K-Pop Genre Demonstrates Problem with 21st Century “Fans”

I am normally pretty laid back when it comes to music. I’ve been known to go from ABBA to Johnny Cash to Mozart to Slipknot, sometimes within a five-minute time span. I have always prided myself on this ability to appreciate all forms of music, but there is just something about one particular genre that has come out only very recently – or, perhaps more correctly, maybe it is the fandom of the genre that has turned me against it. It is that fandom that perhaps grates my nerves more than the music itself.

Korean pop, or “K-pop” as it has become known, is not a new phenomenon, although those who consider themselves fans today think they originated the genre. It actually goes back to the 1940s and 50s, following the end of World War II and the actions in the Korean War, when U. S. and European musical stylings first came to the peninsula. There was an original rush of interlopers who took on the stylings of 40s big band music to entertain U. S. troops.

As rock and roll began to take over, these same South Koreans (by this time the Korean peninsula was divided) simply migrated over to the rock sounds, singing Beatles songs and even coming up with their own “rock” bands such as Add4 and The Key Boys. Balladeers and folk ruled from the late 60s through the 90s, leading to the changeover to today’s “K-pop” sound that has become prevalent.

Perhaps because of the 90s “boy band” acts, K-pop has been pretty much dominated by male artists and bands. Psy was one of the first to strike with this new, danceable “K-pop” sound with “Gangnam Style,” but it really seemed to take off when the “boy bands” took up the mantle. Many of those failed in capturing the attention of Europe and the U. S….that is, until BTS came along.

BTS is a SEVEN-MAN group that follows the playbook of the 90s U. S. “boy bands” like NSYNC or New Kids on the Block. They harmonize, dance and put on a show with pop pablum that is rather unremarkable in its blandness. But, if you listen to their “A.R.M.Y” (yes, stripping that title from the hard rock band KISS), they are the greatest thing to hit music since the introduction of amplification.

Now, a little disclaimer…

Today’s pop music is not supposed to cater to the taste of people over the age of 18, maybe 25 years of age tops. Pop music has always been the arena of the young and it can simultaneously be mindless drivel and serious socio-political commentary. You just have to find those tracks that do it for you, is what I am saying. Still, there is not much that happens in the pop music arena that I say “WOW!” about.

BTS is one of those things that definitely doesn’t even register on the “WOW” scale. The band has been able to make a breakthrough in the U. S. and Europe over the past few years, however. They won a Billboard Music Award in 2017 as Top Social Media Artist (a fan-based award) and became the first Korean act to score a #1 hit on the Top 200 album chart in 2018 with Love Yourself: Tear.

The band has not slowed down since then. “Dynamite” became a #1 song on the Hot 100 (and finished 2020 as the #38 song for the year) and BTS has earned acclaim by performing during this year’s Grammys program, where they were nominated for an award in Best Pop Duo or Group Performance. It was this incident that perhaps set me against the band – and their fans – permanently.

That Grammy category was arguably one of the toughest lineups for a newcomer to break through in the 2021 awards. BTS went up against J Balvin, Dua Lipa and Bad Bunny, Justin Bieber and Quavo, Taylor Swift and Bon Iver, and the eventual winners Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. For pop music, that is a hell of a list to even be considered with…but many in the “A.R.M.Y” felt that the award had been “stolen” from the group.

Allegations of racism, anti-Korean sentiments, and other -isms flowed from the “A.R.M.Y,” despite the fact that there were only two dozen or so Grammys won by the competitors they were up against. In other words, come with quality work. “K-pop,” and especially the 21st century version of it, has not come up to speed with the quality of efforts from many other artists.

There are other things that you can ding BTS for. First off, I could not tell you who is who in the band. None of them have stepped out, such as Justin Timberlake from NSYNC or Harry Styles from One Direction, to demonstrate that they have talents as a solo artist. You can do a lot with studio stunts and sweeteners, and that is what BTS has depended on – none of their membership has shown any solo talent.

Second, when you have seven people in the group, there is an issue that something is being hidden somewhere. Maybe someone isn’t as good a singer; that can be hidden. Not a good dancer? They can be on the side singing while the rest of the group grooves. The band is just too large to take seriously.

Finally, the history of “boy bands” is not a lengthy one. The aforementioned NSYNC lasted for all of seven years. England’s “boy band” export, One Direction, made it to eight. BTS is now into their eighth year, about the time that these “boy bands” can’t survive any longer on the “pop music” dime, one of the members decides that they do not need the others, or basic internal strife takes over and detonates the group.

It is the “A.R.M.Y” and their perception of privilege that gets me more than anything else, however. All pop bands have their “fan units.” Taylor Swift has her “Swifties,” Beyonce has the “BeyHive,” even Ed Sheeran has his “Sheerios.” Even the most ardent fans of those and many other acts, however, have not demonstrated the sense of entitlement that the BTS fans have shown, and often shown in ugly ways.

