Wednesday, September 6
Better than: Trying to figure out the exact location of the iHeartRadio theater. I’ve been there before; still got lost.
The iHeartRadio theater is a small space for pop—possibly too small. The 200-person capacity Tribeca venue hosts short, invite-only concerts; in one instance, I saw Scott Weiland there, articulating Christmas songs through a bewildering winter glare. There’s no distance between performer and audience except in the slope of the stage, and so K-pop group the Wonder Girls on Wednesday night performed supermassive pop music from a distance that read as “punk”—that is, immediate, palpable. They executed choreography in the fullness of three dimensions. The members of the group laughed to themselves between dances, during verses, appearing ecstatic, leaflike. When one made a mistake—misnaming an album or incorrectly identifying the remaining number of songs, of which there seemed an unsure infinity ahead—the rest corrected and reassured them, like a body of water in displacement.
There were ten songs, though, among them an unreleased three. “It’s not even online yet,” Yubin said, and every camera in the audience lit up. The first of the unreleased tracks, “Ouch,” was all icy deliberation, synths that were coldly announced, a haunting nexus between Ryan Tedder and Clams Casino. The second, “Stay Together,” was an unmoving piano ballad, written by member Yenny in response to the strange, inert Wonder Girls Teen Nick movie. “I was inspired by the script,” she said. “It’s about how we should always stay together.” “Wake Up” was buoyed by an implacable handclap pattern, and punctuated secondarily by dense unions of synths and vocals, achieving a sort of airy yet bounding quality that I realized in the moment was a common objective of pop music.
It’s natural for a pop group to wield numerous genres, to widen their appeal through a kind of pure sampling, but the Wonder Girls seem to disappear in their costuming on a track-by-track basis: Here they are ’90s R&B. Here they are balladic. Here they become diffuse and spacey. It can become hard to interpret them as a unit. On Tuesday Sound of the City interviewed the Wonder Girls in an upstairs chamber of the Korean barbecue restaurant Kristabelli, and the Girls each identified distinct strains of music that they liked (Yenny: R&B and soul; Yubin: rock; Lim: pop and hip-hop, etc.). “We try to put them all together,” Yenny said.
In 2009 the Wonder Girls were mostly perceived as a retro force in K-pop. Their songs are thoroughly synthetic, as if light-conducting carbon fiber, but the presentation is usually some sort of reduction. There’s a deliberate ’60s girl-group aesthetic in the video for “Nobody”—the golds are deeper and the hair is vertiginous. “Be My Baby,” the lead single for last year’s Wonder World, cascades in a deeply modern way, but the title consciously indicates the Ronettes, and in the video the Girls dance in a white timeless space. I think a lot of K-pop transpires in a kind of speculative future, where image and environment coincide perfectly and each member deploys an individual, leathery aesthetic. The Wonder Girls seemed a kind of reaction to this when “Nobody” debuted. Wednesday night, even while dancing through magical distensions, the Girls seemed merely and comically themselves, and they were aware of it, as one member of a group of friends suddenly realizes the fortune of his company. “Girls, Girls,” a gliding, sweet song that seems extracted purely from early ’90s R&B, was performed so loosely that Sun remarked, in the song’s middle, “This song sounds too slow right now.” I couldn’t tell; it sounded as if xeroxed from the album, but there was clear dissonance between the energy required on stage and songs themselves, which are limited, limbless structures. Their harmonies were uncertain throughout. Then there was a sudden, dazzling union at the song’s end. Their voices snapped together, moving elastically through changes. When it was over, they looked at each other. One member said, “Wow.” It was as if, by simply knowing each other, they had prevailed over the song.
Critical bias: “Nobody” was the first K-pop song I ever heard, the first elaborate K-pop video I ever watched.
Overheard: scream louder scream louder scream
Random notebook dump: “Like Money” is microwaved Eurodance. Such a canny, cynical approach to the EDM mode of American pop.