The HoMin/JYJ Divide: Does it apply to the music as well?

Yes, I'm back! With the first actual, not-2011-related, post! Something I managed to whip up between all the whacked out critical papers and the mountain of Japanese verbs I've had to deal with over the past few weeks.

A note before we start. This was not originally written for Pop Reviews Now, so the tone of the piece is a lot more serious and there are a lot more examples.


Whatever you choose to think about DBSK, you simply cannot deny the fact that they are an extremely musical idol group. While other groups put a premium on performance, on looks, or on gags, DBSK are one of those who put a premium on the music, on their vocals, their material, and their identity as a musical group. In doing that, they have, whether subconsciously or not, created a “DBSK sound”, which is both consistent and dynamic, and which has ultimately cemented a place in K-Pop history for them. However, that sound took five members to build and deliver, and with the original five members parting their ways leaving only two to promote with the DBSK name, things are bound to change, right? Well, musically at least.


Looking at DBSK’s discography with five members, from 2003’s “Hug” in Korea, all the way up to 2010’s “Time, Please Stop” in Japan, there’s quite a mix of different styles and sounds, and that’s the first thing DBSK’s music possessed -- versatility. Although there are certain sounds that they’re more known for, like ballads, and the likes of “Rising Sun”, they’ve had their fair share of experimentation too. Looking at promotions for their first album alone, which included songs such as “Hug”, a mid-tempo, “I Believe”, a ballad, and later “Tri-Angle”, a heavy, rock and orchestra-inspired song which was also the album’s title track, the group is very well-rounded in terms of musical styles. Looking even further, the jump from their 2006 hit single “O - Jung. Ban. Hap.” to “Balloons” was rather shocking, but they still managed to carry it well. While they were promoting in Japan they also showcased numerous different sounds, including a retro-inspired “Choosey Lover”, a modern “Purple Line”, and a dark but auto-tune heavy “BREAK OUT!” among others. Their ability to challenge different styles without losing their identity can be put down to my next point.

Despite all the different sounds and all the experimentation they did, what remained constant with their releases was that they were all melodic, they all required actual singing. Their singles put weight on the melody, the type of melody that required more than three notes, and actual vocal ability. Even “Hug”, which sounds very unassuming, is actually quite difficult to sing, because it’s slightly higher than the normal male range. When their songs featured catchy hooks, rap parts and dance breaks, like those in “Mirotic” and “O - Jung. Ban. Hap.”, they were all still melodic, and that’s mostly because the five members have the vocals to carry very difficult melodies. They even had releases which were all singing and no rapping, such as “Forever Love”, “Picture of You”, and even “BREAK OUT!”. This showed that while they were proficient in rap and all of them rapped at one point of their careers, they are, first and foremost, singers.

In addition to difficult melodies, DBSK are well-known for their high-intensity, elaborate lead singles, “Rising Sun” and the aforementioned “O - Jung. Ban. Hap.”. These songs have become somewhat the epitome of DBSK releases, because aside from the fact that the songs themselves are very ambitious and sounded very epic, the five were actually able to consistently do them justice. There are only a handful of actual live performances of these songs in Korea, but their performances of these songs in Japan provided us with the proof we need, that DBSK can indeed sing, and sing well. The five members all have unique voices, they’re all very competent, but they also have the technique and the training to aid what comes naturally to them. It’s that technique which has ultimately allowed them to sustain the difficult melodies and carry the very elaborate song structures, that not only demanded them to sing, but also to simultaneously dance and rap.

“Rising Sun” demands a whole range of vocals, from Yoochun and Yunho’s rapping, to Jaejoong
and Junsu’s strong, melodic verses and almost savage choruses, all the way to Changmin’s now- legendary scream and his and Yoochun’s Indian-inspired middle 8 turned dance and rap break, but in addition to the technique they have, the right parts were assigned to the right members, and the song managed to fit all of them, while bringing out what they did best.

Speaking of Changmin’s screams, another thing DBSK are known for is their ability to belt out high notes on-demand. While they were indeed trained and they indeed possess the proper technique to carry themselves through a range of different styles, at the end of the day they were trained for pop music, and in pop, it is almost mandatory for a “good singer” to hit the highest notes possible. DBSK can do that too. The likes of “Bolero” and “Love in the Ice”, especially the middle eights where everyone takes turns hitting high notes, prove that all of them, even Yunho who is sometimes considered the weakest singer in the group, are capable of pop music’s demands.


