Welcome to WWLT, or What We’re Listening To, which features mini music analyses that provide context and introduce readers to K-pop music that may be new-to-them.
This issue features analyses of tracks by Super Junior, ATEEZ, Shinhwa, TVXQ!, Sam Kim, Suho, B.I., and Jo Jung Suk by members of HWAITING!, KPK’s K-pop music research accelerator.
Super Junior, “Why I Like You,” Sorry, Sorry (2009)
The year is 2009. Super Junior still has 13 members. (Deep breath and say it with me now: Leeteuk, Heechul, Hangeng, Yesung, Kangin, Shindong, Sungmin, Eunhyuk, Siwon, Donghae, Ryeowook, Kibum, Kyuhyun!) Everybody is rubbing their hands together and apologizing without really meaning it to the addictive tune of “Sorry, Sorry.” Indeed, four years into their career, the group gave K-pop one of the most iconic songs in existence with the release of their third album Sorry, Sorry. We all know how great the title track is, so this review will be dedicated to the slightly underappreciated B-side off of the album: “Why I Like You.”
The song is written by Shiro, with music composed by Jimmy Burney, Steven Lee, Sean Alexander (Avenue 52), and Pascal Guyon. Steven Lee also handled the production. Coming right after the earworm title track, “Why I Like You” has a lot to live up to – and it wastes no time in getting to the point. It is a moody dance number, driven by a thumping drum beat and catchy guitar loop. What’s so great about straightforward pop music like this is how it creates an atmosphere of urgency and tension that begs to be resolved. And the climax comes, like an overflowing confession of love, in the bridge leading to the soaring final chorus. Ryeowook’s bright, youthful timbre and the honeyed warmth of Kyuhyun’s voice sound especially gorgeous together here, stacking another layer of emotional pain on top. This is the sound that Super Junior excelled in early in their career, and would be explored further in the brooding, dramatic “It’s You,” the lead single to their repackage album later that year.
Nearly 13 years down the line, perhaps the biggest strength of “Why I Like You” lies in the sheer nostalgia of it. Okay, it’s mostly the gratuitous autotune on their vocals. But as time goes by, the autotune adds a special charm to the song, reminding you of a time when things were simpler. When it was 2009, and Super Junior still had 13 members…
MBCkpop. “Super Junior – Why I Like You, 슈퍼주니어 – 니가 좋은 이유, Music Core 20090314.” YouTube. 7 February 2012. https://youtu.be/7hgqPXXQ_GI. (4 February 2022).
SMTOWN. “SUPER JUNIOR 슈퍼주니어 ‘너라고 (It’s You)’ MV.” YouTube. 8 June 2009. https://youtu.be/7ErgffP0wVw. (4 February 2022).
ATEEZ, “Answer,” Treasure Epilogue: Action to Answer (2020)
“Answer” is the lead single of the release that concludes the “Treasure” concept around which ATEEZ debuted in 2018. Despite two years of narrative and thematic buildup, the anthemic power of the song itself makes it a striking introduction for anyone new to the sound of the group’s eight members: Hongjoong, Minji, Seonghwa, Yunho, Yeosang, San, Woosung, and Jongho.
ATEEZ rappers Hongjoong and Minji contributed lyrics to music strongly shaped by Ollounder and LEEZ who both wrote, composed, and arranged the song, alongside EDEN on writing and composing and BUDDY on composing and arranging. “Answer” eschews the heavy guitars so essential for the songs that LEEZ and Ollounder make for Dreamcatcher. Instead, the synths in the ATEEZ song generate an EDM sound tinged with slight hints of Latin pop and hip-hop parts.
“Answer” still rocks hard though, less club-friendly and more arena-ready. The crucial element is a melodic component where the song’s hook is placed front and center with the song beginning with the chorus from singers San and Jongho. San’s part, when it reappears, switches to Seonghwa, and a new addition to the chorus, punctuated by an epic group “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh,” introduces Wooyoung in a single line that nevertheless stands out for its catchy phrasing: “불러 불러 우릴 지금 불러” (“bulleo bulleo uril jigeum bulleo”).
