Mamamoo. 15&. Puer Kim. IU? What do these Kpop artists have in common? They're part of a Kpop revolution happening right in front of our eyes. Or is it ears? Didn't you hear? The past in new again.
The Revolution Will be Televised
Puer Kim's new album Purifer may not seem like a revolution at first listen. On further study, you'll find not just a captivating singer with a haunting voice, but one that hearkens back to a more retro, more soulful sound. Think: Nancy Sinatra. Think: Mama Cass Elliot. Think: how Lana Del Ray wants to sound like. The instruments that accompany her songs are even beyond retro, they're temporally eclectic. "Bank" has music that is vintage mid-60's, early-70's, while the mix of big band instruments and sinister Germanic horns of "Vice Versa" feel downright Brechtian.
And the video for "Bank?"
Welcome back, fifties. Hello there, conformity.
Which is to say that Puer Kim is taking musical and visual elements from a host of eras in history, none of them really Korean. Which makes the Bygone Revolution all the more intriguing.
The Bygone Revolution
Do you like the name? We're open to suggestions. We've been seeing this small ripple of a wave that is slowly building in Kpop since the beginning of the year. As much as we love EDM, it's not the only future for Kpop. There's also been a turn towards the past, a manic mix of historical musical trends. Of course, we're talking about Mamamoo, for starters.
We thought that their patient debut with collaborations with stars like Bumkey and K.Will, before their official debut single, "Mr. Ambiguous," was an act of brilliance. But what was even more brilliant was the establishment of their very own aesthetic, one that hinged on a mix of swing and glam, a love for black and white, an ode to old Hollywood style, big band music (think: Rat Pack), skat, powerful vocals, and, to top it off, killer rap solos. Mamamoo has taken old musical traditions (and some new) and meshed them together to form something uniquely their own. What's important here is that it's not part of some retro throwback comeback that T-ara likes to embrace every few years or that Wonder Girls found success with in "Be My Baby." This isn't so much an homage with the Bygone Revolution as a return. Maybe a better word would be: Resurrection?
15& is another proud member of the Bygone Revolution. Mixing more modern poppy elements with vintage style. Even the more traditional ballad, "I Dream," features a split screen that has more in common with 1970's TV screens, a move that calls attention to itself for its archaism. By "Sugar," they've completely embraced 50's glam. And it feels right.
But we'd be amiss to forget IU, who's made a deliberate and concentrated effort at embracing old music and styles. Honestly, it's borderline pretentious. In "Red Shoes," her character is literally ripped from a classic black and white film. But the thing is, she's not transported to our present day, at least not one that we're familiar with. She finds herself in an idyllic youthful summer(?) home(?) taken straight out of The Great Gatsby. Even her album, Modern Times, is a reference to the classic Chaplin film. How many people her age would know that, let alone Koreans her age? This is more than a callback, which requires the audience to have previous knowledge on the subject. It's an appropriation that is so refined that it's practically a re-imagining of the past. It's like IU is inserting these old, mostly western and European aesthetics, into Korea's cultural history.
But she hasn't stopped there. With her latest "remake" album, Flower Bookmark, IU has taken our Bygone Revolution a step further, by reinterpreting old Korean songs for both young and old. It's a mellow and beautiful album, one that truly takes the old and makes it new again.
Regardless of what you think of the album, Flower Bookmark has opened up many possibilities. Who knows what directions Kpop can go by taking from both Korean and Western musical traditions? And mixing with new, modern elements? Like hip hop? EDM?
But back to Puer Kim. You should keep an eye out for her. What's fascinating about Puer Kim is that while stars like IU make a concentrated effort to embrace old musical traditions, Puer Kim simply embodies them. In that way, she has more in common with Mamamoo, but less accessibility (and, subsequently, popularity) than more mainstream idols like IU. There is a distinct difference in this methodology that we'll love to see evolve as the Bygone Revolution (we're open to a name change) either prospers or is drowned out by EDM. But perhaps we're being hyperbolic, and we hope so. We hope that Kpop has room for all genres and aesthetics. We hope there is enough room for all revolutions, major and small, because we're all for musical diversity. Think about it. The possibilities are endless.