G-Dragon— “Crooked” (2013)
A 13yo boy, fearing a spanking, took to the streets of Seoul to express the struggles of being a prepubescent boy in a heartfelt rap. A CEO of a record label, recognizing that this puny rapper would become a global sensation, swooped him up and welcomed him into the recording family. Thus begins the career of G-Dragon—as well as the ascendancy of the YG record label.
If BIGBANG are the kings of K-Pop, their leader G-Dragon is the king. But what makes G-Dragon great is that looking at little Kwon Ji Yong, or even grown-up Kwon Ji Yong without all the designer labels and makeup, nobody would expect this guy to be the face of a country’s music industry. I remember coming across an article describing him as “gremlin-like,” and that’s not entirely wrong. He’s a skinny dude with bright hair and a nasally voice. Yep, superstar.
However, he managed to craft one of the boldest, coolest personas of any twenty-first century musician. Similar to his bandmate T.O.P., he intentionally doesn’t fit into any boxes. An icon of androgynous fashion, his style blends Asian streetwear, hip-hop swagger and high-end luxury. His artistry/revenue pool takes a myriad of forms, including music, fashion, visual art and even a damn café that looks more like an art museum and houses some of his paintings.
But it’s in his music that he most famously shirks categorization—or at least tries to. G-Dragon has and always will be rooted firmly in the genre of K-Pop, even if that isn’t really where he sees himself. His position within the genre is comparable with Donna Summer’s position within disco music. An episode of the podcast Hit Parade delves into Summer’s career, bemoaning her diminished position in the history of pop music. She’s a legend of disco, but . . . it’s disco. Though no longer inspiring vehement hatred, disco remains an underappreciated genre. Hit Parade highlights the brilliance of the song “Last Dance,” arguing that this quintessential disco smash actually defies the genre by beginning with a ballad. Summer’s career is marked by this genre-bending approach to disco as she merges Motown and soul into her club anthems, and because of her stature, disco is noted for this soul-infused sound.
Like disco, K-Pop has earned a poor reputation from a wide swath of the West for its cheesy pop sensibilities, wild music videos and love of boy bands. G-Dragon is the king of K-Pop, but . . . it’s K-Pop. And like Summer, G-Dragon has created a signature sound through blending genres. Furthermore, he doesn’t even consider his music as K-Pop, or any genre, because of this approach.
As I established in my piece on “Fantastic Baby,” this genre-merging aesthetic has become not just what he is known for but a defining attribute of the K-Pop industry with artists blending EDM, hip hop and pop into impossibly catchy hits. (Although, G-Dragon extends beyond these genres to also encompass rock and traditional Eastern music.) G-Dragon, therefore, occupies an awkward position: in defiance of K-Pop and categorization in general but established as the quintessential K-Pop artist.
With “Crooked,” G-Dragon explores his complicated position within the K-Pop industry. On the surface, this is a break-up song—a damn good break-up song. It catchily captures all the post break-up feels: despair, loneliness, longing and a whole lotta anger. Break-up victims can dance to it, shout the lyrics and/or sob along with it to purge all that anguish. The video serves as the perfect accompaniment as we watch G-Dragon fail to . . . well, fail to be a person, really. I mean, he’s getting into fights, he’s passing out at clubs, he’s shitting in an alley, he’s sobbing on a bathroom floor, he’s even riding a rocking horse incorrectly. G-Dragon just can’t even.
But like virtually everything involving G-Dragon from his outfits to his music, “Crooked” has layers.
Beneath this break-up jam is an outcry against the superficiality of K-Pop. In many cases, K-Pop musicians are commodities more than artists. Record labels handpick their idol groups, cosmetically alter their appearance, brutally train them for years, assign them personalities and eventually distribute them lyrics and choreography to perform for screaming girls. Everything is carefully designed to maximize profits. This approach comes from the origins of K-Pop, which began as an effort from the South Korean government to boost their economy after a recession.
Throughout his career, G-Dragon has asserted his individuality. From its conception, BIGBANG was designed to go against the cutesy, sugary sounds of K-Pop acts such as SECHSKIES and whatever Rain was doing. This, by the way, should not be read as insults to SECHSKIES or Rain. I mean, who can resist SECHSKIES’ precious 90s jam, “Couple”? And Rain’s dance-off against Stephen Colbert is a classic.
