Forget “Mama” and “Wolf.” This is the “made-for-performance” song that SMTown dreams are made of.

(This post is brought to you courtesy of a week’s worth of writer’s block. If you don’t read this, you will probably hurt my feelings.)

It’s times like this where I wish “I Got A Boy” and “Sherlock” never existed. SM’s gotten a ton of flack recently for their whole song-is-meant-to-be-performed, bad-excuses-for-sucky-music schtick, and justly so. But when it works, it works.

The music and choreography of “Growl” are fairly unremarkable on their own, but together they create a performance that is cohesive and compelling from beginning to end. I think the universe needs to give a little more credit to the “visual” component of pop music — and by visual, I don’t mean theatrics: no mist machines, no high wires, no flame cannons. All it really takes is a relatively nonoffensive song coupled with staging and choreography that both compliments the song and succeeds in drawing the audience in.

Musical theatre does a really good job with this, and I think the biggest reason for it is because everything that happens in a musical needs to be intentional. Every line, every song, and every movement plays a part in a larger picture, and everything needs to fit with everything else. There’s literally no room for incohesion and no room for bullshit.

A good Broadway number is tight, cohesive, tells a compelling story, and is exciting to watch. The remarkable thing about this is that it isn’t limited just to newer, pop/rock musicals (In the Heights, Bring It On). These characteristics can also be found in more low-key shows (Spring Awakening, Next to Normal) as well as older, classic musicals (Evita, Carousel, West Side Story). Ultimately, the style or beat of the music is unimportant; it’s the intentionality in the performance that matters.

K-pop ┬áis no stranger to musical theatre-esque performances. 2PM’s “Come Back When You Hear This Song” and BoA’s “Only One” both have a distinct Broadway flair to them. They’re intentional pieces that make full use of the stage as they tell a story. 2PM’s track has the added bonus of having that obvious Broadway camp. On the other hand, BoA’s song seems more ABDC than Broadway, but the choreography boasts a strong narrative voice and takes full advantage of the stage in a way that makes it comparable to a number in West Side Story or A Chorus Line.

Like BoA’s “Only One,” Exo’s “Growl” doesn’t scream “Broadway” outright, but it still exhibits the strengths of any solid musical number. I don’t think that K-pop should Glee-ify itself and make musical theatre its next concept trend, but there are ways to spin the musical theatre style into something more idol-pop friendly. The choreography of “Growl” is pretty Broadway-ish to begin with — you’ve practically got the Sharks and the Jets dance-battling each other for half the song and the Nubians circling a rapping Aida for the other half. Which is great on its own and all, but a vital part of idol pop performances is the breaking of the fourth wall. In musical theatre, the fourth wall almost always stay intact. So how does “Growl” reconcile this conflict?

“Growl” plants one foot firmly into pop idol territory by making the cameraman a part of the choreography. No, really — a huge part of “Growl”‘s staging focuses on the cameraman going straight into the middle of the choreography and filming the members up close. The members play straight into the camera (and shatter the fourth wall by, er, winking a lot). This becomes an obvious element in the music videos, as well as live performances on a center stage where all four sides are open to the audience.

Speaking of which, I really like how the dance constantly shifts direction, and that there’s no “front” or “back” to the choreography. There’s probably a technical term out there that does a much better job of describing this, but who cares because asdfkjas;ldfjlwkjfeafklWHEEEEEEEEEEXO.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Exo perform live during their comeback week on MuCore, but not so pleasantly surprised to find out that even after a year, Exo still…can’t really sing live. Grumble.

To their credit, though, the problem with their performance wasn’t that the singing was a trainwreck, because it really wasn’t. It’s clear that the group’s improved significantly since “Mama,” and that should certainly be applauded. But “Growl” is just a plain hard song to sing. Granted, the song sits in a fairly comfortable range for most male idol voices, and there aren’t any crazy high notes or hard riffs in there. But the difficult part about pulling off a song like “Growl” live is that everything needs to sound effortless. This song is too brush-the-dirt-off-your-shoulders-cool-without-even-trying for anyone to be gasping and struggling through their lines. In a way, Exo’s live performance of “Growl” reminds me of Shinee during their “Hello” era. “Hello,” though being a far inferior song to “Growl,” still demanded the same effortlessness in order for the performance to be truly convincing. As such, neither “Hello” nor “Growl” are easy songs to perform.

The only artist I can think of who could pull this off is BoA. Or 12 clones of BoA. “Only One” demanded the same kind of effortlessness as “Growl,” and was coupled with extremely challenging choreography to boot. But BoA performed it live and made it look as if she was exerting herself less than the energy required to lift a finger. She performed an extremely challenging piece with absolute serenity, grace, and dexterity — all the things needed to pull off a song like “Growl.”

But hey, there’s only one BoA for a reason, right? I’ll probably stick to watching the lip-synched performances of “Growl” from now on (wow, never thought I’d say that), if only because Exo already does such a great job of pulling off the choreography and playing to the camera, and the addition of imperfect live singing spoils the rest of the performance.

And that’s perfectly fine. At the end of the day, “Growl” exceeds expectations in so many ways. It’s a great song that makes for even better performances. That’s K-pop goodness for ya.

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  • Leslie

    I love you forever for this, Patricia, because as soon as I watched the MV, I immediately got a West Side Story vibe. I agree about the lip synching as well because it’s so wonderful in every other aspect. Great read!