After listening to T-ara's new single, I have to ask: How can candy be sugar free? Because T-ara is candy. Not just candy, it's the candy you hid from your parents after Halloween, stuffed right under your pillow. T-ara is a pint of Ben and Jerry's Americone Dream for dinner. T-ara is eating another slice of pizza when you know you've had too much. T-ara is binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix when you need to be studying for an exam. In summary, T-ara is a hot mess. They are the quintessential guilty pleasure of Kpop.
They're calling the music video Version 1, because of course there are more versions, this is T-ara we're talking about here. With the rapid-fire cuts, the video can undoubtedly give people seizures. Increasing the speed on YouTube is not advisable. The song begins with the sound of a soda can being opened, which seems appropriate here. I'll just say it: I love this song. Even if the video gives me a headache. Even if the song really doesn't mean anything. It follows a great tradition of addictive T-ara club songs. The EDM is intense, perfect for the dance floor, a spiritual successor to the criminally underrated "Number Nine."
Which itself was a melodic cousin to "Sexy Love."
Which has to be in the same family tree as "Lovey Dovey."
But T-ara isn't just all EDM all the time, which makes them even more T-ara somehow. They can retro that dance floor at any given time, trust me.
These songs thrive on repetition, oppressive music, and quick cuts that aren't meant for human eyes. But how about a musical?
The first time I listened to "Do You Know Me?" I didn't realize that the song was repeating itself, first as a melodramatic ballad with white haired Eunjung belting the best parts, than as a fast retro musical, until Jiyeon slowed the song down again at the 5:52 mark. It was simple, and, I realized later, obvious. But I loved discovering that.
Say what you will about T-ara, but they have one of the most impressive musical resumes in the industry. Dance, Ballad, Musical, you name it. I don't remember hearing a bad song from them. Do they even have one?
But there's a flip side to my adulation of my favorite Kpop group. They're also one of the most problematic. I'm not even talking about the fabled bullying scandal, which has been mostly proven false (though we'll never know what really happened), and which has damaged the group's popularity for the foreseeable future. You look at T-ara's resume, see their greatest songs, and they're accompanied by their most troubling.
There's the more obvious problems, like with "YaYaYa," Even by Kpop standards, dressing like indigenous tribes lacks a certain sensitivity. But do I love the song and have it on rotation on various playlists? Absolutely!
And, more recently, Hyomin's solo turn. When I saw the teaser images, I kept hoping that the "Nice Body" elements would originate satirically. I wanted to love this song. But what we got was a music video that lacked self-awareness for the very body image issues it helped perpetuate.
And what about the misguided foray to America by subgroup N4? And associating, just when their reputation was at their worst, with the likes of Chris Brown?
This is where the guilt part of guilty pleasure comes in. Because T-ara confounds me more than any other group in Kpop. They have no desire to confront social issues in any modern way, and their songs, though irresistible, rarely hit anything outside of melodrama. They're full of sugar, not sugar free. Maybe they're only sugar. Put these elements together and it seems as though T-ara represents the very worst parts of Kpop.
But I can't get out of my head the first time I saw "Cry Cry," the drama version. I won't spoil the video for you, but it stars Jiyeon as a bounty hunter's protege (more or less). It was one of the first Kpop videos I had ever seen. I thought it was ridiculous, even without the language and cultural barrier, the story was full of immense holes. But by the time I had reached a climactic showdown, without realizing it, my sneers turned into concern for these tragic characters. I realized that the video wasn't as ridiculous as it was audacious. And just like that, I was invested. Sucked in. Not just to "Cry Cry," but to Kpop. And I've never looked back.
How can T-ara represent the worst in Kpop if T-ara was the group that brought me into Kpop?
I mean, did you see the dance version of "Cry Cry?"
Did you see how they splashed in the water? Kicked off their jackets? Did you see the world shake on their command (a move usually reserved for the boy groups)? Is there any Kpop video that sexy, cool, and unapologetically dramatic?
Or N4's "Jeon Won Diary." Coming off a scandalous year that saw T-ara on the front pages of every gossip magazine in Korea, T-ara N4 was likely unveiled to soften the return of T-ara proper. But did they wilt under the scrutiny? No, they suitably asked, "Why you hating?" and gave us an absolutely iconic moment, Jiyeon staring directly at the viewer, deadpan expression, saying, "Mind your own business."
That's downright defiant. And you have to admire that. T-ara has given the Kpop world so many memorable moments and are never shy about their audacity. But they also have given me those little moments, like when I realized that "Do You Know Me?" was the same song looped in different ways. I'm constantly surprised by them and always intrigued.
I eat that extra slice of pizza or pint of ice cream because I love eating those things. In that same way, I love listening and watching T-ara and that won't change anytime soon. "Sugar Free" is on repeat right now.
I can't help myself.
Timothy Moore writes from Chicago. He blogs at Read My Blog Please, and edits at Ghost Ocean Magazine. His biases are T-ara, Block B, Nine Muses, Brown Eyed Girls, and Girl's Day.