Red Velvet Comeback Review: “Rookie”

I’m always down for a Red Velvet comeback.  They’re not just one of my top girl groups – they’re one of my top K-pop groups period.  I wasn’t quite as enamored with “Rookie” as I am with some of their other title tracks, but I think that it does fit well with the signature sound that they’ve established. It’s definitely whimsical and fun, but is that enough?

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*WARNING!* This review assumes the reader has listened to the music and/or watched the music video.

Current Concept: Quirky, bright

Red Velvet is known for having a dual concept – the bright and bold “red” pop songs and the softer “velvet” R&B songs.  “Russian Roulette” fell somewhere in between, and they seem to be continuing that pattern with “Rookie.”

SONG:

Music: Jamil `Digi` Chammas, Leven Kali, Sara Forsberg, Karl Powell, Harrison Johnson, MZMC, Otha `Vakseen` Davis III, Tay Jasper

Arrangement: The Colleagues, Jamil `Digi` Chammas

“Rookie” is very upbeat.  The clapping rhythm and the chanting chorus give off a strong cheerleader vibe, like “Hey Mickey” on super speed. There are a lot of elements from their previous releases: strong and persistent percussion, a catchy hook, and vocals that are alternatively sweet and bold. I’m not always a fan of Irene and Joy’s rapping, but I think that it works well here.  It gives a nice contrast to Seulgi and Wendy’s power vocals.

Now all of the repetition, sing-speaking, and overall girly vibe might make “Rookie” seem like it’s an easy song. This is a misconception, because those vocal parts are hard.  I’m already at a disadvantage as an alto, but I can barely manage Irene’s singing parts. Wendy and Seulgi really have their work cut out for them here, because there’s a lot of singing in chest voice and belting involved.

My problem with this song is I definitely needed multiple listens to like it.  The first time I heard it, I was not feeling it at all.  This does happen to me with some K-Pop songs, but Red Velvet numbers are generally fun and addictive from the get go.  Normally their songs are catchy because they have an interesting tune, not because the repetitiveness forces itself into your head and refuses to leave.  While Red Velvet fans seem to like the song, I don’t think that it’s likely to attract a lot of new fans.

SCORE: 16/20

LYRICS:

Lyrics: Jo Yoonkyung

Red Velvet explained on After School Club that their song is comparing their loved one to a rookie.  The chorus definitely supports that, because it consists of them encouraging their love interest with “my super rookie” and “That’s it!” It adds to the “cheerleader” idea that I thought of when I first heard the song. However, the rest of the lyrics are quite contradictory.

A rookie is usually someone who is new and inexperienced, yet the girls sing about being entranced and mesmerized by their crush’s confidence.  Both Yeri and Irene have a line wondering why they bothered to memorize the person’s phone number.  In the second verse, they marvel at how they feel about how they’re in a relationship so quickly.  So it kind of feels like the girls are actually the ones who are the rookies.  I think this is because there’s supposed to be a double meaning or maybe some irony in the lyrics.  You can kind of see this in the music video, where they constantly go in between giving knowing looks and then appearing mystified.  However, I don’t think that the lyrics make a clear enough distinction for me to tell. The message gets a little muddled in the delivery.

SCORE: 7/10

LINE DISTRIBUTION

It’s nice to see Wendy – the main vocal – get a solid amount of lines again. Red Velvet may have had almost perfectly even line distribution in “Russian Roulette,” but she was the one who suffered for it. I get that the song wasn’t hard, but it was weird that she didn’t have a lot of lines. “Rookie” is very vocally complex and requires a lot of power, which fits her perfectly. She and Seulgi each get about a third of the song.  Seulgi comes out slightly ahead, but I think that’s due to ad libs.  Because this song is so complicated, the others mostly get rapping or sing-speaking parts. Joy ends up with slightly less than Irene and Yeri, but the music video focuses on her a lot.  It’s not their most even line distribution, but it is a logical one.

