003. NOBODY // WONDER GIRLS


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To accurately summarize the impact “Nobody” had on K-pop, as both domestic and international phenomena, is no mean task. It is the 8th best-selling single in modern Korean history. On its strengths (and almost its strengths alone), Wonder Girls became the first Korean group the western media covered even halfway substantively, and made it to the largest touring stages a Korean group had yet graced in America. 1 Granted, the exposure the Kim Sisters had in the early ‘60s on the Ed Sullivan Show – America’s biggest media platform at the time, the one that would soon introduce the Beatles stateside – would remain the largest global stage Korean music would enjoy until 2012. And in the long, slow war of attrition Asian pop has fought against American prejudice since FM radio programming became a segregationist police state in 1973, the 2009 rerelease of “Nobody” in English was probably the eastern offensive’s first meaningful campaign.

Most importantly to our aesthetic timeline, “Nobody” marked the moment that K-pop, as a music, became truly modern. Its 2008 release in Korea followed the 2007 release of Wonder Girls’ first domestic smash, “Tell Me.” “Tell Me” is a milestone worthy of its own consideration, but for now simply appreciate that it was the end of a major arc in K-pop history. “Tell Me” – as songwriting, studio production, dance routine, music video, and overarching concept – was the last time a relatively cheap, simple product became a full-blown sensation in Korea. “Tell Me” was the last time K-pop felt, by western standards, dated; like the vast majority of K-pop produced between 2000 and 2008, “Tell Me” was defined by ‘90s tropes, techniques, tendencies. And, in a narrative turn beautiful in its convenience, “Tell Me” was the success that set the stage for “Nobody” – a sleek proclamation that Korea was no longer contending with the American past, but its present. 2 And, as it happens, the song that began the trend of western critics referring to the Korean standard as global pop’s likely future.

And in one of the best Greek tragedies yet penned by a pop song, “Nobody” stands for Korean music mogul Park Jin-Young’s greatest ambition, greatest success, and greatest folly. It is the drawn-out story of K-pop’s limitless potential and limited reality in what has so far been its defining era: 2009-2014.

It is also, as it happens, a pretty good song.

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To its many national audiences, “Nobody” introduced itself with a massive music video – clearly the intended experience. Park Jin-young – legacy pop star, JYP Entertainment founder-impresario, and the father figure mastermind behind Wonder Girls – is known for grand feats of vanity, and the “Nobody” video is his strangest self-love masterpiece. The “Tell Me” clip also began with an excerpt of a bygone Park solo hit; this one opens with an apocryphal reading of 1998’s “Honey,” reimagined vis-a-vis the Motown superstardom of Park’s dreams. In a Gaye, Brown suit, he grips a vintage micstand before a small band and his Wonder Girls – in matching dresses like those of any girl group national treasure from Detroit. After the performance, Park cools off as a couple of execs approach him with sheet music for a new tune called “Nobody,” which they note “sounds like a great hit.” It’s a cleverly reflexive moment: real-life Park of course wrote that inevitable smash (another friendly nudge from his ego), but in this high-def diegesis he can identify the Motown inspiration behind the song’s guiding spirit. If Park is a true genius, it’s intentional that Wonder Girls are seen practicing dance moves with an instructor just moments after their performance ends: even in the slave contract purgatory of Motown’s original sin, you can’t find a work ethic half that of your average K-pop group.

Park then indulges in a Tin Pan Alley rendition of the song by piano, as though to sate some desire to perform and release the song himself. It’s a cute way to shoehorn another golden age of (assembly line) American pop into the atemporal fantasyland of the video.

Less conscionable is the following scene, during which Park continues singing the song’s hook while managing a spate of diarrhea on the john (sound effects and all). For this indiscretion, we may blame Korea’s long-running affinity for toilet humor. 3 This toilet museum and these common “shitbread” treats – filled, naturally, with fudge – are just the start. But however oddly, it does serve a narrative purpose: once Park realizes his bathroom stall is fresh out of toilet paper, the superstar  becomes a prisoner of his own bowels. The crowd grows restless while Park shouts in desperation for help. The five girls – previously backup-singing, -dancing decoration – are ushered to center stage for lack of an alternative, and, of course, bring down the house. 4 Unbelievably, Park continues to interject throughout the song from the bathroom even interrupting the first chorus!

