Musings: f(x)’s “Red Light” and the Power of Musical Syntax

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It’s no secret that I’m one of the 
biggest fans of f(x)‘s last album, 
Pink
Tape, and one of the seemingly few admirers of 
the title track, “Rum Pum Pum Pum” (or “First Wisdom Tooth”). Tacky 
lyrics and music video aside, “First Wisdom Tooth” is an
 unusually intricate song for K-pop. I know that in the grand 
K-pop fandom, idol merit = singing and dancing ability, though I
 think singing and dancing ability isn’t totally necessary
 for an idol group’s success. Sure, raw talent is
needed in terms of the individual skills of an idol, but relying
 solely on raw talent breaks down when it comes to what I facetiously term, “musical maturity.” Despite my flippant use of “maturity,” songs do have to have some intrinsic value to be
truly memorable. A track that is highly dependent on its singer often
lacks inherent complexity, losing longevity.

Take for example, the talented “vocal group” 
Spica. The group is talented, but their music tends to remain sub-par and uninspired; songs like “You 
Don’t Love Me” have little value on their own–it’s Spica who makes
the song interesting to hear because it’s the variety in
vocalization (each member has a unique timbre) that excites the
 ear. But what about “You Don’t Love Me” makes it un-noteworthy? To
 understand the answer to this question, it’s important to think of
music as analogous to writing. When you write a paper, you vary
sentence structure, phrasing, and length, to create variety and
flow. For verbal dimension, we avoid putting similar words in
immediate succession; manipulate words to fit a “meter;” place
 sentences together to emphasize contrast, etc. Music works the similarly, except that there’s a element of repetition involved.

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While repetition may be necessary to create a good song, it is not
 sufficient—look no farther than “Lucifer” to see why. Unsurprisingly, “Lucifer” is a song you either love or hate, depending on how well you take to the seemingly monotonous chorus; it is robotic, completely with tinny processing and auto tune effects. But even with this major shortcoming, I think the reason that there is more love than hate for “Lucifer” is something more than “Shinee is popular and has a million fans.”

“Lucifer”’s key to success lives in its verses, which take up long
portions of the song and encompass a wide range in sounds. Its
relative complexity (heightened by the vocal projection of
 Shinee) contrasts the choppier chorus
section to remove the monotone effect. However, even that is not
 enough to elevate the song from mundanity. What really saves
”Lucifer” is the phrase length. The “choppy” sections have long
phrasing, and the lyrical stuff has shorter phrasing, so what you
end up with is stability. This concept even applies to science;
”mirror nuclei” (where atoms switch the number of protons and
neutrons [Ex. Carbon-10 has 6 protons and 4 neutrons, and
Beryllium-10 has 4 protons and 6 neutrons]) have an “abstract
equivalence” in nucleon effects. Unfortunately, “You Don’t Love Me” lacks this element of balance.

Don’t 
get me wrong, “You Don’t Love Me” is an enjoyable song, especially since
 Spica is the one singing it. Its biggest problem however, is that
 the song has phrasing that is nearly constant for The. Entire.
Thing. Sure, “You Don’t Love Me” coming every five seconds makes 
for a great ear worm, but the song leaves a feeling of “ranting ad
-nauseum” by the end. The lyrics make the monotone phenomenon very clear in  “You Don’t Love Me.”

You don’t love me

오늘 난 준비가 됐어 (You don’t love me) 이제는 다 말할 때가 됐어 (You don’t love me)

결론은 간단한 Story (You don’t love me) 넌 나를 사랑하지 않아 (You don’t love me)

 

놀란 척하는 네 눈이 (You don’t love me) 어제 본 드라마처럼 뻔해 (You don’t love me)

더 이상 속이는 건 무리 (You don’t love me) 넌 나를

사랑하지 않아

이제껏 그 많은 시간들 너만 보며 참은 내게 이럴 수있어

 

(You don’t love me) 난 사랑에 미친 (You don’t love me) 너완 다른 여자

(You don’t love me) 하나하나 계산해 이리저리 재고선 그것도

사랑이라니 (You don’t love me)

