DBSK - “Rising Sun”

Pop Reviews Now has always been a place for me to experiment with my writing, to push myself and maybe even the boundaries of K-Pop writing, whether consciously or not. I'm not a professional writer just yet, and I don't answer to any set of guidelines just yet -- while I can still experiment with my writing and come up with all these crazy pieces, I want to continue to do so. Because I know that by next year once I graduate, I won't have this much time to spare. This "Rising Sun" review in particular is probably the most daring review I've written, ever. I have sort of an unwritten rule for myself that I don’t formally review five-piece DBSK lead singles because I know that 95% of the time the reviews are just going to turn into fangirling sessions over how talented DBSK are and how execution is everything. But I’m also hesitant because certain DBSK lead singles are also technically and conceptually complex and up until recently I didn’t think I was proficient enough to discuss them the way I want to, which is as the outstanding songs they are in their own right. I’d like to thank the participants of the Fourth K-Pop Writers’ Workshop for their invaluable feedback on this piece, it was an absolute honor to have the help of such talented writers. Thank you for all the kind words, the encouragement, for not only helping me with this piece, but also for making me think long and hard about my purpose as a writer and critic.
Next to 2008’s “Mirotic,” “Rising Sun” is one of DBSK’s most technically-challenging and most remembered songs, and for good reason. This was the song that catapulted them from behind the shadows of H.O.T. and Shinhwa to the beginning of their rise to one of K-Pop's most commercially and artistically prolific acts by establishing the five members not only as strong vocalists, but as a idols who were jacks of all trades and masters of everything. Up to this day, "Rising Sun" remains a DBSK concert staple that shows off the extent of their abilities while presenting a visually-stunning show.

Because of its status as the DBSK song, “Rising Sun” is the type of song that rookie groups touch with a ten-foot pole, and only if they really have to -- rookie-era SHINee performed a section of it for MKMF 2008 in tribute to DBSK, and a few years later BTOB (who are one of DBSK’s many self-confessed idol fans) came up with an entertaining and surprisingly technically proficient karaoke-style version/parody. Few groups will attempt to seriously perform the whole song (most of the time they opt to perform the choreography only), if they even will at all because “Rising Sun” demands so much more than competence from its performers, a challenge that Jaejoong, Yunho, Junsu, Yoochun and Changmin rose up to and consistently succeeded at.

Like rookie groups, as far as I know K-Pop writers hardly touch on the specifics of “Rising Sun” precisely because it’s such a loaded song. Even if I've written a lot of things on it over the years -- I reviewed the 2005 album as a whole and glossed over why I had grown to like the defining lead single, I talked about Yunho and Changmin’s 2011 performance, I fangirled with a close friend and I even used it as an embodiment of SMP conceptualization -- I’ve never written a formal review. For the longest time my attitude was that there’s so much to talk about when you start with “Rising Sun,” that it gets overwhelming and I don't want to review it if I don't have the capacity to explore all the important elements and the comprehension needed to break things down. But I think this is the right time to make an attempt, now that I’m more experienced and (hopefully) knowledgeable enough to tackle such a monster of a song.

SM Music Performance
Even if I narrow things down to an analysis of the music itself, there’s a lot of cover when we talk of “Rising Sun.” So it would be best to first discuss how it is classified and subsequently marketed as an SMP composition, because this is where we can draw a set of clear guidelines in order to proceed with an in-depth analysis. 