The song has many other elements to it: the transitions from Hongjoong’s rap parts to those of Minji are thrilling and Yunho has a pre-chorus chant made memorable for how its percussive feel creates tension for the chorus to release, but the chorus is really a standout, for both its composition and its position within the song’s structure.
Many of the singles released prior to “Answer” share a trademark sound that clearly identifies ATEEZ music: larger-than-life emotions expressed musically through in-your-face compositions often built around the darkness of a predominantly minor-key tonality. Steadfast commitment to this musical identity is a strong part of the group’s appeal. “Answer” is no exception, but I feel it also achieves something different.
When ATEEZ performed a rearrangement of this song for the Mnet show Kingdom: Legendary War, choral parts from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (“Ode to Joy”) performed by South Korean classically-trained vocal group La Poem were combined with chugging rock guitars. The result was pretty much symphonic metal performed by K-pop idols on television, a dual gesture to the grandiose emotionality of Romanticism and the arena-ready sounds of metal. As impressive as that was, they are simply enhancements that made explicit the power the original recording of “Answer” already possessed.
Stone Music Entertainment. “ATEEZ (에이티즈) – ‘Answer’ Official MV.” YouTube. 06 January 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTT3MRODUsA. (07 February 2022).
Mnet K-POP. “[풀버전] ♬ Answer : Ode to Joy – 에이티즈(ATEEZ).” 27 May 2021. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDOYmJedFF8. (14 February 2022).
Shinhwa, “T.O.P (Twinkling of Paradise),” T.O.P (1999)
N Lina An
The sudden sforzando to the trembling sounds of the strings before the oboe comes in, almost lament-like. Suddenly, synthesized sounds echo that melodic lament, and the drum beat drops before the rap takes place. The melody to the opening of Act 2 from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet Swan Lake Op. 20 is synonymous in K-pop, belonging to the longest surviving idol group, Shinhwa. Shinhwa has 6-members (Eric, Minwoo, Dongwan, Hyesung, Junjin and Andy) debuted under SM Entertainment on 24th March 1998. T.O.P is an acronym for Twinkling of Paradise, written by SM’s resident composer Yoo Youngjin with lyrics by both Yoo and member Eric was released in 1999 in their second studio album also titled T.O.P.
There are 2 main themes to the slightly less than 3-minutes opening of the ballet. T.O.P samples both themes, using them in different sections of the song. In fact, Shinhwa’s melody of the chorus is the first melodic theme, and the second melodic theme is heard in the bridge when member Hyesung sings 니가돌아오는 길에 내가 서있을게. The lyrics itself presents multiple uses of acronyms, most of which may not present any proper English meaning to it, but merely a rhyme to the song title itself. Some of the meanings to the acronyms were briefly mentioned in a group interview in 2012, showing SM Entertainment’s heavy use of acronyms in their early days (for example H.O.T, S.E.S).
In the music video, all members wear white against a backdrop of greenery dancing on what looks like a lake. The choreography incorporated what looks like movements of swans, but it was mostly towards the hip-hop/dance genre of which the group is known for.
Shinhwa Official. T.O.P. Twinkling of paradise (audio only). Youtube. 2 Aug 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kE9TXY4gazk (Accessed on 12 Feb 2022)
SHINHWASubs&Cuts. SHINHWA (신화) – T.O.P. (Twinkling Of Paradise). 12 Nov 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORFX3yIe6Kw (Accessed on 12 Feb 2022)
Note: meaning of acronyms are in the video descriptionMarcel Simader. Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake Ballet, Act II, Op. 20 (Sheet Music). Youtube. 28 March 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_kJosheX7k&t=0s (Accessed on 12 Feb 2022)
TVXQ!, “Maximum,” Keep Your Head Down (2011)
TVXQ!, acronym for Rising Gods of the East (or Dong Bang Shin Ki, Tohoshinki in Japanese), released this album over 10 years ago, their first since becoming a duo (Max, Shim Chang-min, and U-Know, Lee Yun-ho– the group was originally a quintet but splintered in 2010). The album set the stage for how TVXQ would move forward in their new circumstances. “Maximum,” written, composed, and arranged by the frequent SM Entertainment songwriter Yoo Young-jin, is the third song off the album. The song starts with gayageum (a Korean zither) in its intro, then shifts into a high-energy dance-pop song mixing in traditional exclamations (“ulsooh!”), held together by bass drum and clapping rhythm. The lyrics prominently portray overcoming hardship and developing a pride and love for oneself. A notable aspect of the chorus is the chanting of: “소리쳐! 너는 세상에서 제일 아름답다!” or in English, “Scream! You’re the most beautiful in the world!”
