November Round-Up: A Very Good Month in K-Pop

Wow! Where to begin? Maybe with a group I’ve yet to properly explore — KARA. Or Kara, because I just cannot with the all-caps. Sorry, BLACKPINK. This is a 2nd-gen girl group which debuted in 2007, the same year as Girls’ Generation.

And this is when I wish I’d taken the time to establish exactly my experience in Korea in 2019, because I reference it a lot. In short, my family and I took a trip to Seoul (and later Busan) as part of Korean Ties, an organization connecting adopted children to their birthplaces and possibly their birth families. I didn’t meet my biological mother, but did meet the doctor who delivered me in 1993, a woman who lives in the shantytown from Ghost in the Shell and was overcome with emotion at the improbable reunion (I was, too).

I left Korea with a mess of complicated feelings, and three years later, they’re only starting to become clear. The short version is that the experience inspired me to start this blog, to give an exploration into Korean history and culture some structure (with room to talk about movies from all over the world, which is the part inspired by a mild protest in early 2020 against a potential war with Iran — the blog itself may be frivolous, but it has quite the origin!).

Korea had become real to me, where before it was only an inconvenient part of my identity. I saw people living their lives and living their history, and I felt bad that they’d always been abstract. A few months later, news broke that Goo Hara died by suicide. One of those real Koreans — victimized by that very real Korean culture. I remember being floored by it, despite not even knowing who Goo Hara was.

And I am sorry — to any reader in the know and to Kara, should this blog post by an obscure English-language blogger ever reach them. A discussion of Kara’s comeback should not necessarily be framed by their past tragedy, but it did inform my cautious approach. Like with f/x, I allowed the death of a member to prevent my exploration of their music. It just seemed like heartbreak I could avoid (apparently, I hadn’t taken the lesson from the movie Arrival).

Fast-forward to a week ago when my YouTube algorithm was kind enough to show me a “moving poster” featuring Gyuri and Sengyeon — a knowing riff on “Naughty” — I was primed for the eventual release, “When I Move.”

This is the first Kara song I’ve ever heard, so I can’t comment on how it compares to older material, but I really like it. What I do want to comment on, against my better judgment, is the way this video is shot.

It’s mostly medium shots and close-ups, as if — with maybe one exception — the camera is behaving itself, despite that this collective smokeshow is being very sexy. And that isn’t a judgment call from me so much as a recognition. Sometimes, in K-pop, “the category is SEXY,” though they say “concept.”

Contrast these two images, if you will:

The first is from “When I Move” and the second is from the Girls’ Generation comeback from this year, “Forever 1.” While we’re on the subject, here’s another screengrab, of Muscle Queen Yuri:

Anyway, “Forever 1” is not sexy or cool. Look at those big smiles. The whole video is about them being famous and accepting awards — it’s dorky and adorable — and the song is big and celebratory.

It’s as if Kara saw what their sisters did for their big reunion song and said, “Yeah, we’re not doing that.”

In “When I Move,” you’ll find typical sexy poses like this:

But preceded by something like this:

The message I’m getting is, “I know I’m sexy, fuck you,” give or take a “fuck you.” In that first image, she’s looking where you’re looking, and a moment earlier, she was looking at you. There are no shots of butts or legs as if they’re floating, separate from the people they belong to. It may not be a lot, but I think it’s the difference — I did not feel the pang of guilt watching this that I did watching Loona’s “Butterfly,” for example, which I don’t think is exploitative, but did feel like a bunch of girls dancing for my entertainment. “When I Move” feels much more like girls (women) dancing for themselves — after a long period of rest.

But what do you think? Is there any weight to this or am I just letting myself off the hook for my own voyeurism?

Red Velvet, The ReVe Festival 2022 – Birthday

This third of three 2022 Red Velvet releases took me by surprise. Apparently, they broke their presale record — and to my shame, I did not contribute to that. So close to Christmas, my money has been falling out of me like Tetsuo’s organs, but hopefully I’ll pick it up sometime in the future in Koreatown (along with a photocard binder, because those are getting out of control).

I mean, they teased The ReVe Festival 2022 – Birthday with its graffiti, almost NFT-style artwork (had me worried for a sec), but I assumed it was… a 2023 release? I have to realize that music arrives faster than movies, and Birthday would be out long before John Wick 4, despite the near-simultaneous marketing.

