The Best & Worst of K-Pop: October 2019

Okay, so this one took a while. I’m going to blame the holidays. You know, All Soul’s Day, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, National Origami Day—all those classic November holidays that we here at Academic Exiles definitely observe. Or it could have also been the fact that despite all the big comebacks, we didn’t really have strong feelings either way about what came out in October. Anyway, as they say, better late than never.

WORST

“Fire” by Musky

S: Club music for people who also want to take a nap. Despite a techno instrumental with a solid beat, “Fire” lacks energy. A big part of the issue is the vocals. The girls don’t sound bad per se, but I have never heard someone so disinterested in declaring a burning passion for someone.  When they sing “I love you like fire,” it’s more of a match that won’t stay lit than a rolling inferno.

A: Stephanie might be being nice. This reminds me of when any of the Real Housewives try to get into music. Some producer puts them in a studio, slaps a whole bunch of autotune and a club beat onto the track and gives them simple choreography, and that’s how “Tardy for the Party,” “Money Can’t Buy You Class” and about another dozen songs from the reality stars are born. Something about Musky’s vocals sound awfully suspicious. Whether it’s poor vocals or poor sound mixing, at the end of the day, there’s no heat from this fire.

“Love Me” by NU’EST

S: I don’t care for it when Nu’est does cute. It’s just a personal preference. I think it comes across a little forced and unnatural. I mean, these are the guys who debuted with a song about literally kicking someone’s ass. It’s fine to show a softer side, but I knew going into this song that it wasn’t going to be for me. I guess, it’s mostly okay. I find the repetition in the chorus a little grating, and beyond that, the song is just kind of forgettable. But I do have to say, Aron laying on a giant egg is something I support.

A: Listening to the song again, I think it does have its merits. Though a pretty basic love song, the instrumental has some nice textures, creating a bright, catchy groove with a touch of funk. However, like Stephanie, Nu’est doesn’t nail cute concepts for me. It doesn’t really make sense, considering that all the members seem to have their charms. But I guess it’s hard for any group to repeat “love me” over and over without getting annoying—that includes you too, Winner.

“Follow” by Monsta X

S: October was a month of boy groups yelling at me. The current kings of in-you-face K-pop, A.C.E. and Stray Kids, both had comebacks where they aurally attacked me. But I was mostly into it. After some relatively mellow English songs, Monsta X also returned to a more aggressive sound for their Korean comeback. And I’m not feeling it. I do like both Jooheon and I.M.’s verses; they definitely shine when the group goes harder. But that chorus is pretty unforgivable. Those fa-la-la-ing follows make me feel like I’m listening to a really angry Christmas song. It is sad that this is the last comeback to include Wonho. There is no question that he will be missed in the group’s future projects, but “Follow” is still a pass for me.

A: In a rough month for K-Pop, no idol group was hit harder than Monsta X. In addition to nude photos of Shownu surfacing, it was revealed that Wonho smoked pot, like, several years ago. As a result, Wonho was instantly ousted from the group. Unfortunately, his last activity with Monsta X was recording and promoting one of the worst title tracks of their career. 

A few years back, Monsta X made their breakthrough with the hit “Dramarama,” which includes the chorus “Drama-ra-rama-ra-rama-ra. . .” or something like that. “Follow” attempts to once again stretch out a word as long as possible in the chorus with “Foll-la-la-low, Folla-la-la-low, Folla-la-ala-la-alalala.. . ,” but it just isn’t as fun. The screechy instrumental and loud shouting make the chorus unbearable. Still, I will continue to foll-la-la-low Monsta X and support Wonho, one of the industry’s greatest thirst traps. His goofy personality and lace bodysuits will be missed.

“Wonderland” by ATEEZ

S: More boys shouting! Sometimes, you don’t dislike something, but you have to acknowledge that it’s not as good as it could be. Ateez is my favorite rookie group, but “Wonderland” is by far the worst song they have released a music video for. It’s just a whole lot, which admittingly is pretty standard for Ateez, but it’s not all working this time. Marchy, chanty choruses seem to really be a trend this year, and I hope we leave them behind when 2020 rolls around.

A: True to form, Ateez’s version of “Wonderland” is doing everything at 1000%. Within just a year of their formation, they’ve had three EPs, a full album, a world tour and about a dozen music videos. The Ateez brand of over-the-top nonsense has worked for Stephanie and I, from intense dancing in a desert to yelling “hakuna matata” on a beach to Hongjoong’s confusing English lyrics. 

