007. OH MY GIRL // CLOSER

007

Trust us (at least try): we hate to use a word like “gesamtkunstwerk.” It’s one of those long, compound German words that sound ridiculous probably even in Germany. We’ll admit we’ve been caught with our hands on it twice before: once in some writing about good K-pop in 2015 (sort of), and once in some writing about good K-pop in general (straight up). Now we’re using it to discuss Oh My Girl’s 2015 single “Closer.” The pattern here is that we only talk about gesamtkunstwerks when talking about Korean pop music, because sometimes Korean pop music leaves us little choice. When all is said and done, the absolute best K-pop involves a whole lot of stuff that, taken together, can’t be tidily identified using anything other than an old weird word coined by dead opera freaks in Europe.

Oh My Girl’s “Closer,” as it happens, is K-pop at that absolute best. It’s good in a way only Korean pop music can be – or, at least, has been so far. It’s a goodness of such meticulous, interconnected detail that to engage with it only in part – as a song, as a dance, as a video, or as a story – is to engage with it only partially. The German word for what typically (poorly) translates to “total artwork,” “comprehensive artwork,” or “synthesis of the arts,” then, is all but our only option when trying to put a word on what makes K-pop like “Closer” such a singular, many-sided achievement.

For most of its original Western history, pop music has been simple entertainment. With odd exceptions, the music is straightforward and standardized. The videos are often promotional appendages planned only after their songs’ completion, if planned at all. Dance routines, when and where they exist, are usually unimaginative, inexpressive, and sloppily performed. The idea that these different components should each be perfect, and moreover integrate in graceful service of some overarching message, narrative, or “concept,” would seem to most Western pop stars and industry suits like a waste of time and money. (The prime exception to this rule being, of course, Michael Jackson – not a coincidence, as will come to light over the course of the K-Pendium. (We can talk Beyoncé, too.)) Korea’s most significant contribution to pop history isn’t simply the abundance of excellent, frequently innovative songs produced since 2009, 1 With some handfuls of interesting precursors, if not wholly worthy ones. but rather its parallel timeline of these – ahem – pop music gesamtkunstwerks. The uniquely focused, efficient, endlessly replicable creative system Korean companies have innovated to support that tradition would be the other major facet of their national legacy. 2 Given its appropriation as the ground-floor blueprint for the inevitable Chinese pop megamarket soon to dwarf and challenge the current American pop hegemony, this system may wind up being the most legastic bit of legacy Korean pop will pass on to the world.

“Closer” marks our first real exploration of this definitively K-pop mode of expression, and what kind of work goes into articulating it. This post is also our first to incorporate exclusive interviews with the work’s label, songwriters, choreographer, stylist, and video director, providing some insight into a creative process that’s remained something of a black box for those outside it. There are a few reasons why such a hugely involved approach came to be standard operating procedure in Korea, maybe chief among them the government’s wild-eyed late ‘90s aspiration to foster a massive pop cultural export economy, 3 Years before they were much good at pop at all – as was also the case with shipbuilding in the ‘60s, and virtually every other form of industry through which Korea has brute-forced its way to global prominence. and the music industry’s sober realization that in order to distract the Japanese and Western markets from their own robust pop music continuums, they would have to outperform them in every imaginable regard. To do so, labels began to iterate upon a closely collaborative system in which specialized artists would focus on one aspect of an intricate whole, while directorial types – almost always artists themselves – helped it all to cohere. We believe the following will begin to demonstrate how the typical “K-pop assembly line” is not the impersonal and unfeeling capitalist machine Western stereotypes have found so convenient, but rather a tight-knit, highly invested, and exceedingly romantic group of artists united by their desire to make something truly worth a stranger’s time. It also challenges the conventional wisdom that idols have little input in the music they release and perform.


Oh My Girl is an eight-piece group that debuted on April 20th, 2015, after more than a combined twelve years of training. They were produced by WM Entertainment, as a sister act to the label’s only other artist to date, the internationally popular male quintet B1A4 (whose work merits future discussion here). The girls are young, their ages having fallen between 15 and 20 during their initial promotions. The Asian market all but demands such groups devote their early careers to a standard issue “innocent” image – lots of white clothes, natural scenes, and chaste gestures – from which Oh My Girl and WM would manage to draw exceptionally rich themes and tones.