As the duo affirmed in their recent performance of “Rising Sun,” at SMTOWN: SMCU Express 2021, their brand of pop, frequently mixed with orchestral arrangements, hip-hop, and R&B with some of the most elaborate choreography from their contemporaries, and continues to stand out and influence contemporary K-pop. “Maximum” had its live debut at SMTOWN 2010, the first TVXQ performance since the quintet split. It was received well by fans and reviewers, Soompi described the song as “a great fusion number tying Eastern and Western elements into one.” SeoulBeats praised the song, calling it “ it’s dynamic without being heavy or overdramatic.”
Mnet K-POP “TVXQ_Intro+Maximum.” YouTube. 11 February 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJyLqUS3wjg. (Accessed 02/14/2022)
TVXQ! “Maximum.” Youtube. 2 August 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWKkc3JwRAE. (Accessed 02/14/2022)
Sam Kim, “The One,” Sun and Moon (2018)
If the neo-soul genre was looking for a new generation to which to pass the torch, one person emerges to the forefront in the name, vocals, and musicality of Sam Kim. Sam Kim first stepped into the K-pop scene as the runner-up to SBS’ reality competition show, K-pop Star 3, which debuted names like Bernard Park, Jamie Park, Akdong Musician (AKMU), Lee Hi, and Winner’s Hoony. After signing with the legendary Yu Hee-yeol’s label, Antenna Music, Kim released his debut EP, I Am Sam, in 2016 which featured collaborations with R&B singer, Crush, and labelmates Kwon Jin-ah, Lee Jin-ah, and Jung Seung-hwan. His debut could have prepared listeners for his first studio album, Sun and Moon; however, as the lyrics to his song “The One” says, listeners are already “in deep” and cannot let go.
“The One” is the epitome of Sam’s musical style and playfulness with a genre, lyrics, and language. Composed and arranged from the minds of Sam, producer and keyboardist, Hong So-jin (aka Hong Ttochi/Hong Ttochi Soulchild, because that says a lot about her), and Jukjae (initially known for his work as a former guitarist and arranger for IU, Taeyeon, AKMU and Sam Kim), this B-side track invites listeners to this intimate and wistful confession of Sam’s. Albeit short, the track has a kind of start-and-stop, push-and-pull flow with the drumbeat, complete silence, and vocals. It seems quiet at first, but around the first chorus, trumpets, brass, and saxophones are introduced. Lyrically, Sam begins in all Korean, and then whips in the English where both languages play on the rhythm of the bass and drums. Every few seconds of the song, there is a beat drop that creates this bass and snare snap and groove that continues throughout the entire song. It’s difficult to not dance, groove, snap, or bob your head to this.
In the middle of the track, there is another beat drop pause that, at first, only allows Sam to repeat the words, “I know.” He does this in a way that is reminiscent of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971) and it seems listeners are finally in on this hidden joke of love. He laughs joyously and knows exactly what to do with that guitar solo, particularly in the live performance of this song. Sam must be in something “better than dreaming” since he “won’t sleep” and “won’t dream.” So, “catch [him] if you can, Z, Z, Z.”
안테나 Antenna. “샘김 Sam Kim ‘The One’ / Live Performance.” YouTube. 08 March 2019. https://youtu.be/kvyq6JKOyME. (Accessed 14 February 2022).
안테나 Antenna. “샘김 Sam Kim ‘The One’｜Official Audio.” YouTube. 27 November 2018. https://youtu.be/qqyMt6PdHtc. (Accessed 14 February 2022).
Bill Withers. “Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine (Official Audio).” YouTube. 12 June 2015. https://youtu.be/YuKfiH0Scao. (Accessed 14 February 2022).
