Posts filed under ‘music’

Comes and Goes: Hyukoh at the UC Theater

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Rock, Hyukoh, UC Theater 2018. Photo: Matthew Abaya

Because BTS is currently winning at life, South Korean music agencies are sending all the acts they can over to the US to play live shows, throwing them against the wall to see if they’ll stick. This means that even the mediocre and derivative Kpop idol group Day6 is getting a North America tour, as well as South Korean dance groups like Got7 and Monsta X. Luckily, this also means that some more interesting Korean acts are also showing up stateside, including rockers Hyukoh, who recently played the UC Theater in Berkeley.

Hyukoh is billed as an indie group but that’s a bit of a misnomer, strictly speaking. They came up through the ranks in the clubs of Seoul’s Hongdae district but they’re now signed to HIGHGRND, a subsidiary of one of the biggest agencies in South Korea, YG Entertainment, which also handles the mega-super group BIGBANG. But Hyukoh’s style definitely owes a lot to the indie sound, as it leans more toward guitar-based rock than the techno EDM sound of their famous labelmates. This was in full effect at their show at the UC, a sold-out event that was packed with Asian rock aficionados of all stripes.

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Oh Hyuk, UC Theater, 2018. photo: Laurel Nakamura

Hyukoh’s been making their way across North America since mid-September and will have played a grueling seventeen shows in less than a month by the time the exit the continent on October 9. Led by frontman Oh Hyuk, the four-man band has the standard two guitar/bass/drums rock band configuration and for the most part their sound doesn’t stray far from rock conventions. What sets them apart is Oh Hyuk’s rich, growly voice and his quirky compositions, both on display at their UC show.

They began the show with a couple of their trademark emo tunes, but quickly transitioned to a set of heavier tunes that showcased their rock chops. This included Wanli, which consists of four repeated lines of Mandarin lyrics over a crashing cymbals and driving pentatonic guitar riff. They also performed my personal favorite, the jazzy uptempo jam Comes and Goes, with Oh Hyuk’s fluid and flexible tenor moving up and down his range over the confident jamming of the rest of the band.

Other highlights included their 2017 hit Tomboy, which demonstrates their more sensitive side. A delicate and emotional ballad, the song’s plaintive lament filled the UC to the rafters, with rapturous audience members crooning along to the hooky chorus.

For all of their intensity Hyukoh still remained on the mellower side of the rock spectrum, and if I have any complaint about their otherwise stellar performance it would be that it was a bit too detached for someone like myself who prefers live shows to burn hot, not slow. But for the rest of the adoring crowd Hyukoh was perfect, and everyone left the show smiling and pleased.

NOTE: In its past life the UC Theater was the movie theater where I cut my teeth on Hong Kong films every Thursday night back in the nineties and where I started my interest in Asian pop culture. So it was fun to revisit my old haunts all these years later—full circle indeed.

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October 9, 2018 at 6:40 am Leave a comment

I Can’t Live Without You: Jung Yonghwa’s Special Forces

Resolve

CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa’s latest solo single, LETTER, dropped on May 21 last week, which is a bit odd considering that he’s been in the army for the past couple months, but the circumstances surrounding his enlistment in early March were anything but ordinary. He entered the military under a white-hot spotlight but still managed to keep his dignity and poise despite the intense scrutiny he was under the time. This is evidenced by the release of this latest single, which for all intents and purposes probably would not exist without Yonghwa’s resolve and strength of character.

Happier days

2017 was a fine year for Yonghwa and CNBLUE, full of music and accomplishments, and the band seemed to be leaving the ugly spectre of 2016 behind. In the beginning of January 2018 things continued to go along smoothly, with Yonghwa’s successful variety show Island Trio just completing its first season and another, TalkMon, just starting. Yonghwa was appointed an honorary ambassador to the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympics and had booked several dates for his solo Asia tour into the early spring. There were hints of a CNBLUE comeback in South Korea as well as in Japan and CNBLUE members were riding the wave of each playing leading roles in popular Korean dramas the year before.

