Tag Archives: K-Pop

These Were June’s Best Music Videos

Every month has a few great music videos and June was no exception. This month also had a logjam when it came to the really good ones that sit just behind them. With summer starting, dance videos are ramping up. There were also a number of videos with LGBTQ+ themes.

This isn’t uncommon – musicians from Lil Nas X to Allison Ponthier could make arguments as the music video artist of the year so far, with wildly different videos and even whole artistic universes based on representation and acceptance. June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month, and I think this played into seeing an even bigger wave of LGBTQ+ videos.

It’s also worth mentioning that artists like Bo Burnham and Wolf Alice each dropped a ton of videos this month. You probably would’ve seen Burnham’s “White Woman’s Instagram” or Wolf Alice’s “Lipstick on the Glass” if this were a top-25 countdown. Burnham released a number of comedic videos and Wolf Alice continues laying down chapters in what amounts to a larger film of connected music videos. A list like this isn’t necessarily built to group those larger, multi-month projects, but they can still be worth following. We’ll keep an eye on them; we’ve gone in-depth with similar projects in the past.

Let’s get into it. This month’s music videos were selected by Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez.

CW: Photosensitivity Warning; Strobing Effects

10. God Save This Queen – Bimini
directed by Kassandra Powell

Bimini is a British drag queen and model who gained fame on “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK”. “God Save This Queen” marks their first single. I love how the punk editing and mentality are thrown together with high fashion concepts and a pointed sense of humor.

It’s a beautiful statement video that’s simultaneously fun and inviting. It’s brash and confrontational, while at the same time embarrassing anyone who might seek to confront it. That humor and inviting nature gives it a disarming charm. That’s certainly not a line Bimini should have to walk, but that they choose to and do it so well is what makes the video.

9. The King – Sarah Kinsley
directed by Lux

This is a solid performance video anchored by a superb, 75-second opening one-take and those explosively stagey elements that introduce the chorus. It’s a great fusion of set, costume, performance, and editing.

Lux is Hannah Lux Davis, who’s directed videos for Doja Cat, Bebe Rexha, David Guetta, Kacey Musgraves, and has become Ariana Grande’s go-to director. Sometimes in filmmaking a director makes it big and you love what they do with all those expanded budgets…but you also miss some of what they can do on a smaller scale. “The King” is a return to that smaller scale and proof of just how much Lux can do regardless of budget or resources.

8. Hot N Heavy – Jessie Ware
directed by I Could Never Be a Dancer

This is exquisitely done as a one-take. There could be hidden edits, but if so they’re not even slightly obvious. There’s a figure in movement at every moment, and rarely does something cover or swipe across the camera in a way that significantly interrupts it.

If there’s one thing that holds it back, we all thought there was a certain chemistry missing between the dancers. It’s hard to pin down what makes chemistry happen, but the video works on cleverness, effort, and skill. It’s missing just that heat and intensity that would put it over the top as one of the best dance videos of the year. That can obviously hold an MV for something called “Hot N Heavy” back.

It’s still a really good video, but sometimes those elements in dance that have more to do with acting get traded off just a bit to accomplish a tough goal like a one-take. I think it’s one reason why Jungle (who’s on the list further on) hide edits in their one-takes: it allows more focus on those extra aspects like acting that make a video become a singular monument to its song.

7. Butterflies – Skrillex, Starrah, Four Tet
directed by Ben Strebel

There’s something about this that speaks very specifically to the pandemic. There can be a dissonance to how we’ve fractured and reconnected as things potentially get back to some kind of normal. Social interaction that would’ve once been ordinary can now feel highly charged, pressured, abnormal. It doesn’t help that we’re in such an unsure space, with countries shutting back down as the Delta variant of COVID spreads. Are we about to see widespread socializing and connection return, or are we at the prologue to another year of isolation and distance?

There’s a fraught edge between those two spaces that “Butterflies” explores, and I think it speaks to a larger anxiety that accompanies the pandemic and, in turn, much of the nationalistic, socially fracturing politics that enabled its spread. Certain social spaces that were once familiar can now seem celebratory, surreal, and stressful all at once.

6. Sofia – Askjell, iris, Aurora

I have a pretty cynical attitude toward music videos that are made up of clips from fans. They often come off as narcissistic because they use community as an excuse to reinforce a band’s brand. It’s difficult to avoid making them feel exploitative. It’s one reason you don’t see us include many of them in our monthly rundowns.