When I first got interested in K-Pop I didn’t really know what SMP was, and even later when figured out commonalities in all the SMP tracks I had heard I still didn’t understand it as much as I would have liked to. The impression I got was that as far as international fandom is concerned (whose resources I’m confined to because of my limited knowledge of Korean), SMP is “that style of SM songs,” that most fans didn’t really know what it was supposed to be exactly and just thought it was “better” because it was “different,” because it had elaborate choreography and sounds you couldn’t quite understand as a whole. But that isn’t really an acceptable definition however you look at it.
It wasn’t until I watched an old Mnet documentary on DBSK that I finally got the clear definition I was looking for. SMP actually stands for “SM Music Performance” (not SM Production or SM Performance as I previously assumed) and it’s a style that combines different genres to create visually-appealing performances. This is so that “every time the song changes, the stage can change” (trans. by GOE;SS). It basically emphasizes that a song and its accompanying performance cannot be separated because “the SMP is completed when the song is performed with its nonstop movement and dance.” Therefore, “you can’t judge it by just listening to the song,” you have to be immersed in the entire experience in order to fully comprehend it. I wrote something on this last year that more or less defines the musical aspects of SMP, the half that will be tackled in this review:
…musically, SMP is achieved by fusing two or more seemingly different sounds to create shock factors. These contrasting sounds subsequently require different types of movements making for dynamic, interesting stage performances both sonically and visually. It's a simple idea -- create contrast, shock people -- but that simplicity is harder to execute than it seems, because there's more to contrast than just putting two completely different ideas together…most of the time it's about finding not only the most appropriate but also the most visually (or in this case aurally)-pleasing combination.
So with this knowledge, we can conclude that the goal isn’t just to combine weird sounds as is often the impression -- if SMP is properly executed it’s supposed to produce a song that calls for visually-stunning performances, performances that explore and utilize all aspects of performance.

I’m also going to add one last aspect to this definition -- the “music” and “performance” features have already been covered, but I think the “SM” component should also be highlighted. No matter how conceptually-eleborate SMP releases are, at the end of the day they’re still commercial pop songs that require an element of “reachability” due to being targeted at a mass audience. Regardless of how this reachability is achieved -- strong hooks, simple elements, whatever -- it has to be present. Some might think that this takes away from the virtuosity of something like SMP, but I think otherwise. It’s a challenge to make a song that’s technically and conceptually complex, but it’s even harder to keep all of those complexities complex when you’re composing for a mass market. You have to not only keep them, you also have to introduce them in such a way that the mass market will understand their significance, something that requires creativity -- it’s so, so easy to just dumb everything down and let a strong concept slip away in favor of marketability.

The concept of SMP is extremely important to grasp not just for the benefit of understanding "Rising Sun," but also SM Entertainment's entire business model. SM is known for being an all-around pop "factory" of sorts, signing a wide range of talents and putting them through rigorous training and career paths. SM's approach to the music industry is to be all-around and couple music with other aspects of performing arts -- it's an agency with amazing vocalists, talented dancers, all-around performers. So it's only right that this mindset be reflected in their main product -- the music. By adapting this experience angle to music SM is able to display the entire spectrum of acts in a group, because SMP compositions are demanding for the singers of the group, they're demanding for the dancers, the rappers, and the "performers," all of whom are well-represented in the agency. This is how SM sells and while other attempts have been more successful than others, it's clear that this surprisingly art-centrict ideology has worked very well for the agency. "Rising Sun" is one of many SMP compositions, yes, but it is one of the few that stand out because this inherent, musical well-roundedness is pushed to the extreme by DBSK themselves.

SM: Song Structure and Recall
The need for reachability in SMP compositions is where we can finally start talking about “Rising Sun” because despite being an audio-visual feast, it’s also surprisingly memorable for things other than chaos. This is a song that grabs its audience, even non-DBSK fans who’ve probably only heard the chorus or the first half from a version that probably wasn’t even sung by the five-piece. But the thing with “Rising Sun” is that it’s not just the hook that people remember, not just the “waiting for Rising Sun” line at the end of the chorus -- they also remember Changmin’s scream, the “na na na na na” section, the tongue-twister speed rap verses. The speed of the rap is gripping, the almost non-existent transition to the verses quite literally stuns, the only word I have to properly describe the chorus is “glorious,” and the list goes on. “Rising Sun” is so loaded a song that every single part has to be a moment. And every section is a moment.

A major factor that contributes to “Rising Sun”’s strong recall is that it actually follows a familiar pop song structure. While there are some deviations like one less chorus (two instead of the standard three to four) and a much longer middle section, generally speaking it’s still a intro-verse-chorus-repeat structure at work. Of course amongst everything happening the standard structure not really something that’s instantly picked up from a casual listen, but the fact that each section is easily identifiable on its own as part of a larger whole is what makes it reachable to its audience. Unlike certain other SMP songs in which you don’t really know which is what anymore, it’s clear in “Rising Sun” that Jaejoong and Junsu are singing the verses, that the hook is the line “waiting for the Rising Sun,” that the “na na na na”’s are part of the middle section/dance break. That’s a very important quality to have because it is easier to understand what is familiar, and people remember what they can comprehend.