An extended instrumental loop is inserted near the end to allow Park to reappear during the applause to mug with his new starlets, and to make room for an ambitious montage of global accolades and accomplishment. Tellingly, a New York Times-looking broadsheet bears a headline in mangled English: WONDER GIRLS ALBUM – NOBODY: Million Platinum Hits Penetration.  No less tellingly, the video ends with Park returning to his bathroom throne, savoring the arrival of hard-won success and excrement – until he realizes, once again, he’s out of paper.

Perhaps it says something that the history of modern K-pop – the most exquisite pop renaissance since ‘80s Japan, and the ‘60s UK/US dyad before it – begins with an extended shit joke.

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Musically speaking, “Nobody” is solid. It lacks the meticulous polish of successors like “Gee,” or the intelligent eccentricity of “I Am The Best,” but does bear a couple unlikely features. 5 In addition to boasting backing vocals from Park himself and former Wonder Girl/future 4minute star Hyuna. For one, it ends with a rap verse – literally, Yubin’s last word is the final beat of the song. We can think of almost zero other non-rap smashes that do that; 6 Even rap songs that work as crossover hits seldom cut out so abruptly with a rap. the closest we get is the New Radicals’ “You Only Get What You Give,” which ends with Gregg Alexander’s joyously dated Hanson and Courtney Love diss verse – albeit still preceding a gradual fadeout that includes a new guitar solo and a reduced arrangement of the chorus. 7 We suppose there’s also this Kylie-Robbie regret, which raps through its fadeout. If you know any other examples, say hey. In “Nobody,” it’s surprisingly effective – placed more predictably in the second verse or bridge, the rap would have fallen flat, but it works where it is.

Speaking of the bridge, that’s where we find the other curveball: leading back into the final chorus, we hear a pivot chord in the vocal and harmony that suggests we’re getting a key change…but then we don’t. Followed by the surprise rap at the end, it’s an odd way to end a pop song. My best guess would be that Park and Wonder Girls attempted a key change in the studio – it would well suit the Motown homage of the video – and ultimately decided to cut it, but left in the promise of a modulation for its dramatic effect. We’re generally proponents for weirdness in pop (could you tell?), but we’re not so sure we ride with this one. In a song this by-the-book, it reads like a syntax error.

 

But we digress. The most important point about “Nobody,” as a song, is that while the concept, video, and image all signify Motown, its musical template comes from another American era altogether: disco. It is, in fact, a chord-for-chord copy of Gloria Gaynor’s immortal 1978 hit “I Will Survive,”  simply shifted from A minor to E-flat minor. And as producer Woo S. Rhee (“Rainstone” to Park’s “Asiansoul,” in the silly songwriter’s credits) updates the classic’s production with techniques cribbed from third-wave French electro, also known as “neu disco,” “Nobody” is pretty clearly a disco tune. 8 Of course, any article you might read about it in the western press will say it sounds like Motown – the music journalist’s tendency to describe context rather than content, as usual.

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Recycling is nothing unusual, of course, and that (very distinct) chord progression did not begin with Gaynor. 9 In fact, Wikipedia’s erroneous assertion that “Nobody”  samples Italian trio La La’s “Johnny Johnny” is attributable to this progression’s increasingly common use worldwide in the decades following “Survive.” It first appeared centuries ago in Baroque music, most often employed in fugues but became prevalent in what we might now call “pop” in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, as a common device in the songs of New York City’s Tin Pan Alley production line. The Kern and Hammerstein song “All The Things You Are” (at 0:12, and throughout) is just one example. And it’s no doubt Tin Pan Alley that Paul McCartney had in mind when he wrote the first section of “You Never Give Me Your Money” (which, coincidence or not, is in the same key as “I Will Survive”). 10 Park was perhaps conscious of all these things when he wrote “Nobody,” as suggested by the Tin Pan Alley-reminiscent we identified in the video. But while all these songs (especially Gaynor’s) retain many of the compositional nuances and pretensions of the Tin Pan tradition – counterpoint, big band orchestration, dynamic development – “Nobody” flattens and simplifies the arrangement. It’s a surprisingly simple song, less the two slight formal deviations mentioned above –  unless we count the “Intro” that preambles it on 2008’s The Wonder Years album, which is more in line with the scale of “Survive.”

