Archive for December, 2017

End of a day: Jonghyun’s suicide and Orientalist concern trolling


My people my people let’s please not fall for this.

Kpop superstar Kim Jonghyun killed himself earlier this week after a lifelong battle with depression. But the way it’s being spun in some western media outlets has become ridiculous, as if his suicide is a result of the unique pressures of being a Kpop star. It’s not about Kpop or South Korean culture only–this is a bunch of Orientalist bullshit and I’m sorry that people are believing it, though sad to say I’m not surprised that some western press outlets are carrying on as if it’s the gospel truth. But this post on Asian American blog You Offend Me You Offend My Family (YOMYOMF) continues some of the same troubling assumptions, which I had hoped people were not buying.

YOMYOMF’s post states, “His death is being investigated as suicide, and it is pointing in the direction of the mounting pressures he faced as a K-Pop superstar who was in the spotlight. . . It is a major issue which we all need to reflect and act on, and I hope to see Asia really take a serious look at this issue. “ I appreciate that someone is pointing out the need for mental health awareness in Asian/American communities but let’s not pretend that this in only an AZN issue.

YOMYOMF’s post, however, only echoes a lot of the coverage Jonghyun’s suicide has been getting in the Western press. To be fair, media outlets such as the New York Times, the BBC, and People Magazine have been evenhanded in their discussion and avoided racist assumptions. But the appallingly paternalistic coverage in other Western press outlets has barely hidden a slew of racist and culturalist concerns and misconceptions about the Kpop industry and South Korean culture in the most offensive way possible. What really bothers me, though, is the myopia the west has about its own complicity in these kind of tragedies.


The UK media outlet The Guardian has been particularly egregious in beating the Orientalist drum about Jonghyun’s suicide. The Guardian posted this little bit of culturalist concern trolling earlier this week, citing KPop’s “Hunger Games-like musical culture” as a reason for Jonghyun’s death.

“The lockstep perfection of SHINee’s dance routines is undeniably thrilling – but there is something troubling about them too, knowing that only the absolute best will be tolerated.”

Another article from The Guardian also shamelessly pathologized South Korean culture:

“The relentless pressure to achieve can be found in every sector of South Korean society, from its highly competitive education system to a corporate culture that has little tolerance for failure – factors that experts say contribute to the highest suicide rate in the industrialised world.”

Because we don’t know any tech bros in Silicon Valley who are sleeping under their desks and pulling 80-hour work weeks, oh no. also claims, “K-pop’s success has also been dependent on a highly-polished image. Stars typically can’t be seen dating, getting plastic surgery, or become embroiled in any kind of scandal.”

This is stated as if Honey BooBoo never existed or that Lindsey Lohan’s lifelong misery isn’t a thing.

To put this into a broader context, one of the reasons why South Korea uses Kpop and hallyu for cultural and economic leverage is because of the direct results of Western imperialism. Korea was seriously fucked up by the Korean War and one of the ways South Korea managed to dig itself out of its misery is by using soft power in the form of cultural exports to stabilize its economy. So if bombing the fuck out of a country and then dissing it for doing whatever it can to improve life for its citizens isn’t victim blaming I don’t know what is.

To add insult to injury, NBC Chicago news confused SHINee with fellow KPop group BTS and showed a clip of BTS when discussing Jonghyun’s death. I’m not even gonna go there because this is so appalling.


I’m not defending Kpop because it certainly needs all the scrutiny it gets for its treatment of its young stars but the Western press needs to back the fuck up from its sanctimonious attitude about Jonghyun’s death. The prevailing trope has been “Kpop eats its young,” as if this is unique to South Korea’s entertainment industry (The Guardian’s article also criticized Japan for this, which is telling). Hello, do I need to make a list of Western pop stars who have drank and drugged themselves to death? Can anyone say Amy Winehouse? Or those who have outright killed themselves? Cobain, Bennington, and Cornell are names you need to remember. Or of the walking dead of child stars who most likely were sexually abused and now live with that every day of their lives, like Corey Haim, who his friend Corey Feldman says never recovered from being raped as a child by Hollywood executives? The western press needs to step off.