There is no grand scheme against BTS in the western world, A.R.M.Y. As I stated before, do better quality work and you will be recognized for it. Trying to bring the nationality of the members of the band into the argument is a disingenuous argument when you are competing against the world. There is also not a ruthless group of record label honchos and music experts sitting in a stunning executive suite somewhere trying to keep BTS down.

For BTS to take the next step, they need to chill out their fandom. “Fan” is the shortened version of “fanatic,” and the A.R.M.Y. takes their support too far with some of their accusations. Folks may look better on BTS if their fans were not such children, for lack of a better explanation. But alas…we are talking about pop music, not the bastion of adults with critical thinking skills.

The Highwomen Deliver Emotional Effort, Sheryl Crow Going Out with a Bang

One of the things that the world of music has gotten hammered on over the past few years is the paucity of female performers, both on the radios and satellites of listeners and in the awards process (Grammys, CMAs, etc.). It is a fair argument too; in country music currently, you have to go down to #11 on the Billboard Country Singles chart to find the first female entry (Carrie Underwood) and, on the Billboard Hot 100, although the first three slots are occupied by women or male/female combos (Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” Shawn Mendes & Camilla Caballo with “Senorita” and Billie Eilish’s mopey “Bad Guy”), there are only two other female contributors in the Top 20 (the Ariana Grande/Miley Cyrus/Lana Del Rey collaboration for the reboot of Charlie’s Angels entitled “Don’t Call Me Angel” and Ariana Grande with Social House). With two new releases out from top female artists, you might think that this situation would change, but you’d be surprised.

TheHighwomen

First up is the rather ostentatiously named The Highwomen, who have come out with their eponymous CD Highwomen. The quartet, consisting of Grammy winners Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires along with Grammy nominated songwriter Natalie Hemby, are all very accomplished performers and songwriters in their own rights. Coming together for this record, however, they put their egos at the door and come up with an emotional effort that delivers across the board for their purposes as a female country supergroup.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, however: they probably should have called themselves something other than “The Highwomen.” That name harkens back to the 80s when four of the titans of country music – the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson – joined forces as “The Highwaymen,” a country supergroup that brought each man commercial and critical success. By branding themselves as “The Highwomen,” it seems that Morris, Carlile and Company are equivocating themselves as equal to the legendary male artists who made the name famous (plus they’re putting a HUGE target on themselves). Even Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt – the closest thing there was to a female “Highwaymen” previously – didn’t have the audacity to call themselves “The Highwomen.”

If you can get by the quartet calling themselves “The Highwomen,” you’re going to find a very solid outing from the artists involved. Of course, they have to start off the album with their version of The Highwaymen’s “Highwayman,” and it is naturally called “Highwomen.” It follows the pattern that was set by Cash, Nelson, et. al., with a call-and-response song about repressed women in history. A woman subjected to and executed during the Salem Witch Trials; a Freedom Rider murdered in the South; and (poignantly starting the song) a refugee from Honduras who took the long walk to try to seek asylum with her family in the U. S before dying on the trek. It is an excellent update from the male oriented original and starts a very emotional trek that runs through the album.

“We are the Highwomen,
Singing stories still untold.
We carry the sons you can only hold.
We are the daughters of the silent generation,
You send our hearts to die alone in foreign nations,
And they return to us as tiny drops of rain
But we will still remain…”

TheHighwomen2

Going deeper in the album there are some jewels for the listeners. Perhaps for the first time ever, there is a lesbian “kiss off” song called “If She Ever Leaves Me” that tries to subtly tell a cowboy that the woman he’s looking at picking up – Carlile’s secret lesbian lover – “thinks your cologne’s too strong, she’s into perfume” and that he has absolutely no shot. Another song that is noteworthy is “My Only Child,” a song from a mother to her child about why she didn’t have any more children for her child to play with.

The songs aren’t long on Highwomen, roughly three minutes in length for the 12 songs on the record, but each one packs an emotional punch that doesn’t get displayed often in music. If you’re a fan of the women in the group – or you just want to hear some damn good country (or maybe “Americana”) music – you’d be well advised to pick up the record.

SherylCrow

In her over 30-year career, Sheryl Crow has pretty much done it all. Originally a music teacher, Crow would in 1987 become a backup singer for Michael Jackson on his Bad tour. She would eventually find success as a solo artist through her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club in 1994. Now, more than 25 years later (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, are you listening?), it looks as though Crow is calling it a close for her album recording career with her CD Threads.