There are a few “western cornerstones” of K-pop that just won’t crumble, songs that harmonically, melodically, and conceptually echo throughout Korea into eternity. “I Will Survive” is one of them. 11 Tania’s “Officially Missing You” is another.  “Nobody” only amplified that effect, its Gaynor chord sequence reappearing again and again in instances like Infinite’s “Back” and random ballad effluvium. 12 Heck, in the week gap between posting the first and second halves of this analysis, Fiestar just unleashed yet another example for their comeback single. And then there’s the very idea of “Nobody”-era Wonder Girls themselves, which saw its most obvious tribute in the underrated, Jamerson-basslining “So Wonderful” by the late Ladies’ Code.  That said, “Nobody” was certainly not the first steward of this progression in Korea; we’ve had a hard time verifying if “I Will Survive” was as massive a hit here as it was elsewhere around the globe, but Lee Byung-hun’s 1999 album To Me begins with a song that uses it as well. 13 As for whether Selena Gomez’s people had “Survive” or “Nobody” in mind is another question, but the latter is not impossible: she was labelmates with the Wonder Girls-affiliated Jonas Brothers, and her video begins with a nod to East Asian influence (however Japanese; we Americans typically aren’t too precise with the finer racial details). Either way, they were clever enough to begin their take with the line, “It’s been said and done / Every beautiful thought’s been already sung…”

In total, then, “Nobody” is a 6-minute ode to the visual excess of ‘90s music videos, the music of the disco heyday of the late ‘70s, and the idea of the ‘60s Motown girl group golden age. 14 I.e., the chart-dominating era of the Supremes (and, for a second, the Marvelettes), before the boys stole the show in the ‘70s. (In fact, even the Wonder Girls’ name is like a cross-generational pastiche of the Motown legacy: there are its spiritual echoes of names like the Marvelettes, the Miracles, and the Supremes, but also that it might as well be a literal mashup of Stevie Wonder and the Mary Jane Girls.) It’s what superintendent Scott Interrante recently removed his suspenders and monocle to call, via email, a sort of “time-crushed ‘American’” – a variously anachronistic reference to the cultural notion of a place, sort of like how lazy western songsmiths (or cheeky genius jazzmen) might use the pentatonic scale to evoke some vague Asia that never really existed. Except studiously, exactingly, and in service to a marketing strategy brilliant for a country trying to conquer, with pop, earth’s foremost pop empire: Let us endear you, America, with a highlight-reel fantasy of yourself.

In doing so, Park brought Korean pop up to speed in the span of a video that dwarfed the scope of any previous Korean smash. That he did it through maybe the most deliberate American appropriation in K-pop up to that point says a pretty specific something or other. “Nobody” didn’t try to outpace America, because it didn’t have to: in Korea, simply matching the States was a breakthrough big enough at the time to set records as it was; and in the States, K-pop’s progressive futurism would, in the ensuing years, alienate a mainstream unable (still) to parse just what a conceptual and compositional revolution was happening in Asia. Timing “Nobody” exactly as he did was the surest sign of Park’s self-awareness then, at the start of a saga that would gradually call that trait into deeper question.

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Long before the promise of “Nobody,” Park’s intentions for Wonder Girls were clear: they were so named because they were “the girls who would amaze the world.” They debuted in 2007 on a show called MTV Wonder Girls (omitting, conveniently, that it was MTV Korea), and held their first showcase at MTV Studio. They performed a couple their own songs, and a clutch of covers – none of them Korean, but rather originally by Destiny’s Child, Janet Jackson, and the Pussycat Dolls. When they would later catch the attention of Billboard Magazine in America, they would claim that they “grew up listening to American artists and” – truly improbably – “reading Billboard.” 15 Then again, maybe Park was monomaniacal enough in those days to assign copies of a US music industry trade magazine as English homework for his trainees. Would explain a thing or two…

“Tell Me,” with its YouTube covers trickling in from Europe, was the first inkling that Park’s grand ambitions for them were at all realistic – but by that point he was already making moves. Park had set up shop in a three-story “poshly renovated townhouse” in midtown Manhattan, where he built a studio and Korean-style popstar dormitories. From there he courted attention from potential American business partners, and was reportedly “approached by labels, producers and studios eager to talk music deals, a reality TV series, and even a Flight of the Conchords-esque feature mockumentary, exploring the Wonder Girls’ fictionalized origins and migration to America.” The following March, in 2008, he took them on tour as his opener in Los Angeles and New York, to give them a first taste of their North American destiny.

