T.O.P.—“Doom Dada” (2013)
The fact that T.O.P. drinks a glass of wine in one huge gulp conveys his ridiculous, contradictory persona. He seems to want to come off as a fancy intellectual with his love of wine and fine art, but he’s also a savage when it comes to alcohol and has a penchant for immature jokes. He’s BIGBANG’s visual but is always completely covered and often undercuts his sex appeal with bizarre costumes and colored contact lenses.
Interviewers seem completely at a loss when he comes on their shows, introducing him as a charismatic rapper even though his television appearances mainly consist of silence and confusion punctuated with a goofy dance.
And perhaps most contradictory of all, he collects chairs, but when asked about his hobbies, he once replied that he enjoys standing around. T.O.P. ranks alongside Noel Fielding and Richard Ayoade as one of the most absurd celebrities. More importantly, in K-pop, where record execs are known to assign personalities to their artists, T.O.P.’s constantly shifting persona totally defies the genre.
In one of his few solo singles, the breadth of T.O.P.’s weirdness comes out, and the world is a better, stranger place because of it. “Doom Dada” manages to be anti-K-pop and even anti-hip hop despite having an undeniably catchy, if somewhat warped, beat. Lyrically, it’s like nothing I’ve encountered in hip hop, and its video is also something I’ve never seen before. Although, it is similar to the video for one of T.O.P.’s earlier singles, “Turn It Up.”
In “Turn It Up,” T.O.P. pokes fun at his persona, especially his reputation for silly antics. This is also the kind of song you expect from a rapper with a panty-dropping voice. It’s a simple, sleek tune in which he brags about his sex appeal. But what makes this song stand apart is the music video. Unlike the explosion of colors we normally see in K-pop videos, including those by BIGBANG, we have a strange black and white video that includes playful, compelling imagery, including an allusion to Da Vinci’s Last Supper. So often, music videos are thoughtless promotions for a song, but here we have a music video that adds some gravitas to a fairly simple song, transforming a boastful rap into a bolder commentary about stardom and ego.
With “Doom Dada,” T.O.P. takes his distinct vision to the next level, delivering both a song and video that go against pop standards and even logic. Taking a cue from the post-WWI Dada art movement, he delivers nonsense and chaos, but there appears to be a method in his madness. Before beginning to dissect the lyrics, I dug into his most obvious source material: the work of Stanley Kubrick and Salvador Dali.
The apes playing with the giant microphone and the weird baby-thing riding with T.O.P. on a motorcycle are clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the best yet most confounding films. As the film slowly unfolds, audiences are dazzled by its audacity, astounding score and vision of space and humanity, but audiences are equally perplexed, especially by its ending.
“Doom Dada” is similarly baffling, but seems to have a similar goal and . . . message? Can we say it has a similar message if the messages of both seem to be deliberately enigmatic? Anyway, let’s start with T.O.P.’s ape friends and his weird baby. 2001: A Space Odyssey famously begins with the “Dawn of Man,” in which some apes are hanging out and one ape famously throws a bone into the air, and that bone becomes a space satellite, transporting us to the next part of the film. In T.O.P.’s world, the bone becomes a giant microphone.
The greatest spectacle in T.O.P.’s world, however, is T.O.P. himself riding a motorcycle with a giant-headed baby. Sadly, Kubrick did not show us anything that wonderful, but he does famously end his film with the iconic and equally absurd image of a planet-sized fetus.
Possibly, “Doom Dada” is a song about T.O.P.’s evolution as a rapper, just as the movie has often been interpreted as depicting the full evolution of mankind. But there seems to be more going on here. Kubrick once said that he intended to reach the viewer’s subconscious with 2001. With “Doom Dada,” T.O.P. recognizes the power of music to reach the subconscious, proclaiming that with just one song he’ll make listeners “crazy” and comparing himself to a “smooth pinot noir.” He recognizes his own ability to intoxicate listeners with earworms that prompt fans to scream and dance at concerts and, I suppose, reach their subconscious. Furthermore, like Kubrick, who envisions humankind’s ending and rebirth as a fetus planet, T.O.P. imagines the world’s end and rebirth, which brings us to another Kubrick reference and an allusion to one of Dali’s works.
