This text is an extended version of the review of “illa illa” that I wrote for KPK: Kpop Kollective‘s monthly music review project, WWLT (What We’re Listening To), Vol. 2, No. 2 (March 1, 2022). You can find the review here: WWLT, Vol.2 , No. 2
Years after releasing the generation-defining album Rubber Soul (1965) with the Beatles, John Lennon recalled that Side 2 track “In My Life” was the first one he “consciously” wrote about his life. Up until that point, lyrics were merely side players in the process of crafting a pop sound, even though he had, from a young age, been puzzled by the potentials of wordplay – such as that found in the works of Lewis Carroll – and keen on writing poems and short stories that reframed episodes of life through the lenses of literary nonsense, to amuse himself and people around him. In 1964, he got to publish some of these anecdotes in the compilation book “In His Own Write”, which eventually led to a remark, made by journalist Kenneth Allsop, who wondered why his songwriting did not have the same literary qualities, or why he never seemed to borrow much from memories and personal experience to write lyrics.
That remark was enough to prompt him to give it a try; the timing was just right because, even though Lennon himself already had the necessary lyrical sensibilities, the years would end up crowning Rubber Soul as a representative of a key transition in the band’s career, from the media sensation of the Beatlemania into actively expanding the possibilities of what chart-topping pop would sound like. “In My Life”’s themes are rather simple – nostalgia and longing, the things that remain because they are worth keeping, even after everything else has faded, or gone away. Although not exactly one of the promotional singles of the album, it remains as one of the most cherished songs in pop culture; the imperative of time, and our absolute lack of control over it, is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, motif that has prompted the finest and highest sensibilities, and deepest dreads and sorrows, in humanity’s creative imagination. It’s songs like “In My Life” that give the scariest things an approachable dimension; they scale the passing of days and years through words that articulate the overwhelming sense of not being able to turn the clock back until it seems small enough to fit within a bunch of simple verses.
In a way, that’s the greatest triumph to which pop music can aspire – to have generations of people standing at the intersection between music and lyrics, because the way something sounds makes something sound within them, too. Of course, I’m waxing poetic because I, too, feel overwhelmed right now, and completely willing to ignore every other social, political, economic and cultural layer that can be considered about this topic. Not just because the imperative of time doesn’t unravel the same to everyone – the same way we aren’t all given the exact same 24 hours every day. Still, even as the years go by, and we stop to look back, the weight of time only seems to make these classics stronger, staying as significant and impactful as ever, still finding their ways into bringing about other artists and their new realities. Such as when Korean rapper B.I chose to name the Beatles, specifically Rubber Soul and “In My Life” upon being asked by Buzzfeed about his first musical inspiration, while promoting his first album as a solo artist, in 2021.
Across his career that, at 25 years old, already spans a period of almost 13 years, B.I (born Kim Hanbin) often spoke about the importance of movies and poetry in his songwriting. From a young age, he found that, through other works, particularly cinema, he could experience and figure out how to articulate things he hadn’t experienced for himself, in a way that would still result in vivid images, and evoke strong feelings from listeners – his greatest aspiration as an artist. In his own words, the work of the Beatles, specifically the soothing qualities of some of their melodies, as well as the meanings embedded into their lyrics, have been a great source of inspiration. When he chooses to mention a song like “In My Life” as a fundamental source of inspiration in becoming the artist he aspires to be, I can suppose he’s probably referring to how the song brings to life the train of thought of longing in a very laid-back manner, almost jolly, never belittling the lows, but making the highs a tangible possibility. More than anything, it’s not about longing that leaves you stuck, but about the freedom of moving on with confidence, bringing along the memories that matter the most, like a treasure.
Even though he’s been working his way as a rapper since 2009, his solo career didn’t officially start until the release of the song “illa illa”, on 1 June, 2021 as lead single of album WATERFALL, under his own label. Prior to that, he had achieved recognition as the leader and main songwriter of 7-member boy group iKON between 2015-2019. His work got him an accolade of “Songwriter of the Year”, in 2018, after the group’s song “Love Scenario” became a megahit in Korea. Said to have been inspired by the ending of musical movie La La Land (2017), it’s a song that’s neither particularly happy nor sad. The track moves cyclically, without the driving power of a structure that leads to a big climax, instead choosing to take turns around the chorus like the mind of a person who’s getting ready to turn the page for good and leave behind what should be left behind, but making sure to bring along the memories that matter the most, the things that should be treasured.
There’s a divide between B.I, the boy group leader and songwriter behind “Love Scenario” – who is seen spinning around memories in the song’s music video, along his bandmates and the soft, repetitive melody – and B.I, the solo artist, coming out of the ocean on his own at the beginning of “illa illa”’s cinematic music video. This, too, is a song that’s neither particularly happy nor sad; the English title is a nonexistent word that bears close resemblance to the Korean ideophones that represent the undulating movement of waves. In Korean, it’s called “해변” [haebyeon], which means “beach”. The opening lines are played in the music video as if they were slowly coming through as someone lifts their head from under the water; they were incorporated from the poem “The Taste Of Candy And Beach” [사탕과 해변의 맛] by poet Seo Yun-hoo – “at the end of my sleeves there’s a beach/ because of the tears that I wiped from my cheeks.” This very specific choice of a metaphor structures a song which is about being swallowed by the waves of an ocean made of one’s own warm, salty tears.
