SNSD at K-Con

In part one, we presented some of KPop's important artists and a peek at some of the ways KPop is presented and absorbed: music video, live television, dance practice and performance videos, radio, even game shows, etc. But we didn't even scratch the surface. If you made it this far, having absorbed all of part one, we'll introduce some essentials, some personal favorites, and some of the unusual aspects of KPop culture that you won't find anywhere else.

SHINee - "View"

One of the massive superstars of KPop's endless torrent of boy bands, SHINee has to be included in any discussion of Korean music. They've put together a string of huge hits as bright-eyed pretty boys, and as they've matured, so has their sound. KPop is such a young genre, centered around young acts, that when performers naturally mature most of them go on to other less public lives, unless they can change and mature their sound. SHINee, with their charisma, striking look, gifted vocal abilities, and musical sensibilities, have found new life in adulthood, like their "sister group" f(x), with a more modern, sophisticated sound. In their most recent album "Married to the Music," they embraced many more trendy international flavors like the UK house sound. Here's the full video, a tribute to Stockholm Syndrome, I think, for the lead track, "View."

And it doesn't hurt with their crossover chances that they seem to be adored by, even kidnapped by, hot western chicks. No, that helps. Or maybe they just love hot western chicks. Who doesn't?

GFriend - "Navillera" - "Let's Dance" Dance Cover Contest Video

While many more veteran groups are maturing and branching out to more sophisticated sounds and looks, here one group still basking in the vivacious glow of adolescence. One of the more popular subgenres in KPop is the "innocent group," featuring freshfaced and bright-eyed youngsters in shiny maryjanes and matching hair and outfits. It is beyond the scope of this article to get into a judgemental discussion or dark speculation on a fascination with virginity that these groups may evoke. But there are dozens of them: Lovelyz, Oh My Girl, APink, and the current overnight sensations, GFriend. It's almost impossible to overstate how immensely popular this fledgling group is in South Korea today in such a short period of time, having debuted in 2015. And not just by kids. Some of the hippest people in South Korea have confessed to loving GFriend. Their music is hardly trendy. It's a catchy if overproduced hybrid of Ray Conniff, ABBA and synthpop. Almost every one of their songs has something you never hear in a KPop song, an electric guitar solo, that serves as a dance break for the girls. One thing that makes GFriend so magnetic is their often breathtaking synchronized choreography, a mix of jazz, ballet, and modern dance. They are so in synch that they often look like they're some kind of special effect. There are now actually tutorial videos on YouTube so aspiring dance groups can learn to "cover" their dances. "Let's Dance" is a program from 1theK that does just that. This is the short "mirrored" Let's Dance version of their fourth straight blockbuster hit in only a year and a half: "Navillera."

Something you definitely won't see in America. Yuju, Jung Ye-rin, Jung Eun-bi, Hwang Eun-bi, Sowon, Kim Ye-won have their own style, they stick to it and they're damn good at it. And now you can say you've seen them.

Taeyeon, Wheein, Jimin Park, Luna - Musical Game Shows

Through the magic of YouTube, you can watch cuts or even full episodes of almost any foriegn television show, including the myriad of highly creative Korean musical game shows, featuring a mix of music superstars (or "idols" as they're called) and common folk. Here's a sampling:

Hidden Singer - TTS - "Twinkle"

In JTBC's "Hidden Singer," a song is played, karaoke-style and a group of impersonators and the actual star singer take turns singing verses, hidden behind a screen and identified only by a number. The audience must must vote on who they think isn't or is the real singer. One of the most memorable episodes featured KPop goddess and SNSD (Girls' Generation) lead singer Taeyeon and a song by her SNSD subunit "TTS" called "Twinkle." During the song, you can see some of Taeyeon's co-members from SNSD among other celebrities and regular folk.

Duet Song Festival - "Short Hair" - Wheein and Jo In-woo

In this program, an "idol," singer in a KPop group has to choose a duet partner from hundreds of applications by 'regular folk.' Season 8's winner was Mamamoo's Wheein, who performed this memorable song with a mustard salesman named Jo In-woo. You can see the audience voting on a smart phone app as the song goes along, the reactions from the other contestants, and the priceless moment when the two surpass the 72 score needed to win, then riff joyfully to a gleeful audience. Great stuff.

This performance was a sort of coming out party for Wheein, one of Mamamoo's three gifted singers, as much of the country had still not embraced them and their quirky retro style. A year later they would have their first number one hit with "You're The Best" and are now a household name in South Korea.