The usual idol group has maybe one or two very consistent and able voices, three if they’re lucky, and so basically those people get center stage on stage and the other members just let them. Not DBSK -- they have five good voices, some stunning. However, having five trained and naturally able voices doesn’t always mean that they’ll be able to work together well. Most of the time, putting even just two strong vocalists together can mean a power struggle if they can’t put aside their big egos and diva attitudes. That’s definitely not the case with DBSK. What they’ve managed to do is take that “let the star take the lead” mindset, without forgetting that they can all sing, and that’s exactly why their a capella work is so good. Look at the likes of “Always There” and “Whatever They Say”, and even their impromptu a capella, and it works because they have a strong group dynamic, not only in the way they treat each other and live together, but in the way they sing. They are very good solo singers, that has been proven time and time again, but all of them also know how to stand back and let the guy beside get his few seconds of fame. If they didn’t know how to do that, if they had no concept of helping each other out with tempo and key, there would have been no such thing as an a capella version of “Hug” during their 2007 “Five In the Black” tour in Japan. For a pop singer, it’s hard enough to stand in the background while someone else takes the lead, and it’s probably the hardest thing to actually help that guy taking the lead, but to DBSK, as shown by their strong a capella work, it’s second nature.

The last feature of DBSK’s musical identity shifts our focus away from the finished product and in to the production side of things. All five members have, one way or another, contributed something to the production of their material. Although only a few of those songs were ultimately released as singles, unlike the likes of G-Dragon and other songwriting idols, the simple fact that they were writing their own songs while under an agency like SM Entertainment where they could have just sit back and let in-house producers like Yoo Young Jin hand them songs on a silver platter means that they had the incentive to try, and that they were actually succeeding and producing release-quality material. While they were still spoon-fed lead singles and majority of their album tracks, they made an investment by learning how to do things themselves. They still have a long way to go, and the songs that were ultimately put on major releases were still tweaked and fixed by professionals from their record labels, but you really can’t run before you learn how to walk. This served as the beginning of much more control over their music in the future, and a chance to further their musical identity, which is definitely a priority to them.

Examples of their expanding roles in production are Jaejoong’s “Don’t Forget” (Japan), Yoochun’s
“Kiss The Baby Sky” (Japan), which was the theme song for the Japanese TV program “Zoom In”, and both songs received A-side billing in Japan. The single which featured the two songs topped the Oricon Weekly Singles Chart and after less than a month was certified platinum for sales of over 100,000 copies. Jaejoong and Yoochun’s collaboration, both in production and delivery, “Colors ~Melody and Harmony~”, was the theme song for Hello Kitty’s 35th anniversary and topped the Oricon Weekly Singles Chart in 2009. The five of them also had a hand in album tracks such as “White Lie” (Junsu, Korea), “9095” (Jaejoong, Japan), “Don't Cry My Lover” (Jaejoong, Korea), “Love Bye Love” (Yoochun, Korea), “Evergreen” (Yoochun, with lyrics by Changmin, Korea). As well as lyrics like Changmin’s Korean version of “Love In the Ice” , Junsu’s “Picture of You” (Korea), and numerous rap parts by Yoochun and Yunho, among others.

To sum up the “DBSK sound”, their strong vocals allow them to one, experiment with sounds and styles, two, carry difficult melodies placed in three, elaborate and technically-demanding song structures, while four, fulfilling the demands of pop music, such as catchy hooks and five, constantly showing off their ability to sing in much higher ranges than what’s comfortable, and six, doing that while keeping in mind that there are four other talented singers in the group and thus delivering solid harmonies and a capella work. And lastly, they have the initiative to further that “DBSK sound” by doing it on their own and learning how to compose and write material by themselves, which will better reflect who they are, not only as vocalists and idols, but as musicians.

So, which of these characteristics were more evident in “Why? (Keep Your Head Down)” and “IN HEAVEN” than the others? That’s not to say that one song is completely devoid of a certain characteristic, but it’s just that it’s more evident in the other. However, before we get to the two songs, we have to remember that what was once done by five is now being done by groups of two and three, and so many things have changed in the individual members’ roles that do affect the delivery, and even the songs themselves.

