K-pop songs for skeptics

“Uh… I don’t really like that kind of music” is a sentence which every casual K-pop fan has heard from those in their lives, sometimes accompanied with either a look of disdain or a smirk. But what kind of music do they mean? Ballads? Hip-hop cyphers? Alternative rock? A synth-heavy club music banger? Bubblegum Pop? Laidback jazz-influenced pop? Alternative pop that.. suddenly morphs into dubstep? Because, yes, all of these fall under the broad umbrella of “K-pop.”

What do we mean by K-pop though? Pssst. Our podcast has the answers.


Here are two personal lists from us on the songs we’d recommend to someone who’s new to K-pop and is a little skeptical on what it has to offer. Of course, this comes with all the caveats that accompany such lists.

First, from Rimi.

  1. EXO, “Growl” – Classic boy group energy. Must hear!
  2. Oneus, “Lit” – Traditional + modern fusion music with the usual K-pop energy. Plus you can see the potential of a rookie group right here.
  3. BTS, “Boy With Luv” – Simply because BTS are Rimi’s bias, arguably the biggest thing in K-pop right now & this song has western pop vibes.
  4. Taeyang, “Eyes, Nose, Lips” – Ballad everyone can be emo to.
  5. Stray Kids, “Hellevator” – Dark & depressing lyrical value combined with club banger synths that are so popular these days.
  6. f(x), “Pretty girl”– Because girls sing about more than just boys.
  7. Mamamoo, “Egotistic” – Powerful song with Latin-music vibes.
  8. Twice, “Likey” – Bubblegum Pop at its cheeriest.

Second, from Sadhana

  1. MonstaX, “Hero” – Such a great hype song.
  2. Winner, “Empty” – B side track that was one of the first songs that got me into K-pop.
  3. TVXQ,  “Mirotic” – This is a K-pop classic, but no less hypnotising after all these years.
  4. BTS, “Cypher Pt 4” – You don’t need to know Korean or look up the lyrics to appreciate this song. The rap speaks for itself. (Yes, K-pop groups do Cyphers too.)
  5. Red Velvet, “Sunny Side Up” – This is a laidback but summery pop song that showcases this girl group’s effortless vocals.
  6. Day6, “I Would” – Well, Day6 aren’t exactly K-pop, although some people call them an “idol band.” They’re an alternative rock group that make  fantastic pop-rock songs mostly in Korean. It was super hard for me to narrow down one song from their discography because I’ve been, ahem, having a Day6 moment. And having said that, will recommend another song, Congratulations, the English version of one of their songs. It’s one of the few K-pop songs that I think sounds as good in English as well.
  7. IU, “Palette” – This is also filed under “Not K-pop but well, K-pop” since IU is a solo performer who makes pop ballads. This song in particular, though it seems simple, is a very nice exploration of what it means to truly Become an Adult.

Episode 1: Why do people like K-pop and what *is* it anyway?

We’ve finally uploaded the first episode of our Hello Hallyu podcast!

We talk about all the elements that make K-pop, what drew our attention to it, and try to dismantle some misconceptions that people have about it.

Please listen and let us know your thoughts!

Introducing the podcast and Episode 0 – BTS World and Contract disputes in K-pop, Gray and Motte

Hello! We’ve started a Hello Hallyu podcast bringing you bi-weekly episodes on everything Hallyu and its fandom. Hosts Rimi and Sadhana alternate between talking about news that caught their attention and in-depth explorations of a particular topic.

This is the transcript of the first episode, which we’ve titled Episode 0 as we’re still figuring out podcasting, and as Sadhana tries not to be awkward. Think of this as the beta episode. But please let us know your thoughts!

(Transcript slightly edited and condensed for clarity)

[Intro] Hello and welcome to episode 1 of the Hello Hallyu podcast bringing you insightful views, news, and reviews on everything Hallyu and its fandom! We’re your hosts

R: I’m Rimi, a practicing lawyer and K-pop and K-drama fan.

S: and I’m Sadhana, I work in tech and I’m a freelance writer. I’m interested in K-pop, K-dramas and the business of Hallyu.

