The ‘Bohemian Rhapsody Effect’ in K-pop
WORDS + SONG GRAPHICS | Catalina Nuñez Elevancini (she/her)
ILLUSTRATION | Yi Jong (she/they)
When Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was released in 1975 it welcomed mixed reviews. But now it’s one of the most iconic songs ever written and a karaoke-must. It’s a glorious six-minute song that’s changed the face of music. With an unusual song structure featuring five different genres, three key changes, and a range of vocals, it feels like a mix of several songs put together. These elements are key when it comes to defining the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody Effect’, and K-pop has proved to be a genre that will always play with your expectations of what a popular song can be. So, let me give you a little lesson on the best experimental bops in K-pop starting from 2010.
Nu ABO – f(x)
Released in 2010 by girl group f(x), ‘Nu ABO’ would be the group’s first experimental hit. With a tense and textured foundation that carries the song, bubbly and boisterous vocals and chants, ‘Nu ABO’ makes for an interesting first listen. It’s a banger, nonetheless, that cemented f(x) as one of the most unique and experimental girl groups within K-pop.
Sherlock (Clue + Note) – SHINee
While this 2012 banger is known for its iconic ‘marching dance’, ‘Sherlock (Clue + Note)’ is quite literally a mix of two songs – ‘Clue’ and ‘Note’. Because of this, it’s often considered K-pop’s first “hybrid remix”. These songs feel unfinished as separate tracks. But when layered together, it creates a confronting, brassy hip-hop and EDM tune. Paired with a Sherlock Holmes-themed video and a slick performance from SHINee, ‘Sherlock (Clue + Note)’ is always an exhilarating listen.
I Got A Boy – Girls Generation
Most stans will instantly say ‘I Got A Boy’ is the ultimate ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of K-pop, with 9 different genres making an appearance in four minutes. It is the final boss and patient zero of the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody Effect’ in K-pop. Without it, a lot of the songs below might not have escaped the demo stage. ‘I Got A Boy’ showed that unusual song structures with various key and tempo changes could be crowd favourites too. And of course, Girls Generation sold it like the rent was due. P.S. When you listen, take note of Jessica literally summoning a tempo change with “Lets bring it back to 140”, meaning back to 140 in BPM and 1:40 in time. Her power, undeniable.
Tempo – EXO
From the very first synth chord and Chen’s “I can’t believe”, ‘Tempo’ has you in a chokehold. Although they’re singing “Don’t mess up my tempo”, the song quite literally messes up the song structure in a controlled and chaotic way. This 2018 track is a treat, mixing contemporary R&B, funk, house, and hip-hop with multiple tempo changes and vocal layering along the way. Topped off with funky verses, suave R&B bridges, and even an a capella section, it’s a catchy one for sure.
Zimzalabim – Red Velvet
Red Velvet is known as the successor to f(x), but even so, ‘Zimzalabim’ was an unexpected first listen for many. The song has a carnivalesque theme, but in the chorus it feels more like a haunted house which has since been memed for its hypnotic repetition. The unexpected twists from bubbly vocals to monotonous chants feel like jump scares at a funhouse. After all the ups and downs, everything stops for a heavenly solo on the bridge before whipping straight into a head-spinning final chorus. Once it ends you either want to have another turn on the ride or swear to never try it again.
O.O – NMIXX
Last on this list you’ll find the track that caused the most uproar recently in K-pop: NMIXX’s debut track ‘O.O’. It’s a controversial track that has fans split, some calling it a flop, others calling it genius. The song’s attempt at experimentation is enjoyable when paired with the choreography and a handful of listens, but as a song alone, it feels disjointed. Despite this, each section is exciting enough to scratch my ADHD brain and get me listening to it on replay. Without a consistent theme to join the different sections, it feels like a missed opportunity at being an iconic song. Can Bohemian Rhapsody-esque experimentation like this only be pulled off by established groups?