By Lina Yoon / Seoul
As a child who used to hide from his parents to dance to cassettes of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, Dong Young-bae says he was too shy to tell anyone he wanted to become a famous dancer and singer. Not anymore. Today, the 22-year-old South Korean singer and dancer known Taeyang is facing the spotlight as an international pop star. Thanks in no small part to a long-standing trend in Asia that renders all things Korean cool, Taeyang is going global, riding the so-called Korean Wave all the way out west.
Better known in South Korea as the voice of the Korean boy band Big Bang, Taeyang's first solo album, "Solar," released online internationally last month, hit No. 2 on iTunes R&B sales charts in the U.S. and No. 1 in Canada — a first for an Asian artist. "In the beginning, it was hard to believe I had fans buying my album so far away," says Taeyang, which means "sun" in Korean. He says he didn't do any promotion in North America for the album, which was recorded in Korean and targeted fans in South Korea and Japan. "The world is smaller now."
For many artists in Korea's booming music industry, social media like YouTube and Twitter have become crucial tools to reach audiences in formerly hard-to-access markets like the U.S. and Europe. Korean artists are bypassing traditional outlets like radio and television, "aggressively steering their efforts to go international via the Internet," says Bernied Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based agency specializing in international marketing of Korean pop acts. "Social-media-savvy K-pop stars are now tweeting, YouTubing and Facebooking their way up music charts across and beyond Asia."
It's working: allkpop.com, an English-language, U.S.-based Korean pop blog that caters to international fans, now generates more web traffic than any Korean music portals in South Korea. "Korean artists are now out there," says Johnny Noh, who runs the site. "People like [Korean artists] and want to know more about them." The blog's monthly readers more than doubled in the past year, from one million in 2009 to 2.2 million today.
DFSB Kollective was the first company to begin direct distribution of Korean music acts on iTunes in 2009. It began with more than 50 Korean artists in alternative, hip-hop and electronica music genres; now, there are hundreds of Korean artists available in the online music store. Within a few hours of the Aug. 25 iTunes release of Solar International, an extended version of Taeyang's album that includes English versions of his singles, the album was at No. 3 in Japan, No. 5 in Canada, No. 11 in the U.S. and No. 15 in Australia on iTunes' R&B/Soul album chart. It will only hit on-the-ground music stores in the U.S. and Canada later, and no release date has even been set for Asian markets. It's the first time a South Korean album has been promoted offshore and online exclusively through social media groups, according to YG Entertainment, Taeyang's Korean R&B and hip hop label.
People in the Korean music industry are watching and learning. YG Entertainment also plans to release the first album of girl group 2NE1 internationally and offshore. The group became famous after releasing the single "Lollipop," with Big Bang, which was featured in an LG cell-phone ad campaign last year. Since then, 2NE1's international exposure — particularly in the U.S. — has been growing. Black Eyed Peas producer Will.i.am saw one of their videos on YouTube and immediately wanted to work with them, says Choi Sung-jun, chief operations officer at YG Entertainment. They have been collaborating for the past couple months in Los Angeles and London.
K-pop's online buzz has also become a way for artists to make a name for themselves at home. Kim Yeo-hee, 22, became a YouTube star last March when she posted three videos under the name Apple Girl. In her first video, Kim played music with the applications of four Apple iphones and sang Beyonce's "Irreplaceable." Two days later she became the most searched word in all major Korean web search engines. In May, Kim released her debut digital mini-album and is preparing a new single for release in September; she went from making music on iPhones to selling her own music on iTunes in less than six months. "I wanted to become the Korean version of Justin Bieber," says Kim. "But I never imagined so many people could be interested in what I do."
Of course, once you get your face known overseas, you still have to control your image. On a day in late August, Taeyang was working nonstop at the YG studio in Seoul to get ready for his upcoming concert that will be streamed live on YouTube. The young celebrity massaged his shoulder, yawned and, with bags under his eyes, looked through the photos that will appear on his new album. He frowned at an image of himself in which his well-groomed goatee had been photoshopped out. "Call the printer and tell them to change the picture," he told the designer. He gestured to the photo of his digitally clean-shaven face. "I want to look a bit tough," he said. "In the U.S., like this, they'll think I'm too nice."
