A semi-weekly or biannual reco, straight from the playlists of yours truly…
I have mixed feelings about “Monster.” I know — who asked me, right? Who am I? Well, how about Seulgi’s number one fan? That’s right. Now don’t you look silly. It’s got a certain earworm quality, and it is growing on me, maybe more like a parasite than what I’m used to. Even before you see the video, the cynic in me feels like they’re playing it safe for the new subunit, double-dipping into that “Psycho” bucket. And look, I love “Psycho,” but it’s a belter. “Monster” is far more low-key, as if “sexy” necessarily comes at the expense of “energy.” With a growing understanding of other groups, the label that most characterizes Red Velvet to me — in music and personality — is weird. These girls are some of the weirdest people I’ve ever beheld, with that conversation in Vietnam about crushing crickets to feed to the baby chicken ripped straight out of A Scanner Darkly*. Undoubtedly, that’s part of the charm, and that’s what’s reflected in the eclectic music.
Of course, the last thing we can accuse “Monster” of being is hetero:
This is the gayest thing I think I’ve ever seen, and I appreciate how it alighted all of Red Velvet’s lesbian contingent (maybe the biggest slice of the fanbase?). But it’s also where part of my “mixed feelings” comes from. On one hand, there’s the endemic queer-baiting which feels at the very least hypocritical, as this is a major pop culture export from an extremely homophobic country. And so is America — this I understand — so if I don’t represent my backwards country’s views, maybe the creative team on “Monster” doesn’t represent theirs. Maybe this is the best they can do. At that point, and long before, it’s a question of what we’re expecting from our idols. Yes, Seulrene is one of the two Red Velvet ships, but is that how Irene and Seulgi see each other, and if not, is it okay that they’re even acting it out? What if spending nearly every day together, in constant collaboration on an ongoing project has bonded them like sisters rather than GFs? It’s worth repeating: this video is extremely sexual, at least as far as K-pop goes.
This is probably just the male gaze speaking, because seeing two straight-guy fantasy girls caress each other’s cheeks and stare longingly provokes a pang of voyeuristic guilt in me. There’s a great line in The Wire where Andy Krawcyk says, “That’s a simplistic viewpoint in my opinion,” and the harried Tommy Carcetti responds, “How would you complicate it?” That’s my constant headspace with K-pop — I can’t just enjoy this media. I’m seeking permission, but yet asking no one, like a malfunctioning robot caught in an endless loop of guilt and elation.
Much less complicated then, is the rest of the mini-album, which I think is a stronger overall package than the title track suggests. This isn’t new for Red Velvet, queens of the B-side. Our pick of the day is “Jelly,” which feels like classic Velvet. At the risk of sounding music-criticism illiterate, I’ll say it’s got a good “hook,” whether or not that’s actually true. But it’s just got that pull toward “I’d actually sing this song out loud,” like it instills that rising feeling in the depths of me. For me, that’s a really important quality and a sticking point I have with the arc of K-pop, already addressed but I’m gonna reiterate anyway.
When artists go solo, something is inevitably lost — first of all, their members. But I’d also like to argue that genre, too, is lost. The weird, yes, colors Red Velvet, but so does the earnestness, the bombast. In a lot of the solo music I’ve heard elsewhere, there’s an almost self-conscious softness, like “Well, I’m mature now, so let’s get serious.” It ends up being kind of boring. An exception so far is Eunji, but she was always a powerhouse vocalist. When Wendy finally gets her money to become a singer, I hope she doesn’t lose the oomph.
Irene & Seulgi’s subunit debut is solid, confident, but certainly not consistent with Red Velvet’s experimental character. I mean, “Happiness” is such an oddity for a debut single — compare that directly to “Into the New World,” and it’s like night and day. I’m hoping that with future material they feel comfortable to branch out again, hew closer to those RBB heights. I’m just remembering now that in “Monster,” Irene stares directly into the camera and says she wants to dominate me, so actually — five stars?
*You can find a good version of it in this fan edit, and I’ll transcribe (from memory) here:
JOY: The way my dog Haetnim walks, she looks like Miss Korea.
SEULGI: I had a baby chick.
JOY (laughs): That was random.
SEULGI: I used to crush crick– oh, should I say this? I used to crush crickets and feed them to it.
JOY (mocking): “Should I say this?” How dare you crush those crickets! Why would you do such a thing?
SEULGI: To feed my chick.
Oh, Seulgi. That spider trick will be your last…