The Man vs. The Band: Seoul music in Go Go 70s

Go Go 70s Trailer

Zadie Smith summed up musical biopics quite succinctly in her short review of Walk the Line in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays: “musical biopics are always the right story: the struggle toward self-actualization. […] The bad guy in every musician’s biopic is the musician himself” (189-90). But then, Smith is talking about a very real, very pervasive Western success trope of roads to fame besieged by drugs and ego and that very dark night of the soul before redemption. Musicians are biblical figures for Smith, perennial prodigal sons who deal with consequences of fame by wrestling personal demons on a very lonely plain of one: our American heroes have always walked the line alone.

The sociological notion of the individual versus the collective isn’t a very far-fetched schema to apply to Go Go 70s, a Korean musical biopic released in 2008 about real-life band the Devils, who play soul music to an unappreciative American army base before rocketing to fame by citizens enthralled with their gutsy sound (with plenty of American covers – one choice scene involves a brilliant rendition of “Land of 1000 Dances”) and wild image (even these boys don’t eventually skirt a lock-chopping by power drunk police officers). The time of South Korea’s military dictatorship in the early 70s provides a wonderful historical backdrop for the harmony of rock and rebellion without evoking nostalgia fables that render the tale quaint.

The drama of the movie falls very little on what turns out to be the requisite fame-hungry lead singer Sang-Gyu’s shoulders, who pools together two bands to form a quasi-super group in order to fulfill his ambition. Though this successful portrayal of group dynamics can, however, fail to provide emotional reactions to penultimate scenes – a member’s death falls on slightly cold hearts when focusing not on individual personalities, but on the group – it resists becoming Sang-Gyu’s story in order to illustrate larger parallels between The Group, The Band, and The Man. Draft-dodging and violation of midnight curfews may not provoke the same soul-searching tension as drug addiction, daddy-issues or an obsession with a cherubic Carter sister, but it illustrates the boundless loyalties each member has to the band –  “I’m with you guys until the end!” Sang-Gyu shouts while burning his draft notice on stage.

Even Mimi, a lackadaisical love interest, moves from worshiping Sang-Gyu (“I thought of you always, and singing [after] records while others were slacking off. So…so you are… You are ‘soul’ to me”) to finding her inner diva, perhaps the film’s most blatant symbolic representation of discovering one’s own rhythm. Her transformation from band maid to band mascot seems a bit damning at first in its depiction of females finding “freedom” through mini-skirts and make-up, but the confidence and control with which Mimi eventually works the audience shows neither sexual pandering nor demented irony; Mimi finds expression through movement, vocals, and female solidarity, abandoning Sang-Gyu’s flippant affection and embarking on a much more reliable love affair with music.

As news reels depict the Devils’ youth culture as undignified (“thoughtless dance maniacs must be punished”) and officials begin enforcing the strict code of short hair  and modest attire, the band itself undergoes its own turmoil as in-fighting and arrest for subversive ideology threatens the band’s fundamental dedication to soul. Indeed, the villain in this story isn’t the band members’ issues with control, obsession, fame, greed, or a number of other personal struggles that could potentially affect the band, but The Man (a collective acting as a single entity) who threatens The Group (single entities acting as a collective) by making them weak at pivotal moments by choosing individual desires over the good of the band.  Where Go Go 70s falls into the Western biopic trap again suddenly seems a blessing: The Group is restored and the power of music triumphs. Smith again: “It is a very hard-hearted atheist indeed who does not believe that Music Saves” (189).

Catch-up: Last month in rock (sort of)

There are a great deal of records that I would love to have the time to talk about in depth; Morrisey’s Greatest Hits (not his first and most likely not his last, but probably both for me), The Used’s Shallow Believer (hey, remember when McCracken and Way were bosom buddies and that was enough to sell records?), Vampire Weekend’s eponymous (that indie record every major musical publication shit themselves over)… But doesn’t not talking about an album get the point across just as well? Doesn’t it say more if I choose not to lambast a record on the mere intentional spite the omission inspires, that I’m unwilling to even mention a crappy record in the off chance someone might take it upon themselves to prove me wrong? You are welcome, then, to take a listen to Junkie XL’s Booming Back at You. Don’t stop there, take a listen to The Hush Sound and Panic at the Disco‘s newest as well (did anyone else notice all the Sgt. Pepper references in reviews for that record? It’s like Pretty. Odd. has become the Sam’s Town of 2008 for musical musers across the board). But what about the records that were good, just not good enough?

PlayRadioPlay! released Texas last month and the electropop world was immediately abuzz (abuzz = blogs caring enough to upload the leaks). While there’s nothing remotely ambitious about the lyrics (drug addiction, ode to real-time girlfriends), the style of the record appears oddly simple, with grade-school lyrics, low-key tempos, and thin, Death Cab-inspired vocals. While “Some Crap About the Furniture” is a testament to the youthfulness of the record (“You were the best thing summer gave me / Better than silence and no school“), keeping target audience hardly ambiguous, the momentum of the record is ultimately sustained when teenage-cry-cry tracks like “Without Gravity” and “More Like Worst” pigeonhole the record into the typical teenage MySpace chewing gum samples. “Forgiveness, the Enviable Trait,” one of the only moody tracks worth a further listen (and composition: at 2:21 its transience could be the sole hook) provides little consolation: what is the point of this record again? Saying something like that could easily overlook the one incredible half of this record, but there’s not much to do with the leftover tracks.