Suho, “O2”, Self-Portrait (2020)
Vitoria F. Doretto
In his debut as a soloist, Suho, the leader of the Sino-Korean group EXO, brings a mini-album full of poetry and heart, and it is not different in “O2”, the first track of Self-Portrait, an album with concept and visual style inspired by Vincent van Gogh.
Along with “사랑, 하자 (Let’s Love)”, “Made In You”, “암막 커튼 (Starry Night)”, “자화상 (Self-Portrait)”, and “너의 차례 (For You Now)”, featuring Younha, “O2” is a powerful and emotional track. As Conway (2020) said, “the heart of Suho’s vulnerable self-portrait is his emotional lyrics,” and “O2” provides a picture of some of the complex emotions that the idol overflows in the album. Titled after the chemical formula of oxygen, the song starts calmingly, almost like holding the breath before the start, and some seconds pass until his voice washes over us, singing about lovers who need each other like oxygen. Suho’s words soothe the listener; wrap in tranquility, comfort, and peace. It is like a breath of fresh air. Merging breath and water, Suho is capable of transporting us to a beautiful beach immersed in a dream-like reality.
The track is a dreamy, slow-tempo acoustic pop song with string instruments and was written by Ryan Colt Levy, Bryan Cho, Cliff Lin, and Suho himself and arranged by Lin, Levy, and Cho.
EXO. “SUHO 수호 ‘O2’ Live Session.” YouTube. 30 March 2020. www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ydjda6SBlQ (10 February 2022).
Conway, Sara. “Suho Blends Musical & Artistic Inspiration with “Self-Portrait”.” Seoulbeats. 5 April 2020. https://seoulbeats.com/2020/04/suho-blends-musical-artistic-inspiration-with-self-portrait/ (13 February 2022)
B.I, “해변 (illa illa)” WATERFALL (2021)
Luisa do Amaral
25-year-old rapper B.I has often remarked on the importance of movies and poetry in his songwriting, as means of experiencing, feeling or articulating things he hasn’t experienced for himself, but that can result in vivid images and evoke strong feelings from listeners. The song “illa illa”, released on 1 June, 2021 as lead single of his first full-length album, is no exception to his style of painting strong images – the song’s Korean title 해변 [haebyeon] means “beach”; the English title, although a nonexistent word, bears close resemblance to the Korean ideophones that represent the undulating movement of waves. The whole track, along with its cinematic music video, make use of seaside metaphors to talk about finding yourself washed up on the shore after nearly being swallowed by the waves of an ocean which, in this story, is made of his own tears – “at the end of my sleeves there’s a beach/ because of the tears that I wiped from my cheeks.” This specific metaphor, which structures the song, was taken from the poem “The Taste Of Candy And Beach” [사탕과 해변의 맛] by poet Seo Yun-hoo.
Originally the leader of 7-member boy group iKON, which debuted under K-pop powerhouse YG Entertainment in 2015, he was credited for every release of the group up until his departure, in mid-2019, being awarded “Songwriter of the Year” in 2018 at the Melon Music Awards, one of South Korea’s major awards shows, after their megahit “Love Scenario”, crowned “Song of The Year” at two major award shows that same year. Much like “Love Scenario”, “illa illa” doesn’t come across as particularly happy nor sad on a first listen; the production favors a minimalist approach, but without ever losing depth, with enough room for the layering of sounds to boost the vocals to an echoed atmosphere that intensifies a catchy chorus that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the song. However, unlike his movie-inspired songwriting, these lyrics feel very personal; when his album was released, B.I was still under public scrutiny due to allegations of illegal drug purchases, the reason for his withdrawal from his former group and agency. Though still awaiting final sentencing when the song came out, in the swirling of waves, as much as it is about the sinking, “illa illa” is about the emerging; like Kat Moon (2021) writes for TIME, “On the other side of the water is dry land, and in the song’s final verses the artist triumphantly sings of not shedding new tears. “Though I know it will crumble/ I’ll probably build a sandcastle again,” he declares. With the breadth and depth of emotions he conveys, B.I. shows he’s as much a storyteller as he is a songwriter.” The music and arrangement are also credited to Millennium, Sihwang, Kang Uk-jin and Diggy, who had previously worked with B.I in iKON, as well as other artists associated with YG Entertainment, such as AKMU, WINNER and Lee Hi.
