Can’t Stop: CNBLUE addiction, in which I fall down the K-Pop rabbit hole

September 21, 2016 at 5:39 am 22 comments

puzzle-live-cn

CNBLUE doing their thing live, 2016

So here’s how it happened. My family spent this summer in Taiwan and I was hoping we could brush up on our vernacular Mandarin by watching some Taiwanese television. I thought we could acquaint ourselves with Asian pop culture in general as well, so Korean dramas could also be a part of that mix. I wanted to look at Taiwanese dramas to work on our Chinese-language skills, but somehow my daughter ended up watching the gender-bending K-drama You’re Beautiful instead. Because the plastic surgery on the boys’ noses was way too distracting I only followed it intermittently, but I would occasionally glance over at the screen and watch a bit with my daughter, since the show is charming and amusing.

yab

Yonghwa, You’re Beautiful, 2009

And then, boom! I caught a glimpse of a boy with the most amazingly beautiful and fascinating face, who stood out even amongst his very pretty co-stars. I literally could not take my eyes off of him, he was that mesmerizing. Although he didn’t seem to have any plastic surgery and his teeth were distinctly crooked, it was impossible to stop looking at him, he was so charismatic. I soon found out that the actor in question was Jung Yonghwa, the leader of the Korean rock band CNBLUE.

K-Pop is a very strange universe and the more I find out about it the less I’m sure I like it. Commercial pop music around the world is by nature a very capitalistic place but K-Pop in particular seems to be pop music to the nth degree. The songs are hyper-catchy but not necessarily very deep or meaningful, and seem to be designed to be listened to for about a week maximum, after which they are supplanted by another hyper-catchy and not very deep tune. The performers are uniformly young and beautiful, either by nature or makeup or cosmetic surgery. Most of them are drilled to be precision dancers, and the fashions are ultra-trendy, with mas de moda hairstyles in many rainbow colors. The music videos are glossy and slick, with crazy dreamlike imagery meant to stick in your backbrain just long enough for you to pay your money and download the songs.

music-bank-160415

Keeping score

Plus, in order to sell songs, groups go on a variety of music shows and compete viciously for trophies every week. There seems to be about a half-dozen of these and the groups make the rounds after dropping each song, participating in a sadistic hazing ritual that pits group against group based on digital streaming, record sales, music video views, and popular voting both ahead of time and live as the shows progress. It’s kind like the hunger games for pop music except without the literal dying, but the humiliation for the losers and the jubilation of the winners is similar enough to a fight to the death. So it’s not exactly the most nurturing and comforting creative atmosphere.

flowers

Boys over flowers, CNBLUE

CNBLUE is a bit of an anomaly in the K-Pop world. Along with their labelmates FT Island they are one of the few bands, as opposed to dance groups, to become K-Pop stars. CNBLUE is partly an idol group, partly a pop-rock band, and partly a collection of male supermodels, as each member is pretty damn good looking. But the band can also play their own instruments and sing, and they also compose most of their songs, so they don’t fit the typical K-Pop mold. They are also most emphatically not a dance group, and their music is much more rock than hiphop or dance-oriented like other K-Pop groups.

So I’ve become completely fascinated by Jung Yonghwa and CNBLUE. Some reasons for my interest include:

cnlive3

Yonghwa and Jonghyun with axes

Boys with guitars

I’ve always loved rock music, from punk to metal to power pop, and CNBLUE plays some of the catchiest pop-rock around. Yonghwa has a knack for writing hooky, complex, and accessible tunes that earworm into your brain immediately. I’m Sorry, Can’t Stop, and Cinderella, to name just a few of their most popular tracks, are all catchy as hell and each is unique and distinct from each other as well.