R: We plan to alternate between general newsy episodes and more specific themed episodes. This is a general newsy episode where we highlight a couple of things over the past few weeks that caught our attention. 

S: We’ll also introduce you to songs that caught our fancy because Rimi and I listen to different types of music. I think apart from BTS we don’t really like any of the same bands or groups. It should be interesting.

R: That is true. So first we’ll play a little clip from a song that I recently heard and I absolutely love! It came out on 30 April 2019. It’s TMI by Gray and it opens with a lovely little guitar that I absolutely adore.

R: That’s a short clip of Gray’s TMI. It’s such a lovely song. Gray is a music producer who has worked with a number of K-pop artists he doesn’t really release a lot of his own songs, so this is a beautiful, beautiful, rare gem. In this song titled TMI, gray gives you some TMI about himself The lyrics are about he woke up this morning, he wanted to go out but the weather was bad, he decided to stay in, he had bread and eggs for breakfast and he calls it TMI. But that’s not really TMI is it? That’s really quite literal. He’s not really telling us the colour of his underwear or anything. 

S: I think the use of TMI is interesting because I think they use it a bit differently in South Korea. (I think) they use it in the place of trivia. When we hear TMI we expect to hear underwear-y type of stuff. So I think when you mention trivial things about your day, like you mentioned eggs, or what he ate. So..

R: Right, there’s also that interview where (BTS) Namjoon says something  very trivial about himself and he calls it TMI. 

So I really recommend this song, check it out. Read the lyrics, they’re great. They’re funny, Gray is witty! So moving on. 

Things that caught your attention over the past few weeks Sadhana? 

S: Yup. So the news that caught my attention is the announcement of Bighit’s game. Bighit and Netmarble’s game where a user essentially manages BTS. You play as a manager of BTS and you get to see them through from their debut to where they are now.

And I saw a few people speculating whether this would have a romance aspect, whether as a manager you would fall into a romance line with one of the members. Personally, I don’t think that will happen but why people are talking about it is there are strong precedents and very popular games that do this. It’s a genre called Otome games and it started in Japan primarily for young women. You know how men have harem manga or anime where there’s one guy and there are six women and they’re all trying to vie for his attention. This is the opposite of that. You play as a character who has five or six different men of different types – you have the tsundere guy, the rich guy- and all these different types of guys vying for you. 

And like with visual novels, which are a kind of an interactive text novel with some gameplay elements – you have a few ways in which the story can progress based on your choices. Taking that a little further you have the same story-based game where you have mini-games where maybe a guy will fall for you only if you have a certain IQ or you have certain attributes.

Sorry, Why I’m saying all this is there is this very popular South Korean game that’s in this dating sim genre where it syncs to your phone and it actually sends (push notification) messages to you. Let’s say I start playing the game today and I get a message at 1 in the night from one of the characters in the game saying hey it’s late at night, I need this, can you do this? So you actually have to go into the game and play it as if it’s real. I’m wondering if BTS would some of those elements 

R: That would be a totally forbidden romance! A manager dating an idol 

S: Right! So imagine getting a text on your phone from Jin or Jimin

R: When it’s 3 or 4 a.m.

S: Maybe you have to set an alarm and take them to practice when it’s  5 a.m.! 

R: Of course we’re speculating that this will be the nature of the game. It may just be simple managerial duties. But even so, a game that’s sending you a text at 3 a.m. I mean this kind of stuff it sounds a little bit… To me, I don’t play games at all so it sounds like it’s taking it a little too far… almost unhealthy dangerous obsession

S: You’re thinking it’s speculation but why I went down this road is if you go to the website, there’s an intro screen and if you go to another page there’s a mockup of a phone and they ask you for access to your laptop’s camera and when you give them the access, your live cam is in that little box in the phone and the screen is like you’re getting a call from BTS. The first part is like you’re getting a call from Jimin and J-Hope and they’re saying “Manager-nim where are you?”

