When rumors of the possible disbandment of JYP's exemplary Sino-Korean girl group, Miss A, began to circulate months ago, I took some time to revisit one of the best groups I've never written about, particularly their last full LP, Hush, an underrated gem of sleek dance-pop. After the recent departures of 2NE1 and the Wonder Girls, losing Miss A would make this winter one of the most bittersweet in KPop history.
This month, SM's cherubic quintet was thrown to the pop-loving masses once more with another batch of cute but oddly disruptive pure pop, their new E.P. Rookie, and its cheeky title track. Since their inception, Red Velvet has rocketed in popularity, and now one of KPop's top three girl groups, along with Twice and Blackpink, dishing out edgy classics like "Ice Cream Cake" and "Dumb Dumb". "Rookie" is the latest that string, but with an unexpected childish boisterousness one would expect more from Crayon Pop. Are these the same kids that did the timeless "Automatic?"
The manifest dual personality conceptualized for the group - "Red" for punchy pure pop, "Velvet" for smoother midtempo and ballads - has seemingly been tossed aside since their saccharine blockbuster "Russian Roulette," perhaps due to the percieved KPop fans' lack of patience for girl group ballads. While possibly saving SM the financial burden of promoting tracks that may not appeal to rabid teenagers, it at least gave the quintet an annual opportunity to showcase their more mature sensibilities, and primarily their vocal strengths with songs like "Be Natural," "7월 7일," and the flawless "Automatic."
Along comes "Rookie," the new single, their perkiest yet most musically disruptive track yet, and instead of combining the smooth and upbeat sides of the group and displaying a maturing of their musical style, it takes them down a cutesy, cheeky path reminiscent of Crayon Pop, so much so that many were completely blindsided by the track and its Lewis Carroll inspired video. Loud, punchy, cheerleaderesque, "Rookie" assaults you with girlish chanting, bad but adorable Engrish ("lookie lookie"), odd sleek twists and turns, call and response, and an almost athletically energetic vocal pace.
There isn't the slightest hint of "Velvet" in "Rookie," instead a furthering of the dollish toy-like presentation of their art. Whereas their sunbaes SNSD and f(x) take the stage as human beings, even artists, through a maturing of style and sheer magnetic charisma, Red Velvet more and more resemble puppets, SM's windup toys, locked in an almost prepubescent persona. That doesn't make them any less entertaining, of course, as Red Velvet is clearly one of the most vocally talented and visually striking ensembles in all of Asia.
The reaction to "Rookie" of many listeners, as seen on comments on forums and conversations is all too familiar to anyone hearing or seeing a "Red" song or video for the first time. They assault you with their cuteness, energy and somewhat pugilistic songs: the volcanic lead-in to the rockish "Ice Cream Cake" chorus, the staccato vocal scales that introduce "Dumb Dumb" and the sputtering "heartbeatbeatbeatbeat" of "Russian Roulette" are just some examples. In "Rookie" they talk-sing over a popping tribal rhythm track, cheerful playground chanting over the chorus, with their hermetic harmonies springing in at unexpected spots here and there. You have to collect yourself and listen again. It's almost too much to take at once, and surely upon repeated listens, the song insinuates itself into your sensibilities, leaving you singing the incipid but delicious parts of it in your head, and hitting the replay button. Its disjointed composition might just be a result of the number of composers credited on the track: Jamil 'Digi' Chammas, Leven Kali, Sara Forsberg, Karl Powell, Harrison Johnson, MZMC, Otha 'Vakseen' Davis III and Tay Jasper with lyrics by Jo Yoon-kyung.
There are some notable musical aspects about the song, but more than any Red Velvet single to date, the vocals completely drive it, and unrelentingly so. Vocally, the three main vocalists, Wendy, Joy and particularly Seulgi, do the heavy lifting, handling the more challenging and subtle parts, while Yeri and Irene provide the popping girlish charm, both in the song and the surreal video. While not as gifted vocally as Wendy and Seulgi, Irene's signature style, made famous by the inexplicable Michael Jackson rap tribute in "Dumb Dumb" - her smirking Mona Lisa charm - works magic here, in the song, and especially in the video. Irene always sounds and looks like she's got your number, centering the group with a quiet magnetism that is unusual in KPop. (Though not unlike this site's bias maknae, the enigmatic Jung Soojung.)
Still not as iconic or timeless as "Dumb Dumb," "Ice Cream Cake" or "Automatic" and a little too cutesy for many, "Rookie" is an interesting new chapter in the development of South Korea's state-of-the-art girl group, Red Velvet.
The E.P. (or minialbum), by the way, is highly recommended. Aside from the title track, there are some vocally acrobatic gems on it, particularly "Happily Ever After," "Talk To Me," and the etherial "Body Talk." Had I to choose, I would have chosen "Body Talk" as the single, but "Rookie" is the most arresting, and by now it seems that is exactly the style they want Red Velvet to embody. If you enjoy lush airtight harmonies and vocal arrangements on top of dynamic pure pop, Rookie deserves your attention. Irene quietly demands it.