Source: Lina Yoon / Seoul @ Time.com
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"I want to change my hairstyle but I have no time"
What would it be like if Taeyang of Big Bang did not exist.
It may be something fans don’t even want to image, but in order to evaluate Taeyang’s true value, such a method may be effective. Even if Taeyang didn’t exist, Big Bang probably would have been one of the best pop groups like they are now. Because the remaining members have their own talents and personalities, and thanks to strong training, they would be lacking nothing to continue receiving the fiery love of their fans.
But if Taeyang did not exist, Big Bang’s heavy presence could have been lighter than it is now. Big Bang’s singular existence is that though they are ‘idols,’ they are also recognized as ‘artists’, and the member who is in charge of a significant portion of this ‘artistry’ is Taeyang.
Artistry, and sincerity
The reason this is is obviously that Taeyang shows us an exceptional ability in song and dance. But in addition to his musical ability that can be summarize him as an ‘artist,’ there is another key factor that makes him the alpha plus of Big Bang. And that is sincerity.
Taeyang clearly shows us musical and human sincerity that is difficult to find in a member of an idol group and singer in his early twenties. We can this sincerity musically, through the traces of worry over continually wanting to show a better and fresher image through his solo activities, and humanly through his prudent and modest thoughts and actions.
We met Taeyang. It was during the time when his solo album did almost surprisingly well on iTunes charts overseas and he was getting ready for his second solo concert (September 25 and 26, Seoul Hall of Peace) after releasing his international album. Though the interview was filled with sincere talk about music, there was also some silliness, like how he began the interview by appearing from behind the sofa where he had been hiding with a bright smile.
Musical modesty and musical greed
Taeyang’s interview continued with some depressing(?) conversation. It was Taeyang who made it that way. When asked a question about his achievements and his high-scoring musical ability, he simply gave us modest answers. Even though it’s accepted that when celebrities are asked questions about themselves, they sugar coat their answers to some degree, Taeyang did not do so.
When asked what he thought about doing more aggressive promotions overseas with the basis of his success on iTunes, he said, “There’s nothing special. Other than releasing an international album because my solo album did well on iTunes, there’s nothing special planned. We’re just going to get out there slowly, one step at a time.”
When asked about his performance of motions and facial expressions that is unfolding quite naturally as if we’re watching a musical in his recently promoted song ‘I’ll Be There,’ he answered, “It’s not to the point where I should be receiving compliments. I just try hard to express myself naturally according to the music without practicing my acting on the side.”
He says that he is lacking in so many things even though he is being acclaimed that his musical ability surpasses that of an idol. “I’m lacking a lot. Musically, I think that I have to find a lot more areas where I can directly incorporate my own color, and on stage I think I have to be able to show an image that’s more relaxed.”
He continues to give us modest answers. He says that he doesn’t really show his Big Bang friends the music that he had been working on for his solo album. The reason is because he is “too shy…” When asked about his secret to digesting both song and dance together, he says again, “I’m still lacking a lot. There’s nothing special. I always exercise whether or not I’m doing promotions. So that I don’t run out of strength on stage. And because the facilities at the office are so advanced, I always grab a mic and sing live whenever I practice the choreography.”
But no matter how modest he tries to be about his musical greed and how much he tries to hide it, he can’t help but let it show. He has a lot of thoughts about writing lyrics. “There are a lot of dating stories in my songs and in most pop songs. But I want to write lyrics that reflect the generation, about society and people. Stories about ‘relationship’ or society’s ‘issues.’”
Concert, and analog with the band
Taeyang begins to talk more as we go into talk about his concert. Taeyang overflows with affection and greed about performing, to the point where he will pinpoint his first solo concert as the happiest moment of his life since starting solo activities. The way he thinks about performances is mature. When asked if there will be a surprise event, “Well… The center of all the preparations I’m putting in for my performances is music, and I believe that each concert is where I show everything that I have at that point. It’s the same this time around. Music and dance performances are a given and I’m exercising hard to show my body too (laughs).”