When the Korean version of “Nobody” dropped on September 22, 2008, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton posted a brief blurb about this “great slice of Korean pop.” The following month, they signed with the industry-leading Creative Artists Agency (CAA) for American representation. The song was well on its way to selling some 4.5 million digital copies in Korea, a new girl group record (to date, topped only by Girls’ Generation and Brown Eyed Girls). Through the remainder of the year, the Wonder Girls performed a series of victory lap renditions, including the quite nice “Rainstone Remix,” a tango-into-disco arrangement (the disco bit adding back all the arrangement details Park and company had ironed out of the studio version; the aggressive tempo is probably to help it from sounding like a straight-up Gaynor tribute), and a multi-genre medley remix at Golden Disk.

Early 2009 saw further proofs of success, with JYP filing lawsuits against actresses and imitator groups in China and Cambodia who were “recklessly copying” Wonder Girls’ songs, dances, and concepts.  But Park had already conquered those territories with his previous megastar, Rain, and Asia was old hat for K-pop, anyway. His ambition now was to take the girls where an Asian male had proven unable to go.

Granted, they would need help – and the Jonas Brothers were just the few good men Park was looking for. He recruited Jonas Group, co-owned by Kevin Jonas, Father of Jonases, to jointly manage Wonder Girls for all Jonas and non-Jonas American activities. The idea was that they would join the siblings for the North American leg of their worldwide stadium tour that summer,  shilling a fresh English album that would include “an electronic house song written and composed by the Jonas Brothers.” Sohee and Sunmi, still just 16 and 17 respectively (!), dropped out of high school, 16 It’s actually exceptional that they were still attending at all. Most other agencies would have made them drop regular studies simply to become trainees. JYP, ever an advocate for education and good moral standing, let the young’uns have semi-regular lives even after several smash hits! and the five girls moved into the top two floors of JYP’s Manhattan office for several months of round-the-clock preparation.

The album (and Jonas track) didn’t happen, but the English version of “Nobody” appeared on iTunes on June 26, just a day before the tour would take them before 1.5 million potential fans. (“You know I still love you, baby,” Yubin promises at the start of the song, just like in the Korean version. “And it will never change.” 17 The English in the Korean original is, of course, an easy way of seeming global and exotic; interestingly, for the English version, they add a Korean “saranghae” (“I love you”) at the end of this passage, to achieve the same effect in America.) Truly absurdly, the music video is practically identical: Park’s indulgent “Honey” rendition opens the sequence (still in Korean!), the middle-aged record exec is dubbed over with all the grace (intentionally, we hope) of an ancient Hong Kong B-movie (in dubiously “urban” English), Park’s endless shit gag runs unchanged, and the extended instrumental sequence promising American domination is weirdly kept in full (including hokey references to “million platinum hits” and topping the “Lilloard” charts). Remarkably, though, the Girls’ English isn’t dubbed over: Park actually had them re-film all the parts with the English lines back when they made the video in 2008, proving that an English version (and American ambitions) existed even before the song’s success in Korea had been confirmed. 18 Strangely, the climactic line from the fake-out key change mentioned above sounds like a sour note in the American version, which really could have used some autotune or another take. Americans like to imagine Asian people can’t sing as well as Americans can! You can’t flatter their prejudices when trying to redefine how they think of you.

