“I Got a Boy”, Marmite, and why Prog-K-Pop is healthy for us all

I Got a Boy has divided K-pop fandom.

Personally when I first watched the MV, I was confused and disappointed. I’d been looking forward to buying the new album, but I changed my mind straight away.

However, I know that my first impressions of music do not last, and there are some songs that I initially really disliked that I now enjoy and play frequently.

I tried listening to it again, this time without watching the video, and found it more enjoyable. I ended up coming to appreciate what was going on in the music, and had it on repeat throughout the day.

I was initially disappointed because I wanted something like the old SNSD, but better. More of the same, but with a bit of an update. What we got instead was something much more demanding and progressive.

“Progressive [rock] songs either avoid common popular music song structures of verse-chorus form, or blur the formal distinctions by extending sections or inserting musical interludes, often with exaggerated dynamics to heighten contrast between sections”

Reading people’s criticism of IGaB reminded me that I’d seen similar things written before. It’s definitely not hip to like Skrillex, but I do, and many of my friends complained about how it just sounded like a mess to them, which is similar to the reaction IGaB has received.

The disappointment with it is because it doesn’t conform to our expectations, and much of the criticism is directed at how disjointed the song feels. I agree with these assessments. However, putting aside my expectations about SNSD and K-pop in general, I also feel that the song still works well when taken as a piece of music in its own right.

Someone online mentioned prog-rock, which reminded me about Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

“Although the song has become one of the most revered in popular music history, some initial critical reaction was poor. Melody Maker said that Queen “contrived to approximate the demented fury of the Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates of Penzance“. The newspaper’s critic Allan Jones heard only a “superficially impressive pastiche” of operatic styles.

I decided to look into the song’s structure a little further, and compared it to a range of different tracks using the online visualisation and remixing tool, Infinite Jukebox.

Briefly, this application displays a song as a disc, cut up into many tiny segments. Lines connect similar segments, where the song could transition from one segment to another. The application plays through the song, and occasionally jumps between similar segments. The end result is a novel remix that potentially plays for ever.

Infinite Jukebox uses a threshold value to determine the similarity of segments, where 0 only matches segments that are very similar to each other, and 100 matches segments that are much less similar.

The application computes a different threshold value for each song, and IGaB defaults to a threshold of 55. I decided to see what some other songs looked like using the same value. Following are screen shots from a range of tracks, all configured with the same threshold. (Click the links to play that track on Infinite Jukebox, but you’ll need to be using Google Chrome as other browsers won’t work.)

Gangnam Style – Psy

This visualisation shows a large amount of repetition, with only small unique portions that are unconnected. Structurally there are two large chunks in the lower right and lower left portions that are effectively the same (the chorus), and which provide a vast web of connections. Perhaps this repetition helped to make the song accessible to an unprecedented global audience.


Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen

This visualisation demonstrates a classic verse-chorus structure, where there are large portions of the song repeated, and connections are bunched together from one area of the track to another distant area. The density of repetition and connections in this pop hit is similar to that exhibited in Gangnam Style.


Bangarang (feat. Sirah) – Skrillex

Perhaps surprisingly this track has a lot of connections, but mostly only to near-by sections of the song. This track doesn’t conform to a very normal verse-chorus type of structure, though the lumps of connections at 2, 5, and 11 o’clock represent the chorus-like parts of the song (where the “Bangarang” sample occurs).


I Am the Best – 2NE1

This has a slightly more regular structure, particular evident are the choruses at 5 and 8 o’clock, separated by verses. There is a fairly large number of connections jumping throughout the whole top section of the song, however, representing a large degree of similarity through the start and end.


Gee – SNSD

The choruses are evident at the 4, 8 and 10 o’clock positions, punctuated by unconnected sections.


I Got a Boy – SNSD

Notice the large sections without any connections. The only connected sections are the choruses (“I got a boy”) at 10 and 11 o’clock, and the “Oh, oh oh way oh” repeats at 2 and 4 o’clock. This and the following tracks are notably sparse and irregular in their structure when compared to the more conventional pop hits above.


Time – Pink Floyd

The only significant sections that repeat with this threshold are instrumental, specifically the lead guitar solo.

Time - Pink Floyd

Overture – Rush

Similar to Time, this prog-rock track only has one slim section of connections, around the 6 o’clock position.