Here, that’s different. It’s not the musician being celebrated, it’s a young artist who didn’t get enough of a chance to explore her art. It’s not primarily the musician whose brand we’re spreading, it’s the art of a girl who wanted to share what she did. At least something of what she believed and how she saw the world survives and touches others. At least some part of the person she wanted to grow up to be is realized.

5. Dating is in China – Modeselektor ft. Catnapp
directed by Maximilian Villwock

Modeselektor is a German group that took shape in the chaotic wake after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Featured artist Catnapp is an Argentinean artist based out of Berlin.

The video features Ukrainian gymnasts and was shot in Kiev. It’s strange and unexpected, reassuring throughout and unsettling in its last shot. It feels exceedingly directed, often iconic, but also something of a blank canvas we can begin to place our own emotional meanings upon.

One of my favorite aspects of it is an intentionally blurry quality to the images. This isn’t simply downsampled, it’s an included effect. It gives the video something of a discovered quality, like a decade-old video stuck in YouTube obscurity that’s suddenly been uncovered.

4. Rainin’ Fellas – Todrick
directed by Todrick Hall, John Asher

This is one of the most charming and celebratory dance videos of the year. There are so many pieces from costuming to choreography that fuse together in a way that’s simply fun. I love it when elements like kitsch are used this earnestly.

It’d be easy to dismiss this as an easygoing, uncomplicated video. To a large extent, that’s the effect it’s seeking. There’s also an element of deconstructing and then reconstructing so much of what we see in dance videos. A lot of big dance videos with so many moving parts only seek to be more extravagant than what came before. That can leave a lot of substance out. Here, there are notes of Broadway, movie musicals, a choreographic thread that can be traced back to Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson, and notes of contemporary art, kitsch, and pop art that have each been hugely important in LGBTQ+ acceptance.

3. Talk About It – Jungle
directed by J Lloyd, Charlie Di Placido

Jungle continues making the best dance music videos on the planet. They often center on long takes, or faux one-takes. It would seem like this is all done in one shot, but there are hidden edits (a whirl past a wall, a shirt sweeping over the camera for a moment). The effect is no less powerful, and it’s important for the concept here to feel unbroken.

For dance to play out the emotional push-and-pull of a support group is a difficult idea to pull off. There are so many incredible decisions here, centered on alternating moments of conflict and synchronization in the choreography. The viewer is involved in a lot of these like a character, fed by the continuous, point-of-view nature of the take.

2. Purple – Retriever
directed by Theo Le Sourd

“Retriever” is an exquisitely shot, well acted, lightly erotic montage that perfectly captures the sensation of heartache and rewinding memories. It has a gorgeous cinematic feel in front of a song that feels like a lost 80s pop ballad.

When a music video’s about exactly what the song’s about, it can feel a little too on-the-nose, but it’s that sensation of memory scrambled together that helps this work. Some things we have context for, some things become colored in new ways: an argument begins to influence a happy memory. There’s a desire to compartmentalize impressions we want to keep sacrosanct, so that some part of the relationship still feels as it was – even as the rest of our lives grow further from it. “Purple” finds what’s ultimately a very elusive sensation that often escapes description.

CW: Photosensitivity Warning; Strobing Effects

1. Null – eAeon ft. Jclef
directed by Years

There’s no denying that this is visually stressful, but what that stress achieves is something that can only be found in this medium. “Null” is an evocation of trauma and crisis that feels especially pointed. It captures a profound and inescapable anxiety that also humanizes and contextualizes behaviors that are avoided and overlooked in daily life. The main character is someone who’s often relegated as someone else’s problem, or as a situation for police to (mis)handle.

What’s so successful here is that it’s not disturbing, but rather it makes the disturbing identifiable. It creates an empathy for someone who might be angry, unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous, but who genuinely needs support and understanding because none of us would be able to handle a reality so eroded any differently.

More music videos we liked in June:

Cipi” by Noga Erez continues the artist’s line of biting socio-political commentaries, fused to her trademark wary performance style.

Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” by Joy Crookes is a colorful dance video with some stellar costume design.

Freedom” by Jon Batiste is a great dance video in a month overstuffed with them. It celebrates, New Orleans, Black culture, and has charisma to spare.

Calling U Back” by The Marias boasts some really special cinematography set to one of my favorite songs of the month.

All You Can Do” by Bess Atwell hearkens back to 70s montage styles and double-exposures to create an evocative and yearning MV.

“PTT (Paint the Town)” by Loona excels in all those things that make a mainstream K-pop video: it’s a clinic on choreography, costume design, set design, and editing.

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What Were February’s Best Music Videos?

This month saw the end of a legendary pairing, and a music video that got both our lowest and highest rating. Neither made the list, but that’s why the intro gets to cheat and talk about them anyway.