100 People, 100 Songs - "I'll Show You" - Jimin Park and Contestant

On JTBC's "100 People, 100 Songs," one of 100 contestants chooses a number of one of 100 songs and she/he has to sing it. The song starts off with a selected member of the audience starting the song before the contestant continues with the lyrics jumbled up on the screen. This cut features one of South Korea's finest young vocalists, Park Ji-Min (also known as Jimin Park) from the JYP duo 15&, singing a song originally recorded by New Jersey's own KPop star Ailee. (Min from the JYP quartet Miss A watches nearby, seemingly astounded.) Listen to Jimin turn it up a notch after the "3-2-1" signal:

King of Masked Singer - Luna - "Mom"

MBC's "King of Masked Singer," airing Sunday nights, has now become one of the most popular shows on South Korean television and it features some of the most striking visuals. Some of the biggest names in Korean music have appeared on the program, their faces obscured by a garish and colorful mask that represents their fantasy identity. Singers can pick any song they like, usually heartrending ballads, and get a chance to show their skill unencumbered by the constraints of a bit-part in a dancepop song. Throughout South Korea, Monday morning conversations at the breakfast table or water cooler often involve speculation about who last night's singers could have been. One of the most memorable was Luna (Park Sun Young), lead singer for the eclectic electropop group f(x), who startled the nation for several weeks with her unique voice and stirring renditions. It might have been one of the factors leading to SM finally giving her a solo opportunity, which she knocked out of the park. This is just one of her performances.

Do you really need to understand the language to feel the intensity and color of the emotions in the song?

Kara - "Step" - Live In Japan

Our tour continues with television, back to the chart shows and one of the true legends of KPop, Kara. Kara, now disbanded to the heartbreak of millions, were one of the groups to make major in-roads into Japan and China. In fact, they had, like you will see later with SNSD, a completely different repertoire for Japan, a sunnier, cuter image with Japanese songs. This one, however, is one of the great KPop songs, and shows off their seemingly boundless energy and charisma. Kara's sound was unapologetically overproduced, splashy and high-energy Eurodisco, penned by their songwriting team SweeTunes. "Step" is one of those priceless numbers that can get you moving on your most sluggish day and here they perform it live:

Kara was one of the few KPop groups that could hold an entire arena in the palm of their hands, even in huge rooms like the Tokyo Dome.

Beast - "Ribbon"

One group of young men that have done as much as anyone to advance the concept of "boy band performance" as a respectable artform is a quintet of five talented young men that call themselves Beast. Beast, who work for Cube Entertainment, and considered the "brother band" of the electrifying 4Minute girl group, was originally known as kind of a landing place for castoffs from other companies like JYP and YG, in particular. They're now known as one of the vocal groups in the genre that consistantly crank out interesting music and video, usually featuring inventive choreography and often heartrending and passionate vocal performances, particularly from boyish lead singer Yang Yoseob. I was torn between bringing you either "Fiction" or "Beautiful Night", but their latest dark, steampunky release is just as remarkable as either of those and others. There are just so many interesting things going on in the song, the performance and the video that it's worth repeated views:

Brown Eyed Girls - "Abracabra"

Another group responsible for raising the bar of the artform of vocal group performance is Brown Eyed Girls, or BEG, much like Beast has for thier particular gender. In 2010, they released one of the true iconic packages of KPop swagger, "Abracabra," which has become a blueprint for the 'tough girl' subgenre of which many girl groups have built upon. You may also notice the dance move filched by Psy in his "Gentleman" video. BEG's lead singer, the bobcut coiffed Ga-In, appeared in it, and brought her legendary swag with her. Here's a real KPop classic:

Girls' Generation - "Karma Butterfly"/"Great Escape" - Live in Tokyo

I don't think I ever really appreciated SNSD until I saw their Japanese concerts. Like Kara, they have an entirely different repertoire for the Japanese audience and their Japanese album (one of several) Love and Peace is one of my favorite Asian albums. Instead of going cuter and sunnier, their Japanese songs are more modern and technopop. It is an extremely difficult market to crack, especially in a concert venue where audiences are used to larger-than-life acts like AKB48, Babymetal, and Perfume. There are a lot of KPop lists that will include their Korean bubblegum classics like "Gee", "I Got A Boy" and "Genie" but you can google them. Instead, here's an example of a KPop legend taking on a huge foreign market and winning it:

The consumate professionals, the members of SNSD, led by their key singers Taeyeon, American Tiffany Hwang, and "maknae" Seohyun, perform to a gigantic crowd with a relaxed but precise flair, as if they were just performing for a few friends in their living room, relating to the audience and making the most of the space of the stage and the arena.

