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