Why does it seem like the Missouri songbird is ending her recording career? Because it seems that she brought everyone and their brother out to play with her on the album! Both Morris and Carlile from The Highwomen make appearances with Crow and they rank as the MINOR players on the record. Artists such as Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Eric Clapton, Gary Clark, Jr., Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Joe Walsh, St. Vincent, James Taylor and Emmylou Harris all add their prodigious talents to the record, making it for a stellar outing. Let’s put it this way: if this is the way that Crow wants to bid adieu to her recording career, she’s done a hell of a job.

SherylCrowThreads

There are several highlights on the record. “Prove You Wrong” with Crow harmonizing with Nicks and Morris, starts the record with a bang that sets the ever-increasing standard for the rest of the record. “Beware of Darkness” is an ode about falling too far down “the rabbit hole” and letting everyday news bring us down, brought to life by the guitar work of Clapton and the vocals of Sting and Carlile.

It is a couple of collaborations you don’t expect that seem to steal the record, though. First is a stunning “Redemption Day,” a duet with the late Johnny Cash. The collaboration took a version of her song that Cash recorded before he passed away and mixed it with her voice, delivering a performance for the ages. From Crow’s lilting voice to the gravely rumble of “The Man in Black,” the song that Crow wrote about the U. S. involvement in Bosnia gains new life in these times. Crow comments in the liner notes that “online trolls say ‘shut up and sing…’ I’d think no one would have the gall to tell Johnny Cash to shut up and sing…he’d probably respond with the famous photo Jim Marshall took of him at San Quentin, the shot taken ‘just for the warden.’”

JohnnyCashFlipsBirdWarden

The other collaboration is surprising in the mixing of genres that comes together. Crow teams up with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, soul singer Andra Day and guitar wizard Clark on “The Story of Everything,” a song that, according to Crow, “was born out of the feeling of frustration with the state of affairs in America…so much hope accompanied our first black President into office, but that hope turned into fear and division.” The foursome power through the song, calling out those who continue to push the divisiveness in the nation today, and they aren’t shy about laying it at a certain politician’s door. Musically the song is evocative, lyrically it is a protest from the people…and a warning that the people better pull their heads out of their asses.

The record could have been called “Sheryl Crow and Friends” because, without the ample assistance from Crow’s pals, the record wouldn’t have been as impactful as it is. Crow’s steady, beautiful mezzo-soprano is accented by each and every performer and she’s smart enough to know when to get out of the way and let her guests do their thing. If it is goodbye to recording for Crow, this is one hell of a way to exit the stage.

Alas, it appears nobody is listening to these artists. The Highwomen are currently ranked #53 on the Billboard Album charts after peaking at #10 two weeks ago, while Crow’s record reached #30 on the Albums chart and #2 on the Country Albums chart before plunging off in a mere two weeks. This is a sad statement on the music industry today, but it is something that REAL music fans will appreciate by supporting these women.

Mr. Robot a Unique Trip; Florence and the Machine’s Latest Rocks

The most fun thing about entertainment – be it movies, television, music, books, video games or whatever – is that individual tastes are accentuated. Because of this enhancement, there is virtually anything out there that people can digest and, perhaps, things that particular people avoid like the plague. Two things recently have raised my metaphorical radar in that they are excellently done and intriguing, at least to me.

Lately, television has been a bit of a wasteland for me. The last show that I REALLY got into was Leverage (as you already know) and it has been a trial to find something else to garner my attention. There’s only so many athletic events, historical shows (think Henry Rollins’ 10 Things You Don’t Know About…) and movies (VERY few) that you can watch before you would like to see something weekly that you feel invested in. On my DVR right now is the USA Network’s Dig (just waiting until the right moment – as in the announcement of a second season – to burn those off), but it will have to wait until the conclusion of USA’s Mr. Robot.

Mr. Robot is the story of a computer security drone named Elliot who shuffles through his humdrum life by day working for an omnipotent company called E Corporation (or “Evil Corp” to Elliot and his fellow employees – on a side note, the logo for Evil Corp is quite reminiscent of the Enron logo) and, by night, becomes a hacker vigilante who tries to right the wrongs in society. In the very first episode, Elliot finds out a local restauranteur is a pedophile and, rather than bribing the man with the information for a financial profit, turns him into the authorities.

It’s not enough for Elliot, however. He has a massive addiction to morphine, grinding up pills to snort them directly into his system, and counters it by taking anti-addiction medication to maintain a sense of stability. Elliot also is extremely antisocial, even around his childhood friend (and maybe a feeling of more from him) Angela, a manager at the security company that both work for.

Through their company’s work in providing computer security for Evil Corp, Angela and Elliot detect a hack during a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack that requires Elliot to fly with the head of the company to access Evil Corp’s massive computer database and eradicate a file before said attack ravages the Evil Corp systems. Elliot finds the particular bug file and, strangely, the file is directly addressed to whomever finds it. The file requests Elliot to leave it in the system, which Elliot does (with a few changes that put him in control of said file) and, from there, Elliot is off on a ride that he (and the audience) have no control over.

