Album review #2: “왜 (Keep Your Head Down)” – 동방신기

I’m a little hesitant in writing this review, primarily because I didn’t follow DBSK’s comeback performances as closely as I did for SHINee’s “Lucifer” for my last review. Part of this is due to geographical limitations (in that, there is no such thing as free, available wi-fi when you’re living with your grandparents in Taiwan), and part of this is due to the fact that the live performances for “왜 (Keep Your Head Down)”  – henceforth known as “Why” – just weren’t as dynamic as those for “Lucifer” and I didn’t feel like keeping up. (I called it quits when they started appearing on M! Countdown. Dedicating oneself to watching four performances a week…that’s practically marriage.)

And part of it is just because I’m a lazy bum that has spent her winter break eating food and melting her brain cells away on the int3rw3bz. Which gives me no excuse to not write this review, I suppose.


1. CONCEPT/STYLING.

You know, I’d love it if every boyband with an average age over 22 would regularly dress like grown-ups, instead of this:

…but even I’ll admit that it’s really boring to see a quarter of all K-pop artists in suits all the time. Regardless, I shouldn’t have to spend an eternity staring at concept photos and waiting for my brain to find them aesthetically pleasing. For f(x)’s “NU ABO,” this took about three days. SHINee’s “Lucifer” took five days. But DBSK’s “Why”? Well, folks, we’re at seventeen days and counting.

I’m beginning to get the idea that stylists are keen on putting potentially fugly things on their artists, hoping that someone will call it “edgy” and make it a trend. It’s how the fashion industry thrives, after all. But there’s got to be a certain threshold at which sunbae artists should escape from the stylists’ laboratory. Artists like DBSK, BoA, and Kangta have been around for way too long to be wearing the same stuff that their hoobaes are wearing – which will therefore cause the general public to take them as seriously as they take their hoobaes. Image is everything. A celebrity’s outward appearance is a reflection of his merit as an artist. If his outward appearance is an experimental, fugly mess, then the public is going to view his music and talent in the same way.

Maybe it’s presumptuous to say that DBSK should no longer be considered an idol group – especially since the three “real musicians” of the group have since departed. Or maybe one only graduates from idoldom after he returns from military service. I don’t think there’s a solid definition for what constitutes idoldom and what doesn’t. But it looks like SM’s really going with the whole “phoenix-rises-from-the-ashes-after-two-years-and-three-months” theme here. And when you emerge from the Ashes of Legal Suckdom, play it up, dammit! The reason why BoA’s 10th anniversary comeback was so lackluster is because a) they made her promote at the same time as SHINee, and b) they gave her material that was only as good as SHINee’s material. Result? BoA lost her chance to claim the crown of K-pop Queen. Instead, she ended up competing with her juniors.

SM’s taking the exact same route with DBSK, with the added twist that this is supposedly the “return of the king” – a proclamation that’s cheaply exemplified through gaudy styling, a ridiculously epic-sounding lead single, and constant high wire usage. At this rate, no one’s gonna take DBSK seriously as a K-pop group, let alone a K-pop legend. Give them good music and a concept that belongs on this planet and that’s all you need! Yeesh. To be honest, I’ve always liked how K-pop puts so much emphasis on having a “concept” because it provides a point of focus for every promotion effort and keeps things neat. But lately, I’ve gotten so fed up with it because everyone is screwing it up. K-pop styling has become less of a visual interpretation of the music and more of a laboratory for ugly attempts at high fashion.

I do like the capes, though.

—★—

2. “WHY” MUSIC VIDEO.

Whoooo, more matrix camera effects! That’s not getting old or anything.

It’s another SM video, but surprisingly, it doesn’t exactly stick to SM’s usual music video formula (two to three full group shots, one solo shot for each member, and, at times, one “storyline” shot). But don’t expect too much – the only differences are in the addition of a few extra sets and costume changes in the solo shots. It’s the SM Music Video Formula, 2.0, really.

There was really nothing special about this MV. And when I say that, I mean there was really nothing special about this MV. As in, it took me three attempts to watch this video all the way through because I got bored and closed out halfway through on attempts one and two. The MV structure isn’t interesting to begin with, and on top of that, the lipsynching was bad, the CG was terrible and the members looked really unattractive. I discussed the styling in the long-winded section above. The color coordination was pretty good, though. I don’t have much else to say other than that.

