Feature

[62/365] Why All The Western Hype Over BTS Is Not Really A Good Thing

Recently BTS walked away from the Billboard Music Awards with the Social Media Artist award in their hands, a testament to the power their fandom has on social media. It’s touted as a hugely historical moment: some Korean dudes winning over the likes of Shawn Mendez, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, and Justin Bieber? It’s a landmark for K-Pop and a step forward for Asian representation in American media. It’s proof how music has no boundaries and can be enjoyed regardless of cultural and/or geographical limitations.  It’s a win for us all!

Spoiler alert: it’s really not.

With their win, a huge chunk of American media’s been tripping over each other to put out the most clickbait articles about the amazing Korean wonder act, from Vogue to Rolling Stone to (as always) Billboard. With all these big names reporting on BTS, surely it must mean they’re getting more exposure, more representation for Asians, especially for Asian Americans, right?

Only in the sense that they’re considered exotic and foreign. What separates them from homegrown Kor-Am artists? Kor-Am artists are so buried in the United States, they had to go to South Korea to have a fighting chance. Jay Park’s mother told him to go to South Korea seeing how much he preferred dancing over studying; he went back to the States after leaving 2PM, but even then he returned to Korea to sing and act, eventually creating AOMG. Eric Nam was invited by MBC to compete in a singing show. Ailee had to use connections to land an audition in South Korea to further her career. John Park auditioned for Superstar K2 after being a semi-finalist in American Idol. All of these talented Kor-Ams, born and raised on American soil, had to leave the country to pursue their dreams. All of them found relative success in South Korea, relative being had they remained in the States, they wouldn’t have been able to achieve any form of recognition at all. This is proof that there are good Kor-Am artists out there, but none of them ever get the spotlight. Why all the media dickriding BTS then?

The answer perhaps lies in their ‘foreignness’; they are not familiar to many in America. They hail from the faraway land of South Korea, a country most Americans probably can’t even place on the map. They’re not Americans. They’re unusual – they don’t speak English and they have a totally different culture. They’re exotic.

And perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but this is why ultimately it’s a net loss for both Asian representation and the image of K-Pop in American media. The American media hypes BTS for clicks, sure, but some also because they’re so unAmerican. They’re the foreign sweethearts here for the first time at an American award show, adorably awkward and fascinating, the exotic visitors. How is this a good representation for Asian Americans? How is this any different from films with ‘Oriental’ characters playing the same old ‘Oriental’ stereotypes: the scheming, backstabbing liars and the demure, submissive women? How do you call this representation when all it is is a modern glorification of the exotic Oriental trope?

That’s the tone I’m mainly getting from some of these articles and interviews. Why glamourise BTS and pay no attention to Kor-Am artists? This is why. No point in highlighting local homegrown talent when it’s nothing fascinatingly different. BTS is not American. BTS is different. That’s why.

(AsianJunkie’s big boss IATFB wrote at length about the next part better than I do, so I recommend checking his piece out too.)

The venerable T.K. from Ask A Korean wrote an excellent piece a while back about what he considers K-Pop; his point was that similar to Latin or the very muddy label of world music, K-Pop does not denote a particular style of music specific to that genre like RnB or rock. It’s a regional denominator – K-Pop simply means music from South Korea. Anything from idols to Psy to Tablo can be K-Pop (Tablo himself is okay with the label). There are derivatives like K-hip-hop and K-indie, but these typically seek to differentiate themselves from what they consider mainstream popular idol-inundated music; either way, it’s still Korean music. It’s a geographical distinction, not stylistic.

It’s not a distinction that everyone understands, least of all B-grade ‘journalists’ rushing to make money off them clickbaits. Jeff Benjamin is arguably the worst out of all of them – most BTS fans like to think of him as BTS’s number one Western supporter, but he’s more trouble than he’s worth. There have been instances of him not crediting people for lyric translations in his articles:

(He went back and credited @papercrowns in the end, but failed to make a note of it in the article like a respectable journalist would when amending their piece.)

