What a show. Blackpink’s solid and surprising debut to 20,000 fans at the KSPO Dome in Seoul, South Korea, has been matched by an extremely competent and at times riveting performance to thousands more fans at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. The opening ‘How You Like That’ is a perfect way to introduce a group that has gained recognition in the West for its globally successful YouTube videos. Now Blackpink is starting to stream significantly after numerous solo ventures by Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa (with Jisoo’s solo being, I hope, in the works, considering all four members’ considerable musical talents). The next song ‘Pretty Savage’, with a booming bass line to a full stadium, is a formidable follow-up act. ‘What the hell?’, a fan screams. Indeed.
‘Whistle’ is infectious. Jennie introduces the group, and Lisa closes the individual introductions to perhaps the largest applause, although the crowd is hesitant even with Lalisa as to who to support the most enthusiastically. The crowd is full of fans, for sure. But I think there is a little hesitation. Blackpink is world famous, but in the West their reputation is yet to become fully entrenched. And in Korea their reputation is being fast sidelined by new acts. Blackpink is ready to conquer the world. But is the world ready?
Rosé’s singing is again demonstrated on ‘Don’t Know What To Do’. ‘Lovesick Girls’ falls a little flat, but it neatly combines the singing and rapping skills of the accomplished performers of this era-defining group, the successor to Destiny’s Child and the Jackson 5, ultimately, and to Fifth Harmony, in the shorter term of American musical memory. ‘We are born to be alone’ is a striking lyric. ‘But we are still looking for love.’ Rarely is Blackpink noticed as a lyrically astute group. A comparison may be made to the producer-rapper Kanye West, a musical artist with a towering reputation, or to Taylor Swift’s hip hop-infused reputation stadium tour, Jacob Collier’s jazz-infused Djesse world tour, or Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever alt-pop world tour — all of which combine electronic and acoustic elements in a remarkable technical fusion. But how can technicality be combined with artistry, and musicality with poetry? The podcast Watching the Throne draws attention to the overlooked lyrical complexity of Kanye West, who is still best known as a producer and rapper. I think the lyrics of Blackpink are comparable in our time to hip hop in its time. A new genre is being born: Wambop.
The bridge from ‘Lovesick Girls’ to ‘Kill this Love’ is impressive. Electronic and rock-infused at the same time, the pivot to increasingly hip hop-infused sounds is necessary and enthralling. The crowd grows impatient, asking if the next song is ‘Jennie’s solo’ (unreleased song You and Me (Moonlight [Dancing In The]) — for want of an official title!). But the setlist is maintained, and the crowd soon bursts into the ecstatic, Billie Eilish-ian ‘Let’s kill this love!’ I call this the Anti-Taylor Swift song. It is not vengeful. ‘This love is my favourite’. But it will kill you if you do not kill it. Blackpink knows what to do.
‘Crazy Over You’ brings dancers on stage, who Blackpink are a match for. ‘Playing with Fire’ echoes Kanye West’s early and middle-era music in ways I could not begin to explain. The piano introduction, the synth-driven chorus, and the steadily building and arresting verse captures the attention in a confident but unassuming way. ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me now’. Well, if you say so, Blackpink. ‘My love is on fire — not burn, baby, burn’. I should add: Lisa is a singer! Why this was missed by what feels like generations of Blackpink watchers astonishes me. Rapping, singing, dancing, performing, and artistic imagining need not be alien to one another — they are parts of a musical whole. Why separate what is inseparable? Sure, it can be helpful. But all good things come to an end, and all limitation has its own limitation — which is the infinity of artistry. Technicality does lay the foundation. But artistry completes the superstructure. As historian Adam Tooze did once surprisingly suggest in a characteristically transparent moment, realism captures the base, but romance completes the superstructure.
Blackpink introduces the instrumental band well. The separation between front-stage singers and back-stage instrumentalists is sad, but a necessary step towards realising artistry in a new way. Blackpink have a lot of technical competencies of their own to display. To become a well-rounded performer, sometimes you have to drop the guitar. I mean, I should know. I mean, who’s keeping tally?
