There are a few different places a project like ours might begin. First to mind is Seo Taiji’s “난 알아요 (I Know),” the 1992 single that introduced K-pop as a youth phenomenon, and codified many of the tropes still central to Korean chart music today. Then there’s 1996 and H.O.T’s “Candy,” the moment a genius mechanical engineer simplified Seo’s DIY quirks into a massively replicable, industry-grade formula for pop hysteria. Far earlier, the first genuinely Korean hit single “사의 찬미 (Death Song)” – a 1926 rewrite of the classic Romanian waltz “The Waves of Danube” sung by the soprano Yun Shim-deok – provides another starting point, as her recording catalyzed the very idea of (and market for) Korean popular music. And we also have Wonder Girls, who with 2007’s “Tell Me” defined the fundamental logic of modern K-pop, and with 2008’s “Nobody” defined modern K-pop itself.
But we can’t imagine a better starting point than “Gee.” Of course, it marked the ascent of Girls’ Generation, one of the most important and impressive careers in Asian pop history; it was 2009’s best-selling song in Korea; it was the first single by a non-Japanese Asian girl group to top Japan’s Oricon Daily chart (opening a floodgate through which many Korean artists would soon do the same); and it was a zeitgeist-sized phenomenon throughout mainland China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. But what’s most significant was its confirmation — and crucial revision — of the idea Wonder Girls had articulated in “Nobody,” the concept of K-pop as a both ultramodern and traditionalist pop form. 1 A duality that runs parallel with South Korean society’s tendency to strive toward the future while carrying a heavy bale of old-fashioned values. And while JYP Entertainment founder Park Jin-Young got Wonder Girls and K-pop at least briefly on western radars by sheer dint of good music and a nearly suicidal market investment, Girls’ Generation actually managed to stay there — and instigate the worldwide K-pop craze for which everyone from Eat Your Kimchi to Talk To Me In Korean owe their audience — by sheer dint of pop perfection.
It almost didn’t happen. Had all gone according to parent company SM Entertainment’s plan, the average “Dancing Queen” would have taken “Gee’s” place – but a sample clearance issue left the lesser song stuck in the chamber. 2 Once liberated, “Queen” sought its revenge as the sole misfire on Girls’ Generation’s mostly fantastic I Got A Boy album. Considering so much of a pop song’s harmony with popular taste has to do with time and place, it’s at least a little bit crazy to ponder just how much of K-pop’s future might have vanished had “Gee” been promoted as their second single of 2009, or not promoted at all. 3 Perhaps this website wouldn’t exist; perhaps we’d all be lawyers.
So what makes “Gee” so good? Unlike many other songs among K-pop’s upper echelon, its greatness defies pen-and-paper dissection: there are no inspired key changes, daring genre transfusions, or novel metaphors in play. Its appeal is immediate, though hardly obvious. If we want to talk “Gee,” we’re going to have to get pretty dang subjective.
Many folks already have — and they’ve made valuable insights. In 2012, August Brown wrote for the LA Times that “Gee” was “the K-pop equivalent of Elvis walking into Sun Studios [in that] it drew the blueprint for a culture to come.” 4 As I’ve alluded, Wonder Girls arguably accomplished this feat first with “Nobody.” But Girls’ Generation and Korean songwriting duo E-Tribe were the ones to refine that song’s principles — 21st century sheen; state of the art production; laser-focused attention to the idea of genre; a classicist’s obsession with craft and concision — and apply it to something that felt distinctly local and progressive, unlike “Nobody’s” nostalgic debt to American disco classic “I Will Survive” (in sound) and Motown (in style, spirit, and group structure). Riding a similar wave of superlatives that same year, John Seabrook wrote for the New Yorker of a Girls’ Generation concert in America: “At its best it elicited primal pop emotions that only a few of the greatest pop artists – the Beach Boys, the early Beatles, Phil Spector’s girl groups – can evoke: the feeling of pure love.” Anyone familiar with the article and Girls’ Generation’s oeuvre will know that he must’ve been talking first and foremost about “Gee.” (And man – what a compliment.)
So how does it do that? Brown draws attention to the “double-time electronic drums, fluorescent synthesizers and [the] cute-cloying repetition of the song’s title,” remarking that the overall effect is “so insistent and poppy, it’s almost avant-garde.” That’s precisely the heart of it: “Gee” is a pop song that avails itself of all the tools and trappings of chart pop in 2009, to dress up a wonder of 20th century songcraft. Seabrook’s reference to the early Beatles feels especially pertinent here. One of the young John Lennon’s favorite songwriting techniques was to write a verse and chorus, then discard the verse, shift the chorus into its place, and write a new chorus to answer it — and it sounds like E-Tribe could well have done the same. With a slightly more active backing track, the verse (0:20-0:38) — featuring the iconic “gee gee gee gee, baby, baby, baby” hook, reliably the part of the song one’s left singing later — could be a hit chorus unto itself, and is about as catchy as the kind you’d find in any given K-pop song recorded prior to 2009. But that’s just a warm-up: the moment “Gee” reaches its true pop pleasure center, right before the minute mark, is that at which the bar is forever raised.
