Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An American In KPop: BoA's the New Britney and the FloodGates Open

To read my previous two posts regarding KPop, click here. I sincerely appreciate the comments and insight I've been receiving both here at the blog and on Twitter. Thanks, fam! And now, on to the next super long KPop Post!

When we last talked KPop, I was introducing the interesting subject that is BoA, one of the most popular and influential female solo artists in the KPop genre (especially in the earlier half of the previous decade). She released her debut mini-album back in 2001 (at the tender age of 14), and her eventual English-language debut, BoA, saw release in March of 2009 (and was re-packaged with a few new tracks in the fall), marking the first time a KPop artist was formally promoted and introduced to the US in a mainstream way, built around the music first and foremost.One of her more popular albums in her home territories, 2003's Valenti, sold over a million copies without ever formally hitting English-speaking shelves.

BoA was the perfect candidate for an International breakthrough, due to her  r-and-pop kind of sound, derived from more of her later work, abandoning for the most part her cutesy, more bubblegummy appeal from her earlier material that made her so famous in Korea, and indeed in Japan and China as well. If that marketing plan sounds familiar to you (and it should, for the most part), you're not the only one. Parallel's being drawn to the USA's reigning teen queen, Britney Spears, abound, and served as a key component of her US marketing strategy. While Britney has seen her album numbers be relatively stable since debuting in 1998, BoA has not been so lucky -- after introducing a more sultry image and forgoing her more pure pop sound in favor of a more rhythm oriented sound beginning with material released in 2004 (Japan's Love & Honesty and Korea's My Name), BoA saw a marked shift in terms of overall sales. While she remains to be quite popular to this day, nothing she's released since Valenti has matched its sales.

BoA's English album featured production by a notable stable of popular go-to producers in the American music game, the majority of which being of a r&b persuasion, including Sean Garrett (part of Swizz Beatz, responsible for Chris Brown's "Run It", Beyonce's "Diva" and Usher's "Yeah", amongst others),  Bloodshy and Avant (Britney Spears' "Toxic") and Toby Gad (The Veronicas' "Untouched", Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry"). It also featured a writing credit to Britney Spears herself ("Look Who's Talking"), and a cover of German girl group Monrose's "Scream" (another International artist that lacks US representation -- so many causes, so little time!). Included on the set was an English version of the namesake of her fifth Korean release, Girls On Top.

BoA was my first real acquaintance with KPop, after seeing a barrage of television ads to support the album release in early 2009. For the most part, the focus was on her popularity in Asia, her penchant for dancing (not unlike another certain American popstar I've already mentioned), and her striking sex appeal, with several critics likening her to be the Asian Britney right out of the gate. Her American debut was made with all kinds of fanfare with a performance at MTV broadcast live in New York City's iconic Times Square. Debut single "Eat You Up" sonically stood out for its unrelenting beat and drawn out lyrics ("When.I.First.Saw.You/I.Knew.Nothing's.Like.Its.Used.To.Be."), something we hadn't really seen in the American market. However, I was more drawn to the sped up and more dance-radio DJ Escape & Johnny Vicious Remix. Despite the heavy-handed campaign (complete with a featured tag by Flo Rida), the song failed to crack the Hot 100, but did peak at #8 on the Billboard Dance Club Play Chart.

However, the marketing machine didn't wind down, as second single, "I Did It For Love" (featuring producer Sean Garrett, supplying both call-and-response vocals and Timbaland-like underdubs), made the rounds in early summer, complete with a video featuring a black leather clad BoA dripping in sex appeal, a stark cry from the "Eat You Up" video which focuses more on her hip hop dancing. While several fans cried foul,  the song was much more radio friendly than "Eat You Up" (of either version). Still, the song rose to the #19 spot on the Dance Club Play Chart, and like its predecessor, refused to chart on the Hot 100.

Overall, BoA's English debut seemed gain her a small footing here in the US (myself included), while many argue the majority of fans she "acquired" were already fans of her earlier work. The majority of the complaints rose from 1) her sexualized image in a blatant attempt to compete with America's love affair with sex appeal, 2) her obvious attempt to use American music trends to her advantage, and 3) some rather disturbing English translations leaving the songs true intention lost in the shuffle.