All this wasted time and self-love made for a pretty high barrier to entry for most native English attention spans (“they’re Asian” is usually enough to get the average American listener’s eyes to glaze over), but the track was said to have sold a not exactly hopeless 30,000 digital copies in the first 10 days of its release. Oddly, the girls only ever seemed to perform one or two songs per night with the Jonas Brothers – “Nobody,” and sometimes an English version of “Tell Me.” 19 At least one of these happened, too – a surreal if uneventful artifact. Park supposedly castigated them if they spoke any Korean at any point on the tour, even if alone and among themselves. As noted a few months prior in a Korea Times review of their first-ever concert in Seoul, however, Wonder Girls often had a hard time connecting with a live audience even on their home turf, and in America, such charisma is not extra credit but the assignment itself. As their stateside debut on theWendy Williams Show will attest, they didn’t figure it out in time. As we will see more than once, removing K-pop performers from the K-pop context – the grandiose spectacle, the emphasis on concept and choreo, for some groups the loud backing tracks, and the general comfort of being in one’s own domain – tends to cast hidden weaknesses under harsh fluorescence. But as part of the big machine that made them, they shine beyond their years: there’s an astonishing difference between Wonder Girls’ Wendy performance and the aforelinked one at MKMF half a year prior.

By early August, Wonder Girls were hoping to release their English album in “October or November.” Instead came the awful autotune slur of a remix by Jason Nevins, probably as expensive as it was garbage-scented. 20 Very strangely, this version of the song got a physical release along with the Rainstone remix, on a special CD single that you could only get by entering a secret Twitter-revealed URL into a website where you could pay two dollars, print out a receipt, and bring it to your local H-Mart for redemption! These were all English versions, and only at New York, New Jersey, and D.C. locations, so this particular bit of strange was likely envisioned (and perhaps funded, if by the government) as some kind of ploy to both promote the song and lure Americans into aisles of Korean groceries. And yet the only advertisements we’ve been able to find for the promotion are in Korean! If Park didn’t resort to buying his own stock, however, it maybe helped: in the October 31 Billboard Hot 100, the original English  “Nobody” at last debuted at number 76, and Wonder Girls became the first Korean group to make the chart. By the end of 2009, the single had allegedly sold over 300,000 physical copies in America, and over 400,000 all told. Practically nobody in mainstream American culture who wasn’t a Jonas Brothers fan had heard of them, though, and we have yet to find any explanation for that sterling figure beyond the default impression that something shady must have been afoot. What Americans were buying CD singles by the mall-load in 2009? K-pop CD singles?

One also suspects that such sales figures would have been pretty good disincentive for, say, Sunmi abruptly leaving the group to resume full-time academic studies at the start of 2010, just days later. Hyerim, another trainee, took her place, but if JYP needed another excuse for the English album delay, here it was. The departure postponed a headlining tour of America, as well, which was supposed to begin in January to support the album’s fairytale Feb release.

Around this time, Park met bad news at his Manhattan office, as well. A series of construction violation notices accused him of using the first floor of the building as a music studio, contrary to his conditions of occupancy. More humorously, the city of New York called the building “perilous to human life” for its multiple construction safety violations, a “fire hazard” for lacking water sprinklers in the rooms where the Wonder Girls had been living, and furthermore illegal for having housed popstar tenants in a non-residential building to begin with. The city’s Department of Buildings hit JYP with a “Partial Vacate Order,” barring access to a majority of the facilities until these many violations were rectified. Seoul business methods do not a New York office make.

Though his American affairs were growing toxic, Park couldn’t help but notice that the English version of the song had in fact topped the Taiwanese and Hong Kong music charts. As though to distract himself and his artists from their western crises, Park had Wonder Girls make a belated entry into the Chinese market with the Chinese/Taiwanese Special Edition collection, including Mandarin versions of “Tell Me,” “So Hot,” and, naturally, “Nobody.” (Retaining, once more, Yubin’s “it will never change” vow at the start.) It proved a worthwhile diversion: “Nobody” became the best-selling song ever for a foreign artist in China, racking up over 5 million paid downloads that year. (It probably helped that its abridged video was every bit the basic showcase the English version should have been, however much that might’ve helped.)

The 20-date Wonder Girls World Tour did in fact transpire that summer, hitting cities major and minor from Washington, D.C. through Misissauga to Honolulu, with opener boy bands 2PM and 2AM from the JYP stable. The tour was documented by Mnet Korea with the suspiciously titled Made In Wonder Girls reality show, which demonstrated that at least stronghold cities like New York were successful on a pro-level indie basis. The tour, originally slated to support a proper album, instead promoted their new single “2 Different Tears,” a messy regression from the standard of “Nobody” in all regards. 21 Its chorus sounds like a tired rewrite of “Tell Me,” even, while the video is a garishly bizarre string of nonsense involving Pokemon jokes and Park as some sort of sentient, swinging ’60s Ken doll. As a single, it was dead on arrival.

