If you casually browse any forum devoted to k-pop, you’ll quickly see that there’s a lot of nonsense going around the place about the relative talents of vocalists, as if vocal talent is a criteria that actually means something in this style. I mean, come on people, since when was vocal talent suddenly a requirement to make production-line pop music? I must have missed the latest memo that was circulated on that topic, because it seems that there’s tons of fans fighting over who can sing better and who is the most knowledgeable and talented musically, versus who is just a nugu to music that is just being told what to say, what to play, how to stand, where to go, and is the musical equivalent of the “airhead” reporter on Broadcast News (decent film from the 80s, worth a look) who just reads lines from cue and smiles and doesn’t know what the fuck he’s actually on about or what any of the news stories really mean. Of course, most k-pop fans believe that their bias COULD NEVER BE LIKE THAT and is THE BEST EVAAAR AND KNOWS EVERYTHING ABOUT MUSIC, so I thought that even though I personally have no vested interest in this topic whatsoever, it would be interesting to devise a test to set the record straight and see how much they really do know. Even better, I thought, if this test didn’t require any knowledge of actual music production or vocal skill on the part of the tester or even any listening to the songs and anybody with access to a computer could do it in an instant.
I have devised just such a test, and I’m going to break it down for you in a nice long tl;dr post only because I know you’re into that sort of thing.
Introducing our test platform, the Shure Super 55 Deluxe microphone.
Shure is the leading manufacturer of live stage microphones in the world and the Super 55 Deluxe is a rechassied version of their popular SM58 vocal microphone (seen on literally every live stage everywhere) with a retro design and a supercardioid response pattern that when superimposed on the microphone looks something like this:
“Gosh, that’s a pretty picture – but I’m so confused! Whatever could it mean?” I hear you exclaim. Well, every microphone has a response pattern. Microphones that are used in live performance are not designed to pick up sound equally from all directions, because if they did, they would pick up not just the singer’s voice but also the sound of the sound system, creating a feedback loop – that’s what happens when someone turns a microphone up really loud and you hear that awful squealing noise. There is a bit that you are supposed to sing into, and other bits that you are really not supposed to sing into. To break it down more simply for those of you who need this dumbed down:
There’s actually an approximate 10dB drop in loudness when singing into the microphone from the top. 10dB might not seem like a lot, but remember that the dB scale is logarithmic by a scale of 10, like the Richter scale for earthquakes, where an earthquake at a strength of 8.0 is actually ten times more powerful than an earthquake of 7.0. So if you’re singing into the top part of this microphone because you have never seen one before and don’t know anything about them fancy microphone things, you’re actually only going to be 10% as loud as you should be. It’s sort of the equivalent of trying to get a sound out of an electric guitar by blowing on the strings – not impossible, but certainly not the most efficient method or the one that is going to get you the most volume.
So how can we use this information to assess the relative merits of our favourite (or not) k-pop stars? Well, someone who is trained in music can instantly tell by the way someone holds an instrument, even when miming, whether that person can play or not. For instance:
Here’s Ace Of Angels performing “Get Out” (one of the best songs last year IMNSHO) on Music Core. Sure, they’re miming, but you can tell from the way they hold their instruments that they are at least capable of playing them to some standard and are not just models holding them for the first time because the video director suddenly thought it would be a good idea to thrust instruments into their hands. Someone who is musically trained will instinctively hold their instrument in the correct way, even if they’re just pretending to play it, and it’s actually really difficult for them to hold it any other way.
Hyoyeon from Girls’ Generation however clearly has no fuckin’ idea, and probably had about 30 seconds of guitar coaching before being given that thing for the So Nyuh Shi Dae video (which is a real guitar, btw, not a toy – see http://www.daisyrock.com/products/short-scale-guitars/butterfly/debutante-butterfly-short-scale ). The posture and silly “omg I’m like, holding a guitar” grin gives away her complete lack of experience, but in motion the impression is even worse – she just doesn’t move the way a guitarist does – it’s obvious to any guitar player watching the video that she knows nothing about guitar, period.
The same thing applies to singers. If you’re a real singer, with real singing experience other than miming to a backing track, and training actually worth a damn, I think it’s fair to say that you probably know a little bit about microphones. Someone has probably at least shown you which part of the thing to fucking sing in, just like your average electric guitar player also knows how to use an amplifier to some extent, or at least that the sound comes out of the big round speaker thingy. As previously mentioned, someone with training and experience will automatically use their chosen instrument or device the right way without thought, whereas someone without any knowledge is liable to just use it any old way.
Therefore, as just about every k-pop singer has at one point or another used the Shure Super 55 Deluxe as a prop because of their fashionable retro look, by looking at the way these people use them, we can ascertain quickly who is a dunce and who knows what time it is when it comes to microphones and vocal performance. Let’s take a look at a few random samples that I dug up in about ten minutes of searching, and see how our favourite k-pop idols fare on the vocal scale.
