reality is weirder than you think

Tag: SM Entertainment

Swishy pants layered under shorts, you in?

It’s one of those days, guys.

Friday on a Thursday.

PMS without the resolution.

A flurry of work that ends up being wrong wrong wrong.

And in the same way that I have to add a section to the agenda I make for my weekly meetings with my boss so that my boss doesn’t forget a plan she has for me, I’m going to inflict upon you a picture that doesn’t make any sense because I had an upside-down day.

Projection is fun like that. 🙂

Anyway, here’s Chanyeol from EXO shilling for Major League Baseball in Korea by wearing an insane amount of legwear.

I know the dude is tall and all, but c’mon, there’s a limit to how many times you can visually chop his body horizontally.

Also, as a diehard West Coaster, it bothers me that both the EXO and TWICE photosets for MLB have featured pretty much nothing but the New York Yankees.

Seattle, maybe? or LA?

Even Jay Park reps the Mariners.

Give ’em a little love.

Reinventing the NCT concept

I have so many thoughts about NCT 2018 Empathy. So many. Most of them are not positive, but I remain hopeful.

If you’re just joining this comeback cycle, I was not a huge fan of NCT U’s “Boss” but liked NCT Dream’s “Go” despite my dreamies being all grown up. The more I listen to “Go,” the more of a Haechan appreciator I’m become. His voice is gorgeous and he uses it impeccably. (“Boss” is growing on me, ngl. Listening to it on headphones is like suddenly going underwater and seeing all the coral reefs and fishes when previously you were just been dog paddling above the surface.)

However, that brings us to NCT 127 and “Touch.” Writing about it means that I should post the music video on my channel and for that I hate myself a little bit.

This video makes me cringe.

It’s clear that Dream and 127 swapped concepts for this comeback, with Dream taking the hard-edged grotty urban-inflected hip-hop sound, and 127 covering the squeaky-clean brightly lit bubblegum pop arena. However, unlike Dream’s previous singles (even “Chewing Gum”), “Touch” doesn’t have a twist, or a nudge-and-wink, or a naughty streak. It’s just plain, simple bright smiles and boyfriend material.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that–there certainly isn’t. But it isn’t why I started listening to NCT and certainly isn’t what attracts me to k-pop.

I recognize that I’m not the typical fan (I’m older than most of their target market), because I see the younger fans clearly enjoying the visuals of all the members in this comeback. And yes, they are all very good looking. But I miss the gonzo NCT styling which even applied to Dream when they were promoting. There are no fur hats or eyeball rings and shark jackets or fantasy military jackets. Or Gucci on a hoverboard.

It’s not just the visuals that bother me, though. The actual song “Touch” is really corporate sounding, like you’d stick it into a commercial for an off-brand soda. Frankly, it sounds like a reject from EXO’s winter album that some underling producer got stuck with trying to “funk it up” for NCT.

Which brings us to the Empathy album as a whole, which someone remarked should be called NCT 2016-2018 since it contains all the assorted non-album releases since NCT debuted. “Black on Black,” all of the NCT U songs. NCT U’s “The Seventh Sense” was the first song that drew me to NCT, and if I had discovered it on an album like Empathy, I don’t know if I would have explored more. (Of course it was Dream’s “My First and My Last” that really got me. NCT Dream is secretly everybody’s favorite.)

Specifically, I dislike albums that are all single and no b-side. Even with the intro and outro, there’s no reason for me to listen to Empathy on its own. NCT has always been weak in their discography–partly because they’re still experimenting with their sound but also because they only have mini albums and don’t have a body of work built up like a band like EXO or Big Bang did. Granted, the inherent structure of NCT’s design would make it more difficult to build up a body of coherent work, because they’re built up of subunits with different themes and sounds.

Even more specifically, I’m really disappointed by the song “Yest0day.” Interesting title, not a bad hook, fantastic rap from Mark (who is really starting to hone his chops), all ruined by an idiotic rap from Lucas. One of the main reasons I like k-pop is that even when the rap is simplistic or lacking finesse it’s not dumb. I hate dumb rap where they take a word and then rhyme it five times in a row without any rhythmic variation or wordplay or anything. Mark delivers the opposite of that. So does Taeyong. But Lucas the Usurper? No more dumb rap, please.

Now. Granted. Part of this sounds like the knee-jerk reaction of someone who is protective of a fledgling k-pop group. And that is true, I like NCT and being a person high in openness, I like the idea of an ever-expanding group that can shift to accommodate different musical styles and moods.

But it’s hard to watch SM deliberately crash the original NCT concept. One of the benefits of doing it now is that I know that I won’t have to watch it happen in slow motion, when producers run out of ideas and the concepts all start to morph slowly into each other and enough members leave that all the subunits are consolidated to keep the group alive. At least we don’t have that future.

Maybe (hah) this means that we can get more clarity out of future NCT subunits, who will emerge to deposit a well-conceived package of music into our earballs before evaporating back into the nebulous NCT mothership. (Isn’t that what the concept was supposed to be anyway?)

I suspect that the deliberate switching of Dream and 127’s concepts, plus the cataloging of U’s random singles into one album, serves as a zeroing-out for the group. I think this is supposed to be a new start, a time for all the subunits to develop empathy for each other’s concepts and learn how to work together or whatever. However they promote from this point forward, it won’t be the NCT that we started with.

On the plus side, SM is always A/B testing, so I’m hoping we’ll get something stronger out of this. The concepts for both Super Junior and EXO crashed too, and both groups did alright for themselves.


PS: SM Entertainment, this is my request for an official Mark/Haechan subunit.

Red Velvet Appreciation Post: Body Talk

I don’t think I’ve talked about Red Velvet on this particular blog. Red Velvet has a special place in my heart.

One of the fun side-along problems with my autoimmune problems has been a propensity to depression and melancholy. I don’t think I’ll ever shake my love of melancholy, but after cleaning up my diet, I no longer get depressed or on a melancholy streak or “coffee depression” like I once did.

I know this, because I’ve started listening to much happier music. Namely, k-pop. Red Velvet was one of the groups that clued me into this, because in the past I never would have been able to listen to “pop” music for a long period of time without it grating on my nerves for going against whatever (bad) mood I was in.

Now, Red Velvet is a very R&B-inflected pop group who doesn’t shy away from dark themes and minor keys, so it’s pop that is very much in line with my melancholy tendencies. It’s just way happier overall.

So when I realized that I was listening to almost nothing but k-pop, I realized that on the whole I was in a much better mood, and had been for a few months. I realized this while listening to Red Velvet’s “Ice Cream Cake,” which is still one of my favorites.

Specifically about Body Talk, tho

“Body Talk” is one of my favorite b-sides from Red Velvet. (For those of you new to k-pop, a b-side is basically any song published by a group that’s not a title track–the ones with the music videos that are used for promotion.) It’s a fantastic example of the RV girls doing their best R&B-inflected singing, and I am particularly fond of atmospheric, orchestral pop arrangements. The harmonies are lush and the chord progression is really interesting. As with most k-pop I listen to, it’s better with headphones.

I also really like how it reminds me of those late-80s fantasy movies with the synth-heavy theme songs.

NCT Dream grew up

But the dirty grotty basslines that characterize NCT title tracks will never die.

I’m definitely not complaining.

We all thought Mark was ‘graduating’ from Dream because he’s an adult now. I guess that was before SM rethought the entire concept of NCT.

And yet he’s back and rapping better than ever.

There’s a reason he’s my ultimate NCT bias.

NCT Batting Order

So SM Entertainment released a couple “video yearbooks” to promote NCT.

(Of course Taeyong is the thumbnail! That guy is so symmetrical his visuals could hurt someone.)

It’s kind of a fun way to introduce the crew, especially since it’s everybody all together, and help people learn names and personalities.

I’ve been trying to identify each of their personas, so this is a great opportunity to see how each member is presented.

Here’s a numbered list because I’m not sure how many of them there are these days:

  1. Taeyong the Most Beautiful Rapper in the World
  2. Jaehuyn the All-American Korean Poetic Beauty
  3. Jungwoo (new)
  4. Winwin the Romantic Angel Prince
  5. Ten the Bond Villain (Dramatic)
  6. Jisung the Bboy (Athletic)
  7. Jaemin (not really new, but might as well be)
  8. Yuta the Mischievous
  9. Haechan the meek lamb schoolboy not the cheeky maknae no sir not a foot out of line
  10. Chenle the Savant (Ingenious?)
  11. Taeil the Inexplicable (Smart but weird, not stable like Professor Doyoung)
  12. Kun (new)
  13. Johnny the Not Sure Why He’s There But He Sure Is Cool
  14. Lucas (new)
  15. Doyoung the Professor (seriously he is prefect for this role it suits him so well)
  16. Renjun, He of the Long Neck. I think they’re trying to push a smart, elegant, classical look with him. He’s such a tranquil person.
  17. Jeno the Lady Killer
  18. Mark who is the best don’t lie to yourself, the most creativest and hardest working

Eighteen, okay! That’s a lot. One more than…Seventeen…

This list is bookended by the two anchors-slash-rappers, Taeyong and Mark. Second and second-to-last is the visual from that leader’s subunit, Jaehyun from 127 and Jeno from Dream. The others kind of weave in and out together, interspersing the newly debuted trainees (Jungwoo, Kun, Lucas) and the guys who had debuted but who subsequently got injured (Jaemin, Ten).

Interesting how Ten still managed to impress a personality upon all of us even when he wasn’t promoting, but Jaemin wasn’t. Jaemin reminds me of people like Lea Michelle who are born and bred in the ~musical theater~ system and who have no personality of their own. To be fair, I think Jaemin had a huge issue with his back and Ten did release a SM Station song fairly recently. But still.

Not sure where they’re going with Haechan’s persona. He was such a troublemaker when he first debuted–the cheeky one–but now they’re trying to brand him as a scholar. My money is still on him for having the most public meltdown, if it comes to it.

SM has been really pushing Mark lately. I don’t mind–he is my bias, after all–but I hope it doesn’t backfire. I want Mark to have a long, successful career.

A very personal review of EXO’s Universe

After so many amuse bouche posts about k-pop teasers and comebacks, I’m finally going to serve up a main course by telling you my thoughts on an entire album.

This is largely because EXO’s latest winter album, Universe, actually sounds like an album.

One of my biggest problems with k-pop is that it the industry focuses almost exclusively on singles. (American pop does this too, so I shouldn’t complain too much.) But as someone who appreciates the musical journey that a well-crafted album can provide, I miss that in k-pop. At its best, you get a 4-minute chunk of a pure emotion-bubble. No story, no journey, no connection.

So when the songs on this summer’s The War feel like they belong together, like they could all be found on the same menu in the same restaurant, I was ecstatic. Some of the songs are quite good, too.

I’m pleased to say that the musical cohesiveness has continued into the winter album. All the songs sound related, in roughly the same color palette–even though they have different emotional hooks.

Universe is just beautiful. A sweeping rock ballad with a generous dash of “longing” and and an English hook of “I’ll search the universe” with the unspoken FOR YOU that hooks all of us womenfolk.

The b-side that I’ve heard the most chatter about is Been Through. This might be because the songwriters are good at promoting themselves on Twitter. Part of me wants to love it; it’s a beautifully-orchestrated, sparse pop song. It’s not often that you hear pizzicato in pop strings, and the effect contrasts well with EXO’s lush vocals. What I don’t love is how the chorus sounds like American pop music. The rhyming “You shine like the stars / you light up my heart” takes me immediately to the arena of overly saccharine indie pop which spoils the mood somewhat.

A contender for my favorite is Stay. The piano and the semi-flat analog sound of the recording are a refreshing change of pace from the normal bright and clean acoustics. This song showcase’s EXO’s vocal ability well, with a repeating motif of thirds (I think–my music theory is a bit rusty) that weaves subtly through the different verses. Honestly I’ve never been much of a fan of Suho’s vocals but he’s winning me over in this song. His verse with Kai–who tries so hard–is charming.

My nominees for “most forgettable” on this album are Fall and  Good Night. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they’re not as good as they other songs. Fall is a pretty standard R&B ballad, nothing too special. The guitar line is nice. As far as Good Night, I want to hate the synth sound for being so jarring with the acoustic (or fake acoustic) sounds of the other songs, but if I take a step back it’s a nice palate cleanser.

Finally, we have Lights Out, which has a beautiful moving bass line under the piano line and melody. The use of voice-as-instrument reminds me of Enya’s Shepherd Moons album–absolutely stunning. Sung by our vocal line (Chen, Baekhyun, DO, Suho), this is the song I would most love to see performed live with a piano and an upright bass.


Anyway, if the vocals on Universe have not already inspired you to wish for a Chen solo album, Lights Out will. [Edit: it appears that Chen wrote this song as well, so I will upgrade this wish to a Chen singer/songwriter solo album.]

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album. I have two overall criticisms. Though I’ve praised this album for sounding cohesive, sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t sound too much of the same. The fact that I can skip 2 songs out of 6 without changing the “feeling” of the album says a lot for the repetition in tone and in instrumentation.

Universe delves into melancholy territory that EXO has never tackled. It’s nice to hear some songs predominantly in minor key (not just for effect or contrast), but the overall effect is downer rather than upper. One of the things that I like the most about K-pop in general is that it’s optimistic and happy without being overbearing about it. Even when EXO’s previous winter title tracks have been sad, they never dwelt on it (musically at least–I can’t speak to the lyrics). This album leaves me feeling hollow in a way that K-pop never has. I appreciate that, but I’m not sure I like it.

Moving forward, I hope that the members and SM’s music team can capitalize on this year of excellent music and keep up this level of quality. The Japan album looks to be great. I’m hoping for another “Forever” in our future.


“A Very Personal Review” means that I’m no expert, this is merely my subjective opinion that I’m writing because I like this album and want to share it with the world. I don’t listen widely to (Western) pop or to K-pop, so I can’t situate this group or this album in a wider context, nor can I give a good music theory perspective on it.

