As luck would have it: SM Entertainment & SuperM

You can just imagine the increasingly horrific consternation crossing the features of SM execs over the past two years, as BTS, the K-pop boy band from not one of the Big Three, broke more barriers and records then any previous group before them. Being the first South Korean group to hit #1 on the Hot 100 (for two consecutive weeks) must have hit particularly hard for an entertainment agency that has carefully leveraged every last one of its resources into building a reputation for the nation’s best and brightest pop music. Building an empire takes a lot of time and meticulous planning, capital and vast resources, and enormous talent and likable personalities, but it also takes one fickle factor no one has any control over: luck. That last elusive ingredient has changed everything for BTS. In 2020, the boy band’s track record now includes high-profile appearances on American talk shows (day and night), award shows, magazine cover stories, and the privilege of having physical copies of their CD albums stocked in big stores with tiny, exclusive shelf space like Target. SM Entertainment might have laid the very important groundwork, but you can imagine how they might be seething over not reaping the same prestige and pride that Big Hit does for really cracking the code (what other purpose does giving SuperM the same initials as the company serve, other than ego?).

We’re now seeing changes and accommodations for K-pop in the music industry that fans could only dream about ten years ago, including category designations for major awards and charts (my favorite is Billboard’s new Global 200 and Global Excl. US). Certainly, K-pop can’t be credited on its own, not with the hard work and patience of groups with global-popularity like BABYMETAL and Perfume, but the popularity that BTS ushered in has done something unique in America — the very sloth-like, near-miraculous job of normalizing and reinforcing Asian pop music and celebrity, of folding it into mainstream culture the way anime and manga has been doing over the last few decades.

This tentative embracing of Asian culture and celebrities for the long-term benefits everyone: the leading trade publication in the US for music sales, has expanded its coverage in recent years to artists like Perfume, Kenshi Yonezu, and Arashi. Finally coming to terms with the enormous influence and success of the business overseas and its potential to generate revenue stateside, it created an entire K-pop subsection on its web site. These aren’t trifles, and it comes with its stumbling blocks (K-pop, for example, is still mostly “other,” and the creation of all of these separate categories says a lot about how it’s still handled in a way to keep it carefully segregated from everyday, Western pop), but it’s progress. All of these highlights are important not because Western coverage legitimizes East Asian pop culture, but because some of these changes acknowledge that it is more than a one-hit wonder or passing phenomenon stateside, and is here for the stay, with those at the top finally making an effort to ensure it. And if BTS’s lasting success in all of this is what is takes to keep that fire lit under SM, I’m all for it.

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. All of them bring good looks and particular talents to the group, from dance to vocals to affable personality as a group constructed solely for the purpose of courting the same kind of success in the US that BTS has. The obvious rivalry would be comedic if it weren’t so earnest. After dropping their first EP last year with the earworm-y “Jopping” (because not only are they here to prove that they are the better K-pop boy band, they are also the more innovative!), the group returns this month with their first full-length album Super One, which includes the digital singles “Tiger Inside,” and “100,” both sequels exploiting aggressive boy-band energy with slick, metallic CGI, typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), and the kind of fast-paced, robust choreography that makes two hours of cardio at the gym seem like a warm-up. Pay particular attention to the song titles and lyrics, purposely selected to exploit its fan base and maximize its brand. This is the kind of album as clinical in its musical approach as the group’s construction itself, which of course, makes it no less methodical than any other major-label pop album.

Super One is not perfect, but like its predecessor, it mostly checks out. Longtime fans will appreciate the SM hallmarks all over here: the polished hooks and spotless production, the professional approach to songwriting and structure down to a precise science but infused with the lustrous X-factor that makes a song not just a song, but a hit. There’s some filler (“Better Days”) and some obvious condescension to trends that annoy more than they succeed (“Drip”), but other songs, like the lead titles “One (Monster & Infinity),” while clearly re-hashed concepts from EXO, are no less fun or aptivating for their lack of originality. It’s a very different approach than that of BTS’s, which is perhaps why though SuperM is doing well, they’re still not at the same level of fanatical popularity. SuperM lacks the organic chemistry of BTS, and the wide-eyed and earnest DIY approach to songwriting the group is known for. As an SM group, this is exactly what one would expect, and I don’t think we’d really want it any other way.

However it does highlight the company’s ongoing quest for that ever elusive ingredient: luck. SM refuses to give in to their lack of it, instead doubling down with Super One on skill, talent, money, the psychology of fans and consumers, and aggressive marketing campaigns. Concentrating on these objectives can give the company a sense of control in a situation almost completely out of their hands: the reception and embrace of fans and a wider audience outside of South Korea. Certainly doing all of the above gives them an enormous advantage, but it’s no fail-safe, and it will be interesting to see how the album does in the next few months with touring and meet-and-greets still unsafe in the U.S, and yet another new BTS album scheduled for release in November. While this story develops, stay tuned for a week of BTS on Jimmy Fallon!