Great live shows

CNBLUE is famous for their balls-out live performances and Yonghwa in particular leaves it all out on the stage for every show. The interwebs are full of youtubes of their rocking live shows which seem to get better and better as the years go by. No doubt their grueling touring schedule of the past six years since their debut has helped them improve their live performances immensely, as they have literally played hundreds of shows in that time, which is par for the course for many top-tier K-Pop groups. (From 2013-2016 CNBLUE played more than 100 concerts, as did Big Bang and Super Junior, two other kings of the K-Pop world). Ironically, when appearing on Korean television shows (which K-Pop groups do incessantly) CNBLUE doesn’t always get to play their instruments live, since the TV shows are designed for dance groups, not bands with guitars and amps. But even when hand-syncing CNBLUE members manage to rock the house with their sheer energy and stage presence.

theclass

CNBLUE in modeling mode, 2015

Visuals

K-Pop has this thing called “visuals,” which basically means how good-looking your group members are. Members are usually recruited for their physical beauty and if they are not up to snuff then their agencies aren’t shy about sending them out for a spot of plastic surgery to fix things up. CNBLUE, however, is pretty well-known for their excellent visuals without going under the knife (and the rumor is that their agency, FNC, picked the members in particular because it was too broke at the time to afford plastic surgery). In other words, CNBLUE’s members were chosen specifically because they are tall and good-looking first, with their relative musical skills secondary. They’re widely regarded as having “no visual flaws,” which in K-Pop fan parlance means each member is exceedingly handsome.

cn-blue-singapore-concert-2016-featured

More visuals

So all four members are supernaturally beautiful, with guitarist Lee Jonghyun in particular possessing inhuman good looks. Yonghwa not only has a beautiful face, with large, wide-spaced eyes, an elegant nose, and a narrow jawline, but he also possesses a remarkable amount of charisma, charm, and stage presence for a young man in his twenties. So it’s a lot of fun to watch CNBLUE since they bring the pretty. Although this has certainly helped with their mass appeal, in some ways their beauty has worked against them as far as being taken seriously as musicians, since they are considered idols first and musicians second, despite their musical skills. I’ve had a hard time convincing my friends that it’s about the music and not just the visuals when it comes to CNBLUE since their good looks are so immediately overwhelming at first.

The secret menu: Japanese releases

CNBLUE has released a huge number of albums in Japan that contain a whole nother catalog of songs created for the Japanese market. Not only does this mean that they’re sung in Japanese but the music tends to be more the rock side rather than the pop side. Which means these albums contain many more heavy-duty power chord guitar-based tunes specifically designed to be played at full speed in live stadium shows. Their first major-label Japanese release, Code Name Blue, rocks hard and loud and contains several of their best J-Rock style arena songs (Where You Are; Come On; In My Head; Have A Good Night). Many of these were written by Yonghwa, whereas the songs on their Korean albums they were releasing at the same time (2012) were still mostly written by other people. Even second vocalist Jonghyun, who leans toward pretty crooning on their Korean releases, rocks out on the Japanese albums, and Yonghwa belts like a boss. For those who prefer their tunes to rock a bit harder, the Japanese releases are the way to go.

New directions

CNBLUE just dropped their latest mini-album at the beginning of April, a five-song EP called Blueming (hint: flower pun). Included is the lead track “You’re So Fine,” which includes a poppin’ bass line and some soulful vocals from Yonghwa, who also wrote and produced the cut. The tune is a fat and catchy track, with its synchopated rhythms and swinging horns giving the song a 60s R&B feel. Yonghwa is a smart and savvy songwriter and he includes four or five singalong hooks in both Korean and English. His vocals are impeccable as well, with effortless octave jumps, seamless transitions to falsetto, smooth dynamics shifts and rhythmic patterns, and an easy control of his tonal and volume range, whether spitting a syncopated patter, swinging a sweet ad lib, or belting out the chorus. In most K-Pop songs the vocals are divided among the various members, with one person singing the lead, one the chorus, one rapping, one in falsetto. Here Yonghwa sings almost all of the parts himself, with a little help from second vocalist Jonghyun, which is an impressive feat for song with such variations in the vocal line.

