Tuesday, October 13, 2015

BIGBANG-- random thoughts from the New Jersey concert

BIGBANG! Yes, I went to see BIGBANG this past weekend at the Prudential Center in New Jersey. And even in my nosebleed seats, the show was incredible.

I'm not sure where to start my discussion of BIGBANG. I've spent the last ten-plus years or so immersed in East Asian pop music and my feelings and opinions are colored by all of that. One angle overlooked by the professional music guys over here is that BIGBANG aren't just awesome but are an awesome Korean idol group-- with all the connotations that brings.

Although I've found that Japanese pop is much more my taste overall, I still love quite a bit of Korean pop music. The biggest difference between the two is that mainstream Japanese pop is targeted inwards, at Japan, with all the specific cultural oddities in taste that brings. Mainstream Japanese pop includes slick dance-pop like J Soul Brothers and artists with unique voices like Shiina Ringo, who also sometimes writes songs for the slick dance pop acts. There is a huge variety available in genre, tone, style, level of engagement with the audience. There is the hugely popular genre of anime theme songs, ani-songs, in which the stars are known primarily for their voices. Contrast that with hugely popular girl group AKB48, who sell records solely on the personalities of the girls. You have mainstream rock bands like Southern All Stars (still putting out popular, fantastic tracks like this year's single "Aloe") and promising new rock bands like Gesu No Kiwami Otome, who I went to see in concert while I was in Japan.

Japan has a ton of variety in its mainstream music but almost none of it is for export. Access to Japanese pop or even information about Japanese pop is exceedingly difficult if one neither Japanese or actually in Japan. That's not to say that there aren't groups that have an audience outside of Japan like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu or L'Arc-en-Ciel but their international audiences are almost beside the point.

But Korea is not Japan. It's a much, much smaller country than Japan with a burning need to prove itself on the global stage. Which means that Korean pop, unlike Japanese pop, actually is tailored for export.

Korean pop has swooped into markets abandoned by Bollywood and left untended by the Japan culture industry. Southeast Asia, Russia, the Middle East, Latin America... Online access is easy. There are English subtitles, among other languages, for almost everything. And the style palate is aimed at a broad audience. Based heavily in the sound of global R&B, it's much easier for non-Koreans to hook into 2PM than say, the specific culturalisms of a Japanese group like Johnny's WEST. I'm being totally serious when I say that I think Korean pop is the real global legacy of Michael Jackson.

(Which is not to say that ALL Korean music is R&B-based or even all Korean pop--Hello, CNBlue--but that the overwhelming majority of the mainstream stuff really is.)

But Korean pop has also swooped into the United States and other Western countries, without any help from our native culture industries. With the exception of PSY's "Gangnam Style", which was a novelty hit, one never hears Korean pop on the radio, never reads about it in magazines like Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly, except as a novelty act... and yet Korean acts tour worldwide to fairly large crowds. I have thoughts on why this is the case--see Friday's rant for some of them--but to make a long story short, BIGBANG packed out the Prudential Center in New Jersey for two nights in row and yet could walk anonymously around Manhattan.

That's pretty fucking amazing.

BIGBANG, much, much more than other Korean pop groups, are a) mostly a hiphop group and b) kind of weird. They have two distinctive rappers in T.O.P. and G-Dragon. T.O.P. has an ear for the sound of words, apparent even to non-Korean speaking me. And G-Dragon has swag for miles. And then there's the angelic voice of Daesung--who is also really goofy--and the very solid talents in singing and dancing from Taeyang and Seungri... and that's one hell of a group.

What I wasn't expecting from BIGBANG was the lack of staginess and visual set pieces. Unlike their videos, the group used almost no stagecraft aside from a handful of backing dancers and some fantastic costumes like T.O.P.'s Piet Mondrian inspired suit. And their band was tight. It was really all about the music. Which was all in Korean but that didn't matter to the crowd. Sick beats reach across cultural boundaries, shaking booties worldwide.

I hope they tour the US again sometime soon. Chasing the G-Dragon is addictive.

Filmi Girl with penlight and concert t-shirt, having just had her earholes BIGBANG'd.

ETA: I just found the NYT review and I think it's REALLY telling that the critic read T.O.P.'s manner as "disdainful" rather than uncomfortable, which is how I think most fans would see it. Considering T.O.P. is very uncomfortable in English/foreign languages--he was the only one who had trouble giving a little speech in English--and is known for his lack of ability to dance, I think the "disdainful" was more of a projection from the critic. A critic who also seems to be implying BIGBANG's reign at the top is at an end, which seems more than a little premature a prediction. If SMAP can last 30 years at the top, I don't see why BIGBANG can't.

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