Rapid(ish) Reviews, October 2017: BTOB, GOT7, TWICE, SF9, and More

Fall is one of the best times for K-pop because pretty much everyone makes a comeback. Like September, October saw the rise of some of the most talked about boy groups – who all delivered quality music. And though there was little to no activity on the girl group front, TWICE swooped in at the very end to remind us all why they’re the princesses of K-pop.  There was so much going on to like, but here’s a look at the comebacks (and one debut) that really impressed me.

Table of Contents:

  1. Highlight, “Can Be Better”
  2. BTOB, “Missing You”
  3. GOT7, “You Are”
  4. TWICE, “Likey”
  5. SF9, “O Sole Mio”
  6. JBJ, “Fantasy”

***

HIGHLIGHT, “Can Be Better”

Song: 17/20
Lyrics: 9/10
Line Distribution: 9/10
Choreography: 18/20
Center/Formations: 8/10
Music Video: 18/20
Styling: 9/10
TOTAL88/100

There’s often an interesting duality within K-pop: idols are charismatic and sexy onstage, but goofy and down-to-earth offstage.  This is especially true of boy groups, who are typically marketed to young female fans as the ideal package.  Yes, they’re extremely attractive and swoon-worthy…but they’re also funny and relatable! They’re the perfect boyfriend/best friend/brother you’ve never had! I confess I buy into it as much as anyone else would, meaning I easily accept idols’ contrasting images. But sometimes such a big difference is kind of weird, and it feels like looking at two sides of the same coin.

This is why I’m really enjoying Highlight, because their image is all about being relatable these days.  Since they’ve changed their name and rebranded, they’ve doubled down on a light-hearted and carefree feel in their music. Even “Calling You,” which seems like it would be more of a downer, is pleasantly low-key and mellow.  Celebrities will always be on a different level from the rest of us (different, not better!), given the nature of their lifestyle.  But this past year, Highlight has really targeted subjects that are relevant to a lot of twenty-somethings out there.  Since I’m around the same age as them, I fall into that target audience for once and I’m loving their music.

To be honest, “Can Be Better” is quite similar to “Plz Don’t Be Sad.”  The songs themselves share the same key instruments, structure, and mood; someone could probably make a nice mash-up of the two.  The two dances aim for a fun and carefree atmosphere over fancy technique, and both music videos focus on the idea of making the most out of a bad time (and feature the members playing around).  They aren’t quite copies of each other, but they get dangerously close. That being said, I don’t mean that “Can Be Better” is bad or unoriginal. In fact, I enjoy it immensely. Though the whole first sequence of the music video is definitely exaggerated, it’s so relatable. I totally understand the expectations of looking like you have it all together, and the reality that you just don’t.

There’s an obvious contrast between second generation groups who have been at this for a while and the newer ones who are just hitting their stride.  I mean this mostly in attitude and behavior, but you can also tell from the music. Highlight has survived massive changes over the past year, and founding their agency has presumably given them more creative control.  Now that they’re a firmly established group in their late twenties, it really feels like they’re doing whatever they want to do.  I really appreciate that about them, and I look forward to what comes next.

STYLE MVP: Junhyung.  I think I picked him before, but you have to respect a man who literally gets attacked by random chickens and still looks good.

Highlight-Junhyung

***

BTOB, “Missing You”

Song: 18/20
Lyrics: 10/10
Line Distribution: 9/10
Choreography: 19/20
Center/Formations: 9/10
Music Video: 18/20
Styling: 9/10
TOTAL92/100

BTOB is also a group with a dual image, but it’s not the “sexy oppa vs. boy next door” contrast I was referring to earlier.  On the music side of things, they’ve become a respected vocal group known for their emotional and compelling ballads.  On the entertainment side, they’re these giant goofballs who are a staple on the variety scene. I’m not a huge ballad fan, so I tend to gravitate towards their more upbeat releases.  I liked “Movie” so much because it was a great blend of their musical skills and their fun personalities.  But every once in a while, a really great ballad gets to me. And I must confess that I love “Missing You.”

Personally, I don’t usually have a problem with songs that sound over the top or dramatic.  If you look at my lists of favorites, you’ll usually see a lot energetic dance tracks filled with synth and thudding beats. However, there’s something so beautiful in the simplicity of “Missing You.”  It’s not quite an acoustic song, but it definitely has a pared-down sound.  Softer melodic instruments like piano, strings, and guitar really help bring out BTOB’s sweet vocals.  It’s just so pleasant to listen to.