While I can somewhat agree with #1, it has to be noted that what is considered sexy but still acceptable in America is vastly different to the same in Asia. Nothing she did while promoting herself here in the States came off as too intense (or, honestly, anything we hadn't seen before, and done in a more extreme fashion), especially considering BoA herself was around 22 years of age. Personally, I commend her for recruiting such incredible producers, even though the album on the whole I felt was somewhat lacking.  It's clear she was gunning for Britney's ardent fanbase with the production techniques used, as well as her more breathy vocals, saving her more powerful belting capabilities for riffing. I still feel that "Eat You Up" was the record's best cut, if only for the fact that it literally sounded like nothing else at the time (and still doesn't, really). 

However, the song's lyrics bring me to the third point -- the cooing of "I'll eat you up/You up/You uuuuuh-up" obviously rubbed several people the wrong way, on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Much of the song's lyrics seemed to get lost in translation. Also, her use of American/English slang and common grammar missteps would have been perfectly acceptable had she been a native English speaker, but given her accent, it made the lyrics sound all the more sonically jarring (something that, it seems, many KPop artists continue to struggle with). Album cut "Girls On Top" (which was a single in Asia in 2005) suffered the same treatment, as the phrase 'Girls On Top' took on a different, more sexual reference than the intended female-empowerment one ("Don't you tell me what to do/Gonna make my decisions on my own/.../I'm gonna make it happen/Who says there can't be girls on top?").

Overall, BoA was a worthy effort, and doesn't deserve the flack it seems to be getting on the Internet, particularly on my BFF, music social-networking site Last.FM. In addition the aforementioned singles and "Girls On Top", I also quite enjoy "Hypnotic Dancefloor", and definitely think it's worth you checking out. She may not have cracked the Hot 100 and conquered America like so many of her supporters hoped (selling over 20 million copies worldwide is an incredible feat, and it's kind of saddening that we didn't get it), I continue to feel it was a mixture of incorrect marketing, and a lack of luck.

BoA did, however, officially open the door in a very big way for her fellow KPop artists by establishing a level of recognition in the States for her music, something Rain before her had trouble establishing. While he officially made his entrance into the American market in late 2006, singer Se7en debuted his very American sounding, ridiculously catchy (and not to mention Darkchild-produced) debut single "Girls", featuring rapper Lil Kim, in the summer of 2009. A forthcoming English release is still pending, and the song did not chart on the Hot 100. Like with BoA, his accent tends to distract just a tad, and the use of slightly comical "American" slang (You can Google me, baby) leaves a little bit more to be desired.

However, it was recently assumed that a newer version of the song with Johnny Wright's up and coming "super boy band" One Call (featuring former members of Menudo and NLT) is in the works. Whether or not that is still in the cards is currently undetermined (as the group have recently stated they have gone back into the studio to record more material, despite stating earlier this year that their album was finished), and rumors are flying between One Call releasing the song for themselves (as the group is primarily produced by Darkchild as it is), or performing it as a duet and a means of introducing both artists to the public. You can view this video of the boys in One Call rehearsing a choreography routine to their version of the song. More info on this as it develops. Anyway you look at it, the song is a heater in my ears, and will sound good no matter who ends up calling it their own.

Which brings me to the final act I wanted to talk about during this first "half" of my KPop Posts: the Wonder Girls. The group officially debuted in 2007 in their native land with six members, before member Hyuna left the group a few months in (and would later re-appear in new-ish girl group 4minute, who I will be discussing shortly). The following year, they would see their popularity soar to new heights, with a pair of #1 singles ("So Hot" and "Nobody"). 

The latter of which would serve as their English debut in mid 2009 (see video above -- which reaches new levels of TMI in its introduction, and shows a decidedly American Motown look and feel for the girls), when it was also announced the girl group would not only appear as an opening act for American teen idols (and a guilty pleasure of yours truly...well, maybe not so guilty) the Jonas Brothers, but also be managed in the US by the Jonas Group, a management and production company that features insight by the brothers Jonai themselves. Interestingtly, this seems to be the exact promotional tactic (introduction to a demographic that would probably indulge in this kind of music) that a KPop artist looking to break in needed. "Nobody" did what no other KPop artist's single could -- it charted on Billboard's Hot 100, making them the first Korean artist to do so. The song peaked at #76 in October of 2009. The group's debut English release is set for February/March.

