Remember that time called the Golden Age of k-pop, when international fans (including me) flocked to the style in droves? Remember that time when songs like "Sorry Sorry", "Lucifer", "Roly Poly", "Gee" and "Oh!" rode the charts high? What did all those songs have in common, besides that they were great? Well they weren't ballads for a start. Somewhere along the line between then and now, k-pop performed the ultimate bait-and-switch, capturing the hearts of a global audience with fantastic songs and then cruelly flipping the musical focus from upbeat rocking dance-pop to soppy turgid kindergarden-grade slop for sentimental emotionally stunted fuckheads and parents of pre-teens with ADHD. K-pop was so good back in 2011 that fans believed there was a realistic chance that it may have escalated to become the dominant pop music form around the globe, but in 2016 even the most naive optimist can see that any hope of k-pop penetrating beyond Asian communities in a meaningful way is now completely dead in the water, and it's entirely the fault of the music quality. The ballad trend in k-pop is strangling everything that's good about the genre and it needs to die, or k-pop itself will die, slithering back into the Asian restaurant background music void from whence it came.
But - what's wrong with k-pop ballads? How can they be done better? Let's take a look at some examples of k-pop ballads, both good and bad, to see what we can learn.
BALLAD PROBLEM #1 - EXCESSIVE SOFT LAYERING
When I go out and buy toilet paper (because sadly I don't get sent it for free by haters, but I'm working on that), I always buy the cheapest stuff by volume that I can find, so I'm always bringing home different brands depending on what's on special. The other day, I brought home some 'luxury' brand that was 4-ply thinking that it would be ultra-soft, but it actually was a bit like wiping my ass with cardboard. The problem with it was the same as the problem with a lot of k-pop ballads - too many layers absorbs plenty of shit, but isn't very pleasant to experience.
Below is an example of a generic, shitty, boring k-pop ballad. I could have picked one of thousands of other songs almost identical to it in k-pop that get released yearly, but I chose this one just because it sprang to mind, and because it's by a huge k-pop company and features some big names, thereby illustrating that not even the very best talent either on the stage or behind the scenes can save a bad song from itself.
The song actually starts off acceptable, but when that backing kicks in at 0:53, we know straight away that we've waded deep into in restaurant music territory and we're not getting out for the rest of the song's running time. The obvious problem with it is that there's just too many soft layers. Here's all the musical layers in this song and when they are introduced.
- Piano (0:00)
- String pads behind the piano (0:00)
- Main vocal + effects including reverb and Autotune/synthesised vibrato (0:16)
- Drums (0:53)
- Bass guitar (0:53)
- More prominent strings (0:53)
- Plucked acoustic guitar (0:53 but only really noticeable from 1:20)
- Harmony vocals (1:26)
- More prominent acoustic guitar (1:26)
- Harmonica (1:31)
- More strings (2:00)
- Counterpoint string melody (2:04)
- Strummed acoustic guitar (2:04)
- Harmony backing vocal pads and call/response parts (2:17)
- Overdubbed money note (3:00)
Here's a much better ballad. The main reason for this one working well at least as far as the arrangement is concerned, is that the layering is sparser, even though they're working with a simulated mini-orchestra so there's probably an equal amount of individual instruments at play. Also each layer has places where it cuts through, and all the different instruments take turns at being in the forefront and donating their individual character to the song's backings. It doesn't all blend into one boring background mush, and at certain times the lead instrument competes directly with the vocals for volume (examples: 0:46, 1:27). Even though this song is just as slow, the overall effect is more interesting to the ear, and I can even stay awake through it if I really try.
BALLAD PROBLEM #2 - BORING INSTRUMENTAL CHOICES
Shitty ballads can come from anywhere, from any label, from any artist, even from any songwriter (because songwriters are often commissioned to write pieces in certain formats), and the average k-pop album is full of garbage like the above song from Fly To The Sky. The commitment to soft inoffensive multi-layered boredom is just as prevalent in the above song, but that's not the only aspect making it suck - the choices of instrument textures are also deliberately dull. Notice how something other than a snare drum is marking beats two and four, that's because a snare drum might actually jump you out of your semi-slumber and excite you a bit, and we can't have that. Only the blandest, most generic and uninteresting backing instrument choices will do for the bulk of Korea's shitty ballads. Imagine how this song would sound if they distorted the bass guitar a little bit, someone might have a fucking heart attack unless they buried it in the mix super-low.
Puer Kim's ballad isn't the greatest thing ever in the world of ballads, but the daring production choices do lift it above the rack. The electro-backings commonly associated with dubstep are utilised in a way that is pretty much forbidden in that style - in other words, there's lots of ambience here. Big large bouncy noises all come with a few seconds of room echo, and there's all that small stuff churning away in the background as well that you might not even notice on first listen because of the dominance of the song's larger assets. This song has more in common with Einstürzende Neubauten than SM The Ballad, and if there's one thing that Einstürzende Neubauten were very good at, it was changing up their instrument selection into something different at every opportunity. The result is a song that really sticks out and is easily noticed, just like Puer Kim's amazing talents.