Most of his pieces are biased; a legitimate music journalist approaches music impartially – he doesn’t. In a recent article in Rolling Stone, he wrote:

One look at Psy is proof enough that K-pop acts tend to focus on crafting crazy-catchy tracks with an eye toward the Western mainstream…

One point stands that Psy is indeed K-pop, but with an eye toward the Western mainstream? They’re Koreans – their main market is the Korean audience. The hell do they care for Western mainstream audience for? Yes, some companies try to target the Western market (see: G-Dragon and CL, Ailee with her US debut as A.Leean [which absolutely everyone suddenly has selective amnesia about]), but their main market is always, always the immediate Korean audience. What’s up with this bullshit then? K-Pop columnist but doesn’t have the slightest clue how the K-Pop market works, get on out of here.

In the same article, he adds that:

While other K-pop acts focus on songs about heartbreak and partying, BTS have connected with audiences by touching on topics such as mental health … politics … and even female empowerment .

You want a song about mental health? B.A.P’s rapline track 주소서, or going further back Bang Yongguk’s AM 4:44. Politics? Jay Park’s Raw Shit. Female empowerment? KittiB’s Doin’ Good.

And these are all just off the top of my head. BTS was not the first K-Pop act to talk about these things, and neither are they the only one; for Jeff Benjamin to act as if they’re the ultimate social activist does all these other artists a disservice, and is ultimately an insult to K-Pop in general. He’s basically labeling the entirety of K-Pop as vapid based on the one Psy track that broke out in the West, when Psy also had songs that touched on social issues. How does this in any way portray a good image of K-Pop in American media? There are a lot of fans out there who say as long as it brings K-Pop out of its niche, it’s good enough – but is it really worth the validation when it brings down K-Pop in this manner? It’s not a good image; not for BTS, not for Asian Americans, and certainly not for K-Pop.

None of this is BTS’ fault. I’m not saying it is. What I’m saying is maybe we should all take a step back and try to look at this from a rational perspective. Is this bringing BTS more exposure? Yes, but more exposure doesn’t necessarily mean good exposure. Not when it’s in such a way that lets the American media simultaneously play on their exoticness and puts down the entirety of Korean music. Not when BTS never even needed this sort of cheap, flash popularity in the first place.

I don’t think BTS are naive enough to think this award means anything other than the fact that their fanbase is fucking dedicated; it’s a popularity contest, and they know that ultimately it’s their music (read: sales) that’s important. I do hope they realise this’ll be a flash in a pan thing and I’m hoping they’re just going to milk these eyes on them the best they’re able without biting off more than they can chew,  but it’s a shame that a vast majority of the K-Pop fandom thinks validation from Western media is so important, when actually it isn’t.

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Reviews, Video Game

[60/365] A Review: The Sexy Brutale

Created by Cavalier Game Studios, a team founded by former members of the fabled (ha! Fable-d! geddit?) Lionhead Studios, and Tequila Works, the Madrid-based team behind Deadlight, The Sexy Brutale was one of the more anticipated titles of 2017, with one site calling it the best game at Gamescom 2016 with only a demo to go by. Truth be told, being the out-of-touch video game enthusiast that I am, I wasn’t particularly up-to-date with the latest in video game news and expos, but a brief article in a volume of Edge some time last year had me interested in The Sexy Brutale‘s concept. A neverending murder mystery set in an opulent mansion with masked guests and a stunningly stylish art style? Count me the fuck in.

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In The Sexy Brutale, you play as Lafcadio Boone, a priest trapped in a neverending nightmare and tasked with figuring out how and why the guests in the opulent mansion are being killed off one by one. With every guest you save, you unlock powers granted by their masks and use those powers to advance further into the story, saving more people and eventually uncovering the secrets behind The Sexy Brutale.

Without spoiling too many things (since I’ll be writing another post later about my thoughts on the game’s story!), The Sexy Brutale shines in four aspects: gameplay, dialogue, sound, and art. Granted, there are instances where the game lags and affects the gameplay – there are times when I’m tapping the A button as hard as I can to get Lafcadio to stop diddling about and open the goddamn door – but whether that’s due to my ailing machine or the game itself is anyone’s guess. Questionable lag aside, the very concept of The Sexy Brutale‘s gameplay is an exercise in elegant simplicity. Lafcadio can wander around the mansion unhindered, but if he ends up in the same room as a staff member or a guest he can be tormented by the staff’s or guest’s mask, which will drain his energy the longer he remains in the same room with them. To avoid that, Lafcadio can peek through keyholes into the next room and see what’s going on.

