By: Hannah Waitt
moonROK Found and Editor-in-chief
I will premise this review by saying that f(x) is one of my favorite groups in K-pop. They’ve always had this eclectic aura about them that seems to be the result of five very different girls coming together to form this strange and yet alluring group that deviates from the K-pop norm. A large part of f(x)’s draw is their global appeal; they are one of the only major K-pop groups I can think of where foreigners outnumber native Koreans (if you count Krystal being Korean-American as foreign), and it is reflected in their sound. “Rum Pum Pum Pum” is one of the least K-pop sounding K-pop songs of all time, and is (in my humble opinion) also one of the best K-pop songs of all time. Because their last single and their last album, Pink Tape, were both so great, I had really high expectations for Red Light. Check out the track-by-track review below to see if those expectations were met.
1) Red Light
The first time I heard the single, I hated it. It’s chaotic, unorganized, and sounds like four different songs that were thrown together in one big discombobulated jumble and given the name “Red Light.” However, the song started to grow on me the more I analyzed it. The chaos and disjointedness of the song is intentional. “Red Light” induces this sense of panic, which I think is ultimately the goal. The song starts out with a clap beat that simulates the sound of a marching army and a synthesizer that simulates the sound of an alarm. The lyrics of “Red Light” talk about there being an emergency and resultant destruction, and the song actually does a good job reflecting that message. For example, the monotonous, robotic, and speedy verses that I initially found annoying simulate the sound of an emergency announcement on an intercom system that you might hear in a prison or on an army base – it’s almost as if the girls of f(x) are barking orders at you over a megaphone while an alarm blares in the background, and it’s stressful to hear. Then the 808 comes in and you sort of regain your footing on the song, right before f(x) snatches the floor right back out from under you with an intense four-on-the-floor chorus with another dissonant alarm overwhelming the song from the background. The more you listen to “Red Light” the more you get used to the structure of the song and less confused by the transitions into different parts of it.
While I think that the way f(x) has achieved their objective to make you feel panicked and stressed with this song is very cool, it is not my favorite f(x) single. The music video and choreography are both badass – there’s no doubt about that; but the song itself just doesn’t match up to “Rum Pum Pum Pum,” which was in my opinion, the group’s best song yet. The members of f(x) have really unique and interesting vocals, and this song doesn’t give them a chance at all to show them off. Most of the song is auto-tuned talk-singing, and when there actually is a melody line, it doesn’t stray too far in range or scale. The bridge does a really nice job spotlighting Luna and Amber’s voices for about 20 seconds, but then the song reverts right back to the electronic jumble that it started out as.
SM has always made sure to advertise the fact that f(x) is eccentric and hip and different from other K-pop groups, but I think this song just takes it a little too far. Again, I love the concept of the song and the idea of using music to make the listener really feel the message that the song is conveying through lyrics (because at the core of it, that’s the point of music), but “Red Light” just feels a little to intentionally stressful for my taste.
To me, this song is f(x). It’s eclectic in that it draws from a variety of global musical styles ,most notably, from Indian music; it’s quirky in that you would never hear another K-pop group perform this song; and it’s pop enough to be kosher in the mainstream Korean music market while still maintaining a more global, indie feel to it that makes the track appealing to international listeners who tend to consume a more diverse spectrum of musical genres. I almost want “Milk” to be the single for the album, but I also understand why SM wouldn’t want that – it sounds too much like “Rum Pum Pum Pum.” To make “Milk” the album’s single would corner f(x) into being the “quirky world music” group of K-pop, which would be cool, but also confining. Part of the beauty of K-pop is this engrained tradition of the “concept;” the idea that for each comeback, a group has to show its progression by wearing differently themed performance outfits and singing different musical genres that the group has done before. If you think about it, when Katy Perry makes a comeback, she doesn’t make any sort of announcement like, “In the past I’ve done cute, sexy, and military concepts, so this time around I’ll be showing my charms through a totally new concept of youthful innocence,” and yet every K-pop group comeback announcement contains a statement in this exact format. f(x) has done a good job of maintaining their quirky-yet-cool hipster image without being cornered into a specific genre of music, which is pretty amazing to me considering everything that could have gone wrong in the process. But I digress. All this is to say that despite how much I love “Milk,” I understand why SM would have this be f(x)’s accompanying performance track to “Red Light,” instead of the other way around. It reinforces their global appeal without making them completely about it.