Elliot learns that the hack came from a group called “fsociety” (a clean version of “Fuck Society”) and its leader, a mysterious and legendary hacker by the name of Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot has a vision of leveling the playing field for all of mankind against the corporations and governments that “shackle” them through eradicating all records of debt that people have accumulated in their lives. Elliot, by the end of the first program, isn’t sure which side he wants to be playing for.

Not to give away too much about the program (it is currently up to its seventh week on the USA Network), but it is as trippy as it is intriguing. Add in a Chinese hacker team known as the “Dark Army,” a Russian couple, with the husband being a high-ranking member of Evil Corp (and both with some sinister plot as well as slightly twisted minds) and a member of “the 1% of the 1%,” as Elliot learns, gangbanging drug dealers (remember, Elliot’s an addict) and various other twists and you might find your head spinning.

Part of the reason I like the program is those twists that you don’t see coming. It has a darkness to it that is realistic and, along with that point, the characters speak as a normal person would (you’re going to hear “shit,” “dickhead,” and other assorted vulgarities, including bleeps for where “fuck” has been uttered). But it is done naturally and in the flow of show so, to me at least, it is unnoticeable. There are some plot holes and reality checks during the proceedings, but the science behind the hacking and how complex computer and internet are – or how lacking they may be – is solid.

They couldn’t have cast anyone better than Rami Malek to play Elliot. He delivers on the character with some excellent acting in the role and his appearance – some of it HAS to be his own – give you the impression of someone who is dealing with an opiate addiction. I also really enjoy Christian Slater as Mr. Robot; he is able to play psychotic, caring, nurturing, demanding and rebellious, sometimes all within the same scene.

If you’ve got On Demand with your cable system, you might want to catch up with Mr. Robot as it is well worth the time spent (the first six episodes should be there). Once you’ve caught up, Mr. Robot airs on the USA Network on Wednesdays at 10PM Eastern Time.

On the musical front, I often despair. 2015 has been dominated by the post-teenage Disney chicks such as Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato and others that I just can’t get into fully. I can enjoy Jason Derulo and Bruno Mars, but other male vocalists just don’t capture my attention.  Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea aren’t exactly my taste and don’t even get me started on Taylor Swift. Never has someone done so much with so little talent, except maybe for a Kardashian. And she’s supposed to be what many consider a “fashion plate”; in my eyes, the clothes looked better on the hangar than on Swift (I’ve seen 2×4’s with more curves).

As such, I normally go to alternative music, although my penchants favor the hard rock/metal scene (and most of that, honestly, even bores me nowadays). Recently Florence Welch and her band, Florence and the Machine, released their third album called How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Many of you might not have heard of the band since their debut back in 2009, when the song “Dog Days Are Over” was a big hit on radio. But Florence and her gang aren’t easy to put into one of the nice little cubbyholes that music likes to use, hence the band’s difficulties over the past six years.

Their debut album Lungs was a treasure trove of different musical stylings that demonstrated the power of Florence and the Machine’s music and, in particular, Welch’s voice. Along with “Dog Days Are Over,” the song “Kiss with a Fist” and “Hurricane Drunk” were the outstanding tracks that showed the promise of the band. They were rewarded with being nominated in 2011 for Best New Artist at the Grammys, an award that went to Esperanza Spaulding (who?) over the group, the rapper Drake, the folk band Mumford and Sons and even Justin Bieber.

The follow-up to Lungs, 2011’s Ceremonials, was an even bigger hit for Florence and the Machine, allowing for the group to really take their time before stepping into the studios for their next effort (that and the closure of their record company, Universal Republic Records, helped to give that time). Going back to the studio last year following the breakup of Welch’s then-relationship, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was recorded and released in June 2015, with the band touring the major music festivals, including last weekend’s Lollapalooza show in Chicago.

The musical stylings of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, run the gamut. On the first single, “Ship to Wreck,” Florence and the Machine echo Morrissey, albeit with a few more guitars and a lot more power. “What Kind of Man” is a rocker that sounds as if the Tower of Power horn section was imported for backup, while “Caught” and “Delilah” capture the attention of the listener. Along the way, Welch’s powerful and emotional vocals rule the roost, evoking memories of a more-rock oriented Kate Bush or, for a more contemporary comparison, Adele. In fact, a sing-off between Welch and Adele would probably lead to a stalemate as both blow speakers out with their vocal talent.

All three of the albums are well worth owning, but How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is the way to go for a complete look at the power and potential of Florence and the Machine. Be sure to get the extended version as it contains “Make up Your Mind” (another outstanding song) and the demo version of the title track, showing the development of the song from incarnation to finished product. You can’t miss out on what should prove to be the album that takes Florence and the Machine further into the consciousness of music audiences.