That Side of K-pop #1: Super Yuppers
This Side of Japan's pivot to K-pop brings you WJSN Chocome, Yena's great mini album, a Girls' Generation no. 1 plus guest selections!
Hi! Welcome to That Side of K-pop, a newsletter all about K-pop, new and old! You can read previous issues of This Side of Japan here.
WJSN Chocome are the superheroes suited for the job. “My name is Super Super Yuppers / I don’t turn you down,” de facto leader Dayoung introduces the crew in the chorus of their second single, “Super Yuppers,” the disco synths glowing like neon signs signaling their arrival. “I’ll come to you like a storm.” Who exactly called for their return, no one knows, but K-pop was nevertheless better to have them back this winter and bless us with their presence on the air waves as well as the music shows.
The four from WJSN—Dayoung, Soobin, Yeoreum and Luda—first assembled in the fall of 2020, but their debut single, “Hmph!,” didn’t suggest for the group a shelf life beyond one record. The primary-colored kitsche of the video made Chocome reminiscent of a group like Crayon Pop or the After School subunit Orange Caramel. And like them, the novelty was part of the appeal: the honking horns, blaring synths and, really, the silliness to the whole affair laid in big contrast to the cinematic R&B of the main group1.
Tongue-in-cheek as the project seemed, Chocome took the business of fun seriously in their comeback. It helped this time around that the producers eyed for something contemporary when it came to the music, with a “Take On Me”-esque synth-pop that slides right alongside other recent K-pop hits in the wake of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” Whatever production they were given, though, the idols no doubt would’ve elevated it from seeing how they embraced the superhero concept. No offense to the other three, but the clear standout is Dayoung, who is tasked the monologue of a bridge. “When you’re broken-hearted, I’ll lend my shoulders,” she cries out, breaking the fourth wall. “If you want to return the favor, just brightly smile at me.” She not-so-subtly brushes off the attention, and by that I mean she’s looking for all the attention she can get as if the disco beat wasn’t flashy enough.
The loud personality extended to the promotional cycle with Dayoung inviting every idol she possibly can to dance the “Super Yuppers” choreography with her. Idols play friendly back stage during music shows, appearing on each other’s TikTok to boost numbers. But formalities went out the door for Dayoung as she took it one step further, displaying the fellow idol behind her on a green screen so they can be with one another even if they weren’t physically together. There was no escaping “Super Yuppers,” and how she ignored the picture-perfect standards of K-pop to make sure that to be true was such a fun thing to witness on my social media feed.
The idols of WJSN Chocome have hung up their capes for the time being. They are currently reunited with the rest of the Cosmic Girls to compete in the second season of Queendom. The four assumed the regal cool of their main group with no signs that, a few months prior, they patroled the streets for anyone daring to litter or break in cars with them around. Maybe we will see them return when K-pop as a scene gets too caught up in chasing cool and perfection again because that’s when we certainly will need these silly, colorful band of heroes most.
April Fools! And welcome to the one-time-only K-pop issue of This Side of Japan. It’s the same format as any other issue—an Album of the Week, new singles, a look back into a number one—but featuring all K-pop. For Singles Club, I also have four wonderful guest writers from the Singles Jukebox to bring you their selection of new singles of 2022 so far. Please enjoy my silly joke of an issue!
Album of the Week
SMiLEY by YENA [Yuehua]
The post-IZ*ONE career arcs of its former members have been slowly rolling out since the Produce 48 group dissolved last spring. Wooyoung and Yujin got absorbed in another new group while Eunbi and Jo Yuri each debuted as solo acts; Hitomi and Nako returned to their respective 48 groups in Japan, and Sakura recently announced her dive into a whole new venture. The creative spirit of IZ*ONE followed in those endeavors in some shape or form as the alumna continued to play with regal, vibrant dance-pop. And then there’s Choi Yena and her debut mini album, SMiLEY, that stakes out a entirely different lane separate from the star-making group.