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Top ten albums of 2015, #3: SHINee’s Married To The Music

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SHINee: Married To The Musicshineemarrapp

Girls’ Generation might have been around longer than SHINee, but not much longer — SNSD debuted with “Dasi Mannan Segye (Into the new world)” in 2007, while SHINee released their first single a year later in 2008. But the boy band has managed to avoid many of the potholes that seem to be tripping up the girl group, which is mostly to say, that while the quality of SNSD’s music declined, it took a sharp nosedive after the departure of Jessica; SM Entertainment truly does not care about Girls’ Generation anymore. Maybe they always sensed a waning interest, maybe they understand how fragile a group can become when the original members are no longer intact, or maybe they sense the futility when there are so many new girl groups who are doing SNSD so much better than they can, and maybe that’s why sister group f(x) (also under SM) also got the short end of the production stick (in this case, pretty much everyone agrees that f(x) got SHINee’s leftovers; great leftovers, and yet).

Odd was released in May of this year, followed three months later by this repackaged version, Married To The Music. It’s essential that we examine MTTM, rather than Odd, because the former contains two extra songs that I simply can’t live without, particularly “SAVIOR.” This is an album that grows on you, rather than pulling you in from the beginning, the type of songs that take root and blossom over time. These are mostly jazzed-up R&B songs, deep-fried in pop, the kind that SM is famous for, with an ear worm of a 90’s house lead single. Despite all the vocal flourishes and genre influences on this album, it never feels overwhelming. Instead, it feels like just the right mix of dance, hip-hop, and five unmistakable vocals, coming together in a fun, understated declaration of what victorious staying-power sounds like.

Top ten albums of 2015, #4: Red Velvet’s The Red

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redvelvettheredRed Velvet: The Red

A lot of the criticism that Red Velvet gets stems from their perceived inheritance of everything f(x) lost with the departure of Sulli. They’re considered knock-offs, the worst kind, that don’t even get original material but hand-me-downs and rejects, the stuff f(x) probably took a hard pass on. But it’s impossible to compare the two when f(x) released such a dismal follow-up to two of the greatest K-pop albums of all time. I didn’t hate 4 Walls, but it certainly has none of the subversive elements of Pink Tape or ambition of Red Light. Even if you like both SHINee’s “View” and title song “4 Walls” despite the fact that they’re so similar (maybe that’s why you like them? I know I do), it’s hard to find redeeming qualities in duds like “Glitter” and “Traveler.”

On the other hand, label mates Red Velvet might still be considered rookies, but their album sounds more like what 4 Walls could have been if it wasn’t constrained by f(x)’s need to stay so Insta-hip. “Dumb Dumb” has the effusiveness of “Cheos Salangni (Rum Pum Pum Pum)” even when it doesn’t have any of the underlying mystery. Unburdened like their veteran superordinates, Red Velvet is able to embrace tried-and-true K-pop formulas like “Huff n’ Puff” and “Red Dress,” songs that might not be particularly special, but that have such high production value and catchy staying-power, it’s impossible not to find yourself scrolling past 4 Walls to get to The Red again. “Oh Boy” knows all the right ways to emphasize keyboard, while more R&B numbers finally perfect the group’s earlier attempts with “Automatic.” By the time “Cool World” hits, it’s easy to forgive SM’s relentless attempts to keep reminding you they created once-legendary group Girls’ Generation and would like to continue breaking out that sound just to remind you on “1 Day.” The Red might not be a perfect album, but it has so many hooks hanging on impeccable arrangements, it makes 4 Walls sound less and less the cool comeback it was supposed to be. It’s official: Amber too good, too pure for this world.

Stay Girls: Not Quite a Decade of Girls’ Generation

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It’s almost the year 2015 and I still don’t know all the members of Girls’ Generation. In fact, there’s only a few I do know; there’s Hyoyeon — she’s the incredible dancer who doesn’t get enough screen time, presumably because she’s often ranked last in the attraction rankings; then there’s Sunny — the one who’s really good at aegyo; and now there’s Jessica — she’s the one who just got kicked out of the group, foreshadowing the end of Girls’ Generation and K-pop as we know it. Even though we’re well beyond the Golden Age of K-pop, Korean pop music has always had its defining starlets to keep the wave crashing just a little bit longer. But now that one of the longest running groups is finally experiencing turbulence with its line-up, it’s only a matter of time before Girls’ Generation finally stop being girls.

Like many fans, I came to know So Nyeo Si Dae (or SNSD, or Girls’ Generation, or even Shoujo Jidai, as they’re known in Japan) when they released the super hit “Gee.” Up until then, the group had mostly been coasting on being SM Entertainment’s latest and having one of the largest number of members in its group at that time. Their signature hit wasn’t only a spectacularly catchy pop song, but one that came with a list of grievances, no matter how many people try to find empowerment in its music video. The fact is, that like most of SNSD’s early hits, the songs are all about an object of infatuation, someone so cute, so handsome, so blindingly brilliant, that it renders the girls unable to sleep, stay still, or even make eye contact. Their hearts beat, they blush, they feel shy, oppreul saraghae etc. Their target audience is certainly the boys and men they’re singing about and to, but many young girls and older women love the group just as much. The coordinated outfits, long legs, constant makeovers, and overwhelmingly feminine visuals appeal to those looking not just for lust objects, but role models, someone to illustrate how to be an ideal woman: how she looks, acts, dresses, and flirts. Once you realize how tempting it is to just give in to the idea that the group was allegedly created for ahjossis (middle-aged men) is when you realize how that would ignore the hypocritical and sometimes infuriating messages it sends to girls and young women (and in this, there really is no suitable ranking — which is worse: churning out attractive girls in a factory-style system complete with requisite plastic surgery for the eyes and wallets of men, or in order to educate women on what the proper feminine form should look and act like? It’s a lose-lose).