He has specially prepared his music with a live band for this concert. A band? It was a bit surprising to hear that Taeyang, whose promotions have been driven by digital sounds, would be performing with analogue band music. “I believe that performances should attempt something new each time and that this time has to be different from the last.”
“There are a lot of difficulties in doing my music with a band. But with a lot of effort, we’ve made it so that my entire performance can be done with a live band. Aside from two songs where it was totally impossible, I’ve prepared so much to the point where I can say that 98% will be with a live band.”
It is not just for ‘freshness’ that he chose to perform with a band. “I’ve had a taste for analog music. I’ve always listened to black music and have primarily done digital music, but the more I do music, the more I’ve come to believe that all good music have the same root, and I’ve shed a lot of my genre biases. And I’m starting to like old-school, analogue music more and more. So I thought I would do my own concert with a band.”
But what must it feel like for Taeyang, who has to match his dance routine to a band instead of to strong digital music that keeps to the beat without error. “There’s a huge difference. It’s definitely more alive. The music itself (which is somewhat freestyle) is live and it’s difficult to make its expression exact, but it’s less artificial.”
‘Human’ Taeyang, prudent and silly
Talk about music has no end, but we were curious about ‘human’ Taeyang so we changed the direction of the interview. We asked whether he’s jealous of the other Big Bang members. And what he thought made him better than the others. “Jiyong has the sense to accept new things, Daesung is bright and sociable, Seungri has confidence, and TOP is charismatic and stubborn… Me? I’m careful (laughs).” Taeyang is in charge of(?) Big Bang’s caution.
We asked whether he would change his hairstyle, which he’s had for quite some time. “I want to change it. But I don’t have that kind of time. If I want to change something, I have to do it with a comeback after going on a break, and I would need time to study and find a new style, but even if I didn’t have promotions in Korea, I have promotions in Japan and other places overseas, so I don’t have any time to change it.”
After seeing such a serious side of Taeyang, we wondered about his other sides so we asked if he ever spends his time being silly. “There are times when I am silly. If there’s a closet in our waiting room or something, I go inside sometimes. The people around me now understand this kind of humor of mine.” He told us about the time when he was in the middle of filming a music video when he ran away from set in full makeup and costume, and took a bus back to the office.
After talking nonstop about music, Taeyang found difficulty with questions that required a funny story or funny answers. The image of him saying, “Ah, I can’t think of it right now,” making a pained facial expression, and striving to think of something was very Taeyang-like. It seemed as though Taeyang doesn’t keep much in his head other than things that have to do with music.
Translation: Seungie @ tumblr
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Infinitely closer to the sun
“Youngbae really isn’t that kind of guy.” These words were spoken by Teddy, who had composed Dong Young Bae/Taeyang’s ‘Only Look At Me.’ Taeyang isn’t a bad guy who could say something like, “Even if I cheat, don’t you ever cheat,” like it says in ‘Only Look At Me.’ This is the truth. Taeyang is not that kind of person. He’s never dated, and appearing on entertainment programs is still awkward for him. Even on SBS ‘Heroes,’ which is full of girl idols including IU who say that he is their ideal type, he simply sang a song and left.
Instead, he loves music. Until recently, if you take out the time he spent in promotions, all of his time was spent in the studio working on his new album ‘SOLAR.’ And because he wasn’t quite satisfied with the tracks that were in the making, he “turned it all over” and replaced at least half the album with brand new songs. How are you supposed to believe this? During the entire interview, he spoke without ceasing about the work he put into ‘SOLAR,’ about music, and the stage. Taeyang’s first solo album ‘HOT’ had received almost unanimous praise from critics. In ‘HOT,’ he knew how to reconcile smooth sounds and vocals, and instead of a R&B vocal tone, he conveyed a R&B feel.