“Butterfly” is a much more traditional pop song than the other tracks on the album have been so far. The track’s beat and synth pattern very much remind me of Girls’ Generation’s “Oscar,” which is a good thing because that song is awesome. “Butterfly” is cool in that the verses are dark in atmosphere and minor in key, but then the chorus comes in and lifts the listener into this ambient, psychedelic groove until the next verse. Overall “Butterfly” is a really good song, and is one of the B-side standouts on the album.
I love this song. The melody line is extremely well written, the beat is dope, and the transition from urban hip-hop to pop is so smooth from the verse to the chorus that you almost don’t even realize that it’s happening. Again, this song mixes three distinct parts and sounds together, but it does so way more fluidly than “Red Light” does. For the last verse the beat even goes double-time into a Latin, Pitbull redolent anthem, and does so seamlessly before transitioning back to the original hip-hop beat. The one thing that keeps me from giving this song a big fat gold star, is that despite being this super dope, MIA-esque, genre-bending banger, the song is about….rainbows. When Amber says the line “what’s that moojigae” it sounds so hard and so tough and one minute you’re in the car jamming the song going “AW YEEE” and the next minute you realize that the translation of her line is, “what’s that rainbow,” and you can’t help but cringe.
5) All Night
Grab your bell-bottoms and platforms, because “All Night” is a straight-up disco track. The Beegees very well could have written and sung this song in the ‘70s and it would have been a hit in the dance clubs. The melody and its accompanying harmonies are luxurious, sexy, and vintage without going so retro that the song is irrelevant to the younger generation. The song itself is really simple, but such is the nature of disco. For those who don’t know, disco was actually the first musical genre that was specifically created with the intent of being listened to in public. The whole purpose of disco was to create simple, pop melodies that were easy to follow and catchy enough to get people out of their houses, away from their car radios, and into clubs and onto the dancefloor, and “All Night” fits the disco formula perfectly. The nature of the song fits well with f(x)’s hipster image, despite deviating from the album’s aggressive start.
“Vacance” is a pretty meh song for me. It’s clearly disco-influenced as seen by the roof-raising “ooh ooh”s at the beginning of each line. However, unlike “All Night,” “Vacance” doesn’t go full disco, so rather than sounding like another cool genre-bending track that straddles pop and disco (which is what I assume the intent was), it sounds more like a track that didn’t really commit one way or the other and got caught in an awkward space in between the two. The song actually sounds like a mash-up of SHINee’s “Why So Serious” and “Burning Down the House” by The Talking Heads. I get what “Vacance” is trying to accomplish and I admire the attempt to diversify the group’s sound by incorporating different genres, but it just doesn’t quite work out this time.
7) Spit It Out
The beginning of “Spit It Out” is really solid with Sulli and Amber’s rap part, but in the end this is an average B-side filler track for me. The fast tempo of the verses and the intense electronic breakdown is a little overwhelming in the same way that the “Rainbow Road” level of MarioKart is overwhelming – it’s just a lot of bright colors and high pitched noises coming at you at once. This song is almost a more chaotic version of “Electric Shock.” I do think that this song is a good example of something I’ve noticed about this album as a whole. Until this album, Krystal was very much the definitive voice of f(x). What I mean by this is that you could recognize any song as an f(x) song as soon as you heard her – Krystal’s was the dominant voice in the chorus of each song. This time around I feel that Luna and Amber are both becoming a stronger presence within the group. They have of course always been a talented vocalists, there’s no doubt about that. But for this album, in “Spit It Out” and in many other tracks (including “Red Light”), their voices are being given more weight in the balance of all five voices in the chorus than they were before.
