Are you the type of person who enjoys songs that never make it to setlists? Me too!
I’m a huge K-pop fan. I haven’t been one for a very long time, but, over the last three years or so, I became really passionate about the industry of idol music, to the extent of being actively involved in producing content and even academic material about it. The reason why I love it so much is… Well, it’s harder to explain than how long I want this paragraph to turn out [so you might have to check other writings], but, in the midst of all the performances, dance routines, variety shows, different concepts and fan service delivered by pretty faces wearing pretty outfits, I get music. And I love music, and I always seem to find new music to enjoy there.
One of my favourite groups is called NCT 127. They’re a 9-member group, which debuted in 2016 under the K-pop giant SM Entertainment. They’re part of a larger group called NCT, which has 23 members split into different units, one of which is 127. NCT has a rotational concept, which is something that can be a little tricky to explain if you’re completely new but that’s the simplest way to explain the pictures with dozens of men you get when you google them. Anyway, the important thing is that NCT 127 is a group with amazing music. They’re famous for pushing sonic boundaries and trends – which means that their songs aren’t always unanimous, but their output over the last six years makes up for a very interesting discography.
My favourite NCT 127 song is called “100”. It’s part of their first Japanese single album, Chain, released in 2018. The music is credited to singer-songwriter Andrew Choi, who’s also signed under SM Ent., and to composer Yunsu (SOULTRiii), who’s also worked with other SM artists (such as soloist Baekhyun and my ultimate favourite group SHINee, being credited for the excellent “Chemistry” from The Story of Light pt. 2 (2018)). The lyrics are credited to Japanese Hip-Hop and R&B musician AKIRA. The single album in itself is amazing, with five special, solid songs that speak volumes of 127’s potential, from the first to the last of its 18 minutes. “100” is the last one, the cherry on top; it’s an outstanding track, with a delightful drop and a bridge that builds up to one of my favourite codas in a song. I’ve listened to “100” countless times, and not even once have I gotten to the end of the song without shivering at least a little bit. That’s how powerful it is.
There’s also something else that’s very important about this song, which is the fact that it’s never been performed live. Not even once.
Most K-pop groups have very serious ventures into Japan – being the world’s second biggest recorded music market, it’s their best option to expand beyond the domestic audience. So far in their career, NCT127 have only headlined one solo concert tour (partially due to the pandemic), but, even so, out of the 44 dates they played across Asia, Europe, North and Latin America, 14 were in Japan. And yet, across these dates, to a reported audience of 74,000 people, not even once did they perform “100”. They did, indeed, do other Japanese songs that are some of my all-time favourites from them, such as “Dreaming” (also from the Chain single album) and “Kitchen Beat” (from their excellent first Japanese full-album, Awaken (2019)). But not “100”.
I’m a bit dramatic when it comes to songs I really love listening to; there are favourite ones that are meant for big-bite, spoonful consumption, through endless repetition, and there are the ones that must be eaten up in moderation, because they cause a rush so strong, and leave such a lingering taste. “100” is somewhere in the middle. I’d hate to give it an unfulfilling listen, even once. That’s exactly why I’m a K-pop fan; I enjoy the performances, the fan content, the personalities, but, ultimately, I need to get my sonic fill and my favourite groups keep me happy and well-fed in that sense. And the food analogy is actually very good, right? Because we have breakfast, lunch, coffee break, dinner, supper, and not every food fits nicely into every meal. “100” is more like dessert. The portion is smaller than what I had for lunch, but you can be sure everything I did before was anticipating that small bite of 3 minutes and 42 seconds.
Like I said, I’m a bit dramatic when it comes to songs I really love listening to. So, yes, “100” is always an experience to me. In that sense, whenever I give it a full listen, and I get to the end once again, and I remember there’s never been a live performance, and 127 probably don’t even remember they recorded it to begin with… I can’t help but think about how the experience stands from the speakers to my end alone. The producers, songwriters, distributors, and 127, of course, provided the service, but they don’t know me and they don’t even have to care that I love this song so much, because, whether I replay it 10 or 1000 times, they might get more or less cash, but absolutely no feedback about this poor Brazilian 26-year-old who always has to clarify that she means NCT 127’s song, and not SuperM’s, when she says she loves “100”.
This is just one example of many others that I could pull from my career of loving forgotten B-sides, like Foo Fighters’ “Live-in-Skin” and “Erase/Replace”, BTS’s “Paradise”, f(x)’s “Signal”. It’s not on purpose as much as it’s not my fault that I’ve grown attached to songs that rarely or never make it to setlists. It’s a pity, because I love live music, and most songs sound better out of the studio, hanging above ad through the heads of the people, where they belong. On my end of the world, I rarely, or never, get to experience my favourite artists, so live performance clips are the best way (or else, the only one one) for me to experience a fraction of what it feels like to be under the sonic clouds I long for the most. It’s not like I’ve never had it good, though – once, when my favourite band ever, Foster the People, brought back to tour a song from 2011 that I loved dearly, “Broken Jaw”, a bonus track that wasn’t even on streaming platforms back then, and which hadn’t been performed in many years, just in time for my first ever concert of theirs. And I did cry a bit, just as you would expect from someone who’s a bit dramatic when it comes to songs she really loves listening to, but who also knows very well that the intense emotional experience she associates with listening to the music she loves the most is completely detached from the people who made it in the first place.
Of course, this is not about how these songs exist due to the ones who wrote, produced, sang and distributed it, but in the sense that there’s an unbridgeable distance between us and them which manifests in how we feel about the stuff we enjoy, how we consume it, how freely it moves through our lives and our devices with no strings attached besides a picture on the cover, or credits printed on paper. I have endlessly replayed songs by artists that I know nothing about besides a stage name. In a way, through the albums, clips and tracklists on streaming services, the speakers and screens are a lot less like links, and a lot more like mirrors, reflecting myself right back at me. Even if they became as soft as fabric, even if I could get to the other side, I wouldn’t find singers and songwriters waiting for me, but just my own, lonely self, and all the things that make that experience mine, all the things that stand between my body and my reflection.
And that’s great! That’s what makes it enjoyable and worthwhile, because, if I hit play, I can still hear Doyoung’s voice whenever I want, even though he’s 12 hours ahead of me, sitting somewhere in Seoul. It’s not a live clip, but I can still go back to “100” and “Live-in-skin” and “Signal”, I can go back to Red Velvet’s “Knock on Wood” (which I do on a daily basis), or even “Broken Jaw” – which, at last, has made it to streaming platforms, so I can easily enjoy it in every version that I cherish. On the other hand, my absolute favourite FTP song, “Tabloid Super Junkie”, a pre-order exclusive track from Supermodel (2014), remains as a pretty forgotten B-side. But then, if I’m being perfectly honest, I couldn’t care less. Between me and the speakers, I’ve made the song mine in such a way that nothing else is necessary to make it better than I already think it is. And that’s why I like it so much.