Week Thirty Three – “The Best”

My younger self would probably have written a short review, dismissing this as music for people whose ears have fallen off.   Possibly without going to the trouble of actually listening to it first, and maybe adding a tasteless remark about the up-side of a war on the Korean peninsula. These days, I’m prepared to concede that the real problem is that I am simply not the target audience. That this music was not made for the enjoyment of British men on their 40th trip around the sun and I can hardly complain if I don’t get it. And the threat of war on the Korean peninsula just feels a bit too real to make jokes about…

That article would probably have begun with my asking whether K-Pop was a musical genre or a new breakfast cereal, but if I’m honest, I’m not actually entirely unfamiliar with it. My last three flatmates have all been keen players of a game called ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ which involves moving one’s hands and feet according to instructions that flash up on a screen to a soundtrack that, if the game’s designers weren’t asleep on the job, should result in the player dancing to  a rhythm more or less approximate that of the song. And given where this game took off, a lot of that music was Japanese and Korean pop. I’ve had a go at it myself. I’d like to claim it was the music that was putting me off, but truth be told I’m hopeless at anything requiring control of one’s limbs. And the music? Well, I doubt I would have much cared for it even it weren’t associated in my mind with losing at games…

So, trying to put all that to one side, what of Girls’ Generation? “The Best” is a compilation, and I assume, a representative sample of what they do. From the front cover of the album, it would appear that there are nine of them, but listening to the it, I’d be hard pressed to tell. Are there really nine vocalists in this group? I can make out at most maybe three distinct voices. There’s clearly a lot of auto-tune in play here, and I’m not sure it’s being used so much to compensate for the singers’ limitations, as to impose a kind of sonic uniformity on them. Am I reading too much into the fact that, to judge by the album covers that appear on Spotify, they all dress identically. Is this emblematic of some cultural difference between the Anglophone world and South Korea? A different attitude towards conformity and individuality? After all, rewinding 20 years or so, the Spice Girls all dressed differently – the marketing people behind them had created a distinct ‘persona’ for each of them. Maybe that’s present in Girls’ Generation too, but if it is, it’s subtle enough that it passes me by.

I was having a conversation not so long ago about whether Japan and Korea might be the two countries in the world which are truly first world democracies without being in any sense western. Places that are entirely modern and quiet alien. Yet listening to this record I’m struck by how familiar it sounds. It’s not even as different from Western pop music as the stuff that I heard blaring out of speakers in Istanbul. The opening track, in particular, GENIE, sounds much like a lot of Anglophone chart pop music (except the lyrics, or the parts that are sung in English, make even less sense. What on earth does “I’m genie for you boy” mean? Does not parse… It might have a lot to do with the fact that many of the song-writers are actually from Scandinavia or the US. Perhaps this is a kind of gateway drug…

It’s lower energy than I’d expected. There’s not quite so much of the frenetic ‘singing over a sped up 1980s arcade game soundtrack’ as I remember from Dance Dance Revolution. Or maybe it just feels slower because I’m not trying to place my feet on the right part of the dance mat at the right time. Time Machine is a ballad, half in English and half in Korean that sounds like a less irritating Celine Dion, which is um, damning with the faintest of praise. PAPARAZZI reminds me a little of 80s Madonna and finds the sweet-spot between the mawkishness of their slower songs and the headache inducing tendencies of their more EDM moments. Oh! is actually kind of fun. It might help that it’s mostly in Korean and so I can’t make out a word of what they are saying. Beep Beep is every bit as irritating as the song’s title hints that it might be. And by then, it’s mostly over. There’s too much of it, an hour of Hi-NRG songs that all sound very similar, and I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the ninth circle of hell that I’d been fearing.

So it’s not as awful as I thought it might be. It’s really just a chart pop record sung partly in Korean. Having stuck to the RAMalbumclub rule of listening to it all the way through three times, though not Alex Massie’s variant of listening sober, drunk and hung over (I think ‘drunk’ would probably be best, while ‘hung over’ would be a downright painful experience) , I can’t see any reason it ever need trouble my ears again. But they haven’t actually fallen off in protest…

Highlights: I’m struggling a bit here. Um, Oh!, perhaps. And maybe Mr.Mr… But you may as well ask me about my favourite ballets or uses for broccoli. I’m off to listen to the new War on Drugs tracks on Spotify. I’m predictable, aren’t I…

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