Daft Punk said goodbye in “Epilogue”, which doesn’t even count as a music video because it’s a scene from their 2006 movie “Electroma”. It’s pretty final, though – it’s hard to reform your band when one of you blows the other up. I mean, I haven’t been in a band since high school, but I assume that hasn’t changed.

The house and electronic duo formed in 1993. I liked them well enough, but I was never a huge fan – until their score for “Tron: Legacy” in 2010, which I thought deserved the Oscar that year. It was the year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won for “The Social Network”, so hard to argue, but a nomination for something as creative and encompassing as “Tron: Legacy” would’ve been nice.

Personally, I’m hoping this is all a guerilla marketing campaign for “Tron 3” and it’ll be revealed they have to dive back in to rescue the Daft Punk characters for reasons, but um…not holding my breath.

This is the second month we’re doing this incarnation of a music video countdown, but we’ve done variations of it in the past. We do it by scouring music videos – this month, that job fell to Cleopatra Parnell and me. We whittled upwards of 200 music videos down to about 70. Those 70 then go to six voters who rate each on a scale of one through 10. We each have a single 12 to give to the video we think is the best of the month. Then we argue a lot, and the tiebreaker system we have is done away with because the Chelsea Wolfe fans and the Bryson Tiller fans go at each other for the last spot. Who wins that? K-pop. K-pop always wins.

I’m telling you this because we’ve used this system in the past and we use it now. Never before has a music video scored both a one and a 10. We’ve never seen something so divisive. Yet never before has Rebecca Black remixed “Friday” in a video that’s a giant troll. Is it really a giant troll, though? It’s sung in an Alvin and the Chipmunks hyperpop style and she’s literally driving in the car with trollface memes. I mean, not literally literally. It’s just CGI. I think. I hope. Bear witness:

Vanessa Tottle gave it a one. Cleopatra gave it a 10. The rest of us: somewhere in the middle, confused, alone, reaching out and wondering if this was collapse or singularity. Personally, I think they’re both right right, and few people have earned the right to troll the internet as much as she has. How do we factor that into deciding the best videos of the month? We don’t. There are some things humanity was never meant to measure. Rebecca Black has broken math.

Math historian Morris Kline tells us that complex mathematics was first recorded around 3,000 B.C. in Babylon and Egypt, so this month, we say goodbye to both Daft Punk, blown up by Daft Punk, and math, run over by Rebecca Black. They both had a good run.

In all seriousness, Black’s been putting out good music when she’s not trolling; “Girlfriend” is some quality synthpop.

S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, and Vanessa Tottle joined me in figuring out the chaos that is the top 10 music videos of the month:

10. Don’t Call Me – SHINee

It’s been a banner month for K-Pop music videos, with “Bicycle” by CHUNG HA, “Wings” by PIXY, and “Breaking Dawn” by The Boyz all landing. These dance videos each have unique strengths, but K-pop MVs usually incorporate specific core elements.

“Don’t Call Me” excels at each of these. The hip-hop choreography is absolutely tight, with hard hits and smooth lyrical bridges. The sets are a blend of lavish and surreal, centered on a theme of what’s been abandoned and broken down. The costume design is full of character. The constantly moving camera never loses its focal point.

It helps that the song has hooks in each section and packs a ridiculous amount into just four minutes. There’s a reason American listeners are so drawn to K-pop – don’t underestimate its complexity or the sheer range of genres it draws on from around the world.

9. Tell Me You Love Me – Sufjan Stevens
directed by Luca Guadagnino

Ask me to describe how this video does what it does and…I really can’t tell you. It feels cleansing, connective, whole. I just don’t know how or why. Four of us found it that way, two others thought it was threatening and carried an undercurrent of violence.

Read the comments and some are reading despair into the video, some are haunted by it, some are calling it healing. It’s almost like it’s a Rohrshach inkblot for what you place onto it. When I watch it now, I get the sense of threat that I didn’t see the first few times, but it’s still healing. Who the hell knows what that says?

If you’re someone who stopped listening to Sufjan Stevens for a few years, he’s worth revisiting. He never finished his 50 states project. He only got through Michigan and Illinois, which is about when I’d stop, too. He did release two superb albums last year – The Ascension as a solo project, and Aporia with his stepfather, electronic musician Lowell Brams.

If you recognize Luca Guadagnino’s name as director, he’s the one who remade “Suspiria”. Take from that what you will.

