By Giacomo Lee. Read the dark side to Seoul city in his novel Funereal, out now on Amazon UK & US.
Seeing Korean rock band Jaurim‘s take on the Brown Eyed Girls hit Abracadabra has made me wonder just how much of an edgier undercurrent one can find to the current crop of girl groups in South Korea. Challenging the common perception of Korean & Asian pop in general being toothless and manufactured, pop rockers CNBlue are currently ruling the roost without once letting go of their guitars, nor breaking out into a dance routine on stage like other all-male peers would. Couple this with the rising profile of Korean indie, and the fact female-fronted rock bands like Jaurim and Cherry Filter have been around for a good few years now, and it’s time for a look at if and how such background distortion is inspiring girls in Kpop to break the mould.
Jaurim covering Abracadabra is fitting for a few reasons. When released back in 2009, the original generated controversy with promo lipstick-Sapphic antics unheard of at the time in Korea, marking a change in image not just for pop group Brown Eyed Girls, but for the entire representation of sexuality in Kpop in general. Hark back to Madonna raunching up the disco scene in the 80s and you come close to how the video’s minimally stark mix of leather and gyration looked when compared to the usual chipper girls showing off their thighs in colourful hot pants. The track’s harsh electro worked much the same way, replacing bubblegum pop with no smiles and a lot more bite, as seen below.
While a more nuanced increase in sexual suggestion doesn’t necessarily correlate to the backlash of grunge & punk, nor, say, the Beatles ditching Merseybeat, it’s still interesting nonetheless to see the ripple effect B.E.G. had in the palate of Kpop imagery. A few years later would find acts like Sunny Hill debuting with gothic sounds and imagery (see the darkly named Midnight Circus), and the rise of distinctly uncutesy teens 2NE1, whose every other release comes off titled like a playground taunt (I Dont Care, Hate You etc). The Wondergirls went a little electroclash on their last album too. But with each of these songs, it’s hard to hear a move away from the dancefloor destination intended by their producers. Even among the Burton burlesque of the Midnight Circus MV one will find a dance routine at the middle of it all. It still seems that we have to look to the Brown Eyed Girls for innovation in the field.
Despite a disappointing foray into swing-pop on their 2011 return Sixth Sense, individual B.E.G. projects have wielded some great surprises, like the spooked pop of Narsha‘s Bbi Ri Bba Bba. Moody and different like Abracadabra, but without a need for overt sexuality, the rather bizarre promo for the song takes the Gaga aesthetic away from Eurotrashiness, and makes far better use of the American star’s penchant for strange costumes and androgyny.
Bandmate Miryo meanwhile went solo in 2012 to come up with Dirty, a punky pop number served well by a devilishly skewed MV, Park Chan-wookesque in its depiction of a comatose Carrie-in the making who watches as her lover routinely gets it on with the nurse during visiting hours. The spitefully rapped verses remind you how Korean women are the only Asians who can really carry a nastay mouth straight outta the Bronx, and the bridge is a barked series of threats that I really wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. There’s an all-out rock version of the song too, but check out the original first.
Anyone looking for more signs of upheaval in the world of KPop should also note the arrival of Sweet Revenge, who go out on stage with guitars and drums to perform their own material, but without a team of songwriters like CNBlue have. Despite the ‘sell-out’ misgivings of fans who knew them from their indie days, it’s still encouraging to see a girl band rock out on a major label, and it’ll be very interesting to see how they climb the ranks in 2013.
Similarly keep an eye on Yoari, who burst onto the scene with the roaring Do You Like It? in January. The closest counterpoint I can think of is Siouxsie Soux singing over QOTSA in gonzo mode, with a chorus that actually outrocks more ‘credible’ rock bands like Jaurim, who sound tepid in the afterglow of Yoari’s shreddage. Interestingly, Yoari was supposed to be the fifth member of Brown Eyed Girls, but her image was considered to be at odds with the band’s more ‘innocent’ look back in the day. Do you like it? I think you will.