Overture - Rush

Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen

Almost every part of this song is unique, there are effectively no transitions where the same section is repeated over and over, as you’d expect from a traditional verse-chorus structure. Although this is in some sense a pop song, it’s playing with other forms, including classical composition. It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to evaluate it in the same way as one would for Gangnam Style, as the listening experience is completely different.


These visualisations show just how structurally unusual IGaB is. Rather than evaluating it in terms of the more traditional (K-)pop form, I argue that it is best appreciated by suspending conventional expectations and letting the music speak for itself.

Having said that, the transition between rock and prog-rock is not necessarily an easy one, and there are likely to be many music lovers who do not have a taste for the progressive form. The same is obviously true for pop and prog-(K-)pop.

Ultimately this is a question of taste. IGaB does not live up to expectations of the-same-but-better. Instead it presents a new flavour. If you were expecting to eat a spoonful of sugar but got marmite instead it would be quite a shock. However, if you can take it on its own terms you might just come to love it. Others, though, never will.

“The British version of the product is a sticky, dark brown paste with a distinctive, powerful flavour, which is extremely salty. This distinctive taste is reflected in the British company’s marketing slogan: ‘Love it or hate it.'”

Either way, I personally applaud SNSD for making this bold step. Diversity in K-pop is something that I’m sure we’re all happy to support, even though we might not necessarily like every song. It reminds me of S. G. Tallentyre’s characterisation of Voltaire,

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It strikes me as ironic and a shame when a sub-culture begins to behave like the hegemony. This is particularly the case in regards to creative and expressive mediums like music, fashion, and dance. Some of the criticism of IGaB has been levelled at SNSD’s inauthenticity at presenting a hip hop image. I’m grateful that no one owns music, fashion, or style, and I believe that music in particular speaks to something more universal than specifically socio-cultural artefacts and backgrounds. SNSD do not, indeed, come from “the ghetto”, nor I would wager do most of the Western hip hop groups in the music industry. Queen were not a classical orchestra, though thankfully such concerns did not limit their ability to take on the influence of those exotic forms and appropriate them in novel and creative ways. Some of the most interesting creative work comes from stepping outside the normal boundaries, and blending foreign DNA to evolve a new, fitter hybrid.

We would not, I hope, criticise Korean artists for taking on influences from Western pop, rock, motown, disco, or indie. This seems particularly pertinent when talking to a Western audience consuming Korean media. I take great pleasure in the fact that we live in a world where I can wear a mandarin collared jacket without having to worry about cultural inauthenticity or lack of integrity.

Whether IGaB or marmite are to your taste or not, let’s celebrate that these interesting flavours are available for those who do like them. Reinvention and progression in music is healthy and inevitable. With such a high profile band breaking the mold, it might lead the way for further diversity and acceptance in K-pop, indie, hip hop and other creative fields.

In the end that’s good for all of us.


[Edit: 14th January 2013]

Within 24 hours of my post, the LA Times published an article that made some similar points,

In the case of “I Got a Boy,” impatient bursts of synthetic melodies, hooks, bridges, breaks and bass drops change every eight or 16 bars in drastic directions, as though Katy Perry/Kesha producer Dr. Luke were trying to make a modern-day “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“The first time I heard “I Got a Boy,” nothing fit together. … When it clicked after repeated listens, I felt like I’d finished a crossword puzzle.”

“Recent dance pop hits by Rihanna, Carly Rae Jepsen and Lady Gaga have relied more conservatively on the joy of expectations met, delivering streamlined groove tracks that wobble and weave along a single path, modern but still remaining true to the same verse-chorus-verse structure that’s reigned for half a century. “I Got a Boy” travels wherever it wants, like a willful 2-year-old in a McDonald’s Playplace.”

“Such fractured magnetism shouldn’t come as a surprise. You can hear it in the angular bombast of American dubstep, in which the structural warbles and around-the-corner hooks and breakdowns suggest a kind of sonic cubism.”

“Why the structural dissonance? I think it is, in part, the consequence of an instant-access, on-demand era, one in which shuffle and channel-click entertainment choices have altered the relationship between medium and listener.”

‘I Got a Boy’ delivers a scattered anthem of the Girls’ Generation.


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