I feel the same way about the lyrics.  Again, I don’t mind breakup songs that pour on the emotion because I’m an angsty person that lives for drama. However, sometimes simple and honest statements accurately capture a person’s feelings much better than flowery ones ever can.  For a song about missing someone, there’s actually very little angst and longing.  It’s more about trying to move on with the rest of the world, but still having those feelings of sadness and emptiness at the end of the day.  I think this kind of sentiment is actually much more accurate, and it’s something that everyone can relate to.

I was a little concerned about BTOB becoming Cube’s senior group after Highlight left, but their stellar year shows that there was no need to worry.  In terms of quality and sales, “Missing You” is their best song yet.  It’s clear that BTOB and their team have put a lot of thought into the look and feel of their latest releases.  Their music is compelling, their lyrics insightful, their choreography detailed and thoughtful (check that sign language), and their music videos beautifully shot.  It’s taken some time, but it’s wonderful to see all of that effort paying off.

STYLE MVP: Changsub. I’m just so used to him being silly and extra that I’m always stunned when he’s serious and emotional.

BTOB-Changsub.gif

***

GOT7, “You Are”

Song: 18/20
Lyrics: 10/10
Line Distribution: 9/10
Choreography: 18/20
Center/Formations: 9/10
Music Video: 17/20
Styling: 9/10
TOTAL: 90/100

After a couple rounds of heavy dance music, GOT7 returns to their lighter and more upbeat side.  Though “You Are” shares a lot of the same elements with their recent tracks (read: lots of synth), it has a much softer and almost fresher feel.  It’s very warm and uplifting, especially at the chorus.  I almost cried the first time I heard it, and then I actually cried once I looked at the lyrics.  I like how it has a double meaning; it’s probably supposed to be a love song like always, but it could also be talking about their friendship. It’s similar to BTOB: the song is very simple, but that makes it all the more sweet.

“You Are” is solid on its own, but it’s even stronger when accompanied by the dance or  music video.  The excellent choreography is my favorite aspect by far.  We’ve seen a lot of contemporary-inspired dances this year, but I’d say that “You Are” is one of the more successful fusions between modern and hip hop. The opening is just beautiful, and it reminds me of the choreography from my own dance classes. Although the music video provides a really picturesque look of Hong Kong, it doesn’t really do much for me beyond that.  However, I really like the bright color palette during the sunrise and windmill shots; I think it really fits the song’s light-hearted mood.

Ever since GOT7 changed their signature sound, it seems a lot of the international K-pop community has been unimpressed.  I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve read each comeback saying the single is “meh,” the B-sides are so much better, they should go back to songs like “If You Do,” etc. Normally I stay out of debates, but this one gets to me. It also bothers me that everyone was clamoring for GOT7 to produce their own title track, only to keep complaining about the quality of “You Are” even after JB helped compose it. I agree that “If You Do” probably is GOT7’s best song to date. However, I think it’s more important that they find a musical identity they like that expresses who they are.

Basically, I’ve always been on board with their newer sound.  Even if it’s not always my favorite type of music, I still enjoy it. I was somewhat surprised at the lukewarm reaction to “You Are,” because I thought it was a new and improved version of their style.  It felt like they had really addressed a lot of critiques fans had about their title tracks: earattack wasn’t involved as a producer, there was less rapping, the sound was lighter and cleaner, so on and so forth.  Though “You Are” doesn’t make as much of an impact as some of GOT7’s other songs, I still think it’s a product that they can be very proud of.

STYLE MVP: Youngjae.  Styling made some great choices with his outfits, and I like how his hair is on the longer side. He just looks so healthy and happy here!

GOT7-Youngjae

***

TWICE, “Likey”

Song: 18/20
Lyrics: 9/10
Line Distribution: 8/10
Choreography: 19/20
Center/Formations: 10/10
Music Video: 17/20
Styling: 9/10
TOTAL90/100

I like TWICE a lot, but I have a hard time relating to them because of our age difference. I need common ground with girl groups to really get invested, and TWICE’s music is about crushes and first loves – a phase I’ve long moved on from. However, “Likey” is their most universally relatable song yet. It’s about the pressures of social media, and the efforts women make to get people (specifically those we’re interested in) to press that all-important “like” button.  Sure, they try to dumb it down; they mostly focus on the “Don’t I look pretty?” part and pretend it’s not that deep. But the implication is still there, and it resonates with lots of females: the older millennials who were teenagers at the dawn of social media, and the younger ones who’ve basically grown up with it.