넌 사랑을 몰라 (You don’t love me)

여자 맘을 몰라 (You don’t love me)

이런저런 변명만 주절주절 늘어놔 차라리 그냥 날 떠나 You better go…

Why put the lyrics in Hangul? 
For our purposes, Hangul is great because it has the advantage of 
syllabic characters. Nearly every line between “You Don’t Love Me”
me has exactly 6-10 syllables, and where the syllables vary 
slightly, the time of phrasing is almost identical. Coupled with
”You Don’t Love Me,” serving as the hook for 3+ minutes, the song 
gets exhausting (the brass is its saving grace). Herein lies the trade-off between catchy and
 musical — while repetition is important, overusing it becomes a 
hinderance to musicality. The song becomes “just another
 song,” or ends up becoming a broken record of “You Don’t Love Me”
in your brain. In light of “You Don’t Love Me” and “Lucifer,” now 
let’s look at “Rum Pum Pum Pum”:

“Rum Pum
Pum Pum”‘s phrasing is not as distinct as Lucifer’s but the 
incorporation of canon-like elements and fluid phrase endings (i.e.
phrases often overlap each other) make the song exceptional in 
context of both f(x)’s repertoire and K-pop as a whole. The hook
 doesn’t stay constant either. Yes, it’s verbally “Rum Pum Pum Pum” 
or some aural derivation of it, but its integration into the song 
takes up a wide spectrum: spoken, sung, with varied rhythm, etc.
You can even find the “Aum” sound hidden behind the chorus, and it 
brightly contrasts the “ka” sounds found in lyrics. “Rum Pum Pum
Pum” repeats like any other song, but what makes is strong is that 
the repeats are the background, not the foreground. While melodic
 consistencies exist, as you move through the various sections of
”First Wisdom Tooth,” it’s the
 differences that keep the song moving
 forward. So what does this have to do with “Red Light”? “Red Light”
is a somewhat of a poorly arranged/composed song, but it’s not
because of the reasons that people generally point out. The song is
not f(x)’s version of “I Got A Boy” where 3 different songs got
mashed into one. “Red Light”‘s problem is in phrasing, not 
necessarily in melody (though that has a few problems I’ll point
 out).

To
 make things easier to see visually, I’ll use a paragraph from
earlier to demonstrate what went wrong with “Red Light”:

“But what about “You Don’t Love
 Me” makes it? To understand the answer to this question, it’s 
important to think of music as analogous to. When you write a
paper, you vary sentence structure, phrasing, and length, to create
variety and flow. For verbal dimension, we avoid putting similar
words in immediate succession, manipulate words to fit a “meter,”
place sentences. Music works the same way, except there’s
a element of repetition involved
 that we need to take into. Repetition is necessary, but not
 sufficient to create a good song–look at “Lucifer,” which has a
 chorus of exactly one note and still manages to succeed as. The 
power behind “Lucifer” is in the, which take up long portions of
the song and encompass. Its relative complexity (heightened by the 
vocal talent of Shinee) contrast 
the choppier chorus section to remove the monotone
 effect.”

That was a bizarre read, right? It’s
like someone chopped off the ends of the sentences! (Because that’s
 exactly what I did.) Each time you encounter an incomplete thought 
in the paragraph above, you’re mentally jolted. Frankly, it’s not
 pleasant–there’s no indication beforehand that something is going
to get cut off or change dramatically. It’s for this reason people
 associate “Red Light”‘s problems with “I Got A Boy”‘s. Despite the
 fact that the source is different, from the listener’s perspective
, the aftermath of both songs is very similar. What makes matters
 worse for “Red Light” is that it ineffectively tries to manipulate
 “mode” as it chops phrases short. [As a side note, changes in
”expectations” is what helps you eventually “like” tracks like “I
 Got A Boy” or even “Red Light.” If you listen to a song enough,
your brain memorizes all the transitions, so the “sudden break” is
 no longer sudden.]

