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?
Promising Rookie Nine.i, Monsta X’s Vocals Take Center Stage, and The Simple Pleasures of Going Seventeen
While working my way through albums from the tail end of 2022, I became intrigued by rookie group Nine.i‘s The 2nd Mini Album [I (Part.1)], uncreatively and confusingly named as it may be.
Something about spoken word intros always gets me, from Ateez‘s sweeping “Intro: Long Journey” that opened their debut tetralogy to Enhypen‘s avant garde “Walk the Line“. Nine.i’s “I live as ________” is simpler, but still effective, painting the image of a youth on the cusp of a journey towards independence and self-discovery. The vocal production of title track “Young Boy” is rough around the edges, and the post-chorus is missing a layer of melodic boost to drive home its emotional impact. But the use of rock and the song’s robust verses still succeed in conveying a sense of courage and hope that carries the song’s persona on their coming-of-age journey.
On to 2023 releases, I was pleasantly surprised by the production on Monsta X‘s Reason. It still carries the expansive, brash energy that the group have made their trademark, but the members’ vocals slice through the instrumentation to take centre stage. I don’t deny the appeal of their previous heavily layered, distorted musical style, but I confess too many listens often gave me a headache, so I’m enjoying this different approach.
I’ve also been catching up on Going Seventeen 2022, and tremendously enjoyed “Talk Get-together“. The concept is simple: the members gather for a work dinner and are allowed to chat freely, first as a full group, then breaking into smaller units of six/ seven, four, and finally going home in pairs. There was comedy–S.Coups and Mingyu singing way too loudly for sober folks, for instance, prompting Woozi to zero in on their vocal delivery flaws despite being on a completely different floor. There was Joshua, Hoshi, and Vernon‘s intellectual discussion on closed versus open endings in movies, and also a heartfelt conversation on self-care between The8 and Hoshi.
That a simple idea could birth such a range of memorable moments and emotions reminded me again of the genius of the Going Seventeen production team; I can’t wait for the show to return in 2023 and recruit more Cubics to the fandom.
A Cornucopia of Fun Dating Variety Shows
With new dating programs popping up all the time, the craze for these reality shows seems never-ending. But while I used to be completely indifferent to the genre, I found myself addicted after stumbling across EXchange 2 last summer. This month, I finished the last few episodes of Pink Lie and Love Catcher in Bali, which both had some lost potential but were fairly intriguing for the most part.
I’ve also been enjoying Love Alarm Clap! Clap! Clap! which, as the title suggests, is based on the hit webtoon Love Alarm. Participants can express their affection with a special app that sets off an alarm when those who like them come within a 10 m radius, similar to the one in the original story. The show also brings the salesman to life, selling cards to the cast to help with their pursuit of love. Although the ‘date card’ which sets up one-on-one dates seems to be the most popular item, it’s the more unusual cards that really liven up the atmosphere. Whether it’s a ‘steal card’ to steal someone else’s date partner or a ‘handcuffs card’ to shackle a rival to a table leg, the contestants’ wacky interactions with one another make for a highly entertaining watch.
Another program I’ve been having fun with is The Skip Dating, a fast-paced show that arranges four-on-four blind dates that take place in a single day. It’s kind of like an online dating app in which the cast can choose to press the ‘heart’ or ‘skip’ button on someone’s profile, except it’s done in real life in front of everyone to see. Interestingly, this is also the only dating show I’ve watched where I enjoy the hosts’ (Yoo Jae-suk, Jeon So-min, and Nucksal) commentaries more than the actual participants’ discussions. As the contestants change every couple of episodes, the trio’s remarkable chemistry and hilarious banter are always something to look forward to.
Ups and Downs From Some of K-pop’s Biggest Stars
What stood out to me in January was how polarized my feelings were on the month’s releases from some of the industry’s biggest names: I either loved what some artists put out, or got absolutely nothing from it.
On the negative side, “Vibe” was not a vibe for me. In theory, I like the idea of a duet between Taeyang and Jimin, and I have enjoyed the variety content and interesting fan dynamics that have come from the collaboration. But the song itself, while inoffensive, falls flat. My primary issue is that there is no wit: if you’re going to present a groovy, heavily retro track, a sense of humor is a crucial ingredient to keep the song cool as opposed to cheesy. Unfortunately, “Vibe” takes itself seriously, and that sucks a lot of the potential fun out of it.
I am also not taken with NCT 127’s forgettable repackage “Ay-Yo,” though it’s a very recent release that could grow on me. For now though, it’s a rare disappointment from a group that are usually one of my stalwart faves.
Now on to the bright side: Twice are continuing their winning streak of English-language tracks with “Moonlight Sunrise.” Though it is quite tonally different from “The Feels,” “Moonlight Sunrise” continues Twice’s embrace of simple musical pleasures, and I for one am very here for it.
Likely my favorite release of the month though is from TXT. I was underwhelmed by last year’s “Good Boy Gone Bad,” so I had by fingers crossed extra hard for a solid comeback this time around. TXT rocketed right past good and straight to fantastic with “Sugar Rush Ride” and its accompanying mini album. Like the rest of the K-pop-listening universe, I’ve been swept away by b-side “Devil by the Window” and its euphoria-inducing outro, and while opinions seem to be more split on “Sugar Rush Ride” itself, I’m personally a big fan. The song is packed with standout musical moments and it’s an excellent fit for TXT’s performance strengths, as they are showing in stage after stage. Ups and downs and all, I’d say it’s a good start to 2023 for K-pop!