Now it might be time to dial it back a bit. I like “Wonderland,” but it’s definitely my least favorite title track they’ve put out. Though the song takes several turns, there’s always something blaring loudly in my face (except for the part with Yunho’s weird whispering). The busiest super rookies of 2019, Ateez is definitely on their their way to becoming a K-pop powerhouse, but they need to learn that sometimes less is more.

“YESSIR” by BZ Boys

S: Does anyone remember The Simpsons episode “New Kids on the Blecch?” It’s a classic. Bart gets recruited into a boy group that turns out to be a front for Navy recruiting. “YESSIR” feels like it may be doing something similar. I mean, think about it. It teaches the youth to “party like yes sir” and “drop the bomb.” That’s both nonsensical and suspicious. Clearly, this is a song designed to get the Korean youth hyped about military service. Is this a really stupid conspiracy instead of a song review? Yes, but it’s also more interesting than “YESSIR” actually is. 

A: The song isn’t bad, but does K-pop need another bland, trop-house party song? Plus, I can’t say that partying like I’m in the military—especially in a combat situation involving bombs—or like I’m in a field wearing beige is my idea of a good time.

HONORABLE MENTIONS 

“Sweet Chaos” by Day6

“Poison” by VAV

BEST

“Run Away” by TXT

S: TXT are in an interesting position. The group is a rookie powerhouse, but it’s propelled more by the mega-stardom of BTS than its own merits. That’s not to say the boys are without their own talents; it’s just anything they do is essentially golden thanks to that association. In general, I find TXT charming, and they are well served by BigHit’s talented songwriters. “Run Away” successfully combines the group’s youthful concept with a stylistic shift. Forgoing the bright, pop instrumentals of “Crown,” the song brings in an edgier, more rock-inspired sound. Upon first listen, I didn’t love the track’s use of autotune, but it’s grown on me (especially after watching live performances with less voice modulation). It’s refreshingly experimental, and I’m glad to see the group taking some risks since they really don’t have to to get noticed. Now, what does this have to do with Harry Potter exactly?

A: I was not expecting this song to make it to the number two slot on my best list, and in another month, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have been on my list at all. But in October, I couldn’t deny that this was one of the most solid offerings in a month of forgettable tunes. Though I enjoyed “Crown” and was somewhat obsessed with the bizarre but adorable hit “Cat and Dog,” I wasn’t quite sure how TXT could sustain cute concepts about literal puberty.

With “Run Away,” they age from being kinky adolescents who want to be your pet to acting somewhere closer to Huening Kai’s age. They’ve entered the angsty phase with a more mature, guitar-driven sound that doesn’t abandon their whimsy. With the song written and produced by the team at BigHit, I can’t say the members are adding much except for some blank expressions and being the right age for this kind of song, but regardless, it works for me.

“Blind for Your Love” by AB6IX

S: I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by AB6IX. “Hollywood” was just awful, and while “Breathe” was definitely an improvement, it didn’t leave much of an impression.  “Blind for Your Love” is the first offering from the group that I have actively enjoyed. It’s just a nice sounding song. Nobody’s yelling, and there’s no obnoxious, overbearing techno beat. And blissfully, it has taken no inspiration from pirate shanties or whatever the hell is happening in “Wonderland.” Overall, “Blind for Your Love” doesn’t feel like it’s actively trying to give me a headache, and this month, that’s a big win.

A: Two burning doors in one month?! Intense! But unlike TXT, AB6IX didn’t die in a school fire; they’re burning with red hot passion. Okay, I’m not gonna pretend that that passion radiated with every note, but this is a boppable love song that would make their most loyal ABNEWs swoon (yep, that’s their fandom name, and some of the groups on this list have much dumber ones).

Furthermore, this song achieved where many failed this year by creating an infectious club beat that didn’t pummel you in the face. After being disappointed with their pre-debut and debut tracks, I’m glad to see this talented group finally shine.

