The limits of "pushing the limits"

Whenever pop acts challenge so-called “different” sounds and styles, that foray is usually made under the guise of “pushing the limits” or “thinking outside of the box”. Those concepts have also been used time and time again in debates and arguments on the nature of pop, sometimes incorrectly. The legitimacy of those debates isn’t really any of my concern, what I do want to address though is the very concept that’s being debated on.

Honestly, I have no problem with art breaking away from norms -- I’m all for pop acts pushing the limits and trying new things, because it keeps things fresh, and keeps the industry moving. I may put a premium on transcendence and timelessness, but I completely understand the value of change. If art never challenged norms, if it never pushed boundaries, we’d all still be stuck with just Plato and Aristotle, who themselves pushed boundaries in their own ways. Art, and in effect pop music, got to this point because people in the past broke away from existing ideas and tried new things. We move forward by both moving together and moving away.

My problem with change is more of a K-Pop-centric one, though not exclusive to South Korean pop. Most of the time the industry, whether it be the agencies, the producers, composers, or even acts themselves, uses “thinking outside of the box” as an excuse to just go do whatever they want to. But that’s not the way it should be.

Pushing limits does not exempt the work from making sense. I’m well aware that we’re no longer concerned with “finding meaning” or “moral lessons” in a work, because art has been over that for decades. But at the end of the day, no matter how wild these works get they still have to be actual works -- these songs have to be actual songs, they still have to be governed by some set of rules because otherwise they’ll just fall apart. Even "art for art's sake" follows a set of rules.

To illustrate this, take the literal “pushing limits”, times when we physically push away barriers so we can pass through or see the other side. When we push we’re fully aware of what exactly we’re pushing, and we have at the very least a vague idea of what lies behind, because more often than not that’s why we’re pushing in the first place. This means that the songs themselves are the actual act, they symbolize the push itself. But where you have an action, you need an actor to do the action, as well as an object towards which the action is performed. It’s in those two aspects, the actor and the action, that we can derive a general framework for looking at these “different” songs, and in turn, their legitimacy -- whether they succeed at being "different", or completely miss the point.

First, these songs need to have a clear idea of what they’re trying to break away from -- in relation to physical pushing this is both the object we’re pushing, and what we think is on the other side. They can’t just blindly go around saying “oh we’re different” or “oh we’re breaking boundaries” without knowing how they’re different in the first place, and what that difference will lead to. What boundary is the work trying to push? What’s the song trying to do? If it’s trying to be different or make a statement, then what’s the statement it wants to make? Is it trying to go against the notion that pop songs are boring? Is it trying to prove that idol groups are talented? An effective “different” song should be able to give concrete answers to questions like that.

Probably the best example of a strong, but simple concept are SMP releases like DBSK’s “Rising Sun”, as well as SMP tracks before and after. SMP is different in the sense that it goes against notions of the separation of a song and its performance and of the superiority of one or the other. What an “SM Music Performance” is trying to do is prove that a song goes hand-in-hand with its accompanying performance, that both of them are more or less equals, that a “whole package” is both song and on-stage delivery.

But the act of pushing does not end with the conceptualization, if it did then there would be no final products for us to consume. Which is why in a physical push you have the actor -- in a musical context this is the act, as well as the producers, composers and arrangers. These are the people who actually apply the concepts I talked about previously, and they’re just as important because they supply the "how" in this equation. The role of the actor(s) is to one, find the best possible way to push that established boundary and two, follow it through. Assuming that the first point is fulfilled, their push has to do justice to the idea behind it. “Doing justice” can mean anything from singing the melody well, arranging the elements cohesively, picking the right instrumentation.

Using the SMP example again, it is achieved, at least on the side of the song itself, by fusing two or more seemingly different sounds to create shock factors. These contrasting sounds, in turn, also require different movements making for dynamic, interesting stage performances both sonically and visually. It's another 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 different ideas together. Executing contrast in music is similar to executing contrast in visual art, in design and color. Certain color combinations look better than others, and most of the time it's about finding not only the most appropriate one, but also the most visually-pleasing combination.

The decisions made at this stage are just as important as finding the answers to the questions posed in the first part. If executing those answers requires the use of certain elements, if it requires changes to the structure or not -- those are some of the big decisions the production team needs to make, and they have to be consistent with the initial concept. Most of the time, it is in these choices that songs fail, because thinking of how to push boundaries is one thing, but actually putting them into practice is a completely different matter. Most of the time when people think "outside of the box" it usually means changing the arrangement -- doubling choruses, re-arranging verses and bridges and rap parts -- but it can also mean using, bringing in other seemingly unsuitable sounds, introducing new ones, and borrowing the techniques of another school or genre.
A possible example of how SMP's solid idea isn’t followed through is SNSD’s “I Got A Boy”. The idea is there -- performance and song are a single unit, and different sounds make for eye-catching performances. Again, the problem lies in how that idea was put forward. The shift between sounds is both too fast and too slow -- sure, it shifts, but there’s too much dead air in the melody and the spoken words (not the rap parts) buffer the shock a little too much. The vocals are also not consistently on the same wavelength as the song itself -- that’s not to say that they’re bad vocals, it’s just that there are weak spots, kind of like when there are pauses from pushing that cause slow the entire process down.

