Hello, Toasties. Your K-pop enthusiast here, now working in conjunction with the brilliant Maddie Lee. The last time we were discussing Korean pop music, we stuck strictly to the female side of the line and tried to get at questions of agency, representation, and how much y’all love Amber. (A lot, natch.) There is also lots to listen to from the guys’ camp; realize, though, that it all comes with caveats. Put it this way: want a K-pop male group whose members get treated well and get some say over their work, and whose management makes sure to avoid misogynist lyrics and culturally offensive photoshoots? So do we. If you see one, let us know. In the meantime, here’s a range of distinctly imperfect yet frequently fun pop groups at work, with guides to their in-house strife, wince-inducing public communications, and most interesting songs—all gathered here, for your convenience.
If You’re Looking to Impress at SXSW: Big Bang
With their attention to craft (and their having won the right to write much of their own work), Big Bang has the name most often dropped internationally. The group skyrocketed to fame in Korea when they ditched hip-hop for electropop, but ironically, it’s their rap connections that have given them the most cultural cachet on this side of the Pacific—leader G-Dragon’s friendships with the likes of Diplo and Missy Elliott, for instance. They’re Western magazine darlings, grabbing features in publications from The Fader to L’Uomo Vogue, and rapper T.O.P is even a Rolling Stone-verified sex symbol, just in case any of the 98 million viewers of “Fantastic Baby” still had doubts.
Internal Strife: They’ve been together since 2006; at this point they can be forgiven for largely pursuing solo projects.
External Missteps: GD is one of those performers who knows just enough about hip-hop and media representations of black America to stick his foot in his mouth (posing in blackface, calling T.O.P. “my n—-”, and so on).
If You’re Looking to Impress on Tumblr: EXO
Big Bang has been around a while; EXO is the Hot New Thing. Why? Because there are twelve of them. Six are supposed to go out and conquer the elusive, much-coveted Chinese market by singing in Mandarin, so occasionally they promote as EXO-K and EXO-M. But mostly they benefited from a year’s worth of conversations between music video releases, and did we mention there are twelve of them? The English-language K-pop fandom fell so hard for these guys that in 2013 the EXO tag was the second-most popular tag on Tumblr. (One Direction was first.)
Internal Strife: Was limited to making faces at each other on variety shows until mid-May, when one member of EXO-M sued to get out of his contract, sparking several rounds of rumors and ambiguously passive-aggressive Instagram updates.
External Missteps: EXO’s promotions last year came with a sprinkling of colorism—namely branding Kai, who has slightly darker skin, the “foreign one” and giving him cornrows.
Once upon a time, there was a five-man group called DBSK, and they made the video above, and SM Entertainment, one of the biggest agencies in K-pop, was happy. Then three of the five members sued to get out of their “slave contracts.” Four years and much ugliness later, DBSK is a two-man show, and the other three, collectively known as JYJ, are promoting themselves despite a years-long unofficial ban from the music shows most K-pop acts rely on to generate buzz. But a decade, together and separately, is a lot of history, especially in an industry so new and so given to churn.
Internal Strife: Um.
External Missteps: See DBSK’s video for “Something,” from January, in which white women are luxury objects.
If You Are Cynical: SHINee
As the industry expands (and Big Bang keeps raking in money), newer groups are freer to pretend that not all is happy and, er, shiny. But SHINee, which debuted in 2008, is made in the older model: five guys who work as a team, no matter what, to produce compelling harmonies and intricate choreography. The tension shows: spend five minutes talking to (or reading fifteen-part Tumblr asks from) someone familiar with SHINee and you’re highly likely to get a long recitation of injuries, slights, in-house fights, possible nervous breakdowns, and an exhausting, inexhaustible font of drama. Are you convinced that everything in entertainment, and K-entertainment especially, is a bankable lie? This is your group.
Internal Strife: Probably not as high or constant as reported.
External Missteps: The wearing of bandito costumes to perform “Macarena” was especially impressive coming two months before announcing a tour of Latin America.
If You Already Own Much of Sanrio’s Product Line: B1A4
B1A4, unlike every group we’ve covered so far, is not managed by one of the Big Three agencies (SM Entertainment; YG, which manages Big Bang and also Psy; and JYP, which has had more luck with its female groups). To stand out they had to be distinctive, and by “distinctive” we mean “frequently ridiculous.” The members do get input into the songwriting—they wrote or co-wrote ten of the twelve tracks on B1A4’s most recent album—but how much they subscribe to the deeply silly aesthetic is hard to guess. B1A4 World is one of fake glasses, scarf dances, sprout dances, duck jokes, bright colors, and cupcakes; you’ll either be completely charmed or queasy.