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Lafcadio peeking into the room and listening to the conversation
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Lafcadio utilising the power of a mask to listen to distant footsteps

Much of the game revolves around you running around the mansion, avoiding guests and staff alike, in a rush against time to save the guests from being murdered. Once the clock strikes midnight, the entire day resets back by 12 hours, and Lafcadio is set to begin his quest again. This is where The Sexy Brutale‘s gameplay shines – you’re meant to play through the day over and over and over again, or else you wouldn’t be able to pick up important clues to solve the murder mysteries. The resetting gameplay mechanic is crucial in understanding how the guests are murdered, and subsequently how to stop the murders themselves. This sort of repetitive gameplay can be tiresome and downright irritating if done for too long, wandering through the same damn hallways and dodging the same people again and again, but The Sexy Brutale paces itself well enough that it doesn’t feel boring, and the length of the game – six hours, give or take, without obsessively searching every nook and cranny for collectibles – is long enough to get a good grasp of the story and short enough to not feel too cumbersome to the player. It’s a simple concept that can be tricky to execute, and The Sexy Brutale does it so well so as to seem effortless.

A good gameplay means nothing without a good story, and while I’ll be talking about that in a separate post, I’d be remiss not to point out the delightful dialogues that pepper the game. The writing in this game is phenomenal; again, keeping in line with the theme of simplistic elegance the game seems to go for, the dialogues fill the characters with personality and life to the point where I started feeling not only for the guests, but also the staff members. In a game where it’s so easy to miss even a crucial piece of dialogue, making each line count is important, and The Sexy Brutale succeeds in creating a cast rich in personality and notable quirks with a limited number of dialogues. That’s pretty damned impressive, I ‘d say. As an example, here’s a ghost in the library complaining to Lafcadio about the abysmal quality of the books available:

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After a good three hours of wandering around the mansion and dodging staff and guests alike, listening in on conversations and generally soaking yourself in the eerie, uneasy ambiance of the mystery, this kind of silly humour comes across as relief, even.

As previously mentioned, The Sexy Brutale‘s mechanic revolves not only around spying on those around you, but also keeping an ear out for telltale footsteps coming your way. In this sense, I particularly love how you can tell the exact moment each guest is being murdered by sound cues alone – a gunshot, the tolling of a bell, breaking glass, all these can clue you as to what’s going on at the moment, and I really think that’s a neat concept. Music-wise, the soundtrack for this game is fucking amazing. Seriously, it’s amazing. I might just get my hands on a physical copy just for the soundtrack alone, it’s that good. It’s jaunty and jazzy and fits the casino theme perfectly, but during the more heartrending parts of the game (yes, you read right. this game can break your heart) the soundtrack can be downright melancholic.

Last but not least, The Sexy Brutale‘s art style is a sight for sore eyes. The isometric view doesn’t offer a lot for details, but goddamn is there a lot of details in this game. The levels are well-designed and aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and I personally found it greatly to my liking. The juxtaposition between the cute 3-D renders and the stylised art of the characters was particularly charming to me. Overall, The Sexy Brutale is a wonderful visual experience, and I highly commend the team at Tequila Works for a job exceedingly well done.

If there were to be anything detracting from the experience, I’d have to say the aforementioned lag – it could really make or break your game, especially when you’re rushing against time or trying your damnedest to not get caught by the staff or guests. Also, the transition between gameplay to cutscene and vice versa could be a lot smoother. A minor detail I’d noticed was that Lafcadio’s character model doesn’t have a lot of idle movements during cutscenes – unless he’s handing something over to another character, he turns his head to look around the area non-stop, which doesn’t really make much sense when another character’s talking to him.

There isn’t much replayability to The Sexy Brutale – once you’ve played through the story, there’s very little point in replaying it unless you’re trying to collect all the invitations and cards – but it’s an enjoyable and surprisingly poignant experience that’s well worth your time and money. 9/10 would recommend.

The Sexy Brutale is available now on Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.