B.I. “해변 (illa illa).” YouTube. 1 Jun 2021.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GaVA3ebKCo (14 Feb 2022)
iKON. “‘사랑을 했다(LOVE SCENARIO).” YouTube. 25 Jan 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vecSVX1QYbQ (14 Feb 2022)
Moon, Kat. “The Best K-Pop Songs of 2021 So Far” TIME, 1 Jul. 2021, https://time.com/6077450/best-kpop-songs-2021/ Accessed 14 Feb. 2022.
조정석 (Jo Jung Suk). “Aloha,” (2020)—cover of original song “Aloha” by Cool, (2001)
H. Lee Otto
Actor Jo Jung Suk (조정석) showcases his musical talents on the OST (original soundtrack) of popular drama series Hospital Playlist (슬기로운 의사생활), earning a top spot on Melon charts 20 days following its release (Soompi, 2020). As the lead vocalist of the series’ hobby band ensemble, Jo’s character Ik-Jun covers “Aloha,” an earlier K-pop track by the band Cool (쿨), reminiscing his days in medical school with his closest friends and band members.
Whereas Cool recorded “Aloha” as a duet with a male and female part, Jo covers the song solo, perhaps reflective of the memory of unrequited love that is a prevalent theme within Hospital Playlist. “Aloha” lies between pure pop and ballad, as its lyrics are directed toward a lover in a wholesome and devoted romance typical of a ballad (You light up my life/you’re the one in my life), while the tempo is more playful and upbeat. In the original song, Cool released Aloha in 2001 as part of album First Whisper under the label SM Entertainment (Stanley, 2014). Cool member Yuri provided female vocals while both Lee Jae Hoon and Kim Sung Soo provided male vocals.
The feature of a recording artist in new K-drama series has become an expectation of the genre, such that a contemporary OST (original soundtrack) does not lack a popular K-pop artist or emerging soloist. As Oh (2021) notes in her work regarding this pop culture strategy, “[d]rama characters and K-pop idols…affect people through their affective labor, encouraging them to engage in other types of affective labor such as transmitting the appreciation of media content throughout diverse media” (p. 16). However, unlike other featured soloists on an OST, Jo’s background is in broadway and theatre, debuting in The Nutcracker in 2004, and then moving to big screen features and series in 2012 (Rakuten Viki, n.d.). The acclaim for Jo’s cover of Aloha, sung by a star with formal musical training, perhaps makes Aloha a surprise to many, including Jo himself (Soompi 2020).
The threads that compose the calculated and complex cultural fabric of the contemporary K-drama collectively mobilize central areas of pop culture, national pride, and economy. The convergence of South Korea pop culture media in the K drama can be seen as a historiographic enterprise, archiving a nation’s pop culture media, which did not hold the same significance in official history until recently. The valorization of Korean pop culture in music is seen in the Melon charts, as well as in series such as Hospital Playlist, which showcases K-pop contextualized in time.
Cho Jung Seok. “Aloha.” YouTube. 26 March 2020. https://youtu.be/3DOkxQ3HDXE (7 February 2022).
Cool. “Aloha” YouTube. 15 January 2015. https://youtu.be/004x09gOAJI (14 February 2022).
Rakuten Viki. “Jo Jung Suk – 조정석.” n.d. https://www.viki.com/celebrities/15574pr-jo-jung-suk?locale=en (25 February 2022).
Oh, Youjeong. (2021). Pop City. Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.
Soompi. “Jo Jung Suk Expresses Surprise and Happiness Over Chart Success of His “Hospital Playlist” OST.” 16 Apr 2020, https://www.soompi.com/article/1394735wpp/jo-jung-suk-expresses-surprise-and-happiness-over-chart-success-of-his-hospital-playlist-ost (Accessed 10 February 2022.
Stanley, Adrienne. 2014 Aug 30. https://www.kpopstarz.com/articles/107129/20140831/k-pop-rewind-cool-aloha.htm (26 February 2022).
WWLT, Vol. 2, No. 2 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.