blood and body fluid on their hands. In K-pop, 2014 was the year that nothing wasn’t true.

If only such metaphors weren’t easier to reconcile than the hard facts behind them. In the past 365 days, one of K-pop’s top crooners was caught pushing meth while topping the charts. Corporate overlords stood slack-jawed as their pretty young idols grew sentient and broke contracts to sue them for human rights violations—to defect back to their home countries, to claim boyfriends and social lives. The heavily marketed idea that our favorite idols truly love each other crumpled under the weight of our favorite idols’ exhausted disdain for anything but the desire for personal freedom. Industry standards lead to harrowing, senseless tragedy, with a body count that numbers some sixteen fans and a couple of rising stars. Sure, every year K-pop’s carefully constructed fantasyland of cotton candy, pixie dust, and pleated schoolgirl skirts comes under fire of hideous rumor and hearsay—but fans are not used to those nasty words being so overwhelmingly true.

And so, another metaphor: At the beginning of 1998’s The Truman Show, Truman Burbank steps outside to witness a stage light falling suspiciously from the sky. At the end of 2014, the K-pop obsessed step outside to find half the sky altogether missing.

The year began with an uncharacteristically dark streak. K-pop’s best offerings from those early winter months included the icy deep cut, “If I Were You,” off 2NE1’s long-awaited Crush (an album so forlorn that even its sunshine single, “Happy,” smacks of remorse), and frontwoman CL and labelmate G-Dragon’s collaboration with Skrillex, “Dirty Vibe,” which introduced a thrilling nihilism into the K-pop atmosphere. But the most striking statement took the form of an expletive never before uttered in the K-pop singles market.


Ga-In - “FxxK U” ft. Bumkey

“FxxK U,” a gutting solo turn from the pop singer Ga-In, was the bravest hit released anywhere in 2014. To censor a vulgar hook only in the song’s title is bold, sure, to do so as a woman in the context of a song and a video both very explicitly about domestic rape, and to do so in a country where women’s rights are decades behind, is to in fact rewrite pop music’s definition of “bold.” (Ditto for director/apparent genius Hwang Soo Ah.) And to further make that song as musically sophisticated as to incorporate a bossa nova beat, misaligned harmonies disturbingly sensual in their friction, and a series of four key changes in the space of an eight bar bridge—in serving a specific narrative purpose that syncs perfectly with the lyrics and music video—is where a word like “masterpiece” might enter the conversation.

As a singular piece of art, the January release of “FxxK U” set an impossible standard for 2014, and bore one of its most poignant moments of foreshadowing to boot: Bumkey, the song’s male villain who replies “I don’t feel that way” to Ga-In’s “I hate doing it this way,” wound up arrested and charged for selling meth and ecstasy. A sideline career he’s apparently been pursuing in Seoul for several years. If there’s an active pop star who’s been caught in a more extreme drug trade scandal pretty much anywhere, we must have somehow missed it. Considering Bumkey’s sentence will be in South Korea, where dealing weed gets people clinked for life and being spotted with pills in a club could get you planted in time for sunrise, “FxxK U” will doubtless remain his greatest legacy.

Akdong Musician - "Melted"

Akdong Musician, the adorable teen duo of Lee Chanhyuk and Soohyun, turned in an irresistibly cheery set of tunes with April’s Play LP, but followed the beachside poptimism of “200%” with the jarringly bleak “Melted.” As though rising to Ga-In’s challenge, the tune’s chamber pop despair meets its perfect parallel with a visual narrative from another of South Korea’s young and brilliant female directors, Dee Shin. Themes of racial distance, generation gap dissonance, young vagrancy, and even the Native American struggle are all captured and interwoven with a grace previously unfathomable in an industry known for neon leather and synchronized dance routines. Barely 17 when he wrote and produced the song, Chanhyuk provides a lyric that, when sung by his 14-year-old sister, exploits an incisive bit of Korean wordplay to tie everything together: “Why is ice so cold?” Heard from a different angle, that childlike wonder grows up fast as “is” becomes “are,” as “ice” becomes “adults.”

Most tragically, the music video’s own prescience would come to light when, just two days later, the South Korean Sewol ferry capsized between the coasts of Jeolla Province and Jeju Island. More than a dozen adults onboard, including the crew and captain, fled the ship almost immediately, after repeatedly ordering the passengers to stay put: 304 perished with the ship, most of them high school age or younger. Following the indelible mark “Melted” left just hours prior, it was hard not to think of that haunting refrain while trying to make sense of senselessness.


Ladies Code - "So Wonderful"

In many ways, South Korea has yet to recover from the Sewol incident, and in a sense that feels true of its music industry, as well. The entire operation went on hiatus for weeks, then got hit with a tragedy of its own just as it was regaining steam: on the morning of September 3, at approximately 1:30 AM, the promising girl group Ladies’ Code swerved off the highway while speeding above 80mph on rain-slick road. One of the five members, 21-year-old EunB, died at the scene. RiSe, 23, passed away in the hospital four days later. The remaining three members would not be discharged from the hospital for another six weeks. Just days before their release, sixteen fans died at a four minute concert just outside of Seoul, as the metal grate on which they had been standing for a better view collapsed into an underground garage below. Both incidents raised serious questions about safety standards in K-pop: though the fans had been standing in an undesignated area, the lack of event security to prevent them from doing so was glaring. Additionally there is ample speculation that after leaving a late night engagement in Daegu, Ladies Code’s manager was speeding back to Seoul to make yet another business commitment. (2 AM engagements on a Wednesday are, for K-pop acts, perhaps less uncommon than one would guess.)

