Album Review #3: “Their Rooms, Our Story” – JYJ
First off, many thanks to those who read (and hopefully liked!) my last review on DBSK’s Keep Your Head Down. As per the numerous requests I received, I’ve decided to review JYJ’s Their Rooms, Our Story album as well. However, I should preface this review by saying that because of the irregular nature of JYJ’s minialbum, I can’t write about it in the same way that I did DBSK’s Keep Your Head Down. I can’t talk about their live performances or their music videos or even their concept because there just weren’t any. But there are a bunch of interesting things about this album that I do want to discuss.
1. THE MUSIC.
And, of course, I want to discuss the music. Because the music was bomb.
The tracks on Their Rooms were completely written, composed, performed, and produced by the JYJ members. DBSK bias aside, I’ve always had a ton of respect for Jaejoong, Yoochun, and Junsu as musicians because they’re perhaps the only idol stars in their generation that regularly compose their own works – and are damn good at it. I’m willing to partly attribute this to the fact that the trio have probably never had to compose for pay – that is, even during their time in SM, they were never told to create the ‘next hit song’ for such-and-such group like most commissioned composers attached to large entertainment companies. Rather, they would write songs simply for the joy of it, and if they were lucky, those songs would be included in an upcoming album.
Based on their previous compositions both in and out of DBSK, it seems like the trio isn’t really keen on producing ‘lead-single’ type songs – that is, those annoyingly catchy head-stickers that might not be great music, but nonetheless launch a short-lived cultural phenomenon and ultimately rake in the bucks despite the fact. Maybe it’s just an issue of personal preference and style, but none of the trio’s previously released compositions resemble your typical K-pop hit single. Even Jaejoong and Yoochun’s “Colors,” which was released as a single in Japan, is remarkably low-key for a promotional track. As composers, it’s just not JYJ’s style to compose anything that’s intentionally catchy or marketable. This doesn’t mean that they intentionally make their songs uncatchy or unmarketable. Their compositional style just doesn’t fit the typical, fluffy, gimmicky K-pop mold.
So what are we left with, then? Good music that retains all the special unique qualities of Korean pop, but leaves out all the gimmicky bells and whistles that turn a song from a piece of art into a marketable product.
In other words, we are left with perfection.
A slight hyperbole, of course – Their Rooms is far from being a perfect album – but it’s probably fair to say that JYJ is good at what they do, and Their Rooms is the best example of their musical abilities as composers to date. My primary complaint with Their Rooms as an album is that, despite the fact that their skills as composers are well exhibited in the album, it seems that the members have yet to figure out how to compose songs that also make the best use of their vocal abilities. Because, let’s face it: half of us DBSK fans first fell in love with the group because of their raw talent as singers and performers. I didn’t like “Bolero” because it was a good song – because it really wasn’t. I liked it because of its epic, gravity-defying, mind-blowing ad-lib bridge Now with Their Rooms, we’ve finally got great music…but the music just doesn’t enable the members’ voices to blow me away like they did before.
The other big flaw in JYJ’s work is that their composition style is based more on their personal musical style and taste, rather than focusing on variety and mass likeability. This is in direct concordance with my aforementioned sentiment that JYJ has thus far only composed for their own artistic sake and not for the sake of the buckaroos. For example, I enjoyed “Mission” because JYJ’s musical style gels with my own. But you’ll notice that the flow and rhythm of “Mission” is similar to a lot of JYJ’s other works – even works found in this same album – and unless you really like that flow and rhythm, then you’ll have a hard time liking any other JYJ songs because they all sound somewhat similar. In this respect, JYJ is really similar to a lot of niche, esoteric indie artists. Indie musicians don’t produce music for the masses; they write and perform the music that they like. If a select few people happen to like that music, then that’s great. But chances are, most indie music won’t appeal to the masses – and it’s not supposed to; most indie artists would probably die before sacrificing their artistic preferences for the sake of commercialization. Indie artists take pride in not “selling out.”
