Roundtable Review: Big Bang's 'Sober'

Big Bang Sober Group Shot

Zander, 'L,' Tim, and Claire are writers and editors here at Critical Kpop. They decided to take a closer look at Big Bang's "Sober" release. Let's start the roundtable! 

Zander: I'd like to start with the music, which I really enjoyed. It's got the feel of an anthem, very fun and just a little bit funky. But it also sounds like a Kpop song from a few years. We all know how quickly Kpop moves, and "Sober," like "We Like 2 Party," isn't typical of 2015. A lot of people are also drawing connections to G-Dragon's "Crooked." And, thanks to the magic of the internet, "Sober" has been traced to a brief intro that G-Dragon did for "Crooked" at the 2013 Mama Awards. Hint: set "Sober" to 2:38, and set the Mama Awards performance at 0:56! It's just a few seconds, but fun to see where the seed of this song began! So what do you guys think? Are you digging "Sober"?

Tim: Fun facts, Zander! But let me tell you something, despite the bright colors, upbeat tempo, and T.O.P. being all T.O.P, what's interesting to me is that this song is so incredibly sad! I've been reading the translated lyrics and they're killing me. It almost starts out as a diss track: "Stop acting like you’re all that/You’re actually the most pathetic/Yeah, try to provoke me even more." But then we slowly realize that the problems are more internal and devastating. "Time is so damn slow,/I’m just growing old, I live like I’m dead/I have so many damn things to do but I have nothing/that I want to do." This song may be just as heartbreaking as the more overtly sad, "If you," friends. "Without you, I’m still left alone here/I’m waiting for you, only believing in you/But I’m a fool, no no no." Matched up with this surrealist video and upbeat, sometimes joyful music (with the accompanying choral "la la la la la" at the end) creates a compelling tension for me, and puts this release at another level (like all of Big Bang's releases, really). What'd you think, Claire?

G-Dragon Closet Sober

Claire: What drew me so strongly to this video and Big Bang in general (especially in recent years) is their use of symbolism. Big Bang uses K-pop videos as an artistic medium to express their insecurities and struggles in themselves and comment on their society. Sober is not just a sad music video about missing a girl, it's a music video about addiction and the need for escapism in a high stress culture where drinking culture is normalized. I also appreciate GD's use of the punk genre to express raw and difficult emotions, which has been clear in "Crooked," "Loser," and "Sober."

'L': I agree that this feels like an anthem song, and it goes back to what I said earlier that MADE is being produced with the intention of being a concert "experience", instead of just a collection of unrelated songs. This cohesive style of singles is more common to Western "concept" albums, and I think this is a really bold and frankly, refreshing take for a Kpop group. It shows that there's more artistic license here, rather than just spending money to make money. I think there's a lot to unpack in this video and song, and it's this level of depth that puts Big Bang miles ahead of any other Kpop group.

Also, like Claire mentioned, there is a real genuine sense of feeling with Big Bang that you barely get with any other group. Daesung has always been my bias member so I'm going to focus on him a little bit. After his car accident and the surgery he had to reconstruct his face, there are a minuscule number of shots of his full face--even his hairstyles cover half of his face. I feel the scene where he's pounding on the drums with the mirrors is maybe symbolism for taking a look at yourself from all angles, even if they aren't flattering.

Daesung Drums Sober

Zander: Well then let's jump right into the symbolism. Because Claire is right - Big Bang has a history of inserting symbolism into their music videos, and "Sober" is screaming to be analyzed! 'L,' I love that reading of Daesung in front of the mirrors. He's certainly had some cause for introspection recently. But for me, the first thing I really sat up and paid attention to in this video was the representation of money (whether it's supposed to be cash or checks, I'm not sure) as slips of paper with "This is your God" written on them. It's probably the most overt symbolism in the video, but there is still a sense in which we, as the viewer, have to earn it (pun!). During my first watch, I was able to see text on the money, but could not make out the words. I immediately paused the video, rewound, and paused again. The idea that money is worshiped is a common one, but what I appreciate is that Big Bang makes us work to receive the message. By forcing us to pause the video and read the upside down words, Big Bang makes us participate. Our involvement is required! We can't be passive viewers here! 

Claire: I want to point out that the money reading "This is your God" is a specific reference to the cult film "They Live" about a man who finds a pair of glasses that show him the subliminal messages in mass media (which ends up being controlled by aliens, but I digress.) 

They Live Money

This reference occurs early on in the video and frames it as a piece critiquing society. This is especially poignant given how conservative and capitalistic South Korea is, which extends in a big way to its music industry. 

If we're talking about overarching symbolism, the most important in this video is the smoke, which is featured in almost every scene. Smoke is something that obscures, that makes the world hazy and indistinguishable. This can be used as a metaphor for the experience of drunkenness or being under the influence of drugs, being in a haze. It can also be used, as in T.O.P's case, as representing a dream like fantasy. It can be used to suffocate, as you see with Taeyang. It can be used to obscure direction, as with Seungri. But I think most importantly it can be used to keep things hidden. Society can keep things hidden, like issues with mental illness, insecurity, corruption. This is also represented by GD literally coming out of the closet in one of the first shots. And yet we crave the safety of the smoke, the comfort of living in a hazy world of fantasy. This is seen by the members chasing the smoke at the end of the video.

Fog Sober Big Bang

Big Bang themselves, being massively famous, have hidden their real selves to become these empty figures that are objects of a fantasy. Their new releases, particularly "Loser" and "Bae Bae," have shattered any pristine image they could have had in favor of truer expression of their views and emotional experiences. 

Tim: I love that you guys caught the shot of "This Is Your God" on the money (I missed that!). They Live is one of my favorite movies and John Carpenter my favorite filmmakers (THE THING - right?!). And you're right, Claire, it's so appropriate that Big Bang referenced this, as They Live was a take-down of 80's excess greed and consumerism (and, yes, conservatism), which has a lot of parallels to what has become of Korea now. 

What's further interesting to me is looking back at the other references Big Bang has made - with some of the greats like Kubrick's 2001 referenced recently in "Bang Bang Bang," and before that in T.O.P's "Doom Dada," as well as the post-apocalyptic imagery in videos like "Fantastic Baby" and "Monster" (and, again, "Bang Bang Bang"). Even the "I Want to Believe" on the water tank behind T.O.P. in this video is the famous line from, you may remember, The X-Files. A show where paranoia and shadow governments run amok.

T.O.P. out there

Clarie: "If it was easy everyone could do it" on the walls could also be a movie reference to A League of Their Own. But that one is more tenuous I think.

Tim: Good catch! I'm sure there's even more we can find with subsequent viewings!

Some times we can take for granted the surrealist and fantastic elements of these music videos and equate them to Big Bang just being weird. But they're doing so much here, and they're using these iconic references and symbolic images like the best Kubricks and Carpenters of the world. They're revealing what life is like today. Right now. 

For more roundtable discussions, on everything Kpop related, check out the Critical Kpop Podcast


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