The chorus is both a very interesting and very ingenious case in point with regards to this general structure -- it was only repeated twice and yet is just as memorable as any other song’s chorus, if not more. The standard pop song will have three choruses at least, sometimes going as far as five or six. This is because the assumption is that in order to make people remember something it has to be constantly repeated, a notion taken further by what K-Pop calls “hook songs.” I don’t agree with the semantics of the term and I also don’t agree that repetition is the only way to make a certain section of a song memorable -- the other end of the spectrum works just as well. That’s not to say repetitive songs aren’t effective, they can be both memorable and artistic are if done right, but that scarcity is another option that’s hardly explored in pop because it requires more effort to properly execute and comprehend. The element in question must really stand out against the rest of the song and be outstanding musically and lyrically -- it has less chances to be remembered, and listeners need to hear the entire song in order to fully grasp how memorable it is. However if executed correctly it will be extremely effective -- the recall that other songs need four or even five choruses for, “Rising Sun” achieved in just two.

Scarcity applies to entire sections as well, even those that are part of the “standard” structure -- all but one of the verses (both rap and melodic) are different. The only verse that repeats exactly the way it was when it first occured is Changmin’s verse with Junsu’s adlibs, and it’s a not standard case either because its repetition closes the entire melodic section of the song.

All this talk of conventional structure is a bit part of what makes all the contrast even more extraordinary. More recent SMP releases such as SNSD’s “I Got A Boy” make equal use of unconventional structures and sounds, whereas “Rising Sun” depends less on an odd structure and more on unusually ingenious production decisions and execution set against other more familiar elements. Using boundaries in order to break others is so much easier said than done, but "Rising Sun" got it right and that's something worth praising.

Music: Levels of Structural and Aural Contrast
Contrast is achieved and becomes easier to perceive if it’s set against a standard structure, which “Rising Sun” makes use of on multiple levels. Contrast isn’t a new concept though -- it is an extremely common motif in art. In visual arts and design, color combinations and theory is rudimentary and in literature we call these contradictions “binary oppositions,” which serve as the foundation for multiple bodies of literary theory. It’s very much present pop music though despite not being as emphasized to the common listener, so seeing it used in K-pop in particular isn’t really a big surprise.

These oppositions are everywhere in “Rising Sun,” so in this section I’ll break the song down part by part. This is going to be a very technical discussion, so before I start the following concepts will be useful to remember:
  • 1 measure = 4 “counts” in the natural tempo of the song (or section if the tempo varies; or 4 quarter notes); is also the length of a standard melodic line
  • Whole rest = 1 measure -- so 1 quarter rest = 1 count
  • Accents = the counts/beats (every four if the time signature is 4/4, two if it’s in 2/4 time) that are the loudest/most emphasized.
  • It will also be useful to refer to this rough outline of "Rising Sun"'s structure (don't mind my notes!) 1 | 2
The juxtaposition of the rap against melodic lines is clear from the very beginning, but the extent to which they are contrasting is what’s interesting because there are both mutual and exclusive contrasts present. First is the fact that rap is very stiff by nature whereas melody is, well, melodic and graceful -- this is emphasized further by the actual musical techniques utilized. Notice that the rap sections are heavily dependent on rhythm. Yoochun’s section plays around with rhythm by utilizing contrast yet again, this time in terms of accenting -- the first line’s accents are spaced out and executed by the rap line itself, there are only six words delivered in the span of two measures, whereas the succeeding lines comes off as a jumble of syllables and words. Yunho’s section also places emphasis on accent but instead of contrast uses a hook, “nooooo!”, to mark and space out each rap line. The melodic sections on the other hand are the exact opposite. Hardly anything goes on apart from the melody, and the little that does happen is just ambient. Notice also that the accents of the melody -- i.e., the notes sung the highest and/or loudest -- directly mirror rhythmic accents made by the bass drum, which further emphasizes the contrast of the down and up beats. There is also internal contrast -- Junsu’s first half is significantly quieter with only a keyboard loop, sparse electric guitar+strings and bass drum accents while Jaejoong’s is accompanied by a full ensemble. As far as choice of vocalists the contrast continues -- the melody of Junsu’s section sounds lower and slightly husky because of the natures of both the melody and Junsu’s vocals while Jaejoong’s section sounds higher and smoother for the same reasons.