But JYJ aren’t indie artists. They’ve spent the last seven years of their lives being commercialized pop idols. Musicians or not, they can’t get around that well-established public image. They’ve always been associated with distributing music that appeals to the masses, whether that music was composed by Yoochun or Yoo Young-jin. Now that they’ve left the (comparative) creative stranglehold that was SM Entertainment, JYJ is now free to do whatever music they want to do, but this doesn’t come without a risk: they can write and release music that they like and maintain their artistic integrity – or they can try to keep their mass appeal by composing songs that are crowd (and wallet) pleasers. That’s why Their Rooms have received a bunch of negative reviews from fans and non-fans alike. The primary complaint is that the album is too generic. I’m disinclined to believe that the album is generic, but I will say that it lacks variety. If you like JYJ’s personal style, then this album will sound awesome. If you don’t, then it will sound like one, flat line of blah. Personally, I really like JYJ’s style, which makes it very difficult to review this album on an objective level – because, to be quite honest, JYJ’s work in Their Rooms holds little musical merit apart from taste-based likeability (or bias, since you folks seem to like that word so much).
JYJ is still young, though, and they’re still finding their footing while balancing fourteen new hats (composer, producer, cat-breeder) on their heads. If the group eventually finds that magic place where their vocal skill, performance skill, compositional skill, and varied creativity come together in some sort of pop-magic synergy, then I will not only be one happy fan – I will be one delighted music enthusiast.
Their Rooms isn’t built and promoted like a typical K-pop album (or like any pop music album, so to speak), so it doesn’t really have a defined ‘lead single’ – but I have a feeling that “Mission” is supposed to kindasorta fill that role. It’s punchy, it’s dynamic, and it’s a really great opener to an album that’s been primarily hyped as some sort of epic sob story in CD form. My one complaint: is Yoochun really still using that tacky “You better recognize us” line?
Get out your Kleenex, readers – because, I mean, with this album, you had to have seen it coming, right?
“Nine” was first revealed at JYJ’s concert in Seoul last year, and the title is said to represent the nine years in which the five DBSK members had spent together – from their training days until today. It’s not terribly remarkable as a song, but it does fill the obligatory angst mold without going into K-drama OST territory, which makes this song a rare find in the world of K-pop ballads. I approve.
I love this song, but I think it does a terrible job of conveying the message presented by the lyrics. It’s meant to sound very open and free – and I get that the song is supposed to be about ‘freeing oneself from the puppet strings of SM Entertainment’ but there’s little to no musical progression and variety within the song that evidences the struggle. I should not feel like getting and dancing to a song that’s supposed to be about being imprisoned by puppet strings. The lyrics tell a story; the music does not.
In addition, the editing and mixing seemed a little sloppy on this one.
4. “Fallen Leaves”
I would say that this is a fantastic, beautiful, gorgeous song if not for the fact that the verses remind me of this one song in Spamalot, and my inner eight-year-old just can’t seem to let that go.
Jokes aside, “Fallen Leaves” is THE obligatory emotional soliloquy on an album that itself is billed as one big emotional soliloquy – but thank goodness; it’s executed well. Amongst the three, I feel that Junsu is highly underrated as a composer, but I’ve yet to see either Yoochun or Jaejoong compose a ballad at the caliber of Junsu’s “I Can Soar” or “Fallen Leaves.” With “Fallen Leaves,” I think Junsu picked up a few hints from his work in Mozart, as the song is very similar to the style of the music in that show – and he does it justice. The vocal line is clean but effective…and extra props to the strings coordinator – the strings really were the highlight of the song. (DNW the random electric guitar during the second chorus. Ruining my flow.)
Jaejoong, Junsu, and Yoochun are good composers. I’ve rehashed this point so many times in this review to the point where I’m almost sick of admitting it. But besides my aforementioned gripe about their current inability to integrate their vocal skills with their compositional skills, I also take issue with the fact that their compositions oftentimes lack musical complexity. Like I said in the intro, a lot of their songs use very similar beats – probably because those beats are what really grooves with them on a personal level, but even as a person who generally enjoys JYJ’s style, I’d like to hear some variety. “I.D.S.” is further up there on the scale of musical complexity, but it still has a similar flow to “Mission” – and if the only two uptempo songs on the same minialbum sound similar to each other, then someone needs to have a good chat with the folks in the creative department.
