Grading the Charts … IN K-POP!

This week we enlisted Grantland’s own K-pop expert David Cho to help us take a closer look at the latest K-pop chart.

1. Seo In Kook & Jeong Eun Ji, “All for You”

David Cho: So here’s the way this one works. There’s this drama (read: soap opera; for more info click here) that’s about Korea in 1997 called “Responding: 1997” that has randomly become super-popular despite not being on a major network. This song is one that’s sung by two of the actors, who — and bear with me, as I’ve never seen more than 90 seconds of this show — are involved in a love triangle.

Molly Lambert: Any idea why it’s so popular?

Cho: Popular songs fall into one of two categories: songs that are actually popular as songs, and songs that are associated with Korean TV shows and become insanely popular because all of the country watches a handful of the same shows, which makes a popular show that much more popular.

Lambert: 1997 was a good year?

Cho: Well, actually, 1997 was NOT a good year for Korea. It was the year that the IMF had to bail out Korea because their economy crumbled. I’m pretty sure when you (the reader) started reading this blog post, you did not think there would be references to Asian economic crises.

Lambert: The song is pretty cute.

Cho: Sorry for not finding financial meltdowns to be “cute.”

Grade: B

2. G-Dragon, “That XX”

Cho: What the XX in “That XX” stands for is essentially bleeped-out curse words. So the way you would actually translate this would be, “That Motherfucker.” The significance of this is the fact that the Korean government has had some pretty big issues in the last few years/pretty much always with regards to what is presented to Korean youths and how.

Lambert: Explain …

Cho: In the ’90s it was all about whether or not the government would allow people to have dyed hair on TV — and to a lesser extent, tattoos. Then, in the early aughts, there were some controversies (which still exist) about what types of clothes girls were allowed to wear onstage. And most recently, there has been a big crackdown on the approval process of music videos and their contents. The verdict was that every music video had to be approved by at least one TV station and be given a rating.

Lambert: Got it. Is that why G-Dragon insists on being blond?

Cho: Well, hair is OK now. You can have whatever color hair you want. BUT there isn’t any cursing in Korean music or TV, so the fact that the lead member of one of the most popular boy groups in Korea is putting out a song and video that has a curse word in the title and chorus of his song is news. Fun fact: The agency that G-Dragon is a part of is also the home of Psy, whom you may know from his now omnipresent song “Gangnam Style.”

Lambert: We’ll get into that soon.

Cho: Yesterday, you asked me who the analog for G-Dragon was in American culture, and I was thinking about it more this morning, and I think it is a combination of Justin Timberlake (because he’s the most popular member of his group), Nicki Minaj (because he is a rapper with a lot of varying degrees of flair), and The-Dream or Ne-Yo (because he’s considered to be one of the most prolific songwriters/producers in Korea — at least within his age group).

Lambert: Basically he could be the judging panel on a singing competition.

Cho: He could, but he never would.

Lambert: That’s a second- or third-act move.

Cho: I’m glad we were able to cover economic crises and Korean government censorship with the first few songs. This is what this column is all about, right? Just educating people about other cultures and the nuances therein?

Lambert: And geolocating the hottest jams worldwide.

Cho: That being said, the new G-Dragon album came out this past weekend, and the lead single “Crayon” is fucking dope. Both visually and the song.

Grade: A (::Kanye Shrug::)

3. T-ara, “Sexy Love”

Cho: Well, tbh, there’s some controversy around this.

Lambert: Fill me in.

Cho: So, recently a T-ara member left the group/was asked to leave the group because of rumors that she was not behaving in a way suitable to being in the group. Which in itself sounds crazy, but then it turns out that she might not have been actually misbehaving, but was instead being bullied by the other seven girls in the group.

Lambert: Scandal! Is she in the video?

Cho: Nope! This is their first single since that happened.

Lambert: Kind of a Destiny’s Child situation, or 3LW.

Cho: I’m not sure we ever got as much insight as to how and why LeToya Luckett left Destiny’s Child. But yes.

Lambert: My belief is that LeToya was forced to leave because she was too threatening to Beyoncé. Too hot and good at singing.

Cho: Really? Is that based on facts/rumors, or just Molly’s Destiny’s Child fanfic?

Lambert: Both.

Cho: LeToya is pretty hot, I guess. So, this song is T-ara’s first single since that whole member-getting-kicked out thing, and it’s not terrible. Although there’s a move in the choreography (called the “robot dance”) — they do this move where their arm swings around and sort of hits their butt and causes them (the robot) to get scooted forward — that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. All in all, not the best T-ara video.

Lambert: What happened to the exiled member?

Cho: I mean, she’s not, like, dead. She’s just not in a famous girl group anymore. She is definitely not popular or talented enough to go on and have a new life as something else. Barring any sort of miracle, she’ll probably end up just graduating high school and going to college or something. Could be worse!

Grade: C+

4. Psy, “Gangnam Style”

Cho: I mean, there’s not much to be said here, is there? It’s the most liked video on YouTube of all time.