Character assassination

Then out of the blue on January 18 came a blind item in the South Korean media accusing the leader of a popular idol band of receiving preferential treatment in admissions to graduate school at Kyung Hee University. After several hours of frenzied speculation the idol turned out to be Yonghwa, but his purported crime was almost laughable. Instead of taking his entrance interview on campus at KHU, due to his busy schedule one of the college’s professors went to Yonghwa’s studio at FNC Entertainment, his agency, and interviewed him there. No big deal, right? Unfortunately the press played this up as a sin on the level of killing and eating the president’s daughter on live television and Yonghwa was vilified for several days for what was essentially a clerical error. The press dug up and revealed his confidential entrance test scores (he did pretty well, actually, getting a 98 out of 100 on the practical score because DUH he’s a professional musician), Korean netizens ruthlessly scrutinized his intentions for wanting to go to grad school, and the general public assailed his honesty and assassinated his character by suggesting that he went through the back door in order to gain admission to KHU. This despite the fact that out of the eight people who applied to the program, all eight were admitted, and that KHU had to ask Yonghwa several times to apply since they were short of students. All of this speculation took place over a few days and in the meantime Yonghwa’s character was viciously attacked and his professional reputation was seriously damaged. He was edited out of a couple television shows he’d recorded earlier and the last two shows of his solo tour were cancelled.

And to add insult to injury, on January 26 Yonghwa announced that he was enlisting in the army effective March 5, so all of his future events were effectively ended. Whether punitive or not on the part of the South Korean government, this clearly was a surprise. As an ambassador for the Pyeongchang Paralympics, which began March 9, Yonghwa would surely have been prominently featured.

Pre-shitstorm

The chain of events was astoundly swift and the shitstorm was intense. It seemed like one minute Yonghwa was posing for pictures with the president of South Korea and the next he was being accused of cheating, lying, and avoiding military service, all within about a week.

But although the judgment in the press was rapid and cruel, Yonghwa didn’t waste a lot of time moping around. Apparently once he knew of his enlistment date he went into creative overdrive, with the results being a pair of completely revamped concerts held in Seoul the weekend before he entered the army and the recording of five new songs, complete with music videos. These songs are scheduled to be released one at a time until his enlistment ends in early December 2019, and LETTER is the first of these. He also participated in the creation of a photobook, wrote the lyrics for a song for his labelmates AOA, recorded 90 short voice messages to be released weekly for fans, and recorded at least one new song with CNBLUE. In some ways this rigorous work schedule must have been a respite from the insanity of the Korean press savagely slandering him every day. It was probably a relief to retreat to the bliss of his studio where he could create music in peace instead of having to deal with the endless recriminations of the relentlessly pursuing media.

LETTER, the new single, is a lovely and understated track, with Yonghwa’s controlled yet emotional delivery carrying the song. It’s deceptively simple, with a spare arrangement of strings, piano, drums, percussion, and vocals, but the song’s structure and build are outstanding. Yonghwa sings the song’s plaintive first verse to a straightforward piano accompaniment, then jumps immediately into a hooky earworm where he belts the refrain, alternating the English phrase “I can’t live without you” with Japanese lyrics. The somewhat lower pitch of the song adds to its melancholy, especially in the last line of the chorus, which features a particularly sweet and melodic vocal run ending in a subtle octave jump. Yonghwa’s rich, husky vocals are spot on as he easily hits the chorus’s high notes after purring the softer lines of the verse, throwing in a bit of delicate falsetto as well as some growly lower tones. He knows exactly how to express emotion with his voice without resorting to gimmicks or over-singing.

The song’s lyrics outline an ill-fated romance between a couple who alternate between affection and quarreling, yet at the end of the song Yonghwa affirms his commitment to the relationship despite its troubles. This reflects a maturity and growth in thinking from his past compositions such as COLD LOVE (2014), which laments a lost relationship without hope of reconciliation, or LALALA (2013), which expresses regret for a recent breakup. The ambivalence of the love story in some ways reflects Yonghwa’s love/hate relationship with the South Korean press and public, with his agency, and with his career, all things that benefit him but which also have hurt him terribly.

Prodigious

Like many very talented people Yonghwa makes what he does look effortless. But unfortunately the flip side of this is that people don’t appreciate the amount of work it actually takes for him to do what he does, so a lot of his labor goes unrecognized. As an example, even during that dire month or so when the South Korean press was excoriating him on a daily basis he managed to produce a huge amount of work. Yet judging from the quality of his final concerts just days before enlisting as well as the beautiful simplicity of his new single he managed to keep up his superhuman standard of excellence despite the immense stress he was under. In part his prodigious amount of work during that time was probably a coping mechanism during the chaos of those final six weeks after his enlistment was announced, as a balm against the haters who were attacking him as well as an FU to those trying to destroy him. Rather than backing down or giving up he instead doubled down on his creative output.