Despite my technical gripes with the song, though, “I.D.S.” is still one of my favorite cuts off the album. The mixing is great, the vocal execution is refined (Junsu does one really surprisingly beautiful line in the middle of the song (around 2:24) that totally caught me off guard), and it’s well-structured.
6. “Song Without a Name”
Oh. This song.
I’ll discuss the controversial hullabaloo surrounding this album in the next part, so we’ll save the dramarama of the lyrics for later. Admittedly, this song isn’t really great for casual listening – firstly, because the song is eight freaking minutes long, and secondly, the song gets very choppy once you hit the two minute mark. Apparently, this is because some of the names were bleeped out of the lyrics – hence the title of the song – so you’ve got a rap line that sounds very jolty and awkward, but it’s for good reason.
The song is 80% rap, and the background beat remains the same for the most part, so there’s not much I can say on a purely musical level. We haven’t seen Yoochun’s rapping skill for quite some time, and I’m still a little irked that his singing was featured over his rapping on JYJ’s last album. I dig his style, so I’m glad to see it’s back. Jaejoong’s falsetto sounds a little out-of-place at times, and Junsu gets a little raspy and…oh gosh, I just can’t make any musical criticisms of this song without feeling like a jerk.
Apologies for the rather calculating view on this album thus far – I know that the primary purpose of Their Rooms isn’t solely to provide quality music, but it seems to me that JYJ is trying to assert themselves not as idol stars, but as musicians – and in that respect, they deserve to be evaluated fairly. Speaking from a purely musical perspective, I think the material on Their Rooms surpasses a lot of the material in the mainstream K-pop market, and it’s a damn shame that JYJ can’t promote this album due to legal restrictions.
Nonetheless, I can’t bring myself to give this album a formal rating – for one, I don’t believe it’s really fair to evaluate Their Rooms on too deep a musical level, because it’s not meant to be an artistic masterpiece; it’s meant to be JYJ’s outlet of expression regarding an issue that, for too long, has been shrouded in media-spurned controversy. It’s like critiquing the artistic merit of a Valentine’s day card made by a five-year old for his mom. Despite my penchant for heartlessly critiquing K-pop idols’ works to no end, even I just can’t go that far. My biggest critique on this album is its lack of musical variety – but considering the message behind the album, I doubt that musical variety was the last thing on JYJ’s minds. And that’s okay by me.
2. THE MESSAGE.
At the heart of things, Their Rooms is a minialbum. Call it a “music essay” or what-have-you, but if I see a CD with six songs on it being sold for a ridiculous price, then I’mma call it a minialbum.
Ridiculous price indeed – because this thing cost me $40USD. WHICH IS OUTRAGEOUS. The album is, admittedly beautifully packaged – but at the end of the day, it’s just a daily planner with a few poly inserts and a CD stuck in the back cover. It’s not worth 40 bucks, but let’s face it: just about everything that JYJ’s produced since The Beginning has been horridly overpriced.
And for good reason – when you’re working without the financial support of a giant corporation for the first time, you’re gonna need money to keep going. The Beginning was released a total of four times: the CD/digital download on October 14th, the ‘luxury edition’ on October 18th, the United States digital release on November 16th, and a re-released version in Korea on November 22nd. The prices for each of these separate editions ranged from $18USD to $50USD. I don’t care whether you package a poster, a photobook, or a pet rabbit with it – fifty dollars for a ten-track CD is ludicrous. Nonetheless, The Beginning was one of the top-selling albums in Korea last year. Of course, it’s not a new phenomenon to see fans spending inordinate amounts of money for the sake of their idols, and JYJ knows this fact full well. You’d be a fool to be in the K-pop industry and not inflate the prices of your products because a) people are going to buy it anyway, and b) how else are you going to compensate for all the money lost to illegal downloading? Inflated prices are just a fact of life at this point, and as a fan, you accept it or move on.