The underlying message here is, “You are barbaric and backward. We are better than you and we are entitled to tell you about it.” And if that’s not Orientalism in a nutshell then I don’t know what is. So please, my people, don’t fall for this.




December 20, 2017 at 7:44 pm Leave a comment

I Know You’re Coming Along: CNBLUE STAY GOLD album review


NOTE: One more CNBLUE post before I’m done. Bear with me as it’s the end of the year and they probably have run out of product for the time being.

CNBLUE’s new Japanese album, STAY GOLD, just dropped a few weeks ago and once again the Korean rock quartet blends its signature sound with some new beats and flavors. This time they’re mostly on the Jpop tip, and as a whole the album is a cohesive, solid piece of work, with each track flows seamlessly into the next, This is interesting considering almost every track is arranged by a different producer.

Freedom summer, Starting Over, 2017

The lead track, STARTING OVER, is a swinging soul throwback that hearkens back to Ray Charles and his mellow, piano-based R&B sound. The song combines acoustic rhythms mixed with electronic beats, with finger snapping, handclaps, and a rolling piano line that gets the toes tapping and the body swaying, and Yonghwa’s powerful, gorgeous vocals effortlessly convey the liberatory mood of the music. Apropos of its civil-rights era sound, the anthemic chorus and the lyrics, which implore the listener to “sing out loud with all our might/have fun just chillin’/unrestrained/set me free” (Japanese lyrics in italics) feels like something from a freedom summer bus ride. But the song also feels quite contemporary as the track includes a deep thrumming bass line and the second prechorus leads into some sinuous, buzzing guitar. Interestingly enough, the lyrics are almost evenly split between Japanese and English, making for an unusual linguistic mélange.

The second track, THIS IS, at first is a seemingly throwaway pop song that is actually quite sophisticated. This upbeat jam features Yonghwa singing the staccato triple-note Japanese lyrics in his best Jpop style, with a zippy synth line over a strong 4/4 structure that creates a beautiful piece of power pop. There’s a really nice moment about a minute before the end of the song where all instrumentation drops out except a simple, unfiltered piano line that bridges to the song’s conclusion.

The punchy third track, CAPTIVATE, written by Jonghyun, combines a strong rock beat with EDM elements. Yonghwa & Jonghyun flawlessly sing its all-English lyrics, and Yonghwa’s strong raspy voice contrasts nicely with Jonghyun’s smooth crooning.

ONLY BEAUTY, also written by Jonghyun, is a beautiful power ballad that really allows Yonghwa’s vocals to shine, making full use of his singing chops as he ranges from sweet, lilting vocals to raw yet controlled belting. Arranged by Japanese pop metal producer Tienowa, this is my favorite track as it creates a gorgeous soundscape that blends the sound of the Japanese lyrics with a lovely melody and beautiful production. This trip hop track reminds me a bit of their 2015 Japan cut SUPERNOVA as its dense wall of sound, with its fluid bass line, strong drums, crashing cymbals and echoing chorus creates a gloriously bombastic bed for Yonghwa’s powerful vocals. Yonghwa’s final acapella belt towards the end of the track showcases his raspy rock voice at its best.

Yonghwa’s composition, BUTTERFLY, meshes it Japanese lyrics perfectly with its pretty, jazzy melody and shows off more great work with Japanese collaborators Hasegawa and Tienowa. This beautiful bit of pop heaven includes some lovely piano and acoustic guitar picking, a smooth bass line, and a hint of synthesizer over Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s outstanding vocals, with a bit of electric guitar to dirty up the mix. The solitary piano break at the end of the song does a great job of reiterating the lovely bones of the song.

MIRROR is the album’s Jpop tribute, as it sounds like it could easily be an anime theme song with its combination of strings, horns, synthezer and poppy vocals. The track features some incredibly upbeat and cheerful lyrics written by Yonghwa, aka the world’s most optimistic person.