8) Boom Bang Boom
“Vacance” and “Spit It Out” were both mediocre to decent tracks, but “Boom Bang Boom,” starts to get the album back on track a bit. It’s still not a standout track, but it’s more interesting and innovative than the previous two tracks. Parts of it are very much aligned with f(x) as a group – the cutesy yet somehow dark xylophone introduction and the use of 8-bit highlight accents especially feel representative of the group’s image. While I love the song “All Night,” beginning with that track the album as a whole goes off into this weird tangent that strays away from the cohesive, urban sound that f(x) establishes with the first four tracks, and “Boom Bang Boom” finally starts to steer the album back in the right direction.
“Dracula” is an interesting track. On the one hand, the song is pretty cheesy; the horror movie screams, Michael Jackson “Thriller”-like introduction, and evil sounding organ are over the top and make the song seem a little too seasonal. It sounds like a track that was written specifically for a Halloween party, but I mean what do you expect from a song with the title “Dracula”? On the other hand, the melody line is really well written and very catchy, and the doo doo doos in the chorus are especially infectious. I wish that they had been more conservative with the instrumentation of this track because the song could be great, but instead it just comes off as a corny Halloween song. The topline is incredible and the track underneath it doesn’t do it justice.
10) Summer Lover
This is another song with a good topline and melody. The second line of the verse takes an unexpected turn, with the chord progression modulating in a unique and sort of psychedelic-sounding manner, providing a pleasant surprise to what would otherwise be a pretty cut-and-dry pop song. Krystal’s valley girl “Oh my gosh!” in the introduction is a little corny, but other than that “Summer Lover” is a solid pop song. At times it can sound a little bit like a full cast number out of High School Musical, but that just comes with the territory of a pop song sometimes. My only real criticism would be that this song is the exact opposite of “Red Light” in almost every way. When considered in the full body of work that is the album “Red Light,” “Summer Lover” is another track that strays away from the dark, mature, and aggressive path that the first four songs established as the direction of the album. It’s hard to dock too many points though, because it is pretty typical of a K-pop group to pack as many genres as possible into one album to appeal to as many listeners as possible. f(x) does a good job of maintaining a unique identity as a group through the singles that they perform, so they can probably be a little bit more liberal with their inclusion of vastly different genres in the rest of the album.
11) Paper Heart
If “Summer Lover” is the exact opposite of “Red Light,” I don’t even know what “Paper Heart” is. If you were listening to your iPod on shuffle and this song come on, your friends would probably think that it was a Taylor Swift song. Everything about “Paper Heart” is pop country; from the banjo plucking out an eerily similar part to Swift’s “Love Story” to the electric guitar strumming out the chords in the chorus to the very melody line itself. The song itself is fine and good, but it is completely out of left field. Try to imagine f(x) singing this song in their most recent music video instead of “Red Light” – it doesn’t make much sense. Again, I can’t discount the girls of f(x) personally for this because it probably wasn’t their choice to include the song on the album. In this sense, all K-pop album reviews are often as much a criticism (or praise, as the case may be) of entertainment agencies as they are of the actual idols who sing the songs, because more often than not, it is the A&R team at the company who chooses the album track list, not the actual members of the group. I like the song, but “Paper Heart” really feels like a bunch of A&R people were sitting around in a conference room thinking, hmmm, what genre have we NOT included on the album so far? I’ve got it! Country!!!
As an album, “Red Light” starts out really strong. The girls have this new, cutting-edge, aggressive image and sound that set the tone for “Red Light” during the first few songs, but as the album continues, it branches off into random genres and styles that really don’t do the group justice. As much as I hated the single at first, “Red Light” certainly starts the album out with a bang, and it’s energy and inertia only last for the first four songs before the album starts to go downhill. Including songs like “All Night” and “Vacance” are understandable because of the retro-R&B/disco sound that are so trendy right now, but “Dracula” and “Paper Heart” bring the album to a close with a less impressive fizzle.
Tags: Amber f(x) Krystal Luna Red Light Review Sulli Victoria