Korean netizens rallied behind Ladies’ Code’s song “I’m Fine Thank You” to get it to the top of several domestic pop charts, an especially touching move for a group that was still hard at work developing its core fanbase. But “So Wonderful”—a clear tribute to the classic K-pop group Wonder Girls—remains the brightest gem of their short year. It’s an undeniable blast of Motown and 70s disco glories, down to the Chic guitar and Jamerson basslines. It was one of the earliest and most positive examples of a dominant trend this year: K-pop’s increasing awareness of not just global pop history, but its own.


f(x) - "Red Light"

Though less grave, another heavy theme of the past 12 months has been the sudden implosion of some of the industry’s biggest and most remarkable groups. The first shock came in May, when Kris—one of the most popular members of EXO, a 12-piece boy band—suddenly filed a lawsuit against the very agency that industrialized the modern K-pop machine, SM Entertainment, and abruptly defected home to China for more freedom and better pay. It came as a huge blow to the most massively successful act of K-pop’s new generation, who had to abruptly cease promotions for the excellent Overdose mini-album. But it was just the beginning— another hysterically popular Chinese member, Luhan, followed Kris’ footsteps in October. The plot continues to thicken: the two members’ legal battles with SM are ongoing, while the remnant 10 members continue to rack up awards and crowds in the tens of thousands in China and South Korea.

SM’s headaches didn’t end there. Equally surprising was Jessica’s September expulsion from Girls’ Generation, the former nine-piece who arguably began the entire modern K-pop phenomenon with their 2009 opus “Gee.” Irreconcilable differences ensued when Jessica used her fame to launch an ambitious fashion label called Blanc & Eclare. As with Kris and Luhan, Jessica was one of the more iconic members of her group, and her departure comes as a concern for their continued viability. But Girls’ Generation is recording new material and earlier this month brought a sold-out crowd of nearly 60,000 to the Tokyo Dome on a weeknight, so as with EXO, there’s fight in these titans yet.

But most damning of all was B.A.P’s six members filing a group lawsuit against their agency TS Entertainment, accusing them of “slave contracts” and an incredible dossier of abuse: forced isolation from family members, involuntary IV drip insertion for added energy after too many all-nighters, mandatory performances against doctors’ stern advice, and just one $16,000 paycheck for each member after two years of continuous labor and over $9 million in revenue. The precedent set by the outcome of this litigation, whatever it may be, will prove historic.

A relatively minor setback remains our most rued of the year. f(x), K-pop’s reigning champs of the album format, had to abruptly halt their new album’s promo cycle just a couple weeks deep after the youngest member Sulli had a breakdown and demanded an indefinite hiatus to spend time with her boyfriend and, evidently, go clubbing. Improbably enough, their visionary lead single “Red Light” boasts not only one of the most sophisticated song structures in this year’s pop cannon, but also a lyric sheet that seems to be some sort of oblique commentary on K-pop’s recent straits. Though it’s possible we may lose this daring quintet all too soon, we retain hope that they may reform for another classic record in 2015. (Last year’s Pink Tape remains the standard to beat. For everyone.)


Seo Taiji - " “Sogyeokdong”

We could go on; we could talk about 2014 until it’s 2015. But it feels most appropriate to leave this narrative with the guy who, perhaps to his own chagrin, started it all: Seo Taiji. It was this bespectacled weirdo who, with his voraciously genre-digestive debut record of 1992, set the template for everything K-pop was to become. Now 42, the old master presents Quiet Night, his ninth and best album yet. “Sogyeokdong”—a melancholy meditation on Taiji’s childhood amidst the military dictatorship of 80s Seoul, and those who didn’t make it out alive – is the most resonantly mournful thing one might call K-pop this year, especially in the hit version sung by cherub-voiced songstress IU.

It’s a fitting place to end 2014 not simply for the way Quiet Night subverts old Christmas tropes to convey fresh social critique, or for the way in which this video ably answers the standards set by “FxxK U” and “Melted,” or even for the way this year at many times felt like a funeral. What matters most here is that, as the human resources paradoxically central to K-pop’s post-human commercial aspirations continue to realize the importance of their own desires—to be fairly compensated, to return home to family, to start a clothing company, to fall in love—Seo Taiji’s recent words will ring prescient. In his first television interview in nearly two decades, the nation’s de facto “President of Culture” was asked to give some advice to the assembly line of pop idols who have long been mass-produced to achieve the same success he once achieved all by himself.

“They should just do what they want,” he said, without a moment’s pause. “Do what they feel like doing.”

Whether it’s the end of K-pop as we know it or the dawn of its true golden age, we know he must be right.

Follow Jakob Dorof on Twitter.