—★—

3. PERFORMANCE AND CHOREOGRAPHY.

I’ve already owned up to the fact that I haven’t been “monitoring” (K-pop speak: watching every frigging performance of) “Why” on a regular basis. Not because the live performances aren’t any good – DBSK does live performances like no other, and that hasn’t changed even after the split. The song’s just not that good. Even live performance couldn’t save this song from not being good. I’ll discuss this more in the next section, but the problem with “Why” is that it tries so hard to be dynamic and heavy, but the structure is so weak and there’s just not enough “song” in it. The climax is defined by a rap break and a Signature Changmin High Note…and that’s not much of a climax at all. If “Lucifer” was one big, noisy climax, then “Why” is just one big flat line of ‘meh’. And that translates into boring live performances.

Thankfully, the choreography to the song is pretty good. I’ve never seen a K-pop duo do anything other than ballads, so I was interested in how they would stage this song. The solution was to have one member in the back and wait their turn while the other member has center stage during his solo line. It’s not the most creative approach, but it’s incredibly effective and it matches the way that the members’ lines are distributed (which I will also discuss in the next section). They used a similar setup for their performance of “Maximum” at SMTown, so I’m guessing that this is how they’ll proceed in the future.

Each group in SM has their own signature style when it comes to choreography, just like each group has their own style when it comes to music. Super Junior’s choreo is minimalist and tight. f(x) does weird stuff that ultimately seems to work with their weird music. SNSD is simple, but incredibly precise and coordinated. SHINee is very rhythm and beat-based – similar to that of f(x), but with a more masculine spin. And since their debut, DBSK’s style has been very SMP-y: big, rigid movements, lots of sharp angles…stuff that generally looks very choreographed and boyband-y, but nonetheless cool. A lot of DBSK’s choreography style is based off of Yunho’s personal dance style, and that has since remained with “Why.” There’s just a lot more fluidity this time around, and I think that’s more of a trend thing than anything else.

Another unique point about DBSK’s new choreography style is that the staging is essentially structured so that each member has a solo spot for 15-20 seconds at a time. It’s like the member becomes a solo artist for that brief moment, and that solo spot comes with its own set of choreography independent of the rest of the song. This, therefore, makes the choreography during the verses a lot less coordinated than that of most boyband choreography. Take SHINee’s “Lucifer”, for example:

When it comes time for each member to sing his solo line in “Lucifer”, he just kinda stands there and sings his solo line while the other members temporarily become backup dancers. For DBSK, this isn’t the case. DBSK now has their own set of backup dancers, sure, but the member is also doing choreography while he’s singing his solo line, just like a solo artist. That choreography is thus tailored to each member’s specific style – Yunho’s dance parts are very sharp and Yunho-y, whereas Changmin’s dance parts are softer and Changmin-y. Do you get what I’m saying?

SM has never choreographed SMP for a two member group before, so figuring this out for a two-membered DBSK must have been quite a challenge. The end result is satisfying, but there’s also a lot of flexibility allotted with a two member group and a bevy of backup dancers at your disposal. I’m interested to see if SM will experiment with DBSK’s staging in the future.

Oh, and one last note: I know the fandom (and JYJ) is going nuts over the lyrics of “Why”, which is kinda stupid. (What about the lyrics to “Mirotic”? “Break Out”? “O:Jung.Ban.Hap”, for crying out loud?!) But please, SM, don’t try to stir things up by putting stupid stuff like this in the choreography:

It’s generally not a good business move to stir things up in fandoms unless it’s blind adoration for your artists. If this dance move was just coincidental, then you should’ve been more careful. If it was intentional, then that’s really foolish and unprofessional. Just…don’t go there.

—★—

4. ALBUM.

Yunho and Changmin said in a recent interview that the songs were structured so that Yunho would take all the low notes and Changmin would take all the high notes. It’s not an ideal way to split up the lines, but when you’re left with one bass and one almost-countertenor, there’s really not much you can do.

Thankfully, it looks like both Yunho and Changmin have had some vocal training during the hiatus that taught them to, well, work as a two member group. The material on this album is not particularly vocally challenging…which is a given when your two main vocalists have called it quits. Singing in a two-member group requires a completely different dynamic than singing in a five-member group, and I think Yunho and Changmin are still warming up to that.

As are the songwriters, and the album is a dead giveaway of this fact. For the most part, the album is pretty messy. I get the feeling that the duo recorded a bunch of songs just as an experiment, and all of those songs – whether good or bad – were slapped together to make this album. At least half of these songs should’ve stayed as experiments or practice tracks. Which leaves you with what? A mini-album. They shoulda just released a mini-album.