Granted, neither section would work nearly as well without the prechorus between (0:38-0:59), one of the most effortless and graceful in pop history. There’s a cheer squad simplicity to the short, excitable syllables of the verse, which expands beautifully into the dovetailing lines the nine girls share next, echoing and answering one another like a playful snippet of musical theater. The vocals are melodically and rhythmically exquisite, front and center in the mix and the listener’s focus, enabling the bass — which has shifted from just one quarter-note every four beats to a pulsating, constant syncopation — to escalate expectations almost subliminally (with the assistance of an arpeggiated synth that slinks into the upper-middle register, and an absolutely gorgeous theremin counterpoint — perhaps the memory cue that had Seabrook thinking of primetime Brian Wilson). A subtle tension plays in the back of the listener’s mind, while the front is busy tracing the topline ballet that’s unfolding center stage. Then one of the girls swoons, the percussion skitters anxiously, and the chorus delivers everything the audience wants and, by now, needs — one brilliant, teasing beat later than expected, like a first-time crush who seems somehow to just know.
That’s something like the point, anyway: as Tiffany announces in the intro (an English preface for the broader world), this song is her “first love story” (and, for most international listeners, the first of many Korean ones). In an industry where lyrical highlights have included hooks about wisdom teeth, domestic violence, and the way shampoo stings your eyes, “Gee” is K-pop’s crowning achievement in the straightforward. The best twinning of words and rhythm, for our money, comes in the bilingual chorus: So bright, so bright / My eyes are blinded (no, no, no, no, no) / So surprised, surprised / I’m shocked (oh, oh, oh, oh, oh) / So tingly, tingly / My body’s trembling (gee, gee, gee, gee, gee) / Oh, glittering eyes (oh yeah) / Oh, sweet fragrance (oh yeah, yeah, yeah). Following those wandering, wondering lines of the prechorus, the exclamatory quality of this mostly non-melodic chorus explodes with a sense of epiphany.
Maybe the most inspired bit of “Gee” is the little mantra at the start of every line in the chorus: 반짝 (ban-jjak; “bright”), 깜짝 (kkam-jjak; “surprising”), and 짜릿 (jja-rit; “tingly”). Each of these three phrases matches, in rhythm and timbre, the pattern of the kick and hi-hat during the drum break at 1:18. Both the break and the vocals that resemble it occur in the only places in the song where all other elements drop out — a nice bit of macro-level symmetry that provides “Gee” an overarching sense of structural integrity, be it a clever trick or happy accident.
But that’s not all. Presented in pairs (ban-jjak, ban-jjak), they’re universally fun words to sing. To use a term Tim Rogers coined for the most gratifying physics in both virtual and natural realities, there’s a “sticky friction” to these tiny phrases that keeps people – a whole lot more of them non-Korean than Korean – coming back for more. It’s something any cogent mouth-mind combo would yearn to learn and mimic, comprehending or not. We happen to find it harder, in our very own English (or most other languages), to find a lyric that is not just melodically addictive, but mechanically so. The Korean syllabary’s abundance of round, finely tuned vowels and granular, multi-velocity consonants lends itself in places to a rare kind of smooth-chewy texture — as fun to speak as ddeokbokki is to eat.
The video is a simple joy, and a sharp introduction to Girls’ Generation’s charms (their carefully practiced facial expressions and body linguistics being the focal point). Early western K-pop proponent/Tumblr baron Trevor Link has interpreted a feminist underpinning in the video, and the New Yorker’s Seabrook argues that there is nothing “pervy” about his enjoyment of the video despite his niece’s skepticism, but they may both be a bit off the mark. It seems a stretch to read any empowerment narrative into a video that presents its women as mannequins (perhaps more productively analyzed as a boldly unromantic portrayal of a group whose parent company carefully engineered every iota of their public personae, as is standard in K-pop), let alone one that has a central scene serving zero purpose but to showcase their bare feet. (Sure, John, it’s no AKB48 – but that’s not exactly minimum viable perviness.) 5 To wit, “Gee” established Girls’ Generation as the number one ajeosshi or “uncle” fan group in Korea, with a huge demographic group of middle-aged men helping make them the only girl group that can outsell the vast majority of the peninsula’s generally far more lucrative boy bands. For a cultural analogue in the western world, we may turn to something like Girls’ biggest debut viewership having been white guys older than Beatlemania. A proper discussion of the choreography could make for a separate post as long as this one, but briefly, all their artful swooning, preening, hopping, and (perhaps most persuasive) sheer synchronicity serve to convey a cutesy eagerness to please that is archetypal of a K-pop tradition (and Korean social norm) so vast and unusual we can only hope to broach it in a later entry.