But regardless, it saddens me when I see artists taking advantage of it.
Last autumn, JYJ played shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas free of charge due to a discrepancy in obtaining their working visas. As a result, the trio had to pay off the concert expenses out-of-pocket. Enter Their Rooms, Our Story and Jaejoong’s Intermodulation photobook.
In a sense, the sale of Intermodulation makes me laugh more than anything else because this photobook has little to no artistic merit as a photographic work…but boy, does it feature a lot of nekkid Jaejoong. Maybe it’s because I still have the mentality of a kindergartener, but I’ve never found it sexy whenever my favorite idols decide to disrobe in public. It seems that I’m in the minority, though – because Cassies were all over this Intermodulation thing when it came out.
Yes, people paid $140 for pictures of naked Jaejoong covered in bubbles.
It’s clear that Intermodulation was sold to appeal directly to the fans – because, I mean, if I weren’t a Jaejoong fan, I would not pay $140 for his pictures, no matter how hot he is. But judging from comments posted on blogs that featured pictures from Intermodulation, it appears that a ton of fans were interested in buying the photobook. Regardless of whether or not the fans actually bought the photobook, such reactions show the nature of fans and their wallets. In this sense, Intermodulation achieved its desired effect: JYJ sold an overpriced product, fans bought it, JYJ makes fast money. There’s something that’s a bit offputting about selling fan-fodder photos to make a quick buck, but if that’s how JYJ rolls, then I shouldn’t judge.
What bothered me more, though, was that JYJ used this exact same business model to sell Their Rooms. One of the biggest criticisms of Their Rooms is that it’s this half-hour long emotional sob story about JYJ’s lawsuit struggles. As musicians, it’s natural for them to write music about that stuff – it’s how musicians communicate, after all. But it’s one thing to write music about your personal struggles, and another thing to sell it.
Idol fandom is unique because the relationship between the idol and the fan isn’t simply defined by a fan’s love of the music – it’s defined by a fan’s love of the person making the music. Such a relationship is actually quite dangerous, because at the heart of things, fans are nothing more than consumers of a product. You fall in love with an artist whom you’ll probably never meet and never talk to. So how can you show your love? You buy their stuff. The relationship between a fan and an idol is bought by the dollar, because there’s no other available vessel of communication. The idol industry is designed so that fans become convinced that they have some sort of personal relationship with their favorite idols, but this relationship is oftentimes one-sided. While fans are hollering “Oppa, I love you!” at concerts, the artists are still bowing courteously to their fans and using honorific speech whilst asking them to support their newest song.
It’s diabolical, really, once you think about how entertainment companies capitalize on fans’ emotions. So one might expect better from JYJ now that they’ve left the idol-breeding machine that is SM Entertainment and moved onto becoming ‘real musicians.’ But the thing about JYJ is that they will always be regarded as idols in the public eye because of their connection with DBSK, and until the DBSK legacy becomes a thing of the past, JYJ’s fanbase will be an idol-centric fanbase. Until the members of JYJ become old and grey (which, by idol standards, probably means sometime around the age of 35), their fans will continue to hold neon signs at concerts and wave glowsticks in the air and mob them in public places and declare their love for them with high pitched screams.
But what’s even more dangerous about the JYJ fandom is the added bonus that these fans feel like they’ve “struggled” alongside JYJ during the lawsuit period, and therefore feel that they’re “closer” to the members on a personal level. But in reality, a JYJ fan’s status as a JYJ fan really hasn’t changed. A JYJ fan is still a customer of JYJ products, regardless of how much she’s deluded herself into thinking that her relationship with JYJ is anything deeper than that. This extreme emotional investment leaves fans very vulnerable to manipulation.
I attended JYJ’s New York showcase, and as much as I enjoyed their performance, the one thing that really rubbed me the wrong way about it was how the production and management staff put such a huge emphasis on the importance of the fans – how Cassiopeia was the best fanclub in the world, how JYJ was doing the entire US tour for free because of the fans, how the fans were the sole reason why JYJ existed. There’s probably some truth in all that, but if you look beyond the rhetoric, it really just looks like JYJ’s sucking up to the fans in a highly emotional manner, and targeting that sensitive spot that turns an ordinary fan into a lovestruck fan. Of course JYJ can’t exist without fans – because the fans are the ones with money, and after all – money makes love go round.
