Red Velvet’s “Automatic” and “Ice Cream Cake”

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The Red Velvet brand has a had a bumpy ride since inception, and it doesn’t look like the potholes and rusty track are going to subside any time soon. As for me, I have more or less boarded the train to see how things would pan out for the group, and I’m both content with what the girls have been able to inject into K-pop and not too optimistic about their future.

“Automatic”
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=px2Q47O0_eE]

If there is one thing to adore about this comeback of Red Velvet’s, it has to be the cinematography. While film has nothing to do with music per-sé, it does influence how we consume music and how we react to the track’s ebb and flow.  “Automatic” music video is fluid from shot to shot, and the song follows in the same matter, practically to a fault. “Automatic” as a song is horrendously monotone, though the gorgeous harmonies and backbeat are able to save the song from insomnia-cure and elevate its maturity quotient. What the harmonies could not save in “Automatic,” however, is the pacing of verses against the song as a whole. The first thirty seconds were sultry and sharp, but by the second minute there is a sense of exhaustion that comes by way of split second pauses between verses, languid vocal work, staccato phrasing, and a short note range — essentially, a sound you would associate with someone hyperventilating due to lack of oxygen. It literally suffocates.

The first taste of air comes at the bridge, which is by far the loveliest part of the song after the intro portion. The musicality of the line “Just hold on” alone has the grace and sophistication that I haven’t seen in a K-pop idol group for a long time. While SM has claimed dual personalities for Red Velvet’s music to be what is more or less a portmanteau of f(x) and SNSD, I find that songs like “Automatic” and the cover of “Be Natural” put Red Velvet a few steps above both groups (and most, if not all, of K-pop) in class, even if the execution is lacking.

“Ice Cream Cake”
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glXgSSOKlls]

While “Automatic” may alienate those who aren’t as happy with exploring music’s subtleties, “Ice Cream Cake” decides to over compensate with flashy production. This is a song that revels in the excess–whistles, snappy transitions, key changes–basically everything that composes a kind of song I think most refer to as “SM’s sorry excuse for a Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Though it’s taken three years, I think it’s pretty safe to say that SM has finally started to figure out that the only way to make these “Bohemian Rhapsody”s even have a plausible chance at working is by pushing away from the “let’s totally change everything with no warning!” between the chorus and the versus. The chorus does start out in a different key from the main verse but it is actually set up in the “la la la”s in the pre-chorus. If you listen to the instrumentation underneath the voices, that half step drop is enough to fix the new key, and this change is echoed in the “la la la” pattern right before the chorus (which is different from the intro “la la la”). A more subtle thing happens right before the verse picks up again, where the slight glissando acts as the key change–this one isn’t as needed as the first because picking up a verse from the sing-talking is not going to feel jarring if the overarching melodies of the song pairs well. Our memories only go so far in the past when listening to any song.

The one truly terrible portion of  “Ice Cream Cake” is the awkward-as-heck rap, and I really think that the song would have benefited from a shorter rap break and a melodic section. Here’s where dead weights end up causing problems for the group–if Red Velvet was CSJH-level this rap section wouldn’t even exist. That all said, I can only mention with any confidence what should be changed, not how to fix it; I obviously cannot compose stuff on the spot, or for that matter, at all.

The most fascinating thing about the “Ice Cream Cake”s of the world is that it sort of lives in a paradox with its shortcomings. These songs, in all of its good and bad, are some of the most interesting pop songs to listen to. You can see marks of the composer in a way many generic pop-songs don’t allow you to; it can even leave you in awe of his/her creativity. They let you ask why music is made the way it is, and how it changes. What I don’t get from either “Ice Cream Cake” or “Automatic” however, is that Red Velvet has the vocal conviction worthy of the material they’ve been given.

Red-Velvet-Ice-Cream-Cake-Teaser-2-Irene-Suexo-1

At the end of the day, musicalities aside, Red Velvet has come up with a conceptual plan that does not seem like it can sustain as is no matter how good both songs are. At some point the group will have to merge into f(x)’s niche completely and realize that the poppy tracks will dominate, or it all will just boil down to the Dr.Jekyll side and ramp up the group’s poise. Either way, these pathways will certainly end up alienating people.

Personally, I think that even having the two concepts simultaneously in the first place starts an identity crisis for the group that none of the five members have the confidence to uphold a barrier against. This remains the case even as SM claims that two faces are in fact part of the single mask.

As for which half of the mask won out this time, I would probably have to go with “Ice Cream Cake” because it has vibrancy to make Red Velvet memorable if they perform it well. In the long run though, I hope the “Red,” sophisticated style, wins out. And the potential is there–today I found myself singing and basking in the beauty of “Automatic” out of nowhere.

(Media: SM Entertainment)

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