Exploring Gender Perspectives Through Response Songs
After reading Gaya’s MV review of A-JAX’s “2MYX” a few days ago, my immediate reaction towards hearing that the song was written in response to SNSD’s “Run Devil Run” can be described as puzzled. Given that “Run Devil Run” was released well over two years ago, why is it receiving a response just now? After doing some research, I discovered that, unlike in American music, songs that deliberately respond to other songs, otherwise known as “response songs,” aren’t all that common in K-pop. Further research unearthed that there was an earlier song in response to another SNSD track. Turns out that Nassun and MBLAQ’s G.O had collaborated in response to SNSD’s legendary hit, “Gee,” with “O-WI-O,” which was also released nearly two years after the original. The curious nature of these two songs lead to the questions – what is the nature of response songs in K-pop, and why aren’t there more of them?
Starting with “O-WI-O,” the respondents Nassun and G.O reference so vaguely to the original song that it is nearly impossible to tell that it’s a response song had E-Tribe, the producers of both songs, not laid claim to this fact. The most noticeable resemblance between the response and the original is the synthesized swirling sound that plays in the back of the melody, one which is more prevalent in “O-WI-O” than in “Gee.” Other than that, the two songs share the same theme of being love-struck by a crush or first love, and they both embody this sentiment through a cute if not semantically senseless onomatopoeia which is also used as the song’s title. “O-WI-O” lends an extra, albeit shallow, layer of depth to the original through the male’s expression of an invitation for the female narrator in “Gee” to come to him. Despite Nassun and G.O being decked out in stylish playboy outfits, the lyrics don’t necessarily imply that there will be any actual initiative taken on the part of the male to act upon his desires. In all honesty, there isn’t much of a response at all to the character of the starry-eyed secret admirer in “Gee” because the lyrics in “O-WI-O” are mostly generic and do not directly respond to any of the lines specific to “Gee.” In fact, “O-WI-O” could be claimed as a response to any generic cutesy song which is quite applicable to half of SNSD’s discography. What’s next, a response to “Oh!?”
So why claim “O-WI-O” as a response to the mega-hit “Gee?” Well, why not? Arguably, “Gee” has been one of the most renowned K-pop songs, in the time before “Gangnam Style” came along. What better song was there to draw comparisons to if the goal was simply to gain publicity? After all, what was Nassun known for other than the guy who blurted out demeaning silly English lines at Hyori in “U-Go-Girl?” Who was G.O at the time other than a singer in an upstart boy band? It’s quite embarrassingly obvious that the minds behind E-Tribe were just trying to draw a bit of attention to Nassun, an artist who is part of the record producing duo’s music label, Happy Face Entertainment. They were already guilty of committing shameless marketing by featuring Nassun so heavily on “U-Go-Girl.” Judging by the trajectory of Nassun’s career, it’s quite clear that responding for the shameless sake of responding is a fruitless tactic. So why did this happen again?
In A-JAX’s defense, they did a good job in purposely making “2MYX” an actual response song to “Run Devil Run.” First of all, they responded to a song which actually begged for a response. SNSD’s best effort at shedding their cute aegyo image and foraying into K-pop’s man-hating territory disguised as female empowerment, “Run Devil Run”, describes the perspective of a woman who’s determined to end a relationship while citing claims of the male partner’s infidelity. There are two sides to every relationship, so what better way to respond than to voice the perspective of the man in this relationship? Secondly, the MV for “2MYX” directly references “Run Devil Run” through the silhouette of the girl clad in black, an intentional mimic of the silhouette (of Yoona?) on the album cover for the Run Devil Run repackage album. The fact that the girl reappears throughout the MV makes it clear that the members of A-JAX are speaking in response to her allegations.
Furthermore, the upside down pyramids in the MV’s main box alludes to a subterranean atmosphere that the boys reside in, playing to the accusations of them being “devils.” Lastly, the lyrics of “2MYX” directly address the indictments made in the lyrics of “Run Devil Run,” creating a sort of dialogue between the two songs. The male’s twist on the female’s critiques of his behavior makes “2MYX” a truly poignant response to the original. As evidence, here is a reconstruction of the two songs in dialogue form which places the selected responding lyrics adjacent to the original.
Girl in “Run Devil Run: So many men that are in your phone are actually girls with only one letter changed.
The perfume smell that’s sickening to my nose, tell me whose it is.
Guy in “2MYX:”All the girls in my phone
They’re all girls that you made happen.
If I explain, it’ll just sound like excuses.
Your obsessive nature, now good bye.
Girl: Half of the world is men, it makes no difference if you’re gone.
I’m going to wait by myself for a guy who will only look at me.
Guy: In this big world
Half consists of girls – don’t you dare think about coming back.
Girl: Even if he hangs on to me, I’ll just ignore him.
On the day that I become a great person, I’ll get my revenge.
Guy: Thank you sweet my lady.
I’ll be expecting a hotter you.
So in turn, please stop caring about me
I also forgot someone like you.
