Red Velvet, as you must know, has been making headlines all week. Some of the news has been stellar: Red Velvet already has a strong fan following with many netizens that would vehemently defend them. "Happiness" has already been a hit on many Kpop charts, which is impressive for any rookie group, even with tremendous money behind them. Some of the news has been atrocious: in just one week, Red Velvet has insulted both the US and Japan, been accused of stealing a logo, and have been cursed for supplanting the popular but disappearing f(x). It's probably the most whirlwind debut we've ever seen. Which is why we've given this review some time to simmer with us. We wanted to take a look at "Happiness" on its own terms, coming from a rookie Kpop group. With emotions so high and so wide, that can be hard to do.
But let's try, shall we?
Okay, here's the thing. I was skeptical about the song (and honestly, about Red Velvet), mostly because of the cheesy teasers and rushed release. The big lips at the beginning of the video, declaring, "Sometimes, you gotta be bold. Just rock the world. Booyah!" is pure cheese. But when this song gets going, it's hard not to love it. It's super catchy, rhythmic, and lively. It stays with you, begging to be played over and over again. It's fun. There's just so much thrown into the song, there's the Caribbean feel to the music, but there's also vocals that quickly fly by - Red Velvet is practically (and mostly) rapping until they hit the chorus and the song just explodes with synchronicity and unabashed happiness.
"Happiness" also shares a deeper message than the cutesy video implies. It's all about living a happier, better life than old people who have lost their way. Here are some lines, translated in English: "This money, that power. Only following that, those adults look depressed. Those people are truly not happy." Or: "You’ll have a lot of regrets when you’re an adult." Followed by a: "I’m a little different. I believe in the strength of optimism."
The song isn't just a condemnation of Korean society (Though it's surprisingly biting with lines like "...take out the adults who do nothing but fight on TV.") It's a celebration of youthful exuberance, in the shadow of all the hardships in the world. And that gives the song dimension.
One word came to mind when watching this video. Phantasmagoria. Which, according to Merriam, means a confusing or strange scene that is like a dream because it is always changing in an odd way.
In many ways, even without the edited out controversies, this is a strange video. Much of the video serves as a living collage, with the members of Red Velvet interacting with these paper worlds. It's almost pop art, but more haphazard (like the controversial WWII clippings) and far less ironic. That being said, there are some images that are just visually stunning. I'm talking about the kaleidoscope images, the girls interacting with the skylines, the living portraits.
But in the end, coupled with the manic, ultimately forgettable choreography in the jungle, none of it really comes together. The video is a mess, and a lot of that has to do with, I'm sure, the rush to get these girls out there. I can buy the cheerleader outfits because they feel like they're cheering you, the viewer, on. But the random gummy bear? Not sure why we needed that. And though I loved Wendy's impressive solo, transporting her to a performance stage with spotlights? Doesn't really fit the concept. Whatever that concept is.
The concept also suffers by not doing enough to differentiate the members. We get some color coordination, some moments for each of them to shine (like Wendy's solo), and they each have charisma and confidence. But SM didn't help themselves by dressing them the same, especially with the girls all being long haired brunettes. That is, if SM even wanted them to distinguish themselves with "Happiness." There's an uniformity to the group that feels intentional. Like the group is stronger than the individual.
Still, the more avid fan will differentiate the members, and even I can tell say that, after repeated viewings, Irene will probably be my favorite. But it's hard to tell because the girls are just so new.
Which brings me to my last point. It might not seem like it, but Red Velvet isn't even a week old. The timeline of victories and controversies seems to have been accelerated with the group, but some perspective should be gleamed. Were the WWII and 9/11 controversies stupid and completely avoidable? Absolutely. But three years from now, do you really think that people will still hold that against the group? And yes, the song is impressive, but is it one of the best songs of the year? Probably not. Red Velvet probably aren't even the rookies of the year, but they should still be judged on the basis of their rookie status. Anti-fans should stop being so negative and fans should stop being so defensive. They're new. They're raw. They're young, and they'll get better. But for now, there's nothing catastrophic with having a great song and a mess of a concept resulting in a solid:
Timothy Moore writes from Chicago. He blogs at Read My Blog Please, and edits at Ghost Ocean Magazine. His biases are T-ara, Block B, Nine Muses, Brown Eyed Girls, and Girl's Day.