Album Review #4: “Girls’ Generation” – 少女時代
Yes, I know I promised to review f(x)’s album a few weeks ago…but I’ve been anticipating SNSD’s new album for months and couldn’t wait to do a write-up on it.
This might seem somewhat contradictory to one of my previous posts in which I expressed my adverse views regarding SHINee’s Japanese debut. But while I’m still not very happy with all these K-pop groups attempting to take Japan by storm, it’s just become an unavoidable fact at this point and one might as well make the best of it.
That being said, SNSD’s new image for Japan has really piqued my interest because of its stark contrast to their image in Korea. SNSD debuted in Korea with a friendly, ‘girl-next-door’ concept that gradually evolved into a rather enigmatic mixture of cute, innocent, and sexy. In addition, SNSD has always exuded an air of visual uniformity: matching outfits, symmetrical dance formations, and most prominently, nine identical pairs of perfectly shaped legs.
SNSD brought that uniform image to Japan with them, but they’ve replaced their cutesy attitude with a more mature look, as seen in their music videos as well as SM and Universal’s choice to debut the group with “Genie.” The greatest testament of SNSD’s transformation for the Japanese market, however, is perhaps their first full-length Japanese album and the drastic change in musical style exhibited on the album.
1. CONCEPT PRODUCTION.
Arguably, the biggest difference between K-pop and J-pop is that J-pop isn’t nearly as reliant on a visual ‘concept.’ Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that J-pop artists promote new back-to-back singles for several months running before releasing a full album that includes these previously promoted singles. K-pop artists, on the other hand, ‘come back’ every few months with a mini-album and promote the lead track from the mini for seven to eight weeks. Unlike K-pop artists, J-pop artists don’t typically promote a full album on a weekly basis through appearances on Music Station and whatnot, but rather through an arena tour.
In this sense, it’s a bit difficult to identify SNSD’s concept for the entire album, because the album’s actual concept usually isn’t fully revealed until the arena tour. But judging from album photos and promotional material from their past Japanese singles, it seems that SNSD has adopted a more grown-up look for their Japanese activities, and for good reason: The ‘cute’ image that defines SNSD in Korea is an overdone concept in Japan. In fact, the trend of massive girl groups like SNSD actually originated in Japan with groups like Morning Musume and AKB48. This then leaves Universal and SM with the challenge of making SNSD’s image distinct from any other established J-pop girl group.
The answer? Take SNSD’s original image and bump it up by a few years. Costumes are simplified, aegyo is kept to a minimum, and the group is given a more dynamic overall feel. As a K-pop fan who’s been exposed to more than her fair share of ridiculous flamboyancy in terms of visual concept, it was refreshing to see SNSD tone things down for their Japanese activities. But even though I really dig SNSD’s style in Japan, I also worry that their toned-down look might be a bit too boring for the Japanese market.
I’m not nearly as familiar with the J-pop scene as I am with the K-pop scene, but I doubt that any newcomer group with a relatively uninteresting image would make it very far in either industry. SNSD has the advantage of having a well-established career in Korea as well as the support of a major music label, but that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll garner long-term interest with Japanese listeners. As evidenced by their success on the Oricon charts thus far, it looks like SNSD is succeeding on their novelty as a fresh, just-stepped-off-the-plane group with relatively catchy songs. But beyond that? Right now, SNSD doesn’t have much of an identity apart from their Koreannness. If SNSD hopes to establish a long-term career in Japan, they will need to solidify their identity and definition as a group. Right now, there’s nothing really special or attention-grabbing about SNSD’s current image. That needs to change, especially if they’re in an industry that’s as competitive as the J-pop industry.
2. “MR. TAXI” MUSIC VIDEO/PERFORMANCE.
While “Mr. Taxi” is one of many singles SNSD has released prior to this album, I was underwhelmed with the production of the “Mr. Taxi” PV in comparison to SNSD’s other Japanese PVs. I was particularly surprised that the video adopted a K-pop style shooting technique while maintaining a J-pop style color scheme. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but all in all, the video seemed a bit lazy and the editing a bit sophomoric. I take the biggest issue with the editing – it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as creative and dynamic as it could’ve been. In all honesty, it looks like something I could’ve cobbled together myself in a few hours on a Friday night…and that’s not saying much.
I would’ve expected more from SNSD’s first real J-pop song and their first real chance to dive into an original J-pop concept – especially considering the caliber of their Japanese “Genie” and “Run Devil Run” videos – but meh. Here’s hoping they do better in the future.
What’s of greater interest to me are the members’ performances in both the MV and in their recent live perf on Music Station. Up until now, SNSD’s basically molded their entire image on variants of the cutesy-slash-girl-next-door image, and their gestures and movements during performances reflect that. Even in Korea, SNSD’s performances of “Run Devil Run” or “Genie” aren’t entirely as ‘fierce’ or ‘badass’ as the song actually demands – but it’s permissible because SNSD needs to keep all of their performances – whether it be “Gee” or “Run Devil Run” consistent with their original mild and soft image. Otherwise, their identity as a group would start to become more and more vague…which, arguably, would be worse than any aegyo face Sunny could ever possibly muster.