All in all, if this was a lesson in PR, the girls definitely would come off as the righteous victims while the guys would seem like selfish jerks. But the feisty image of the “bad boy” in contrast to the angelic innocence of SNSD was exactly what A-JAX was going for. They want to distinguish themselves from other boy bands by going as far as attacking the naïve image of SNSD. Where SNSD has presented a simplified portrait of a disingenuous relationship, A-JAX now provides an additional layer of depth by giving the girls a heavy dose of reality. By giving voice to the character of the male “devil,” A-JAX exposes the protagonist in “Run Devil Run” of her perceived innocence by hinting that she was partially at fault for what happened and that she’s responsible for all the ambivalence bottled up inside him, which he is not afraid of letting out in the song. Basically, he’s proclaiming that he can care less about being labeled a “devil” because that’s who he is and he’s not afraid to admit it. “2MYX” aptly utilizes the intended effect of a response song, which is to shed light on a different perspective of the original story.
Although the marketing tactic with “2MYX” is no different from the one for “O-WI-O,” the referencing in the former doesn’t come off as shameless and unnecessary because of the effort put in to actually make the song a legitimate response to the original. In this case, fans of “Run Devil Run” can actually appreciate the artistry of the response and how it adds to the story and depth of the original. It’s almost like the musical version of a sequel. In this light, it’s surprising why K-pop artists don’t reference one another’s material more. Since hit movies always tend to have a sequel, why not do the same for hit songs?
Although response songs don’t have quite the same selling power as movie sequels, their impact can be realized through their prevalence in American subculture. While American response songs can be traced back to 1940s folk music, its current popularity is mostly related to underground responses to mainstream hits, particularly in the genre of hip hop. Perhaps the most notorious response song in this genre was Sporty Thievz’s “No Pigeons,” a response to the 1999 hit “No Scrubs” by TLC which popularized the term “scrub” to describe a man who is substantial to a woman of standards. The response by Sporty Thievz was none other than another derogative, degenerative, and insulting diatribe towards women which fortunately didn’t quite catch on with the public (as if there weren’t already enough words in the English language to degrade women). Nonetheless, there are many similarities to draw from these parallel examples from 90s hip hop and modern K-pop. Firstly, lesser acts are drawing upon the works of top artists in order to promote themselves. Secondly, male artists feel that they are at liberty to attack and taint the image of a successful female artist. And lastly, the lesser male acts come off looking like complete immature bigots for doing so.
That is not to say that all response songs are one and the same. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few in the subcultures of American hip hop that defend the perspective of the woman at the expense of the man, and not all of them are meant to piggyback off the spotlight of the original hit. The best example comes from Rihanna’s response to “Love the Way You Lie,” which was originally a hit song she performed in as a featuring artist on Eminem’s album. This time around, “Love the Way You Lie, Part II” appears as a non-promoted track featuring Eminem on Rihanna’s album. There are many similarities between the response and the original, particularly in the melody, most of the background music, and Rihanna’s haunting chorus, but the slowed tempo of “Part II” focuses more on Rihanna’s perspective as she fittingly receives the majority of the lines. Without going too much into the song, it’s fair to say that “Part II” is a meaningful response to the original because the response showcases the perspective of the female as a victim in contrast to the original which sympathized more with the male’s take on domestic violence. The artistry and emotional appeal of “Love the Way You Lie” is fittingly referenced and enhanced by the response, making the “sequel” a perfect complement to the original.
Since expressing the perspective of the opposing gender is seemingly the best use of the response song, there are a few song collaborations that I don’t mind hearing a response to, from the guesting artist. The K-pop song which comes closest to touching upon the subject matter in “Love the Way You Lie” is probably Tablo’s “Bad” featuring Jinsil. It would not only be a good promotional strategy for Jinsil to release a response to Tablo’s original song, but it would also be an opportunity for her to give voice to the female perspective in “Bad.” Along the same lines, it would be nice to see Bang Yong-guk further explore the perspective of the hopeless romantic-turned-stalker he voiced in Song Ji-eun’s ”Going Crazy”, which could possibly make a highly anticipated sequel.
As we can see from the following example, opposing perspectives can contribute to providing a more objective analysis of a topic. In the spirit of responding to female allegations, G-Dragon composed a fitting rap verse portraying the voice of the man targeted in the lyrics of 2NE1’s “I Don’t Care.” Luckily, he was able to perform it with the ladies of 2NE1 through a special stage on Inkigayo which featured an “unplugged” version of “I Don’t Care.”
There are times when songs respond to one another even without the artist’s intention of doing so. Thanks to the eloquent medium of mash-ups, I discovered that there may be songs that appropriately — albeit unintentionally — respond to one another due to the way they portray gender perspectives on a similar topic. Check out how well BtoB’s “Insane” complements After School’s “Because of You” in terms of expressing different sides of a breakup through this well orchestrated mash-up.
In conclusion, response songs are most effective when they give voice to another perspective, preferably that of opposing genders, and provide an additional layer of depth to the original song. This latest attempt by A-JAX may have just the right elements to make response songs a viable marketing tool in K-pop. If that were the case, what songs would you like to see responded to, and by whom? What songs do you think could be fitting yet unintentional responses to one another? I’m excited to hear your responses below!
(University of Virginia, Happy Face Entertainment, SM Entertainment, DSP Media, LaFace Records, Def Jam Recordings, YG Entertainment)