“Jopping” by SuperM

S: “Jopping” is a point of contention for Amanda and I. She was thinking about including it on her worst list, and I put it as No. 1 on my best list. That’s a pretty big disparity of opinion. I’ll admit I didn’t immediately love the song. While I didn’t dislike it, I felt more perplexed by it than anything. It’s an undeniably weird choice for a debut from a group that is meant to target the American music market. This definitely doesn’t reflect current western music trends; it’s not even really reflective of current K-pop trends. It’s very distinct, and that’s why it started to grow on me. 

Like the superhero films it borrows its soaring instrumentals from, “Jopping” brings a lot of disparate elements to the table, but it somehow manages to make it all work. Mark and Taeyong’s rap parts are great, Baekhyun’s highnote is goosebump-worthy, and I have a soft spot for the way Kai says “paraglide.” The chorus may be a little chanty, but it never feels oppressive or grating. It’s definitely meant to be a stadium anthem, and it works best as a live performance, but the energy translates well into a headphone-based experience, too. The title may be a little dumb (no one actually jumps while popping), but I’m willing to deal with a little dumb. Oh, let’s be honest. For these seven guys, I’m willing to deal with a lot of dumb. I may actually prefer it that way.

A: This is 100% Stephanie’s pick, not mine. But it’s hard for me to get to the root of what really irks me about this song and, honestly, to untangle my hypocritical thoughts about it. Why am I bothered by the stupid made-up word “jopping” but bopping along to “Ddu-du ddu-du” and “Boombayah?” Why does this blatantly capitalistic project rub me the wrong way while I’m totally unperturbed about the BTS app game? Why am I disinterested in the action-movie aesthetic of the music video but a fan of B.A.P.’s “One Shot?” 

Though I’m not a fan of SuperM’s debut for whatever reason, I can’t outright hate it. I mean, Taemin’s there. And Kai. And Baekhyun. And those loveable, talented guys from NCT/WayV. Watching them promote not only their own music but also air safety has been a true delight. Not even these guys could make “Jopping” cool, but they kept it from being a disaster.

“Spark” by Taeyeon

S: To start, I need to address the fact that this song sounds like “Rolling in the Deep.” It totally does, and that’s weird for me. Not weird enough to keep it off my best list, but weird enough to, well, make me feel weird. But despite the weirdness, I like the song, but that was probably already obvious. The blues-by-way-of-pop-megastar sound is a good fit for Taeyeon, and it offers a slight deviation from her usual ballads without betraying her brand. Overall, “Spark” is a welcome bit of feisty fun in an especially underwhelming month.  

A: One of my favorite things about K-pop is that members of idol groups often embark on solo projects to show a different side of themselves without—in most cases—bringing about the group’s downfall. This is especially true for Taeyeon. Sure, Girls’ Generation is one of the most iconic girl groups ever, but I’ve never actually liked it. However, Taeyeon’s talent is undeniable, and in “Spark,” she’s a full pop diva, letting her vocals soar. Is the song ground-breaking, interesting or even all that memorable? Quite frankly, no. But it’s a fitting vehicle for one of the best voices in the industry.  

“Fame” by MC Mong ft. Song Ga-in and Chancellor

S: Everybody loves a comeback. MC Mong  proved it when he became one of the handful of artists to achieve a perfect all kill this year. It was a triumphant return to the Korean charts after a military dodging scandal in 2010—and a previous triumphant return in 2014 that was followed by another hiatus. The rapper came back swinging—and also maybe firing a few shots at other artists. Now, I don’t have enough context to really confirm or deny, but dropping some “boom shakalakas” and mentioning drugs does seem to point in a certain direction. 

But beef and scandal aside, “Fame” is just a cool song. It’s exuberant with attitude and personality to spare. The music video strikes that perfect balance between stylish and goofy. Also, there’s a dude in a holographic tracksuit. You just can’t resist a holo tracksuit.

A: South Korea has had a wild year of famous people fucking up, but one of those fuck-ups came back with a lot to say about the dangers of fame. Though MC Mong shares hip hop’s fondness for dissing other rappers, his boasting in this song is that of a mature man who’s found deep satisfaction in his life rather than of a hot-headed young artist who’s fallen under fame’s spell.

But what shines more than anything is MC Mong’s love for entertainment. Tapping into his acting experience, he gives us a slew of vibrant characters in the music video. The song conveys an irrepressible joy that transcends age and musical trends. It also celebrates trot with a feature from Song Ga-In that fits in seamlessly. It’s not hard to understand why his comeback was a hit.

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