A contrast between the first verse and chorus exists, and it's a very important juxtaposition though that can also help account for the entire song’s strong recall. The verse is very individualistic, it’s made up entirely of solo parts as verses usually are. The chorus is also standard -- it’s a collective effort that results in quite literally a chorus. I talked earlier about how the verse is carried by the vocal aspects, whether melody or rap, and that the accompaniment is sparse but in the case of “Rising Sun,” these individual and collective qualities are pushed to the extreme. This is in contrast to the chorus in which both vocal and instrumental sections sort of mould together -- the focal point shifts between the melody and the very pronounced string section. How does this help with recall? Well, the verse pops because its very individualistic against the chorus, and the same goes the other way around. The chorus is easy to sing along to and gives an element of interaction, the impression that the audience can blend into that collective too. “Audience interaction” is an extremely important concept in art (with entire bodies of theory devoted to the relationship between a work and its audience) because it allows the audience to play an active role in the formation of a work. We remember what we ourselves have a hand in producing as opposed to something we just receive, and that concept proves useful for these particular elements.

I mentioned earlier that the first and second verses differ, mainly because of the addition of Changmin’s section to the second verse. This is both a case of contrasting elements and scarcity as a means of achieving recall. You may think that this additional section is actually a case of “surplus,” the complete opposite of scarcity, but that’s only if you’re not looking closely at the song. Changmin’s lines take away from the time of allotted for Junsu and Jaejoong’s “standard” verses, thus making them stand out more during the little time they are given. At the same time, Changmin gets two melodic lines as well but a longer section -- it is the length of Jaejoong and Junsu’s lines combined. The trick was that the two lines were more spread out to occupy four measures by using adlibs and instrumental hooks -- another method of creating scarcity.

The most identifiable contrast is that between the middle section and the rest of the song because it’s a deviation from both earlier-established motifs and structure. This can also explain why it is the most talked-about section in the whole song. It’s not a complete structural deviation though, because as I mentioned earlier it can still be identified as the “middle section,” or possibly a dance break if we consider Changmin’s first scream (at around 2:37-2:47, after Jaejoong’s second verse) as the middle 8 because it fits into the eight measure standard and will sound cohesive if an additional chorus is placed after. From that alone it’s very easy to see why the middle section is such a big contrast against the rest of the song -- it’s the one part that doesn’t have a clear designation and it’s much longer than most middle sections. But of course the most obvious reason is because it sounds like a completely different song. Most of the time this sonic deviation won’t make sense because of the potential clash this creates, but a strong concept paired with good production decisions have made this particular instance work. The strong concept is, of course, SMP and the element of surprise involved is the contrast between this section and the rest of the song. The transitions to and from the middle section give little to no hint that something drastic is going to happen after Changmin’s bridge -- if we follow the established structure of the song, the assumption is that the bridge will be followed by a second chorus. However once the middle second actually begins the entire song changes -- the bridge becomes a middle 8 and in place of the expected chorus is a middle section that seems to have come out of nowhere. The transitions allow for processing of what’s happening in real time, i.e. that this middle section now exists, but the section itself is also independent, brief, and fast-paced enough to give just the right amount of shock.

