Tropical house. What is it, why do k-pop producers love it, and why does it suck so much? Come with Kpopalypse on a journey into the depths of incredibly shit pop music!
WHAT IS TROPICAL HOUSE?
Many readers have been curious about the term “tropical house” and have asked me to define it for them, along with the popular Kpopalypse variant “tropical shithouse”. In order to properly define these important terms, let’s look at what the words mean individually, and also what they mean when combined in the context of Korean pop music.
House – a building that people live in. Sometimes this term is used colloquially to describe any type of building.
House music – a genre of electronic dance music created by club DJs and music producers in Chicago in the early 1980s. Early house music was generally characterized by repetitive 4/4 beats, unexciting mid-tempo drum machine rhythms, off-beat hi-hat cymbals, synthesized bass, and generally being boring droning rubbish that you had to be ripped off your face on drugs to stand any chance of enjoying. This explains the use of the term “house” to describe this musical style, as a house is a very practical place for listening to it, as you wouldn’t want to listen to this garbage outdoors in a place where other people might see you. This is also why in venues where “house music” is played, the lights are either kept extremely low, or are so completely blinding that nobody can see at all, this is to save listeners the social embarrassment of being identified. There’s probably a more specific definition than this out there somewhere for house music, but this one will do nicely because annoying electronic music snobs is funny.
Tropical – coming from the tropics, an area of the planet that has a latitude close to the equator.
Tropical music – there are many types of music made in tropical regions covering all sorts of genres, however the stereotypical ethnocentric idea of what constitutes “tropical music” that pop music fans subscribe to because they’re a bunch of racist cunts, is usually some dickhead blowing into a flute thing making a toot-toot noise. Because it’s the 21st century and learning how to play instruments properly is kind of outmoded, playing an electronic keyboard with a vague synthesised approximation of such a toot-toot noise will do. Sometimes there’s a bit of echo or some other extra electronic bullshit added like mild distortion or portamento effects (pitch-sliding), because audio engineers get really bored mixing this stuff so they have to add something so they don’t kill themselves from creative understimulation.
Tropical house – in pop music terminology, tropical house is music that combines the thudding boredom of house music rhythms with the annoying insipid instrumental melodies of crappy “tropical music” toot-toot synthesisers, but in a pop music format that also contains the usual verses, choruses, and so forth.
But let’s not forget one other important element:
Shit – human (or animal) faecal matter, a by-product of digestion that is expelled from the body at regular intervals. This word can also be used to describe any other substance or entity that one may wish to have removed from their presence at regular intervals, such as…
Shit music – the #1 most shit piece of music in k-pop so far remains Hwang Minwoo’s “Show Time“. We’ll see if a particularly uniquely bad piece of tropical shithouse doesn’t take that crown in 2017.
Shithouse (noun) – a toilet.
Shithouse (adjective) – any item, situation or event of very low quality, by implication containing the desirability of an entire house full of shit.
Tropical shithouse – tropical house that can be described as incredibly shit in quality, which is almost all of it.
Now that that’s all cleared up, let’s move onto the next pressing issue, which is:
WHY DO KPOP PRODUCERS LOVE THIS BULLSHIT SOUND?
There was a time when k-pop was far, far behind the west in terms of music production fashion and new k-pop songs all sounded horribly dated. Nowadays it’s different, Korean pop producers follow western pop trends much more closely, but the key word for the most part is still “follow”. Most k-pop producers take a fairly risk-averse approach to songwriting – they pick what is known to work in other markets, and as the USA is the biggest pop music market, that’s where they look. Therefore, when a style has hit full market traction in the west, you’ll start seeing it in k-pop a lot, as Korea’s producers look for successful ways to import the sound. Trap and dubstep both really blew up in Korean pop music just at the same time they were being gradually phased out in the west, and now we have tropical house, a style which is just now becoming huge in Korea as it is also just starting to descend from western popularity.
HOW DID THIS FUCKING SHIT STYLE OF MUSIC GAIN SO MUCH POPULARITY?
Like most musical trends, the evolution of tropical house is a reactionary musical movement, which has arisen in response to other recent musical trends. I’m sure you’ve noticed lately that pop music in general contains too much fucking vocals, and this perception would be accurate. With the general phasing-out of the instrumental bridge or break after the second chorus of most pop songs, this means that nowadays vocals have to fill that space as well, so there’s nowadays rarely any let-up whatsoever in the constant assault of vocals on the eardrums from start to finish in the average pop song. Whenever there’s too much of anything in pop music, something has to give, so the pendulum can swing the other way for a while, this is a pattern that has repeated historically through popular music. Tropical house is just such a change, and brings instrumental melody back into pop music again, this time not by reclaiming the lost bridge/breakdown solos, but by outsourcing a bunch of the chorus melody to some fucking weak toot-toot instrument instead of having the singers sing more stuff.
WHY IS THIS STYLE OF MUSIC USUALLY COMPLETE AND UTTER BULLSHIT?
The idea of tropical house is good in theory – more space for the vocals to breathe is always welcome in a pop song. However in practice it doesn’t often work that well. Let’s take a look at some examples of tropical shithouse and see what we can learn about why tropical house is a hard style to do well.