Taeyang’s style, which can only be understood with music
‘SOLAR’ dug deeper into the music that he loves. In terms of the weight of singles, it is difficult for ‘I Need a Girl’ to surpass ‘Only Look At Me.’ But the surprise of ‘HOT’ was that a member of an idol group in Korea had digested a mature R&B feel. On the other hand, ‘SOLAR’ focuses on the consistent expression of an emotion pursued by one artist. The problem was that the focus changed to how the rhythms and tones were adjusted in terms of genre and vocal style. In ‘Only Look At Me,’ the rhythm was created by sounds that filled up every crack and crevice, and Taeyang followed this rhythm to sing with maturity. But in ‘I Need a Girl,’ the sound is so simple to the point where it looks empty. In ‘You’re My,’ the keyboard makes up the entire arrangement. It is entirely up to Taeyang to pull the song along. In between the rhythms and in between the melody, he adds variety to his vocals. It is no coincidence that all the songs, from ‘Solar’ to ‘Break Down,’ that Taeyang had put into his album after throwing away half his original tracks, all consistently stick to a medium tempo. In the middle of a loose rhythm, Taeyang has the freedom to lead the song to wherever he wishes.
All of this is not for the sake of a talent show for musicians who can sing well. Apart from ‘You’re My,’ the tracks on ‘SOLAR’ are filled with ad libs. In ‘Break Down,’ he casually changes up his tone to prove his competency, to the point where he seems absentminded. But in this way, he draws the subtle picture that he wants to depict. It’s the atmosphere created by delicate movements that could very well be called an elegant bounce. The feel-good bounce that pervades through ‘I Need a Girl’ from beginning to end. Or the rhythmic sense that runs through ‘Move’ that makes you dance even with its low lyrical melody. Taeyang is not bluffing when he says that his musical goal is to “make music that is hopeful in the morning and comforting at night.” As if he were creating his own utopia, he persistently dug into the spaces between the beats to build a bounce, a melody, and a style that only his voice could create. He has completed his personal style with his voice that can be understood by all only through music.
The long and difficult road an idol must walk
But the victory that Taeyang achieved with ‘SOLAR’ could be his dilemma. His performance of ‘I Need a Girl’ can be enjoyed if his elegant bounce is accepted. The rhythm that doesn’t end once the music starts and makes you move your body is a result of the combination of Taeyang’s vocals and the percussion in the background. Only when you feel this will you understand why Taeyang uses small gestures instead of flashy steps. Like JYP’s assessment that he “plays with the beat,” Taeyang shows just how much of a unique rhythmic sense he has in ‘Where U At.’ While regular dancers are showing off how well they can match the beat, Taeyang shows us a variety of movements while keeping the beat of the music, as if he is continually stretching and loosening a tight rubber band. But he no longer dances that way. Instead, he puts together a choreography concept that is like a musical. In the recently promoted track ‘I’ll Be There,’ instead of flashy technique, he only moves as necessary to fit into the picture created by the stage concept of a horror movie. It was a huge gamble. Korea is not easily enthused by a song and a stage that does not put forth a catchy melody, a lively mechanical sound, nor a technique that shows the skills of the artist in one glance. ‘SOLAR’ album sales were good to the point where its 30 thousand limited edition albums were sold out. But it is difficult to say its music scores met expectations. Popularity and musicality, and the distance between a musician in his own world and an idol who’s looking out into the audience. Taeyang could become an idol to whom the masses have a hard time drawing near.
But a turning point. ‘SOLAR’ was in the top 100 on iTunes overall album charts. In Canada, it was #1 on iTunes R&B/Soul. Foreign fans, who became his fan since the days of ‘Wedding Dress’ as they followed his dance, welcomed ‘SOLAR.’ To them, it could be that the subtle emotion in his vocals and his songs that succeeded with bounce is more popular. It could be that he is at the place where his will and the public’s tastes are matched. An idol that is good at music but has no fiber when it comes to entertainment shows, both a famous idol and a musician that holds out for his own style. The unique and successful hero that made himself known abroad even when he received a less than desirable reaction in Korea. We wonder what lies ahead for Taeyang, this sincere young man, who seems to be everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Translation: Seungie @ tumblr