III. The Rise of DBSK
By early November of 2005…the novelty of Japanese rock music was wearing off. I still enjoyed it. But the waves that once washed over me…it’s like I had gotten used to the temperature and now found the waters lukewarm.
The same could be said about my move to Tampa. From July to October, it was the best time of my life. It was my freshman year and I completed my first quarter. I was living with cool roommates who were all older than me, in an apartment complex where there were beautiful women and there seemed to be an event or party every weekend. But still…it’s college. I was there to learn. To grow.
*disclaimer: If you hadn’t read the intro, the following is a personal memoir about my 13 years of exploring Korean and Japanese music.
By the end of October, I landed a job as a Pizza Hut delivery driver. This job…it’s not what you’d expect if you’ve ever seen drivers with those ridiculous ornaments on their cars. You’d probably feel sorry for them for having to work and trudge their way to people’s houses, rain, sleet, or snow. But to me…it’s like I was a special agent where every order was a mission, like a courier, more so than a food server. Not to mention, my delivery area was eclectic and diverse. I had houses that were right there along the beach with mesmerizing views of the bay. And I had upscale houses in some of the most breathtaking neighborhoods where people took pride in their landscaping like some unspoken competition. I’m talking about lit palm trees, gated communities with secret codes, water fountains and green winding paths. It was beautiful. Every complex and community was its own world.
Not to mention, a job like this also provided ample opportunity to indulge in music. Since I first started the job, as with any that you want to keep, you begin with caution. Hence, I wasn’t exactly blasting Slipknot to and from customer’s houses. For that first month, I had fallen for the anime “Samurai Champloo.” Not just the anime…the soundtrack. Names like Nujubes, Tsutchie and Fat Jon got me through those budding days. In particular, “Arurian Dance” was a laid-back chill song that put me at ease during many a nights.
Nujubes – “Aruarian Dance” Samurai Champloo Soundtrack:
In that second quarter of college, I remember I had a crush on this Colombian girl from my math class. She stayed in a different apartment complex. While I was attempting to court her, I was searching for a Japanese song to send her. Something that would impress her and let her know I was different, that was into different things.
This girl seemed like a modern girl. I wasn’t sure how well she’d take the eclectic sound of Miyavi. And another modern friend already heard Gackt’s “Vanilla” and told me it sounded lame. To be honest, I can’t remember how I stumbled upon it…but somehow, I came across the music video “Hikari” by a smooth vocalist named, Se7en.
I used Youtube to send the link to her and she was indeed impressed. She told me I was the first person to ever send her a music video.
Se7en was…To be honest, I wasn’t too blown away by Se7en at first with that music video alone. He reminded me of a Japanese Justin Timberlake the way he sang and dance. But still…it’s no small feat to be compared to Justin Timberlake. However, I had JT’s first solo album. It reminded me of being back home in Georgia and that’s the last thing I wanted.
So I thought… “Alright, Se7en. What else you got?”
NOW BEFORE YOU COMMENT, if you’re reading thus far, I’m sure your eyes might be rolling at my mentioning of Se7en as a Japanese Justin Timberlake. Because you know. He’s not Japanese. He’s actually Korean.
In 2005, Youtube was still fairly new at the time. So it’s not like you could just search a singer’s name and all of their videos would pop up. It was dependent on the users, the fans uploading their material. Not to mention, Youtube had limits on the length and size of a video. At the time, I couldn’t find too much about Se7en. I’d eventual discover most of his music videos a little later on.
What I did find, however, were short little clips of him dancing on Korean variety shows. Now, I have to pause for a moment to explain something. In my introduction, I mentioned how I used to sing and dance. Not professionally, but it was something I indulged in. After watching Wade Robson’s “Dance Project,” I literally dislocated my knee popping-and-locking as a 270lb giant.
To me, the ability to dance, the art of it was just as mesmerizing as great martial arts choreography. It’s why I couldn’t take my eyes off of artists like Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, Usher, Nsync, Justin Timberlake, and the up-and-coming Chris Brown.
If an artist can dance really well in their performances, I think it makes up for any lack of vocal ability one might have in comparison to another. I don’t want to slight Madonna, but she comes to mind. The same with Paula Abdul and her visuals. Clearly Whitney Houston was the best vocalist of her time, but Madonna and Paula Abdul had a greater performance.
In South Korea, you can tell the singers and groups pride themselves on their ability to dance. The following was one of the first videos I downloaded in which, the most popular singers of the day got together for a Christmas special to dance it out. You’ll find Se7en at 1:17 in. Followed by Rain…and then Minwoo of Shinhwa, then the guy who I’d come to call the best.
A popular style of dance at the time was an innovative form of pop-and-locking as well as the wave. Se7en was an awesome freestyle dancer. I learned that his main competition was another solo artist named Bi or Rain, who everyone was calling the Korean Usher. But the man who I definitely considered the best by a landslide when it comes to dancing…is U-Know.
It was the middle of December of 2005 when I saw this exact video:
lol, now aside from the “Ah’s” and “Oh’s” you may have noticed a dancer doing some amazing things. The waves are so simple yet complex at the same time. In order to do them well, you have to have good body control. Something, I felt I was capable of. His name is U-Know, or Yunho…And mind you…even though I was watching it in December of 2005, that video was from 2004. Surely there had to be more.
I’d come to find out Yunho was the leader of a Korean Boyband called DBSK and dude…Discovering DBSK was an early Christmas present to myself. When I say K-pop got me through college. I mean it.
