It's no secret that Younha is my favorite active K-Pop act at the moment -- "Supersonic," "Subsonic," and "Just Listen" are arguably some of the best K-Pop releases of the 2000s. Those three releases show Younha's mastery, skill, creativity, and her unashamedly pop leanings. And, as I've said many times before, that's exactly how I like my music -- effortlessly brave.
Which is why I couldn't help but be a bit underwhelmed by "내 마음이 뭐가 돼," her recent release. I guess it's because Younha's identity as both a performer, composer and most probably even curator of her releases is so well-defined for me that the entrance of Nell, another act with a very defined and cerebral identity, disrupts my conception of Younha. I'm counting on this new track being one that grows on me, so we'll see!
That I still listen to Younha on a regular basis is testament to just how good I think her music is -- it's commercial, but also timeless. So I thought I'd talk about some of the Younha tracks I still very much enjoy up to now that I haven't written about in depth yet.
"Driver" (feat. Jay Park)
Younha's Jay Park collaboration was actually the first song from "Supersonic" that I was really drawn to, probably because it's the most mainstream and also the most style-dependent track in the LP. What I really like about Younha is that while she does have her gentle, feminine acoustic tracks she's also pop enough to pull off tracks like "Driver" that push her creativity. (I'm still waiting for an in-your-face, jumping around stage-worthy Younha x Epik High collaboration!) "Driver" is powerful when it has to be, courtesy of the rap, but Younha counters that with her effortless yet intense grace. The shift from Jay Park's second verse, which is rapped, to Younha's nonchalantly edgy bridge accompanied by a sharp but slightly eerie piano line, to this explosion of melodrama for a chorus. If this had a video, the chorus would be the part where musical instruments would start exploding or houses get trashed. Younha can do strong, independent woman too. And I think part of the reason why is because she has the technique and the musical depth to do a variety of things without losing what defines her as a musical act.
"우린 달라졌을까" (feat. John Park)
Speaking of feminine tracks, this Younha and John Park track is yet another match made in collaboration heaven -- further proof of Younha's sheer flexibility as an artist. You have, on this track, a female act known for unassuming depth and a male act with a uniquely stunning voice -- you can't go wrong. "우린 달라졌을까" as a song sounds like it came straight out of a Disney soundtrack, complete with warm verses, dainty harmonies and sweeping choruses. It's also ridiculously easy to sing along to. But, like most other Younha songs, what sets "우린 달라졌을까" apart is the delivery. Younha's light, feminine vocals complement John Park's deep timbre so you have a melodic range that covers all its bases from top to bottom. The arrangement is a series of juxtapositions -- gentle verses accompanied by single piano lines immediately followed by grand choruses with everything from strings to electric guitar. This is a song that's as timeless as it is technically outstanding.
I'll admit that I wasn't the biggest fan of "Home" when I first heard it -- which prompted me to fear for the worst with "Subsonic." But I was mistaken on both counts, because "Subsonic" has become one of my all-time favorite K-Pop releases, "Home" included. There's something about Younha's nonchalance that prevents her from being arrogant as a performer. In fact, I don't think "nonchalant" is the right term -- "numb" maybe? Numb denotes that there was once emotion, it acknowledges feelings but chooses to numb them away. "Home" may sound like a cheesy ballad on the surface but I've realized that it's actually an extremely complex song musically and lyrically. Very few times do I bother to look at lyrics, but in the case of "Home" you really see how the music works with words to create a beautifully complex package. Listening to the song with the lyrics in mind, it's as if the melody is narrating a journey -- there's the beautifully bitter verse, the hopeful bridge that leads to a surprisingly simple chorus oozing with emotion and warmth that reaches its peak with the line "I'm home." The instrumentation is sparse but purposeful -- it becomes less about what instruments are playing, and more about how they're being played. The drum line is steady but not sluggish, the electric guitar restrained but graceful. This is how you translate technique into practice, into the creation of art.
Like how I am towards "Home," I'm still in awe at how Younha can express sadness with sounds and instruments that usually denote joy, optimism and other positive emotions. This kind of complexity isn't usually found in pop releases, which does support the notion that most pop songs are shallow. But Younha, of course, is the exception. I mean look at the title, it's literally "Painful Sadness" (or something to that effect) and yet you have happy, energetic electric guitars, chord progressions with upward trajectories, and gentle explosions of beauty littered all around. If you think about it, emotions aren't actually one-dimensional. When you go through a breakup or mourn the loss of a loved one for example -- there is sadness, sometimes even crippling depression, but there's also a sense of happiness when you look back at memories or mementos. This "real" aspect of Younha's music is also why I think I like her so much, and another reason why she stands out. Whatever definitions of art there are today, most of the time it's used to reflect or show human experience -- this is why, most of the time, we like reading, hearing or seeing art that is familiar to us. To digress a bit but also explain this, I grew up with books that were about people I couldn't relate with -- situations, societies and events that would never happen to me in real life. But that's the reality when you live in somewhere like the the Philippines. While that probably did wonders for my imagination, art was always something detached for me. It was only in college that I was able to read stories about people like me, in situations I lived in and see every single day -- and I realized how different it is if you're able to really feel the emotions in a work. Younha's case is similar. While you have pop music that is one-dimensional -- happy, jumping around stage, glorious, emotional, depressing, the list goes on -- and you can't deny that some of them are well-executed and creative, by capturing only one emotion they fail to present the entire experience. Sadness is never just tears or malaise, and songs like "아픈 슬픔" are aware of that.