Lee Jung Hyun
f someone were to ask me what the greatest, most effective, flawless pop song of all time was—well, I’d probably shrug, and say I didn’t know. Then I’d snap out of it and go “No, wait. It’s ‘Q’ by Lee Jung Hyun.” Said person would likely then give me a what-the-hell-is-that? look—but I would be too busy humming “Q” in my head, blissfully picturing downtown Seoul at night, to elaborate. In this case, though, I guess elaborating is kind of my job.
In the late 90s, the dance scene in South Korea was monopolized by a ferocious anthem, consisting of looping techno beats, ominous sirens and aggressive singing/rapping, by a 19-year old girl. The girl was, of course, Lee Jung Hyun—and the song, “Ba Kkwo.” Eclipsing her first hit, “Wa,” “Ba Kkwo” firmly latched onto radio waves and DJ tables everywhere (and is still one two stepped-to by DDR playing teens worldwide). As we’re all aware, meteoric success so early in one’s career is almost always a double-edged sword. Jung Hyun’s steady decline in sales as her career went on would suggest one-hit-wonder status. But, though none of her work subsequently came close to “Ba Kkwo”’s notoriety, she boasts what is possibly the most consistent catalogue of any Asian pop artist, whether it be J, K, or C. See, each of her albums (with the exception of This is Hyony, which contains most of her signature songs sung in Japanese) is packed with above-average tracks, all utilizing that addictive mishmash of electro, dance, pop, salsa, traditional instruments, and hip-hop that only Lee Jung Hyun could seem to pull off. No throwaways, no space-wasting ballads.
Critics may point to the fact that Lee Jung Hyun would be nothing without her production team—especially since her vocals are fairly underwhelming on their own. But those concoctions would be little without the overly dramatic charm of Jung Hyun’s crooning, rapping, or earnest-to-the-point-it’s-almost-embarrassing orgasmic squeals. But she’s no sex symbol. Type her name into Google image search, and you’ll only find a handful of decent pictures. Never crowding magazine racks or billboards, even her CD booklets are nearly devoid of her photos. Which is not to say she’s in any way unattractive; and she’s certainly not shy. She’s just a little more bizarre than her counterparts. That’s a good thing. I mean, between her portrayal of an angry, fish-eating mermaid in the “Ba Kkwo” video, or her leading a troupe of soldiers in the ode to South and North Korea’s, um, differences: the PV for “Peace,” how could it not be?
But what about the music? Touché. Her first disc (Let’s Go to My Star, or: that album that has “Wa” and “Ba Kkwo”) was heavy club music with a video-game-soundtrack undertaste. The second—usually referred to as Volume II or Untitled II—carried an Egyptian theme, complete with hieroglyphs as the booklet art. After that, the CD Magic to Go to My Star served as a makeshift sequel to her debut—only with a slight political edge (see tracks “No More Terror,” a 9/11 ‘tribute,’ or the self-explanatory “Anti Drug”). It also included “Michyu” (sometimes Romanized differently), a song which produced a video featuring Lee Jung Hyun catching her boyfriend cheating…with another man. The techno-pop combination got brighter and boppier with her next offering, I Love Natural. Which brings us back to the glittering jewel of both this album and any other album, like, ever: “Q.”
Lee Jung Hyun had albums after that, more songs I replay on a near-daily basis, and a new CD due out this year—but all I can see when I think of them is that giant neon letter (it comes before “R” and after “P”!) towering above everything else. So, what makes this song so exceptional? It’s not the faultless production, the verse/chorus/delightfully-giddy-hook/verse structure, or even the way her voice keeps up with the swelling break-beats and provides a perfect match for them. It’s the way I feel when I listen to it. Instantly relieved of any cares I may have had, energized, somewhat nostalgic (I had better hair when I discovered it a year ago), and suddenly craving grape soda.
Okay, granted, the chances of “Q” having that specific effect on anyone else are slim. That doesn’t change the fact that it is, indisputably, a glorious moment in recent pop history. One that a criminally small number of people are aware of. Bottom line: go track it down. Listen, enjoy, and stop worrying about your overdue credit card payments. If you dig it, you’re officially 90% more likely to be a Lee Jung Hyun fan. Good news for you—while it doesn’t get better than “Q,” you’ve still discovered the best Korean import since kimchi.
By: Teresa Nieman
Published on: 2006-07-20