“Married to the 1980s”: K-Pop’s Obsession With the Decade of Synthpop and Sweatbands
I was watching a TV music show over the weekend, I forget which one, but at some point the Wonder Girls appeared performing the lead song from their comeback album “Reboot,” followed immediately by SHINee, singing “Married to the Music.”
For a moment I was really unsure if I was watching a show made in August this year or if it was a repeat of a show that first went on air sometime in the 1980s.
For a start, there are the SHINee outfits.
The hairbands, the overly liberal use of hairspray, the colorful eyeshadow – this is what pop looked like in the early 80s.
And then there is the spoof schlock-horror feel of the music video, extremely reminiscent of the 80s’ most memorable video, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Even the artwork designer seems to have picked up some “Thriller” font inspiration.
As for the Wonder Girls – could you really get any more 80s than with outfits than this?
But the image is just a tiny aspect. Fashion is cyclical and trends often repeat themselves in the fashion industry. Girls’ Generation‘s latest music video has the group in 1960s’ style Twiggy-look dresses, even though the music is not 60s-influenced at all. Just wait, 70s-style flared pants will be in again very soon. But music is much more linear, meaning that repetition is much rarer.
However, in the case of SHINee’s “Married to the Music” and the Wonder Girls’ comeback material, to call the music 80s-influenced is to make a gross understatement. These are faithfully produced, conscious efforts to recreate a specific keyboard-and-synthesizer led, post-disco sound from the early 1980s.
And what’s more, they are indicative of a larger musical movement in K-pop that is quite clearly taking its direct influence from the music scene of the 80s.
In the case of the Wonder Girls, it should come as no huge surprise. JYP Entertainment CEO Park Jin Young (a.k.a. JYP) grew up in the 80s, and has often spoken about how influential 80s artists like Michael Jackson have been on his work.
JYP is clearly smitten with the 80s sound, as is his long-term producer collaborator, Hong Ji Sang.
Take a listen to 15&’s “Can’t Hide It,” written and produced by JYP and Hong Ji Sang.
Its beat and bassline will instantly remind you of the Mary Jane Girls’ 1983 classic “All Night Long.”
However, the “Reboot” album is from start to finish an 80s album. From the Latin Freestyle-influenced “I Feel You” to the proto-hip hop style “Back” and the synthpop spectacular that is “Candle,” this album honestly could have been released in 1983. If they weren’t singing in Korean, I’d have sworn “Reboot” was a part of the Chaka Khan back catalog.
The 80s love-in is not brand new, though, and nor is it limited to JYP and his co-producers. IU & Fiestar – “Sea of Moonlight” from 2012…
…sounds incredibly similar to A-Ha’s “Take On Me” from 1985.
Sweetune seems to have never fallen out of love with the 80s, ever since the production team’s early Rainbow collaborations.
Oh, look a Rainbow reference in a timmydee article. Bet you never saw that coming!
And you could say the same for much of the Infinite back-catalog (“Last Romeo” anyone?). As mentioned in this article, the synthesizer sounds in songs like “The Chaser” (this part in particular) are a nod in the direction of New Order’s “Regret.“
And while we are on the subject of New Order, few acts can be said to have had more of a direct influence on modern K-pop. Speed this kind of thing up by a few BPM and have a Korean act sing over the top of it and it’d be an instant hit in the K-pop charts.
The KARA-Sweetune collaboration also produced a few wait-that-sounds-like-an-80s-song moments. The bass synthesizer section (this bit) in “Lupin” sounds like a sped-up homage to those used in Peter Gabriel’s 1980 single “Games Without Frontiers” (here).
Brave Brothers has also had a stab at the 80s sound, faithfully reproduced in the shape of U-Kiss’ exceptional “I Like You” in 2011.
The track even featured scratching, an early hip-hop turntable technique that originated in the early 1980s. The video went heavy on the fetching headbands, too.
Brave Brothers’ newest group 1Punch is basically an 80s tribute act. The group even regularly namechecks early rap pioneers like Eric B & Rakim, LL Cool J and Slick Rick in songs like this.
Prior to their “Up and Down” horn-fest, EXID and Shinsadong Tiger also toyed about with the 80s sound with songs like “Think About.”
But last year saw the beginning of what looks like a sharp spike in 80s-influenced songs – in particular Dal Shabet’s “B.B.B” and Crayon Pop’s “C’Mon C’Mon,” both unabashed attempts to recapture the 80s audio experience.
After School’s Japanese release last year, “Shh,” was pure 80s synthpop.
It even featured a B-side called “Rock It!” – a title that is an obvious wink in the direction of Herbie Hancock’s landmark 1983 track “Rockit,” considered by many musicians to be one of the most game-changing tracks of the last century.
The keyboard sounds from A Pink’s “Remember” are also classic 80s, indicative of that the 80s theme is now firmly entrenched in 2015 K-pop.
Primary’s latest effort – a collaboration with Lena Park – has also resulted in a sublime slice of 1980s disco-pop. Everyone, it seems, is now at it.
But now SHINee and Wonder Girls have taken the theme to its logical conclusion, we are either on the precipice of full-on 80s revival time in K-pop, or we have reached the peak of the wave, and 80s-themed songs will start to peter out. Only time will tell on that front.
But why the 1980s? Well, for a start, the music really was great back then. Pop sounded like this. And that was a great, energetic, dancey sound – one that vanished all too quickly.
It was bass-led, the melody line was made up of strong, catchy keyboard sounds. It was bold, quite unashamedly sexy and it made you want to move your feet – basically everything you want from a K-pop song in 2015.
The other factor is that K-pop producers are predominantly children of the 1980s: Park Jin Young was born in 1972, Brave Brothers in 1979, Shinsadong Tiger in 1983.
The 80s are the instinctive point of reference for people in this age bracket. And as modern American-British pop has been in chronic decline since the 1990s, K-pop producers have been forced to look for inspiration elsewhere – such as their childhood music collections. Or modern electronica.
And modern electronica musicians have never been crazier about the 80s as right now. The success of artists such as Miami Nights 1984, Droid Bishop, Com Truise, and Chromeo are proof that the 80s sound is not just in fashion among artists, it is in demand, too. It’s not just nostalgic – it actually sounds good. People are actually buying this stuff.
But just as Miami Nights 1984 and their like have perfected the 80s sound for avant-garde electronica, the new Wonder Girls album and “Married to the Music” have done the exact same with mainstream pop.
The 80s sound movement in K-pop is proof (if any more proof were needed) that K-pop no long apes modern Western pop – it has completely outgrown it.
Take a listen to this Soompi-curated playlist of 1980s-flavored K-pop tunes.
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica and a hankering for hip-hop. When he isn’t writing for Soompi, he is remixing your favorite K-Pop tracks – with sometimes astounding (but often catastrophic) results.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not represent Soompi as a whole.