By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
January 4, 2013, 5:44 p.m.
The new single by South Korean pop group Girls’ Generation is called “I Got a Boy,” and if the song and its accompanying music video are a signal about pop’s direction in the year to come, we better buckle our seat belts.
Clocking in at 41/2 minutes, “I Got a Boy” travels in so many directions that it feels like a scattering of musical miniatures cleverly puzzled together by M.C. Escher. As seen in the equally tripped out video, the nine women who are Girls’ Generation have delivered something as wonderfully weird as their outfits — skimpy, multi-colored and mismatched — and as strange and structurally progressive as anything in the current commercial pop realm.
Hopefully this is a portent. A few similarly ridiculous tracks released of late suggest this may be the case. A day after “I Got a Boy” dropped on Tuesday, young rapper Azealia Banks released “BBD,” a jam nearly as twisted, if more linear. In a tweet announcing its arrival, Banks described the song by referencing a few different pop/EDM/hip-hop subgenres: “It’s Trap, but it’s Rave. it’s Banjee, But still a lil classy.” On Soundcloud, she tagged its genre as “witch-hop.” It’s everything at once, a beautiful mess.
Both reflect the kitchen-sink, short-attention-span present. In the case of “I Got a Boy,” impatient bursts of synthetic melodies, hooks, bridges, breaks and bass drops change every eight or 16 bars in drastic directions, as though Katy Perry/Kesha producer Dr. Luke were trying to make a modern-day “Bohemian Rhapsody.” These rhythmic explosions are connected by choruses that arrive with surprise and glee, part of an addled impatience permeating chunks of global culture. The song, built around a set of conversations among a girl and her friends, has already been viewed on YouTube more than 15 million times.
The first time I heard “I Got a Boy,” nothing fit together. It boomed and banged, but felt scattered, a mini-mixtape. In the middle, in fact, the song abruptly stops, and one group member says, “Hey, yo, stop! Let me put it down another way.” The track goes into double-time, as though the DJ had just dropped a hot new track into the mix. This new component becomes an avenue in the maze.
When it clicked after repeated listens, I felt like I’d finished a crossword puzzle. It was produced by Soo Man Lee and written by K-pop hitmaker Yoo Young-jin along with the group’s longtime Norwegian collaborators Dsign Music, who produced the more traditionally constructed track “Beep Beep” for Girls’ Generation in 2012.
Recent dance pop hits by Rihanna, Carly Rae Jepsen and Lady Gaga have relied more conservatively on the joy of expectations met, delivering streamlined groove tracks that wobble and weave along a single path, modern but still remaining true to the same verse-chorus-verse structure that’s reigned for half a century. “I Got a Boy” travels wherever it wants, like a willful 2-year-old in a McDonald’s Playplace.
This is in stark contrast to last year’s breakout South Korean megahit, Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” both of which feature lyrics sung mostly in Korean, with a smattering of English woven in. The two songs share a sense of whimsy, of celebrating in artificial, cartoon-colored playgrounds. “Gangnam,” however, is nothing if not relentless, single-mindedly focused on the same galloping rhythm.
Though less chaotic than “I Got a Boy,” Banks on “BBD” is restless, and understands the demands of a current-day track. The Harlem-born rapper, 21, rose through social media and YouTube, ultimately signing with Interscope Records. She’s become one of the most discussed new voices of the past few years. The arrival of “BBD” is teasing the release of her debut full length, “Broke With Expensive Taste,” which arrives on Feb. 12.
Such fractured magnetism shouldn’t come as a surprise. You can hear it in the angular bombast of American dubstep, in which the structural warbles and around-the-corner hooks and breakdowns suggest a kind of sonic cubism. Ellie Goulding’s 2012 song “Bittersweet,” though softer and more nuanced, has a similar trait. The Skrillex-produced track has a shattered feel to it, with delicate, colorful melodies and rhythms that can’t seem to make up their mind. Justin Bieber’s “Beauty and a Beat,” is similarly choppy, featuring the already obligatory bass-drop and many rhythms jumping in and out.
Why the structural dissonance? I think it is, in part, the consequence of an instant-access, on-demand era, one in which shuffle and channel-click entertainment choices have altered the relationship between medium and listener. Whereas a generation ago choosing music meant committing to a decision — I’ll listen to this CD or single and when it’s done I’ll put on the next one — listeners now jump moment by moment, YouTubing from clip to clip, file to file. After hearing a melody and a verse, most can predict what will happen over the rest of a pop song — one reason why sample-happy DJs thrive by mixing in hundreds of tracks over the course of a set.
Granted, pop is nothing if not impatient, constantly looking for the most creative new portal into the public’s ear. During the heyday of hit radio, the need to hook a listener in a song’s brief first moments dictated quick, catchy introductions, lest an itchy car-radio finger hit another preset button.
In the click-and-play present, though, when an Internet-connected mind hears a new song, it’s usually while on a computer where, chances are, her mind will soon start wandering. With infinite options a click away, many aural Roman candles must be fired to sustain interest for four whole minutes. It’s tough, after all, to focus through a full song when a cat video, text message, Tweet, Facebook post or — OMG! — an even better cat video is screaming for attention. “I Got a Boy,” more than any pop single in recent memory, seems to appreciate this, and adapts to such impatience accordingly.