thegirls

“Cupid,” their debut single, was an ambitious pretzel of teen pop sugar putty, folding giant Europop hooks over contrapuntal curls of marching band tuplets. 4 Sometimes also called an “irrational rhythm” or “abnormal division,” a tuplet is basically any rhythmic detail that cuts against the grain of the beat. “Cupid” is otherwise a straightforward, boom-clap 4/4 pop song, but the snare insists on a triple meter rhythm instead, which makes it feel like we’re being pulled in opposite directions at once (listen for the stuttering drag in the beat). One can find tuplets aplenty in, say, ‘90s RnB, or the recent trap trend, but what’s going on in “Cupid” is a particularly eccentric example that merits its own discussion at a later date. Closer, their second mini-album, appeared just a few months later, showing remarkable growth: all five songs are saccharine marvels of refracted dream pop, ‘50s chart music, iconic K-pop tropes, and top-shelf Ariana Grande (“Baby I,” naturally). As with most K-pop, only one would be vested with the full “title track” treatment – including video, choreography, and narrative – but WM and the girls made sure to put every iota of effort to meaningful use.


“The K-pop industry may seem broad, but viewed from a certain angle, it really is a small world,” says Jaehyuk Choi. Choi is a songwriter and publisher at the Key Artist Agency, a company he founded in Los Angeles in 2012. Not everyone in the Korean industry is fully aware of its virtues, but Choi seems to be in tune with what makes his profession special. In an interview a few months before Oh My Girl’s debut, he explained:

K-pop songs and music videos are much higher in quality when compared to other countries’. I’ve worked in studios in America and met many people there. I haven’t come across anything as high-quality as K-pop. Much like how Hollywood came to be a brand of its own, K-pop is becoming a genre in its own category. The work ethic of Korean staffs, as well as their ideas, play a large role in this distinction. They also scrutinize every little detail, and the songs they create reflect the effort. 5 Bear in mind, this is unauthorized translation of a Korean interview, so minor inaccuracies may be a factor.

While WM was in the early stages of development for Oh My Girl, the agency’s CEO and founder Lee Wonmin contacted Choi while he was visiting Seoul on other business. The chemistry, Choi says, was immediate. From the group’s debut mini-album onward, he has worked closely with Lee and company director Kim Jinmi to “arrange all things creative” for Oh My Girl. With “Closer,” the three began brainstorming a list of big picture goals for a new era of the group, then set out to find a song around which to build that vision. Choi says that sometimes this “title track” process begins with a specific narrative, choreography, or art form synthesis in mind, but the world of “Closer” was one built iteratively upon broader ideas.

“We wanted something that had a powerful, current sound, but retained a Korean sense of melody,” Choi says. “We wanted something mysterious, but not in the horror genre sense. We wanted something mature, but not at the expense of the girls’ purity. …At first, we drew a big picture without much detail.” There would be plenty of that to come.


These discussions began shortly after Oh My Girl’s spring ’15 debut, but the first piece of “Closer” was forged two years earlier, by the Los Angeles-based musicians Sean Alexander and Laura Brian. Alexander is a tunesmith who’s written and produced many songs for the K-pop industry over the better part of the past decade. He began playing guitar as a child in a largely ‘50s and ‘60s pop household, eventually falling in love with more punk, ska, and hardcore acts like Minor Threat, Rancid, Operation Ivy, and especially the Toy Dolls. 6 Some of Alexander’s all-time favorite artists today include Etta James, Stevie Ray, and Bon Jovi. After cutting his teeth on the LA punk scene, his tastes eventually expanded to include chart-friendlier music, and he began writing more in that direction. His formal education is limited to a single year of guitar, songwriting, and recording classes at a local music school, after which he began working to sell songs.

“A friend of mine, Steven Lee, was already an established producer in Korea,” Alexander explains. “We collaborated a lot, and he also played some of my own songs for Korean labels, managing to sell some.” Alexander’s first big break in the Asian market was 2009’s “Love Like This,” a Korean number one smash by the thoughtfully named SS501 group under DSP Media.

Laura Brian’s backstory, meanwhile, is something more like a K-pop dream come true. A trained musician since childhood – having studied classical piano from age six, and opera voice soon after – Brian was thinking about a career as a singer when she stumbled upon the Asian pop diaspora.

“I actually first heard K-pop because of my involvement in the online gaming community,” she says. “I was playing Aion at the time, and was in a legion that was made up primarily of Korean participants. They would listen to K-pop in the voice chat, and I remember overhearing it and thinking, Wow, this is really good. At first I felt weird that I was listening to music having no idea what the lyrics were saying, but soon realized there was a huge international community of K-pop fans.”

It was 2011, and Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” was the first song she heard. But it wasn’t until she came across Big Bang and Alexander’s friends SS501 – their then-fresh hits “Tonight” and “Love Ya,” specifically – that she could feel herself opening up to a whole new pop reality.