It’s coupled with that whole psychology that idols feel like they “owe” their fans, and they need to “pay them back.” To me, it feels like DBSK felt sorry for making their fans go through the crap that they did, and in return: “Here’s every single thing we’ve recorded since last May; enjoy!”

It’s the shortest album the group’s ever produced; I’m not even sure if it constitutes an album. I wish it weren’t one. DBSK is still in a giant transitional phase, and right now they’re putting out sub-par material that sticks them at the bottom of the barrel in terms of musical quality and finesse. They need more time to experiment and to find out what really works before they make such a huge comeback. SM could have just as easily attached the fireworks and glitter to a mini-album promotion – it’s the return of the kings, after all; they can do whatever they want – and eliminated the extra, unrefined stuff that was put on this album as filler.

The great thing about a ten-track album, though? Fewer songs to review. \o/

—✩—

1. “왜 (Keep Your Head Down)”

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The “Hey! (Don’t Bring Me Down)” vibes are evident in this song, and so is the vibe that everyone (members, producers, Yoo Young-jin, everyone) is trying too hard. Is the “return of the king” characterized by heavy beats, and…heavy beats? I get the feeling that this song was one of the first they created for the two-member DBSK, mostly because it capitalizes so much on the members’ individual strengths: rap break here, obligatory Changmin screaming there, second rap break here, et cetera. It makes the song sound impressive, but in a very one-dimensional and unbalanced way. I don’t have a giant gripe with the song itself, but it’s just not good enough to be the lead single.

2. “믿기 싫은 이야기 (How Can I)”

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DBSK’s Korean ballads have never struck a chord with me, and this is no exception. This sounds like a filler piece: Changmin takes one verse, Yunho takes the next verse, Changmin hits a high C, the end. It’s good that they recorded this song because Yunho sorely needs some work on singing ballads and expanding his range, but it shouldn’t have been included in the album.

3. “Maximum”

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This should’ve been the title track. It made for an awesome live performance at SMTown, and I love the way how each member is featured individually at the beginning before coming together in the end. The song is a bit repetitive, but I’m willing to overlook that because it fits the members’ voices better than any other track on this album, and it’s dynamic without being heavy or overdramatic – which is exactly what “Why” is guilty of. “Maximum” would’ve made for some killer live performances.

4. “Crazy”

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Totally didn’t know that it was TRAX’s Jay doing the rap break until now. It sounds so much like Yoochun that it freaked me out for a good week or so.

“Crazy” has that same tacky 60s vibe that was featured in “Rainbow” from their Mirotic album. Personally, I love the tacky 60s thing, but I think I’m in the minority so I won’t say much more about that.

Changmin’s featured a lot in this song, but Yunho has a few parts – I definitely heard a “It’s a party time” and a “Frky-frky-pow” somewhere in there. Yep. Yunho.

5. “Honey Funny Bunny”

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This song would be a bajillion times better if it weren’t for the title. Call me shallow for bagging on the title, but I’m just in such a tough spot here because this is *gulp* one of my favorite songs off the album, but I can’t deal with the embarrassment of having something entitled “Honey Funny Bunny” show up on my Last.fm.

Continuing with the Mirotic album sound-a-like theme, “Honey Funny Bunny” is fairly similar to “낙원,” except with less Wheesung and more of that tacky 60s vibe, which is starting to look like a recurring theme on this album. Good for me, probably not so great for the rest of ya.

Definite props to Yunho for a) pulling off a song entitled “Honey Funny Bunny,” and b) pulling it off with considerable vocal finesse. Seriously have never heard him sound so good before.

6. “Rumor”

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Favorite song off the album, yo.

I like songs that are interesting to listen to. Obnoxious songs like “Lucifer” and “Rising Sun” go on my A-plus list simply because there’s so much going on in the background, so I keep going back and picking out every last intricacy in the instrumental track. The only downside is that these songs are oftentimes loud, noisy, and excessive. It’s rare to find a song that’s both musically sophisticated and not a headache to listen to. “Mirotic” came close, but “Rumor” takes the cake.

(I also have a feeling that there’s a previous DBSK song similar to “Rumor,” but after poring over my DBSK discography, I can’t seem find it.)

7. “고백 (Confession)”

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This song was made for the Paradise Meadow OST, and it’s just as boring as the drama itself promises to be.