“Gee” has proven to be, for all involved, the sound of lightning in a bottle. It’s certainly a unique achievement for songsmiths E-Tribe, who to our knowledge have only managed one recording worthy of this same air, and have yet to muster a hit half as lasting or lustrous. And while the Girls have since enjoyed plenty of hits and a few further masterpieces, it’d be wrong to say they ever found this magic again. The mini-album on which “Gee” was first released underscores this point: among the mock Avril Lavigne J-pop of “힘내! (Way To Go!)” and the soap opera gloop “Dear Mom,” only “Destiny” makes sense sharing disc space with the EP’s golden title track. And while countless K-pop songs have taken inspiration from “Gee” in sound, look, and motion, precious few have come even momentarily close to its perfect balance, its continental success, or that timeless “pure love feeling” that translates – be it Californian or Korean – worldwide.
This article was first written not long after the sudden departure of marquee member Jessica, who officially left the group on September 30, 2014. It proved a tumultuous year in general, leaving many fans to wonder if they were witnessing the beginning of the industry’s end. But since then, Girls’ Generation has only demonstrated the resilience of the K-pop model, releasing a typically high-selling new album, playing to 50,000 people in Tokyo (on a weeknight), and launching the incredibly successful solo career of Taeyeon, now by far the most famous member in the group’s history – all as a pop act nearing a remarkably uncommon ten-year anniversary. In fact, the new generation of SM Entertainment groups seems to be built around the very idea of modular, adaptable line-ups and songs, pointing the way not simply to a future, but to an increasingly complex one. It seems we may actually be just now getting started.
• Key: E major
• BPM: 100
• Gee mini-album, SM Entertainment, 1/7/2009
• Oh! album, SM Entertainment, 1/28/2010
• Run Devil Run album [Oh! repackage], SM Entertainment, 3/22/2010
• Girls’ Generation album, SM Enertainment / Nayutawave Records, 6/1/2010 [Japanese version]
• Gee single, SM Entertainment / Nayutawave Records / Universal Music, 10/20/2010 [Japanese, Korean, and Without Main Vocal versions]
• Into the New World: The 1st Asia Tour double-album, SM Entertainment, 12/30/2010 [live version]
• Best Selection Non Stop Mix compilation, SM Entertainment / Natuyawave Records, 3/20/2013 [Japanese remix]
• The Best compilation, SM Entertainment / Universal Music / EMI, 7/23/2014 [Japanese version]
Sources and Further Reading
• My 20 Essential K-pop Songs feature for Pitchfork (featuring “Gee”)
• My 2014 interview with Girls’ Generation for Vice (their last English Q&A featuring Jessica)
• Trevor Link’s K-pop manifesto (featuring “Gee”)
• Factory Girls, John Seabrook’s Girls’ Generation feature for The New Yorker
• K-pop enters American pop consciousness, at the LA Times
Written and researched by Jakob Dorof. Graphic design and art direction by the outright incredible Frankie. Transcription and theoretical consultation by Scott Interrante, nine years a prom king. Insight and influence, as always, courtesy Tzechar.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||A duality that runs parallel with South Korean society’s tendency to strive toward the future while carrying a heavy bale of old-fashioned values.|
|2.||↑||Once liberated, “Queen” sought its revenge as the sole misfire on Girls’ Generation’s mostly fantastic I Got A Boy album.|
|3.||↑||Perhaps this website wouldn’t exist; perhaps we’d all be lawyers.|
|4.||↑||As I’ve alluded, Wonder Girls arguably accomplished this feat first with “Nobody.” But Girls’ Generation and Korean songwriting duo E-Tribe were the ones to refine that song’s principles — 21st century sheen; state of the art production; laser-focused attention to the idea of genre; a classicist’s obsession with craft and concision — and apply it to something that felt distinctly local and progressive, unlike “Nobody’s” nostalgic debt to American disco classic “I Will Survive” (in sound) and Motown (in style, spirit, and group structure).|
|5.||↑||To wit, “Gee” established Girls’ Generation as the number one ajeosshi or “uncle” fan group in Korea, with a huge demographic group of middle-aged men helping make them the only girl group that can outsell the vast majority of the peninsula’s generally far more lucrative boy bands. For a cultural analogue in the western world, we may turn to something like Girls’ biggest debut viewership having been white guys older than Beatlemania.|