However there have been songs that succeeded in both the concept and the delivery, which is proof that there are "different" songs that have reason and technique, and that this framework isn't just something I pulled out from nowhere. My favorite example of a successfully "different" song is 2YOON's "24/7". "24/7" attempted to fuse two seemingly incompatible genres, and attempted to prove that it was possible for K-Pop and American Country music to reach a compromise and not sound like a hodgepodge of ridiculous elements. It did exactly that, not by playing with contrast like SMP, but by finding common grounds strong enough to stand alone, but flexible enough to be combined. What was that common ground? The playfulness. Both K-Pop and Country have this playfulness to them but while K-Pop is more of a youthful, club-y playful, Country has a mischievous yet natural side to it -- interestingly enough, those two kinds of playful work very well together. While the other melodic parts of the song deliver it well, the most obvious instance of both playfulnesses at work is the hook. It's Country in the sense that the melody and the instrumental sound like it, but it's also K-Pop in the sense that the hook is repetitive, it's catchy.

In the end, the process of looking at and processing these "different" songs isn't any different from approaching "regular" or "normal" songs, but I think most of the time that's also what many of us, me included, fail to remember. We become so swept up in the novelty of these songs that claim to think "outside of the box" that we forget that no matter how different they are, at the end of the day they're still songs. Before you can think outside of the box, you need to know what box you're thinking outside of, no matter how limited or how broad, and once you've answered that, you need to decide how you're going to go about it. Everything, including art, has limits, what makes some things freer than others is the degree of those limits. These pop songs that attempt to push limits have considerably less rules and are more free to experiment, but their limits exist to ensure that they remain songs, they remain forms of art, as opposed to random sounds put together.


  1. I beg to differ a tad on 24/7. Country has a lot more nuance than some people give it credit for. The genre isn't that popular because it reflects conservative values onto the audience that most current young pop listeners don't identify with. I've had people talk to me about "country singer Colbie Caillat," and I look at them like, you know, country doesn't do that island-y ukelele thing.

    The point that I'm trying to drive at is that country, as a musical genre, is not playful. There are playful country songs but that's not really the heart of it. You have singer-songwriters like John Denver, who sing about everything from the rugged beauty of the land to the evanescence of the human lifespan. You have Carrie Underwood singing the classic form, good girl/boy meets bad boy/girl, conflict, resolution. And country gospel, even Elvis has sung some form of country gospel if I remember right. Country is not quite bluegrass / square dancing with flushed cheeks.

    When I heard 24/7, I could tell that they were trying to bring in the country. Admittedly, my initial reaction was ecstatic. Banjos! In a Korean pop release! (I still find the banjo line is beautiful though simple, by the way.) But after more listens, all I heard was a painfully biased interpretation. I fully admit that a country subgenre can get pretty hokey but it's not a toy. When somebody treats it like just some way to freshen up a K-pop star's image or whatever, and I realize that they didn't pick up country out of love for the genre, I start thinking that this is pretty messed up.

    On top of that, the rest of album threw out any attempt to sound like country. Like, whoever came up with the album concept is, for lack of a better term, fucking around with me and the 4Minute fans. I don't mean this as some hater because I was looking forward to 2Yoon.

    Then Cube served up Harvest Moon and looking at how the title promises country but doesn't deliver, I'm like, "And what is this shit?" I know that each songs are fair in their own right but it's like answering a question, "Compare the lumbar vetebrae of saltatory mammals and non-saltatory mammals" with "Equine cervical vertebrae have neural spines." The answer is a correct statement but it's going to receive a score of zero because it's not the correct answer.

    1. If you want to know "county pop" done right look no further than SG Wannabe. Many of their ballads including my fav Lalala feature this country feel.

      On a side note, i just found your blog. This is exactly the type of blog i wanted to start but dont have the time, effort, writing skills or patience for. Good job on this. This was exactly one of my recent qualms with the recent kpop scene, especially with "The Boys" and "I Got A Boy" from SNSD. Ive been a fan since the very beginning (im like around #100 ish member on soshified forum), but SM has been giving them absolutely terrible singles to promote, that are way "out of the box" and the only saving grace is the fact that as long as its SNSD, it will be a hit. ANY other group would not be able to have any success with these songs...

  2. When you mean "push the limits", do you mean crossing genres?


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