Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

AMNESTY WEEK 2K10: After School – Bang!

Sometimes, a tasteful black-and-white shot is the perfect choice. But sometimes…


Doug Robertson: This is cartoon music. Which might sound like an insult, but it’s the only way to sum up the glorious Technicolor cacophony of staccato sounds that fill this track like rainbows in a dull sky. Cheerleader chants clash with synthy strings and an ADHD beat, coming together so beautifully that it makes you wonder whether oil and water could, with time, learn to get along.

Anthony Easton: An anthology of the decade’s most obnoxious trend; we have figured out that it is possible to be nostalgic for the future, can we now be nostalgic for the present?

Iain Mew: I love the sound of the marching drums and the harpischord. I love how unpredictable this is, with stuff like the stuttering ‘uh-huh uh-huh’ and the ballad section emerging out of nowhere without disrupting the overall structure and flow. Most of all, I love the way that the singers tear into it, totally determined to grab the moment, and it’s the infectious enthusiasm which makes it more than just an impressive pile-up of big ideas.

Frank Kogan: The beat hops along to a martial electroshuffle, as young women throw darts in lovers’ eyes, and in each other’s, and everyone else’s, along with inkjets, paint bombs, and colored smoke. Totally pretty, totally ferocious. Then in the middle eight they get stunningly dreamy and gorgeous. Then they go back to smashing piñatas.

Mallory O’Donnell: This would sound a whole lot better if it didn’t just sound like everything, ever.

Alex Macpherson: I’ve never been able to get with K-pop or J-pop: it’s too superficially similar to Western pop, but the way it’s slightly off is plasticky and unappealing rather than an interesting route into it. It’s a bit like those unappetising plates of artificial food in the windows of Japanese restaurants. “Bang!” has a slamming, martial beat, but After School’s vocals are just too high-pitched and cutesy to ride it with panache.

Martin Skidmore: I know bugger all about Korean music, despite my pal Kogan sounding so excited about it. This lot sound like fun, though, punchy and bright, with hip hop beats and yelling and rapping and pop singing all thrown together in ways that might for all I know be the norm there but sound strange here. Very enjoyable, and maybe I need to pay more attention to Kogan’s enthusiasms in future.

Chuck Eddy: Been trying to make sense of all the Korean exclamation-point bubblegum on the most recent Frank’s Eardrums CD-Rs — these people, Rainbow, IU, DJ Doc, E.via — and I’m definitely liking almost all of it and loving some; a major topic for future research for sure, and given more time to live with them, E.via’s speed-rapped “Shake!” or (even more so) Pikachu/Tom Tom Club mutation “Pick Up! U!” might well have a shot at my 2010 singles Top 10. It’s been years, maybe decades, since American hits had toddler-appeal on that level (though Far*East Movement could be turning a tide). I’d rank this below E.via; doesn’t strike me as much like a whole new thing, closer to mere real good foreign-language approximation of Western pop. But the lead bang-bang-bangs and huh-huh-huhs and backup shouts are still awesome, and it bops with energy to spare.

John Seroff: It takes a lot to trigger my shame reflex, but damn if this doesn’t come close. “Bang!” is a K-pop garble of ESL chorus, boisterous marching band and a double-varnished Harlequin romance coda shoehorned between Korean pep rally chanting and an uncanny facsimile of Kid Sister. The result is the most remarkable hash of Nicole Scherzinger, Stomp The Yard, Making of the Band and kimchi but quelle surprise (et embarrass) it somehow works. In fact, it works a little too well; I blushingly caught myself unconsciously pop-locking on a crowded subway platform to the UH-HUH/UH-HUH/ UH-HUH/UH-HUH break. For what’s unmistakably a studio creation, After School are bustling with unlikely life and fun.

Josh Langhoff: Brings me back to the heady days of the Bring It On soundtrack, which I was convinced would illuminate some nascent bubble-underground and usher in a euphoric age of insanely shiny global pop supremacy. (Though I think B*Witched was as “global” as the made-in-USA BIO ventured). Probably my “euphoric age” will remain perpetually out of reach; probably it’d feel more oppressive than euphoric. But if history tells us anything, it’s that trying and failing to live up to such impossible ideals can produce some nifty side-effects. Speaking of: my word, is that a harpsichord? And then, after all the hot-stepping percussion and the smooth breakdown, we get ACTUAL STEPPING SOUNDS. I have no idea what this song’s about, but it SOUNDS like hot cheerleaders flipping through the air, competitively. It’s an image that might look oppressive to that portion of the student body who aren’t hot and can’t flip. But one of the joys of pop is that you don’t have to pass its practitioners in the halls.

Jonathan Bogart: It certainly rushes and clatters, but the Pacific Ocean may be too wide for me to hear any sense of purpose in it. Not that purpose is necessary; making noise is its own reward, and hearing “Hollaback Girl” and Britney’s schoolgirl whooshes echo back from the other side of the world is its own pleasure. I just wish I heard a voice as particular as Britney’s or Gwen’s.

Katherine St Asaph: There are eight performers in After School, and the mix is just as crowded, as if all eight insisted their ideas made the final mix. You’ve got a chorus with harpsichords, cheerleader chants, rapping and what sounds unfortunately like the Warcraft soundtrack played on an old Yamaha, verses that lay teen R&B over the shuffling marching drums from “Lose My Breath,” subsequent verses and choruses mixing and matching them all, and an unexpectedly pretty bridge that sprouts, unexpectedly again, RedOne synths and belter’s melisma. It’s vaguely martial and all, in the Idol sense where “only thing you have is being pretty” qualifies as a battle cry (unless Youtube’s translations led me astray, which is entirely possible). It’s also kind of a mess.

