K-Pop is a plastic wilderness, its assembly line overgrowth roughly two decades wide. Dare enter and you’ll soon be lost in the thickets of idiomatic dogma, hourly-updating pop charts, daily Top of the Pops-style TV countdowns, regularly changing faces, absurd choreography and video sets, inside baseball terminology, athletically swift media cycles, Korea’s culturally fundamental age hierarchy, and on. The industry has seeded plenty of incredible songs (hint: not these), but since groups’ infamous CEO handlers swap (or outsource) producers, songwriters, occasional ghost singers, and band members like a Brill Building the size of the Asia Trade Tower, it’s tough to predict where those songs might be found. And unlike most other genres and geographies, K-Pop has yet to produce the kind of classic album that helps listeners make that first step into unfamiliar territory. Korea’s fervent focus on the here and now has proven antithetical to the Western album ideal.
Everybody will never be anybody’s Pet Sounds, I’m Still In Love With You, Discovery, Meets Rockers Uptown, A Love Supreme, or even FutureSex/LoveSounds — but we’re getting closer. The recent Pink Tape album by f(x) — a group engineered by S.M. Entertainment to be the female derivative of SHINee, one of their most successful boy bands — marked a big step forward, and now f(x)’s brother-progenitors have taken things even further. A seven-song mini-album (Korea’s format of choice), Everybody makes for a leaner listen than the full-length Pink Tape and by some criteria may rank less impressive. But if we are searching for singular listens — ones devoid of filler, focus groupthink, or ill-fitting raps — then Everybody is K-Pop’s most sustained statement to date.
The record is anchored by the futuristic RnB of “상사병 (Symptoms),” an internal discord of portamento synths that lurch woozily toward chorus catharsis and a huge, key-change bridge. Contemporary pop often favors sonic charisma and novelty over traditional harmony, but the composed majesty of “Symptoms” reflects Everybody’s refreshingly musical heart. “빗 속 뉴욕 (Queen Of New York)” sounds quite modern, but on staff paper could be mistaken for a Stevie Wonder or Boyz II Men song. “닫아줘 (Close The Door)” is a lilting lullaby built around 6/8 waltz step, a big band hook sieved through synth strings, and a surprisingly apropos rap from Choi Minho (spat delicately, in triplets). Even the LFO-bass wub of opening salvo “Everybody” is smartly catchy, with verses distinguished by liquid half-time breaks and poignant lyrics (“Always hidden behind an adult mask/ Twinkling like a girl’s eyes, brightly/ Once in a while you wanted to be immature/ Like a kid in your heart who resembles you”). If it isn’t dubstep pop’s first good song, “Everybody” is its best.
“1분만 (One Minute Back),” though less immediate, remains the mini-album’s most rewarding opus. Briefly resembling a refined “Boyfriend” (Bieber), its first 90 seconds alone boast a battery of multi-directional beats; metrically disruptive plain speech at least as odd as what’s in the Beach Boys’ “The Little Girl I Once Knew;” synth strafes circa 2006 Timbaland; a hellish descent into one very demonic 5-bar phrase; and a vocal harmony that’s chordally daring by any standard. It’d be a long, lonely search to try and find another passage of teen pop so successfully bold, and the rest of the song doesn’t let up.
Everybody is proof positive that, even in a culture industry designed to minimize the role of real musicianship, talent will find its way to the top. SHINee have been long revered as some of the very best live vocalists and dancers in pop music, and it’s promising to hear their professional handlers finally reward those skills with a full set of songs to match. At a time when the “Gangnam Style” craze is pop culture history and the Korean Wave shows signs of ebbing worldwide, Everybody and Pink Tape feel especially significant: either two rare triumphs that signal the glorious end of a golden age or the very beginnings of K-Pop’s real renaissance.