변 to the 백

These cuts of Exo on Immortal Song are really old so I’m not going to dwell on them too much…but man. This is some good ish. It’s a little mindboggling to watch these performances knowing that this is the same group that can barely sing on pitch whenever they perform their own songs live, and I’m not going to discount the possibility that some of the audio on their IS performances were edited before broadcast…but I mean, if there was ever a time and place to just shut up and enjoy the cake, it’s here.

Amongst Exo’s main vocalists — Chen, Kyungsoo, and Baekhyun — Baek is undoubtedly the weakest of the three. His range is smaller, he’s a lot more pitchy, and his voice isn’t as powerful as Chen’s or as agile as Kyungsoo’s. But somehow, Baekhyun ended up being the standout performer of all three IS performances. Up until now, I’ve never paid much attention to Baekhyun as a vocalist in Exo; the timbre of his voice was just too similar to Kyungsoo’s, and there wasn’t anything Baekhyun could do that Chensoo couldn’t do better.

But Baekhyun really has a lovely voice, and it’s kind of a pity that he has to be pitted up against Kyungsoo and Chen all the time. Baek doesn’t have the same amount of technical precision and control as Chensoo, which really becomes his downfall when he’s spending most of his time singing K-pop songs that don’t make the best of his voice.

The songs that Exo performed in IS were all pieces that Baekhyun could perform well — not because they were tailored perfectly to his voice, but because they were all songs that were originally sung by, well, singers. K-pop idol music today is pretty awful for singers who are used to singing actual melodies instead of just punching notes into the atmosphere with their voices. For example, “Growl” is a cool song to listen to, but the vocal line is really uncomfortable to sing — the melody line of the chorus feels awkward in the throat and it makes these leaps and jumps that don’t make much sense for a vocalist to sing. The only parts of “Growl” that feels natural to sing is the ad-libby sounding first half of the first line in the second verse that Kyungsoo sings — which I’m willing to bet was made up on the spot in-studio and wasn’t in the original midi demo.

But I digress. For the uninitiated, IS is a show where K-pop idols remake and perform old Korean hits that were popular during the 70s and 80s. Like most oldies, most of these songs are a lot more melodic than the K-pop songs of today. They were written to be performed by the voice, not the midi synthesizer.

Baekhyun performed these songs in IS really well because they were probably the kinds of songs he’s sung his entire life before he became an idol. His voice isn’t particularly powerful or agile, but it’s really smooth. It’s not to say that Chen or Kyungsoo couldn’t have done as good a job of singing these songs as Baekhyun, but after watching Baekhyun at his best in these IS performances, I think that Baekhyun’s voice is a lot more interesting than Chen or Kyungsoo’s.

Even in his duet with Chen in “Really Didn’t Know” — I mean, you’re really going to pit Baekhyun against Chen? — in the end, Baekhyun completely stole the show in that performance. Chen’s performance was technically precise and hit the dramatic notes with just the right amount of power in all the right places, but Baekhyun’s performance felt more textured, for lack of a better word. He didn’t do anything outside of his voice’s natural character and left all the high belting to Chen, but he still managed to capture the song by making his voice work with the song. Baekhyun has the song in the bag by the first few seconds. His interpretation of the first verse is far more compelling than Chen’s reprise of the same verse; the way he shapes the melody line is more detailed and nuanced than Chen’s take on the same line.

With “Still a Dark Night,” it would be completely unsurprising for Kyungsoo to take the cake seeing as he’s the Riff King of the group. But again, Baekhyun delivers a far more compelling and vibrant performance than either Kyungsoo or Chen. At 6:45 in the embedded video, all three main vocalists do a short adlib: first Kyungsoo, followed by Baekhyun, and then Chen. Kyungsoo’s riff is, as usual, stunningly complex and has like a bajillion notes in it, while Chen’s is nice and pretty but not very interesting. But Baekhyun’s, though short and seemingly simple, is easily the most harmonically interesting out of the three, and he delivers it in a way that hits an emotional chord in the listener that the other two riffs fail to do. Then, Baekhyun takes the prechorus right afterwards and kills it. He maintains a steady, intense drama throughout the entire line, but still manages to build the tension in the line just right so that the last high note feels almost like a true emotional release, rather than just another dramatic climax.

And lastly, in “With You” Baekhyun is easily, easily the member who’s having the most fun on that stage. He’s stuck with the most anticlimatic part of the verse — the half-verse lead-in to the bridge (10:10) — but he doesn’t throw away a single note or word in that verse and milks the whole thing. And that high note adlib at 11:22? SO. GOOD. 