SCORE: 8/10

CHOREOGRAPHY

Red Velvet’s choreography is notoriously hard, but this one knocks it out of the park on the difficulty level.  One of the members (either Irene or Yeri) mentioned on a V-Live that they almost threw up dancing it.  And when I watched a fancam of their Music Core performance last week, I noticed that Joy was visibly struggling.  It’s a shame that it takes such a toll on them, but the choreography is really no joke. The members are constantly moving, and there are so many precise arm movements. While it’s very impressive, it does sometimes toe the line of being too much.There’s also not really any build or distinction between the different sections of the song.  It’s very energetic, but one note. I prefer the movements that are more simplistic and follow the beat well.

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I really enjoy the point choreography. It reminds me a little bit of “Dumb Dumb,” and it adds to that dynamic cheerleader feel. However, I don’t think any of the rest of the choreography is that memorable.  I’ve watched the dance video a bunch of times, and none of it really stands out to me. It’s not distinctive like “Dumb Dumb” or “Russian Roulette.” I’ll give the choreography more points than I normally would because I recognize that it’s insanely difficult. But it’s not my favorite routine of theirs.

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On a side note, it was a smart idea to feature Yeri and Joy doing the more aegyo-like points at the end of the song.  The song has a notably cute aspect to it, and aegyo really helps highlight that.

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SCORE: 17/20

CENTER AND FORMATIONS

While I’m not sold on the moves themselves, I think the formations are awesome.  Part of the reason these girls are moving around so much is because they all have different things to do.  I’m not used to seeing such individualized choreography for each member in a K-pop routine.  I love the intro, where each member reveals herself before Irene starts the rapping.  I also love the part in the second chorus where they jump from a vertical line to a horizontal one. The formations are what really makes the choreography dynamic and memorable.

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Like most Red Velvet title tracks, Seulgi and Irene share the responsibilities of being the center.  This is a very smart choice, especially for such a difficult choreography.  They do shift formations often, so the other members get some decent center time as well.  The center and line distributions match each other well, and I don’t think that anyone really got short-changed this time around.

 

SCORE: 10/10

MUSIC VIDEO

This music video is very confusing to me.  Like I’ve said with a lot of SM music videos, there’s a semblance of a plot that generally gets shoved aside to push the aesthetic.  Seoul Beats has this interesting analogy that the music video is a visual portrayal of a girl’s conflicting feelings when they’re falling in love. It’s kind of like what I was saying in the lyrics, where it seems like the singer is the rookie instead of the object of affection.  I don’t agree 100% with the writer’s analysis, but it does make sense to a degree.

Seulgi said on After School Club (around the 2:00 mark): “The music video is about our ordinary lives becoming special after meeting the person that we love. So the closet door leads us to the world of our dreams.” You can see a bit of this in the music video.  For example, Seulgi herself closes the closet and looks apprehensive, before getting sucked in.  Once she’s in, she looks around in wonder and marvels at what she sees.  So she’s hesitant about what’s behind that door (which I think would be the relationship/falling in love), but when she goes through she enjoys it.

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A similar thing happens to Joy toward the end of the music video.  She actually goes through several doors, and seems to be more surprised than Seulgi.  When she gets attacked the flower man in a spaceship, it’s kind of like getting blind-sided by a crush when you’re not expecting it.  When she goes through her third door it explodes – signifying that there’s a point in the relationship where you can’t go back.  But because it’s fun and exciting, it doesn’t look like she’s all too sad about it.

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I’m a little torn with how I feel about this music video.  One one hand, if there is a concept or plot to this music video I want it to be more obvious.  I understand Seulgi’s explanation when I watch it again, but I definitely didn’t get it the first time. I just don’t really like music videos that are abstract and have references that either don’t mean anything or are too hard to figure out.  Does the flower man represent the person that they love?  Why are they fighting him in spaceships?  What’s with the trippy perfume?  And don’t even get me started on the Brechtian “play within a play stuff.”