But I digress.
YG didn’t seek out adorable teenagers to cosmetically modify them to become even more adorable pop stars; he wanted talent (and Seungri), even if that meant dealing with immediate criticism for their appearances. He wanted a hip-hop group that donned street clothes and looked like any old gang of Seoul youths.
Of course, this intentional departure from the current K-Pop trends was established by the CEO, not the band members, but YG was already giving G-Dragon creative license. From the beginning, he was penning songs and playing a role in establishing the look of the group. The more money his work was bringing to the YG label, the more freedom G-Dragon was given.
The Coup d’état album is G-Dragon’s most defiant stance against K-Pop. The title itself announces a K-Pop revolution. The album cover also bears the image of a peace sign with one of the lines removed. This emblem expresses his famous phrase, “peace minus one,” a clever euphemism for flipping someone off. There are compelling cultural and political implications of this symbol, but for now, we’ll just leave it as his attitude against the K-Pop industry.
“Crooked” is the biggest hit from the album, and it serves as G-Dragon’s loud rebuttal against K-Pop’s manufactured cuteness. K-Pop, and pop music in general, often gets a bad rap for sweet love songs with little substance. G-Dragon defines his ended relationship as “meaningless” and having “no sincerity.” From their “sugar-coated comfort” to their pinky promise to remain together, it’s all a sham. Similarly, K-Pop has often crafted empty pop songs for the sole purpose of emptying the pockets of teenage girls.
But it turns out the existential crisis from his 2017 mini-album Kwon Ji Yong has been going on for a while. His rebuttal against K-Pop turns into a panic that everything is meaningless. The title points to his intention of veering off the path most K-Pop performers take. To combat the superficiality of K-Pop, he found inspiration in the anti-establishment ethos and harsh sound of punk music. The music video is filmed in London, home of the most famous punk acts. The shouted lyrics and thrashing guitars make this song just as appropriate for a mosh pit as the radio.
However, he realizes that this attempt to create a truer sound, not the manufactured sound of K-Pop, is also artifice, as expressed in the following lyrics:
I’ll put on thick eyeliner,
use a whole can of hairspray
Leather pants, leather jacket with a frown
I want to hide my pain and become even more crooked
His style might not be the design of a producer or CEO, but it is an appropriation of punk fashion. Furthermore, this fashion isn’t an attempt to express his true feelings. It’s a method of masking his heartbreak.
This artifice directly contracts his claim of realness, made in several songs including BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby” and another Coup d’état standout, “One of a Kind.” “Fantastic Baby” uses biblical allusions to the second coming to proclaim the group’s authenticity and influence not only on K-Pop but also on world peace. In “Crooked,” crosses are just an aspect of punk fashion, with crucifixes tattooed on him and emblazoned on his shirt. This shift in the use of Christian imagery demonstrates his doubts in the revolutionary power and authenticity of his music.
After all, his music has never been just about the art. One of the top-earning K-Pop artists, he’s getting major coin from both his music and his business ventures, which includes a clothing line consisting of cool but way overpriced casual wear. And he’s completely entrenched in the K-Pop industry, filling YG’s coffers with the profits of his own music and songwriting. G-Dragon is YG’s ultimate commodity (well, after Psy).
Besides recognizing the futility of his challenge to K-Pop, he seems to regret going down this crooked path at all. Though he claims throughout the song that he wants to be alone, he ends wailing, “I didn’t know being alone would be this hard.” Taking his own path brings about immense loneliness, which he continues to describe in BIGBANG’s “Loser” and the 2017 song “Superstar.” Making matters worse, he thinks of himself as a “joke,” his efforts not even being taken seriously.
But he “can’t turn it back.” Once he recognizes that everything is meaningless, he can’t go back to those more innocent days of a 13yo frustrated with his teacher. He is left to grapple with his existential crisis and his attempt to truthfully express himself while recording catchy music that gets major airplay. No wonder he’s crying in a bathroom.
Screenshots from “Crooked” music video
Translated lyrics credit