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The 21 Greatest K-Pop Songs of All Time
From lapsed ’90s metalheads to the glossiest Girls of today’s Generation, the best of the sublimely shiny sound that’s sweeping the world
Twenty years after its birth, Korean pop music has made its way from Seoul to Singapore to San Antonio to São Paulo and back again, “outbubbling” — as SPIN’s Chuck Eddy phrased it last year — its Western counterpart by tweaking and perfecting the formula on which both have long been based. It’s music that demands to be mainlined (hooks come sharper, choruses larger, visuals brighter), its gloss equaled only by the aggressiveness with which it’s been delivered to the international marketplace in recent years. By now, K-pop’s catalog of classics is deep enough to warrant a best-of list of its own, one we’ve assembled with our ears pointed to both past and present: The 21 Greatest K-Pop Songs of All Time, a singles wrecking crew whose final, odd-numbered tally is a loving tribute to one of the current moment’s most beloved girl groups, 2NE1.DAVID BEVAN
21. SoolJ feat. Suh Ga Young – “Waiting 4 U” (2011)
SoolJ is an underground rapper carrying on a Korean tradition that dates back at least to the Wu Tangish turn-of-the-millennium group Drunken Tiger. His freestyle battles with the even more verbally dexterous Huckleberry P are easily located on YouTube, but he’s also made more commercial singles that angle toward metal-rap (“Vision”), emo-rap (“Men Also Cry”), and quiet-storm rap (“Love in the Rain”). His 2011 mini-album Electro SoolJ was, as its name suggests, a turntable-scratched electro-funk (via hip-house, big beat, maybe Latin freestyle) move, and three of its seven tracks were mixes of this nervously lovely, inexorably propulsive, female-vocal-assisted, virtual-reality-video-themed single. CHUCK EDDY
20. Shinee – “Lucifer” (2010)
A total romp. The top boy band from leading talent agency SM threw down a hammer in “Lucifer,” the lead single from their album of the same name and a quick-cutting Europop hybrid that breaks down late ‘N Sync single “Pop,” juices it, and builds it back up again. Bigger, stronger, faster. D.B.
19. TVXQ – “Doshite Kimi o Suki ni Natte Shimattandaro” (2008)
The cheese levels here are high, but that harp melody is quiet fire. “Doshite” featured prominently on the mighty TVXQ’s (Tohoshinki in Japan) fourth Japanese album, The Secret Code. It’s a study in slow jammage whose rough English translation (according to Wikipedia) is “Why Did I Have to Completely Fall In Love With You?” lest you question the ache in their gilded voices.D.B.
18. Wonder Girls – “Be My Baby” (2011)
Persistent energy has been expended in attempting to break these ladies Stateside: In 2009, they toured with the Jonas Brothers; this year, they filmed a TV flick for TeenNick. Given that they’re far from Korea’s most exciting group, it’s hard not to wonder whether the industry considers their blankness an obligatory trait for Western tween-crossover appeal. Regardless, this vaguely retro-diddy-bopping ditty doesn’t embarrass itself even despite its title’s blasphemous Ronettes swipe. Hints of modern-day R&B melisma, rappish breakdown, no Spector-melody menace — but as long as it doesn’t portend K-pop being Americanized out of existence, you can live with all that. C.E.
17. IU – “Boo” (2009)
During a taping of popular music programInkigayo that we attended in Seoul last December, my interpreter leaned in to alert me that the pop chart show’s host, IU, was the “hottest idol” in all of Korea at the time, clearly outshining many of the artists she featured. Though she’s come to specialize in syrupy ballads, “Boo,” an early single from 2009, stands out because it aims for subtlety. Just some fits of clean guitar, a minimal but uptempo beat, and a vocal performance that’s playful throughout. D.B.
From my favorite magazine: The Economist:
Books, arts and culture
North Korean propaganda
ALL IMAGES © JEREMY HUNTER 2011
1 / 12
THE Arirang mass games in Pyongyang, North Korea, are the largest and most bombastic exercise of state propaganda in the world. Few foreigners are permitted to watch this summertime spectacle extolling the founding myths of the communist state.
With the death of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il in 2011, however, the show has been slowly wound down. Under Kim Jong Un, his son and successor, Arirang (which takes its name from a Korean folk song symbolic of the divided peninsula) will no longer run in its current form. Jeremy Hunter, a British photojournalist, managed to attend the penultimate performance at Pyongyang’s massive May Day stadium in August 2011. In his hands, an ordinary tourist camera is a unique window on the world’s last hereditary Stalinist regime.
The spectacle is stunning in its synchronicity, says Mr Hunter, some of whose Arirang photographs are now on view at London’s Atlas Gallery. Fifty-thousand teenagers are turned into living pixels; they create a backdrop to the live displays below in the arena. Every 20 seconds for two hours they hold a different card of colour to create a new collective image. The effect is dramatic, and features an array of uplifting scenes (the Dear Leader’s purported birthplace; the revolvers he inherited from his father, etc). Another hundred-thousand people provide the dances, music and gymnastics. Mr Hunter, who has photographed ceremonies and rituals in 65 countries across five continents, says he has never seen anything like it.
