Grading This Week’s Top Ten K-Pop Songs

In previous weeks, we’ve graded Billboard‘s Christian, rock, and latin-pop charts. This week we turn our attention to the Top 10 songs on the new K-pop chart — with special guest, Grantland’s David Cho.

1. Girls Generation, “The Boys”

David: Before we get started, it’s probably important to explain that in Korea pop groups (known in Korea as “idol groups”) are very household and less fringe than they are here. Like, your mom (without assuming too much about her), probably doesn’t know who Ke$ha is. But in Korea, my parents know at least 5 of the 9 members of Girls Generation’s names, if not more.

Molly: But your mom probably knows who Lady Gaga is.

David: No way.

David: You don’t know my mom.

Molly: Okay, fair enough. Is pop the No. 1 genre in Korea?

David: It’s like, literally, the only genre. There’s indie, but indie barely exists. Korean pop music comes in a few forms though: idol groups, ballads, some random “hip hop” or “rap,” or interpolations of the above, a la idols who sing ballads, ballads done by rappers, etc.

Molly: Okay, so, Girls Generation. Are they the No. 1 idol group right now?

David: Yes, they’re the top of the top.

Molly: This is the best song.

David: All of their singles tend to be the best songs. This song, “The Boys,” is the first song they’ve put out since they started promoting in Japan, where they also did very well.

David: The important thing to know about this one is that it’s the first of their songs that doesn’t have a repetitive “hook” and also it’s the first time their promotional outfits weren’t all the same.

Molly: The pre-chorus sounds like that part of Adele’s “Set Fire To The Rain”

David: I know the sentences I’m saying don’t sound like real sentences, but I swear this is all very serious in Korea.

David: Oh, also notable for this song: there’s an English version and this song was actually produced by Teddy Riley. Who, before this song came out, went on Twitter to talk shit about other Korean girl groups to promote his affiliation with Girls Generation’s label, SM Entertainment and then started fighting with a bunch of teens on the Internet about it. He ended up backtracking.

Molly: Rodney Jerkins?

David: This is how serious Korean pop music is: SM Entertainment is a publicly traded company that makes a shitload of money.

Molly: That makes a lot of sense.

David: Korean people are always looking to show how influential they are, so when they work with someone like Rodney Jerkins, it’s always promoted with this really positive spin of the person they’re working with.

David: Like when you talk about Rodney Jerkins you could very well say he’s a dude who hasn’t had a real hit in a while, but in Korea he’s known as the producer for Michael and Janet Jackson, and Britney Spears, or whatever.

David: Sidebar: My favorite part of this song is the bridge where they do that ninja move and then come up and do that weird hip twisty thing.

David: This weekend I was at my friend’s house and watched like six different performances of this same song just to watch that part and she was like, “Didn’t you just watch this?” and I’m all like, “YEP.”

Grade: A

2. Lee Seung Gi, “Era of Love”

Molly: Lee Seung Gi. You said he’s kind of the Justin Timberlake/Ryan Seacrest/Ryan Gosling of Korea?

David: Yeah that’s a great comparison.*

Molly: “Presenter” is sort of a more respectable job elsewhere.

David: *Just so we’re clear, the reason I said that it was a great comparison was not because I’m trying to be self-congratulatory, but because I said Justin Timberlake and Josh Groban, and you changed it to a much better comparison.


David: In Korea there are two popular types of TV shows: variety shows and soap operas. This guy has had homeruns in both categories and is one of the most “bankable” guys.

Molly: He’s like what Ashton Kutcher thinks he is. A multi-hyphenate.

David: That is insulting to Lee Seung Gi.

Molly: Is there a name for that? Somebody bankable across multiple mediums?

David: Yeah.

David: Lee Seung Gi.

David: That being said, this particular song is a little Bublé-esque.

Molly: Yikes. It sure is.

David: But you know what, us Koreans, not that Bublé-averse!

Molly: Bublé-curious.

David: I mean, I’m Korean, I have to support him. Also, I have a huge crush on the girl who does the narration parts with him.

Grade: B (if that girl weren’t involved: C+)

3. Secret, “Love Is Move”

David: I’ll be honest, I have a personal Top 5 Korean girl groups and these guys are not in them. That being said, they’re pretty popular and are known for being not stick thin.

Molly: Who’s your Top 5?

David: 1. 2NE1, 2. SNSD/Girls Generation, 3. T-ara, 4. Wonder Girls, 5. f(x).

David: This song is also way too retro-y for me. I could definitely watch this video on mute though!

Molly: Reminds me of a Girls Aloud song that’s really retro-y. “Biology.”

David: Yeah, I’m not clicking on that.

David: I hold a pretty staunch anti-Girls Aloud stance. Sorry.