“Why? (Keep Your Head Down)” is similar in sound to the likes of “Rising Sun”, in the sense that it demands a lot from Yunho and Changmin, not just in terms of dancing and the over-all performance, but more so in their vocals. In addition to both of them having to rap, they also have to deliver a very powerful and demanding melody, that can’t just be sung with one kind of voice. It’s still melodic and it still has flow, but it’s also a bit disjointed and shifts quickly so breathing, and technique in general, is crucial in the delivery of this song. What Changmin and Yunho took from the five-member DBSK sound is the technique and their ability to pull of very elaborate melodies. Breathing at the wrong place will sound awkward, and singing the wrong way will completely defeat the purpose of the song. Also, Changmin’s screaming at the end is more than just belting out a random note, it’s all about technique and pacing and, again, breathing. While Jaejoong, Yoochun and Junsu also have technique, and it’s what made them even better singers than they already were, Yunho and Changmin were more of the learned voices, in the sense that they may not have been the best at the beginning (and also, Yunho has a throat problem), but they put emphasis on their technique and ultimately become the singers they are now.

They are literally jumping through hoops and fire with their voices on this track -- it’s an elaborate melody with a catchy hook, it requires a lot of energy and learned technique to pull off, but it’s still melodic and still requires actual singing.

“IN HEAVEN”, on the other hand, is a ballad, and so it’s really dependent on JYJ’s belting and harmonies. The first two choruses, which are usually devoid of extremely high notes, are sung higher than the comfortable men’s range, showing off their vocal ranges. The entire middle eight is a parade of high notes placed over a chorus of JYJ’s vocals, somewhat similar in structure to those of “Love In The Ice” and “Bolero”. In addition to the very obvious harmonies throughout the verses and choruses, the last line of the middle eight is a two-part harmony of high notes by Jaejoong and Junsu. Jaejoong, Yoochun and Junsu’s vocals are all very proficient, Junsu is known as one of Korea’s most beautiful voices, and Jaejoong was the lead vocalist for DBSK, so while the screaming has always been up to Changmin, the high notes are definitely not a problem. It’s not just their vocals though, because the dynamic of the three voices, and their delivery, is crucial in the song making sense. While the melody should be the dominant line, the harmony can’t just slack off and disappear -- it has to be audible, but not overpowering, and It was just that.

While “Why? (Keep Your Head Down)” makes the vocals obey the song and really follow everything to the last detail, “IN HEAVEN” is much less structured and elaborate, it’s a simple verse- chorus-etc. template, and so the vocals carry the song. The song requires technique, but more of how to scream your head off without actually losing your head, about letting it go, but with control. And lastly, the songwriting angle. “IN HEAVEN” was written, composed and co-arranged by Jaejoong, who, along with Yoochun, was one of the more “published” composers during DBSK’s time as five.

But then again, another way to look at the divide is that circumstances have changed. Even if the two
groups’ roots lie with the five-member DBSK, and even if that’s all they knew prior to the split, as musicians it’s also inevitable to grow artistically. They’ve changed since their last Korean and even Japanese release as five, and so they would’ve moved forward as separate entities and add certain elements which the old DBSK would never have done. That’s completely valid too -- that was the past, this is the present. However, at the end of the day it’s really inevitable that JYJ and the two-piece DBSK take things from the “DBSK sound”, because that was their foundation, and maybe for Yunho and Changmin, that's what SME wants them to do. All their basic knowledge in singing, of performing, and of their artistry, all of that came from the training they received and their work in and out of the studio, on and off stage. DBSK taught them the rudiments, and although foundations are extremely important, so is growth.

3 comments:

  1. I coincidently began to like DBSK the same time as you did. I just have to point this out ^^
    I don't have much knowledge about music such as the high notes, but I can identify excellent bands and songs that are worthy to listen to.
    DBSK is one of them, especially when the 5 members are together. The way they harmonise and how their voices work so well together are what I love about them. And because of this, I can listen to literally every song of theirs with much interest, and yes, even rock despite the fact I hate the genre.
    The division of the group is quite sad because my interest in the two subgroups's music has gone down. I still listen to their new songs but instead of patiently listening to every single song in the album/single, now I only chose the ones that are catchy. Not by any means that I'm saying their new music is crap;it's just that there are something missing.
    Homin and JYJ's musical directions indeed are heading different ways.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello! I'm also a Filipino and a K-pop fan. I've found your blog a few months ago, and since then, i learned to appreciate K-pop music from a new perspective. I love reading your reviews, the way you describe each song is amazing. This may be off-topic, but what can you say about EXO's prologue songs ("What is Love" and "History")? Coz I really think these are amazing songs. One catch though is that many people think that EXO's concept is a bit similar to TVXQ. As a Cassie, what can you say about this?

    ReplyDelete
  3. i love reading your analyses as far as the musical direction, and not solely focused on the technical intricacies of the respective groups' songs. I can definitely sense your admiration and passion for TVXQ's music and I'm hoping you will keep up the good work so I can read more of your awesome posts in the future!

    ReplyDelete

 

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