I was out for a drink with a friend this week, and the conversation happened to come around to this project. And this is exactly why you should talk to other people, because it was only when he pointed it out that I realised how few non-Anglo-American things we’ve covered on 52A/52W.
Which got me thinking.
K-pop is one of those things that you just don’t realise – or at least you don’t if you’re me, hiding out here in little old Edinburgh, Scotland – just how massive it is. Part of that, sure, is because in some ways it’s the opposite of the sort of music I tend to gravitate towards. Part of it, though, is because it’s not easy to get your hands on. I don’t have Spotify; I usually download my music from Amazon these days. And for Girls’ Generation, one of the biggest-selling music groups in the world, the only thing I could find was The Best. It’s a Best-Of album. It’s a pain, because Best-Of compilations are put together on a completely different logic to your common or garden album. But what’re you going to do; I’m not listening to this the right way anyway. The point is, for something so vast, and so lucrative, why is it so hard to get hold of over here?
One answer to that is that bubblegum pop, especially stuff that is as unambiguously commercial as The Best, is an easy thing to sneer at. You know, say what you will about Ed Sheeran, he writes his own songs. And they’re acoustic. You can tell yourself the feelings or have once been Ed Sheeran’s feelings, which is what we call authenticity or some such guff, and you or I can feel, rightly or wrongly, like at least we get some idea of what he’s like as a person. There’s something quite uncanny, I think, about nine girls with perfect figures and indistinguishable voices (the autotune is strong here!), moving exactly in step and talking about, I don’t even know – there’s a line in “Galaxy Supernova” in English, where one of them says, “Oh boy, do you believe the situation? You’d better keep this a secret,” and I laughed out loud, because lyrical depth is not a thing we’re interested in right now. And that’s easy to laugh at, if you want to.
Brief pause here for one of my favourite bits of If That’s The English, What On Earth Is The Korean.
Notoriously, K-pop is heavily commercial, very carefully engineered. I get the impression it’s best off either listened to either track by track as part of a playlist, or, most likely, with visuals either live or as part of a music video. Having listened to sixteen tracks of Girls’ Generation now, I couldn’t tell their voices apart, but again, it’s not about that. What the point seems to be is personality, in a very visual way. The videos are insanely popular. The music itself is almost an accompaniment. A soundtrack to some eye-wateringly well-practised dancing, to a story or mythos being told about what it is to be a girl and aspire in, I guess, 2014 Seoul.
That’s cool! I can do that! And actually it’s quite interesting to pick the English bits out from among the Korean, to see what the cultural touchstones are, what of this aspirational vision of cotton-candy pink is familiar and what is different. And, look, I would sing along to this just like there are no occasions ever that I would fail to join in with a crowd explaining that if you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.
It’s all very well me telling you that Girls’ Generation isn’t cerebral. People are allowed to like heavily processed stuff. Do I sound a bit like I’m talking myself into this? Well, more reminding myself, before my head disappears up my own backside. Sixteen songs in one go is too much. With 52A albums, what I tend to do is sit down and listen to the whole thing in one go, then go round a few more times and pick things out. This is like the anti-Sigur Ros from a fortnight ago, because every song is so fast paced that there’s no respite, which makes it difficult to keep up with. But that’s a problem with Best-Of compilations. Individually, they’re fun. Heavily extroverted, kind of group-thinky fun. I happen to quite like fun, in small doses. You know, in between the wine tastings with a first edition of Dostoyevsky, lit only by the faint glow of the distant moral high ground. I wouldn’t have picked The Best out otherwise, but you know, why the hell not. It may have its popularity; I bestow my blessing and good luck to it.