8. Bed Head – Manchester Orchestra
directed by Andrew Donoho

If you ask me the best music video director who’s ever graced the medium, it’s Emily Kai Bock. She only directed about 15 music videos over five years – barely a drop in the bucket compared to those who’ve directed hundreds. But in a handful of videos for Grimes, Grizzly Bear, Solange, and Lorde, she completely changed the approach to what shots and parts of a story are desirable. Her magnum opus was Arcade Fire’s first video for “Afterlife”, a contemplation on dreams and mortality that reflected its song by just taking one or two ideas from it and running with those into the dreams of a family.

“Bed Head” gets so close to that territory. The style is different; Andrew Donoho came into the medium about when Bock was leaving it to pursue narrative filmmaking. He’s had his own persuasive hand in the new directions music videos are taking. But the sentiment, the identification with someone who may as well be halfway around the world, the yearning for things to work out for someone you’ve known for four minutes, it gets so close to that same need. No other medium does that the way music videos do.

7. We’re Good – Dua Lipa
directed by Vania Heymann, Gal Muggia

Obviously, we’re playing with the term lobster now – the notion of a soulmate you’re supposed to belong with. It’s a romantic idea, but becoming convinced of it can also allow someone to abuse you. Seeing one lobster after the other plucked out and devoured – if you’ve been in a relationship like that, I think the video carries added significance.

I love the shallow depth-of-field the video plays with. Combined with the MV’s muted color palette, it makes it feel like it was filmed in the 70s. It’s hard to take something understated and make it feel so compelling, but when you do it feels utterly unique.

6. Sucker – Ellie Dixon
directed by Ellie Dixon

As I noted with Number One Pop Star and Noga Erez last month, a music video can become an immediate classic on the strength of a single performance. It’s a risky route to take, and one that sees a lot of MVs fall flat on their faces. Very few strike with the wit and commitment of Ellie Dixon’s “Sucker”.

As she notes, it was entirely filmed late at night in her back garden with a minimal set. They could only shoot 90 minutes at a time before camera operator Sophie Winter’s hands got too cold to shoot any more. It is a superb example of zero-budget filmmaking.

Dixon also directed and edited – and the editing here is about as good as you’ll see. There are people who make a lot of money who don’t know when to stay on performance and when to cut on movement this well, and I can tell you from experience it’s even more difficult when you’re editing yourself. If you asked me to pick the best editing on this list, it’d be a tough choice between this and SHINee’s “Don’t Call Me”, which easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – and I’d probably choose this.

5. Wish You the Best – Jay Oladokun ft. Jensen McRae
directed by Noah Tidmore

I love MVs that suggest a story without letting you know what it is. The usual pitfall is that the video gets too into the story it’s withholding from you, without connecting you to the characters. When you’re guarding a suggested story, it’s not the story that’s important. It’s the characters who are guarding it so well. That’s the part of it all that invests you, that makes you want to come back and watch again.

“Wish You the Best” is a beautiful and haunting duet, paired with a guarded story that we only get hints about. What makes it work is how deeply felt that story is by Jay Oladokun and Jensen McRae. If I connect with the story and you won’t tell me what the story is, that can make me bounce off an MV. If you connect me with the characters and how their story feels, the details of it are a mystery that can be appreciated. That creates an MV where you sense the shape of what’s missing but can’t fill it in, and I think that builds on the haunting quality of the music itself.

4. Grace. – breathe.
Directed by breathe.

I usually hate music videos that are done entirely in slow-motion. If you’re not giving me a reason to be at that speed every moment, then it feels like you’re wasting my time. “Grace.” by breathe. gives us a reason for three-and-a-half minutes. It teaches us who a person is, and it lets us glimpse and share their joy for that brief moment in time.

There are beautifully choreographed technical elements here – performer, camera, lighting. The slow-motion helps us learn who Tommy is, see their tattoos, the look on their face. And then sometimes what’s already beautiful is lifted by moments of capturing lightning in a bottle.

I always think of that first shooting star in “Jaws”, when the terror is building, the boat is taking on water, and Roy Scheider loads the flare gun. A shooting star passes behind and that one, little moment of beauty burrowed in everything else lifts the film into the territory of a fable, into unreal and ultra-real all at the same time.

It might seem weird to bring up “Jaws”; lightning in a bottle doesn’t need to be those specific emotions or genres, but it does need to be a moment of chance in a scene that’s already as good as it can be. When Tommy turns and their cross earring flashes in the light at 1:51 in, that’s lightning in a bottle. That’s a moment already being so perfect that a chance of unexpected beauty on top of it elevates what we’re watching into the magical. I’m not religious; that’s not what I’m talking about. What matters is that it’s something important to who we’re watching, something that they value and like for whatever reason, something that describes them, that they chose to wear, a detail of who they are shared for just a second before we lose that opportunity to know it.

