DBSK’s “Wae (Keep Your Head Down)”: A Defense

DBSK / Wae (Keep Your Head Down) / Jan 03, 2011

It would be easy to sit here and poke fun at the promotional video, one of the ugliest in the history of pop music, but there’s so much going on musically here that I’m going to ignore the ridiculous costumes and the fake fire and the persistent, eerie trope of male solidarity via face-offs between the two surviving members and talk about the song.

The structure: there is none. I listened to this song for an hour straight at one point and I still have no idea what’s going to come next at any moment: a verse, a chorus, some rap, perhaps a marching-band interlude? Like any relationship experiencing pent-up frustration, it’s messy and made up entirely of visceral reactions, a scribbled laundry list of grievances and accusations meant to inflict as much hurt and damage as possible.

This month we’ve been seeing a lot of puppy-love pop songs, stuff about shy boys and visual dreams, but this is one of the rare aggressive songs to come lumbering out of SM Entertainment. There are no tears here: no pining, no pleading, just hatred from the gut and raps with enough spite to fill that massive bass. There’s a notable repetition of rhetorical questions, the restless need to go over the same territory again and again until it resembles a broken record of resentment. Finally he bids her goodbye, this two-faced, lying, immature woman who made him the bad guy before he even knew she left and wishes her happiness, by this time a sarcastic, poisonous farewell, a promise of revenge he would carry out if she wasn’t already dead to him.

There’s only two of the five members left now and that’s what makes this all the more an oddity, maybe, that it’s possibly a message from the record company to the three members who filed lawsuits, that it’s the best song DBSK ever released, and that there’s an 85% chance this group will never release anything as relatable or as real as this again.

Friday night Oricon (April 05, 2010)

An every Friday in a while look at the weekly Oricon Top Twenty Singles Chart.

East Asians love their ballads almost as much as they do their boy bands. Not power ballads, mind you, nor the restrained acoustic nonchalance that marks alternative, in case you didn’t start weeping yet here are some violins by way of example ballads, but the R&B trilling of rising cymbals and xylophone scales that appears twice as often as Ayumi Hamasaki channels Madonna.  Newcomers to East Asian pop may be just as disappointed as longtime fans who should know better to find the beat-driven lead single off a new album to be the only song of its kind among the dozen other tracks that feature vocal arias and a piano solo. Take for example S.H.E’s new album SHERO where the first two tracks are fit for any Top 40 and further push the techno rock repertoire the Taiwanese trio has cultivated since their inception, while the rest of the album aims for Korean drama territory, the type where someone lies dying of a terminal illness while family members watch on in guilt and sadness.

Girl and boy bands are particularly susceptible, maybe because they have a reputation of catering amour via lullabies to their young male or female fans or maybe just because they have enough people to make some interesting harmonies. Regardless, all of the cliches are present in the video for this week’s number one Oricon single, Tohoshinki’s “Toki wo Tomete“: dolorous colors in tan, black, off-black, dark black, beige, and gray, imploring gazes with overwrought lip-synching, faces crumpling as if physical torture is being leveled off camera, crazy-wide, but gentle!, arm gestures, and of course, a love interest. That the entire video takes place in a planetarium only highlights the crucial cosmically devotional aspect in case the lyrics weren’t helping. “Sometimes even little tiny things make me want to cry” they sing. Hear that ladies: These sensitive dudes need your love. Never mind that one single ago, they held the keys to their future and anything was possible: nothing is possible unless your “hearts sparkle as one.”

If boy bands aren’t your thing this week, SKE48 are here to set your rooftop plaid fantasies to life with the equally traditional J-pop chart topper complete with trumpet and average choreography. Arashi hold on to the chart at number five with “Troublemaker” (perhaps a future article entitled “J-pop Graveyard” will better sum up my feelings about this). Newcomer this week, Miliyah’s “BYE BYE,” a mid-tempo road trip reminiscent of Mika Nakashima, offers the most potential in the top ten, even with its dramatic photo-flying montage. With the inclusion of #11-20, this week’s Oricon chart covers all of its perennial bases: anime character songs, boy bands, girl bands, the rocker’s aging comeback, the indie-spirational chick, even some visual kei. But with no exceptions to the rules, this week is about as exciting as watching five young spirit-men serenade an oblivious human woman.

Tohoshinki vs. Girls’ Generation: Selling the uber-gender

I am very tempted to discuss the gender divide among this week’s most buzzed Korean pop releases in a sort of battle of the super sexes (and I probably will do some shallow probing – them PVs just too good to resist), realizing it will probably make me unpopular among fans who like their girls to be girls and boys to be boys, as dictated by the exploitation of some seriously conservative gender values. But I don’t want it to seem like I’m completely anti-cute, which in the case of Girls’ Generation/SNSD’s “Oh!” would be completely off: you guys, this PV is oh em gee, double exclamation point adorable and what else would you expect from a record company that asks for winks, flashes of the peace sign, and displays of comical shock and awe among the audition pieces?

But we take these things for granted now, almost as much as all those tough looking guys on the boy band side like Tohoshinki/DBSK who have to consciously navigate the tender line between innocence and sexual development in order to appeal to young girls who should not, should never, think about sex. The angry young man archetype has been replaced by the new Asian boy band archetype: the angry young dancing man, who wraps himself in Johnny Cash’s wardrobe, loves to chill with the boys, and sings about how hard it is to just like, live your own life, man. As it is the girl groups’ duty to “Feel so embarrassed, I can’t look at you / I feel shy because I’ve fallen in love,” it is the boy bands’ duty to keep on pressing the optimistic, but over emphasized, notion of the young and ignorant that absolutely everything is within your control: strong men make their own destiny, women fall in love with them.

Lest I start becoming too critical, Girls’ Generations leading single off the new album “Oh!” and Tohoshinki’s “BREAK OUT!” are both incredibly succinct pop songs, almost to a fault. Tohoshinki has proven their Japanese crossover a success, accumulating groupies like Ayumi Hamasaki, and reaching number one on the Oricon daily charts with “BREAK OUT!”, a very bold song (boys are aggressive!) in comparison to Girls’ Generation’s fluffy, cheerleading “Oh!” (girls are nurturing!). We have yet to pin the two in any sort of overseas charting competition, as the only Korean crossovers we’ve had are boy bands (Tohoshinki, Big Bang – and please correct me if I’m wrong).

While the PV for “Oh!” ends with the girls encountering their doppelgangers in black (perhaps a future twist of their cute hallmark), I’d much rather see SM Entertainment give them the same commecial push they’ve given Tohoshinki, though I’m admittedly on the fence about their ability to succeed; Girls’ Generations albums, as a whole, are about as bad as their singles are good. “Oh!” itself is a rather broken album, one reason I find myself passing over Girls’ Generation more often than I do debating the merits of the possibility of their becoming Japanese pop’s next big thing (after all, in sheer numbers they’re ready to compete with the likes of any Hello! Project subgroup and more than willing to preen for enthusiastic wotas).

If you’re interested in far more scholarly gender issues on Girls’ Generation (or gender/sexuality in Korean pop in general), I recommend this post by James Turnbull over at The Grand Narrative (who also does a fantastic take on the G-Dragon scandal).