Molly: Hey, at least you have stances.

Grade: C-/D+

4. Tablo, “Bad”

David: So, this is important to bring up, because in the last 10 years, the idea of “Netizens” (Korean Internet users) has become a really prevalent thing in dictating Korean popular culture.

David: What happened to Tablo is, he was part of a super popular Korean rap group that sold tons and tons of records, was hugely successful without having to compromise too much of what they did, and then all of a sudden, in the course of about two years, were pretty much demolished by allegations that Tablo lied about attending Stanford and graduating from there with some sort of post-graduate degree.

David: Now, mind you, this was all conjecture on the part of the Korean Internet community, but this was a definite thing to the point where one of the major networks recorded an hour-long special about it where they go to the Stanford registrar and talk to his advisors and all of that stuff, only to have the anti-Tablo group continue to slander him. Keep in mind, his family is getting death threats and all of this shit, because of these allegations.

Molly: What did he supposedly get a post-graduate degree in?

David: I think English?

Molly: Well no wonder nobody believed him. That’s not useful.

Grade: B+, because I like to emote

4. Tablo feat. Naul, “Airbag”

David: So this album is the first one Tablo’s put out since all of that stuff, for the most part, was resolved, which is why he has two songs on the list. Both of these songs reflect the last few years of his life, and are downers.

Molly: I wouldn’t be suprised if Drake got an MFA.

David: Drake would get an MFA in not having friends and a BA in dressing like a loser.

Molly: Drake gets an MFA in owl goblets and a BA in being Canadian.

David: Sidebar: Korean people are really into emo songs.

Molly: Aren’t all people really into emo songs?

David: I feel like it’s a more unified frowny face for Korea.

David: The reason ballads are so popular in Korea is because the songs are all very sad and that, for whatever reason, really resonates within the culture. Maybe because it’s such a homogenous place, but probaby also because Korean people just like to sulk.

David: It’s just another testament to the emo-ness of Koreans. Even our rappers are so quick to emote. I want to root for him. He’s had a rough few years. He got married, though, so congratulations to Tablo!

Grade: B+

6. Baek Ji Young, “It Hurts”

David: OH MAN. So this one. Here’s what you need to know: This woman had a sex tape come out, and is like, to my knowledge, the only prominent Korean celebrity to have a sex tape come out, ever.

David: The tape itself was awful and not particularly inspiring.

David: After that, she was forced to take an extended hiatus, after having spent years being a very famous singer of dance songs. Then, she came back, with these super sad ballads that were all huge hits. THE ULTIMATE COMEBACK.

David: The last three years, she’s had the big songs for the biggest soap operas in Korea, which, as we talked about before are huge in Korea.

David: This one is for a show that’s about [SPOILER ALERT] this woman who learns she has Alzheimers at the age of 30 and deals with it while also going through the breakup with the love of her life who is being forced to marry this girl he doesn’t want to marry because of familial pressures.

Molly: What’s it called?

David: 1000 Day’s Promise. I’ve seen the first three, it’s pretty good, but really sad. But really, her best song is this, from last year’s HUGE hit soap opera Secret Garden.

Molly: Sadness seems to be a major theme.

David: We’re an emotional people. Just ask Jay “Caspian” Kang.

Molly: Why so emotional?

David: I’m not sure. It’s pretty consistent though, like it’s not just cultural. I think there might be an emo gene that’s dominant in Koreans. Get on that one, scientists!

Grade: A-, because I am fucking sobbing over here right now.

7. Two Months, “Brown City”

8. Huh Gak, “Hello”

9. Busker Busker, “Tokyo Girl”

10. Busker Busker, “The Station”

David: Yeah, so tbqh, for 7, 9, and 10, I don’t know TOO much about the songs.

David: Mostly because they’re a product of this American Idol style show called Superstar K that has been a huge hit but I don’t really watch. No. 8 is actually the WINNER of last year’s Superstar K.

David: Fun fact: I just had to look up my first point in this entire chat, to make sure Huh Gak had won Superstar K.

David: Isn’t it really cool that I have all of this pointless cultural knowledge all in my head? I can’t imagine this won’t ever not be handy to know.

David: The only reason I even know about Two Months is because this girl I know was really into them from the audition show.

David: What I can tell you about them is that they made that girl a lot more attractive between the auditions and the actual finals shows.

Molly: That’s a trope of reality shows.

David: Global trope.

Grades: INC. I just don’t know them well enough. For Two Months, though, I’ll give them an A because I like the girl who likes them.

David: So Molly, what have you learned about Korean music today?

Molly: That you know everything about it, that emoness is a way of life, and that Girls Generation bring the boys out.

David: B-bring the boys out.

Filed Under: Grading the Charts