Rating: 4.25/5There’s no reason why 2012 shouldn’t be a watershed year for the recognition of Korean culture worldwide. Korean cinema is now eagerly followed by astute cinephiles, and thanks to streaming websites such as Netflix and Drama Fever, American audiences are even enjoying Korean television. And now, Korean pop music, or K-pop, is readying a potentially make-or-break push for worldwide notoriety, particularly stateside. K-pop has all the pieces for crossover success: talent, charisma and even critical recognition. All that’s left is to watch how it all plays out. Two of the most popular K-pop groups, Wonder Girls and 2NE1, are slated to release U.S. debut albums in 2012, but before this happens, superstars Girls’ Generation will attempt to make an impact stateside with release of their latest, The Boys.
Debuting early in the latest wave of K-pop, Girls’ Generation has since 2007 come to define something of the quintessence of the genre. Their 2009 mega-hit “Gee” was the number one single on Korea’s Gaon singles chart for two months in 2009–its music video having now received more than 64 million views on YouTube–and it is perhaps the ideal starting point for K-pop novices. The first single from their new album, title track “The Boys,” is less a reinvention than a diplomatic gesture to American audiences, designed to ease the transition to K-pop fandom with comforting familiarity, starting with the fact that one of its co-writers is none other than New Jack Swing architect Teddy Riley. An English-language version has been released and has already been performed for American audiences on both the “Late Show with David Letterman” and “Live! with Kelly.”
“The Boys” succeeds in effectively conveying the group’s appeal. A nine-member girl group might seem redundant to American listeners, but the singing on it and other tracks amply demonstrates why this approach works, enveloping the listener in a three-dimensional soundscape. Typically, each member sings only a handful of lines before passing the baton, but the mix introduces a freshness that allows for complex layering of multiple vocal lines. When the group sings together during choruses, their collective force is overwhelming, coolly riding atop the song’s molten lava beat. Another song, “Trick,” showcases the group’s collective approach, the members’ vocals swirling and stuttering about in a buzzing haze over a thumping dance beat. And on the superior second single “Mr. Taxi,” it’s clear each member’s contributions are essential: the way Girls’ Generation member Sunny sings the three words “I’m so fast” just before the first chorus is one of the album’s numerous micro-pleasures, a sticky-sweet and utterly unique detail.
This brief moment also embodies one of the defining qualities of Girls’ Generation and K-pop in general: the Korean concept aegyo. While commonly translated merely as “cuteness,” the term connotes not only innocence, tied inextricably to youth, but also an accompanying joy and effervescence. The songs on The Boys alternate between aegyo-heavy tracks like “Lazy Girl” and “Say Yes” and the more dance-oriented and ostensibly “mature” tracks like “Trick,” “Oscar,” or “Mr. Taxi,” all of which find the members’ winsome vocals placed confidently atop rippling synths. Girls’ Generation’s energetic youthfulness elegantly offsets their four-on-the-floor beats, making even these harder-edged songs bubbly and sweet pop confections.
The group’s sonic fullness and irresistible aegyo hint at what makes their communal spirit so endearing to fans. Individually, no member is a superstar all on her own, so the group succeeds as a collective, not through virtuoso spotlight-stealing. The group’s sense of sisterly communion, a plainly evident familial affinity for one, is tied to what fans call the “SoShi bond” (derived from their Korean name So Nyeo Shi Dae). Some of their songs are ostensibly about “boys,” but the Girls’ Generation world is surprisingly unbeholden to objectification, the group’s members clearly acting as protagonists in their own narrative centered around solidarity and friendship. At the end of “My Telepathy,” the American-born Tiffany whispers, “Never, ever stop falling in love.” It’s a dreamy, whimsical moment, but you sense that the point here is not, in fact, “the boys” but reveling in a pure expression of solidarity like a secret whispered between sisters. Effectively, Girls’ Generation’s music creates a self-sufficient world of pure feminine subjectivity. And it’s hard not to be touched by the earnestness of this creation, which is why The Boys is more than just one of the new year’s best pop albums: it’s an invitation to a whole new world of pop pleasures.