Which brings me to the last songs before the solo performances of the group’s members. ‘Tally’ is impressive as a song. It is laid-back, and necessarily so. It could be delivered more confidently for a stadium this size. But perhaps that is not necessary. It works a treat anyway. Meanwhile, ‘Pink Venom’ is expectedly thrilling. There are no fillers in this interpretation of the popular music canon. The electric guitar accompaniment is worth it. The drum rolls drive the song forward. And then the beat drops, and the whole crowd moves to the rhythm. Taste that pink venom. Get em, get em, get em. Straight till you don’t like —
But now I’m getting carried away. In the show itself, Blackpink does a dance break which is magnificent. ‘Dallas, Dallas, Dallas’, I swear I can hear Lisa rap. The entire moment is spectacular. Dancing, rapping, singing, and visual artistry fused with sonic musicality are completely fused. ‘They’re good,’ a fan says. More than that, I think. Then the drummer and the band go on a roll. It reminds me of historian Chris Brooke’s argument that democracies are reformed monarchies. Live shows in pop music today are reformed rock shows. The band remains the sleeping sovereign, even as the group takes the world by storm on YouTube. The instrumentalists still maintain a degree of creative hegemony over the process of live performances. Until technically skilled instrumentalists become artistically attuned performers and vice versa, this creative contradiction will remain unresolved.
Which brings me to the solo numbers. ‘Liar’ by Camila Cabello — a track produced by Jon Bellion who, inspired by Kanye West, also cowrote Rosé’s remarkable solo song ‘On the Ground’ — is covered impressively by Jisoo, who remains the only member of Blackpink who has not yet released solo music of her own. The time will come. Indeed, if this performance makes any difference in the contractual wrangling that indubitably goes on behind the scenes with groups the commercial size of Blackpink, I think the time is nearly upon us. That’s at least what the mystics and prophets of Blackpink fandom maintain. And who am I to disagree? Jisoo’s time is only beginning.
Now, Jennie was the first member of the group to go solo with the aptly named ‘SOLO’. But now she is premiering a new song yet to be released on streaming platforms, provisionally entitled ‘You and Me (Moonlight)’. It works. But moreover, it is completely winning as a fusion of commercial production and artistic vocals. The chorus switches the sides and allows Jennie’s vocals to take an electronic turn and unleashes the production in a way that echoes ‘Work’ by Rihanna. This song fuses such R&B brilliance with the pop acumen of Blackpink’s own producer Teddy Park.
But this song is really quite new. ‘Don’t want to play this game,’ Jennie declares. But equally: ‘Nothing in the world can make me feel the way you do — the things you do’. The conclusion of this argument: ‘I love you and me / Dancing in the moonlight / Nobody can see / It’s just you and me tonight’. But then the bridge kicks in, and Jennie the rapper confronts Jennie the singer with Jennie the dancer. But Jennie the artist rules over this song, which simultaneously brings new life to Jennie’s commercial potential in popular music, while changing the direction of that very music. This is impressive. More than that — it is extraordinary. This song is going to take over the world. Jennie’s back, baby. And she’s taking no prisoners this time — the equivalent to Camila Cabello and Grey’s ‘Crown’, itself a remarkable fusion of artistic and commercial sensibilities, an inspiration behind Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connells’ alternative pop. Jennie’s novel take on K-Pop may take that genre in similar directions. The dancing and artistry echo Michael Jackson and Kanye West in equal measure. If this is Jennie’s time, it couldn’t have been better timed.
Rosé delivers a classy vocal-driven performance of ‘Hard to Love’, a Blackpink classic from the new album Born Pink. Then ‘On the Ground’ kicks in, and the crowd goes wild for Rosé’s turn to movement to Jon Bellion’s elastic and powerful production on the chorus, a feet of musical engineering that is elevating and ecstatic in its emotional implications. It almost acts as a reply to the opening of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: ‘Can we get much higher’. Rosé similarly only wanted to ‘get high, just to realise: Everything I need is on the ground’. What a moment. ‘You’re running out of time’. Perhaps. But not yet.