An image that sticks out in the music video is that of a mushroom cloud which transforms into a small tree. This image, especially in the black and white format, is of course reminiscent of Kubrick’s satire Dr. Strangelove, but it also recalls Dali’s The Three Sphinxes of Bikini. Kubrick’s film is a commentary on the Cold War while Dali’s painting responds to the United States’ nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll, which resulted in the contamination of the Micronesian islands. Like Kubrick’s 2001, Dali’s surrealism works to creep into the viewer’s subconscious and is more interested on stirring subjective, emotional responses than delivering a definitive thesis.
Given the tension between North and South Korea, this imagery in “Doom Dada” is clearly responding to the threat of a nuclear attack from the North. The song describes an Armageddon of dancing “hot souls” and humanity’s rebirth through a “green light [that] shines on new life.” He also appears to credit mass media for mankind’s turning backwards, saying the media is “overheated” and pushing people to some sort of doom. And speaking of doom, the repetitive chorus suggests that humanity is always on a “forward march” backward. In other words, we tend to repeat our mistakes, i.e. destroying the earth with nuclear weapons, in our confusion of destruction for progress and power—which is basically the entire point of Dr. Strangelove. We are no better than the wordless apes of 2001; we just have more advanced tools to hurt each other than bones and brunt force.
But where exactly does T.O.P. see himself fitting within this brutal world? Well, he seems to think he isn’t quite a part of it. He calls himself a “Basquiat”—yes, another high-brow reference, emphasizing that he considers himself an artist outside of society and, more specifically, K-pop. He goes beyond that, however, claiming that he’s looking “above the universe.” This perhaps is a sly nod to his reputation as an alien. Yeah, that’s a real thing; this man is so weird that he has even been called an alien by fans and label mates. As an alien, he has special insight into humanity. My interpretation serves to further the ties between “Doom Dada” and 2001. In the original novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, the monolith that follows mankind from ape to HAL is the product of an advanced alien race that is trying to inform lesser races of their evolution. So, as a being “above the universe,” T.O.P. is an alien informing humanity of our future.
But once again, T.O.P. goes even further, claiming that “the real one is coming,” calling his rapping a “God-given” talent and warning “little kids [to] go to the corner.” With these lines, T.O.P. is establishing himself as the antichrist, coming into the world right before it is about to end. His admonition to children mimics the Bible’s introduction to the antichrist: “Children, it is the last hour! As you heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (1 John 2). This puts “Doom Dada” in contrast with “Turn It Up,” a music video in which T.O.P. occupies Jesus’s chair. In “Doom Dada,” instead of merely seducing us with his music as he claims to do in “Turn It Up,” T.O.P. creates a “shower that washes your eardrums” by poking the “thin eardrums” of sleeping cells to get to the “last weapon.” Towards the song’s end, he delivers rapid-fire bars that culminate in a yell, transforming his voice into a weapon. So, T.O.P. is trying to end the world in order for it to be saved again, I guess. And maybe he is also experiencing some sort of inner warfare, reflecting the opposition between Jesus and the antichrist.
From there, I don’t know where to go with my analysis. Obviously, I can’t take him seriously; I mean, he shouts “mass media” and wears an eyepatch. However, as absurd as “Doom Dada” is, it’s still undeniably poignant. It captures his oddball persona but leaves him a mystery. It offers a bold worldview but undercuts that view with silliness. I don’t think I have the musical authority to go as far as to call “Doom Dada” a masterpiece, but like the masterpieces that inspired it, it stays in your head, or maybe your subconscious, and leaves you puzzled but enthralled.
“Doom Dada” was a surprising critical and commercial success, but sadly, T.O.P. has yet to release a solo album, or even a mini-album. Of course he’s done plenty of work with G-Dragon and BIGBANG, but for whatever reason he’s devoted more of his career to acting than to solo work. I’ll wait til “Zutter” to describe his acting career, but let’s just say . . . he should stick to rapping. Here’s hoping that T.O.P. will finally deliver an album of black and white videos of him hanging out with apes and a disturbing baby.
On a more serious note, T.O.P. appears to have long dealt with serious stress and depression, and likely substance abuse as well. In a country and an industry with high rates of alcoholism and suicide, T.O.P. has the potential to use music to delve into these issues, possibly with a profoundly personal story or maybe a surreal spin on his struggles. Maybe he can “end the game with just one song,” but can’t we get a full album someday?
Featured image: T.O.P. on a zebra—well, at least a horse painted as a zebra.
Translated lyrics credit