Changmin – I love the boy, but he just doesn’t have a voice for ballads unless it’s the cliche high note at the climax of the song. His voice is a bit nasally and his vibrato is a bit exaggerated, so it’s ill-fitting to slow songs. I had the same problem when he sang with Junsu, Ryeowook, and Kyuhyun on “Wish” from (you guessed it!) the Mirotic album, but there’s no JunsuRyeowookKyuhyun buffer to save him this time around.

8. “Our Game”

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Seven years and Changmin hasn’t rapped a word until now…and I can kinda see why. Boy’s got no flow. :/

I think this is the only song on this album that sounds nothing like any of DBSK’s past works – and it’s actually not a bad song! I haven’t heard a lot of JQ’s songs, but he was the composer for SHINee’s “Shout Out” and “사.계.후 (Love Still Goes On)” – both of which I loved. I’m guessing that JQ’s a relatively new composer with SM, and although I don’t believe his style really fits that of DBSK, I’m curious as to what other works he’ll be putting out for other SM artists.

9. “She”

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It’s a few steps up from a typical K-pop ballad – and any ballad that’s not a typical K-pop ballad is good news to me. The song itself is nothing special, but I was really intrigued by the way they used the word “She” in the song. It’s pronounced more like 쉬 – “shwi” – which, in Korean, means “to rest.” Not sure if they did this on purpose, but if they did, it’s rather clever.

10. “Athena”

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This was released prior to the release of the full album, and marked the first time I heard the two-member DBSK. I don’t really have much to say about OST songs, mostly because their musical merit almost always has to be taken in the context of the drama that it’s made for. The difficulty with pulling off “Athena” as a song, however, is the fact that it needs to sound vocally full in order to compete with the busy instrumental. With only two members at their disposal, it sounds like the producers layered Yunho and Changmin’s own voices to make up the harmony. In this way, the two members effectively become their own backup singers. It solves the problem, but it nonetheless creates a weird, hollow sound to the song. It’s like recording a five-part a cappella harmony with yourself using Garageband. The end result doesn’t sound like five people singing; it sounds like five copies of you singing different things. This effect thickens the sound, but it doesn’t make it multidimensional.

…which is something we probably won’t be getting anytime soon, not with three members emancipated from the company for good. ;_;


I’ve been following the HoMin side of things more closely lately – partly because of bias, and partly because the JYJ side of things is just too messy for me to sort my brain through. That kind of messiness is both an advantage and a disadvantage – artistic and financial freedom are obvious advantages, whereas things like the US tour visa fiasco and having SM and KFPCAI breathing down your neck are obvious disadvantages. But the biggest advantage anddisadvantage is the fact that JYJ has a very wide road ahead of them. Regardless of whatever third-party decides to impede on the trio’s future career, JYJ is freer than any other K-pop artist right now, and will continue to be unless SM decides to jail them right back up again. That uncertainty in their career can allow them to take their music to new heights, or it could cause them to plummet. It’s risky, but it’s at the price of a kind of freedom previously unexperienced by any major K-pop idol – as well as the possibility of changing the Korean pop idol scene for good.

HoMin’s career, on the other hand, isn’t in the same kind of limbo as that of JYJ’s, but it’s in limbo nonetheless. I previously posted about the possible future of HoMin’s careers within SM – that these last remaining years before mandatory military service will be quiet ones, as they play the role of “Idols-that-everyone-respects-but-no-one-really-likes” – up there with BoA and Kangta. To be honest, it’s not a bad way to live: leave the idol industry, serve in the military, come back and become a major stockholder, hope to become the next Lee Soo Man. If their main objective isn’t music, then HoMin is on a pretty good path. But as artists, this album spells trouble.

I’ve mentioned over and over again in this review about how DBSK’s promotion efforts essentially put them on the same level as all the hoobae artists that are out promoting right now. To put it frankly, Why exhibits a significant depreciation in musical quality since their last Korean album – solid evidence that DBSK’s career as artists is slowly going into decline. BoA’s comeback was the same way, albeit with a significantly more impressive album (that wasn’t adequately promoted). At this rate, the two members of DBSK will slip quietly into military service, come back two years later, and release a single here and there whilst looking imposing in aviator sunglasses. Remind you of anyone?