Alex Ostroff: Propulsive and martial in a way that female-fronted pop music hasn’t been since the middle of last decade. The creepy Transylvanian organ intro enhances the delightful anything-goes vibe of this. The only things holding it back are the memories of “Hollaback Girl” summoned by the chorus, and the fact that Willow’s ‘Whip My Hair’ pulls off most of these tricks while sounding both less juvenile and more fun.

Zach Lyon: For some reason, I can’t stop hearing a certain Justin/Timbaland track that I can’t put my finger on (4 Minutes?) and the Hollaback Girl parts are nice. I haven’t listened to much k-pop in my life!

6 Responses to “AMNESTY WEEK 2K10: After School – Bang!”

  1. Lots of nice blurbs, a good read. I think some people may hear things that aren’t actually there because of their prejudices, though:

    I can’t find “high-pitched and cutesy” voices anywhere in the song.

  2. A fellow named James Turnbull (an ESL teacher living in Korea) googled onto my livejournal and linked me his very detailed and fascinating translation and explanation of the lyrics to “Bang!” His blog, The Grand Narrative, looks to be a treasure trove: “Korean Sociology Through Gender, Advertising and Popular Culture.” Two points he makes on his about page: (1) he says that South Korea has a virtual gender apartheid: “the largest wage gap between men and women in the OECD; the lowest percentage of working women in the OECD; and actresses being sued by companies they endorse for coming public about being beaten by their husbands”; (2) he considers generational markers in South Korea as being as important as racial markers are in the U.S., and “not only do [advertising and popular culture] best represent and capture the uniquely fleeting Korean zeitgeist that I’m so in love with, but with young Koreans’ parents’ experiences often being so irrelevant to their own then they provide a source of identity for them that shouldn’t be underestimated either.” [Me: I don’t see how generational markers can work like racial markers, but I don’t live in Korea.]

    As for After School, he says that he originally translated line three, which literally goes “prettiness-only-(having)-you-more-more-(than) No! No! No!,” as “you have no more than your prettiness,” then found a better attempt at an NME (!) site, “All you do is being pretty, no more No! No! No!,” and finally came up with “You only being pretty, no longer.” I don’t see how you can leave out the “No! No! No!” so I’d go with the second, though maybe make it, “All you do is look pretty, nothing more. No! No! No!” – i.e., the “No! No! No! telling you that now’s the time to do more than just be pretty, with the next line suggesting that throwing yourself into the music is a path to being more; though I do like the second site’s suggestion that being pretty is something you do. And looking at the literal translation, maybe it’s in effect saying, “Prettiness only? You’re more than that, so No! No! No!”

    I also recommend that you scroll down Turnbull’s thread to Miso’s comments: “CL the leader and main rapper of 2NE1 is the self proclaimed ‘baddest female’. I’ve witnessed on Korean websites the absurdity of some polls and most of the time she doesn’t even make the top 3 in terms of ‘badassity’. 4 Minute is a good example of how the audience expects this type of groups to put in the leader position the member with ‘baddest.'” So I gather that After School is also playing with being bad. Miso thinks that After School’s spinoff group Orange Caramel allows the younger members (late teens and early twenties) to dance around in cat ears and stuff without the members in their older twenties being implicated. (I myself emphatically do not know how to make sense of Orange Caramel.)

  3. Mat, the rap chants on this song do sound relatively high pitch, and with a couple of kids in the video (though not the group, which ranges in age from 18 to 29, only two members under age 21), one well might think “playground” right at the start and then think “cute” by association, even though, as you say, there’s nothing actually cutesy in the vocals. The name Xuxa did cross my mind when I watched the vid. But what you’re telling us is that that’s a cultural misreading, right? Would you say that “Bang!” comes across as tougher and less young in the context of K-pop than it would in European or American music? So, though teens and toddlers might like it, its potential prime audience also includes people a bit older? (Just as the Pussycat Dolls got teens and toddlers but weren’t fundamentally directed at them.)

    I’d say in general that bubblegum is less an exclusively teenybopper thing around the world than it is in the U.S. E.g., lots of Italodisco of the ’80s strikes me as fairly bubblegum. But perhaps this track doesn’t seem all that bubblegum in its context, whatever “bubblegum” and “context” mean. (E.via, whom Chuck mentions, has gotten some of her tracks and vids banned from the airwaves for excessive sexiness.)

    By the way, if anyone here would like to talk more about K-pop in general, please come over to lj and do so, where people who know more than I, including Mat, are helping me with the convo.

  4. I figured the translation at the bottom of the YouTube video (see: previous comment about same) was off someplace or another. I get the impression that verse one is directed at somebody else? Maybe “you,” maybe some other fake, solely-pretty girl out there, who knows. But again, I’m basing this on highly dodgy YouTube translations done by god-knows-who (or what, if you add Babelfish into the equation) so I could be partly-to-entirely wrong.

  5. After School add new member, bring along 76 drums and horns as well

    Mat says: “She majored in Vocal and Electric Guitar at the K-note Applied Music Academy, and hit the stage with a solo.” He adds, “Why they need another member is beyond me, but when they do – why not get a show-off?” (Might she be replacing someone? I only see seven After Schoolers onstage until she shows up.)

    Happy New Year everyone.

  6. Here she is practicing that solo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ul17Eomfik8 Something about k-pop makes me not surprised that an expert, educated guitar player becomes the ninth member of a girl group.

    The missing member is the American girl Bekah – she’s in Hawaii, apparently at her own request because she has had so little time to see her family. She was not a part of After School’s christmas charity single project but will return for the next release.