Berry Good’s “Don’t Believe” is an unusually high-quality k-pop interpretation of the style, and typifies what I’m going to call the “exclusion” approach to tropical house melody. The reason why this song works well is because the “tropical” part isn’t given too much work to do. The melody isn’t even heard at all until 1:16, by which time the song has had a chance to sell you a pretty decent full verse and chorus, and the crappy melody honestly isn’t very good but is essentially nothing more than a segue into the next verse anyway, just there to perform the function of some instrumental thumb-twiddling to break things up a little.
Evading the chorus completely is one way to do it, but the more other common method is what I’ll call the “integration” approach. I’m just making these labels up – these approaches don’t have official names yet, as the style itself is so new and no music academics are talking about this (apart from Kpopalypse of course, hey universities, my rates are reasonable). The best example in k-pop that I can think of that integrates the toot-toot shit into the body of the chorus itself while still maintaining a decent quality result is Blackpink’s “Playing With Fire”. Blackpink sure have some incredibly gobsmackingly awful shit songs, but “Playing With Fire” isn’t one of them. In this song the toot-toot assbanditry is unusually well-written for this style, and takes the form of a second chorus melody, which actually provides a welcome counterpoint adding life to what would be a fairly unexciting chorus on its own.
Of course, if roundup has taught me anything, it’s that nobody likes it when I’m being nice to their faves, so let’s look at some particularly bad examples to see what they did so wrong.
K.A.R.D’s “Oh Nana” is an example of a reasonably poor case of tropical shithouse. The structure is much the same as Blackpink’s song, so we’re using the “integration” approach here, however there’s an important difference. Blackpink’s tropical house toot-toots create a melody that is quite catchy and easy sung along to, which is capable of giving some relief against the fairly static chorus melody of that song. K.A.R.D on the other hand overuse portamento effects and repeated notes in their keyboard melody, while also providing a similarly flat vocal section to Blackpink, meaning that neither the singing nor the instruments create anything that is catchy or memorable – where Blackpink’s melody soars, K.A.R.D’s melody limps. K.A.R.D’s tropical house is rhythm-centric with little melodic interest, which is fine in some styles but isn’t playing to the one strength that tropical house has – the ability to augment the melodic line of a song.
K.A.R.D try the “exclusion” method here (toot-toots mostly on their own) to slightly better effect, with the notable addition of pedal-point harmony (completely static – or repeated, which is functionally identical – elements over changing chords) which certainly helps. The melody is slightly better here than on their other song, but unfortunately they also combine everything with a fairly woeful batch of trap sonics that turns everything into a godawful shitheap. Trap and tropical shithouse combined is a weight of pure trendy bullshit that no group can bear, such as in the following video which is so bad that the creators got rid of it and now I can’t even remember what the fuck it was.
As a style which is dependent somewhat on clever production to make it shine (the balancing of two counter-existing melodies amongst everything else that has to sit within the spectrum of a pop mix), it’s not a style that complete nugus tend to succeed at. It takes a reasonably adept songwriter, plus an equally skilled engineer to sit everything correctly so the two melodies are complementing each other instead of getting in the way of each other, and both of those people tend to charge rates that nugu agencies can’t afford.
One of the more potentially effective ways to integrate tropical house melody into a pop song is the “call and response” method. In this song BTS provide the “call” and then the toot-toots respond, this way the two elements aren’t fighting with each other so much. Unfortunately the call is some horrid “money money money” chant that will make you want to bash bricks up your ass, and the melody is the usual wayward toot-toot bullshit that is lazy and sad enough to make you want to toot said bricks straight back out of your shithole.
Like any trend in k-pop, songwriters can either commit to it fully, or they can dabble in it lightly. In this case, we have a “tropical shithouse lite” ballad, where the usual pace of tropical house has been thrown out and the toot-toots pushed back in the mix a little. The result is a song that has all the disadvantages of being trendy tropical house crap (boring predictable sounds, general yawning familiarity) but without picking up any of the aspects that make this particular trend worthwhile in some cases (faster pace, a chance to double up on a catchy foreground melody).
Here’s another song where the songwriters kind of wanted to make a tropical house song but ended up pushing the requisite electro tooting into the rear of the mix so it doesn’t dominate to the same extent. Maybe someone stormed into the studio and demanded some actual music quality at the last minute, so they turned down the toots and then forgot to turn them back up again when it was final mix time.
This songwriter here seems positively embarrassed to be making a tropical shithouse song at all (as well he might), and has reduced the amount of tooting to a few tiny little inconsequential electronic burps. Pity the rest of the song is pure garbage anyway, so this restraint doesn’t really help. EDIT: oh, they came to their senses and got rid of it also. Who can blame them.
The final approach is to just throw it all out there in a big mess with singing and vocals all on top of each other in a hideously conflicted aural gangbang. There’s no subtlety with Winner’s approach here which is pretty much all the melodies happening all the time.
So in summary:
- Tropical house = mid-tempo dance rhythm + toot-toot keys in or just after the chorus
- Tropical shithouse = the same + boredom + general shittiness + other optional trendy bullshit styles that nobody likes either
- The tooting can be combined with a sung chorus or separated
- Because any old bullshit tooting melody will work in this style, the results are usually lazy garbage
- Only experienced songwriters and producers have a chance to make this nonsense sound acceptable
- You should be ashamed of yourself for listening to this trash
That’s all for Kpopalypse for another post! Hopefully you enjoyed this and Kpopalypse will return to dislike more music in the future!