After weeks of coy teasers and less coy massive billboard posters all over Tokyo, and with the AKB48 elections now firmly out of the way, the by now pretty much undisputed queens of K-pop (in Japan at least), Girls’ Generation, have finally started blitzing us with their new product, and any response other than rank submission is simply not acceptable to them.
It’s clear that they’ve tried to make this an “event video” what with the premiere on the big screens by the Shibuya crossing and the silly Torville & Dean/Gene Kelly intro music combo. It’s nonsense of course, but it tells us something about how Girls’ Generation (and by that I mean SM Entertainment or whoever is behind their marketing) want the group to be perceived, and the message it sends is a mixture of “We’re playing with the big boys,” and “We’re desperate to be associated in some way with Lady Gaga.”
Like Ms. Gaga’s similarly titled offering there is the faux-1950s onscreen titling, newspaper headline visual motif and general electro edged production, and like Lady Gaga’s song, it seems to be more a cry for attention from the titular paparazzi than any serious criticism. On the other hand, and importantly, Lady Gaga’s video was a lot funnier (Gaga murders her boyfriend to get back on the front pages, while the fact Girls’ Generation “seem a bit nervous” is the most interesting thing the papers can find to say about them) and operates on a much higher conceptual level. The bells and whistles that surround Girls’ Generation in this video don’t combine to form any meaningful narrative — it’s Girls’ Generation the global pop phenomenon celebrating their own bigness but with nothing to say about what that actually means.
More importantly, the two songs are coming from rather different places musically. Gaga’s song is basically a 1980s pop tune wrapped up in just enough cutting edge synths and beats to sound modern without detracting from its essentially conventional, or perhaps we can say classical, pop song construction — it’s the kind of song you could play on an acoustic guitar and it would still be recognisable as pop music. Girls’ Generation’s Paparazzi on the other hand is every bit a contemporary electro-house-influenced piece of pop, beginning with the beats and with the actual tune squeezed into the gaps. It’s effective but it’s not classic songwriting.
Now this shouldn’t matter. 2NE1’s I Am The Best would have made Buddy Holly spin in his snowy mountain grave in terms of classic pop songwriting, but it was still one of the best pop songs of 2011, and its recently released Japanese version (which sidesteps the awkwardness of translating the original’s decidedly un-Japanese lyrics by translating most of them into English instead) is still wiping the floor with pretty much any other pop released here this year. And Paparazzi does work, both as a piece of aggressively modern dance-pop and as a piece of bubblegum pop with a simple, effective chorus and some catchy “boom boom boom”s like a not-quite-as-good Mr. Taxi.
What it lacks compared to 2NE1 is attitude. When CL reminds the listener of her group’s name, as she does in practically every song 2NE1 do, it comes over all swagger and look-at-me-I’m-awesome. When Girls’ Generation do it here and on last year’s The Boys, it’s like a desperate cry to the audience, “Don’t forget us!” Of course in both cases it’s really just in-song branding, but at the same time, the subtle difference in the ways the two groups carry off the same marketing trick reveals a fundamental difference between them. Girls’ Generation are more forgettable, and if you heard this song on the radio (remember that?) or in a club you’d probably be hard-pressed to know who out of a dozen or so K-pop groups it was.
In a way this is a trap that Girls’ Generation have laid for themselves. They’re the wholesome, good-girl K-pop group, standard bearers of Korean pop in its march into the global marketplace, which means that everything they do is shorn of its edges, is studiedly bland in its eagerness to avoid scandal in Korea’s puritanical fan culture even as they adopt every trapping they can safely appropriate of international pop culture. People like Lady Gaga and 2NE1 who have positioned themselves as freaks and outsiders from the start wear no such straightjacket and make themselves simultaneously more natural-seeming and more distinctive (and therefore easily marketable) as a result.
Now if this sounds like I’m down on them, I’m not. As one of the fake newspaper headlines in the video announces, Girls’ Generation’s “…style has become the Bible for fashion.” Where 2NE1 and Lady Gaga (and Japanese contemporary Kyary Pamyupamyu) are fashion icons for people wanting to stand out, Girls’ Generation are aspirational role models for dedicatedly ordinary girls and in that context, the sharp, flashy, high contrast style of both their image and electro synth sound is still something radical in the dead centre of Japan’s fluffy, pastel coloured and slowly dying mainstream. In addition, the fact that so many other Korean girl groups share a similar sound and are in general preferring not to compromise it for some imagined vision of what the Japanese market wants suggests that of the contrasting approaches taken by them and Kara, Girls’ Generation seem to be winning out.
While the jury is still out on Girls’ Generation’s attempt to crack the US, the fact is that they probably do as good a job as they could of balancing the varying expectations of their fans in the different markets in which they operate. What Paparazzi suggests, however, is that they may have taken that balancing act as far as it can go and that any move westward may require that they let some of those spinning plates drop.