2018 in K-pop: That Cake Group, Queen of B-Sides

 

Red_Velvet_Summer_Magic

Over the years I’ve had many groups I’ve liked or loved, as most fans of K-pop do. I have fond memories of the “first group I became a huge fan of” (DBSK) and the “first group I listened to” (Super Junior), yet I never understood the term “stan.” It sounded crazy that there could be an entity that you cared about so much that it would consume you.

Little did I know the one that would inexplicably take over my soul would be a group with a name that I thought was a horrible idea–the name of a cake flavor. A kinda okay cake flavor at that. Red chocolate cake (argue as you will about how that works) with cream cheese frosting? That’s not really an image of an interesting group. If a cake name needed to happen, we could have gone with more intriguing flavors like “Black Forest” or something.

Fast forward 4 years later and Red Velvet is irreplaceable in my life. Thus, they deserve their own special piece of the year-end pie. I could talk about “Bad Boy,” “Power Up,” and the zombie “Really Bad Boy,” (all three are uniquely great and expectedly polarizing, because well, it’s Red Velvet) but what would be a Red Velvet tribute without discussing what makes Red Velvet, Red Velvet? As the reigning champions of diverse and musically intriguing discographies here is my list of some of the best of the rest. The great thing about Red Velvet is that even though this year’s tracks are not quite at the level of some of last year’s, they are pretty gosh darn good.

“Blue Lemonade” (Summer Magic)

It takes a lot to pull off what appears to be pure saccharine. It’s what most people associate with girl groups and hold above their heads. “Oh it’s just cute” they say, as though a cute nature inherently implies lack of substance. In balancing mature melodies and instrumentation with the sweeter voices, “Blue Lemonade” says “ha” such perceptions and pushes the sugar until you can feel the edge of the crystals on your tongue. Are those bubbles in the background? Or tears from time passing by?

“Time to Love” (The Perfect Red Velvet)

If all ballads were as perfect as this one I would listen to them more often. Firstly, it ditches the dredging 60-70 bpm piano tempo marker that most K-pop ballads like to live in. Instead we have a faster and groovier rhythm framework with snaps and a touch of crunchy high-hat-esque percussion. The classic piano is still there, but it’s more fractured. Ballads tend to have rather meandering vocals (see “Moonlight Melody”), and the R&B influence helps the vocal line of “Time to Love” gain some color. Tying everything together is a great performance from the members themselves. (Oh yeah, that was Irene at 0:26…) Who knew that a mid-tempo could masquerade its way into the ballad club?

“Butterflies” (RBB)

“Butterflies” a fan favorite for a reason. Anthemic and delicate at the same time, “Butterflies,” like many Red Velvet songs, takes something that is typical (the anthemic chorus, a classic synth line) and puts a twist on it (using verses reminiscent of slower mid-tempos like “Blue Lemonade” or “Little Little” with a sweeter personality). I love how bouncy the synth-xylophone is and how it plays off the the more staccato verses. I’m also fascinated by how the so-called 애교 (aygeo) vocal tone is used as an abrasive contrast against the straightforward instrumentation. Notice how it’s not just the sub-vocalists that are using it and how it’s not used consistently. The overall feel of the verses is “sweet,” but that is more because of the melody and not the vocals. I’m usually not a fan of 애교, even in Red Velvet songs, but both “Blue Lemonade” and “Butterflies” has piqued my interest in 애교 as a musical tool.

“Mosquito” (Summer Magic)

I haven’t heard many songs about people being annoying, much less one so pleasant sounding that happens to be comparing someone to probably one of the worst bugs ever. The most obvious way “Mosquito” brings its namesake to life is by onomatopoeia (“zzzzzzzz”) during the chorus. It doesn’t stop there though, because there is an irritating (because it’s slightly off rhythm), subtle buzz melody underlying the entire track.

The chorus melody on the other hand is really elegant.  It’s the star of the show, and what makes “Mosquito” unique. They make you think you’re going to get some bombastic anger-fest in the chorus given the marching pre-chorus and the overall theme of irritation that is embedded into instrumentation. What do we get instead? A tired and vexed feeling that just so realistic about being constantly pestered. And to top such a chorus with an even more beautiful middle eight expressing ambivalence, I can’t help but feel that “Mosquito” is a real underrated gem. I still get chills at 2:28 where Seulgi sings “넌 늘 사라져 (you disappear [when I get closer]),” and you feel the disappearance musically. The song ends with the most unsatisfying percussion riff that further fits the irritating mosquito motif. Mosquitos don’t drink your blood without leaving an itchy bite in its wake.

I was floored when I first happened to see the lyric video for this song. I almost always ignore lyrics because to me, music always comes first. I don’t care if the words are all gibberish as long as everything works phonetically. “Mosquito” one of a very small group of songs that has made me pay attention to what was being said. It is a masterclass in mutual influence of lyrics and compositional choices. The aforementioned lyric video is in this post for a reason.

“So Good” (RBB)

I’m such a massive sucker for R&B and this song hits every feel-good element you’d want in an R&B track. I love that they’re using a chip-tune for an embellishment–that is such a quintessentially Red Velvet-directed compositional choice. Of course Wendy and Seulgi sound amazing because this genre is clearly their comfort zone. Do you want great harmonies? A neck-shaking groovy chorus? Silky-smooth runs? Casual ad-libs? A deep, heavy, lower-register? A multi-member track worth your coins? You get that and then some. It’s “so so good.”

(Yeah, I had to do that. I don’t skimp on bad puns.)

Bonus: “Altai-tai” (#Cookie Jar)

This might be cheating because a song that’s so unabashedly J-pop in Japanese is not the “Best of K-pop.” I don’t care. While the single “#Cookie Jar” tried to transplant Korean Red Velvet into Japanese, “Aitai-tai” is Japanese Red Velvet without skipping a beat on featuring what makes Red Velvet an entity all of its own. We have an atmospheric nearly melancholy synth opening to a song that is sappy and saccharine with many a flourish of chip-tune inspired synth runs and a hint of bass because we can. The middle 8 feels like a pre-chorus–no biggie, it’s another Tuesday. That’s Red Velvet in a nutshell for you.

[Post Updated: 01/09/2019]

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