One of my general criticisms of TWICE is that there’s a clear case of their creative team resting on their laurels.  They has so much potential, but whoever’s in charge just isn’t interested in developing it. The fact that they keep reaching new heights by doing the same cutesy stuff over and over speaks volumes about girl groups in this industry. K-pop has never been particularly focused on artistry, but it still sends a clear message: you don’t really need to improve your skills if you’re good at being cute. In terms of business, the strategy to focus almost exclusively on TWICE’s visuals and charms has paid off.  In terms of creativity and artistic growth, it’s infinitely frustrating.

It’s not so much about having a cute concept; it’s more about the decreasing amount of effort put towards giving TWICE an artistic identity. I got really frustrated with “Knock Knock” because there was nothing that was uniquely TWICE. I believed (and I still do) that any girl group could have done it. “Signal” started to change things up a little, and “Likey” helps that along nicely. The theme of social media is very present outside the lyrics, from recreating Instagram in the choreography to playing with camcorders in the music video.  It’s even in the teasers, which is impressive because they hardly ever match the actual comeback. The only sort-of misstep is the music video, because I think they missed an opportunity to make a pointed commentary like the lyrics do.  But watching them run around picturesque Vancouver is fun too.

“Likey” is a very smart comeback that plays to TWICE’s strengths. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but it has everything we expect from them – and I mean that in a good way.  At this point, they’ve solidified their status as the it-girls of K-pop.  Everyone’s looking to them to set the standard, and “Likey” takes huge advantage of that. It’s all there: trendy pop sound, addictive hook, iconic dance moves and stellar visuals, and an abundance of cuteness.  This is TWICE at their best, in all their bubblegum pop glory.  I haven’t been this satisfied since “TT,” and I’m hoping it continues.

STYLE MVP: Jungyeon.  I’m not a huge fan of the tomboy look, but her styling in “Likey” strikes the perfect balance between laid back and feminine.

Jungyeon-Likey

***

SF9, “O Sole Mio”

Song: 18/20
Lyrics: 8/10
Line Distribution: 8/10
Choreography: 18/20
Center/Formations: 9/10
Music Video: 20/20
Styling: 9/10
TOTAL90/100

The K-pop market is undoubtedly overflowing these days, and rookies are feeling the sting the most. International multifandom people like me often notice the nuanced differences between the new groups and can tell you all about them.  But to the Korean public, they’re all essentially the same.  Every group has an EDM/tropical house sound, knife-like choreography, good looks, and dorky senses of humor. Some of these things used to be unique identifiers, but now they’re the norm. Since fans are still expected to devote their support (read: money) to one group, there usually aren’t enough to build sustainable fandoms for all the acts out there.  It’s getting more difficult for rookies to find their footing, which is a shame because many of them have so much potential.

SF9 is a promising group that I’ve been somewhat concerned about. They’ve had roots in EDM and stylized dance for about a year now, and their music and brand is pretty consistent. Sadly, it hasn’t been enough to stand out above the crowd.  I did pay attention to their other comebacks this year, but nothing really grabbed at me. Luckily SF9 is well aware of how the business works. They switched things up with a latin pop song, and it fully grabbed my attention.  Granted, it’s easy for me to say that because I’m American.  With songs like “Despacito” exploding in the United States, embracing latin pop is a very natural way to draw in more Western fans. But the song’s not the only good part.

Concepts are a staple in K-pop, which is nice for building an aesthetic and look. The downside is that concepts are adopted and discarded like costumes, revealing how transparent and flimsy they can be. It’s especially risky when groups pull from other cultures, because we can get into some very gray areas and debates on appropriation. What’s nice about “O Sole Mio” is that it isn’t just a flashy style change; it’s incredibly well thought out and carefully constructed. SF9 put in a lot of effort to do this genre justice, and it shows.  All the Italian phrases in the lyrics are words they researched themselves.  It’s a little weird that they didn’t go with Spanish; perhaps they thought the “latin” in “latin pop” meant the classic language. But hey, it’s a minor issue and it still sounds good.

