It All Started with Sporcle
As much as Stephanie and I attempt to stay on top of pop culture, we were painfully, painfully behind on K-pop. How far behind? Well, we had never even heard of BIGBANG until this past April. I know, painful. Even more painful, we found out about them while they were on military hiatus and right before news broke of T.O.P.’s overdose. We were so disappointed in ourselves that we attempted to make up for years of living in the dark by delving deep and hard into BIGBANG’s music videos and attending G-Dragon’s concert.
We became aware of BIGBANG’s existence in the most ordinary way possible: YouTube. But there was something else that happened to lead us to YouTube. It actually all started with a Sporcle quiz about BTS. Despite having no idea what a BTS was, Stephanie took the quiz anyway, and was bemused from the very first question— “Who is the grandpa?” with the multiple choice options being . . . I don’t remember, let’s say V, J-Hope, Suga and Jungkook. Being the curious, time-wasting nerds that we are, we had to find out what the hell BTS was. That’s when we reached YouTube, to watch K-pop boyband BTS be weird and sexy in an art museum for the music video “Blood, Sweat and Tears.” (Alas, Stephanie’s still not sure which one is the grandpa.) After this bizarre spectacle, we had to check out some more K-pop and found BIGBANG pretty quickly in our YouTube adventure.
You may be wondering why I am starting my BIGBANG series with a story about a different K-pop band. The reason is that this is how many people’s K-pop journey starts—at least outside of East Asia. At some point in the evolution of the genre—maybe with the technicolor world of Girls Generation, the success of BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby” or perhaps later when Psy Gangnam Styled his way into our hearts—musicians and record producers came to value the art of making the already loud, colorful, batshit insane music videos of K-pop even more over the top.
Sure, some people came to love K-pop all the way back in the days of Rain, TVXQ and BIGBANG’s “Haru Haru,” but most Westerners were exposed to this intoxicating music through randomly coming across (or friends graciously exposing them to) one of the captivatingly crazy music videos which the genre has perhaps become best known for. I don’t want to overstate the similarities between “Gangnam Style” and “Fantastic Baby,” but there’s no question that both possess an upbeat, EDM-infused sound and cuckoo bananas music video that influenced K-pop and contributed to its global spread. “Gangnam Style” remains one of the most watched music videos of all time, and “Fantastic Baby” remains the most watched music video by a K-pop group act after becoming the first to break 300 million views in 2017. However, other K-pop acts such as BTS and Twice are likely to earn more views than “Fantastic Baby” and break other BIGBANG records as they ride the Hallyu wave closer and closer into the American mainstream.
Though K-pop remains largely unfamiliar in the West, strong fanbases abound in all corners of the globe, calling themselves a whole bunch of ridiculous names and acronyms. And whenever there are loyal fandoms, there are also fierce competitions: Star Trek vs. Star Wars, Marvel vs. DC, Kim Tan vs. Choi Young Do (okay, I’m not sure if there’s specific, prevalent fandoms for two of the leads from Heirs, but if so, I would def be team Young Do). K-pop is known for having particularly intense fans—sometimes too intense. As some fans fear the sunset of BIGBANG’s career, V.I.P.s and ARMYs are butting heads. I hate to admit it, but I kinda get this competition, at least from the perspective of V.I.P.s. BIGBANG is going through a strange period at a time when K-pop seems to be getting larger and larger—a growth which is unquestionably a result of BIGBANG’s successful MADE album and tour in 2015-16. Because of mandatory military service, they can’t really enjoy the current surge of interest in Korean culture which they are largely responsible for, and that stings. I by no means am discrediting the third generation of K-pop artists for the work they’ve done to reach success, but there’s no denying that BTS probably wouldn’t be at the Billboard Music Awards and Twice’s “TT” probably wouldn’t have reached over 300 million views without BIGBANG and other groups such as 2NE1 and Girls Generation springboarding K-pop’s international attention. And I doubt BTS would refute this claim; they are infamous BIGBANG fanboys.
That being said, the continued growth of K-pop could actually bolster BIGBANG’s comeback rather than render them irrelevant. I’m not the only person who came across BIGBANG because of BTS, and I won’t be the last. Plus, no matter how many publications consider the group’s comeback a lost cause, BIGBANG has frequently announced their intention to stay a five-some. But perhaps the most convincing case for the possibility of a successful BIGBANG return is the successful reunion of New Kids on the Block. Why the fuck would anybody care about the New Kids on the Block coming back as irrelevant adults so long after a few cheesy hits and lip-syncing allegations? But dammit, there’s no force as strong as nostalgia. Their 2008 album debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums Chart, and they continue to tour. If they can still find a substantial audience, then there is no doubt that BIGBANG has the right stuff to at least return to mild success after completing their military service.
Though Stephanie and I have already written about G-Dragon’s concert and created the obligatory BIGBANG drinking game, I obviously have more to say and learn. That’s why I have tasked myself with the role of chronicling some of my favorite songs and music videos from BIGBANG (both the group’s jams and their solo projects) in order to explore how they have both defined and challenged what it means to be a K-pop artist. If it’s not already obvious, this series will probably not be all that enlightening to longtime V.I.P.s, but perhaps it will provide a nice dose of nostalgia and some fun gifs.
But I do hope that in addition to my fangirl ramblings I can also offer critical analysis that their work seldom receives from mainstream Western publications. Most importantly, this series will bring you T.O.P. on a zebra, G-Dragon crying in at least three bathrooms and hair in every hue and style you can imagine.
Oh, one final thing: At first I thought it would be random to embark on this series about a year into their hiatus, but music is proving an important topic in the upcoming Olympics in PyeongChang. Taeyang, as an honorary ambassador for the games, has released a song to celebrate the Olympics. Additionally, in ongoing discussions between North and South Korea, North Korea has been allowed to send a delegation of musicians to perform across South Korea during the Olympics.
Featured image: Fxxk it; let’s all get on a bicycle.