The overnight superstardom that came with success of Superstar K3 was not without its trepidations. Reality TV audition programs are enormously successful in creating hype, but notoriously poor predictors of future success. After 11 seasons of Fox‘s American Idol, only four contestants are still arguably relevant, and moreover, their biggest seller to date, Carrie Underwood, isn’t even a pop singer.
On the contrary, the path from reality TV to fame is littered with the carcasses of would-be singers and idols. Fortunately for Busker Busker, their indie hooks and boy-next-door dorkiness have wormed their way into the hearts of Korean audiences, including JYP, who could barely contain himself as he gushed to his followers on Twitter, “I just listened to Busker Busker’s music. It’s so beautiful that it hurts … thanks to them, I stayed in my recording studio all night, making music. Ah, I’m hurting and I’m so happy.”
From a technical standpoint, Busker Busker is not a remarkably talented band. The members are all competent, but this is not a band you could toss a drum break to and expect to hear a 20-minute, off-the-cuff improv session. Likewise, lead singer Jang Beom Jun’s falsetto leaves something to be desired – this was something he was also critiqued for on Superstar K3. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in live performances of “Cherry Blossom Ending”, where the falsetto features prominently in the chorus.
On the album itself, though, “Yeosu Night Sea”, which was already made overly sentimental and cheesily indulgent by the cliche orchestration, is where the falsetto sounded the most strained and out of place, though “The Flower” is a close runner-up.
Yet, despite lead singer Jang Beom Jun’s limited range, there’s still an endearingly nostalgic timbre to his trot-esque vocals that almost compels one to overlook his technical shortcomings. In fact, Jang Beom Jun’s voice, taken part and parcel with all its weaknesses, is the secret to the album’s remarkable chart performance. Despite the album’s lack of innovation – these chord progressions have by now become idioms of the K-indie genre – Busker Busker have been successfully able to develop their own “sound” by adopting and reinterpreting elements of the earnest innocence of K-indie with tinges of the ’70s/’80s Korean trot sound – “Ideal Type“, “Calling You“, and the wide-eyed innocence and earnestness of the intro, the elegantly pastoral “Spring Wind”, with its gorgeously cinematic swells and effortlessly graceful piano – mixed with palpable dashes of nostalgia for lost love that you can hear in songs like “First Love“, “The Flower”, “Loneliness Amplifier“, and especially “The Perfume“.
The only disappointment in the album was from “Calling You”, which proved to be a classic example of overreaching, introducing an underwhelming and unwelcome crescendo of melodramatic, staccatoed violins during the last minute of the song, all building up to a disappointing climax so enveloped within its own grandiosity that it nearly drowned out Jang Beom Jun’s voice.
Despite minor shortcomings, Busker Busker’s debut album is, without question, the best album of 2012 so far. What is even more remarkable, though, is Busker Busker’s utter dominance on the digital charts. If you were to graph the relationship between an album’s popularity (in terms of sales) and its musical significance, you would probably find no correlation between the two – or if any, probably inverse. So when you do see an outlier – a work of real, meaningful artistic significance – reach such popular prominence, you sit up and take notice.
Busker Busker’s – and more recently, Nell’s – remarkable success on digital charts is a watershed moment for K-indie, and raises some important questions for the genre. Has K-indie has finally come of age and reached the point where it can compete with K-pop, at least domestically?
In all likelihood, probably not.
Although it’d be nice to see K-pop actually be forced to compete with other musical genres, K-indie is still probably a niche genre, and its current success is probably more due to the fact that most of the big K-pop acts are on hiatus at the moment (though SHINee and CN Blue recently made comebacks). But nonetheless, to put it crudely, the recent mainstream success of K-indie acts is a big “fuck you” to the Big Three.
I can toast to that.
So here’s to increased musical competition.