By the end of 2010, the best Wonder Girls could say about America was that “Nobody” had somehow stayed vital enough to rank 31st on Billboard’s Year-End Hot Singles Sales Chart – a chart that isn’t the Year-End Top 100, and only seems to appear in articles referring to Wonder Girls’ ranking on it, and therefore probably doesn’t exist. As popular Korean blogger TK Park put it that year, “Around 2008  it was either Wonder Girls or Girls’ Generation, but as of 2010 the game is over. Girls’ Generation defeated Wonder Girls by a mile in every measurable criteria — domestic and international album sales, ‘presence’ on media, ‘influence,’ etc.” Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” surpassed the viewcount of K-pop’s YouTube record-holder up to that point, a Korean TV performance of “Nobody,” and never looked back.

Undeterred, the top of 2011 brought more info about the now legendary American album.  Legacy producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, then enjoying a career revival for having helped pen Lady GaGa’s “Telephone,” and “Party in the U.S.A.” songsmith Claude Kelly were each revealed to be heavily involved. Supposedly, the record would see release on one of America’s three remaining major labels. But the year passed without further word on the matter, or stateside Wonder Girls activity in general. (There was a widely overlooked English version of their Korean album’s lead single, “Be My Baby,” which saw another visually appreciable regression in their American budget.) Park would not be daunted, however, expanding his New York base to a full-blown “JYP Creative” corporation in Midtown that November, into which he poured $1.2 million’s confidence. One hopes that money had nothing to do with the following month’s violently cringe-inducing “K-Food Party,” a completely unbelievable and weirdly unspecific song-length advertisement for Korean cuisine as a whole. 22 One can only imagine this curio comes courtesy some South Korean governmental subsidy. I wouldn’t mind were it not for the average Korean diet being the least healthy I’ve ever tried. All these GMOs and MSG are not keeping my skin “so beautiful and full of energy!” And this fetal-shrimp-soaked cabbage wouldn’t do that even if it were organic, which it never is… (Granted, it’s delicious, and probably my second or third favorite cuisine – c’est la.)

Sadly, that investment probably did have something to do with their made-for-TV movie The Wonder Girls, which regrettably had nothing to do with the Flight of the Conchords-brand self-awareness promised by the original notion of a Wonder Girls mockumentary, back in ’07. Despite the tepid tween market reaction on the Jonas tour three years prior, JYP again appealed to that demographic by making a 45-minute feature with TeenNick, which debuted via Nickelodeon on February 2, 2012 – the same week Girls’ Generation were making their own ill-advised advances, on Letterman and Live with Kelly. We mostly haven’t been able to manage more than a couple minutes at a time (Tzechar love it), but can confirm that the first song in it is “Nobody.” (Also, Park is pretty endearing.)

Things grew truly absurd that May, however, when Wonder Girls made their official debut in the Japanese market…with a Japanese version of “Nobody.” The song anchored their EP Nobody for Everybody, which, as a title, really did describe Park’s mentality throughout the almost-half decade since he wrote the song. For whatever reason, the EP even features “2012” Korean and English versions of “Nobody,” which are indistinguishable from their 2008 and 2009 iterations. (Yubin’s eternal ad-lib – “and it will never change” – by now starting to make the whole thing feel like some kind of meta performance art.) Unlike the 2010 Chinese initiative, this Japanese push was focused enough to involve a brand-new music video that simplified the themes of the original – and, tragically, begins by reasserting what big stars the “Nobody” girls are/will be in America. It was an insistence that was proving to be Park’s hamartia. The song seems to have had no discernible impact on the Japanese charts; all three versions were reissued in Japan a few months later, on the Wonder Best greatest hits compilation, which sold 5000 copies.

Two days before Wonder Girls uploaded “Nobody for Everybody” to YouTube, PSY uploaded “Gangnam Style.” The “worldwide hit” the New York Lines calls “Nobody” in “Nobody for Everybody” is in fact what the New York Times calls a Koreanized LMFAO song in reality.