And then Lisa enters the fray with something special. Her dual solo release of ‘Lalisa’ and ‘Money’ has already broken records. Her stardom is, well, written in the stars. Nothing can stop her now. A younger interpretation of Jennie’s CL-inspired K-Hip Hop, Lisa draws on her Thai heritage to make something radically new for modern music. ‘Being the greatest of all time in fantasy,’ Lalisa Manobal is as musically adept as she is artistically ruthless and technically superb. Nothing can stop her now. Lisa remains YG Entertainment’s crowning achievement in Blackpink. But will she become something more? ‘Money’ displays Lisa’s echoes of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Backseat Freestyle’, and has already been compared with Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. I have no doubts of Lisa’s ability to succeed. What I doubt is the world’s ability to overcome its prejudices about K-Pop and embrace the revolution that is Blackpink and its new leader. Lisa is not going to stop now. Go get it, girl. The future is yours. Take it. Though you don’t me saying that — you’re going to take it anyway. The best we mere mortals can do is, to probably misquote the immortal rapper formerly known as Kanye West, sit back and appreciate the greatness. Because God, this is great.
The group returns as a collective for the closing songs, opening with baroque pop single ‘Shut Down’, sampling Paganini’s La Campanella, accompanied by Teddy Park’s hip hop beats. It is an assertive, Nicki Minaj-inspired put-down track, akin to ‘Barbie Dreams’, without the same directness. YG Entertainment’s management of Blackpink relies on a balance between opening and closing the space for artistic expression. If there is too much imbalance one way or another, there will be a counterreaction which, if unmanaged or unmanageable, will lead to the dissolution of the group. That moment may be nearly here. Then again, perhaps not. If BTS can join the army, Blackpink can weather the storm to come. I mean, Jennie boards a tank covered with diamonds in the music video. Blackpink is the revolution.
‘Type Girl’ is a solid follow-up. The song was a favourite of mine when listening to the album for the first time. It doesn’t strike the same chord in the live show. But perhaps I am tired. The group members proceed to give their thanks to ‘Blinks’, their fans. ‘For the last two songs, it would be great to see your face instead of your phones’. A remarkable statement of feeling from a group with global internet success.
Talking of success, ‘Ddu-Du Ddu-Du’ is as infectious as it is more intelligent than its name suggests. Rapping and singing are fused on this statement of intention. It is resolute and confident. Is is commercially viable and creatively able. No wonder it is such a successful and iconic Blackpink track. The bridge brings wonders to the ears. The rhythmical and melodic interweaving is determined. Such market Machiavellianism rarely finds a voice in the must industry. I think it now has one. Blackpink is the revolution. But which one?
It was Marx who argued that capitalism digs its own grave, but it can only be buried under ground once all its potentials have been developed. Its end will only come when a universal mediocrity is reached. I don’t think we’re even close. Politically, yes; musically, substantially. But ‘Forever Young’ displays Blackpink’s revolutionary intent. Music hasn’t given up yet. Neither has the market. The market of music is itself a parasite on true artistry. But the market is also the current means by which artistry is transmitted in a publicly accessible way. If you want to overcome it, work with it. That is the only way to truly overcome the power of the market Mephistopheles, to echo Goethes’s Faust: to sceptically wield this demonic power for the benefit of all. Blackpink is not the problem, and neither is it the solution. It is the dialectical resolution of this contradiction. Blackpink is the revolution. ‘I could die in this moment.’ And what a moment.
But before you thought it was the end, Blackpink returned to the stage for four encore numbers, bringing the total number of songs on its 2022-23 tour to twenty-two. ‘Boombayah’ is assured and unassumingly brilliant. Why isn’t more music like this? ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ reminds us that this is Blackpink’s victory lap. Is it the end? Probably not, at least for the members. Every ending is a beginning. But overall, we are probably stuck somewhere in the middle. That’s OK. Music goes on.
Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?