The song’s music video is quite K-Pop, with over-the-top costuming, hyperkinetic editing, and a hypersaturated color palette, as well as the ridiculously handsome look of the four band members—if you aren’t used to the genre it’s probably best to listen to the song without watching the MV as its high-gloss styling can be quite distracting and overwhelming.

There’s been some bitching and moaning among certain CNBLUE fans since this release is much more on the pop side (and the title track is very retro R&B), rather than rock. To a western observer such as myself it’s odd to hear a musical group criticized for stretching its creative boundaries and trying out different genres. I’m used to artists like Prince, David Bowie, and the Beatles, to name just a few, whose sound always changed and evolved with every release. To me it’s strange that CNBLUE has been criticized for trying out new musical styles, which seems like a healthy sign of creative growth and maturity. CNBLUE has already mastered the art of the power chord blues-based rock song so it’s nice to see them moving into jazzier compositions and arrangements. To my mind there’s nothing wrong with some syncopation and a bit of scatting to liven up a song. It also shows a more sophisticated musicality that’s promising for the band’s future releases. What I’m hearing is the convergence of their musical styles between their Korean and Japanese releases. With the exception of You’re So Fine, the tracks on their most recent Korean release, Blueming, sound a lot like the ones on their two most recent Japanese albums, Colors and We’re Like A Puzzle, showing a heavy dose of Oasis and brit-pop influences.

Their most recent Japanese single, Glory Days,  which dropped last week, is an effortlessly listenable slice of J-pop-inspired pleasure, with a pretty piano line weaving through the melody and the lead vocal relaying between Yonghwa and Jonghyun to create a catchy, upbeat track. The subtle addition of strings and a church organ adds a reverent and dare I say spiritual atmosphere which is echoed in the beautifully conceived and shot music video to the song. Not as hard-edged as some of their other Japan releases, the recording has a delicate and wistful beauty to it. Despite its seeming simplicity the track reveals its complexity after several listens, attesting to Yonghwa’s increasing skills as both a composer and a producer.

weekly-idol-gif

Jonghyun pays his variety show dues

Right now there are some obstacles that may keep CNBLUE from fully exploring new musical directions. The first is that, as part of their job as K-Pop idols, they also are required to be active in other entertainment fields, including modeling for fashion magazines and appearing on variety shows and in advertisements. Whereas Western pop stars mostly have the luxury of focusing primarily on their musical output and somewhat less on their public image, in K-Pop world it’s a different story.

airport-yonghwa-600x900

Airport fashion, K-Pop style

Like their fellow K-Pop idols, the pressure is on for CNBLUE to constantly produce new musical product, pose languorously for various fashion spreads, wear stylish and trendy outfits at the airport, appear in dramas and variety shows, tour around the world, and otherwise live their lives as South Korean pop music celebrities. All four members have acted in Korean dramas, and Yonghwa is awaiting the 2017 release of his very first movie, the Chinese film Cook Up A Storm with Hong Kong superstar Nicholas Tse. And as per all South Korean males, the four members will soon have to serve their mandatory military duty, which lasts a little under two years and which will probably take place in the next couple years for the two oldest members, Yonghwa and Jonghyun.

A more immediate threat is the involvement of both Yonghwa and Jonghyun in an insider stock trading scandal earlier this year surrounding CNBLUE’s fucked-up agency, FNC Entertainment, which by all accounts is sleazy and badly run. After almost of week of mudslinging and speculation Yonghwa was cleared of all suspicions of insider trading, but in a surprising twist, the investigation then revealed that Jonghyun was also involved in the case. Despite Yonghwa being declared innocent of all charges and Jonghyun only receiving a small fine, some K-netizens feasted on the possible downfall of two of K-Pop’s biggest stars. It was an unsavory spectacle to observe and some online commentators took a particularly vicious glee in attacking the squeaky-clean idols. The whole situation was really distasteful and in my opinion was being used as a distraction from various political scandals happening now in the country including a multi-billion dollar scam involving the Lotte group, one of the country’s biggest corporate conglomerates. I also suspect that Yonghwa’s shady boss may have been throwing Yonghwa under the bus to keep himself from being implicated.

cnblue-yonghwa-comeback

Yonghwa sad

It’s hard at this point to tell exactly what the turn of events were due to the opacity of motivations of all concerned but by all accounts Yonghwa bore the brunt of the bad publicity . As a side note, Yonghwa is hugely popular in China and interestingly enough, the Chinese press was much more supportive of Yonghwa than was the South Korean media.