But SNSD has shed that cutesy image for Japan, and in doing so, they must also shed the cutesy, mild gestures that they have depended on for so long. However, it’s evident in the “Mr. Taxi” PV that the members are still using the same types of mild gestures and expressions that would typically fly with their image in Korea. However, if the group really plans on adopting a more grown-up image for Japan, then their performance styles should reflect it. Some of the gestures used in the “Mr. Taxi” video, such as this:
…These gestures aren’t that “cute,” but there’s something about them that’s a little too soft and a little too “So Nyeo Shi Dae” about them, and it doesn’t befit “Shoujo Jidai”‘s new image in Japan. Of course, the group is still just starting out in Japan so it’s not fair to criticize this minor point. But it’s something that will matter once SNSD’s career really starts kicking off in Japan.
As for their live performances: there’s not much one can say from just one performance, but SNSD did quite well vocally considering that Music Station mics are notoriously merciless. I was a little disappointed to hear them sing over the original vocal track rather than the MR, but hey – it’s their first performance on Japanese TV.
And as for the choreography: Like any other SNSD dance, I think this choreography would look absolutely ridiculous if it was performed by anyone other than SNSD. Take that for what you will. Oh, and this part?
For me, this dance break makes the song. No contest.
3. THE MUSIC.
In my opinion, J-pop is oftentimes a lot more musically sophisticated than K-pop. Granted, Japan’s music industry is a lot bigger than Korea’s music industry, which means more songwriters, more original ideas, more connections, more musical diversity, and more of an inclination to take risks.
Seven out of 11 songs on Girls’ Generation are new and original Japanese tracks – not so impressive a ratio compared to J-pop crossover titans like DBSK and BoA, but compared to other K-pop artists currently putting out material in Japan, it’s not a bad showing. More importantly, the fact that there are so many new, original songs is an indicator that Universal and SM are taking SNSD’s musical career in Japan seriously, and don’t intend on letting the girls skate by on their Koreanness and gimmick factor.
And take it seriously they did, because the quality of Girls’ Generation greatly surpasses even SNSD’s previous Korean works. On the whole, the new songs are a lot more sophisticated – complex instrumentals, advanced editing and manipulation, and vocal layering. Vocal layering! Vocal layering is such a simple and effective technique that allows for experimentation and creativity, but most K-pop music doesn’t take advantage of it simply because idol music primarily showcase sthe idols’ voices. Fans care more about how many lines their bias sings rather than the musical sophistication of the actual song, and K-pop producers spend their time creating songs that cater to the fans’ desires rather than quality music. But I digress.
The other notable point about SNSD’s new Japanese songs is that it’s in a completely different style than SNSD’s past works. This point, of course, boils down to a matter of personal taste. For me, I didn’t completely hate SNSD’s old cutesy songs and I’m not entirely in love with the electronica-Eurodisco feel of their new songs, but the important thing is that the music is congruent with the group’s new image.
The album opens with familiar favorites “Mr. Taxi” and “Genie,” but it then launches the listener into “you-aholic,” which is in a completely different style from SNSD’s past song. Firstly, the vocals are put at an equal with the instrumental track. More than that, the vocals and instrumental mesh in a way that effectively turns the vocal and instrumental tracks into one entity. The song itself is more cohesive. Overall it’s a big departure from the usual style adopted by most idol music.
My personal favorite track is “The Great Escape,” which I found to be a comfortable yet slightly esoteric listen. The song is vocally challenging without being showy, and the diversity in sound makes for an exciting listening experience. It has a strong structure, and the detailed production work also deserves a kudos.
Not a huge fan of “Let It Rain,” surprisingly. While sound diversity is oftentimes a very good thing, I found the contrast between the verses and the chorus to be a bit too dramatic and incongruous for my taste. The chorus was too soft and a bit anticlimatic compared to the dynamic beats behind the verses.
Interestingly, the album is structured so that the music never really slows down. The songs all have a similar tempo, and there is not a single ballad on the album. Not one! I often regard ballads as that obligatory ‘filler’ song that attempts to give an album some semblance of shape and structure, but Girls’ Generation is proof that an album doesn’t have to have ‘variety’ for it to be strong. More than anything, I think Girls’ Generation is a bold album – and to see such boldness from a newly debuted group is very promising. Now, if they could apply that same boldness to their visual image, that’d be just peachy.
On the whole, the music on Girls’ Generation doesn’t sound at all like the SNSD we’ve grown to know and love. Some are bound to love it; others are bound to hate it. I, for one, am thankful that SNSD is now able to break out of the cutesy box that’s long defined their image in Korea, and I’m curious how SNSD plans on showing their abilities now that they’re given the chance to start all over in Japan with a brand new image.