Words by Tamar Herman
It’s not every day that a guy dancing around on a fake horse makes headlines, but that’s precisely whatPsy did with the video for his über-viral 2012 hit “Gangnam Style.” Most of the 2 billion people that watched the music video didn’t pick up on the deeper social commentary and critique of Korea’s middle class, but it’s plain to pretty much anyone who knows where Gangnam is and how to pronounce it. What’s more, it was not an isolated incident. Hiding amid the sequins and leather tap pants, some other popular K-pop groups are coming out with incisive messages of their own.
Sure, synchronized dancing, over the top costumes, and twenty-something men wearing eyeliner aren’t typically associated with social revolutions. It might be time to rethink that. South Korea’s seen a lot of public protests in the past, but these days younger people are more interested in sharing their opinions on social media, in socially acceptable ways rather than taking to the streets. In similar fashion, singing songs with social commentary while still fitting into the often-sugary genre most Korean young people listen to, some of K-pop’s up-and-coming acts are rebelling in a socially accepted way.
From the rebellious nature of B.A.P to the in-your-face awesomeness of 2NE1, there are some Korean groups throwing off the typical bubblegum pop attitude usually associated with K-pop in favor of much harsher sounds and messages. It could be seen cynically, as a way for these groups to try to make an impact on a music industry overloaded with K-pop acts. Still, the defiant stances taken by some of these idols are powerfully attractive to Korea’s youth, most of whom don’t have a lot of free time between studying and trying to get into one of Korea’s top universities. Music is a form of expression, and Korean entertainment labels toe the line between what people are really feeling and what is politically correct. Songs that are too riotous will get banned from the airwaves in South Korea, but these groups have figured out the way to sing dissenting messages and still make extremely catchy music.
The four members of 2NE1 are gaining popularity globally for their edgy style and sound. But it’s the group’s message that really makes 2NE1 stand apart from the average K-pop act. “I Am the Best” is about female empowerment and individuality, while the rock-ballad “Ugly” deals with Korea’s obsession with becoming beautiful, and “Come Back Home” is about the addiction to technology. These are 2NE1’s most subversive songs. The music video for “Come Back Home” is essentially 2NE1’s attempt to pull people away from their video games and smart phones, with a reggae-inspired electropop sound.
(A/N: Omitted non-2NE1 related parts)