BALLAD PROBLEM #3 - VOCALFAGGOTRY
The only thing that's ever allowed to stick out in your average shitful k-pop ballad on the other hand is the vocals, which are usually mixed nauseatingly present with tons of added effects and of course everything and I mean everything is Autotuned and electronically adjusted to sound "perfect", whether you can hear the software working or not. Vocal pitch-correction is so prevalent and the tech works so well now that it can be done on the fly and completely seamlessly with a simple stomp-box, you've got about as much chance of finding a k-pop song without pitch corrected vocals as you have of finding k-pop album art that hasn't been Photoshopped. This correction is only more prevalent in ballads where the songwriters know that vocalfags are hanging on every note, and all you people vocalfagging and comparing vocalist A and B and writing up stuff in your forums and threads look pretty silly in the eyes of anyone actually involved in music production on any meaningful level. In commercial pop music in 2016, only the most absolute lowest-rung Z-grade desperate nugus too poor to afford to rent proper studio gear would record without pitch-correction. If your favourite idols can afford a music video at all, they can afford Autotune.
Ignoring the fact that everything is fake (and I really do stress that everything is fake, yes really), the big drawcard for k-pop vocalfaggots is the "money note", that big extended note that all k-pop ballads just have to have so they can show you how great the singer is (in the above song at 2:25 if you want to skip straight there and start masturbating furiously). Because that's the point of most of these shitty ballad songs of course - to showcase the singer rather than provide the listener with a song that's actually any good. That's why the songs are so shitty - the people writing them don't care - it's purely there a basic template to showcase the singer and nothing more. Money in k-pop doesn't come from music sales, it comes from brand power, brand power comes from star power and star power comes from you falling in love with the properties of your favourite star, such as "ohmigosh he held that note for such a long time and did perfect vibrato, what a dreamboat, he can dissect my uterus". A good song isn't a requirement for this to happen. Sure, if a good song happens anyway by chance, great - but it's not actually the primary objective, and it's a lot harder to write a really good song than it is to just write a shitty generic ballad backing track and say to the girl in the studio "okay - here's your lyrics, here's your notes, just do what you normally do over the top, don't forget the money note and we'll fix it all in the mix later, don't worry you'll sound great".
The above song is one of my favourite k-pop ballads and it's partly because Bom isn't a good enough singer to wreck the song with any showing off. It's a well-known fact amongst k-pop's armies of vocalfaggots but not so much among most regular k-pop fans - despite being the "primary vocal" of 2NE1, Bom really can't sing that well at all. I won't go into the reasons why because I don't care and neither should you, but Bom was probably picked as 2NE1's "vocal" because of her unique vocal sound rather than her ability to actually apply that sound. The result of Bom's very "untrained" vocals is that engineers have to use a different approach to normal to get any results at all - pitch-correction can make a good singer sound better and a bad singer sound good but it can't make Flavor Flav sound like opera. Bom can't just read off a chartsheet and get it right or even anywhere close, she needs people to coach and write songs specifically around her limitations. Watch the following video, which I've used in blogs before:
G-Dragon and T.O.P want Bom's voice on their track, and why not - she has the extreme rarity of sounding unique in the world of k-pop where all singers are schooled to sound pretty much identical. They concede at 2:50 that it's hard to get results out of Bom, but when they do get them, it makes the track sound great. They struggle on all night trying to get that "perfect Bom take" where she actually sings the fucking thing that she's supposed to, but they eventually give up - in the end it's just too hard. How do you teach someone to sing something new when they don't have the musical language to conceptualise and understand exactly what it is that you want them to do? Bom's weakness is also her greatest strength - she sounds unique and interesting even on ballad material precisely because she's just not capable of doing it right.
BALLAD PROBLEM #4 - INSIPID MUSICAL MESSAGES
As if the music itself being crap isn't enough reason to hate k-pop ballads, here's a bonus reason. K-pop's turgid ballads really have to go to the next level and make sure that they are not interesting or engaging in any way by not just having garbage music but by filling the lyrical content with the most idiotic, vacuous words and visual messages imaginable.
Getting together and/or breaking up with your boyfriend or girlfriend might seem like a big fucking deal when you're 11 years old and you've never really had much experience with matters of the heart, but after a while you realise that breakups are just part of life's rodeo, and that it takes a few rides on the merry-go-round of dickheads before you meet that special someone who you can share your mutual ambivalence with for the rest of your life. However many people don't ever make that step into emotional maturity, and go through their entire life believing in tooth fairies, Santa Claus, organised religion and the extreme emotional vanity that k-pop ballads encourage by playing up every single relationship issue for maximum drama points like it's some big fucking deal. Who gives a fuck if Jonghyun hung up on Taeyeon, I'd hang up on that bitch sooner if she started singing this shit down the phone.
It's just about the only topic k-pop ballads ever cover, and it makes me grateful that I don't understand Korean language because I'm sure I would cringe even harder than I already do at garbage music like this. If you're a girl and you ever hear any guy say to you any of the shit in the above song, make sure you've got one hand on that mace can.
Sunny Hill have a better stab at breakup lyrics, that comes across a lot more sincere and realistic than your average k-pop ballad. Cleverly, the song's words are paired with a music video which highlights the hidden layer of meaning in the lyrics. The core message here throughout both the words and visuals is that belief in an idealised perfect love, like belief in an orthodox religion, requires a disconnect between what happens inside the heads of the true believer and the often completely contradictory situations that are actually happening in the real world, and that's why the behaviour of people who are very devoted or devout is often completely opposed to their own stated moral values. The song is very much the opposite of the SM The Ballad songs, because rather than idealising romance in an insipid, corny way, it's putting romance into a greater context, the type of context that would probably be too much for the average k-pop fan with a bedroom wall full of idol group posters.
Of course, this is all just the way I look at it. If you are able to extract some tiny semblance of enjoyment out of the bulk of k-pop's awful disgusting ballads, more power to you, and never let it be said that you're not well catered-for in this genre. Also, you're banned from touching the MP3 player settings or any acoustic guitars at my next housewarming party.