Sunny Hill came back last week with "Monday Blues," and while impressing some fans, further alienated others. Where is the subversive, political Sunny Hill that we fell in love with not so long ago? Are they gone (gasp!) forever? Well, relax. They're not gone. Sunny Hill is back. And if not better than ever, they're pretty close to being just as good, if not exactly what their devoted fans are clamoring for.
Midnight Circus. The Grasshopper Song. Is the White Horse Coming? Ask any Sunny Hill fan why they love Sunny Hill and they'll spout these names religiously. As well they should. Those three music videos have the unenviable task of being three of the best Kpop videos ever. Yes, ever. "Midnight Circus" is a feast for the eyes. Visual Thanksgiving. "The Grasshopper Song" is a combination of excellent pop coupled with a brilliantly dense video and concept. And "Is the White Horse Coming?" is devilishly cutting, both in lyrics and guitar riffs. It would be very hard to equal, let alone better these concepts, especially with Janghyun, who many consider a musical genius, leaving the group for years to fulfill his military commitments ("Is the White Horse Coming" came out after his departure), and then, upon his return, eventually leaving the group entirely.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. As brilliant as Janghyun is, Sunny Hill does not live and die on just his whim. In fact, after his departure, the best/worst thing that could have possibly happened to Sunny Hill actually happened. This:
"Goodbye to Romance" was a dramatic departure from the group's previous music, a ballad, syrupy sweet and sublime. And it was a hit. A big hit. To some, it was too big of a hit. Because, to some, it completely shifted what it meant to be Sunny Hill. It didn't add another dimension to the group, it was as if they were suddenly handcuffed. That's the narrative many fans believe in.
Except how handcuffed were they, really? I say some, but am not excluding myself for once believing that narrative (see: Underrated: Sunny Hill). Yes, their songs after "Goodbye to Romance" hovered towards love and heartbreak, but they all did it in a uniquely subversive way. Their collaboration with DAYBREAK, "Love Actually," takes the romantic masculine ideal and pushes it to the extreme, resulting in goofiness.
"Darling of All Hearts," while similar tonally to the lighthearted "Love Actually," actually serves as the anti-love love song, where, gradually, Sunny Hill realizes that they're just fine with being alone.
My point is this: subversion can take on many different forms. And though Sunny Hill took a turn away from confronting larger societal constructs, they kept their counter-culture take on society and placed that microscope over romance. Even the saccharine surface of "Goodbye to Romance" is muted by the thoughtful lyrics and what they entail: "Your three lettered name filled a notebook. Even though I didn't have enough courage to give it to you. My heart fluttered whenever I think of your name." We slowly realize that this character never actually had a romance with their crush, so close yet so faraway. The irony is that there really is no concrete romance to say goodbye to. The real goodbye is to the childhood fantasy, the idea of romance.
"Don't Say Anything" is the song that not only was a departure from Sunny Hill's music, but also their ethos. It's not a terrible song by any stretch, it's actually quite solid, but in many ways it happens to be one of Sunny Hill's worst. Stripped of the sly irony and awareness that made them so elite, we instead have a video that falls deep into the depths of melodrama.
This video's concept didn't come out of nowhere. It can be looked at as a transition song, being their last as a co-ed group (preview video, "Once in Summer" was more the same, with less tears). It's almost like a farewell to Sunny Hill as you knew them.
Or was it?
Which brings us back to "Monday Blues." The video seems remarkably different from Sunny Hill's early videos, veering closer to "Darling of All Hearts" than to "The Grasshopper Song." Again, there's an undertone of romantic (and in "Monday Blues," more sexual) frustration.
Seung Ah is able to stretch her comedic expressions, which are truly underrated, Kota, her natural sex appeal which are again, underrated. Jubi and Misung alternate between flustered and bored at their mundane work. The girls eventually band together, take over the office, and cause outright mayhem because work sucks.
The song itself is a funkier mix than any of their previous song, and requires far less of a vocal range than their recent ballads. Fans are complaining about that too, but are they so quick to forget that Sunny Hill's very best songs, "Midnight Circus," or better yet, "The Grasshopper Song," weren't exactly vocal masterpieces? Listen to them again, and tell me how reputable auto-tune is.
While we're on the topic, let's take a look at "The Grasshopper Song."
Forgetting for a moment that this is one of the best Kpop videos ever, let's break the story down. An overworked, unhappy ant gets a glimpse of a beautiful grasshopper, falls in love with her, realizes the futility of his constantly-working existence, tries to sneak into her more fun and rebellious world, gets a taste of it, before getting caught and thrown out. But then, with a new determination, he leaves his unfulfilling life, finds the grasshopper, and they embrace under an umbrella, in love.
Here's the kicker, the fact that flies in the face of Sunny Hill's recent detractors. When you break down the story and the message, "The Grasshopper Song" is really not that different from "Monday Blues." Scratch that, they're practically the same. Both are commenting on society: freedom winning over oppression. Both videos have characters that flirt with the idea of something better. Both have frustrations with love and desire. Both insist that play is as important as work. The message of "Monday Blues," is vintage Sunny Hill. The difference lies in the execution. "The Grasshopper Song" is a whimsical, brilliantly developed fairy tale, "Monday Blues," is a far more literal workday farce.
Therein lies the true disagreement between Sunny Hill and their frustrated fans. It's not that Sunny Hill has lost their biting social commentary, it's that they're presenting it in a less fantastical, symbolic way. An edge has been lost, certainly, but the counter-culture drive is still very alive. This concept is a step back in the right direction. The farther away they get from concepts like "Don't Say Anything" the better, and while "Monday Blues" may not be in the same league as their best videos (or PSY's "Right Now," with a similar message, done better), apocalyptic naysayers decrying the loss of Sunny Hill's fire should look a bit closer, and enjoy a fun, catchy song. Because Sunny Hill is back. Seriously.
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.