Here’s Taeyeon belting out a note, once again from the So Nyuh Shi Dae MV. Now that’s absolutely perfect microphone positioning – if the sound was coming out of her left tit. I’m told she’s supposed to be the “most vocally talented” one, so this is pretty shameful. But wait, SNSD were nugus back when this came out, right? Perhaps we shouldn’t be so harsh on this early example, maybe she’s learned how to sing into a microphone correctly in the many years of intense coaching and performance that SNSD have undoubtedly endured since this video came out which would have surely included basics such as how to hold a microphone and sing into it correctly…
…or maybe fucking not. Here’s a still from the “Twinkle” MV five years later, where we can see not only Taeyeon doing it wrong, but she’s spread the cancer to Tiffany and Seohyun. Rock those microphones, girls, just be grateful they’re not plugged in.
Let’s not let the guys off the hook. Yesung from Super Junior clearly has no fucking idea what to do with that thing in his left hand. I’d say something like “maybe he’s about to deepthroat it” but I don’t want to inspire any creepy fanfiction, so let’s just say that this guy is clearly a model, not a singer, and leave it at that. Microphone training courses at SM Entertainment clearly = nil.
Other labels are no better. If the biggest label in k-pop (well, not really – but that’s a subject for another blog) couldn’t be fucked telling their highest-earning stars how to use the tools of their own trade, you can imagine how much more all the other labels suck at it. Here’s Minzy from 2NEwont (as in “won’t come back on schedule”, “won’t produce anything worth a damn with will.i.am”, “won’t return my texts” etc) in the “Scream” video (great song btw), looking so gangster holding the microphone all crooked and shit. The point where she’s singing into the microphone is in fact the very worst place of all to sing into because it’s right where the dip in frequency response occurs – if she did that on a live stage you wouldn’t be able to hear her voice at all.
I don’t know the name of this guy but he’s from C-Clown and this is a still from the “Shaking Heart” video, where at the start a Super 55 Deluxe descends dramatically from the ceiling, this guy grabs it, and raps “Let me show you the C-Clown swag!”… with the microphone on a 90 degree angle that would cut out approximately 80-90% of any vocal “swag” present. Oops, I guess it’s back to swag school for you.
And before any of you wacky k-pop loving “I’ve got 100 YG videos on my hard drive and I go to dance classes and I order my clothes from G Dragon’s G-Market so therefore I know everything about hip-hop” people get started, it IS possible to hold or dangle the microphone “hip-hop style” and still utilise it correctly so a sound comes out of it. Here’s L.L. Cool J. (of all people) doing exactly the same upside down thing but correctly in the “Mama Said Knock You Out” video:
If someone whose name stands for “Ladies Love Cool James” can use a fucking microphone, I don’t see why it has to be so hard for everyone else. But enough of western rappers being surprisingly proficient, that’s no fun, back to k-pop stars failing.
Here’s KARA’s Seungyeon, from the MV for her solo song “Guilty”. Guilty of not knowing what the fuck she’s doing and making it up as she goes along, it seems.
Back to AOA’s “Get Out” and if I was positioned directly to the right of those keyboards because I wanted to cop a good perv at whatever this girl’s name is without the Nord Electro 2 getting in the way, then the microphone would be perfectly positioned to pick up all my “sweet nothings” as I stared at her (keyboard) rack.
What about Brown Eyed Girls, now they’re a bit older and wiser, and great singers too, surely they can get it ri…
Never mind. This is from the “I Got Fooled By You” MV, a song title seemingly about the microphone itself. Interesting that instead of micing their own tits like SNSD and SuJu, BEG’s microphones are twisted 180 degrees the other way and are actually pointing towards the air about half a foot in front of them which is a shame because I think Gain’s tits deserve their own microphone.
And on and on it goes. Have fun finding your own Super 55 failures, it seems that literally nobody in k-pop knows anything about this shit so far apart from me (and now, all of you. Don’t thank me all at once, now.)
THERE IS AT LEAST ONE OTHER PERSON WHO KNOWS.
Yes, it’s Juniel. This girl is so fucking irrelevant that I bought one of her CDs from the only decent k-pop store in my city, which is run by a girl who is Korean and has been listening to k-pop since the 90s and she was all like “you know, I don’t even know who that fucking nugu bitch is”. But Juniel’s “Pretty Boy” MV is honestly the only example I’ve found so far in k-pop of someone who actually knows what they’re doing with the Super 55. I guess maybe she had a bit of performance experience under her belt before getting involved in the k-pop scene, that’s the only way I can explain it. In any event, she’s now better than all of your biases, because she knows how to use a microphone AND she can play guitar. Fuck me, I think I’m about to faint.
If you find any others like her, put them in the comments below. Maybe we can get them to train the rest. There is hope.