Because the heart can act like a mirror

In a reflection of one another

The pieces coming together make the world brighter

Let’s make a chain of hope

A billion hearts all in a row

Not meant to be only for me

The more we share we will be one

Who writes these kind of Hello kitty lyrics except a dreamer and an optimist? It’s actually kind of refreshing that Yonghwa isn’t embarrassed to sing such flagrantly sweet and sappy lyrics, and they fit the track’s poppy production to a T.

The album’s next track, SHAKE, is the title track from their last Japanese single last spring and it only gets better with repeated listens. It’s ridiculously catchy and danceable and it’s one of my favorite songs from their recent live performances too. The wacky music video is also worth a look as it shows a retro 1960s’ salaryman world gone mad.

The next track, SEEDS, is Jonghyun’s contribution to the album’s world of happiness. Entering into the Irish Rock sweepstakes, it’s another ridiculously upbeat song, with the all-english lyric proclaiming “from the times you cry the flowers grow.” The song is all about overcoming adversity, which reflects how the band has come back from their troubles last year. STAY GOLD is a far cry from last year’s Japanee release EUPHORIA, which was recorded immediately following the worst controversy of CNBLUE’s otherwise mostly successful career, and it had several fairly melancholy tracks on it. But 2017 ha been very kind to CNBLUE and STAY GOLD reflects the upswing in the band’s fortunes, with sold-out shows across Asia, starring roles in popular dramas, and strong sales for their solo and group releases alike.

The most downbeat song on the album is SOMEONE ELSE, another carryover from last spring’s SHAKE single. It’s bit of a mood anomaly but it had to be included here because it’s absolutely flawless. It features Yonghwa’s perfect English delivery, and his raspy voice here beautifully complements the country rock sound of the track. The song’s lyrical structure is also stellar, with paradoxes (when I’m with you/you’re not with me) that convey the melancholic longing of the tune, and the short meter of the first and third lines of the chorus cleverly breaks up the rhythm of the rhyme. A hint of strings, strummed guitar, and a popping bass line round out this clean, simple track that’s a genius blend of songwriting, production, and performance.

The album concludes with BOOK, another relentlessly upbeat, visionary song. Here Yongha’s storytelling skill really come to the fore as he uses the metaphor of a book to express the band’s long journey with its fanbase since its debut nearly eight years ago.

I open a book and my story to see you again

I know that you’re there for me

Remember the time when you gave me the strenth to begin

I know you’re a part of me

Take a step at a time

Cause I gotta believe

I’m gonna make the climb

When I gotta to be strong

and I have to be brave

I know you’re coming along

This may be the last full-length Japanese releae before Yongha’s enlistment sometime in 2018 and it’s as if he’s reassuring fans that both they and the band will endure the long hiatus and come out of it together on the other side. In some way it’s a love song to their fans, and it’s sappy and heartfelt in the best Yonghwa style. It’s delivered with such force and sincerity that its earnest, wide-eyed platitudes ring completely true.

Although it’s very strong the album it isn’t perfect. Some of the production is overly wrought, obscuring the melodies instead of highlighting them. Jonghyun’s voice feels a bit strained on some of the tracks, unlike on the moody ballad WAS SO PERFECT (also from the SHAKE single last spring), where he made the most of his smooth, smoky vocals. The production on some of the songs occasionally makes Yonghwa’s Jpop-style vocals sound thin and nasally and doesn’t make full use of his rich and powerful range. Yet despite these small details, and even though most of the tracks are the work of different producers, the album hangs together really well.

It takes a certain flexibility to follow CNBLUE and their musical wanderings these days because creatively they are changing and evolving with whiplash speed. For those who like a steady and predictable style from their pop music, with CNBLUE you’re probably shopping at the wrong store. For those who enjoy something new and unexpected with every release, CNBLUE is the band for you. I’m personally really loving hearing something completely different with almost every release, especially since they maintain their high level of songwriting, production, and performance throughout. As per usual, STAY GOLD is more quality product from CNBLUE.

December 1, 2017 at 8:19 am 4 comments

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