That December, I was hoping to go home and spend Christmas with family. But from delivering pizzas, I caught a flat tire and couldn’t afford to come home. For two weeks, I was alone for the first time for the first time in my life. I’ve felt loneliness in the sense of being surrounded but not connecting with anyone. But the legit physical loneliness, I wasn’t quite used to at the time. Growing up, I always had brothers or some company present. Being alone for Christmas my first year away from home was abysmal. The only glimmer of happiness that got me through the holidays was DBSK. Like uncovering a buried treasure map, sparking a sense of adventure to see where it leads.
To understand how culturally significant DBSK was, I have to tell you a little bit about their history. All of which, I learned gradually throughout 2006. To put it in perspective, its sort of like how Jive Records was the label for the Backstreet Boys. Then came Nsync and Britney Spears. They were all under the same label at one point and dominated the American pop scene I’d say from 1998-2002ish.
In South Korea, the most prominent music agency is called SM Entertainment. In the thirteen years I’ve been listening to Kpop, SM may have had some close competition with other labels in which there was the big three, such JYP, YG, and it used to be DSP Media (home to Sechskies and SS501). But SM Entertainment has always remained at the top.
Very similar to how the Backstreet Boys were put together, with a benefactor picking out five talented youths and molding them to be superstars, South Korea’s entertainment agencies work the same way…except ten times tougher, with more rules, discipline, and longer years of training. That’s how they start out, as trainees to the agency and it takes years before they debut. Sometimes, they don’t.
DBSK also known as TVXQ or Dong Bang Shin Ki, consisted of Jaejoong, Micky Yoochun, Xiah Junsu, Max Changmin, and Yunho. All of them were hand-picked and groomed by SM Entertainment to sing, dance, take the lead and dominate. Just like their predecessors, which I’ll get into later.
But whatever, right? Bunch of talk, right? So what if ya boy Yunho can dance. I thought this was about music? How good is DBSK?
The first music video I saw of DBSK as a group was “Rising Sun.” And dude…I’m telling this group was the complete package.
Right away, I could tell every single member could hold their own if they went solo. To me, that’s the mark of a legendary group. Where if they disbanded they’d still excel. For them all to perform together, it’s straight up domination. And when I say “domination,” this is a phrase me and my brothers use when a team is picked and its almost unfair because one team has all of the biggest, stronger players going against other teams with weaker, slower players. Like high school students competing against children.
Yunho was the leader, the main dancer and a rapper. I seen clips of him keeping the others in check if they slacked off.
Micky Yoochun was touted as the lady’s man who spent time in the U.S., which gave him some edge. He was a rapper and provided some good baritone vocals, often surprising you on some songs hinting that he has the potential to sing better than all the others.
Hero Jaejoong was the lead singer and visuals of the group. It’s goes without saying that his androgynous looks helped garnered a lot of attention.
Xiah Junsu has been ranked in a number of polls for being one of the best vocalists in Korea. However, in my opinion…I think he has one of the best in the world. Even my mother loves this almost Gospel like song with English lyrics, “I Can Soar”:
Max was the maknae, the youngest of the group. Apparently, they take seniority and age seriously in Korea. But what he lacks in age, he more than makes up for in his vocal ability. In the “Rising Sun” video above, Max was the one belting those penetrating notes that lingers long after it fades.
But alright. “Rising Sun” is okay. What else they got?
Well, remember when I mentioned songs that stand the test of time, that don’t get old no matter how many times you play it? Perhaps it’s because DBSK’s producers took a timeless classic from Mozart that they were able to create this masterpiece.
It was easy for me to fall for DBSK because I was a huge fan of the boy-band era in the states. To me, this was just a continued upgrade of the genre I loved growing up, but in a different language and edgier music.
I know that artists tend to want to venture into new genres, experiment, or reach other demographics as they come along…but for me. If I like something, if I recognize something as good that I enjoy…that’s what I look for. It’s sort of the way Linkin Park came out with Meteora and Hybrid Theory, but by the time they got to “A Thousand suns,” they left their earlier nu-metal for more a more electronica sound. Which…was alright. But I still crave that nu-metal sound. So I’m going to go for the others bands providing it.
Thus, finding DBSK…it truly was a gift. And it kept giving. Almost every song I heard from them sounded golden. “Hug,” “Free Your Mind,” “Hi-yah-yah,” as well as a Christmas song in which they collaborated with another group from their SM Entertainment label.
That December, Super Junior had just debuted. So…hahaha! I have to confess, Super Junior was a strange one to get into. I confess, I’m a fan of boybands. But a group with twelve members? It’s like…really?
Their debut music video of “Twins” was impressive to me…in only that I liked the variety of sounds produced by their voices and their awesome choreography. If there’s one thing I don’t particularly enjoy about K-Pop and Korean culture in general…is their emphasis on superficial looks. This is going to be a reoccurring theme throughout my memoir, so get ready.
As you may have noticed in the above music video, there’s a lot of shots in which we have a boy member just casually staring into the camera. This is for the ladies, I’m sure. Alluring and captivating. But as a straight male…quite annoying to me. Also, you may have noticed that Super Junior, along with their labelmates DBSK, just like in Japan, they tend to push this androgynous look where their hair and makeup can be quite feminine.
This isn’t to complain. Just stating the obvious and how this will come to change as the years go by with the emergence of another group who hits the scene…almost like a big bang really. *winks with a smile*
Don’t get me wrong, every single member of Super Junior is highly talented. But when there’s this many individuals in one group with such an emphasis on their looks, the motives, the intent is glaring and a bit overpowering. Plainly put…they’re peddling a fantasy. The target is impressionable young girls. Thus, you have this thing called “sasaeng fans,” over-obsessive fans that engage in stalking and all sorts of invasion of privacy. This isn’t to defend those fans, but still…not surprising that they’d exist.
Nonetheless, Super Junior was solid. One of their future hits, “Don’t Don,” I must have played for days. But until then…