This past week has been filled with comebacks and while the groups vary in shape, size, and form, they all seem to have one thing in common: angst. And while angst is a global emotion, it takes on a life of its own in Korean Pop. Male and female idol groups alike throw on their black, leather based ensembles, put on their best scowl and tears, and sing about cheating ex-lovers. What do you think/how do you feel about this genre of idol pop? Does it get to the core of the sorrowful human condition or is it just cheesy, gimmicky goodness? Either way, why is it that angst almost always, without fail, takes this shape and form?

Maddie: I don’t think “angst” describes this genre. MBLAQ‘s “It’s War” and SNSD‘s “Run Devil Run” are more about vengeance than feeling dread. “It’s War” is a declaration. It’s, “You’re going to pay for wronging me and betraying me; we are enemies.” Yet, it ends with suicide.

In “Run Devil Run,” it’s also a declaration but not about payback in the sense of real physical punishment. When Jessica sings, “When I become a great person, I’ll have my revenge”, she’s optimistic about her future where she won’t be taken for a fool and he’ll realize what he’s lost and is missing out on. The choreography ends with super confident model-like poses.

2NE1‘s “Go Away” is the same message, but here, the “declarations” are more like hopeful promises. With the lyric, “I’ll meet someone so much better and make you regret it all”, she’s more concerned with finding someone who will be “better” than seeing she’ll overcome this and be better to herself. Here, it ends with CL dying in a race car accident.

2PM‘s “Again and Again” is also a declaration but more of an epiphany. It’s the realization that one is caught in a web and can’t help but return to the person who will continue to cause them pain. With “I must be crazy. I guess I have no pride”, both potential madness and doubts about one’s self-respect are brought to attention. In this MV, the choreography ends with each member covering up their faces with shame.

This genre is basically the other face of love. You enter depression. Get angry. Point fingers and make promises/declarations. Does it get to the core of human condition? That depends on the listener. If they feel it, then it’s there. If not, oh well. Some listen to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” while others, SNSD’s “Run Devil Run”. Why does it take this form? Leather makes you feel tough while you sing about being dumped or cheated on?

Nabeela: This question is really hard for me, because I don’t think angst is formulaic. At least, for most groups who succeed with their angst image, the angst is molded to fit the group performing it, and so how angst-y the real execution is entirely depends on the group itself. Choreography may or may not affect the angst image, but I usually see it as not making a difference. I guess what it really boils down to with angst attitude and stage presence, which is actually a lot harder for some idols that you may think.

For me, “Run Devil Run” is one of my favorite songs from SNSD, but I never imagined any angst in it. Sure, it was darker than what we usually expect from SNSD, both in concept and choreography, but to me, it was the last thing from angst. And that is because the girls don’t know how to show off their attitude in a way that doesn’t remind us of their cuter material, so it’s hard for them to ever be about angst. Same thing happened in “The Boys.” They were given every opportunity to bring some attitude in the table, but everyone with the exception of Hyoyeon and Sunny failed to deliver a believable angst attitude.

Angst is really a hit or miss kind of thing. It can even border on the awkward sometimes, especially when it gets gimmicky and its obvious a group is acting too hard out their element. For the post part however, most groups try to mold angst into their image rather than conforming to the angst concept. The former method often produces better music, whereas the latter is makes angst gimmicky and typical.

Subi: I would disagree with Nabeela and say that it is formulaic in Korean entertainment songs. Most angst driven concepts tend to unfold in the same way. I would say “It’s War,” “Again & Again,” “Heartbeat,” “Wedding Dress” are all along the same line of angst.

Is it gimmicky? Yes. But I feel that in K-pop, they tend to portray this emotion in what are, essentially, variations of the same way. It becomes a gimmick in that the portrayal of angst, fear and anxiety together, seems to be the rule of thumb reaction to many, similar situations. Has a guy cheated on you (“Run Devil Run”)? Be sad and angry. Has a guy moved on from you (“Go Away”)? Be sad and angry. Has a girl cheated on you (“Again and Again”)? Be sad and angry. Has a girl moved on from you (It’s War)? Be sad and angry.

While all of these examples have different degrees of sadness and anger, they essentially come down to those kinds of emotions — emotions that I would say, come together to form the inner turmoil known as angst. I think this is something that occurs in all sorts of modes of entertainment, but since we are a K-pop site talking about K-pop — as far as K-pop goes, it is rather gimmicky. And does it get to the heart of the human condition? No, because as we know, there are more than several ways to feel about a said situation.

Before U Go” is a refutation to everything I know about angst in K-pop because it truly breaks the formula. The song is about a lover who has moved on and while the speakers of the song feel sadness, that is not the source of the inner turmoil, and it is not the source of angst. It is loving someone but letting them go anyway. It’s very different from angst driven concepts but it’s the exception not the rule and until the rule becomes an amalgamation of exceptions, then the rule will always be gimmicky, Korean Pop or not.

And I’m just talking about the song “Before U Go.” The MV goes against everything I said.

Amy: Subi, regarding your point re: “Before U Go” — I think we have to make a distinction at this point on whether or not we’re taking music videos into consideration, because I thought that we were (re: “It’s War”) but I got confused with “Before U Go.” I think the song itself is not gimmicky as far as using angst as a theme, but the music video (the drama version) is WAY more gimmicky than any other video we’ve already discussed, and uses and way over-abuses the idea of angst, to a point where it becomes fodder for parody.

