Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Narrative, Performance, and Bathos in Korean Pop Ballads

As some of you might be aware, I occasionally update my Preposterous Music Blog (over at http://basicbitchez.tumblr.com) This week, while searching for new abominations of music, I chanced upon this video. I have always had a particular preference for "intense" or "high-tempo" music, and have consciously avoided listening to ballads or slower pop songs because I felt that slow songs were uninteresting since they were not intense, exuberant, nor particularly danceable. I thought it was because some people just liked slow songs and I did not (I enjoy fast music because a fast background tempo also sets a faster tempo for one's own living). Anyway, for some reason, I did not instantly close the tab on this slower paced song by MBLAQ (which actually stands for "Music Boys Live in Absolute Quality", and I am not even making this up...) The song begins with a spoken word quote in English that goes "Time is too slow for me..."


The video is generic by most measures; like most manufactured korean pop songs, there is something deeply "performative" about it, but in this case, it is almost in an old fashioned boyband way. The boys are fashionably dressed to fit that particular kind of androgynous asian masculinity; wearing make-up; dancing dramatic "interpretive dance" moves (including an underwater scene) while they are repeatedly asking in engrish, "why are you making me cry?"...

Like that dance move from Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights.

Mandatory dramatic underwater scene.

Crying in the rain. Oh boo hoo.

Their relative youth and polished appearance makes it completely impossible for me to take their "emotions" seriously, and there is a lot of "over-enunciating" going on (the result of overzealous elocution classes perhaps?) which kinda disturbs me when I see how they speak. On top of that, they are performing the song in artificially created studio spaces... curiously prepackaged and isolated in a vacuum. So, yes, this is pure plastic artifice/performance. Nothing new I know, this happens all the time in pop music - but suddenly I realized...

....that I had forgotten that the word "ballad" had originally referred to stories or narrative set to music, and that the form of the "ballad" song was not originally synonymous with simply "slow tempo songs", but relating more to how the ballad was the medium for the stories that people told (set to music!).

So, when people buy into slow ballads such as this boyband ballad, is it because they are indeed, truly interested in watching the performance (as an obvious performance)? Is their main motivation for listening to it because they want to be absorbed into the drama or emotion?

Some weeks ago I realized that my interest in "horrifying" or bad music could perhaps be related to me being a nihilist at heart, which is why I gleefully embrace and hold up the symbols of youth-centric cultural mis-reappropriation and self-aware dumbing-down as the irrefutable proof that the world is quickly folding into an entropic black hole of meaning.

Its probably safe to say that most people probably don't have such a complicated reason for listening to pop music, and maybe some people just enjoy the slower tempo of a ballad song compared to something faster or too "intense".

But perhaps… they're in it for the STORIES. This puts it into a different perspective for me. That ballads exist because they are vehicles for popular emotional narratives. I would love to believe that, because I might try to develop a better appreciation for even the slow numbers then! After all, everybody (including me) loves a good story, aye?

The Story Behind the Interpretive Dance in MBLAQ's Y

In an attempt to understand how they came about with their dance and songs, I searched further and found a useful video in which they explain their dance in one of their other tracks in detail. You should watch the original video "Y" before reading further.

Presenting: MBLAQ - Y

Dance Lesson: MBLAQ's G.O (left) and Lee Joon (right) explain the dance behind the track "Y"

Lee Joon explains, "After making an inverted triangle with both hands, spread the arms to create a Y with the entire body. Then, as if a man is making a fist and crying, bend down the upper body and gather the arms to the heart. To get emotional at this moment, act like you're at the market. Give a feeling like you are demanding a discount. 'Cut the price a little!'" [“양손으로 역삼각형을 만든 후 팔을 힘차게 뻗으며 온 몸으로 Y를 그린다. 그 다음 남자가 주먹을 쥐며 울듯이 상반신을 숙이며 팔을 가슴 쪽으로 모아준다”... “이때 감정이입을 위해 마트에 간 상황을 연출한다. 깎아달라는 느낌을 줘야한다”... “좀만 깎아줘”]

After that demonstration, G.O adds that you should put on a "시크" or chic facial expression (whatever that means) and he also adds this line of comedic gold: "Imagine when you are in a restaurant and 10 minutes has passed, 20 minutes has passed, and your order still has not come." ["이 표정은 음식을 시켜놓고 10분이 지나도 20분이 지나도 음식이 나오지 않았을 때를 떠올려야한다"] (At this point, the camera hilariously cuts to Lee Joon's face, suddenly seething with seriousness)

If this is not the most brilliant description of a dance ever (coming from the artistes themselves), I don't know what is...

Now, please watch MBLAQ's "Y" again.

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