It may have been an uphill climb, but it's clear that the tides are turning -- and considering the quality of KPop that exists still "undiscovered" in American waters, my next look will be toward the acts I hope to see break in 2010 and beyond.


Nikki said...

Nailed the BoA part. Hahah.

Sometime last year YG made Se7en completely stop all his US activities - there was a big fuss about how he was pulled out of all his studio sessions and flown back to Korea. No one's heard anything from him since. Apart from the fact that he has a girlfriend.

You know how I feel about the Wondergirls. I rest my case. BUT I do think JYP should've pushed 2PM in the US as well, you guys need a boyband, apart from Varsity Fanclub, V Factory and One Call, of course.

Tiffany Taeyeon said...

I actually like BoA but I don't agree with the post 100%.

I really don't think she got the type of promotion that's needed to launch a commercial artist like her Stateside. She's such an amazing dancer, plus she can actually sing and is a great all round performer, so she needed to get some major performances to show off her skills and maybe that would've increased her buzz and convinced radio to play her some more.

I don't think she has enough charm though to connect with people. Nothing about BoA comes off as authentic to me. This girl releases like a new album every single year, sometimes more, she feels like a machine. I'm not sure if her personality was lost in translation but when she was promoting herself Stateside her personality didn't seem to match her music, it felt like she didn't know what she was doing.

She was definitely lacking the charm and personality that a pre-Circus Britney has in spades. It didn't help either that her album wasn't very good. The first two singles were great, as well as some other cuts like Energetic, but overall the whole thing was to robotic and gave off the impression that BoA was some kind of Asian android who couldn't sing, when that's not true. It's not uncommon for other artists to make these robotic steely type pop albums and songs, such as Britney's blackout or Cassie's whole discography, but BoA didn't seem to have the innovation or personality to pull it off in the way that Brit and Cassie have.

J.Mensah said...

To be honest I think you hit the nail on the head. She definately hasn't been lucky in terms of sales or the same type of popularity as Britney Spears.

But all that aside, I think she's awesome! In her defense BoA was her first English album released into American markets but where was the promotion? I blame the label lol.

Myfizzypop said...

blimey, people have quite strong opinions on BoA don't they? Sometimes I think she's ok. Sometimes she is ghastly. Most the time I just forget she exists! Keep on k-popping though, i'm quite enjoying it!

Mel said...

Nikki - Interesting RE Se7en, did not know that. And word on the boy band front. At this point, I'm not too picky WHICH one, so long as it its one. ;)

Prophet - I see your point -- her promotion was lacking in a big way, but the whole concept of Asian music is (this is a terrible wording but) really foriegn in America, just like Latin music is. The MTV launch was a coup, but seeing as radio wasn't really on board, it was difficult for her to get many footholds. It's kind of a catch-22 here -- it's hard to get one without the other, and so the cycle continues. We never got to know much about her AT ALL here in the States other than the imagery from the videos, so it's hard to judge her personality based on that alone in terms of a mass appeal. I agree the Auto-Tune didn't do her justice, but that same argument can be made about literally HUNDREDS of underappreciated artists. Sadly.

J - Word. It's just hard to get momentum going if the entire country is like Who Are You? Sad but true.

Paul - Haha, kind of true. I was kind of struck (and continue to be) at how polarizing she can be. Makes her all the more interesting to me! And thanks! I've got a few more up my sleeve! ;)

Cat said...

Ahh, I know this post isn't about Japan, but she basically spent the majority of at least the second half of her career in Japan, and she's doing pretty well there.

Also, Weezer covered her Japanese track Meri Kuri.

And just a side note, Wonder Girls started out with 5 members, but Hyunah got sick and withdrew. Then Yoobin joined the group, taking over as the rapper.

So far enjoying your posts on about Kpop. I saw your last post of the series.. and I saw TVXQ. HOhoho, me likey. Going to read that now.

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