R: OMG, this really sounds…. The K-pop fandom sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, get accused of being obsessive.. All fandoms in fact can be guilty of this.. But this is actively creating that kind of unhealthy obsession 

S: Exactly. That’s why I’m interested in how far they’ll take this. But that’s not even the worst part for me. For me the worst part is, so the video stops after the first three seconds and it says “To view more of the video share this on Twitter, Line, something else” So if you share it on twitter you get a few more seconds of the video. If you share it on something else, a few more seconds. If just the preview, before the game is even released is like this, you can imagine the kind of marketing or promo that will go in the actual game .

R: Wow, I shudder. I mean the game frankly, it’s not a bad idea. Then one has to wonder whether or not Netmarble and Bighit are treating this responsibly. Are they taking it too far? Which is a good question. That we will know when the game is out. 

S: I’m  saying this as somebody who actually plays these games. I wanted to say “used to” but if I’m being honest I still play these management-sim type games from time to time. And they’re great fun. Because you get to see what goes on. That’s one of the things I was curious about regarding the game… 

Because is it just going to be you’ll have these choices ready made for you and you’ll do A, B, C, D to get to the end point. Or will this game actually help Armys get an idea of the kind of management choices that made BTS who they are. In a sim game like this, if you take the wrong choice you lose some points or something negative happens or you go back to a certain way. Seeing how Bighit handles that as well, seeing as there are a lot of people who read too much into it or they don’t want to see any of that. So I’m curious as to whether we’ll see any of that. 

R: That’s really fascinating!

S: I think it would be a great game if they did that. But I’m not sure. 

R: Yeah we’ll know soon enough. 

R: The news that caught my eye is the news about Kang Daniel’s contract dispute with LM Entertainment. So LM Entertainment is an agency formed solely to manage Kang Daniel and Yoon Jisung after their contracts with Wanna One expired and LM Entertainment manages only these two artists and they have somehow managed to do them both horribly wrong. 

With regard to Yoon Jijsung they have requested for a trademark to his name. That’s the name he promotes with Jisung. You know this is a really restrictive thing they have done.

IF the trademark request is granted it would severely restrict should he want to leave LM Entertainment he will not be able to promote under his own name. The brand that he built under Yoon Jisung. For example Beast had to adopt a new name Highlight when they left Cube because the name Beast was trademarked by Cube Entertainment. So unless LM gives Yoon Jisung the rights or he buys them from LM Entertainment he’s not able to promote under his own name which is really, really restrictive.

With regard to Kang Daniel it seems that they created a contract with a third party and they handed over a lot of the rights to the third party and it seems Kang Daniel was not consulted. Therefore he approached the courts and the courts have now suspended his exclusive contract with LM Entertainment. Which is great.

Kang Daniel is a very valuable asset for any agencies. I’m sorry, I don’t intend to speak of an idol or a person as an asset to think that he was held back since January to now we are in May because of his agency is  very sad. He’s very young, he’s got a promising career. So I’m glad Kang Daniel is free of LM Entertainment for now

S: It’s surprising right? To think that they’re managing just two artists and they’ve managed to botch both of their careers.

R: I’m guessing that because these two guys are coming from Wanna One and Kang Daniel is the biggest name even from Wanna One so I’m guessing the agency just got too greedy.

S: We hear a lot about how terrible the big three, the bigger agencies are but it looks like even the smaller agencies don’t escape that.

R: Right.

S:  Maybe there’s even more pressure on them since they have fewer artists to bank on…

R: I think so. You can really see the ways in which the industry exploits its idols in this setup. So even Bighit has trademarked the name BTS and the name Army that means if the BTS members leave Bighit all in one go then like Highlight they’ll be forced to change their name. I mean a group is one thing, but to trademark an individual’s name the way they have done with Yoon Jisung, that doesn’t fit quite well. 

S: Is that his real name though? 

R: Yeah, apparently that’s his real name.

S: That’s worse. If he by any chance, leaves his agency he has to adopt a new name because he can’t use his real name.

R: Not to promote commercially, yes. But that trademark request has not yet been granted. We don’t know what will happen. This, as far as I can tell, is the first time that an individual’s given name is sought to be trademarked by an agency. So we’ll see how that pans out. 