EXID - "Ah Yeah"

EXID, short for Exceed In Dreaming, is one of KPop's top acts, combining hooky pop with minimalistic hiphop, and dishing it out with cheesecake a sense of humor, often off-putting or self-effacing, with veiled digs on the KPop genre in general. This is one of their top numbers and an example of their popular video style:

EXID's music is interesting but their videos always seem to have a way of pushing people's buttons. Speaking of button-pushing...

Jimin and Iron - "Puss" - Unpretty Rapstar

Rap in South Korean is even more mainstream than in the west. It is a huge part of KPop, which is really a form of new jack swing with choreography, group vocals and Korean lyrics. Almost every girl group or boy band has a designated rapper like Jimin from AOA, who is actually the groups leader (and guitar player). And not to be confused with Jimin Park, shown above. Two of the network MNet's most popular shows are "Show Me The Money," or SMTM, a rap competition that has spawned the careers of several popular rappers like Bobby and Iron, and "Unpretty Rapstar," which is basically the female version of SMTM. "Unpretty" because the program wants to focus rap abilities, away from the beauty-obsessed world of KPop. However, many of the best rappers on the program are very pretty (google Kisim), and in one season, they even allowed a KPop idol, the aforementioned Jimin to compete. Jimin made it to the finals against a tough, brazen (and pretty to me) solo rapper named Cheetah. Jimin had been the subject of derision from the more "streetwise" rapper women because she is, well, cute as a little button. Her final performance, with her bandmates and former competitors watching on, was one of the more legendary in the history of the very popular program:

You might also have noticed both in this video and previous ones, Korean televisions penchant for overusing graphics. Graphics, containing all kinds of comments, continually telling you whats happening and even what people might be thinking are constant throughout many, many programs including talkshows.

T-Ara N4 - "Jeon Won Diary"

Another group that has to be mentioned in most conversations about great KPop groups, T-Ara has a storied history and a style all their own. They are a mixed bag, drawing from all kinds of musical styles, and combining them with a brash, often comedic style, and kicking out some of the weirdest videos in KPop. I'm not always sure that they even know how odd they are. But they are immensely popular and have some of the most rabid fans in KPop, known as Queens. The Queens actually beat out the Beliebers, Beyonce's Beyhive and all other comers in Billboards Fan Army Face-Off of 2015. T-Ara has had its share of scandals, and like fans of the NFL's New England Patriots, that scorn has galvanized their undying support. This video, even though it is from their short-lived subunit N4, and features one of the members that was run out of the group in a bullying scandal (like I said), gives you a good idea of the unique T-Ara style:

God bless T-Ara. There's no one quite like them. And don't worry Queens, we're laughing with them....

BTS - "Save Me"

I've already written more than I planned to but there's room for one more music video. And before I get into it, there are dozens of deserviing artists that did not get a mention in this two-parter. TVXQ!, 2NE1, Jinusean, AOA, 4Minute, S.E.S., SPICA, Girl's Day, Fin K. L., Afterschool, Ladies' Code, Vixx, Shinwa and many more have all done their part to create, define, and add their mark to the genre. But the last M/V will belong to a group that is probably the biggest Korean act on the planet right now. (Though Blackpink might have a case for that.) Their album trilogy "The Most Beautiful Moment in Life" has been a fixture on Billboard's Top World Album charts and Forbes magazine recently called them the most retweeted artist in the world. The world. And their leader's name is simply "Rap Monster." I'm not much into boybands, obviously, but I have to give props to the Bangtan Boys, the Bulletproof Boy Scouts, otherwise known as BTS:

Mamamoo - "Mr. Ambiguous" - Live on "Sketchbook"

Finally, we'll end our tour with another group of great live performers and another legendary performance, Mamamoo, once more, this time on one of our favorite Korean programs, Yu Hui Yeol's Sketchbook. Sketchbook is sort of a cross between "The Actors' Studio" and "Austin City Limits." Part talk show, part music show, with a live audience, hosted by the amusing You Hee Youl. One of his memorable programs featured the up-and-coming quartet Mamamoo, who surprised the entire country by slipping into a medley of their favorite KPop songs right in the middle a performance of their song "Mr. Ambiguous." This is the kind of sponteneity that has put Mamamoo at the top of our girl group list. Few "idol groups" have one powerful vocalists that can belt out a tune like some of the American stars. Mamamoo has three. And their harmonies and vocal arrangements are perhaps their strongest suit, along with their pure joie de vivre. Watch:

Note: KBS, South Korea's state-run network, does not allow embedding of their YouTube videos, which is unfortunate and limits their access, in my opinion. This one will probably be taken down, so enjoy it while it lasts.