I spent some of my best school years learning how to read and dissect poets and their poetry, but something about the nature of pop music made me change my approach to songwriting over the years. Detaching my favourite lyrics from their writers does make it easier for me to make them my own. Moreso, as a writer myself, I must admit I’m happy to spare artists the burden of elaborating on things that they might not even want to talk about. To me, the choice of publishing or not something I wrote is highly informed by how vulnerable it makes me feel – I might prefer to keep certain writings to myself if I fear people would be able to figure out the details of struggles I would rather be vague about. Choosing to open up before others in a way that gives them the chance to speculate requires courage. In that sense, I think B.I is very brave; by the time “illa illa” was released, he still awaited the final sentencing on a trial after accusations of an illegal drug purchase attempt, in 2019, which resulted in his withdrawal from his former group and agency.
Much like “In My Life”, “illa illa” describes vivid feelings and recollections that seem specific and detailed enough to come from personal experience – the wording has the type of pungency that stems from individual thoughts that can only have gone through one’s mind as they experienced something first-hand. Because of that, both songs manage to come out subjective, but still consciously made to be general enough to be about anyone. Lennon’s own original vision was a description of a bus trip he used to take from his neighbourhood into the city centre, but he chose rather to describe the way his thoughts travelled through the memories he had of the place and time he had in mind. By choosing to start out with the metaphor from Seo Yun-hoo’s poem, which also functions as the song’s pre-chorus, B.I tells listeners where he stands at the moment – and that’s not specifically under nor out of the water, but neither at the seashore.
That’s perhaps the reason why the motif of the ocean sounds somehow fresh here, even though drowning in a pool of tears is at least as old as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kat Moon (2021), writing for TIME, wrote that B.I went beyond the “[temptation] to focus on the limitless nature of the ocean at beaches”; the reflection is personal and, just as the track circles around its pre-chorus and chorus, the metaphors are much more centred around his own body as the beginning and end of things. All over and through and out of his ends, there lies the sea, and the sand, and even the waves of memories that hit him, coming and going and washing away both the good and the bad. There’s a sense of a buildup, but it isn’t loud and thunderous like a storm, but fitting for the first steps of someone gearing up for a new start. The pace makes it sound steady, somehow gentle, and sufficiently safe.
Not to be missed is the rest of the WATERFALL album, and the ways it tells a story, or multiple ones. Right before “illa illa” comes the album’s intro, also titled “Waterfall”. It comes across as a much more violent, and personal, approach to similar topics – pain, rage, shame, loss, scrutiny and the full implications of fall. Unlike the ocean, which is, in itself, big enough to collect and hold both the calmest and the most violent waters, a waterfall goes only one way, which is down. Even so, just as we know that all rivers run to the sea, the end of a waterfall might be the reason why, regardless of how he keeps singing about being swept away by his own tears, “illa illa” doesn’t come across as being particularly nor intensely sad; in the swirling of waves, as much as it is about the sinking, the song is about the emerging. And that’s why it’s so hard to separate the lyrics from the person who wrote it – all in all, it’s a comeback; it’s a statement. The last of the 12 tracks is called “Next Life” in Korean, but “Re-Birth” in English; it’s a sweet song about fateful lovers, but I can’t help but feel that the word choice is so appropriate for someone who seems resolved to emerge out of the waters, time and time again.
One of my favourite descriptions of the sea is in the Book of Revelation, when John the Apostle describes the Heavenly City, and mentions that, before the Throne of God, there laid a Sea of Glass. There’s a little promise hidden in there; waters that are still enough to become like crystal are a sign of what comes at the end of suffering, after the end of the ups and downs of rough waves – peace. The harder I think about it, the more I realise the reason I love “illa illa” so much is because true hope, however faint a flicker it is, is a trait that can only be found in those who went through hell, but survived. Even if these waters are just the calm before another storm, if they stand still for long enough, and if we’re willing to stare for long enough, they become like a mirror where we can see our changed self reflected. Some time after she swam in a pool of her own tears, when little Alice found herself wondering about the world on the other side of the Looking-glass, she was looking at the depths of her own reflection and pondering the extent of the literal and imaginary distances she could conceive beyond the limits of the virtual images her little eyes could see. That’s what is buried deep in the ocean, or on the other side of the mirror – the version of us that will come out once the surface is shaken and shattered, and us, swallowed.
But don’t get me wrong; I still stand by my choice not to think too hard about songs I love so much. I always work hard to resist the social-media-fueled tendency to solipsisms, so this is not such a case, as much as it is, like I said, a way to free the unthinkably thick streams of pop music from the constraints of making too much sense. I’ve been talking about myself since at least the previous paragraph, but, like something else I said before, I cannot erase the fact that WATERFALL holds statements that can be heard clearly from a certain distance. I’m not one to romanticise pain, let alone other’s, but I’m always trying to find new ways to give new meanings to my own, and rise above and out of the reasons why I still wake up with a hint of regret, and longing, every single day. My favourite lyrics in “illa illa” are on the bridge, with the promise to “build another sandcastle“, even though “it will probably just crumble again”; I have no idea what the sand is supposed to be here, but I guess it’s my own raw material that defines what the beach at the corner of my eyes is made of. I don’t think it matters as much as the decision to keep starting over. As an Architect, I’ve been aware that, regardless of what sort of practice I’m pursuing, my greatest calling in life is to build something.
After putting out “In My Life” in 1965, it took Lennon another year or so to figure out how to articulate the specifics of his feelings and memories in a way that made sense as a song for others to listen to, with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” (whose lyrics are actually accredited to McCartney). Enough time has passed for many of the layers hidden in his music to have mostly, or fully come out, as well as the implications, and multiplications, but B.I is still an ongoing case, writing his own story. Perhaps in the future he, too, will find the willingness, the words and the opportunity to talk in different ways about how his journey changed him, and it might sound radically different from where he seems to stand right now, because we hold as little control over the future as we hold over the past. And there’s literally nothing to be done about it except perhaps wonder, and write about it.