“I tend to lean towards artists and writers who employ creative melodies and movements in their music, which is why I fell in love with K-pop,” she explains. “American songs tend to rely on repetition, but there seems to be a sense of freedom in Korean music that allows for the use of more ‘off-the-wall’ melodies and themes.”

In pursuing a (Western) career of her own, Brian initially contacted Alexander as a solo artist herself.

“She reached out to collaborate because she was a fan of K-pop and loved my Cross Gene song ‘New Days,’” Alexander recalls. “She mentioned that she wanted to write a song like that.”

Their first few sessions were slow-going, but things clicked after Brian requested they ditch their working draft and start fresh. That same day the two worked out the entire “Closer” melody line, written around a piano progression Brian had Alexander punch into ProTools, a state-of-the-art digital audio workstation.

“I had originally aimed for an Ellie Goulding sound, but also wanted to pull in sounds from my favorite K-pop artists like Beast and Big Bang,” Brian says. “I also knew, right off the bat, that I wanted an eerie, dreamy sound, which is why I used the chord progression I did.” She and Alexander remember this far slower, 90 BPM version of “Closer” having a vibe similar to his Cross Gene song, less the rap.

Soon after receiving the finished product, however, Brian decided that age 26 made her “probably too old to [debut as] a pop singer.” She asked Alexander if they could try selling it in Korea instead.


“Listening to ‘Closer,’ I could hear all the puzzle pieces coming together,” Choi says.

By the time it had reached him, the song had already undergone some changes. Alexander agreed to try selling it in Korea, but said that this type of dirgey, dramatic pop had already fallen out of style in the market. He would need to make some changes, beginning with the tempo. After auditioning the melody at several different speeds, he felt something click at 110 BPM.

“At that tempo, only the piano and the vocals worked,” he says. “So I had to start from scratch on the rest of the music.”

“I was instrumental in writing the chord progressions, [original English] lyrics, melody, and piano hook,” Brian concurs, “but as far as the [arrangement] went, that was all Sean’s ingenuity!” 7 Alexander’s solo project, Avenue 52, has the official credit for the arrangement. In terms of arrangement and production style, then, one can hear the difference between Alexander’s understanding of dominant K-pop tropes in 2013 versus 2015 by comparing “New Days” with “Closer.”

Alexander and Choi’s working relationship dates back to 2012, having met through other LA songwriters after Choi set up the Key Artist Agency. Alexander co-wrote three out of the four songs on Oh My Girl’s self-titled mini-album, and in addition to the title track, he also co-wrote the Closer mini-album’s excellent “Playground” and “Sugar Baby” – making him a key architect of the group’s sound to date.

When WM purchased “Closer,” they asked Alexander to add an extra vocal harmony to the chorus (he took the opportunity to drop in a small string part, as well), and to extend the ending to make room for group rapper Mimi’s verse.

Of course, lyrics are the most obvious change to be made once an internationally penned song is bought in Korea. (Granted, it should be noted that, in our conversations with different labels’ execs and creative teams thus far, we’ve often heard that CEOs and A&R departments – usually musicians themselves – make extensive requests for the original writers to alter a composition or arrangement, meaning titles like “executive producer” tend to indicate creative roles far more often than they do among their western music industry counterparts.) In this case, WM and Choi enlisted Seo Ji-eum to rewrite and localize the words.

Seo is prolific. Her recent work includes many excellent singles for SM Entertainment, including “Dumb Dumb” and 기도 (Danger).” (She especially recommends her work on “Say No More,” another highlight from Oh My Girl’s excellent Closer.) She works with Jam Factory, which, like Choi’s Key Artist Agency, is a matchmaker for behind-the-scenes artists and Korean music companies. “Closer” would be her first collaboration with WM and their team.

Brian says the original lyric had been “a love song story about somebody who’s realized they aren’t able to find happiness without the other person,” cutting between scenes with and without the singer’s loved one. WM requested Seo write a “mysterious and dreamlike lyric,” so she expanded the text to accommodate a broader atmosphere.

“I thought about a variety of possibilities from the beginning,” she says, having intended the “you” in the song to embody “everything we long for or admire. …It can be a person – family, lover, friend – or a dream, like a future self…A past self is a very good one, too.”

One key feature of Seo’s lyric is its use of cosmic imagery, including references to the sun, moon, and shooting stars (“I’m a space geek,” she admits). Oh My Girl’s rapper Mimi used these details as a launchpad for her climactic verse, drawing constellations and the Milky Way into the song’s orbit. Her additions would prove especially vital to the world Oh My Girl and WM would continue to build around Lee, Kim, and Choi’s initial kernel of a concept.