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By “Manipulation of Mode,” I’m referring less to 
modes themselves and more to a concept found in Carnatic music
 called a raga, whose closest western
equivalent is a mode. Carnatic music has no absolute concept of 
scale, only a relative one. This gives the singer the freedom to
sing her optimal vocal range, because the only thing that matters 
is the relative spacing between notes, not the notes 
themselves. Mayamalavagowla (don’t quote
 me on that, though) is the name of the raga which essentially 
encompasses all the Major scales in western music. Whether the scale is D, E, F, or 
G, doesn’t matter–you can choose whatever note you start on as long
as relative steps are consistent. This is what is known as the 
”grammar” of a raga, and musical compositions in Carnatic music are
based upon that grammar. Since these frameworks are modal, it’s 
easy to string songs together that have the same raga–in my very 
limited singing career as a kid, I’ve sung a lot of mashups that 
are tied together this way. In professional Carnatic music though,
a full understanding of these modes becomes critical to the improv
sections known as manodharma
sangeetha, which you can read about here. In addition, there’s a subset of
 Carnatic songs that are known 
as ragamalikas, which change raga 
multiple times within a given song. Often times, each verse of the song 
has a different raga. Regardless of the frequency of change (on a
globular level), what keeps the song from blowing apart depends the
compatibility of the ragas which are chosen to be paired together.
Transitions work because the ragas share elements that indicated at
the core of each verse.

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Like a lot of modern music, f(x) is
trying to produce something somewhat like a “ragamalika” within “Red Light.”
(Yes, it’s a highly inaccurate comparison, but for the purpose of the greater point I’m trying to get at, it’s the best analogy.) The chorus, verses, and bridge take on reasonably compatible, but
different, modal states; the issue comes when the chorus (and less
so the verses), takes no time to establish itself before moving on
to the next element. In contrast, “I Got A Boy” overcompensates–it
uses interrelated modes (the final chorus of both “Red Light” and
”I Got A Boy” blends the song elements enough that the melodic choices don’t seem totally random) but
puts a full stop between each
element and dramatically changes the
rhythm. This is why “I Got A Boy” sounds like three songs. Too much 
is changing between the verses, and there are not enough motifs to
keep it together. “Red Light” improves upon “I Got A Boy” by
maintaining a loose rhythmic motif, so all it really needs to do is
build a better transition between components, and overlap phrases.”First Wisdom Tooth” jumps around almost as much as “Red Light,”
but the former song builds smooth transitions by setting up
rhythmic changes before the melodic changes happen. When the
rhythm flows, the rest of the song will follow along with it. In other words, it’s easiest to think
of rhythm as transition words and punctuation for music. As I move from
paragraph to paragraph, there’s a sense of expectation. Based on visual cues, you know when my thoughts end, and when they 
begin anew.

Since phrasing is the main issue behind “Red Light,”
there’s hope to be had in remixes. Even a song like “I Got A Boy”
benefits from entering the blender, but it won’t improve the song
to the extent that “Red Light” has the opportunity to. I’ve seen
dull songs like 2PM‘s “Hands Up” get a
complete facelift via fan contributions, so it’s not too far of a 
jump in logic that f(x) could be subject to the same treatment.
”Red Light” has a lot of the same brilliance that “Rum Pum Pum Pum”
had; f(x), like Shinee, use harmonies and line trade-offs 
liberally, and are equally forward with melodic flourishes. What’s
even more impressive about the production behind f(x) is that the
group has great music despite lacking talent in the vocal
 department. This shows that you don’t have to have Spica’s voice to
put out excellent music. All you really need are composers with a 
little musical know-how and imagination to manipulate musical 
grammar. The recording box will take care of the rest.

(“You Don’t Love Me” Lyrics, Media
belongs to respective owners, SM Entertainment)

Note: For some reason WordPress is removing random spaces in my post. I’ve tried to correct all of them, but they are easy to miss. Sorry if it impedes your reading.

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One response to “Musings: f(x)’s “Red Light” and the Power of Musical Syntax

  1. “What’s
even more impressive about the production behind f(x) is that the
group has great music despite lacking talent in the vocal
 department. This shows that you don’t have to have Spica’s voice to 
put out excellent music.”

    couldn’t agree more 😀

    Like

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