And yes, the shine might be enhanced – hell, Spielberg added a second meteor in post-production. That it was there to begin with, that there was already such a high plateau for it to stand on – that’s what makes it.

As Sean Walker of breathe. describes the reason for the video, “In Dec. 2018, my twin Tommy was found unconscious on the side of the road after a horrific motorcycle accident. As I sat in the intensive care unit that night, I was told that they might not wake up, and I had to contemplate the devastating possibility of losing my other half. This film is a celebration of Tommy’s survival and strength, their queerness and their community who loves and cares deeply for them.

The clip features Tommy dancing inside Sydney’s Red Rattler Theatre — a space where, growing up, Tommy felt safe and comfortable to be wholeheartedly and completely themselves, a place where they found their family, and their identity. After spending months in a wheelchair with a broken back, ribs and pelvis, nerve damage and brain injury, Tommy can once again move and express themselves freely, an incredible thing to watch as their brother.
Forever my tomboy,
Sean from breathe.”

CW: graphic violence, implied child trafficking

3. All About Love – Sierra
directed by Parker Gayan

The best way to describe this is David Fincher-esque. Not just in style or presentation either – it’s difficult to tell what’s a literal story and what’s metaphor. Is it a video about a woman out to stop child traffickers? Is it about a woman literally killing the man who raised her? Is it a metaphor about closing a connection to your past, and gaining a level of control over abuse and trauma suffered in childhood?

All of those are potential reads, and they don’t necessarily disagree. It could be all of them, and that’s what elevates something that might otherwise come across as just a stylistic experiment. There’s a complexity in how we read this and what details we draw from to fill in the narrative.

2. Mate – Mobley
directed by Mobley

There have been a lot of MVs about two people connecting but unable to meet or touch. The theme reflects people’s experiences during a pandemic that’s entered its second year. Many have centered around people being able to be together in virtual worlds like MMOs, paired with a mix of both joy and added frustration that this brings. Yet this can also backseat a focus on characters themselves.

What I love about “Mate” by Mobley is that it’s most focused on what connects these characters, what they teach each other, what they find in each other that’s beautiful and shared. A lot of these videos focus on longing, but few focus on what makes their characters such a good match, few speak to the audience that what they’re teaching each other includes things that we should be learning as well.

1. Fireworks – Purple Disco Machine ft. Moss Kena & The Knocks
directed by Greg Barth

Nobody could have predicted the most perfect music video ever made would be a documentary beamed to us from the future.

Other videos we liked this month:

“Anhedonia” sees two of gothic rock’s most creative artists come together: Chelsea Wolfe & Emma Ruth Rundle. It’s a beautiful stop-motion video that creates a safe harbor for those in the midst of depression, that offers a space for patience that can sometimes seem very distant.

“Where the Time Went” is a return for Ex: Re, the solo project by Daughter frontwoman Elena Tonra. There are a lot of music videos documenting eerily empty spaces in the middle of a pandemic, but this one goes a little further by echoing the automation of a city still running, and of apartments that aren’t empty but that may as well be a thousand miles away to the passerby.

“Sorrows” by Bryson Tiller is a beautifully shot metaphor for coping badly with heartbreak. One of the most interesting discussions in this month’s email thread is whether or not it’s based on 1998 sci-fi noir “Dark City” – the billboard for a beach that doesn’t exist and the preponderance of clocks and figures using human faces is hard to overlook.

“The Princess and the Clock” is a painterly animation of a fairy tale, either hopeful or tragic depending on how you read it. Kero Kero Bonito have a habit for hiding thematic knives within bright, happy, synth-tickling dream pop.

“Client” by Waveshaper is a narrative about loss and the choices we make told with superb retro flourish.

“Man in Me” by Madi Diaz is an effective metaphor shot in a single take, but it’s impossible to describe without ruining the message it conveys.

“Blijven Slapen” by Snelle & Maan is a story about two people who – through the power of editing – keep falling into new places where more and more people dance with them. I don’t remember it all that well, but this is what life was like before the pandemic, right?

“Sunny in the Making” by Steady Holiday is a great single take video about anxiety, impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and that moment when you’re able to realize something artistic as passionately as you want.

I mentioned CHUNG HA’s “Bicycle” earlier when talking about K-pop, but the Korean-English-Spanish song and its superb dance video is absolutely worth highlighting on its own.

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Best K-Pop Quadratic Function of 2014

 

 

 

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.