You wouldn’t be hard pressed to find American rock inspired acts outside of the continent, and while this would be the perfect introduction to ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION’s March album WORLD WORLD WORLD, I’d rather turn it over to Nell, a Korean rock band who released Separation Anxiety and that I, admittedly, did not get around to until two weeks ago (I could talk about WORLD WORLD WORLD but that band has become such a disappointment since Sol-fa, it’s better if I let them die a quiet death). The title song would have you making epic predictions for the rest of the album, which is, of course, hardly the case. “Separation Anxiety” has an amazing melody and finishes on a sweet note (OK, I have no idea what the lyrics are, but the song sounds sad enough – I won’t digress and begin discussing what wonders the intangibility of words can do to a music piece, not here) and “Moonlight Punch Romance” is, well, exactly like the title sounds. It’s amazing: in a country that seems proud that both pop and rock records are inundated with ballads that sound like every Top 40 ballad of the early 90s, that a record finally, maybe, wouldn’t do that, but then it doesn’t have time to, not when it’s busy re-writing each of the songs in succession, some with success (“Afterglow,” the brilliant English-lyriced “Tokyo”), most with failure (everything I didn’t just mention). And dude, he like, totally stole Taka’s glasses in the promotional video.

The days when Q101 weren’t just relevant, they were purveyors of alternative, seem so long ago and that’s probably because they were. I can’t think of anywhere but college radio that Boy Kill Boy’s Stars and the Sea would not only be played, but hailed as the forthcoming Audioslave (do kids still listen to that? I’m stuck for an analogy and uninterested in doing research). The record has some clever punk influences scattered among the tracks, enough to keep them edgy and exciting (“No Conversation,” “Loud and Clear,” the Ramones-esque “Two Soul” – that’s Joey, not the band), but there’s nothing particularly outstanding about the album that makes you want to go out and, you know, download it (the ultimate in 21st century scorn, I know).

Neon Neon isn’t a rock band, not exactly, but I’m going to stretch the Cars influence on Stainless Style as far as I can so I can babble a bit about “Dream Girls,” “I Told Her on Alderaan,” and “Raquel.” More New Order than Big Country, the tracks are nothing less than clever pop tracks that wouldn’t seem out of place on some big name 80s reunion tour (even the vocals sound of-the-date), yet I still can’t think of a better way to relive one of music’s most fun decades without being nauseatingly indulgent in cliches. Yet while “Steel Your Girl” and “I Lust U” are pretty catchy (hey, is that italo disco?), the MSI vocals of “Trick for Treat” and meaningless repetition of “Sweat Shop” and “Luxury Pool” close the doors on the decade, bringing the grunge and rap of the early 90s that ended the party for many a weekend cokehead businessman.

Friday night shuffle IV

Wherein I put the ol’ iRiver on shuffle and post the first five songs that come up.

Tiziano Ferro – 10 piegamenti: Tiziano Ferro is a popular Italian hip hop singer. He has come out with two albums and seems to have dropped off the face of the planet after the release of 111. This is a typical hip-hop song, it’s very catchy and he repeats the title of the song about a billion times. But come on…you gotta’ love Tiziano Ferro.

Witches – Papa: I would love to talk in length about this song, but I really have no idea how it got in my player. This is a pop-rock song from a Korean group and that’s about all I know. It’s not really that great of a song.

Tomoe Shinohara – HAPPY POINT (Maxout mix): Tomoe Shinohara was a crazy hyper-genki Japanese actress/singer who used to host her own television program (LOVE LOVE Aishiteru, or LOVE LOVE I Love You) where she interviewed both musical guests and actors (I’ll never forgot her pseudo-English interview with Robin Williams; one of the most hilarious three minutes of my life) and designed clothes for her Jagged Apple clothing label. Her songs are always bouncy and playful and she’s sure had her share number of anime tie-ins due to her kid-friendly image. She is certainly not the best singer, but for everything upbeat and wacky, she doesn’t disappoint. This song is from her remix album Deep Sound Channel, and it’s not too different from the original song, save for extra beats. Unfortunately, Shinohara has also seemed to disappear off the face of the Earth. Most of her recent work is in Japanese television dramas, her last musical release being a single in 2005, with a handful of years’ hiatus prior.

Yoko Ishida – Otome no Policy (Instrumental): The karaoke version of either a closing or opening song to the original anime Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon. I noticed a lot of SM songs come up on my player’s shuffle. This is probably due to that fact that I have pretty much all 37-some of the original released soundtracks. Yeah…there was a lot.

Zoey – My Love: Typical American-imitating Japanese pop/hip hop. I’m not a big fan of Zoey at all, besides her cover of Bjork’s “Venus as a Boy,” which does not represent the rest of her music at all.