S: I wonder how many other trademarks are there. Do all the agencies trademark their artist and fandom names? Is that why people come up with weird fandom names?

R: I don’t think a lot of fandom names are trademarked. For instance, you know how Bighit’s new group TXT, their fandom name was announced to be Young Ones and that very quickly ran into trouble because Tiffany Young was also using Young Ones but she was using it informally, she hadn’t trademarked it or anything.

Bighit, in the checks that they conducted, they didn’t catch on to the fact that Tiffany Young was using this as well for her fans and I think they probably missed it because she has not trademarked it. They must have run through all the legal checks. Anyway TXT are changing their fandom name but yeah.

S: I can’t think of them as T “by” T, I just read it as T(e)XT.

R: Yeah! I’m trying really hard to say T”by”T and not TXT! 

S: T”by”T sounds like a new group. Who’s this group? I don’t know this group.

R: I try very hard to say TXT and not TXT.

S: No, they’re T(e)XT. Their fandom name should be Messages.

R: Haha, I agree, but that’s *laughs*

R: So then, is there a song that you recommend? 

S: Yep. There is. So I came across this song on bandcamp. I was listening to songs from this indie record label called Ruby Records and this is by one of their artists called Motte. But I can’t find any information on her. I searched on Google, on Naver, I just found out she was born in 1996. I can’t even find her real name. This song I’m playing is called A Day Alone.

I quite like the Korean title better which translates to “Comfortably Alone” and I think you can sense from the song without knowing the lyrics that it’s about this laidback day that this person’s having and it’s interesting that you chose Gray’s song which is about a similar kind of day. So she’s singing about how she woke up at 3 in the afternoon, she’s got nothing to do, she’s got no new messages, she doesn’t want to watch a movie or go out but that she’s happy staying in, and she’s happy to have that alone time for herself. 

R: That’s really nice! 

S: I think the music reflects that very well. I can picture myself sitting, lazing around and having given up on doing anything in the day but it’s a comfortable kind of giving up, it’s a very content kind of giving up where you’re like okay, yes I have this time to myself and as an introvert I find that very necessary to function so hearing a song about that kind of experience was actually very interesting and she has a very unique voice which I liked a lot and was what attracted me to her music. And there’s one line, a very poignant line where she says “Like the moon in a midday sky, I want to hang around faintly.” 

R: That’s beautiful!

S: Yeah! Who hasn’t felt that from time to time? But that expression, it’s something that struck me quite deeply. 

R: It evokes quite a beautiful imagery, the moon in the midday sky. That’s very beautiful. Did you find a translated version of the lyrics on the music video?

S: No it’s not on the video, but someone’s done it on their blog. You’ll also find her on Spotify. She’s also recently done a few OSTs one for Romance is a Bonus Book and one for My Strange Hero so I think we’ll be hearing more from her soon. 

R: That’s really nice. I look forward to it. 

S: Me too. So that’s my choice for today.

R: So that’s episode 0. We’ll be back soon! 

BTS Jin: “This Night”

BTS songs made by the members themselves are the very best of BTS’s body of work. What I love about this group lies in the Soundcloud releases, the covers, the hidden tracks, the collaborations, the mixtapes and the more personal B-sides.

Released on Soundcloud as part of 2019 Festa celebrations, “This Night”, Jin’s latest solo – his first self composed effort – is everything that made me fall in love with BTS. Jin may not be BTS’s strongest singer (says who?), but he is certainly very good at expressing his emotions through his voice. “This Night” contains four distinct parts, with Jin’s voice getting higher in each. The lyrics describe the feeling of loneliness after you’ve lost a loved one. Jin says he wrote it while thinking of his “animal companions” that recently passed away. But the lyrics are universal, and applicable to a broader range of situations.

That endlessly transparent gaze,
The touch I got too used to,
The face that smiled at me,
Will I be never be able to see you again?

As Jin goes deeper into the song, and into his memories of his animal companies, the music builds up and his voice gets higher. I imagine his feelings are strongest near the end, when suddenly, the music drops off, and we’re back to where we began – a simple guitar and Jin’s voice, now in the distance as though he is aware this is only a memory. Of a time that will never return.