As a song, “Closer” is no small wonder. Brian’s formative love for Big Bang takes elegant form in the core piano progression, which echoes the boys’ ethereal best, “Blue,” and wrings even more enchantment from it. Alexander’s push to 110 BPM does the trick: too slow to be a dance song but too fast to soothe, “Closer” maintains a quiet storm intensity that entrances throughout, giving the melody, piano hook, and dream pop arrangement just enough space and speed to work their magic. 8 It is almost a miracle that, in a process involving as many people as any major label boardroom, nobody’s cynicism even suggested pumping the BPM in pursuit of lowest common denominations – but, then, this is K-pop. WM’s decision to graft a rap to the end actually reaps great reward, as Mimi’s flow pivots and double-tracked triplets push that measured storm to its crest just barely without breaking it, delivering on the poetry of the song’s central idea: we’re getting closer, but never quite there.

That said, K-pop is all about levels, and the choreography that wisps and billows above the music is what really elevates it as an experience.

Elevation is, in fact, the very thing that makes “Closer” a global game-changer in pop choreography. But let’s keep it grounded first, get our bearings: when viewed straight ahead – as, say, the audience does at one of Oh My Girl’s live performances – “Closer” is a marvel of understatement.  The girls harmonize visually around fluid, fleeting symmetries throughout, finding a perfect balance among themselves before gently breaking it, again and again, re-articulating the lyric’s tension between closeness (“everyday I come closer to you”) and distance (“you seem so far away”). And, of course, there is the simple beauty of the refrain, “One step closer, my heart / One step closer to you,” in the context of a choreography that treats each step with such care.

A favorite detail is how the dance’s signature feature – the wrist-whip and pointed index finger that introduce the chorus – is rendered first by Jiho, and then, the next time, with added urgency by YooA, her hand arcing from above her head to below her waist in a half-blink, perfectly in time with Alexander’s snare. 9 Even when viewed on YouTube at 0.25 speed, her arm is an imperceptible blur. The equal, and equally subtle, contrast between their facial expressions and poses in this moment make it clear that this progression in the performance is no accident. In this tiny distinction, then, we can see not only the microscopic extent to which differences in idols’ personalities can manifest in their group dynamics, but also the microscopic extent to which the narrative behind a top-tier K-pop “concept” is considered and expressed by its creators and performers. Beneath their voices, Jiho and YooA are silently marking separate (significant) points in the song’s narrative: Jiho’s dilated first chorus follows nearly an entire measure (four beats) of open space, while YooA rides in on the momentum of Binnie’s sustained, rising vocal, which completely fills the measure-long gap from the previous go-around. Again, it’s a song about getting closer to some thing/one/where, so the second chorus conveys a progression from where we were the first time by raising the tension through subtle movements, in both the music (Binnie’s added melody) and the choreography (YooA putting extra conviction behind one key motion). 10 As mentioned earlier, this tension and its conceptual significance peak during Mimi’s climactic rap; these sonic and visual stake-raisers leading into and during the second chorus appear to be part of a deliberate progression toward that final moment, in order to makes it feel all the more deserved – and meaningfully unresolved. These interdisciplinary gestures combine to create a subliminal effect that can be felt the first time, but fully appreciated only upon many repeat view-listens: “Closer,” as a total artwork, rewards close reading at a multi-dimensional depth that pop music, a commercial form predicated upon disposability, does not. Michael Jackson introduced the idea of pop as a song-dance-video event, but in appreciating moments like these in “Closer,” we find that Korea has realized Jackson’s ideals to a level of detail and poetry that has less to do with “Thriller” than it does theater.

And that’s where the elevation comes into play. “Closer” would be one of the all-time great pop choreographies even simply at ground level, but what truly sets it apart is how it works in an entirely different way when viewed from above.

