Deadly accidents, suicides, and nervous breakdowns. It was the year K-Pop turned into a Thomas Pynchon novel. Two women from Ladies’ Code died in a September car accident. A father hacked his 13 year-old daughter to death for listening to EXO. 16 concertgoers died when a grate collapsed at a 4Minute performance in October.
Tragedies like these paralleled the disasters of South Korea’s bureaucracy, the largest of which was May’s ferry capsizing that killed 295 passengers. The company that ran the MV Sewol ferry overloaded the cargo by 500 tons, spent a total of $2 on the crew’s safety training, and when the captain complained about it they threatened to fire him.
How does music fight that, least of all a pop band? The Korean pop industry manufactures sugary pop groups composed of young men and women trained by agencies from youth to the point of maladjustment to be singing, dancing fashion mannequins. (So it’s just like the American music industry.)
And yet…some groups become popular enough they begin to master their own message. That’s what happened with the album Red Light and your new favorite band named after a quadratic function: f(x).
f(x) is made of the function girls – f(Victoria), f(Amber), f(Luna), f(Sulli), and f(Krystal). That already speaks volumes about how K-Pop views its stars.
Like most pop music, K-Pop adheres to a formula that makes it difficult to match the inventiveness and creativity of the best independent music around the world, but f(x) had conquered South Korea and achieved rare crossover in the United States with their second album, Pink Tape. This allowed them the freedom to start on a darker path with this year’s Red Light.
The album’s flagship single, the eponymous “Red Light,” attacks the agency-driven K-Pop industry, misogynist expectations of young women in Korea, and a government paid for by companies that cut corners and put citizens’ lives at risk.
The song was recorded before the ferry disaster, but had a choice of other tragedies to choose from. Its music video, however, uses archetypes – an unanswered phone, a burning rulebook, crosses worn like blinders, men in gas masks, exploding houses – to create a statement of dissension. K-Pop cliches like basic isolation dancing and rap solos are still there, but all of its framework is turned on its head.
“Red Light” was as brave a roundhouse as K-Pop has ever delivered, but the album is not always so controversial. It’s easy to imagine “MILK” as the album’s lead single if the band hadn’t felt so bold. “MILK” combines K-Pop style with Bollywood percussion cues and American pop choruses.
And what about “All Night,” which sounds like a lost, 30 year-old Michael Jackson song?
There’s also “Boom Bang Boom,” which sounds like Doom’s original 8-bit soundtrack met a Jessie J. anthem.
Or how about “Spit It Out,” a hyperspeed electronic rave about a consuming, heartless boy who carelessly eats a girl’s heart? “Spit It Out,” they demand. Listen to the cute, charming lyrics once or twice, in contrast to its rave instrumentation, and it’s hard to avoid the metaphor for rape culture, as prevalent in Korea as it is in the U.S.
This is how f(x) does something bold and new. They take the K-Pop brand and use its intentionally designed kawaii (“cute” or “lolita”) elements to directly address the culture that gave them this voice.
American music magazines like Fyre and Fuse have praised f(x)’s addictive pop music, calling them “K-Pop’s top hipsters,” but their praise falls short by defining them so dismissively. This is a group that’s beginning to use its voice to take social stands for a generation of South Koreans viewed only as consumers in the present, not leaders in the future. Kawaii has been developing as a punk-parallel protest movement in Korea and elsewhere for the last few years. This split from mainstream kawaii is one of the most interesting counter-culture movements in the world. It is uniquely borderless and comes with a pre-developed language so far immune to political recourse. With Red Light, f(x) uses its mainstream access to further define and popularize the language of protest kawaii.
Red Light was widely praised, but controversial. The band was still one of the biggest girl groups in K-Pop this year. But they also saw a whiplash response, including critical controversies due to their more political subject matter and a weird temporary refusal to broadcast. Since the album’s release, f(Sulli) has taken a leave of absence due to exhaustion and stress from the reaction to Red Light. Does this put the group at risk? Did f(x) fly too close to the sun? Is there any other K-Pop group with the mind to take their music in this direction?
Welcome to K-Pop, a melodramatic music genre that – in its dying breath – f(x) sent a shockwave through in the space of an album. Will they survive? Will they still be as brave? Tune in next time.
– JJ Kim, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabriel Valdez
This article is part of our series on the top 35 albums of 2014. Here’s the list as we unveil it.