Music, Reviews

[59/365] A Review: B.A.P’s ROSE

I mentioned a while back that B.A.P was making another comeback before kicking off their world tour, and it was released early this month: a three-song single album featuring title track WAKE ME UP, DYSTOPIA, and DIAMOND 4 YA.

ROSE is distinct from their previous singles by having all three songs be in completely different styles – rock for DYSTOPIA, their signature hard-hitting hip hop made melodic with WAKE ME UP, and the NOIR-esque DIAMOND 4 YA. I don’t think any of their previous single releases were this diverse in the tracklist, so it was somewhat a surprise when I listened to the album for the first time – especially considering it was 8am in the morning and I was listening to it discreetly in class during a three-hour lecture.

The first song in the album, DYSTOPIA, was what really caught me off guard, with its 2000s heavy rock sound reminiscent of early era Linkin Park; almost like Bang  X2 2.0, even. Definitely did not feel like an idol song. I would’ve mistaken them for a rock band if I didn’t know better. It’s structured as a traditional rock song with scratching elements, which is unusual for a K-pop group, and you can tell they’re not used to the genre by how some of the high notes are definitely out of place. Honestly speaking, it’s a novel offering by B.A.P and it’s outstanding precisely because it’s by a K-pop group, but for a rock song, it’s nothing special. Rather generic, even. Nothing about it particularly stands out, but it’s an alright song that could definitely work as an anime opening theme. That’s just the vibe I get from it.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t even seen the MV. I tend to not watch any of their MVs anymore given how overdramatic their more serious MVs can be – I still can’t watch SKYDIVE without cringing, and people were raving about how awesome that MV was! – so I can’t say much about it, but aurally WAKE ME UP is a somewhat catchy and cohesive effort marred by haywire rap in both the first and second rap verses. There was something off with the pacing and length of the rap verses in relation to the rest of the song that made them feel a little jarring to listen to, which is a shame because other than that WAKE ME UP is actually a good song. It’s redeemed somewhat by the bridge rap and a repetition in the chorus that works well thanks to the vocal line, and Bang Yongguk’s using his 4:44am voice in his verse, which is always a plus. It’s good to have him back. Overall, WAKE ME UP highlights the vocal line’s strengths and while the rap could have been more finely tuned, it’s a quality effort for a title track.

The final song, DIAMOND 4 YA, is a haunting jazzy track that carries on from their previous full-length album, NOIR. The rap verse here is better than in WAKE ME UP, although Bang Yongguk’s not using his 4:44am voice anymore, and there’s a definite improvement in Zelo’s verse compared to WAKE ME UP. Structurally, it seems to ride on the same emotional hype as the title track, building up to a climax by the final chorus. There’s an air of fragile ethereality (or ethereal fragility) with the high notes and chimes amidst the blaring brass and steady bass, which gives the song its unique edge. Daehyun once mentioned that the group had a hard time picking between WAKE ME UP and DIAMOND 4 YA for their title track, which is fair because both of them are equally on par with each other – DIAMOND 4 YA is more cohesive overall, while WAKE ME UP is the kind of catchy, classic B.A.P the fans would definitely love.

Either way, ROSE is a promising release hampered down by what I suspect to be rushed production and not enough quality control. I think TS Entertainment was pushing for the album to be released on time before the world tour, and hence the quality suffered greatly. Given more time, I’m sure they could have polished the songs more. As it is, I will forever curse TS Entertainment for their shitty management and mourn for what could have been a truly outstanding single album.

Buy ROSE on iTunes


The following aren’t necessarily reviews per se so you’re welcome to click away to another post if my being angry about how TS Entertainment isn’t treating B.A.P right isn’t your kind of thing.

These last two releases seem to be bad omens for B.A.P: with NOIR, Bang Yongguk had to sit out from promotions because of a panic disorder, and with ROSE, Himchan had to sit out from promotions because he’d cracked a rib. Himchan cracked a rib. That’s not normal. TS Entertainment stated that he’d cracked his rib from stress due to the strain from the practice in preparation for their comeback and also sudden weight loss, which by the way, is also not fucking normal. Losing weight so suddenly to the point of cracking a rib? There’s a fucking limit to how much idols have to starve themselves to look good for their fans, and it’s the job of the fucking management to make sure they don’t push themselves too far!