This middle section itself can be divided into four parts, each four measures long -- yet another example of good composition and basic music theory at work. Remember that one of the key to “Rising Sun”’s strong recall is its familiarity, so obviously it would be utilized in a section as memorable as this. In pop verses, two measures is the conventional length before progression/variance and one is standard for repetition -- this is why choreography is often made/taught in sections of eight. Take something like “Let It Go” for example -- the first two measures are practically identical to the second set, except for the last quarter notes. It’s two full measures of just “Let it go~”’s before anything changes. So four measures for establishing and progression means that while everything sounds different, structurally it’s familiar. The first four measures, four sets of “na na na na”’s -- two instrumental and the other two with added vocals -- establish the motif of the section. One establishing repetition before the subsequent progression from instrumental to vocal variations, all in four measures. The second set is Yoochun’s melodic section which establish that this middle section is going to be longer than expected, quickly followed by Changmin’s melodic lines. These two exhibit yet another level of sonic contrast -- Yoochun’s vocals are lower and sound calmer and there is heavy emphasis on harmony during his part, wheres Changmin’s lines bring out the crisp, slightly shrill quality of the vocals by downplaying the harmonies and double-tracking. Like the first section, Yoochun establishes what’s going to happen and Changmin provides a variation which is both unexpected and familiar and keeps listeners’ attention. The last four measures are Yunho’s rap which serve as the transition out of the middle section -- if you noticed earlier in the song, contrasting rap verses were always placed before melodic verses and so this is the first queue for another melodic section. So the final contrast with regards to this middle section is internal in that it contradicts itself. It may sound nothing like the rest of the song, but structurally it’s very similar and takes many techniques from earlier sections -- it’s all about how everything was put together.

Performance: Production and Execution
You have all these contrasting elements and contrasts within contrasts within contrasts, but what now? How are all of these things supposed to work together without becoming a complete mess? Music can explain that too.

Rising Sun” really is about how everything was put together, because execution is the other main reason why it works so well as a song.

A concept that I think will prove extremely useful to this section is SMP’s assertion of the inseparability of a song and its performance, because it also implies that the recording and its corresponding live arrangement are one and the same. But unless a backing track is used for live performances, most of the time this isn’t the case due to the differing circumstances of both, and especially because DBSK bring this song on tour in Japan with a live band. So to modify, the live interpretation must translate almost exactly to the recording or at least retain as many aspects as possible. In more practical terms, as much as possible of what is done in the studio must be feasible to a live band and vocalists. What makes a certain song must be present in every and all variations. This is why I needed to discuss structure in-depth, because the three main factors present in the recording of “Rising Sun” that can translate to any live interpretation done by DBSK are: structure, melody and vocals.

Seeing as from a marketing perspective the purpose of music is to sell DBSK as pop stars, their execution of the melodic and rap sections is one of the aspects that is easiest to translate from recording to performance. It has to be, because that's what is being sold by the pop music industry. This transition is even easier for a group such as DBSK because they are both naturally talented and technically strong all-around performers. The assignment of lines among DBSK is therefore a case of deciding which member best suits which part, as opposed to which member is actually capable enough to do so. Because of this, “Rising Sun” is able to bring take advantage of each member’s strengths and seamlessly mould these strengths into the existing structure. Because of this, performances with the five-piece line-up are extremely distinct compared to other line-ups and artists -- "Rising Sun" is defined by its performers' abilities to execute and develop a specific group dynamic.

We’ve already spent most of this piece taking about structure, but we’ll have to talk about it one last time because another important factor of “Rising Sun”’s effectivity is the way this structure is executed. After all, concepts are nothing without execution. For the purpose of this section, imagine that “Rising Sun” is a canvas and each section (or type of -- verse, chorus, etc) of the structure is a color that fills a particular part of the canvas. If this was a painting, the more emphasized the contrasts between the colors are the more shocking the whole painting becomes, right? Shock is achieved by putting the contrasting pairs as close to each other as possible without mixing them, retaining the individualities that are the very foundation of those contrasts. Translate this to music and it’s the same idea only you’re not working on spaces of a canvas, you’re working along an axis of time -- proximity in music is therefore determined by time similar to how it is determined by space in visual art. So in order to create jarring juxtapositions from the structural contrasts previously discussed, they need to be very close together -- transitions exist between each section, but they must be as brief as possible. Brief transitions are also the main reason why “Rising Sun” sounds so fast-paced, when in reality the individual sections are delivered in a workable tempo. By workable I mean that DBSK aren’t falling all over their feet in an attempt to deliver individual sections like the chorus and melodic verses are easy to sing along to -- what is the challenge to deliver on stage are the transitions. There is at most one or two seconds between each part, and most of these transitions are handled by the melodic line, not the instrumental.