I sound like a raging Baek stan right now, but believe me when I said that before watching these IS performances I never spared a second glance towards Baekhyun. Kyungsoo has always been my boy and he’ll probably always be my boy — I would trade a kidney to have his riffing skills. But while I still think Kyungsoo’s voice is incredible (again, those runs!) and he performs stunningly on studio recordings, Baekhyun is lord of the stage. It’s a shame that Baek’s pitch control isn’t quite as good when he has to sing stuff that clashes with his voice (i.e. everything that Exo does), but when he’s in his zone, he’s perfect.

Baekhyun is easily the most charismatic performer in all of Exo, and a part of me is sad that he didn’t debut solo (SM debuting a solo artist? Psh, please) because his technical weaknesses in performing amelodic idol music really overshadows the unique interpretive and textural qualities of his voice. Having two other singers who are both technically precise in their singing and can make even the most amelodic K-pop song sound good doesn’t help matters for Baekhyun, either.

But I have faith in you, Byunbaek. Consistency is great and all, but there’s nothing like that pleasant little surprise whenever someone like Baek rises up out of the masses and shows off his stuff. I have a feeling that Baekhyun will end up being the Onew of Exo (except with even less recognition for the unique qualities of his voice) which is unfortunate, but such is the cruel nature of K-pop.

In any case — rock on, Baekhyun. You keep doin’ you. :)

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  • Nina

    I agree with you completely on your analysis though I’m already partial to begin with since Baekhyun is my bias, but let’s proceed, shall we?

    I’ve always tried to figure out whose voice I liked most out of EXO (aka vocal line). Each had their own strengths and weaknesses and I found it difficult trying to convince myself on any one of them (though initially leaning towards DO). For example, DO’s is like warm hot chocolate in front of a fireplace, it’s so smooth and you can ease into it so comfortably. And then on the other end of the spectrum, Chen’s voice is ringing and precise and I know he can execute to bring out the songs to a new high. And then there was Baek who was somewhere in the middle of all that. He could hit some of the climax notes and offer some of the texture from DO’s voice that can melt your heart (the color is different between the two but it’s still there, whereas Chen lacks it completely for me). So that was my conundrum. I had spent forever and one trying to characterize Baek’s voice and how I felt about it.

    And then I listened to “I Really Didn’t Know” and during Baekhyun’s falsettos, I pretty much died and along with that, any rational criteria of evaluating him impartially. I could feel the heartbreak in his voice and suddenly it didn’t even matter if he wasn’t as consistent as Chen or smooth as DO. He has another dimension that sets him apart. DO and Chen sing, but Baekhyun performs. His voice makes me feel things that the other two don’t. Chen’s voice is pretty and DO’s voice is romantic, but they both lack thrill and momentum. The slightly raspy texture of his voice makes his lines edgier and interesting. (Pretty much a re-hash of everything you said above, but I just had all these thoughts I needed to get out there.)

    Wow, that sounded like I’m totally bashing DO and Chen, which isn’t true because I love them all to pieces! At least for me, I think Baekhyun’s will be my favorite even if he’s not the “best” out of the vocal line in the traditional sense.

    Regardless of the singing abilities, I absolutely loved the “With You” performance. I could feel the energy radiating off of them and they really stole the show. I was thoroughly engrossed in the minutes they were on stage. A fiery comet could have crashed into my house and my eyes still wouldn’t have left the computer screen.

    Love your blog and your thoughtful posts! It’s always very refreshing to view fandoms from a more intellectual perspective.

  • Cassandra

    I’m a bit mixed about your article.

    I disagree with your notion that Chen and DO are better from a technical standpoint. Don’t get me wrong, Chen def. is. His control is great and has the biggest range of the three, but I consider Do the third best tbh. The colour of his voice is gorgeous, his adlibs are to die for, but his range is very limited and his live singing also still needs some work. Of course Baekhyun’s voice also isn’t the most stable live, it cracks occasionally or he strains it to much, but that has more to do with the ridiculous high notes SM keeps giving him. I can remember during the MAMA era when DO had to do high notes WAY out of his reach, he fumbled every time. The reason why Baekhyun imo is the second best technical singer is ’cause he has a bigger range then DO and he can simply do more things with his voice then him.
    I agree that these songs fit him perfectly. My favourite performance was the duet between Chen and Baekhyun. Their harmonies, Baek’s falsettos, the beginning part, Chen beautiful belting notes. It was all heaven to my ears.

    • .

      But Baekhyun can do less with a bigger range than Kyungsoo who has a slightly lesser range but a whole bag of tricks.

      • Cassandra

        what how can he do less? Besides having a bigger range, he can do ad libs, falsetto, riffs, runs, ect. His voice is more versatile then DO, as is Chen’s. From the three main singers Kyungsoo is easily the most limited.