Also, who in their fucking right mind would have their idols perform on comeback stages two weeks before embarking on a fucking world tour? Especially when they just came back from a Japan tour before that? It’s fucking insane!

And a while back there were also reports that TS Entertainment wasn’t fucking paying their staff, citing money problems as an excuse for late payments and not compensating overtime work. How fucking shitty can you get? First they work B.A.P to the bone to the point where the group actually had to go for a fucking lawsuit, and then when the dust settled they ruined B.A.P by shitty promotions and working them to the bone again – to the point where Bang Yongguk and Himchan both can’t perform because of medical issues – and now they’re not even paying their staff? Whoever’s in charge of TS Entertainment is a piece of shit and I hope they rot in hell.

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B.A.P had so much fucking potential. So much.

I’m just legitimately upset by this. They deserve so much, all the members have so much potential and now it’s all gone to waste because their fucking company couldn’t get their fucking act together. That part where one commenter said they should’ve been on the same level as BTS now? It’s true. That’s how much fucking potential they had. I’ve been with them since they debuted. They were well on their way to the top, they were head to head with EXO, they could be head to head with BTS now, but then the lawsuit/hiatus happened and they might as well have disappeared off the face of the earth. I’ll say it as many times as I have to, anybody who thinks the lawsuit didn’t hurt B.A.P can eat dirt. I’ll drag them through the mud with my own hands. The hiatus ruined B.A.P. It ruined all they could have been.

And maybe I would’ve been disappointed if B.A.P eventually ended up having to disband. It would be preferable for them to go the Highlight route and split from TS Entertainment to do their own thing, but that takes a lot of money and with Bang Yongguk and Himchan nearing the age for enlistment, it’s not viable. Maybe I would’ve been disappointed if the worst came to pass, but I’d be okay because at least they’d be alright and they’d be free to pursue other avenues, but we’re now at a point where not only the members’ careers are in jeopardy, but also their goddamn health. Granted, the idol business isn’t exactly the most forgiving industry, but there’s something to be said when two subsequent comebacks result in serious health issues for the members. Bang Yongguk couldn’t perform on stage due to anxiety. That Yongguk, who’s been performing longer than he’s been a member of B.A.P. Himchan has a cracked rib from sudden weight loss and stress from strenuous practice. Himchan, who’s constantly told that he’s too fat and needs to lose weight, and does so by simply not eating altogether. How is this okay? How is any of this okay?

At this point it’s like TS Entertainment doesn’t even care if the members suddenly drop dead on stage from the stress as long as they’re still doing the world tour and making them money.

Honestly. Fuck TS Entertainment.

Music, Reviews

[58/365] A Review: Code Kunst’s MUGGLES’ MANSION

Code Kunst is a producer under YG Entertainment’s HIGHGRND sublabel, aimed towards indie and alternative musicians. HIGHGRND is headed by Epik High’s Tablo, who I’m personally a huge fan of; I follow him on SNS and caught him hyping up the album and the track he’s featured on with G.Soul, so I figured I’d give it a listen to.

I have never fallen in love with an album more quickly than I did with MUGGLES’ MANSION.

This entire album oozes chill vibes, the kind of smooth, laidback hip hop that you can just put on and enjoy on a good day. Artistic (Intro) sets the pace for the rest of the album, with each track seamlessly segueing into the next. The second half of 향수 (Feat. 넉살) really stood out to me the first time I heard it, the repetition of the lyrics somehow giving it a harder edge. It sort of had me jolting out of a reverie brought about by the chill beats, which was an interesting thing to do in an album – especially when it goes straight back to the chill beats with THIS IS (Feat. C Jamm).

Then came Fire Water (Interlude) followed by FIRE WATER (Feat. G.Soul, TABLO) and boy was that a pleasure to listen to.

G.Soul’s voice is smooth (like butter) and paired wonderfully with Tablo’s skilled rapping and Code Kunst’s smoother beats. This track had me melting, I tell you.

StrOngerrr (Feat. 로꼬, MINO) was a pleasant surprise since I quite like Mino, it’s a shame he doesn’t get to be in the spotlight more in his own right – even in this song he’s in the chorus and not the main verses. MORE FIRE is another instrumental track that seems to serve as a bridge between the first and second half of the album – they’re both laidback, but the latter seems to carry a different kind of energy compared to the former, starting with Born from the Blue (Feat. JUSTHIS). This song gave me a strong Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann OST vibe for some reason, which is a good thing since the soundtrack for that anime is phenomenal.

