While the landscape of Korean entertainment can be vast and wondrous, it’s often the little things that make us fall in love, inspire awe, evoke secondhand embarrassment, or sometimes… break our hearts. In this segment, we ask our writers: Among the many things vying for your attention this month, what won and made your heart beat?
[Idols] The Turbulent Rise of NewJeans
I’ll admit, when Hybe sub-label ADOR dropped NewJeans‘s “Attention” MV out of nowhere, I was hooked. Not by the members themselves — I knew nothing of them — but to the vibes and aesthetic that echoed the idealistic world of teen TikTok with a retro but unique-in-this-K-pop-landscape sound to boot. Of course, the Twitterverse soon erupted in shock at the revelation that the group’s youngest member Hyein is only 14 years old.
Debuting idols at 14 is unfortunately not uncommon in K-pop; Shinee‘s Taemin and f(x)‘s Krystal immediately come to mind. However, when it was revealed that Min Heejin was the director of ADOR responsible for NewJeans, new, more dubious accusations began to surface about how minors are presented in K-pop — especially to adult audiences. This is a necessary discussion to be had, and not one that can be pinned on a single visual director or label because, in actuality, it’s an industry wide problem.
Beyond the controversy, NewJeans still rose to remarkable heights for a rookie girl group. The popularity of “Hybe Boy ” with its multiple PG, gender-inclusive MVs and, again, TikTok-able choreography made it a staple of any summer 2022 playlist. Then came debut day and the now infamous “Cookie” MV. Well… nothing about “Attention,” “Hype Boy,” or “Hurt” had prepared me for “Cookie.” As an English speaker, the innuendo was blatant and only made stronger by the English lyrics. After translators and other English speakers began to bring attention to the lyrics, ADOR put out a statement that essentially placed any accusations of sexualization on the listeners themselves. While well-worded, I think ADOR doth protest too much.
So now I’m left in a pickle. I like the sound, I like the aesthetic, and I do genuinely think that — aside from “Cookie” — NewJeans is a great group for the Korean teen market. They even have the charm and the dynamics to be contenders for rookie of the year. But where does that leave the moral obligation of me as a K-pop fan? There really aren’t any easy answers here, so I’m left trying to navigate this territory while listening to “Hype Boy” at least once a day.
[TV/Variety, Music] Unexpected Business, Junny’s blanc
It’s been a busy month for me, so I found myself falling back on the comforting, relaxing mood of Unexpected Business. The 2021 variety show places a small-town general store in the care of Jo In-sung and Cha Tae-hyun, with various actors as part-timers. Although there is plenty of humour that comes from the fish-out-of-water setup, the show was also produced with a lot of respect for the local community. More than forcing comedic moments, the show focused on highlighting the warmth of living in a small town.
The production team did thorough research on the people of Woncheon-ri, and showed the central role that this small but mighty general store plays in the community. It operates on a system of trust–the customers pay their bills at the end of each month–and mutual kindness, as seen in how the store owner cares for a little boy whose mother works full time, and the customers in turn know the ins and outs of the store so well that they can step up to teach In-sung and Tae-hyun as they flounder through their tasks.
On the music side, I’ve been enjoying indie R&B/ pop artist Junny‘s recent full album, blanc. Although some of the tracks seem upbeat, they are layered with feelings of uncertainty (“Obvious”) and spite (“Not About You”) that intrigue me into multiple listens. I also recommend the acoustic track “boyhood”. It’s cheerful and wistful at the same time, capturing the sweet nostalgia of recalling one’s past self that’s mixed with the regretful knowledge that it has to be let go of.
[Dramas, Music] Big Mouth, JUSTHIS
The only constant in my hectic life recently has been the release of Big Mouth. With two episodes released during the weekend, it’s the perfect way for me to distract myself from real life. There’s something to be said about how watching a show about capitalism and exploitation distracts you from the capitalism and exploitation you witness in real life…
Anyway, I’m still figuring out my verdict on the drama as I’m watching it, but the drama’s OST has exposed me to a wonderful artist. “Brand New” by JUSTHIS led me to do a deep-dive into his discography, and I’m slightly sad because I’ve wasted so much time not listening to his music till now.