The title track finds Yena cutting ties from the mystic dance-pop of IZ*ONE to embrace bright, bouncy pop-rock as her theme music. Backed by smacking pop-punk drums and bubbly brass, “SMILEY” is the kind of pop you shout the lyrics into an impromptu hairbrush-mic rather than pair with state-of-the-art choreography. The lyrics, too, strike simple and charmingly naive: “Just smile away / to forget about the pain, sadness and loneliness,” Yena sings in the chorus, wearing her smile as her form of sweet revenge. The music video fashions her into a superhero, armed with a glitter-gold mic, rescuring the citizens of a glum world by spreading happiness.
The playful innocence of the title track informs the sound and character of the rest of the mini album. “Before Anyone Else” prefaces the project by summing up the wholesome girl assumed by Yena throughout SMiLEY. “Love is forever, just for you, bae,” she sings in the slow-burning R&B. “I’m by your side, always / Why don’t you know me?” The personality of a head-in-the-clouds romantic who believes in eternal love checks out after getting familiar with her brand of wide-eyed optimism in “SMILEY.” As sweet as her daydream sounds, however, the opening track also hits with a slight pang of melancholy knowing how it might be the first time she’s dealing with unrequited desire.
Other tracks in SMiLEY hit as emotionally affecting when considering how central naivete plays in the project. Yena chills out to sighed disco in “Pretty Boys,” though the ever-bubbly idol is now troubled from her feelings being played by her titular former crush. A similar betrayal inspires “Lxxk 2 U,” an edgier pop-punk sister in sound to “SMILEY.” She learns the hard way that a first impression can be deceiving, distorting her pure-hearted worldview. Her songs end up digging their teeth even deeper as she gives into emotions pettier and uglier than what’s found in the title track. “May you be miserable / in the time you left me,” she sardonically sings in “Lxxk 2 U. “Wish you’re not happy / Will all luck to you.” So much for saying goodbye with her smiley face.
The sound and attitudes in SMILEY is distinct as it is specific. The all-smiles lyrics of “SMILEY” in particular, shouted against music polished with a blinding sheen, can admittedly tip the song into the saccharine, especially for those who might prefer, say, the stated cool of Jo Yuri as a product from the IZ*ONE universe. But the album undoubtedly stands out not just from its position in contrast to Yena’s former peers but also how the idol chooses to wear her style and personality proudly on her sleeve. While her “smile is the cure” philosophy may not be completely persuasive for everyone, Yena’s committed performance convinces the whole affair to be a genuine extension of herself.
For this issue, we have four wonderful guest writers from the Singles Jukebox, a site where I’ve also contributed in the past, to recommend some of their favorite K-pop singles of 2022 so far. They’re some of my favorite pals to talk about K-pop with, not to mention great music writers on their own right, so I’m very excited to invite them for the issue. Enjoy!
“skinz” by OnlyOneOf [8D]
Last year, “libidO” put OnlyOneOf in the spotlight for its homoerotic choreography that brought them both controversy and quite a lot of new fans. Now, the second part of their Instinct EPs is released with “Skinz” as the title track to show that it wasn’t all just buzz. If “libidO” had a shocking concept, where desire was more than just implied, “Skinz” surprises us with the music too.
Of course I’m talking about that weird synth that acts as the main motif. It’s unsettling, confusing and even annoying the first times you are getting familiar with the song. It could belong to an industrial track; it interrupts the flow, and it’s impossible not to pay attention to it. When it goes away in the pre-chorus and the bridge, replaced by a smooth synth (as the vocal melody also turns calmer), it brings a sense of relief and the needed balance the song needs.
Just like the lyrics that talk about skins peeling off, the music also peels off the noise and, in the video, we see them both in a sensual, cinematic black-and-white performance as well as a relaxing, casual kind of footage. Duality is part of the whole concept of this era, but it isn’t so much about the neat result of revealing yourself and instead more about the messy, tiring process to do so. —Juana Giaimo
Instinct, Pt. 2 is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“BOP BOP!” by VIVIZ [BPM]
GFRIEND’s last few releases had begun to push their musical and aesthetic identity forward in interesting ways, but that evolution was cut off prematurely by their disbandment, one of the saddest K-pop shocks of 2021. VIVIZ isn’t exactly GFRIEND reincarnate—it would be neither successful nor fair if all former members Eunha, SinB, and Umji tried to do was copy their past work—but the trio are still picking that mantle back up in their own way, looking forward while at the same time recognizing the musical legacy that brought them here. It’s exciting to think of all the new directions the group can explore in the future, with many more comebacks finally ahead of them. But for the time being, VIVIZ has begun with the most important thing of all—an undeniable bop.