In a sense this proximity is actually a more shocking means when used in music because you’re working in real-time. With visual arts you can take a glance and see all the elements laid-out before processing the contrast, but with music you don’t know what’s coming until it actually comes, a quality that “Rising Sun” fully took advantage of. Listeners (or viewers) really don’t know what’s coming until it actually comes even more so because the song gives the impression of a standard structure. You’re expecting a repetition or a slight progression of the first verse after the first chorus, but instead you get a completely different verse sung by Changmin and not Junsu or Jaejoong. You’re expecting a chorus after Jaejoong’s bridge but instead you get Changmin’s transition to the middle section. After the final chorus you’re expecting the song to be done, or possibly another chorus, but instead you get a repetition of Changmin’s verse to close the song off. Keep in mind the idea that the song is basically points plotted along an axis of time -- Rising Sun” packs these points together in a seemingly unexpected order, bombarding the listener with one section after another. This is what makes the song not only seemingly fast-paced but also overwhelming.

All of this is a lot to take in, but the trick is to take each section as it comes. You’re not really supposed to attempt to process the song as a whole while you're listening, because the purpose of SMP is to create an experience. If you think about it, most of the time the best experiences, the ones you remember the most, are the ones you spend less time trying to analyze and more time actually being in the thick of it all. Art is an experience and while this notion of not over-analyzing it seems to put me out of a job, to continue the experience “analogy,” after these experiences are over the best way to learn from them is by examining them closely and in relation to a bigger picture. It’s the same thing for “Rising Sun."

It’s for all these reasons that I consider the production outstanding. Technologically, in terms of equipment and sound quality, it’s obviously lacking when compared to more recent SM and K-Pop releases such as SNSD’s “Genie” or Infinite’s “The Chaser.” But the production on “Rising Sun,” the production decisions made throughout the recording, show enormous amounts of creativity and technical proficiency. These people knew exactly what they were doing, so much so that technological limitations did not become a hindrance.

Rising Sun: An SMP production
The seemingly endless levels of contrast juxtaposed against each other point to the conclusion that “Rising Sun” will only work if every singe factor -- the song, the performance, the performers -- are present. And isn’t that what SMP is supposed to be, an all-encompassing package that pushes every single aspect of performance to the extreme? To witness a performance of "Rising Sun" is not only to watch or to listen, it's to experience every single aspect simultaneously. At the same time because this is a song, everything starts with the music -- the composition dictates the vocals, the song produced dictates the choreography, the choreography dictates staging, and so on and so forth. And this musical stance is what has allowed us to further examine all the intricacies of this experience.

The result of this level of conceptual direction paired with technically, creatively outstanding execution is that every single piece is important -- to change even the most minuscule component is to disturb the juxtapositions that serve as the musical foundation. Change something, anything, and you change the entire song. This is both an advantage and a risk -- advantageous in the sense that it becomes a display of mastery and artistry, but consequential precisely because it can only be successfully performed when all factors are present with accurate execution. On the marketing side, this is good because it sells a whole package -- along with the music comes the visuals, the choreography, the artists, the people -- so it will appeal to a wider demographic, not just music fans. On the technical side though, “Rising Sun” becomes fragile because allows for very little human error. However when everything falls into place, like it did on the original recording and countless live performances, that ruthless demand for excellence becomes the very strength with which “Rising Sun” has made DBSK into one of the most influential idol groups in the history of K-Pop.

1 comments:

  1. Fantastic post. I'm quick to say that I don't get 'OT5 feels' as such anymore, but if that burning hot, knock-you-off-your-feet wave of breathless admiration and pride and affection isn't that, I don't know what is. I love how you showed how despite the superficially chaotic and random appearance of the song, it's absolutely a -deliberate- and -unexpected- and even brilliant production.

    I first fell in love with Jaejoong because of that utterly lovely first verse of his, and Changmin stole my heart with the utter *rawness* of his performance, and now I feel like I understand a bit better why. I could barely follow the technical explanations as they were (which is nothing to do with your skill with breaking things down and everything to do with the way I read!), so I have nothing particular to comment on, but that T tour performance, now. It's almost hard to take in in one breath, it's that stunning.

    ReplyDelete

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