He has released a bunch of singles just this year, including collaborations with Code Kunst and Doko. His entire set on Killing Voice was a delight to watch — the performance ability displayed really leaves you reeling. More recently, he released another edition of Killing Voice with him singing throughout. As a rapper and producer, he boasts some decently impressive singing skills. While I used to be very invested in the Korean hip-hop scene a couple of years back, DPR is the only act I’ve been following recently. JUSTHIS might have just reignited my interest in the scene.
[Idols/Music] Brilliant Boy Group B-Sides from NCT 127, Nu’est, and Ateez
Perusing my summer playlists, I was struck that many of my recent favorite tracks are standout boy group b-sides, both recent releases and older tunes it took me a while to discover.
First up is NCT 127‘s delightfully cheesy “Back 2 U (AM 01:27),” living proof that TXT don’t have a monopoly on ridiculous song titles. After valiantly resisting the temptation of NCTzenship for several years, I made the mistake of introducing my mom/K-pop partner in crime to NCT earlier this year and we have been feeding each other’s madness ever since. This prompted a dive into NCT’s older discography, and so far 2019’s “Back 2 U (AM 01:27)” has been my top find. A shameless slow jam, the song is just plain fun, and it’s a vocal marvel to boot.
In a similarly mellow musical vein, but a different tonal one, Nu’est‘s “Drive” has been a staple track for me for months. It comes from Nu’est’s underrated 2021 album Romanticize (but was originally a 2020 Japanese title track), home to a longtime favorite b-side ballad of mine “Don’t Wanna Go.” For whatever reason, it took me this long to find “Drive,” but I’m not letting go now. It’s a song that’s simultaneously chill and full of momentum, perfect for the many summer strolls I’ve been going on.
Last but certainly not least is Ateez‘s “Cyberpunk,” fresh off their latest EP. I hinted at my love for this track in the July edition of Unsung Artists, but such a subdued shoutout fails to capture how this track has taken over my life. It’s an absolutely magnetic snarl of a song, all barely contained aggression and blaring noise. Better even than the excellent title track “Guerilla,” “Cyberpunk” captures the potential of the, well, punk sound Ateez are currently experimenting with. It’s dynamite, and my love of it might be slightly enhanced by the fact that someone has just scored tickets to see Ateez live this fall (insert evil chuckle here). Do I want “Cyberpunk” to be on the setlist? 100 percent. Do I worry about the state of my health if I witness this song performed in-person? Absolutely!
[Idols/Music] The Second Generation Summer High
Aside from several songs here and there (and like Chelsea, “Hype Boy” is one of my current faves), the current generation just isn’t for me, and this has been made more obvious by how much I’ve been spending the past month in my SNSD and girl group playlist, where the likes of Brown Eyed Girls, Nine Muses, f(x), 4 Minute, and Wonder Girls reign supreme.
Of course, in that same playlist are the Summer Queens themselves, Sistar. Since their disbandment several years ago, K-pop summer just hasn’t been the same. What made Sistar so appealing was their brand of unapologetic sensuality and femininity without it delving into the borderline perv aspect that we’ve seen in other girl groups. Instead, they are powerful in their ownership of their identity, both on stage and off.
Which is perhaps why it should come to no surprise that I teared up when they reunited for Sketchbook. Their performance of their hits reminded me of the K-pop summer of old, where acts would be performing for more than two weeks and their first and primary audience were their fans, when they weren’t trying to cater to the Western gaze and approval.
Speaking of me tearing up, if Hyoyeon cries, I cry. Those are the rules. So when Hyoyeon began tearing up halfway through SNSD’s performance of their 15th Anniversary track, “Forever 1”, in a recent SM Town concert, I cried like a newborn baby. I managed to hold on to my emotions seeing them return together for this anniversary, but that SM Town stage just sparked the tears in me.
They just don’t make groups like them anymore.