“BOP BOP!” picks up where GFRIEND’s last one left off. Whereas “MAGO” felt like a witchy, earnest, even magical take on nu-disco, “BOP BOP!” is a more breezy and light-hearted version of K-pop’s favorite retro trend. Releasing a song with lyrics about how good the song is can be a risky setup, but both the producers and performers involved know how to pull it off. Lead composer and arranger Im Suho, better known as Iggy of Iggy Youngbae, has worked on many GFRIEND title tracks before this. And when it comes to translating the music into performance, the ladies know exactly what they’re doing on stage, selling this track’s fun choreo with just the right amount of energy. (By the way, if watching the live stages doesn’t forcibly transform you into an Umji bias… you may not have eyes?) The music feels fresh—groovy bass line + synth strings is a winning combo, especially with good vocals layered over the top—but everyone falls into their parts with a comforting sense of familiarity. “BOP BOP!” finds plenty of time for dynamic switch-ups as well, especially in that explosive two-part chorus. It may be stuffed with playful layers of sound, but the song never feels too flat or busy.
If anything, the carefree mood downplays how much was riding on this re-debut. Recovering from a depressing disbandment after a year-long break, rebuilding a brand under a new name after signing to an untested small company, and holding onto a fandom while establishing an updated sound are all tricky tasks. Of course the GFRIEND legacy gave VIVIZ a head start, but debut success is extremely delicate and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Thankfully, the commercial signs post-release are positive: they’re selling well and have already got their first music show win as a trio. But just as important for this debut was regaining momentum, proving to fans that they can still trust the group to deliver quality releases in the future and the dividing line between 2020 GFRIEND and 2022 VIVIZ doesn’t have to mean everything. In this regard, “BOP BOP!” is a perfect move: It’s uplifting, something old and something new, and one of the best K-pop title tracks of the year so far. —Kayla Beardslee
Beam of Prism is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“YOUNG LUV” by STAYC [High Up]
“RUN2U” is the single for the latest comeback, and it’s the right choice, especially in the context of the K-pop machine that has professionalized pop music to the point of overstimulation. But “YOUNG LUV” is incredibly special, making the feelings of precious, intimate, youthful heartbreak sound absolutely massive and somehow romantic.
“YOUNG LUV” takes advantage of a K-pop girl group having multiple members to play the different facets of young heartbreak—the bigness of the emotion vs. the way that the loneliness makes you feel small; the logical brain that knows that your first love isn’t the only love you’ll have vs. the irrational part that still feels like this; and the internal, private heartbreak vs. the “I’m fine” exterior. I think my favorite part is the last bit of this, where Yoon and Sieun spend the bridge belting as if heartbreak were the end of the world, before it all drops out and J apologizes, “anyway, sorry for my young love,” earnestly embarrassed, as if she’s trying to excuse that internal angst as just a silly little aside. Young love does feel hard, sometimes needlessly so, and often, no one’s at fault—when you’re young you both feel too much and also don’t know how to say what you need to say out loud. You’re young enough to believe it should hurt that much! It feels silly when you get older, but that feeling is so painfully sincere and comes from a place of innocent, genuine sweetness. Never before has fumbling around felt so polished, but STAYC girls are something special. —Crystal Leww
YOUNG-LUV.COM is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
You can find Crystal on Twitter.
“O.O” by NMIXX [JYP]
O.O is the most confusing K-pop song I’ve heard in YEARS. And that's a compliment.
JYP’s new girl group literally blasts onto the scene with staccato trumpet blasts, ominous synths and a heavy baile funk drum beat and dubstep fused with reggaeton, played in a bombed-out future metropolis with a whale foghorning somewhere off the coast. You have a feisty talk-rap verse followed by an ascending hook and a chant-y chorus.
