Pop Cult: On New Jack Swing and Cultural Technology
Knee-jerk reactions (the best kind) to pop culture happenings all over the world.Posted by Allen Huang
Pop Cult: Eye-Smiles for the Common Feeling
We finally come full-circle; the dragon has caught his own tail.
CUBE entertainment boy band BtoB (Born to Beat (lol)) hit the easy button on this one, channeling the sound that inspired SM Entertainment’s Lee Soo-man’s quest for pop music domination: New Jack Swing. The Thomas Edison of New Jack Swing, Teddy Riley (who himself is not unfamiliar with the K-Pop landscape), acknowledged his obvious influence in the sound of “Wow,” but also praised the band’s execution and their hustle.
I read the article in the New Yorker explaining Chariman Lee’s micromanagement and his idea for Cultural Technology, but songs that simply return to the basics, like “Wow”, prove to me only one thing: even with all the planning in the world, no one has any idea what makes a pop song a blockbuster hit. With enough care and enough planning (sometimes thirty-year contracts worth of planning), it occurred to Lee that, perhaps, he can get close to a guaranteed hit all by position. And SM Entertainment is in the market of getting everything into the exact spot.
In comes Psy, 34 years-old and chock full of rebellious anti-pop-star charisma. His “Gangnam Style” craze goes and blows the whole thing sky high. All the pretense of the well-oiled, fine-tuned pop manufacturing machine goes up in smoke. Yes, the k-pop goddesses of Girls Generation do stand tall above their industry peers, and mostly for reasons unfathomable. Honestly, ‘Gee’ was probably the crossover hit K-Pop needed (I remember people sharing that video around since like 2009), and remains one of the most recognizable tunes of the genre. But why these nine girls? What’s really the difference between Girls Generation and a similar, large personnel group like Nine Muses? Could it be… the tunes?
Maybe that’s it. Maybe it isn’t about the eye-smiles, the worldliness of the talent, the training, the effort, the styling. I mean, that all helps in the long run, helps you tell bands apart. Girls Generation are the leggy girls, BIGBANG has the crazy looking guys, 2NE1 is like BIGBANG but girls, SHINee look unnaturally femme. But in the end, the groups and all their training and tics and plastic surgery, they’re simply conduits, fashioned in a certain way by certain people (SM doing plastic-queen, YG doing future-robotos, CUBE doing teen-pranksters), ready to fit the songs they sing, not the other way around.
So when the New Yorker asides about the “overproduced, derivative pop music” of Korea and in the same turn praises the West’s “better performers doing more original material,” there’s a strange cognitive dissonance at play, as if the article wasn’t about K-Pop’s overt efforts to emulate the American Pop Machine. Pop music isn’t lying to us. We know that Justin Bieber doesn’t write his tunes, we know that Super Junior have a choreographer. These are obvious tropes to even the youngest fan.
But, like an actor inhabiting a specific role, there are parts that Rihanna is more inclined to play than Taylor Swift. There’s a spot for Carly Rae Jespen, there’s a spot for Usher. And there’s a spot for BoA, HyunA, and Psy. These aren’t interchangeable parts. The songs, the pop songs written by the songwriters and composed by the producers, demand the “slave contracts,” the precision dance steps, the over-the-top plumage. Because, like the author notes, pop music is not about the material world. It’s about those nebulous things that artistic men and women have been trying to quantify since the beginning of time. Love, hate, fun, sadness, death, life. And such galactic subjects deserve a hyperbolic, cosmic pop machine, from the East, from the West, from wherever. Where you see a flirty eye-smile, I see a 10 year plan to encapsulate, quantify, and, yes, commercialize the idea of a pure, first love. That, right there, is Cultural Technology.