Yonghwa enlisted on March 5 and after he finished his five weeks of basic training he did well enough to be recruited for South Korea’s special forces, an elite commando regiment that trains much more intensively than standard troops. In recent history only one other South Korean celebrity, Lee Seung Gi, has qualified to be admitted to the special forces, although another notable alumnus is current South Korean president Moon Jae-In. While most idols are content to spend their mandatory military service in the regular forces, Yonghwa instead committed to this much more difficult and rigorous regiment, which is stationed right near the border between North and South Korea and which is a part of South Korea’s first line of defense against any threat’s to the country’s security, including that of its restive neighbor. This is no cushy desk job or civil service position—it’s hardcore military training in the coldest part of the country, not far from the DMZ, and under harsh and exacting conditions. By choosing the special forces Yonghwa is shutting down anyone who slandered him during his recent controversy or who doubted his desire to serve his country.

The real deal

It may be surprising to the casual observer that a Kpop idol would choose such a difficult path but Yonghwa is very driven and this gives him the chance to further test himself to his limits. Also, according to some accounts serving in the regular South Korean military can be a bit monotonous, filled with a lot of tedious physical tasks, whereas the special forces is the real deal. Yonghwa is an intense person who is easily bored so he might prefer hard training as opposed to just killing time in the regular military.

I also wonder if Yonghwa is harboring a little bit of rage at how he was treated by in South Korea before his enlistment. It couldn’t have been easy for him to swallow all of the abuse he endured, but he’s not the type to lash out at others, so this gives him a socially acceptable outlet for any anger or frustration he might be feeling, allowing him to forget his past troubles and to focus on the special forces’ intensive training.

Stronger

The special forces will also make him physically stronger, which can be interpreted as a way of making himself less vulnerable in order to defend himself against the crazy industry he’s in. Maybe he’s also figuring out that being the good boy and playing by the rules is no protection and that it’s useless to try to be perfect—respectability politics never work so he has to learn to fend for himself.

It couldn’t have been easy for Yonghwa to go away in the middle of such a fruitful period in his career. There is not enough time in the world for a person like him to accomplish all he wants to do and to have his time cut short so abruptly is a cruel blow. As a creative person I know the utter frustration of having to abandon a project halfway through, or to have something cut short without coming to fruition. It’s almost like a physical pain, a halt, an abrupt and unnatural end when something can’t be completed, and Yonghwa’s two-year military service may seem like a long hiatus for an artist in the midst of making work.

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Military man

But two years is not that long in the grand scheme of things. Fashions in pop music go by in an instant but those with true talent withstand and transcend trends. Yonghwa and CNBLUE have already proven that they are more that just a flash in the pan and they have the drive, the skills, and the ability to be around for a long, long time.

Will Yonghwa be the same lighthearted person he used to be once when he comes back from the army? Onstage he radiates an infectious joyousness—will he lose the playfulness that makes his live performances so magical? Will the military make him stern and hard-bitten? I think not, but he may carry with him some of the grief and sadness from his recent hardships. But although the bright-eyed boy may disappear, the man to come will be stronger and bolder and will shine more incandescently than ever.

UPDATE: As of Aug. 7, 2018 the other three members of CNBLUE have enlisted as well. CNBLUE becomes the first Kpop group to all enlist together in the same year and by doing so they’ve made sure their hiatus is only about two years. There has also been some kind of re-calculating in the South Korean military that’s shortened the time for all those currently serving, so Yonghwa’s return date has moved up about a month, to early November 2019. The other three members should be back shortly after that, around March 2020, so it won’t be too long before CNBLUE returns to the stage together. Great news all around.

UPDATE 2: To put Yonghwa’s whole university admissions brouhaha into context, here’s a bit of background. It was basically a made-up controversy to cover up the real political scandal when former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was about to be arrested for corruption, right around the time that South Korea was ramping up to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. When the world’s attention was about to focus on South Korea the country’s powers-that-be wanted to divert attention away from any taint of political scandal, especially since President Park Geun-hye had just been arrested and charged with corruption the year before in 2017.  So as is often the case with idols and Kpop stars when the public needs to be distracted from various wrongdoings by the government or the wealthy business sector, South Korea’s media threw Yonghwa under the bus.

UPDATE 3: On October 8, 2018 Yonghwa’s agency FNC Entertainment announced that he had been cleared of any suspicion of guilt or wrongdoing in the investigation of charges of preferential treatment. Of course the damage had been done long before during the initial witch hunt in January but it’s still nice that he was officially vindicated after all that. Ultimately it was the South Korean media as well as the netizens who so gleefully dragged Yonghwa who ended up looking shady, as their initial condemnation of him has proven to be unfounded. Not a good look for them at all, while Yonghwa’s character and ethics again stand up to a harsh and unnecessary test. I hope these fiery trials are helping to forge and strengthen his resolve, and that he’s able to emerge stronger and more brilliant than ever once his enlistment ends.

