With a frequent reliance of electronic melodies and synth beats, K-pop at times can be oversaturated with sound. This is the consequence of overproduction, voices muddled by the distracting sounds added in the studio. Admittedly, this isn’t always a bad thing, but the ears occasionally need a break from their sonic punching bag gig. Enter: the acoustic performance.
The word “acoustic,” as it relates to musical instruments and performance, is defined as being without electrical amplification. So strip K-pop songs of the adornments and what’s left? The acoustic performance – no heavy audio processing, just the sounds that can be produced live.
Hearing a song diluted down to focus solely on the singing often transforms the music into something unexpected: fast songs become somehow mellow, quirky vocal features that go unnoticed under layered beats quickly come to light, and, if the group can manage it, attention-grabbing harmonies finally get their time to shine. Sometimes, acoustic performances take these songs into different genres.
Due to heavy rotation, our ears can tune out and coast on the catchiness of those infectious beats and choruses. Opportunities to hear K-pop artists acoustic stylings may be few and far between, but let’s take a look at what these hits can become once they’re ripped apart and reconstructed with the occasional twist.
2NE1 – “I Love You”
“I Love You” was already somewhat mellow for a 2NE1 song, but it’s only diluted further in this session on “YG On Air.” Despite that, it still has the original spirit, only this time it rides along a warm guitar instead of synthesizers. And, it’s just as good. I appreciate each note more, especially CL’s piercing note on the bridge before the song comes back to its original mood.
The ending to the song, which starts with CL’s rap, fits better with this quiet arrangement. In the original, the transition is designed to disorient you before diving right in, but the switch here feels nothing short of natural. The voices are great; the guitar provides the perfect balance; and the dance track manages to come off more like a lullaby than anything else.
Lyn – “The Boys” (SNSD Cover)
Lyn certainly wasn’t the only one to take “The Boys” on a trip to a jazzier vibe. Yet, this performance seems like it’s as a lot more fun. The live band gives her a lot of freedom with the inserted vocal runs, and somehow the song ends up halfway between a tango and a jazz tune, the perfect background music for a lounge.
The trade-offs between Lyn and her backup singers is a great feature, but the remixed rap part has a lot of flare and provides a fair amount of surprise (I’d take it over the original rap any day, but that’s another story).
SNSD – “Gee”
I may have just given SNSD a hard time for “The Boys,” but there’s always room for redemption. This acoustic performance of Gee may be on the quiet side with little vocal depth, I like how “Gee” is run through different genres. They start with a soft ballad and then transition to a pop-rock rendition that carries more of the song’s original character. After that, it’s full-stop into a mid-tempo version of what they started with.
Just by checking out the line-up, you know that this performance was designed to showcase the group’s singers. It is important to note that they’ve improved since these noticeably older days (mostly, they seem a bit timid), but they do a more-than-decent job with taking the song out of their comfort zone.
B2ST – “Lightless”
“Lightless” was already a great song, but the unplugged version is such a pleasing listen. Although it exists as a ballad in acoustic form, it doesn’t just coast on a soft tempo with quiet and smooth vocals. Every vocalist adds depth to each line, changing tempo here and volume there. All of this is over a nice guitar melody that’s really soothing to listen to.
B2ST is full of capable singers, but Dongwoon and Yoseob get kudos for their parts at the end. Sometimes ballads in K-pop don’t manage to keep your attention from beginning to end, but I could listen to this version of “Lightless” on repeat and not miss a word. That is acoustic done well.
SPICA – “Tonight”
SPICA is undeniably a group with a lot of talent and spunk. “Tonight” is a great song as is, but Boa’s guitar veers on the alternative-rock side, and coupled with the harmonies, the song seems apt for a sweet campfire sing-a-long. Alas, if only it were longer. I’d love to hear a full version of “Tonight” just like this.
Infinite – “Wings”
The original cut of “Wings” is just a little too distracting of a listen – the inconsistent background beats and abrupt transitions ruin the momentum of what could be a solid R&B-pop song.
This acoustic rendition turns this down a notch, and while it still has the transitions to a mid-tempo, it ends up being infinitely more graceful of a switch. The vocals finally get a chance to really shine this time around, and Sung-gyu’s note is even better live than it is on the track.
JYJ – “Empty”
As original members of a group trained for a capella performances, who could be surprised that JYJ wouldn’t make the list? Their English album The Beginning incited polarizing opinions, but the more upbeat “Empty” was often listed as a fan favorite: its catchy lyrics and piano intro is hard to deny.
Even stripped of the electronic beat, “Empty” keeps its tempo in JYJ’s acoustic performance. You see so much teamwork between the three as the song progresses – harmonies, melodies, and ad-libs come in and out, making you realizes just how intricate “Empty” is just in terms of line distribution. But, the real treasure of this rendition is Junsu, who manages to recreate the digital effect used in the bridge of original song with his own vocal chords (check out 2:40).
It’s these subtleties that make an acoustic performance so interesting to listen to. K-pop is seen as a homogeneous genre of electro-pop with minimal music authenticity, but these performances show that the music can be fluid – genres can change and the groups can showcase different techniques and styles.
Seeing authenticity from idols has its own appeal for fans. Consider the popularity of MR removed videos of idols performing live, when the background vocals are muted from the recording and only the live singing can be heard.
To some extent, we want to see the credibility in the performance, that the flashy lights and production values can be taken away and there will still be something left that sounds good and is still enjoyable.
We don’t need that confirmation all of the time, but it is a point of interest for fans to know what their idols can really do. There are both songs that I can’t stand listening to live, and there are other songs that have better live versions than studio versions.
Of course we love K-pop’s digital enhancements, the addictive sounds that amp up the hook-factor and excitement of the music which sticks with us for hours after we’ve listened to it last. We also love the theater of the performance, the eye-catching visuals of synchronized choreography.
This may all be true, but as some performers have shown up to now and certainly more in the future, maybe some of the songs would be just fine without it, or at least would benefit from a little less tinkering in the studio.
Any favorite acoustic renditions you’d like to add to the list?