On the other hand, not all music videos are meant to be that deep…and I don’t actually think that “Rookie” is meant to be that deep.  I think it’s mostly meant to be whimsical fun.  The general aesthetic is Narnia, Candyland, and Alice in Wonderland all mashed together.  Visually, it fits in very well with their other music videos.  And it definitely helps promote their “quirky fun” image.  My general problem is that I think that’s all it does.

Most of Red Velvet’s music videos show off their sharp dancing skills, but this one for some reason only shows a few moments of their key choreography.  It gave me the very wrong impression that the dance was easier and less interesting than their previous music videos.  One of Red Velvet’s selling points is their performance, and they really missed the mark by not showcasing that here.  A music video is often someone’s introduction to the group.  It’s okay if it’s lacking in some parts, but in this case I don’t think either the song or the plot of the music video are enough to attract new fans. And not giving potential new fans a good look at their impressive choreography does not help.

SCORE: 15/20

STYLING

As pretty as the girls are, Red Velvet’s styling is usually too out there for my tastes (and apparently Korean netizens agree).  Their stylists have this tendency to put them in mismatched outfits, and this music video is no different.  It does add to the quirky look, but I think that it’s too much.  They actually look like they’re wearing doll dresses half of the time here.  It would be okay if they were all Yeri’s age, or even Joy’s.  But the others are in their early to mid twenties.

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I do actually enjoy their quirky concept, and I think the outfits add charm…to an extent. But there are limits.  I liked the plastic skirt outfits they had in the video, but in general I think that their styling team went to far here.  I do like, however, that their hair colors are more natural so that they don’t contrast with the colorful clothes.

STYLE MVP: Irene, because my bias got the better of me this time (and because she’s wearing the most normal outfit)

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SCORE: 7/10

FINAL TALLY

Song: 16

Lyrics: 7

Line Distribution: 8

Choreography: 17

Center and Formations: 10

Music Video: 15

Styling: 7

TOTAL SCORE: 80

CONCLUSION: Red Velvet is definitely a successful group, and they had a good year in 2016.  But last year saw the meteoric rise of other rookies like Gfriend, Twice, and Blackpink.  Two of those groups are notably from SM’s rival companies.In an over-saturated market, it’s even harder to stand out. I feel like this puts pressure on Red Velvet, and that’s why they’ve somewhat ditched their dual concept for a combination of the two.  And perhaps why they’re really pushing their quirky image.

“Rookie” fits Red Velvet and their concept extremely well.  It’s peculiar, it’s catchy, and it’s fun.  But that’s all it is.  All of their previous title tracks have built on their image and added something new. But “Rookie” doesn’t add to their image.  Instead, it kind of puts them into a niche.  You can see and hear elements of all of their previous hits, but it doesn’t bring anything to the table. Like I said before, I think that the fans love it. The song’s doing well (at least internationally), and it’s won four music shows so far.  But if this was the first song of theirs that I checked out, it would not convince me to join the fandom.  “Rookie” definitely gets better after multiple listens, but potential new fans probably won’t stick around for that.

To be real, we’re talking about a group from SM Entertainment – one of biggest and most successful agencies in Korea.  No SM group is ever going to flop or be under-appreciated compared to the many groups from smaller agencies.  Even if Red Velvet doesn’t achieve enormous levels of success like SNSD or EXO, they’ll have a solid core fanbase and a career filled with opportunities like f(x).  But if they to keep up with the other monster rookies, they shouldn’t just focus on pushing their unique quirky image.  They should also focus on their other selling points, like their power vocals and their killer choreography. They have so much to offer, and the reason I feel so picky about “Rookie” is because I think it’s pigeonholing them. It feels like SM is trying to put Red Velvet in a box, but what’s ironic is that being quirky generally means that you think outside the box.

SOURCES: Youtube, SM Entertainment, Wikipedia, Seoul Beats, Arirang After School Club (ep. 250), K-pop, K-fans (Blogspot)

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