The true standout of “O Sole Mio” is the gorgeous music video. Normally, I’m ambivalent on music videos shot in the United States. Since I live there, it’s usually too familiar to be exotic or exciting. But I must admit that “O Sole Mio” is absolutely stunning. The shots are beautiful both in camera work and effects, and the color correction and filters make the California desert look like a fantastical location.  Though SF9 aren’t dressed like modern cowboys, the charismatic way that they’re shot gives them a similar feel. I also liked how the members and objects sometimes flicker in and out like computer glitches, which is reminiscent of their “Easy Love” video. It’s a really cool touch that connects “O Sole Mio” with their other MVs, even if the songs don’t share the same musical style.

This comeback didn’t bring SF9 notoriety like I wanted, but it definitely got the international fans’ attention. I actually went to their fan meeting in Boston about a month ago, and a big reason why was because how much I liked “O Sole Mio.” I was wowed by their professionalism and their live stages, and I also noticed just how many fans they’re starting to gain.  It’s becoming easier for some K-pop groups to earn money by touring for international fans, but I sincerely hope SF9 does make it big in their home country.  They certainly have everything it takes.

STYLE MVP: Hwiyoung. I’ve picked him before too, but I just really like the green hair.

SF9-Hwiyoung

***

JBJ, “Fantasy”

Song: 19/20
Lyrics: 8/10
Line Distribution: 8/10
Choreography: 19/20
Center/Formations: 9/10
Music Video: 18/20
Styling: 9/10
TOTAL90/100

“Fantasy” is a slightly dark and full-on sexy concept, inspired by how an idea by Produce 101 fans eventually led to this fan-made group. I originally thought the song would be some kind of bubbly feel-good number (JBJ stands for “Just Be Joyful”), so I was thrilled when it was actually the exact opposite.  Yes, I’m one of those people who’s just more naturally drawn to dark and dramatic concepts over bright and happy ones.  However, I don’t like it just because of its theme; I like it because it’s good.  The song is intense, the lyrics intriguing, and the dance compelling.  I especially enjoy the beautiful music video.  The plays on black vs. white and good vs. bad are nicely done, and I love how they added purple in as the third dominant color – very regal, sexy, and mysterious!

I think that the best part of “Fantasy” is how it lets all of the members shine.  Nearly all groups divide up their members by their strengths and positions, and many focus on the stan attractors more popular members instead of the group as a whole. Perhaps it’s precisely because JBJ is a fan-made group, but it seems like they’re making an effort to treat all their members equally in their stages.  The lines are split up fairly logically, and the choreography arranged so that everyone is center during the chorus once.  Admittedly, neither the song or dance are extremely complicated.  However, the balance between showing off skills and making a memorable performance allows us to appreciate all the members nearly equally.

To be honest, I really didn’t think I’d get into JBJ at first. I was (and still am) excited all the Produce 101 trainees were seeing success beyond the show, but come October I was fatigued by the sheer amount of new debuts to keep up with. (This is actually why I didn’t end up comparing and contrasting Rainz and JBJ like I’d planned) I was pretty ambivalent towards most of the JBJ members during Produce 101, and the ones I liked (Longguo and Kenta) got eliminated way too early for me to get super invested like I did with JR.  I thought I’d watch “Fantasy” once and move on… so I ended up looking like a fool when I fell for it. I can’t believe that I ever thought I wouldn’t be interested!

STYLE MVP: Longguo.  Normally I try to avoid picking someone just for having a handsome face, but I couldn’t help it this time. He was always good looking, but he’s so much more confident and charismatic these days and that’s so attractive.  JBJ-Yongguk

***

All in all, October was a pretty good month.  I wish I had time to cover some of the more underrated groups, but I’m already way behind in my posting as it is. If you’re interested, you should check out groups like DIA, UP10TION, Rainz (another P101 fan-made group) and TRCING (B.A.P and SONAMOO’s new brother group).  All of them had some pretty good music. Now onto the chaos that was November!

VIDEO AND GIF SOURCES: Around Us Entertainment (Highlight), Cube Entertainment (BTOB), Loen Entertainment (JBJ), FNC Entertainment (SF9), JYP Entertainment (GOT7 and TWICE)

OTHER SOURCES: Soompi

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