If for some reason Yonghwa’s career takes a damaging hit it will be a loss for everyone concerned because he’s the real deal and not just a run-of-the-mill disposable idol. The only possible silver lining is that it may scuff up his clean-cut image a bit, which ironically may make him more marketable in the West, where being a bad boy is a badge of honor, not something to be shunned as it seems to be in South Korea. Also notable has been the unwavering love from most of CNBLUE’s and Yonghwa’s devoted fanbase, thousands of whom throughout the length of the scandal expressed their undying support across social media platforms such as twitter, weibo, and instagram.

But despite the admirable loyalty of the fans (along with some petty bickering), after following the insider trading accusations and its aftermath I’ve liked K-Pop and the whole bloodthirsty South Korean entertainment scene even less. It’s heartbreaking that someone can be crucified in the press without even going to trial and Yonghwa’s case was a very ugly spectacle. God help us as a species if this is the way we treat our artists, especially young people like CNBLUE. Capitalism eats us all and it will be especially tragic if the aftereffects of the scandal hinder Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s ability to make music. Because in the end, despite their physical gorgeousness, their modeling talents, their fashion sense, and their acting skilz, CNBLUE is really about making great music. Everything else is just gravy.

UPDATE: As another example of their artistry here’s a link to the lyrics for “Glory Days.

http://justjyh.com/xe/music/305010

Sample lyrics:

The moment I get close, it slips away
When such days repeat
Everything becomes blurred
I can’t go on, it grows tiresome
You’re the one

who gently nudged my back

Most likely written by Yonghwa after the insider trading mess this summer, the song is all about keeping faith during hard times. When read together while watching the MV of the track the entire song comes together beautifully as an expression of Yonghwa and CNBLUE’s state of mind during and following the nasty controversy they faced.

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Entry filed under: CNBLUE, Jung Yonghwa, Kang Minhyuk, Lee Jonghyun, Lee Jungshin, music, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , .

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22 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ratualaynfriends  |  September 21, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Reblogged this on keepalaypridealive and commented:
    Worth to read …good writing

    Reply
  • 2. Ta Alley  |  September 21, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    Thank you! This about covers everything & more that I wanted to express but cant which you beautifully penned clearly & smoothly! This in my humble opinion is written w/ a “precision of a poet”.

    Reply
    • 3. valeriesoe  |  September 21, 2016 at 9:00 pm

      Thanks so much! I’m glad you liked it. I’m having a great time following CNBLUE–they’re truly special.

      Reply
  • 4. Janssen Asis (@its_janssen_93)  |  September 21, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    This was beautifully written! I totally agree with this. Thank you for writing.

    Reply
  • 5. Lois Kim  |  September 22, 2016 at 1:41 am

    I can’t believe you were able to digest and perfectly synthesize into these few paragraphs the past 7 years of the CNBLUE history so accurately, their musicality and the state of the Korean entertainment industry given that you just discovered them this summer. In my humble opinion (formulated by obsessively following Yongwha since January of 2014) I think you are right on on all points. Your blog post should become required reading for all fans, old and new. I do not believe that there exists such an accurate and comprehensive document anywhere in any language. You must have an awesome research skills and a tremendous intellect. Please be my friend!!!

    Reply
    • 6. valeriesoe  |  September 22, 2016 at 2:48 am

      Thanks so much for the kind words! The timeline in the post is a bit misleading as we started watching You’re Beautiful last November, so I’ve been following Yonghwa and CNBLUE a bit longer than it may seem–maybe 9 or 10 months? But I also have become quite obsessed and have been trying to find as much info since then about him as I can. It’s a lot of fun and I’ve been enjoying discovering more about YH/CN and their music and careers. And even though I know a lot more about K-pop than I used to I’m still not that interested in most of the other groups. Like I said, CNBLUE is very special and someday I think they will be legendary.