At this point, you’re probably thinking “okay, I’ve heard this one before.” And it’s at this point—one minute and 13 seconds into the song—that the record stalls and stops, the electric guitars surface and suddenly, you’re listening to a sunny pop-rock number which legit sounds like a party on the beach at the end of a teen summer movie. It’s cute and bouncy, and you’re like, “okay, interesting,” but just as you get used to it, you’re unceremoniously dropped back into synth dystopia, your fall soundtracked by some serious belting from the main vocal. Then you’re zooming through the hook and post-chorus, with the baile funk giving way to a looming dubstep beat, and then the song ends with some final declarative trumpet blasts and the girls standing in salute after tearing up the dance floor. What a ride.
The song’s unpredictability helps it to stand out from other groups’ singles that are also aggressive dance tracks made for powerful stage performances. And it’s also just really fun: while there’s an inherent satisfaction in listening to songs that follow a typical pop song structure, a shake-up of the format is always welcome as it is surprisingly rare in today’s K-pop. If they keep surprising listeners, they might just be the spark that the industry needs to push it into a bold new era. —Anjy Ou
See also: “WOULD YOU RUN” by TRI.BE; “PTT (Paint The Town)” by LOONA (if you like the baile funk section); “I Don’t Miss U” by woo!ah! (if you like the cute pop-rock section); “I GOT A BOY” by Girls’ Generation (if you like the whiplash)
You can find Anjy on Twitter.
This Week in 2010…
“Run Devil Run” by Girls’ Generation [SM, 2010]
The repackaging proved to be a brilliant move. “Run Devil Run” reinvigorated an album buoyed by its title track, “Oh!,” that stood slight against its massive preceding hits, “Gee” and “Genie.” It would be a tall order for any idol group trying to best that one-two punch, let alone just the former single that put the group on the map while capturing the zeitgeist. The idols, however, were due for a different concept after a few years of bubbly synth-disco. And “Run Devil Run” didn’t just deliver a fresh new look for SNSD: it flipped the script entirely to display a fierce, adult image for the idols.
“Run Devil Run” observes a stark change in narrative. Once pining for attention from their crush, ready to fulfill their every wish in exchange, the idols now seethe with rage and disgust after learning of betrayal from the very person they once hotly desired. Their ex hides their crime with a particularly nasty tactic: “The many men in your cellphone / are all women that had one letter changed,” Taeyeon claims before Tiffany goes off on the scent of another person’s perfume stuck on them. Their once-elated vocals hush into a no-bullshit delivery as they put this playboy on the chopping block, emphasizing how this melodrama is nothing to laugh about.
The production sounds just as icy and vengeful. The disco beat chills into steely R&B with touches of dance-pop that echoes Britney Spears post-Blackout. Trance synths buzz throughout, but the standout sound are those bone-snapping drums that don’t suggest the dance floor as much as the runway in which the idols march to take the playboy by the throat. The tense music doesn’t offer much of a peak nor valley as if it’s locked into the idols’ dead stare, and the vacant space exaggerates even the smallest rise in their furious voice. The titular chorus especially devastates as the implications of revenge becomes more and more haunting as they let the hook linger, dragging the words as if the idols are giving them time to flee on purpose.
Girls’ Generation elaborate more on the personality introduced in “Run Devil Run” in the follow-up singles. The idols return to disco in “Hoot,” but they don’t let their guard down as they once again put their significant other on trial. They get louder and flashier on “The Boys” both in music and personality, becoming more untouchable in stature. Considering how much they’ve grown in celebrity since, “Run Devil Run” fascinates from the idols actually appearing within reach as one of us: it sounds humorous now to hear world-conquering icons like them so worked up over the scent of someone else’s perfume, singing about “becoming more fabulous” as the best form of revenge. Their cheat of a crush is now a bygone memory as they’ve gone to bigger, better pastures, and honestly, good riddance.
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Not to mention the other subunit, WJSN the Black, that debuted in between the first and second Chocome singles. The Black put together Seola, Bona, Exy and Eunseo into a group that outfitted them in super-sleek, flirty R&B. While their brand of sexiness doubled down on the lush, stylized visuals of the main group, it also emphasized an even more vast aesthetic gap of Chocome in comparison to their peers.