When this night passes,
I’m afraid I won’t be able to see you.
When this night passes,
I’m afraid I will be left all alone

I find it hard to describe what this song made me feel. Satisfied? Full? Sad? Or is it perhaps a mixture of these many emotions. I was a little disappointed with “Map Of The Soul: Persona”. My expectations were too high. It is an exceptional album, but I wanted something more. With this, I am reassured. Bangtan are still the Bangtan I fell in love with.

Happy Festa, ARMY!

(Image via Dispatch, Lyrics via fan translations on twitter)

On cancer, caregiving, and finding comfort in the familiar via Korean dramas

Two minutes on a chilly Bangalore morning in July 2016 that I still don’t remember (I blacked out) changed my life. I fell off the motorbike I was driving, smashed half my face, lost four of my front teeth, and fractured my nose. I went from living the life 16-year-old me had dreamed of (writing for a living, living in a Big City with friends) to gulping food through straws and was back in my bedroom in my parents’ house.

In the year that followed the accident, I quit my journalism job and moved back home to finish the treatment, had a surgery, and found myself with lots of free time in between umpteen dental visits.

I had exhausted my to-watch list and was looking for something new to watch on Netflix when my eyes fell on a pastel-hued thumbnail featuring a confused woman. The show was called “Hello, My Twenties” and was apparently about four young women in Seoul, South Korea, who share a house and how they learn to navigate work, love, and life. That sounded like it could have been my friends and me, so I clicked play. I’ve been watching Korean dramas ever since.

This was because, after watching them on and off in 2017, dramas had become a crucial coping I would come to rely on – maybe a tad excessively – in 2018. I spent most of the year as a primary caregiver for my father who was diagnosed with cancer.

The worst part of caring for someone with cancer is not the endless hours spent at the hospitals, waiting for tests, waiting for doctors, waiting for nurses, waiting for results, or watching your loved ones go through painful procedures over and over again. The worst part is the uncertainty.

Our regular experience with doctors and diseases is that they know exactly how long it will take to cure your ailments and what to do – antibiotics, twice a day, for five days; an allergy shot; a prescription of vitamin D to be taken once a day for a month.

With cancer, however, there are only ifs and maybes and questions no one has the answer to. Five years – time that you wouldn’t think was significant otherwise – is the most hopeful metric doctors can offer, if that. Cancer means a 60% chance is very good news, and there are no guaranteed results even if you follow everything by the book.

As I navigated this world, I turned to Korean dramas to give me the sense of stability that I couldn’t hope for from real life.

Most weekly dramas are 16 episodes long, and air twice a week. When I started watching a drama, I didn’t know what my father or my family would look like in the eight weeks it would take for the drama to finish airing. But I could depend on knowing that in the drama at least, the loose ends would be tied up, the bad guys would get their due, and there might even a happily-ever-montage for all the characters.

I think what I liked the most was that, if I chose to, I could skip episodes 11-14 where the Bad Stuff usually goes down – parental disapproval; the ghost possesses one of the leads; the serial killer is out to get the lead’s family’s lives – and get to the reasonably happy ending.

I was living my own episodes 11-14. But there was no skip button for real life. I desperately wished for a skip button for real life.

I was so wrapped up in the world of hospitals, blood tests, gastro-intestinal feeding tubes and learning the side-reactions of the 12 medicines my father had to take every day, and keeping up a façade of being strong, that I isolated myself from those around me, and shut down.

Instead, I found solace from the dialogues meant to soothe troubled characters I didn’t have much in common with. The very sentences I would have deemed corny or cringe inducing had they been in my mother tongue (just because you’re not crying doesn’t mean you’re not sad. Just like how smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy) allowed me to access an emotional space I was denying myself otherwise.

My father’s oncologist, a kind, portly and balding sixty-something man would try to take some time out to talk to me whenever I went to him to discuss my father’s prognosis. Once, he took a long look at me and said, “You’re withering. I don’t think you can go on like this for much longer, you need to make some changes.” I cut my hair the shortest it was after kindergarten. I didn’t think I was in a position to make any other changes.

