The Barber of Jeonju

My three heavy hitters have been making waves recently, so I think it’s time to check in on the magic world of K-pop.


You’ve read right! The most precious duo in K-pop debuted as a unit yesterday, and props for taking on the fandom name. I can’t explain “Iseul” for Irene and Seulgi, who have been known in English-speaking circles as “Seulrene” forever, other than Irene is the senior and her name must come first. The music video for Chobom’s song “Copycat” is live, and it’s delightful. It’s more bubblegum than Apink’s been trending lately, with an easygoing style.

I was wondering how this subunit would work musically, given the usual order of things, where Bomi plays off of Eunji and Namjoo, I feel like. So much of their great songs have Bomi leading us into the chorus with her high notes, and then Eunji leads us out with the power.

If you’d asked me before “Copycat,” I wouldn’t have been able to fully define Chorong’s vocal niche. Her voice has an incredible, even ethereal quality – used to great effect in “Only One” – and I think the song is designed to optimize that. Instead of being explosive and going for broke, it’s soothing and confident. Their harmony in the chorus is arresting, and underscores the theme of the album, of the subunit, and perhaps of Chorong and Bomi altogether.

“Oscar” enjoys a greater range from Chorong, a similar upbeat style as “Copycat” but a little more adventurous. “Feel Something” sees the production stripped down for a better vocal showcase, which makes sense and rounds out the album. All three songs are great, benefitting so greatly from two veterans who’d find no better partner in the other.

Red Velvet

Red Velvet may not have announced a comeback, which I wouldn’t reasonably expect until 2025 after everything they’ve put on the table this year, but their official YouTube channel has been playing around with different formats for behind-the-scenes footage. Early on, there was the teasingly entitled “🏕혼자서 차박은 처음이라 🚙 EP. 아이린 l 처음인데 뭐하지?,” which I took to mean “Irene episode one” so let’s see her do something new every episode. That was back in November.

There have been other Episodes since, of Red Velvet proper, and other RV Days. This one where they’re promoting “Feel My Rhythm” has the most adorable thumbnail ever:

In between, there’s been dance practice videos, recording sessions, photoshoots – a bounty like I’ve never known. SM even released a second orchestral arrangement of a Red Velvet song, this time the already classical “Feel My Rhythm,” and it’s just as brilliant as the “Red Flavor” rendition. And finally, on Wednesday, the so-called “[RV Days] 📣애니멀 사운드 발사아아ㅏㅏㅏ😆 | 고려대 입실렌티 & 드림콘서트 비하인드” video dropped, linked at the top.

I have to admit, I teared up at the sight of them on stage and with that audience reaction. I don’t end up watching a lot of their “stages,” which is the awkward Korean-to-English shorthand for stage/live performance, because it’s idols at their most idol – the artifice made suddenly apparent. But after two years, I don’t doubt it was a rush for these five to be back performing to a roaring arena. This was at Korea University, which I’d first read about in a positive (surprising!) article from Koreaboo: “Red Velvet Receives Praise For Their Amazing Performance And Stage Manners At Korea University’s Festival.” Here’s an excerpt:

“Many raved about how Red Velvet not only had witty comments and interactions with the audience but also how they did their research on the school before coming. They even sang the school’s representative song and also tried out the school’s cheer. As cheering culture is a huge part of Korea University, Red Velvet certainly did not come to play.”

Finally, some good press. And it was especially heartening to see Irene so animated in that behind-the-scenes video. It’s been a toss-up with her for a long time, whether she’ll be her old confident self or a little on the quiet side.

Remember, too, this is a college audience, the minds of the future. While aespa is the SM group making the rounds in America, Red Velvet’s consolidating its base at home like some sort of Roman general, winning over the people or the army while the senate squabbles.

Soshi Tam Tam

I need a moment for this one, excuse me. Um, it’s Girls’ Generation, back as eight members for the first time in five years. In 2017, after the release of their album Holiday Night, three additional members departed – after Jessica – though theirs was amicable. In fact, Girls’ Generation never actually disbanded, but I had no reason to think otherwise, coming into K-pop myself in 2019. Yes, superstars Yoona and Taeyeon were still participating in those very expensive New Years Greetings photoshoots, but I’d seen so much solo material from each member that it felt like the new norm. In fact, when Hyoyeon would drop in on Yuri during her cooking show, she may have Tiffany in tow or she might have to leave early to film a music video. That became the running theme: the only way we’d see all eight members together again is via Photoshop. There was that magical birthday in 2019, but what about 2020? What about 2021? What about everyone else’s birthdays?

So, part of the reunion project here is Soshi Tam Tam, a variety show involving all eight members – I mean, when Seohyun isn’t filming her drama. I haven’t seen full episodes yet, though they do exist via fansub, but the JTBC YouTube channel has been pumping out sometimes redundant clips, and they’re all very, very funny.

I’ve noticed that Sooyoung has mellowed out a little from back in the day, but this leaves a massive class-clown vacuum for Hyoyeon. She’s like the punchline for every conversation, always somehow centrally located, coiled and waiting to strike. Yuri’s more than happy to do the cooking, now a master chef. And that’s really the thing, that this new show is playing on my understanding of the Girls’ Generation members as I witnessed them individually. I also now have a better understanding of the group’s place in pop culture broadly, so Soshi Tam Tam is a revelation, that when they cut to a new shot, it’s another member of Girls’ Generation. That never happens!

And more importantly, there’s interpersonal dynamics evinced by that editing. I know, for example, that Yuri and Hyoyeon are very close, so I look for that and feel that weird sort of vindication when they hover near each other. Yoona and Sunny, same thing, Tiffany and Sooyoung, Tiffany and Taeyeon. And then as a group, it’s just nonstop laughter.

You put this group together and interesting things are gonna happen, which is why I was initially disappointed that this variety show wasn’t just them in a room – which may sound like hyperbole, but it worked for Apink. A lot of the videos provide a composite glimpse of an early episode where each member has a mission for the day, secret to the others, and already I’m rolling my eyes. Why make them do stuff?

Sunny gets the easy mission, which is get two members to hold her hand for ten seconds. It’s actually quite tense, because ten seconds is suddenly longer than it sounds. Yoona had to get everyone to give her $15. She failed. As did Tiffany, sadly, who couldn’t get anyone to make her a lettuce wrap. Yuri didn’t even try. She had to get someone to say “You’re so funny!” (“I just knew nobody would.”)

Inarguably the greatest was Taeyeon’s mission, and I don’t know if these were random or assigned, but it fits her so perfectly: collect from each member a single strand of their hair. It may sound creepy, but just wait until you see Taeyeon literally stalking her groupmates with a pair of scissors, and then it also looks creepy. She has a couple of close-calls, though Sunny bends her head with just a little white lie. Yoona almost catches her in the act, whipping her head around like “What?” But it’s the look of satisfaction after she gets Hyoyeon’s, that smile:

It’s so pure. Taeyeon is extremely happy with herself, and I think it’s because this is kind of her zone? Not creeping, but I know what it’s like to be an introvert, and how that affects one’s navigation through spaces.

When they all reveal what their missions were over drinks, Yuri is shocked nearly to the point of outrage, Hyoyeon can’t stop making jokes, and Sunny is dying of laughter. Maybe a little Sooyoung side-eye?

And that’s it! Aside from getting COVID, it’s been a great week!

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