Like the last gasp of what's been one bitter winter in Seoul, March was a particularly cold and dark month in K-pop. The harshest winds came by way of China, where a Beijing citizen named Zhou Kai was arraigned for having stabbed his 13-year-old daughter to death—over the popular boy band export EXO. Zhou's daughter had allegedly disengaged from her studies and drove her family to near-poverty funding her merchandise and ticket purchases, when a heated interlude of kitchen knife intimidation led to its horrific end after the young girl began taunting her frenzied father. The story seems almost implausibly tragic, but major Chinese news source The People's Daily reported the incident, so it's tough to say which would be stranger: that something this awful really happened over pop music, or that an official organ of the Communist Party of China would miresport such a harrowing episode of K-pop violence. Here's a fan translation of the original article.
Equally chilling news came from the seedy Gangnam backshops of the K-entertainment complex, where Seoul police discovered a modeling and idol agency that has been forcing female trainees to sleep with their CEO and perform sexual favors for others—in return for plastic surgery and a shot at stardom. College students and housewives were filmed in the act for blackmail purposes, and some were even flown to Singapore to carry out sex services there. Most unnerving is the consensus among the Korean netizen community, whose commentary reminds us of the persistent speculation about sexual manipulation within the K-pop industry generally. We can only hope not.
Mercifully, not everything has been so bleak. It'd be tough not to smile at the budding practice of famous K-pop stars filming televised reactions to international fans' YouTube reactions to their music videos, which–meta upon meta—has led inevitably to the advent of the reaction reaction reaction video. Most heartwarming of all, though, was what seemed to be an especially charitable month in Korean pop: outlaw group JYJ donated $47,000 to various charities via an auction of popular artworks displayed at a recent fan gathering, while worldwide fans of the boy band quintet NU'EST celebrated the opening of their official fan club by donating 1,700 pounds of rice to charity. Perhaps the sweetest gesture came from Cambodian fans of the boy band BTOB, who honored the release of their new single "Beep Beep" by hand delivering sacks of unofficially BTOB-branded rice to locals.
Also on the bright side, March just so happened to be 2014's best month yet for new Korean music.
5. JJCC - "At First"
Stay with me here: Jackie Chan has created a boy band…whose name is pronounced "Double JC"…under a new entertainment company called "The Jackie Chan Korea"…with a lead singer named…Simba. Only in K-pop.
And only in K-pop would the end product actually wind up kinda great. R&B slow burn "At First" is an unusually laid back, self-assured debut, and these young men—a bit more mature than your typical K-pop rookies—have some great voices between them. Melodramatic video aside, the tune gracefully picks up that signature JYP vibe that JYP seems to have left somewhere.
4. Girl's Day - "기대해 (Live on MBC)"
No one will be surprised to find me rehashing love for what was my favorite K-Pop song of 2013–but I'm personally pretty stunned this downshifted, live-band arrangement works so well. Even without the beat, that key change at 3:10 is a stargate.
3. Skrillex (feat. Diplo, G-Dragon and CL) - "Dirty Vibe"
By the time this dancehall stampede hits its menacing anti-drop at 0:48, all those painful memories of lost-in-translation collabs—JYJ x Kanye, T-ara N4 x Chris Brown, Se7en x Lil Kim—vanish in an instant. Between its bilingual fluidity, oppressive tempo, barren tonality, the demonic frisson of G-Dragon rapping in bicephalic Korean, and the sheer unrepentant profanity of it all (finally!!), "Dirty Vibe" is likely to remain one of the most future-sounding tracks of 2014, and as sharp a look anyone involved is likely to pull off for as long.
2. Neon Bunny - "It's You"
Sure, for all commercial intents and purposes, any artist shilling her new single through Bandcamp can't be "K-pop" per se. But as Korea's reigning queen of homespun pop, Neon Bunny has made one of the best and most personal-sounding songs out of the country since…well, the last time Neon Bunny released a single. Beautiful.
1. Orange Caramel - "Catallena"
Any of the top three could've taken this spot, but like the girls of Orange Caramel lusting after its title temptress, "Catallena" proves irresistible. The trio's best song yet boasts the most memorable choreo since SHINee's "Everybody," the most addictively inscrutable video since "Gangnam Style," and a tune that manages to incorporate ABBA strings, samples of Pakistani wedding music, Chic guitar, Bollywood undertones, French electro sheen, and a hook sung in both Korean and Punjabi. An increasingly rare model of the K-pop ideal: bizarre on first listen, perfect by the second.
Jakob Dorof is on Twitter—@soyrev.
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