May 26, 2018 at 7:38 am 11 comments

Nevertheless I Dream On: CNBLUE Euphoria album review

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Yonghwa dreams, Glory Days, 2016

With EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s latest Japanese album that dropped last October, the band continues its ongoing musical evolution and growth. While probably best known for its incredibly catchy early power pop hits like I’m Sorry and I’m A Loner, or it’s more densely produced later tracks, including songs such as Can’t Stop, Cinderella, and You’re So Fine, with this new release CNBLUE goes back further to the roots of its sound, to a more stripped-down early rock and roll and R&B style.

CNBLUE has always worn its musical influences on its sleeve and EUPHORIA is no different, with nods to artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Coldplay, Wiz Khalifa, and Sam Cooke, among many others. Their particular talent is taking those influences and synthesizing them into something new and energetic.

The album is frontloaded with six incredibly strong and diverse tracks, but in truth each of the album’s ten tracks ranges from good to excellent. Though the album isn’t quite as perfect as CNBLUE’s best release Can’t Stop, which is a masterpiece from beginning to end, EUPHORIA is still full of high-quality songwriting, performing, and production.


The lead track is the melancholy mid-tempo cut Be OK. A plaintive lament about fighting uncertainty, pain, and self-doubt, the song recalls Coldplay and other Brit-pop in its simple, guitar-based structure. Jung Yonghwa and Lee Jonghyun’s vulnerable, evocative vocals and the sadness and longing in the lyrics create a lovely and unadorned sonic picture. As with many CNBLUE duets between the two of them, the track alternates the wistful delicacy of Jonghyun’s vocals with Yonghwa’s explosively raw and emotional voice. The song ends with Jonghyun barely whispering the affirmation, “I’ll be okay,” which lends a hopeful fragility to the song’s message. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite CNBLUE tracks as the passion and power in this song is no joke.


As if to counter the melancholy of Be OK, the next tune, the album’s title track Glory Days, is a more uptempo track that picks up the pace without sacrificing the emotional thoughtfulness of the prior song. The lyrics describe the “long, long journey of my dreams” which the band has traveled, encountering obstacles and difficulties along the way but never giving up on their vision. The arrangement and production on this track also contrasts with the spareness of Be Okay, with a dense wall of sound combining close vocal harmonies and a rich interplay of synthesizer, piano, and guitar that provides a bed for Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident vocal relays. What may not be immediately apparent is the bass line of the song, which travels from thumb-popping plucking to deep, resonant hums. CNBLUE’s musicality is apparent in this track where every element highlights the band’s chops, creating a gorgeous sonic pop music palette.


Take Me Higher, the rockingest song on the album, shows off the band’s signature passion and intensity, as if to prove they can still kick it with guitar-based hard rock. On top of the driving 4/4 beat the song adds a funky James Brown-style guitar riff that demonstrates the evolution of their sound beyond straight-up rock music. Interestingly, this song was composed before the band’s recent insider-trading scandal in June 2016, and the track, including its chorus “direction of my hope,” expresses an exuberant optimism and confidence not found in the rest of the album, much of which was likely composed post-scandal.

Face To Face is another incredibly hooky tune, with Yonghwa crooning and belting like a 60s R&B soul shouter. Although some of CNBLUE’s past English-language songs have been a bit cringeworthy in their awkward phrasing, here the syncopated beat works with the lyrical structure. The old-school keyboards and horns and the doowop refrain adds to the R&B feel as the band channels Stax-Volt stalwarts like Booker T and the MGs and Sam and Dave.

Following Face to Face is Puzzle, the first single off the album that was released in spring 2016 and also composed pre-scandal. Another densely produced and upbeat track, Puzzle starts with Yonghwa belting the title lyrics acapella and the song never lets up after that. As usual Yonghwa and Jonghyun provide energetic vocals but the track is really driven by a zippy arrangement that rides Kang Minhyuk’s relentless drumming skilz. Althought it’s a hooky tune, it’s a tad less interesting upon repeated listening. The tune works much better as a soundtrack to the song’s crazy and whimsical music video.