Choreographer Soulme explains that, after discussing the song with Oh My Girl and mulling Seo and Mimi’s interstellar themes, she began to think about “how to express the members’ astrology signs through dance.” After a little bit of research assistance from Choi, she decided it would be most effective to accomplish that goal of the choreography on a separate axis altogether, each girl’s crown a star in a shifting zodiac constellation that, one by one, comes to represent each of them. This idea seems to correspond especially to Mimi’s share of the lyrics, where she wrote, “Out of all the constellations, I take the one that looks like you / And place it gently in the sky.” 11 There is a point to be made here about the philosophy of teamwork that drives any K-pop group, and how this choreography implies that the individual members can become themselves – manifested in their respective zodiac signs – only by working together in perfect harmony. (This being a concept so profoundly important to K-pop, as both internal philosophy and public marketing, that SM Entertainment recently introduced their latest boy band with a song “about working together and being happy.”) And there is a point to be made about the meta-cleverness of Oh My Girl’s audience needing to hover star-like above them in order to perceive them as stars. Maybe…someone else…can make these points…

closer_astrology

A full analysis of this vertical choreography, and how it interacts with the layers of meaning both in the horizontal choreo and in the lyrics (which, as we have briefly explored, already map a dense matrix of meanings between them), would make for a pretty good double-semester senior thesis. We don’t miss college quite so much. But let’s appreciate, if only for a paragraph, how this overhead view continues to expand the “Closer” universe.

First comes a clear confirmation of the clock-like shapes the girls’ movements seemed to suggest at eye-level (such as the aforementioned finger-pointing move in the chorus, the girls’ hands like those on a watch), emphasizing the song’s fixation with time – which ties into the notions of past and future selves Seo said her lyrics accommodate. The temporal intervals between each of the members’ zodiac signs, as Soulme choreographed them, also bear mention here, seeing how each of them corresponds to a different time of year (and constellation of stars – which, again, are a key feature of Mimi’s lyrics). Most visually astounding is the way in which this vertical choreography multiplies the significance of fleeting perfection and symmetry already apparent in the horizontal one, in moments like that at 1:09, when one pair of girls break the visual pattern by reversing their legs’ positioning, and the rest begin to follow in canon, achieving only the same split-second of symmetry they shared before the reversal began. More concisely, one might notice at 0:36 the astonishingly beautiful way the four outer girls’ hair pirouettes together, blossoming and falling in sync. Or, even better, how the intense unity of the hand movements leading into and opening the final chorus at 2:16 finds perfect relief in the way the front-center two girls’ skirts spiral out like time-lapse fireworks. To appreciate these details is to recognize that even just one of the two simultaneous choreographies the girls are performing has been masterminded all the way down to the length of their hair and the fabric of their clothes. Gabriel Wilder is right: Soulme has made the first Busby Berkeley choreography for a pop song since pop artists all had the word “Orchestra” in their names.

Ridiculously, (wonderfully,) none of this meticulous detail makes it into the music video, or the countless live performances Oh My Girl would stage on Korea’s half dozen televised competition shows in promotion of the Closer mini-album (of course, it’s always there – just simply unseen). Like the cranberry sauce in “Strawbberry Fields,” the German potatoes on SMiLE, the “Windowlicker” spectrogram, or the delay trail “suicide” in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the vertical choreography of “Closer” is a secret for the true heads. No one could even know it exists without the overhead video version, buried in one of a trillion blog posts on Korea’s favorite news portal, Naver, and mercifully ripped and bootlegged on YouTube by fans. Unlike the clever Easter eggs listed above, found in some of the most hallowed pop recordings of all time, this unseen “choreography within the choreography” isn’t just a fine detail thrown into a moment of a song, but is in fact an entire alternate plane of experience through which to understand and feel every moment of “Closer,” and just one component of an argument – perhaps not even conscious – for the most misunderstood tradition in global pop history. 12 Then again, given Choi’s words on the superiority of K-pop as quoted above (see “The Company”), a conscious argument it very well may be.

Perhaps we shouldn’t feel bad; perhaps our music media hasn’t failed us. Not even Koreans get K-pop. The ones who like it mostly like it for its primary market(able) function – it is, after all, very fun pop music – and the ones who don’t like it mostly keep themselves happy with an infinitum of songs that sound exactly like this or that, convinced that’s where the real artistry is. And why blame them? When a company achieves a true K-pop masterpiece like “Closer,” it’s some kind of Tchaikovsky ballet crammed into three minutes that would take obsessive jerks like us 3800 words just to try to understand.

And we aren’t even finished.


By now we’ve hopefully made it clear that to think of K-pop only as music would be silly.  The creativity informing any one “title track” usually takes the form of an aesthetic ecosystem involving the song, the choreo, the video, the often elaborate physical presentation of the release itself, and even the promotional materials surrounding it. (You may expect future K-Pendium entries devoted to individual K-pop teaser videos. Yeah.) As mentioned earlier, it’s standard operating procedure for these interlocking parts to unite around a guiding “concept,” and the music video is where most of these pieces come together. Of course, there are sometimes omissions – i.e., the entire vertical choreography of “Closer” – but even then, the video is almost always where we get the broadest single view of any given K-pop diegesis.