The three rappers on Cruz (Feat. Loopy, PUNCHNELLO, Ugly Duck) have distinctly different styles which meshed together well on this track, which makes it interesting to listen to. X (Feat. 이하이) is one of the more higher-tempo songs in this album, going with the theme of a woman who’s decided she’s had enough and deserves better and is off to find a new man. I was honestly surprised by this song since I’ve never heard Lee Hi sing before, and this kind of sultry strong voice reminiscent of Kitti B was not what I’d expected from her, but I like it.

PARACHUTE (Feat. 오혁, Dok2) is one of my absolute top three favourites from this album, along with Beside Me (Feat. BewhY, YDG, Suran) and Lounge (Feat. 화지); they’re the real highlights, in my opinion. I have a thing for vocalists like Oh Hyuk and Suran; Suran featured on Agust D’s mixtape and the track Winter Bird she released last winter was beautiful, but the sultry jazzy style she sang with in Beside Me really blew me away. Unlike Lee Hi, it was completely unexpected precisely because I’ve heard Suran sing before, and that kind of voice from Suran totally hit me out of the blue. Lounge served as a good end to the overall theme, a relaxed beat that ties up the album nicely.

The final two songs don’t seem to fit in with the overall theme of the album: White AnxiEty (Outro) (Feat. Colde of offonoff) is more offonoff than Code Kunst, with its minimalist instrumentals and Colde’s almost ethereal vocals, while Don’t shoot me MAMA (Feat. Car, the garden) similarly highlighted Car, the garden’s style rather than Code Kunst’s, especially with the acoustic guitar strumming that’s glaringly absent from the rest of the album. It could be some form of promotion for offonoff and Car, the garden, since from what I can gather offonoff is signed under HIGHGRND but still very much under the radar, and Car, the garden is as independent as they come. It would explain how both songs seemingly don’t match the tone of the album per se, but they’re good songs nevertheless.

The best thing about MUGGLES’ MANSION is that the featured artists all mesh well each other. Each of them shine on their respective tracks, with the rappers all equally standing out in their verses. I don’t know if he chooses the artists he wants to work with himself or the label recommends them to him, but either way they all fit his tracks so well, I’m honestly rendered almost emotional by how effortlessly smooth this whole album was. Listening to it for the first time was a real experience, I’d say.

10/10 would recommend, an absolute experience, am definitely a fan of him now.

Buy MUGGLES’ MANSION on iTunes

Thoughts

[57/365] Resurgence: An Explanation

It’s been a while… haha…

I have no excuses? Save for the fact that there are certain periods in a year where I just eschew social networking sites? I’m naturally a recluse by nature, and there are times where I dial that reclusive nature all the way up to 11 by leaving all my SNS accounts on radio silence except the ones that matter, like Whatsapp (where 99% of my academic communications take place, what the fuck, what happened to good old email?) and email (mostly for What The Fuck Just Happened Today, which I highly recommend, and updates from my goddamn group order manager, where are my albums and refund woman). Otherwise I just don’t. Bother. At all.

Which is why I haven’t updated the blog in a month, thus breaking my planned one-post-a-day streak. It’s not something that I do consciously – sometimes I just think, man I really don’t want to deal with anything right now, and so I don’t. I stop talking to people except when it counts. I don’t obsessively refresh my timeline looking for something interesting. If I happen to stumble upon something interesting then wahey, but I don’t actively go looking for it. I just stumble through the motions.

It could just be my depression acting up again. I don’t know.

I think I’m gonna get back into the swing of things, though! I’ve got three new albums – all Korean – that I want to review, and once I finally get my hands on BTS’ You Never Walk Alone albums that I’d ordered I kind of want to make an unwrapping? Unboxing? I definitely want to talk about what I got since this is the first time I bought physical copies for myself in addition to a digital copy, so I’m excited!

For what it’s worth, this won’t be the first time I suddenly disappear on a month-long hiatus or so. It happens. Some years it happens more often. That’s just how it is.

Til next time.