      Reply
      • 7. Tibu Mari-Leen Laisk  |  September 23, 2016 at 10:36 am

        Article was really good. I got caught by the K-pop illness last year at february… 🙂 It all started with Jung Yong-Hwa for me. I have this obsessive side that nobody usually understands. CNBLue was first of those in K-pop world. I actually didn’t listen to rock music before that, but those boys changed a lot of things I thought before, I’d never do 🙂 Some fellow guitarists were pretty impressed with their skills as guitar players and the live concerts feeling what we could not find in the western musician concerts.. it was too impressive. I live in a country, where K-pop isn’t almost known at all. Some people study Korean language, but mostly when someone hears you listen to Korean band. The question is almost always along the lines, North or South?…
        I’ve probably downloaded about 7-800 videos about CNBlue with each members solo activities. I will never be the classical airport screaming fan, but I will live all my life supporting them from far-far away.
        The first group who I started to like, about 4 months ago is 2PM. I fell in love with them from an article actually. A photographer talked about a photoshoot with them and I was hooked, before I even listened to their music, and saw them dancing… Their too hot for my taste. They are a bit too sexy for me, but I like the boys individual attributes more. Jun. K is almost as talented in writing music as Yong-Hwa or their just different, but equals. And the same goes to their singing abilities. Jun. K can belt out such an impressive songs, that I just don’t know how not to enjoy his singing. There is a lot to say about other members, but it’s not the place for it.
        Preparing myself for both CNBLUE and 2PM’s upcoming enlistment, it’s pretty soon, I have tried to listen to other groups, so to enjoy some live performances when they’r not on stage. I have listened to FT. Island as well, but Hong Ki’s everyday-new-hair-color isn’t my cup of tea.. I do listen to them, but I don’t watch their videos much. Though Hong Ki, might even have a bit more impressive voice than YH. Especially when you can see him singing ‘Confession’. It’s too impressive and the tone of his voice is amazing. But there is a variety show where Yong-Hwa sang that song a bit.. and I so wished it would be recorded on a stage with proper equipment. I think YH would be better than Hong-Ki 🙂 It’s all just my humble choice of voices as a singer myself.
        I have found couple of singers who give a nice vibe, and are definitely not dancing idols. Kim Feel has a voice you can just die for. I haven’t found his equal after YH and Jun. K. And a rock singer I started to get impressed with only couple of weeks ago, Jung Joon Young. A variety show MC told in a show, that it’s a singer who stubbornly won’t sing anything else but rock and rock ballads.. and he does it really well…
        Kim Feel and JJY both appeared on a Korean talent show. Both came second on different years. As solo artists I am really impressed with them. I will find more and more musicians to listen, I don’t doubt that, but I will stay forever true to CNBLUE and Yong-Hwa.

        Thanks for your article. It warmed my heart 🙂

      • 8. Lois  |  September 24, 2016 at 7:24 am

        I whole heartedly agree with your last statement. Until I discovered CNBLUE I did not care for kpop either. I did watch kdramas and jdramas though because the American media and entertainment industry do not offer much Asian American content. Then I chanced upon CN’s Japan live 392 and then the rest is history… I follow kpop solely for the purpose of understaning how it might affect YH. Your blog post is still amazing even if it took 9 months to synthesize instead of 5 as I initially assumed. I hope YH and the guys will have a chance to read it.

      • 9. valeriesoe  |  October 4, 2016 at 9:48 pm

        I also only exclusively watch Asian media since Hollywood is still pretty lame and racist when it comes to Asian representations, FRESH OFF THE BOAT notwithstanding. Musically I listen to a lot of stuff but very little Kpop aside from CNBLUE, since I’m an old lady and not really the target demographic : ) I don’t think the CN boys will read the post unless it’s translated into Korean, so if anyone wants to volunteer to do that it would be great! But I’m doing everything I can to spread the gospel of CNBLUE to international listeners in order to expand their fanbase beyond S. Korea and Asia.