Red Velvet’s November comeback was even occasion for Irene to reset her Instagram password:

There are several people on Instagram whose activity makes me gasp; it’s a combination of star power and scarcity, and Irene is both the superstar of my heart and the least frequent poster I follow/interact with. That turned out to be a more complicated idea than I thought it would be. Either way, she’s sharing a screenshot from the music video, and it’s definitely on-brand for the group — weird.

If anything, I’d say that The ReVe Festival 2022 – Birthday is a spiritual successor to RBB. I know that the lyrical callbacks themselves call back to the callbacky “Umpah Umpah” of The ReVe Festival: Day 2, but there’s a sassiness to this album? They come in swaggering and confident, and throw something indescribable at the wall. “Birthday” appears to have three prechoruses?

From there, you have maybe the worst song on the album, “BYE BYE,” which only suffers from that key “Bye.” Because man, “Beg for Me” Wendy comes in with that rap, and it’s astonishing they waited till year seven for that. “On A Ride” is the first candidate for best B-side for me. The build-up to the chorus, which flips into a different energy — that’s an old Red Velvet trick, and I love the high note, first by Joy (“You and ME”). And God, Irene’s voice is so heavenly with that simple “Da, da, da, da, da.”

ZOOM” is a strong entry, and this may be a reference too far afield, but it reminds me a lot of the Eminem-produced 2Pac album Loyal to the Game. Make of that what you will. We close on “Celebrate,” which is a thematic bookend, and a stronger Velvet finish than we’ve seen in years past. This one rivals “On A Ride” for me, and I think I just love how “back in the day” sounds in the chorus. I don’t know, it’s a very satisfying rhyme (“day” with “day”).

Falling in love with Birthday had me going back to Bloom, which I completely overlooked. The April album had a few strikes against it, namely the timing so soon after the high of Feel My Rhythm (still resounding), and that it’s a Japanese album. For whatever reason, I never prioritize those, as if their Japanese songs are somehow counterfeit. But they’re not, and “Marionette” and “Wildside” are both essential Red Velvet.

What really compels me about both Bloom and Birthday is their propulsive energy. I may not particularly enjoy “Sappy,” but there’s no denying its freneticism, which continues unabated into “Jackpot.” Similarly, “Birthday” is classic Red Velvet, far more than “Feel My Rhythm,” despite sharing the classical sample. It feels like a B-side on RBB, I swear, and I really, really appreciate that.

That beautiful middle ground between Red and Velvet embodied by songs like “Feel My Rhythm” and “Cool World” may be my favorite flavor, but this fast-paced, almost reckless approach is quintessential Red Velvet.

All around, a fantastic year for Red Velvet that began with their second masterpiece. While I took a rest after that, Red Velvet did not, catching me unawares three times.

YooA

That’s right, because this year also saw Seulgi’s solo debut, 28 Reasons. To be honest, I was not super hot on it, but I’ll have to give it more time. I like “Anywhere but Home,” but nothing jumped out to me like Joy’s “Hello.” And to be brutally honest, I haven’t loved a lot of the solo acts I’ve seen this year, to the point where I’m not as jazzed about solos as I once was.

The problem tends to be that the artist is branching out stylistically — which is necessary and something I fully support — but that means they’re starting over without the trademarks I fell in love with. It’s an uphill battle, but it can be won, and I think YooA’s Selfish is the perfect example.

This album makes great use of what YooA brings to Oh My Girl, but her versatility and stylistic tendencies create a unique character. “Lay Low” is a song so bold I did not like it the first time. With telegraphed production making for a chorus that cannot be replicated live, it’s repetitive and strange. But everything around it is so beautiful, like coastal Spain. And suddenly, that “laylaylaylaylay” becomes attractive in its own weird way.

So, yes, to close this out, I did want to ensure my praise for YooA was unambiguous. I think she’s a top talent, and one of the best solo idols I’ve seen (like, IU and Eunji league). She’s yet another reason to be excited about K-pop in 2022, and there’s an abundance already. As we’ll talk about soon on QNA, this year may have been a surprising bust for movies, but music swept in and made up for it.

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