Sometime after their initial popularity, SNSD slowly began morphing into something some see as empowering, and others as simply arrogance. This change surprisingly coincided with their Japanese debut, a country not exactly known for allowing their large-numbered female pop groups agency. Instead of sweet pop songs, their music took on an edge, a forceful, tough sound more in line with Western pop songs. They (where “they” means mostly male songwriters) also provided countless definitions and contradictions for who they, as girls, were and could be. In “BAD GIRL” on 2011’s GIRLS’ GENERATION, they claim to be the perfect bad girls, presumably a far cry from the blushing good girls who could only hoot hoot hoot when their boyfriend checked out someone in front of them: “You’ll become a prisoner soon / you’ll become a slave” to their unique style, they sing. Yet later on the album on “BORN TO BE A LADY,” they sing “Ah, even if I’m a tiny girl / who doesn’t have any strength / One day, I will become stronger.” In their Korean comeback that same year they proceeded to “bring the boys out” and stop their diet, but just for one day, because they felt like lazy girls. On the Japanese track “Gossip Girls,” they “put up a confident face; however / We are lookin’ for love all the time… / We are lonely girls.” But maybe the ultimate manifesto is the track on their second Japanese album “Stay Girls”: they know they have to grow up, yet “we stay girls / Innocent, pure hearts / no matter what the future holds / Don’t change who you are / Stay girls.” They want to stay girls and they’re going to stay girls, as long as the public demands it.

This isn’t just the indulgent wish of long-time fans: it’s the dream of almost every human being alive — to preserve youth and innocence, even if just on the inside. Ideally, idol groups would also stay young forever, churning out hit after relevant hit, rather than burning out, fading away, breaking up, changing line-ups, or worse: daring to grow older or move forward.

The three biggest entertainment agencies in Korea (SM, YG, and JYP) each have their own unique brand, and SM Entertainment’s hallmark has always been not just creating stars, but creating youthful, upbeat idols who sell charisma like it’s a product. It is a product. As an SM trainee, you are sold just as effectively as you will in turn Samsung phones. But just as there’s a shelf-life to any and all electronic products, so too do idol groups come and go, their purposes varying as far as to entertain, to empower, to delight, or to make you feel bad about that extra ten pounds you carry around. But even SM doesn’t have the power to stop a member from deciding that it’s time to go solo.

Although the announcement that Jessica would be leaving Girls’ Generation was met with some controversy, the general idea is that Jessica wanted out — whether to get married, or to pursue a career in fashion. That the decision was made while Girls’ Generation is still riding a massive wave all over Asia is more than just coincidental — it’s imperative. Says Kpopalypse:

“[W]hen your group is peaking, you’re more valuable. […] [Y]ou’ve got a better chance to sign a deal with favorable terms if you’re already hot in the marketplace as opposed to the newcomer with no bargaining power that you were when you first started training. It’s not uncommon to see the most ambitious members of a group start getting itchy feet especially in the Korean system, because not only are they mostly making fuck all money, they’re all aware that you can’t be an idol group member forever. Eventually your fan base will mature, someone younger and prettier than you is going to take that “idol” spot, and if you don’t have a backup plan, you might not end up with much.”

That Jessica was prematurely kicked out due to a case of sour grapes doesn’t preclude the fact that she would have left the group either by the end of 2014 or early 2015 regardless. Meanwhile, the rest of the girls have renewed their contracts for another three years — perhaps the last three years we might see new material from the group.

Regardless, their older material has already immortalized SNSD as forever-girls, the quintessential idols able to adapt new concepts and personalities by the month: from rainbow-colored skinny jean-clad mannequins, to “marines,” to 1960’s spy girls. In trying to be all things to all people (strong, aeygo, humble, weak, bold, shy, sometimes all in the span of one variety show appearance), we’ll never know how well we really knew any of these young women, except that they were hardworking, talented individuals who were sometimes coerced into doing things they might not have always wanted to, and always with a smile on their face. Because of this, it was easy to feel we owned them, and they owed us, when in truth, we were just lucky to live on the same planet. They weren’t always the girls you wanted your daughter or younger sister emulating, but theirs was probably still the album you turned on when you meant to start straightening up the house and found yourself dancing with the vacuum cleaner. Because in spite of the mixed messages, egregious double-standards, and questionable lyrics, their discography is filled with some of the greatest pop songs of the last decade: memorable, concise, upbeat, and best played loud.

Below the cut, is my personal ranking of my favorite SNSD albums and mini-albums (a very relative list, considering how amazing the discography is overall). I encourage you to build your own. Continue reading