Album Review #8: “Sexy, Free & Single” – Super Junior

Was looking through my list of previous reviews and found myself being somewhat annoyed at the fact that my album reviews thus far have rested firmly in the SMTown camp. Of course, this has largely to do with the fact that I usually only write about stuff that I actually care about, and while it might be a bit hyperbolic to say that I only care about SMTown, there’s something about SM groups that makes me feel obligated to have an opinion on anything they release.¹

Super Junior is probably the worst offender; I’m not really sure what it is about Super Junior that makes me want to word-explode every time they release something new, particularly since there’s almost always more bad stuff to write about than there is good. I’m starting to believe that everything I write about Super Junior is just a well-packaged facade that, when fully unraveled, really says nothing more than “THEY’RE JUST REALLY ATTRACTIVE AND HAVE GOOD HAIR” because, well, I can tell already that this review is going to be just that.

Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s been a really long time since I’ve been able to confidently say that I enjoy a Super Junior promo track, even if it is called “Sexy, Free & Single.” Aside from the fact that it’s a genuinely good pop song, “Sexy, Free & Single” possesses the mature and somewhat conservative sound that I’ve been hoping to hear from Super Junior ever since SM coined the phrase “ubersexy” and made them pose in their underwear. It’s a change that’s long overdue, considering that these guys are basically the honorary 할아버지s of the Korean music industry and are due for army-dom at any second.

But don’t think for a second that I’m buying into all this “Leeteuk’s-going-to-the-army-which-means-that-this-is-the-last-Super-Junior-album-ever” bullshit that is, indeed, bullshit in its finest form. Even though Leeteuk’s departure for the army later this year has inexplicably become the highlight of this round of promotions, it’s not as if anyone’s officially said outright that Sexy, Free & Single will be Super Junior’s last album before they go on their yet-to-be-confirmed hiatus. But this assumption has unexpectedly turned into an excellent marketing strategy for SM in two ways: one, it guarantees fiercer mass-purchasing efforts by fans than ever before (which, when it comes to Super Junior, is really saying something), and two, it’s a good cover for SM’s laziness. Slap a big old “But this album is a gift for the fans!!1!!!” sticker on top of all that, and you can pretty much get away with anything.

The thing that bothers me the most about Sexy, Free & Single is its lack of sincerity. Apart from the title track, the rest of the album is packed with filler tracks of all flavors. Putting five ballads on a 10-track album certainly doesn’t earn you any points, especially if it’s coming from a group that was never known for its ballads in the first place. The uptempo songs on the album are all moderately entertaining but are nonetheless insubstantial and forgettable. None of these songs are outrightly bad, but their combined mediocrity weighs down whatever individual merits they might have.

On the other hand, the title track is the best promotional single Super Junior’s released since Sorry Sorry”, and while it’s almost impossible that “Sexy, Free & Single” will achieve anywhere near the same level of memedom as “Sorry Sorry,” it still earns points for boasting some semblance of artistic creativity and for not being Sorry Sorry version 3.0. Interestingly, “Sexy, Free & Single” is also the first Super Junior single since “U” that was not penned by Yoo Young-jin — and while I’m still a loyal fan of Yoo Young-jin’s work, he hasn’t had a good streak of decent lead singles in quite some time (as opposed to his glory days when DBSK was still singing about rising suns and purple lines and what-have-you).

His latest attempts at keeping it “hip” with recent songs like “Mr. Simple,” “Lucifer,” and “Keep Your Head Down” weren’t as universally well received as his previous hits, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that SM’s better-than-average track record for the first half of 2012 has been highlighted with lead singles penned by Scandinavian composers. It’s almost become reflexive to respond with an eyeroll whenever news of yet another SM “remake” comes up, but let’s face the facts: Apart from EXO’s “MAMA” (composed by YYJ), SM hasn’t had a single weak lead single so far this year, and yet all of these singles were written by out-of-house composers². Honestly, there’s not much room to complain. This is SM’s way of “getting with the times,” and if it means that Yoo Young-jin has to take a backseat and let the Swedish composers handle all the catchy promotional stuff, then so be it. Besides, with “From U” being one of the best tracks Super Junior has ever released, Yoo Young-jin is certainly not out of a job.

So in sum: Sexy, Free & Single boasts an awesome, well-developed lead single, but the rest of the album pales deeply in comparison. It’s cases like this that convince me that K-pop is better off doing away with the album model altogether and should just stick to releasing singles and minialbums. The K-pop industry has never placed an emphasis on albums in the same way that Western music industries have; the entire construction of K-pop depends heavily on the promotion of one catchy lead single while the rest of the album serves as a mere formality. And indeed, the emphasis placed on promoting these singles helps to highlight the best parts of K-pop. A promotional single serves as a vehicle for weekly live performances and MVs; it gives idols something to talk about on variety shows; it paves the way for CF deals and endorsements; it opens up possibilities for global viral exposure.

There was once a time when there were enough composers and resources for artists and companies to promote a solid lead single whilst simultaneously preparing album material of equal or higher quality. Now, it’s either there aren’t enough composers to go around, or companies just aren’t interested in searching for more creatives to contribute greater diversity to these albums when there’s a bigger profit to be made in producing one catchy lead single. The biggest problem with these albums isn’t that the songs themselves aren’t good, but that the albums lack diversity as a whole and fail to show any signs of innovation or creativity.  Virtually every K-pop album I’ve listened to for the past two years has suffered from the same problem, but none so obvious as Sexy, Free & Single.

I find it particularly tragic that there are some tracks on Sexy, Free & Single (“Daydream,” “Gulliver“) that would have really shone had they not been lumped in with eight other similarly-styled songs. K-pop ballads get a lot of flack for being token “filler” tracks on albums, despite the fact that many of these ballads are really quite stunning and would be much more well-received if given a chance to stand on their own. If there was a “one-ballad-per-album” rule instated throughout K-pop, I’d be willing to bet that the general opinion on the typical K-pop ballad would change drastically. Case in point: “From U” probably would not have received nearly the amount of praise it’s gotten so far had it not a) received so much prerelease attention as being the “song for ELF,” and b) served as the comeback week song on Super Junior’s music show performances.

But again, it’s the lead single that really matters when you’re in the world of K-pop, and with “Sexy, Free & Single” as solid as it is, there’s no real room to complain. “Sexy, Free & Single” is a good example of SM doing everything right with a lead single: good, unannoying song, well-designed music video, great choreography, good hair, and no weird costumes.

As far as the boys are concerned, I was really impressed by their strong live performance on MuCore this week (a perfect MR removed performance from Super Junior? Who woulda thunk it?), and I’m also very pleased that everyone looks very, very handsome and unridiculous. They’ve finally become gentlemen amongst boys with this round of promotions. Despite my qualms with the album as a whole, it’s been a really long time since I’ve been so excited about Super Junior. Dazzle me, boys!

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¹Which is really something I’m trying to get away from (and which might be remedied through finding new fandoms, but let’s be real here), if only for the sake of my own sanity and self-respect.

²See: EXO’s “History,” TTS’ “Twinkle,” f(x)’s “Electric Shock,” SHINee’s “Sherlock.”

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