“When you see these mosaics changing in a millisecond, it’s truly incredible. It could only be achieved in a place where you have an unlimited resource of humans who do whatever they are directed to do. Every breath of these people is coordinated.”
Training begins in February for ten hours a day, six days a week, says Mr Hunter, who learned more about the spectacle and the meaning of its imagery after returning to England. It is reckoned that it takes 250m man-hours—or child-hours—to produce. “These children are really coerced into performing,” he remarks. “Almost certainly they’re children of the so-called elite or loyal class”, those given exclusive right to live in the capital. The show itself is pure propaganda directed at the poorest, who are bussed in their thousands from the countryside. “It is a way of enthusing the peasant class about the quality of life that the regime believes they can offer.”
The shimmering skylines of Pyongyang and Shanghai, sacred mountains, rivers of leaping fish and overflowing fruits are meant to convey the fantasy of North Koreans as a “chosen people” with a life far better than any outside. There are no images of people cutting grass with scissors to supplement their food rations of 1,000 calories a day, or of the gulags like Camp 15 and Yodok, a complex that houses 50,000 prisoners. In this, Arirang will be remembered as the last example of propaganda displays on the order of Soviet military parades and the Nazis’ Nuremberg rallies.
The purpose is clear. “If there were to be a Korean Spring,” says Mr Hunter, “it would come from the peasant class. They’re the ones who need change the most.” Increasingly, he says, North Koreans have access to contraband radios from neighboring China, and are able to pick up signals from the south that show a different life outside.
Warned that professional cameras, phones and GPS equipment would be seized and punishment severe for those caught sneaking photographs, Mr Hunter played the tourist. No long lenses were allowed, “but there are ways of overcoming that,” he says, giving away nothing else. His minder was extremely kind, and ensured that he got an ideal seat among the elite members of the party.
In a companion book of the Arirang photos, Mr Hunter quotes Suk-Young Kim, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara: “A spectacle like Arirang brings people together, eliminates individual will and has tremendous efficacy in running society.” This struck Mr Hunter most forcefully when his minder translated for him the final slogan of the show. “Arirang shows how we can work together as one to achieve anything we desire.”
This makes for a disconcerting backdrop to North Korea’s announcement on January 24th of plans to carry out a new nuclear test and more long-range rocket launches. “In a way, to me,” he says, “that demonstrates that if they want to build a nuclear weapon, they will. They will construct whatever they feel is necessary to protect this hereditary Stalinist regime.”
Jeremy Hunter’s photos are on display at Atlas Gallery in London until Feb 16th
Earlier this month, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt paid a visit to North Korea with former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. Schmidt’s daughter Sophie also tagged along, and was allowed to snap photographs of things they experienced during their stay.
One of the items on the itinerary was visiting the Kim Il Sung University e-Library to see the students there using Google to search for information. Here’s what Sophie had to say about the photo shown above:
Looks great, right? All this activity, all those monitors. Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.
One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow–not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.
Schmidt admits that although the photographs are personal and an accurate record of what she saw, they may be completely untruthful when it comes to portraying what the country is really like:
It’s impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like. Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments. We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other).
I just tweeted this, but feel it deserves a write up also. The Paris Opera Ballet almost never chooses a non-French member for their troupe! congratulations Sae-eun!!
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Ballerina Park Sae-eun Joins Paris Opera Ballet
Park Sae-eun has become the first Korean ballerina to become a member of the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. She has been dancing there since last summer.
“After finishing an audition on Thursday, I was notified that I was the only person to be given a permanent place as I finished first out of 130 applicants,” Park said on Saturday in a telephone interview with the Chosun Ilbo.
The Paris Opera Ballet is the oldest troupe in the world, having been established by Louis XIV in 1669. It is considered one of the world’s top three ballet companies along with the American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in London.
Park has penetrated the glass ceiling that exists for non-French ballerinas. The troupe is seen as a bastion of French culture and is highly selective, especially in admitting dancers from abroad. Just 5 percent of its 180 dancers come from outside France, mostly from other European countries.
Due to such fierce completion, it has been the all-but impossible dream of many dancers to become a permanent member of the troupe.
Park started ballet at the age of 10 and picked up a gold medal at the Dong-A Dance Competition when she was in high school. Since then, she has had an impressive run at international competitions and picked up the nickname, “the queen of competitions” along the way.
She is the first Korean to have won three of the most prestigious competitions in the world in Jackson (2006), Lausanne (2007) and Varna (2010), with Moscow being the only key title to have eluded her so far.
She worked at the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company in 2007 and joined the Korea National Ballet in 2009, where she became the youngest dancer in its history to land starring roles. Park intended to become a permanent member of the Dutch National Ballet, but instead took a gamble on going to Paris, where she set a new milestone in just a year.
Park’s case is quite unprecedented, as most of the troupe’s members are selected after six years of training at its own ballet school. They then spend another four to five years there on temporary contracts.
“I heard it’s extremely difficult for a foreigner to pass the audition, so I didn’t have high expectations,” she said.
email@example.com / Jun. 18, 2012 12:51 KST