      • 10. valeriesoe  |  September 25, 2016 at 10:44 pm

        Thanks for mentioning this point. “Some fellow guitarists were pretty impressed with their skills as guitar players and the live concerts feeling what we could not find in the western musician concerts.” I think CNBLUE also don’t get enough credit for their abilities as musicians. I’m particularly impressed by Kang Min Hyuk’s drumming, which is strong and consistent across all of of the genres they play.

  • 11. Kai Lee  |  September 22, 2016 at 5:19 am

    I couldn’t agree more. This is just beautifully and precisely written. Our boys are really special. I believe CNBLUE, specially Yong Hwa oppa deserves the best. Jjang! Thank you for this. ❤

    Reply
  • 12. Fany Moraga Segura  |  September 22, 2016 at 11:33 am

    No puedo creer que alguien haya escrito lo que escencialmente pienso de CNBLUE y especialmente de Yong Hwa. Gracias por tomarte el tiempo de publicar, saludis desde Chile😊✌💗

    Reply
    • 13. valeriesoe  |  September 23, 2016 at 5:49 pm

      !Gracias! Aprecio tu apoyo.

      Reply
  • 14. Doris Malpieris (@DMalpieris)  |  September 22, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks a lot for the article!
    I met Yongwha and CNblue through “You are beautiful” too. I became their fan since Jan,2014 and i love their music a lot! I hope they’ll keep going for many many years…

    Reply
  • 15. ljyhd  |  September 22, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    Wow beautifully written…loved your article…lets always support yonghwa and cnblue…welcome to the world of cnblue and boice…

    Reply
    • 16. valeriesoe  |  September 23, 2016 at 5:51 pm

      Thank you so much! I feel like they need a lot of support since Kpop is full of sharks waiting to devour anyone who seems weak. Just trying to do my part to help them to keep them making music–

      Reply
  • 17. Glenn  |  October 4, 2016 at 5:53 pm

    Several years ago they said they would all go into the military together in order to have the band out of action for the shortest period of time they could. I wonder if that is still the plan.

    Reply
    • 18. valeriesoe  |  October 4, 2016 at 9:46 pm

      It seems unlikely because their agency wants to have an unbroken revenue flow for as long as possible, so probably Yonghwa and Jonghyun will enlist first while the younger two continue to act in dramas, then the two younger members will enlist two years later when the older ones get out, who will probably then play solo and act. Sucks for those of us who want to hear CNBLUE play together as a band as this means a long long hiatus, but they are under contract to their agency and have no control over their own lives or careers. Such are the lives of Kpop idols–

      Reply
  • 19. pandan wangi  |  January 11, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    i,m glad find this article.i love yonghwa as my one and only biased.so hardworking,kind and warm heart,and i will always support yonghwa and cnblue.

    Reply
  • […] EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s latest Japanese album that dropped last October, the band continues its ongoing musical […]

    Reply
  • […] opens in North America in very very limited release this weekend. As both an Asian film scholar and a CNBLUE fanperson (the film co-stars CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa) I had a keen interest in this movie so I made a […]

    Reply
  • 22. CertifiedBoice  |  April 30, 2017 at 2:53 am

    “CNBLUE is a bit of an anomaly in the K-Pop world.”—This is my favorite line. I also loved how you defended them in meeting new horizons.
    “To me it’s strange that CNBLUE has been criticized for trying out new musical styles, which seems like a healthy sign of creative growth and maturity. CNBLUE has already mastered the art of the power chord blues-based rock song so it’s nice to see them moving into jazzier compositions and arrangements. To my mind there’s nothing wrong with some syncopation and a bit of scatting to liven up a song. It also shows a more sophisticated musicality that’s promising for the band’s future releases. ” —I agree to this 1000%! I hate how some fans criticize them for exploring other genres.

    Reply

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