Regardless of what claims borderline-nationalist J-Pop fans squawked out, Korean pop artists locked themselves into the Japanese pop-culture landscape this year, going from foreign curio to accepted face on the music charts. Girls’ Generation and KARA started releasing Japan-only songs and albums, releases which did very very very well. K-Pop boy bands started hitting the jackpot here as well, and even more girl groups like T-ara and Rainbow debuted in Japan. Most importantly, they became part of the cultural language – Girls’ Generation and KARA appear on TV regularly, K-Pop plays in the background of commercials and variety shows, and child star Ashida Mana flipped out when KARA came to her birthday. Personally, I saw the true tastemakers of this country give K-Pop the seal of approval – my junior high school students embraced KARA and Girls’ Generation. Now I regularly have students talk to me about their favorite members (“Mr. Patrick, do you like Tiffany?”) and I see them choreograph dances to “Gee” alongside the latest AKB48 song. Save for the one kid who wrote “K-Poop” on the board, that is.
So as the year comes to a close and we sift through a lot of great K-to-J pop songs…and more to come, where is “Bubble Pop” man?…choosing the best should be hard, right? Lots to go through, yeah? Nope, this couldn’t be easier. No K-Pop song shipped to Japan sounded better than 2NE1’s fist-meet-face banger “I Am The Best.” Hell, no pop song anywhere might have sounded better in 2011.
2NE1, a Korean four-piece that criss-crosses between singing and rapping, proved to be the most divisive K-Pop act to debut in Japan this past year. Most of the Japanese English-speaking press/media types championed Girls’ Generation and (to a much lesser degree) KARA as welcome alternatives to the ham-left-out-in-the-desert smell of most contemporary J-Pop. People who mainly tweet about complex legal scandals and old woodblock prints were suddenly raising the SNSD flag or commenting on how let-down they were by “The Boys.” But 2NE1…2NE1 splits people. Ignoring lame dismissals like “they are ugly” (nope), a lot of people singing the praises of “Mr. Taxi” became hesitant in the presence of 2NE1, the group’s hyper-maximalist production and rapping bits throwing people for a loop. Plus, 2NE1 are one of the few groups not to really set the J-Pop world on fire yet – due to poor timing around the March 11 earthquake, their debut EP received no promotion. Things picked up at the end of the year, though, with the release of the single “Go Away.”
2NE1’s 2011 mini-album, though, hangs around with Girls’ Generation’s Japanese debut…and slays anything KARA put out this year in Japan. SPIN named it the sixth best pop album of the year…on a list featuring Girls’ Generation at 18 and Perfume’s JPN at 14. “Ugly” and “Lonely” show how to write a ballad that isn’t a ctrl + c type, the sort littering the J-Pop landscape. Despite having its video scraped clean of any social commentary, “Go Away” (not on the mini-album, but released later) remains a catchy kiss-off. 2NE1…really good pop stars!
Yet their single “I Am The Best” exists outside of their discography, outside of any national ranking system and possibly beyond the total grasp of the human mind. “I Am The Best” is a thousand distant suns supernova-ing to form a giant, flaming cosmic middle finger aimed at some unspecified “you,” a celestial “fuck you” directed towards an unimportant speck. “I Am The Best” is the pop song about being in the club to end all pop songs about being in the club, the members of 2NE1 basically becoming the club and throwing everyone out. Ya know that Fleet Foxes’ song about wanting to not be a special snowflake and just wanting to work in an orchard? “I Am The Best” hears Robin Pecknold’s helplessness blues, throws him to the ground by his grungy beard and steals his apples.
As you can see from the last paragraph, I can only talk about this song in terms of violence and/or explosions. Appropriately, let’s turn to the world of professional wrestling to discuss how this song sounds. Going by Survivor Series rules, the members of 2NE1 stare down a team composed of cocky Diplo, flamboyant David Guetta, dastardly will.i.am and a mysterious figure representing all of Asian pop music manifest in the body of Rain. Match starts, Diplo charges out the gate only to get chokeslammed Undertaker-style down to the mat, hand still clenched around his throat to prevent any dumb vocals to mar the song. David Guetta is more stylish…more European…but 2NE1 match him with stylish brutality, explaining why the dude is locked in a Sharpshooter tapping out hard. will.i.am, aware his version of pop-rap just can’t compete, drags in chairs and tables but…thwack, powerbombed right through some wood. Rain is no competition so 2NE1 make like The Rock and have some fun with this one, adding in a vague “Asian” feel to the song….errrr, throwing him through the Spanish announcer’s table.
OK, metaphors off for a second. “I Am The Best” sonically grabs from a wide array of Western sources and transforms them into something that sounds nothing like the source material. “I Am The Best” sounds bigger, more threatening than anything else I’ve heard all year. I heard this in a club and people lost it. Yet what really pushes “I Am The Best” above everything else is also what made everyone fall in love with Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last year – this absolute, unflinching belief in how hot-shit they are, 2NE1 going even further by not admitting they may be assholes. It’s nice to have big confident music during bleak times like this, not to mention a thousand times more enjoyable than most of the “self-reflective” (read: boring) music 20-somethings pumped out this year. Just…how nice is it to hear something oozing such confidence, even if it is probably misplaced bluster? One line of this song translated goes “Even if you were me, you’d be envious of this body,” while another one goes “If we’re talking about my value, I’m a billion dollar baby.”
Best part? Whereas so many other K-Pop groups had to make Japan-specific videos for their music, the Korean clip for “I Am The Best” just came to Japanese shores basically the way it was – full of 2NE1 smashing baseball bats against glass and spraying machine-gun bullets into nothing in particular. Though the song itself is a labored-over track taking musical trends and juicing them up, the lyrics and video give off the sense 2NE1 just don’t give a fuck. “I Am The Best,” in a year where the word got overplayed to death, was real swag.