Lambert: Do you think this is the beginning of the American Hallyu Wave for real?

Cho: I was actually having this conversation this morning with someone who’s involved in Psy’s American promotions. I really don’t think this means much for the overall Korean wave. Like, Psy and this video are anomalies.

Lambert: I really want to know about those duck boats in the video.

Cho: What do you mean? They’re duck boats. You ride in them! Leisurely rides in rivers for you and your loved one(s). Have you never heard of love, Molly? That’s what’s in those duck boats.

Lambert: What will break K-pop in America, then, if not this?

Cho: Does America want K-pop?

Lambert: I mean, if America has any sense at all it should want K-pop, ’cause K-pop rules. One great song hitting should spark U.S. interest in the whole genre.

Cho: I’m skeptical of most anything ever becoming too big, because of the overall fragmentation of what’s popular these days, you know? Like One Direction is super popular, but it hasn’t ushered in a new boy-band era. Carly Rae Jepsen and Demi Lovato didn’t all of a sudden make tween-focused singers more of a thing.

Lambert: But pop has always been kind of a global genre. And trends do happen.

Cho: I just think there are more pockets of medium-popular people and fewer big movements. My thinking is, Psy and “Gangnam Style” are more the “Macarena” and less “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”

Lambert: What about the BIEBER COSIGN, though?

Cho: If anyone can do it, he can. But we’ll see what happens with Carly Rae Jepsen and her second act/viability as a legit pop star rather than a one-hit wonder. It is pretty clear that doubting (Bieber’s manager and now also Psy’s) Scooter Braun isn’t a winning proposition.

Grade: A (Obviously.)

5. Seo In Kook & Jeong Eun Ji, “Just the Way We Love”

Lambert: Another joint from “1997.”

Cho: Pretty much.

Grade: 1997

6. Huh Gak & Zia, “I Need You”

Lambert: This is kind of the jam.


Lambert: ?

Cho: Sorry, Bill just came into my office to watch “Gangnam Style.”


[Pause, while David Cho is presumably teaching Bill Simmons the dance … ]

Cho: OK, back on topic. There’s not much to be said here, except that this is just another song that plays into Koreans’ two big interests: love songs and reality singing competitions. Huh Gak is a former winner of the show Superstar K that we talked about last time, and here he’s paired with just another vocalist singing about love and the like. What do you think of the song?

Lambert: I really like it. It’s catchy and sweet.

Cho: Yeah, this is pretty much, like, right-down-the-middle K-pop. (That’s a baseball reference, Molly! Touchdown!)

Grade: B

7. Tae Yon & DANA The Grace, “Closer”

Cho: This is a song for a drama that’s currently failing ratings-wise, but has the benefit of being co-produced by the largest music companies in Korea — the same management company of Girls’ Generation and TVXQ. So the soundtrack features songs like this from the leader of Girls’ Generation. I can’t imagine this one has that much staying power, though; it’s sort of boring to me personally.

Lambert: Yeah it’s definitely boring and unmemorable.

Grade: C

8. Urban Zakapa, “I Hate You”

Cho: Is that real? Are you kidding me? That’s on the chart?

Lambert: Yes. Why, what is it?

Cho: Honestly, I have no idea.

[Googling … They are apparently “an indie-jazz trio.”]

Lambert: It has that omnipresent quiet military drumming that’s in everything these days.

Cho: Omnipresent military drumming is not a thing.

Lambert: It totally is! Like in “Halo” by Beyoncé.

Cho: I’m not reading any more of what you’re saying now.

Grade: Incomplete.

9. Baek Ji Young, “Love And Love”

Lambert: Historical drama realness.

Cho: Pretty much. You’re seeing the trend here. Ballads from dramas.

Lambert: I like how her voice sounds like she’s about to cry at any second.

Cho: We’ve all been there.

Grade: C+

10. Kara, “Pandora”

Lambert: This video is totally how I would have expected Total Request Live from the future to look. Oh, but it’s so corny with the Bond-theme reference and everything.

Cho: You imagined that the TRL of the future would be all Asians?

Lambert: Just that it would look like ’90s TRL but with more prisms.

Grade: B-

Bonus Track: G-Dragon, “Crayon”

Lambert: So what is your favorite K-pop song currently that’s not on the chart?

Cho: It’s not necessarily the best, but the aforementioned “Crayon” is the newest song that came out that I find myself listening to on repeat.

Lambert: I didn’t get that it was “cray on” until Emily Yoshida spelled it out for me.

Cho: Get your cray on.

Lambert: That shit cray.


Lambert: It’s been stuck in my head all day.

Cho: I feel like it would excel on a Fast & Furious soundtrack.

Lambert: What type of car should you listen to “Crayon” in?

Cho: G-Dragon drives a Bentley Continental GT. I’ve seen it in Korea. It’s white.

Grade: A

Filed Under: Billboard, Grading the Charts, K-Pop, Psy

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert