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. :)