Yoo Sung-gyun directed the “Closer” video, and it is gorgeous. As with both planes of the choreography, it brims with symbolism in dialogue with the rest of “Closer’s” aesthetic parts, and a consideration of every plausible meaning between them is, as far as we can tell, the upcoming third season of Serial. In the meantime, we will quote synoptically from the K-Pop Timeout blog, whose excellent (and recommended, more visually stimulating) full analysis closely approximates our own interpretation.

[The video] begins with a closeup of an ancient clock, signifying the importance “time” will play…We then see moving water from a waterfall, often used to suggest the movement of time…This is followed by a clip of a tree trunk with moss [and fungi] growing on it.  Tree trunks are generally used to symbolize time, too, because you can tell a tree’s age by [its width]. We then see an abandoned palace of sorts, with an old car covered in moss…Strangely, the radio still works for the car, suggesting the natural expectations of time (like the batteries [having died by now]) are not at play in the “world” of this video…The girls do a clock-inspired dance under [a giant] clock, [singing,] “One step closer to my heart, one span closer to you.” This is followed by scenes with more clocks, and [lyrics] about someone who is “far away.”

YooA, one of the middle members in age, “wakes up” in nothingness. She then sees Binnie, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. Note that Binnie is the second youngest member of the group. Little Red Riding Hood, known for her youthfulness and curiosity [that] got her lost, strangely is acting as a guide to YooA. They pass through a hall of broken mirrors after leaving the woods. Mirrors are a symbol of identity, as [they are] how we see ourselves. As they journey through [these mirrors], [the scene] seems to suggest a loss or uncertainty of identity.

…YooA [later] comes across a deer. Deers are [symbols] of purity and grace in Greek and many other mythologies. As YooA sails farther and farther away from the deer, we [are watching her] loss of innocence and a drift from [her] pure form…[as expressed in dance by] her longing gestures.

As YooA walks through the ruins [where she arrives], the girls sing, “Closer, I’m closer,” in harmony. The use of ruins is once again interesting as it is a [symbol] of the test of time. The scene also shows that it is snowing, suggesting we are coming to the end of the story, as winter is the last of the seasons. At the end of the path, she reaches a complete, unbroken mirror, and touches it…coming to terms with her identity. [[This detail connects beautifully to Soulme’s vertical choreography, where each of the girls’ astrological signs are meant to evoke their individual identities – something that is determined to some extent at birth, but also largely by the people closest to us.]] 13 Have we mentioned that Oh My Girl, like most young K-pop groups, go to sleep every night on bunk beds in the dorms they call home?

So what could the journey have meant? [Lyrically,] “Closer” may seem to suggest a love story of one getting closer to [someone else], but the girls are actually instead getting closer to themselves. They were on a journey to discover and come to terms with their identity. The song is simply about growing up.

So then, who is the “you” [to whom the song is addressed]? …As she touches the mirror, YooA gets transported back to springtime – the beginning. YooA walks towards the car that [symbolizes] the passing of time, and [finds somebody] inside. The voice from the [car] radio speaks, “I promise, I won’t walk away.”  We [then see] the girl is Arin, the [group’s] maknae. [[“Maknae” is the Korean term for the youngest person in a group.]] She [therefore] symbolizes childhood and youth. YooA shows sadness in her eyes as she reaches to the maknae, a [memory] of her younger self. We then [jump to a vision of] Arin and a group of maturely dressed girls (the other members) reaching for a golden apple. [In this vision,] YooA runs to stop her. [Within] the crystal ball, which is a symbol of “the future” [for] to its ability to foresee, [we can see] that YooA was [actually] running [toward] nothing. We can assume [that the apple and] Arin, a representation of [YooA’s] younger [self], is a figment of [grown up] YooA’s “imagination.”

…We [then] jump to some sort of Garden of Eden, where [all of the girls are] having a good time. As we all know, one does not age in the Garden of Eden. The lyrics say, “If I dream of a picture of you, on and on, will I meet you,” as we see YooA and Binnie, knocking on the door of the treehouse we saw earlier. This is a symbol of childhood… suggest[ing] the wish [to go] back to one’s childhood.

We then see [younger self] Arin having gotten the golden apple and eaten it, only for the Garden of Eden to disappear. Just like the biblical story…It could be said that she herself chose to grow up ([the] lyrics [here state,] “You are growing”), hence losing her youth forever.

YooA is then shown weeping as she can no longer “reach” her younger self. YooA, the middle girl [in age], has now grown up.  [The video] end[s] with the girls disappearing, [symbolizing] the end of girlhood. …It becomes clear at the end of the song that the “you” [throughout the song’s lyrics] is the younger version of ourselves, [who] we lost while growing up. The “back in time” aspect is clear through the first few lines [of the lyrics], as [conveyed] by the fact [that] when YooA awakens [in the video], the [corresponding] lines are sung by Hyojung, the oldest member of the group, followed by maknae Arin. [[The “line distribution” of the lyrics is yet another opportunity for metaphorical play in K-pop.]] This [time travel aspect] can also been seen in the choreo, as every time they hit chorus and sing the words “closer,” the clock dance formation turns backward. [[Viewed from above, it actually appears as though the chorus dance represents regular, clockwise motion, but we believe the point here stands: as time passes on our ruminations we feel “closer” to, yet always “far away” from, our past selves. Furthermore, the dance’s first movement to personify a clock – during the introductory lines of the song – does indeed emphasize counter-clockwise motion in the girls’ canon leg patterns. That this canon syncs with the lyric about coming “one span closer to you / on a day when I miss you a lot,” suggests that it’s necessary to wind back the clock to do so –  certainly true if the “you” in question is a former self.]]

Whether YooA “wakes up” literally is up for debate, as she could actually be rising in her dream of her younger times, as hinted by the bedtime-like gestures of the chorus (led, fittingly, by YooA). [[This interpretation sees further support in Mimi’s lines, “I draw my dream in order to draw you / Will I be able to see you then? / You’re always in the same spot,” which aligns in the video with the Edenic flashbacks that symbolize the childhood innocence that’s now frozen in place as a memory.]]

…The song is strangely deep in that it discusses how we all wish to grow up, but once we do, we regret it. Sadly, we can never go back in time…and stop ourselves from biting that apple. ([Casting] YooA as [the] lead [character was] perfect, since her age as the middle member [symbolizes one’s] turning point in [growing up].) We can only revisit ourselves in our mind’s own palace of memories [the video’s apparent setting], where our younger self will never “walk away” as she promises [in the lyrics]. But we can never be her again.

Of course, we encountered a reluctance to go on record about intended meanings throughout our many conversations with the “Closer” creative team – but K-pop Timeout’s analysis seems to hold up. Yoo, the video director, explains he wanted to evoke two different time points simultaneously, “like a mix of the Middle Ages and modern times,” which was why he used “so many trees and clocks, an old car, a longstanding temple – things that are both old and current.” (He also confirms that the Edenic apple scenes are the earliest moment in the narrative’s chronology.) Lead WM stylist Kim Jung-young says that signifying innocence was her primary goal, noting how “white is pure, something that can cleanse all bad things,” and that the team “wanted to express a young girls’ vibe, so we designed the outfits using laces and textures that can move softly.” 14 In other words, the creative vision for “Closer” was so unified that the stylist team designed and self-produced clothing that would best articulate not just the video, but the choreography as well. Kim’s remark also corroborates our aforementioned impression that Soulme considered the choreography all the way down to the movement patterns of the girls’ hems and hair. And of course, a past self is one of the subjects Seo says she wrote her lyrics to accommodate. Again, the “Closer” diegesis was created to be as vast as the cosmos described in every element of the production – Soulme remembers from her brainstorming with the group, “There’s only one ‘Closer,’ but each girl had such different thoughts about it” – and perhaps it isn’t in the full spirit of WM’s vision to look for any singular explanation for what it all means. But the fact that interpretations as sublime and detailed as K-Pop Timeout’s can flourish inside a three-minute pop song feels pretty revolutionary itself.


Perhaps you’re left with questions – which, after some 6000 words’ journey, may feel cruel. We know how you feel. But, as noted earlier, this is K-pop: there will always be questions. We can think of two.

The practical one: How? How, exactly, does such a small team pull off such a big thing so quickly? Oh My Girl’s debut mini-album came out in the late April of 2015, which means that by early October, Closer had an absolute maximum of five and a half months to get from Lee, Kim, and Choi’s “mysterious, mature, pure” brainstorm to, say, the Kyobo Books in Manhattan. “Closer” is just one of five songs on Closer, and while it’s the only one to take on so many exquisite, integrated forms, it is far from being the record’s most advanced composition or production. Many, many things had to happen in those five months.