Even then, in a changed world, Wonder Girls continued to insist their English album would exist soon. Whether it might include “Nobody” was unclear. Unfortunately, the only thing certainly on the record that ever saw the light of day was “Like Money,” a persistently joyless electro banger that sounds like leftover GaGa with a dubstep bridge and an honest-to-goodness Akon gue$t ver$e. It seems strange that their big Korean hit of that year, “Like This,” never got the English treatment, as it’s probably the most American-friendly thing they’ve ever done (and one of their best) – but perhaps it was on the tracklist we never got to glimpse.

Back in 2008 – before “Nobody,” even – Park mused on Britney Spears from the comfort of his Manhattan office-abode. “I’d never sign her,” he said. “If I’d trained her for four to seven years, I would have realized what kind of person she was and released her [from my company]. Sunye, she’ll never be in any kind of mess – I saw her grow up for seven years, and I know she’ll always be that same sweet girl.” He was right: at the end of 2012, she announced her plans to leave the group and marry a Korean-Canadian she met while volunteering in Haiti. They now live with their child in the Korean enclave of New Jersey, where Sunye continues to engage in philanthropy, community service, and missionary work.

As news of Sunye’s departure made the rounds, it also came to light that Park’s expanded New York operations had lost over $1.5 million in barely a year, and he was forced to liquidate the branch. The K-food party was over, in all but the literal sense: Kristabelli, an “upscale Korean” restaurant Park opened in Manhattan at the same time as JYP Creative, serves blackberry kimchi to this day.

It’s co-owned by the co-owner of Young Money Records.

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In the years since, Wonder Girls have remained a memory – and a cautionary tale for all K-pop agencies dreaming of American shores (okay, yeah: all K-pop agencies). Occasionally, Park will bicker with Sunye about whether she’s allowed to not be in the band anymore. And occasionally, “Nobody” will make another ripple in international waters. But the reunion JYP would like to see – and the Korean fortune it could mint – seems like a dim prospect.

Then again, you never know: Sunmi, Yubin, Hyelim and Yeeun all still live together in the same JYP dorm, like they always have. (Some things never change.)

Release History
• Nobody single, JYP Entertainment, 9/22/2008 [Korean version]
• The Wonder Years: Trilogy album, JYP Entertainment, 9/30/2008 [Korean version]
• Nobody single, JYP Entertainment, 9/30/2009 [English, Karaoke, and Instrumental versions]
• Nobody single, JYP Entertainment, 10/26/2009 [English, Jason Nevins remix, and Karaoke versions]
• Nobody “The Remix Edition” EP, JYP Entertainment, 10/30/2009 [Jason Nevins remix, Jason Nevins extended remix, Jason Nevins remix instrumental, and Jason Nevins extended remix instrumental versions; this is not a joke]
• Nobody “The Remix Edition” single, JYP Entertainment, 1/2010 [English, English Rainstone remix, Jason Nevins remix, and Karaoke versions]
• Wonder Girls Chinese Special Edition album, JYP Entertainment, 2/10/2010 [Mandarin version]
• Wonder Girls Taiwan Special Edition album, JYP Entertainment, 2/25/2010 [Mandarin version]
• Nobody single, JYP Entertainment / DefStar Records, 5/2012 [Japanese version]
• Nobody For Everybody EP, JYP Entertainment / DefStar Records, 7/25/2012 [Japanese, 2012 Korean, and 2012 English versions]
• Wonder Best best of, JYP Entertainment / DefStar Records, 11/14/2012 [Japanese, 2012 Korean, and 2012 English versions]

Credits
Written by Jakob Dorof. Transcription and theoretical consultation by Scott Interrante. Insight and influence, as always, courtesy Tzechar.

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11 thoughts on “003. NOBODY // WONDER GIRLS

  1. Very informative. My question is … how were they still able to impart a modicum of that 60s Motown flavor to the record despite it’s basis in classic and nu disco? What is it the beat? the vocals? Or was it all on the level of image?