I could only give my friends vague answers when they asked me how I spent my days. How could they understand the minutes of “real life” my mother and I snatched between waking up, calculating the calorie count of my father’s feed, preparing it, cleaning the feeding bag, flushing his tube with a syringe before the feed, monitoring the intake of the feed, flushing the tube with a syringe after the feed, cleaning the bag, and repeating this process every couple of hours before sleeping?

I continued. I watched dramas – on my phone while waiting for the chemo infusion to be completed, on the laptop in the last hour before sleep that was completely mine, on my phone again waiting for reports, for yet more doctors, and while shuttling between hospitals and home.

By this time, I had started learning Korean. Perhaps because I could pick up the elegant alphabet, Hangul, in less than a week, or perhaps because it sounded familiar due to the dozens of hours I’d spend listening to it every month, Korean was the only language that stuck, among the four languages I was trying to teach myself on the apps Memrise and Duolingo.

Journaling in Korean with the few words I knew allowed me to articulate, if it could be called that, and accept the situations I was in.

아버지는 죽을 수도 있고 내가 있는 일은 없다.

Soon, I fell violently ill. A severe fever and cold rendered me immobile for a few days and it was the first full break I had got from caregiving in months. I knew it was my body’s way of responding to the continued stress and burnout I had been experiencing.

I kept putting off starting therapy but I started going for walks with a special “K-pop for morning walks” playlist full of up-tempo tracks I had created. My Korean listening now extended to music as well. I started colouring too. I couldn’t afford another bout of illness – the first one proved to be very hard on my poor mother.

Caregiving had turned me – a TV junkie – off most shows I would have loved otherwise. I started watching Killing Eve. It featured a brilliant performance from Eve and Villanelle in their cat and mouse game. I couldn’t finish it. Eve wasn’t going to get killed and Villanelle certainly wasn’t to going to get caught. It would end in what I would have previously thought was a great cliff-hanger. I would have to wait a year or two until the next season. I couldn’t stomach the thought of that open ending. As for waiting for a year? A week looked very precious.

Caregiving also means you are always aware of exactly how much pain your charge is in from a scale of 1-10, and carry it around in small notebooks. “Is the pain a six now? That’s better. The medicine is working then. It was an eight, two hours ago.”

What I loved about the golden age of Television – that it captured the nuances of the mundane and the miserable, the cruel irony of life, how real it got, and despite everything how life went on anyway – were the very things that put me off it. I was seeing enough of those in the wards and waiting rooms where I spent most of my waking hours.

The sometimes cliché plots, recycled tropes, and embarrassingly earnest characters that make some people dismiss Korean dramas, were the very things that kept me going back to it.

In a good drama, you root for the character, you celebrate their successes, you have intense second hand embarrassment at their clumsiness. You despair at their hardships. Good dramas have heart, and they make you feel.

When I stopped to think about it, I realised the comfort I derived from dramas was similar to one I derived from reading genre fiction – due to their superb use of narrative, and showing us the uniqueness in the universal.

I found out through online drama communities that I was not the only one who took solace in them this way. I live in a city called Hyderabad, in southern India, but I could have easily been from Singapore, or Syria, or Egypt, Australia or America – all countries where some of the drama-fans I’ve spoken to were from.

All this is not to dismiss the problematic content in some dramas – the sexism and the casual glorification of family violence. Some friends ask me how I continue to watch dramas despite this. Maybe I’ll grow out of it someday, maybe I won’t, but I wonder if they would ever question someone who closely follows American pop culture because of the misogyny in shows like Two and a half Men. 

Now, I’ve come to my own episode 15 where things have settled down, but not fully resolved. I no longer have to track my father’s pain or weight-loss every day. We still have to go the hospital for a treatment every couple of months, but the cancer has almost disappeared, and we are cautiously optimistic.

For the first time in 14 months, I can, without great fear, look forward to something. I’m thinking about finishing the first season of Killing Eve this weekend. I’m not certain what episode 16 has in store for me but it sure includes a drama or two.