South Korean pop outfit KARA have a new song and, by goodness, it might be the best single they’ve released yet. It’s a flurry of rainbow keyboards and lovely group singing culminating in an energetic little chorus. They shriek at times like they saw Michael Jackson rise from the grave. There is a mid-song freak out where it seems like speakers might blow up…and that quickly segues into a ice-smooth bit that lasts only a few seconds. Then KARA run through the Fruit-Loops-colored keyboard storm once more before calling it a day. It’s lively, it bumps and trumps stuff like the plenty-enjoyable “Mister.”
It’s also not a Japanese single.
“Step,” at the moment, serves as KARA’s “comeback” single in South Korea as they spent the last six months (an eternity!) focusing on the Japanese market. It’s very possible that, like many K-Pop songs before it, “Step” will eventually get the Japanese treatment and be released in this country. Yet KARA aren’t abandoning Japanese fans…a new Japan-only single called “Winter Magic” is coming out soon.
This song sounds very Japanese-market ready. Which, naturally, means it sounds kind of terrible.
Moving at a much slower tempo, “Winter Magic” sounds like the sorta-borderline ballad songs frequently clogging up the Oricon charts. The chorus reeks of AKB48, and even the Spanish guitar interlude isn’t original – Nishino Kana did it early this year, and better at that. The whole joint just comes off as being phoned in, even the music sounds like it is five minutes away from being piped into my nearby supermarket. Especially when played after “Step,” “Winter Magic” seems like marketing at its worst.
For KARA, though, this seemed inevitable. The Japan Times’ Ian Martin argued that the group remade themselves in the sonic image of AKB48, though I still hold the Japanese single “Jet Coaster Love” does enough to avoid falling into such dreaded depths. Martin is dead-on, though, when applied to “Go Go Summer,” which (ignoring the opening 20 seconds, which are pretty rad) does fall off the cliff into AKB oblivion, albeit the whole thing manages to be a little dance-ier. The next seasonal single digs even deeper – KARA must have been told what most J-Pop fans will buy, and decided to go where the money was.
Which is a shame, because one of the best aspects of K-Pop’s rise in Japan has been how the groups crossing over into this country didn’t change their sound. KARA and Girls’ Generation vaulted up the charts with songs sounding completely different from the J-Pop around it. Part of the thrill of seeing this stuff emerge was having a new…and, frankly, better…pop sound appearing everywhere. Now, KARA seems to have given up on that in favor of catering to the masses. Girls’ Generation has yet to do that, and 2NE1 have only just debuted in Japan so time will tell what they do. Hopefully, they stick with their sound.
Yet wanna know what’s surprising about all this? “Step” isn’t being marketed in Japan, yet it currently ranks as the number one ringtone of the week. Maybe one day, “Magic Love” will be an antique and things sounding like “Step” will me the norm. Hope remains.