    1. Good questions! This is Scott, music theory consultant (? or some such title) for this project. I’d say it is primarily on the level of image, but, and though we didn’t get into it in this post, there are musical elements as well, of course. The beat is the most obvious, with its sort of “Be My Baby” drum pattern throughout. There are also certain qualities of the vocal melody and arrangement of harmonies that recall those sorts of Phil Spector productions. The hook of “Nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody,” with its rhythmic emphasis on different syllables also feels very 60s girl group. It’s of course hard/impossible to accurately pick apart all semiotic cues from pop songs, especially when you’re talking about cross-cultural references, but I think it’s likely that when Park JinYoung was assembling this track, he was consciously including a lot of these references to “American” pop, and to him, both temporally and culturally, there wasn’t much of a difference between Gloria Gaynor and The Ronettes. You also see that in a lot of today’s American pop/indie music that liberally borrows from the past, where you get these juxtopositions of 60s psychedelia and 80s new wave as if they always belonged together, because at that distance, they sort of all seem the same/they’re all less politicized and sub-culturally significant. I think I’ve gone past the “aimless rambling” point so I’m gonna stop there.

      1. Thanks, Scott for the informative reply.
        I agree that a future song maker would think nothing of putting together disparate elements from eras separated by decades. In a sense, putting together the Ronettes and Gloria Gaynor is nothing new as some of the disco songs of the ’70s were nothing more than updated, discofied versions of Motown / 60s soul originals. Case in point is an album (Honey Bee, Never Can Say Goodbye, Reach Out) by Gloria Gaynor herself. After all, disco can be regarded as just an evolution of soul music.

  2. The fall of wonder girls is such a captivating story. Even though I never loved their songs (Like this tho is pretty amazing), I always was impressed with them as a girl group. Excluding Hye-Lim, the lineup’s were always top-notch.

    This whole story made me think, if you could create the perfect girl group, how would you do it? Would probably be a great way to cap off this whole series.

  3. Hi Jakob. Great article. Though I must admit the second part read more rushed than the first. Just a quick correction, I hope you don’t mind. Sunye doesn’t live in New Jersey, I don’t know where you got that information? She lives in Canada formally and also spends half the year in Haiti. There are many Sunye spotting accounts placing her at a specific Canadian-Korean suburb. Also, she never announced she was leaving the group, she/jyp announced a halt in promotions. If you read her fancafe announcement of the wedding nowhere does she actually mention the word withdrawing. Nor did she say she was withdrawing at her wedding press conference when asked by reporters. She actually said she, and I quote, “would return as a singer”. You can find the transcripts online. Of course we know she has not in fact returned to activities if she ever will, but at no point did she actually “announce” she was leaving the group. Have a nice day.

  4. Can I nominate a song for your analysis? Hehe. How about T-ara’s “Roly Poly”? This to me on the level of the costumes, sets and choreography is explicitly “disco” and yet the song itself does not sound like disco or even just ’70s to me. The “Copacobana” version is clearly ’80s in it’s instrumentals and seems to cohere more as a result. I’d love to read your take on this.

  5. Good Article! I’ve been following The Wonder Girls and other girl groups, since becoming a k-pop fan about two years ago. Since the article was written, SoHee has left the group (she was my bias, and I think one of the most beautiful Asians in South Korea, a nation pretty obsessed with beauty.) Let me suggest another k-pop girl group poised for American success; they did some training with an American choreographer in Los Angeles and apparently did well at their South by Southwest performance: F(X). They’re about to make the standard “Comeback” to the k-pop music scene (in November? 2015.) Since their formation by JYP, (you remember him) they’ve been a creative force in k-pop, with a delightful quirky approach in music and videos, as well as having the South Korean work ethic to the hilt, excellent tight choreography, and a truly great album, Pink Tape, that placed them on last year’s Billboard Awards. It can’t hurt that one member, Amber Liu, grew up in LA, speaks fluent English and is breaking out as a solo performer, with Shake That Brass and her first mini-album, Beautiful. I’m just flat-out impressed with their songs, videos and performances; yet somehow they don’t seem to get the personal attention from JYP some of his other groups get. After reading this article, that might not be a bad thing… Now that Sulli has left f(x), the four remaining members seem even tighter, and I hope they get the backing they deserve to break into the American music scene.

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