Had SM promoted DBSK like the respected, senior artists that they are, DBSK would be in a class above all of the currently promoting artists, and you’d be able to tell. In that way, DBSK would almost certainly leave for the military with a bang – and a viable fanbase to come home to after two years. But now, I’m just not seeing that happening.

I’m curious as to how DBSK will be handling their career in Japan. I don’t believe that they’ll be coming back under Avex – although a part of me wishes they were. Avex did this amazing thing where they marketed both DBSK and BoA not as Hallyu artists, but as J-pop artists. It took a ton of hard work, but the result was illustrious and set an incredibly high standard for all incoming Korean acts that had their eyes on the archipelago. But with EMI’s current work with SM artists, it looks like DBSK will just be releasing Japanese versions of their Korean songs – just like SNSD, and now SHINee. And they’ll be met with limited success – just like SNSD, and probably SHINee.

It’d be so disappointing to see DBSK jump back into the pool of generic Hallyu artists in Japan, after spending so much work making a name for themselves as legitimate J-pop artists. But without Avex at the helm of Tohoshinki promotions, I don’t see DBSK enjoying the same success in Japan as they did before. I don’t think Japan wants any more Korean boy bands littering their airwaves – they’ve got their own boybands. Tohoshinki was different because their music was molded to Japanese tastes. It wasn’t cheap attempts of pushing Korean music at Japanese audiences in the name of Hallyu.

Album gets a 2 out of 5. If they re-release this album in Japan and call it Tohoshinki’s 5th Japanese album, I will throw things and cry. Fr srs.

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  • I agree with absolutely everything you’ve written here, down to the favorite track – “Rumor” is my favorite as well. It’s the most sensible, musically sound song on the album and the only one I can comfortably put on repeat. “Why” is just too much… *sigh* K-pop has been going seriously overboard with the gimmicks lately. Thanks for the insightful review.

  • M

    hope you’ll review JYJ’s new album too :)

    • Patricia

      I just ordered the album. :) Wallet is crying, but the music sounds really, really great thus far and I can’t wait to see the photobook. Not sure if I’ll be reviewing the JYJ album in the same way that I did for this album, but I’ll definitely be doing a write-up on it.

  • Lex

    I read your review, and was happy to come across an even tempered, *sane* analysis. And something caught my eye, that I thought I could share with you. (You said you like to listen to songs like Rising Sun because it has interesting things in the background. I think that’s why I enjoy DBSK so much in general…there’s always odd/interesting stuff going on in the background.)

    Anyway.

    You were making a point about the choreography and your gif caught my eye. I went back and looked at the MV because people can always make mistakes in live performances.

    Yunho never puts up 3 fingers.
    And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t put up 2 either.

    Go to Youtube, and crank up the MV to 780 and make the image bigger. I’m 100% sure he never puts up the first 3…he just kind of flicks his hand to the side. And I can only be about 80% about the 2 fingers.

    Now, I don’t say this to imply anything.
    At all.
    It’s just one in the long list of things “going on in the background” that intrigue me.

    :)

    • Patricia

      (This reply is also directed at the poster below, jsyk.)

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review. A bunch of people have said to me that I was looking too much into that one dance move – and they’re probably right. However, the issue isn’t that a few super detail-oriented (or obsessed) fans picked up on this otherwise innocuous movement and blew it out of proportion. I highly doubt that SM would be as unscrupulous as to express their opinions as a business through the choreography of an idol boyband. But it was highly unscrupulous of them to put that move in the choreography, period – because they know that fans (in general) pay enough attention to their idols to pick up on something like this, and, in true cray-cray Cassie fashion, they’ll attach it to something related to the lawsuit (like they did to the song lyrics) and blow it way out of proportion. Of course, the choreographer can’t control how the fans interpret the choreography, and I’ll bet that that specific dance move was supposed to be an okay sign and a peace sign. But, considering the volatile and often irrational nature of the average obsessive fangirl, that okay/peace sign will translate into something a lot more controversial. SM has served these obsessive fangirls for DECADES, and they should know the true nature of their target audience by now. And, unfortunately, their target audience is the type that will pick stuff apart and make interpretations that are a far cry from what’s really intended. And to put that “two-three-fingers” move in the choreography…I’m sorry, but that’s just making it too easy for fangirls’ confirmation biases to go haywire.

      All I’m saying is that SM should’ve been a little more scrupulous when they were considering that dance move. Whatever its true intention, It was a careless decision to put that dance move in the choreography.

  • It’s called an okay sign & a peace sign. Not stirring shit up.