Internal Strife: Group hugs. Lots and lots of group hugs.
External Missteps: The recent photoshoot featuring a wig of dreads, an “Indian” headdress, and blackface could have been rethought.
If You Think K-Pop Needs More Latin American Surrealist Influence: B.A.P
K-pop’s vertical-integration model and prefab groups make many Western observers automatically reach for comparisons to factories or robots. B.A.P’s uniformly bleached hair got them Photoshopped into One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” video as an example of gimmicky boy band concepts, but there’s plenty of personality in the group and their music, whether it’s using traditional Korean drum music (studied by one member in university) as a dance break in a single, or leader/lyricist Bang Yongguk sharing his favourite Kahlo paintings and Neruda lines on Twitter.
Internal Strife: Membership carries high risk of unwanted buttpats.
If You Can Ignore the Lyrics (or Believe Guys Who Sing Misogynist Lyrics Should Be Punished by Having to Simulate Homoeroticism): Infinite
Full disclosure: your co-authors are not neutral on Infinite. Your co-authors spent a combined twenty hours waiting in line to see Infinite in concert (at a terrible venue where fans almost got trampled, but that’s another story). Your co-authors may be embarrassingly familiar with the various incarnations of Dragfinite. That said, the group’s catchy 80s-styled discography is nearly all variations on the theme of “Though you have left me, I will ignore your autonomy and pursue you anyway.” And that’s not even counting the song so aggressively about policing a girlfriend’s clothes that it inspired a fan petition to have the video removed from concerts. Feel free to be more taken with Infinite’s dancing and Infinite’s variety-show performances than Infinite’s songwriting team, or refuse to separate the two.
Internal Strife: Hard to tell, given that they’re apparently contractually obligated to flirt with each other daily.
External Missteps: No, really, “Inconvenient Truth” is that bad.
If You Like a Bro-y Redemption Narrative: Jay Park
Back in 2009, Jay Park was the American-born rapper for JYP’s “beast idol” boy band 2PM. (There is also a 2AM, who sing ballads; when together, they are One Day. Yes, really.) Then his old Myspace rants from when he first started training (“Korea is gay”, among other things) got translated, and the resulting uproar got Jay Park booted out of 2PM and back to Washington state. He has since returned and established himself as an independent artist, releasing mixtapes alongside more traditional videos, appearing on Korea’s version of Saturday Night Live, and starting his own label.
Internal Strife: Seems to feel a particular pressure to be “hard,” which means those mixtapes contain a lot of predictable boasting.
External Missteps: Is no longer calling Korea gay; is still prone to post the odd rape-joke-filled Youtube video, though he did take it down after fans protested.
If You’re Ready for What’s Next: BTS
There are many cool things about BTS—their three hypercompetent teen rappers, the fact that the members regularly write their own lyrics and beats, the constant stream of vlogs and goofy candid footage on their YouTube channel—but chief among them is that in 2014, they can do all this and still win the rookie of the year award. With their underground roots, industry breeding and Internet savvy, BTS represent a new era of post-Korean wave rap artist-idols, who are just as likely to make lyrical reference to Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse or release a mixtape-style cover of “#Beautiful” on their SoundCloud as they are to offer up the killer drag fanservice.
Internal Strife: Less within the group than with other Korean underground rappers who have dissed them as “idol-rappers”; BTS’s response was a diss track declaring themselves “above the underground,” for what it’s worth.
External Missteps: According to the video for “Boy In Luv,” the way to confess to your crush is by shoving her against a locker and dragging her through the school hallways by her wrist.
If You Can Only Keep Up with One Single Per Year:
…then let it be “Manyo Maash.” But back to the male side: ZE:A is not a particular standout (says Jessica; Maddie begs to differ), and yet last year they offered “Ghost of the Wind,” a testament to what a good set of strings in the right place can do to the ear. Which is to say that the guide above should get you started but not limit you: in a genre with dozens of new groups appearing every year, the chances for musical serendipity are many. Tell us how we missed your fave in the comments.
Jessica Doyle has two kids, an idea for a dissertation in urban planning, and a lot of writing scattered about the Internet. Madeleine Lee blogs about K-pop at My First Love Story. Both coo lovingly at boy groups, usually in the privacy of their respective homes, and write (and sometimes podcast) for The Singles Jukebox.