It really sounds as if I’m accusing JYJ of being golddiggers – and I’m trying to stay away from that, but with the release of Their Rooms, I can’t help but think otherwise. When I read the lyrics to the songs in Their Rooms for the first time, the DBSK/JYJ fangirl within me told me, “You need to buy this album; otherwise you’ll be a bad fan.” As a fan, I didn’t see Their Rooms for its musical value – I saw it for its political and emotional value. When I reviewed Their Rooms last week, I felt a twinge of guilt as I critiqued the music from an objective point of view because I felt that by pulling apart their music and evaluating it, I was doing the same thing to the JYJ members themselves. And there’s clearly something wrong if I feel guilty about critiquing music because I’m afraid of hurting the feelings of three men whom I’ll probably never meet.
Their Rooms wasn’t produced and released because JYJ wanted to put out good music. Their Rooms is a music essay – it’s JYJ’s emotional outpouring through their lyrics, their music, their photos, the essays they wrote in the liner notes. It’s JYJ showing their humanity and shedding their public image just as easily as Jaejoong shed his clothes for that Intermodulation photoshoot. And, just like the fans ate up pictures of Jaejoong’s naked body, they also ate up pictures of JYJ’s naked souls.
In a way, I pity JYJ for having to succumb to such measures in order to pay off the debt of their US tour, but considering their dire situation, I’m not sure if they had much of a choice. Nonetheless, there’s clearly something wrong with the idol industry if the only way for an idol to make a lot of money in a short amount of time is by manipulating his fans’ emotions. But this also goes to say that there’s something wrong with idol fan culture if it can be manipulated this easily.
Much of the scary, collectivist nature of K-pop fandom is rooted in Korean societal nuances, which explains phenomena ranging from the 2002 World Cup frenzy in Seoul to the idea of sasaeng fans. But what’s surprising is that despite all this, international fans are oftentimes guilty of the most extreme actions. We’re the ones paying ridiculous shipping and import fees for K-pop products. We’re the ones trying to learn Korean on our own in the hopes of one day communicating with our idols. We’re the ones who cause idol stars to get physically injured due to fan mobs at airports. We’re the ones with “Always Keep The Faith” as our forum signatures and Twitter icons. We’re the ones who, like me, wait outside of the Hammerstein Theatre in New York City for seven hours in the blistering November cold to see an hour-long JYJ concert. Arguably, we’re the ones who buy into this idol nonsense the most. And until entertainment companies find a way to keep the idol industry alive without manipulating fans, we’re also the ones with the power to wake up and stop this cycle.
Both Intermodulation and Their Rooms served as fan fodder, albeit in different ways. Intermodulation attempted to gain revenue via fans’ hormones. Their Rooms attempted to gain revenue via fans’ emotions. It’s wrong to manipulate the people who love you, but it’s also wrong for a victim to remain passive when she knows she’s being taken advantage of. I received a bit of flack for my review on DBSK’s Keep Your Head Down, and many people accused me of lying when I said that I was, in fact, more of a HoMin fan than a JYJ fan. But the most important thing about being a fan, I’ve noticed, is having your head on straight. It doesn’t just mean that you have to evaluate your favorite idols’ works through an objective point of view. It means that you have to be especially critical of your favorite idols, because it’s your actions as a fan that will change things for the better. Criticism becomes ten times more effective when it’s coming from someone who actually cares. When I saw things that were wrong about HoMin’s promotion efforts, it was my duty as a fan to point them out. Now, as JYJ fans see the things that are wrong with JYJ’s attempts to cozy up to fans’ emotions, it’s the fans’ duty to stand up and say that this kind of manipulation is unacceptable and will not receive their monetary support. And that begins with telling your idol that your relationship is strictly business.
(Crossposted to Seoulbeats.com)