Gil: Angst is definitely a concept — not just in Korea, but all over the world. How many times have I seen a Bollywood hero singing and dancing sadly in the rain or a country singer crooning about his lost love? It’s a universal emotion that we as humans get sucked into, it’s the reason we sit through K-dramas filled with angst and sadness as the main character is slowly dying from a incurable cancer of the pancreas. It’s such a strong emotion, and the phrase “misery loves company” can apply to this situation.

Personally, whether or not the concept gets to the core of human sorrow or whether or not it’s a gimmicky concept is completely up to the artists and their execution. For example, “Run Devil Run” was a song about cheating ex lovers, something that can create angst, but the girls — as lovely as they may be — aren’t used to performing that intense of an emotion. Up to that point, they were doing aegyo concepts and once they’re given a “darker” concept, it’ll throw them off.

But there are moments where that sorrow can be displayed beautifully. IU‘s debut song, “Mia,” was beautiful and haunting. IU carried that song fabulously and the music video fit with it. Or what about “Cleansing Cream” by Brown Eyed Girls? They are many examples of that concept done right, but it depends on the execution and ability of the performer. In my opinion, good music is when the artist is able to connect to the audience about  the subject matter they’re singing about. SNSD does a good job of being cute and fun, and they portray that well in their songs. But when given “darker” and heavier material, they fall through. Or Brown Eyed Girls; could you imagine them doing a fun song filled with oppas and aegyo? No, because their style is different.

Fannie: People often turn to music when they’re feeling down. Half of the time they will go for the happy songs as a means to mask and drive away their negative feelings. The other half they will go for angsty songs because they can relate to the song on a personal level. The song is used a means to share in the overall universal experience and in that way, it makes you feel better because you realize you’re not so alone in feeling that way.

Angst is like emotional tension on a knife’s edge; it’s a universal, almost existential feeling that washes over you and draws you in, and I think it is for this reason that it is employed so often, in music all over the world, as well as other social mediums. I mean, just look at the elements of the typical Korean drama. There is always some form of terminal cancer (or in these days, psychological disorder). The plots revolve around love quadrangles that drag everyone involved to the grave and back, and are usually milked out until we are sick and tired of how sick and tired everyone is by the end of the drama. While comedy and happy acting are like side dishes in a drama plot, the real substance almost always comes from a strong core of angst.

Angst is what constitutes the hook that draws your own emotions into the viewing or listening experience. You may appreciate and laugh at a joke, but what you personally relate to is the angst.

I agree that Run Devil Run isn’t a great example of angst, which usually involves conflicting inner thoughts and vulnerability. Correct me if I’m wrong, there is no indication of confused, inner turmoil in the lyrics of RDR; it comes more from the point-of-view of a post-angst state (AFTER the period of uncertainty), driven by pride, anger, and clear resolve. The songs that immediately come to my mind when I think of K-pop angst are 2PM’s Heartbeat, After School‘s Because Of You, and like Gil said, Brown Eyed Girls’ Cleansing Cream.

Johnelle: I like the angst in K-pop; at least it gives some relief from the aegyo explosions.  What is gimmicky about angst in K-pop is all the black leather and angry pouts that’s used to portray it in MVs and performances.  I sometimes wonder if the artists themselves even truly understand what they are singing about or if these angst filled songs just a concept to them where they just play all dark and angry? Their use of angst — It’s not terrible per se, but it’s the easy way out of portraying that emotion.

Some of the greatest teen angst movies from the 80s: The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Goonies — they weren’t all about black leather and a scowl. They were about teen discontent, an average teenager’s discontent in their every day life, and their pursuit to break free of that and ‘stick it to the man.’  It would be great if K-pop could actually do that and find that will to ‘rage against the machine.’  Alas, because K-pop is so controlled and manufactured by the entertainment companies and the constraints of government and societal norms, the likelihood of that is… nil.

Patricia: But since when is K-pop not gimmicky? It’s an unwritten rule that a K-pop idol group’s primary purpose is to market themselves in the easiest, most sellable way possible: via the hormones of willing fangirls/boys. It’s not to say that the creatives and artists within K-pop are disingenuous at their craft, but as long as they’re working in the idol industry, they’re going to be answering to higher-ups who are going to have one thing in mind, which is the idol’s selling power to its most profitable market. And their most profitable market is one who wants to see not only abs and legs, but are also emotionally attached to their favorite idols and will therefore react (with their wallets!) when they see their favorite idols do anything emotional. I think that, as K-pop consumers, this is something that we always have to keep in mind.

That said, I have a very hard time taking “angsty” K-pop seriously, because it’s so obvious what the purpose of the angst actually is. Just look at the general fangirl reaction to the “It’s War” video and you’ll get the idea: most fans are fawning over teary-eyed Seungho, angst-faced Thunder, vindictive-spirited Joon and label this all as “impressive acting” when in fact, the real attraction here is the chance to see idols acting “emotional.” Why else do fans post videos of idols’ crying scenes in dramas on Youtube, videos that rack up thousands of views? It’s not because the idols are good actors. It’s because the fans want to see that vulnerability, that weakness. Emotional men are attractive. Apparently.

I think that’s why this angst thing has become so trendy lately. Granted, there’s always the possibility that this “angst” comes from genuine roots and I don’t want to discount or mock the genuine intentions of producers/creatives if that is indeed the case. But more oftentimes than not, K-pop angst is just another gimmick that’s just as marketable as aegyo and abs, but carries with it a sense of vulnerability and perceived genuineness that is, in actuality, nothing more than a marketing tactic.