The next track, however, is the album’s standout. Royal Rumble is pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever heard from CNBLUE. The song uses a syncopated, polyrhythmic Latin beat and a complex guitar line under Yonghwa’s evocative vocals to create a beautiful, singular track. The lyrics, which describe a fighter who faces countless opponents in a battle royale, echo Yonghwa’s experiences in the cutthroat K-Pop world, where even the winners are eventually beaten down and worn out. One of the last lines “I must hurry” repeats before the last haunting chorus. Images of fear, drowning, suffocation, and pain reflect the traumas of existing and surviving in the competitive South Korean music industry. Yonghwa has written eloquently in the past about the vicious nature of the K-pop world, most recently in Checkmate from his solo album (Around here/swords and shields/We become enemies/rip apart each other/and vanish), but Royal Rumble perhaps best reflects the intensity of his experiences there. The last line of the chorus, however, translated as “nevertheless I dream on,” is a moving testimony to Yonghwa’s hope and optimism in the face of ongoing suffering and strife.


Following Royal Rumble is another throwback R&B-style cut, Every Time, with a syncopated beat under Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident and soulful vocals. Once again Kang Minhyuk provides a strong and steady beat to anchor the track. Bassist Lee Jungshin contributes the midtempo ballad Stay With Me, with Japanese lyrics that seem to scan successfully. Yonghwa sings it well, in an unembellished style suitable to the song’s clarity and simplicity. Slaves, another upbeat R&B bop, is a goofy tune about cell-phone addiction. But damn if it isn’t catchy as hell and again Yonghwa has fun singing it, belting out the chorus like the legendary soul shouter Wilson Pickett.

The closing track, Blessed, is a sweet lament to the uncertainty of love, but Jonghyun’s English lyrics are somewhat less effective here than in Be OK. As with Every Time, the syntax and phrasing are just a bit awkward, which detracts from the song a bit. Yonghwa’s plaintive singing utilizes the deeper end of his vocal range to good effect, with Jonghyun contributing ably as well. The emotions of the song ring strong and true and this song, together with Be OK, create an evocative conceptual frame for the album. Although some of the tracks are upbeat and positive the uncertainty of these two songs create a lingering sadness and a sense of emotional complexity that perhaps reflects the band members’ state of mind after their troubles this year.

The quality of the songwriting, the increased maturity of the lyrics, and the general excellence of each track on Euphoria speaks to CN’s continued growth and development as artists. Although the guitars are mixed a bit lower than in some of their previous releases, the rock-based backbone of their sound is still there, enhanced with a more sophisticated sense of rhythm and beats. The result is more evidence of the band’s restless creativity and its desire to continue developing musically as they move beyond the constraints of their K-Pop origins into a more elevated artistic territory.

Three versions, You’re So Fine

POSTSCRIPT: CNBLUE recently performed You’re So Fine, their hit song that dropped back in April, on several televised year-end gayo (K-pop) music shows. But instead of simply recycling the song’s original arrangement for their performances, Yonghwa re-arranged the track differently for each of the different live performances. And it wasn’t just a bit of tweaking here and there—each version was radically different and included different instrumentation than both the original track and the other versions they played that week. It seems like Yonghwa’s collaboration last year with indie queen Sunwoo Jung Ah is still reverberating through his musical consciousness as he’s been heading in a decidedly jazzy direction lately. All three arrangements of You’re So Fine on each of the gayos featured improvisational vocals by Yonghwa as he snaked his way around the melody with various rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints to the original tune.

I’m pretty sure that there was no requirement that they come up with a new arrangement for each show, so the band’s insistence on giving an original performance every time no matter what the circumstances is a testament to their desire to be known as musicians and artists, not just idols. They continue to blaze trails in the K-pop world and their only dilemma may be figuring out how to graduate from K-pop and move on artistically from the confines of the genre. I hope their talent and vision is recognized and rewarded accordingly both in South Korea and beyond.


UPDATE: Yet another brand new arrangement of You’re So Fine, this time for the Golden Disk awards on Jan. 13. Orchestral and jazzy, with strings, horns, and added percussion, as well as Yonghwa prowling around in his long black furry coat. He owns the stage in this clip and also throws in a short interaction with EXO singer Baekhyun. You can see he was dying to find a way to get down into the audience this time too. Genius.

Bonus track: Yonghwa sings a smexy version of Sunwoo Jung Ah’s Spring Lady on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook

160115 Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook Spring Lady Jung Yonghwa & Sunwoo Jung A from CNBLUECL on Vimeo.

January 11, 2017 at 6:49 am 5 comments

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

September 21, 2016 at 5:39 am 40 comments


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