The answer seems to lie in the deeply fluent, involved teamwork that is often misrepresented as the “K-pop assembly line.” Everyone involved stressed the importance of total communication among each other and WM, and group discussions are mentioned at every sensible interval in the creative timeline. Soulme notes that Oh My Girl’s exceptional learning speed and artistic outspokenness help her to work quickly: without needing to create a dancers’ guide version, she was able to finish the choreography for “Cupid” in just five hours, and “Closer,” even with the added dimension of the vertical axis, took her even less time. 15 She notes that Choi helped with the choreography’s astrological aspects, and that she always does her work after detailed discussion with him and creative director Kim. Soulme then shows it to Choi for feedback, as well as to her trusted boyfriend Tae-beom – who also works at WM! Stylist Kim says that she tries hard in her work to convey “what’s in the song and choreography,” with added thought toward “each member’s individual traits, and…the way they are going to perform onstage” – at a level of detail she finds achievable only through designing and producing their clothes herself. As noted earlier, she styles the girls’ clothing and hair to accommodate the precise expressive needs of Soulme’s choreography. And Yoo, the video director, ensures that his work does nothing to compromise his predecessors’ painstaking efforts: he notes that, like us, “the first thing that came to mind when I saw the choreography was ballet,” and suggested the idea of releasing both horizontal and vertical performance versions in addition to his more narrative main cut.

In fact, while releasing multiple performance versions of a song’s choreography is by now commonplace in K-pop, even this aspect of “Closer” seems to mirror its galaxy-sized imagination: in addition to the main music video, there are eight individual member versions, horizontal and vertical versions filmed in the same field, two separate multi-cam supercuts thereof, and the horizontal and vertical versions filmed during the music video shoot. That tallies fifteen different windows through which to scrutinize every detail and angle of the choreography alone, not to mention the countless televised live versions available for viewing as long as their respective TV stations maintain a YouTube presence. Given the way each primary player in the creative process of “Closer” talks about their craft and collaboration, we do not doubt that there are many more secrets to uncover between these various editions, no less so than one Dylan lyric draft beside another, or in a short tour’s worth of Coltrane ruminations on “My Favorite Things.” (We regret there isn’t space or sanity left to spare for even a brief discussion of Oh My Girl’s exacting facial and gestural expressions, things they practice and breathe meaning into as much as any great instrumentalist or stage actor does in their own performances.)

So, the answer to our first question leads us to the formulation of our second: Why? It’s just pop music, after all – teen pop, in fact, long a Western industry emblem of pandering cynicism. Why pour all this Nabokovian effort into a market dominated by 50 Shades of Grey? If One Direction or VIXX’s fans are there mostly for the sharp facial features and fanfic fantasy, aren’t Oh My Girl’s mostly there for the girls? “Closer” achieved its lofty artistic ambitions, but it did not lead to a “Gee,” “Best,” or “Nobody” moment for Oh My Girl, who are in a good place for a group barely a year old, but are still up and comers in the tiny, hyper-competitive market they call home. If they had cranked up the BPM and bought some hotpants, they’d have a terrible song, a terrible video, and a much, much better shot at a lucrative commercial endorsement. Instead, they have people like us, and an endorsement deal with a double-digit page of the Google cache for a long, funny German word. Why on earth would they bother?

Our favorite answer might be found in video director Yoo Sung-gyun’s response to a different question, perhaps our favorite quote from the entire team: “We discuss things a lot. It is really important to have many conversations for the overarching concept and all its details, since we are making an album.”

We are making an album. The album has five songs. One of those songs, like the album itself, is called “Closer.” “Closer” is the most important song on our album. We are making an album. Shouldn’t it be good?

Composition
• Key: C♯ minor
• BPM: 110
• Recorded in ProTools

Sources and Further Reading
Jakob’s Top 20 K-pop Songs of 2015 for Vice (featuring “Closer”)
Jakob’s Essay on 2015 K-pop for Vice (featuring Closer)
K-Pop Timeout’s “Closer” Video Analysis

Credits
Written by Jakob Dorof. Graphic design and art direction by the amazing Frankie. Jaeyhuk Choi helped conduct and translated all Korean interviews. Musical genius Luca Faustini adjusted his tie; badman Scott Interrante woke from a nap and said questionable things about Lion Heart. Animated gifs courtesy this guy.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

6 thoughts on “007. OH MY GIRL // CLOSER

  1. The song is beautiful, even if you don’t understand it or don’t bother to. But this review has made it even more so. I hope Oh My Girl continue on their journey up in the K-Pop industry, with all their hard effort and talent.
    As the word says, fighting!

  2. Damn, man. Awesome work. “Closer” has to be one of my favorite K-Pop jams in recent memory, and definitely one of the best of 2015, so it’s extremely gratifying to read a piece that sells it so well. Never took the time to appreciate the choreo, but it was nice to revisit and catch all those nuances.

    Long live the long-form essay!

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