Image of the Week: Speaking of vaporwave in k-pop edition

I’m a bad publicist. EXO just released their winter album, so I should be shilling for that.

Instead, here’s a photo from the teaser from their Japan debut, which was released a month ago and scheduled for a month from now.

Please note: vaporwave.

Twice and EXO looking to have a Japan vaporwave showdown.

I’m here for that.


Happy last Friday of 2018, y’all.

Image of the Week: “you can do it” edition

Originally, I was going to post that photo of Nikki Haley in the UN. It sufficiently summed up the week in politics. But it doesn’t jive with my personal experience for the week, so I’m not posting it.

This week has been long.

I’m growing tired of so much change in my life, and yet this week just piled on more: new boundaries to my conception of time thanks to the writing of Elliott Jaques, more layers to my understanding of the globalist cabal, the death by suicide of Kim Jong-Hyun of SM Entertainment (also YouTube’s algorithm keeps recommending me SHINee videos and it’s killing me) and changes at my workplace that will render me effectively isolated. I haven’t slept well. I’m tired.

But there’s good news. Reading between the lines of WordPress’ inflated pageview stats, a few real people have checked out Batfort this week. (Hi, people!)

Though I’m tired, I’m motivated.

So with that in mind, this is a photo of Jeff Bezos’ office when he was just starting out, in 1999.

I’m no Jeff Bezos, but we all have to start somewhere.

Always A/B Testing

One of the things I admire most about SM Entertainment is that they are constantly iterating and A/B testing the groups, songs, and concepts that they produce.

If you pay attention to how they operate as an entity, rather than focusing exclusively on one of their groups, you can see a real-time example of why they’re one of the biggest entertainment groups in k-pop.

They’ve created entire “entertainment properties” to showcase this A/B testing.

SM Rookies

Before NCT debuted as its various subgroups, SM conducted rigorous testing through the online series SM Rookies. They tried out various different configurations of trainee groups. Sometimes this is really rough, as with the “SR15B dance practice” video, or music-video quality in the case of “Bassbot” and “Super Moon.”

“Super Moon” is interesting because of the three members–Taeyong, Johnny, and Hansol–featured in it, Hansol did not debut with any NCT units. In fact, he’s no longer under contract with SM Entertainment.

I suspect this is because Hansol has an almost identical “look” as Yuta, who did debut with NCT 127.

[Warning: unknown quantities of confirmation bias ahead.]

With male groups, SM tends to assemble a variety of different types. For example, if you compare a photo of EXO with a photo of BTS, you can see what I mean. EXO members each have their own charm, while–with the exception of Rap Monster–BTS members have a similar vibe. NCT is no exception to this, as you can label each member as “The ______ One” even if you know nothing about their personalities.

If you compare Hansol and Yuta in other footage from SM Rookies, Yuta is hungrier. Despite being Japanese, Yuta has been described as “more Korean than the Koreans.” You can literally watch Yuta work solidify his status as “the sexy one” as NCT 127 has practiced, promoted, and performed “Cherry Bomb” this year. (I have the YouTube receipts for this–let me know in the comments if you want me to post them.)

From my completely outsider perspective, it makes sense that if you have two trainees who look almost identical but have different work ethics, you’ll pick the one who is going to work harder.

SM Station

One of SM’s staples on YouTube is SM Station, which features single songs that are collaborations, off-brand concepts for an existing group, or other “random” things. There are a lot of fun songs under this umbrella. (Don’t mind me plugging my boy Chen again.)

Right now, I suspect that they’re testing a subgroup or solo venture featuring Wendy from Red Velvet. In the past months, she’s been featured in two different SM Station releases.

One is a jazz version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which prominently features the fact that she’s an English speaker and a strong vocalist.

The other is a collaboration with singers Baek a Yeon and Jaehyun (from NCT). Another seasonal song, called “The Little Match Girl,” but it’s in Korean and puts Wendy’s voice in a different context than Red Velvet.

SM is also simultaneously running a test between Jaehyun and Doyoung as soloists from NCT 127. Jaehyun has gotten two SM Station songs so far versus Doyoung’s one (although Doyoung has been featured in some live stages), so we’ll have to wait and see what comes of this.

The one downside that I can see is that all of the tests attract at least some fans, so you still have a small contingent of NCT stans who wonder about Hansol. I could see this building up into ill will if SM made the wrong decision, but clearly NCT is succeeding reasonably well without Hansol so I doubt it will become a huge problem. I could see this negative feedback being another metric to check your decisions against.

I don’t really know what SM’s intentions are with SM Station, or what the outcome will be.If I can figure out a way to reverse-engineer YouTube views I’ll see if I can put together a predictive post.

In the meantime, I’m determined to learn from SM how to A/B test in real time while also producing quality product that people enjoy. The sheer volume of content that they produce is staggering, and I don’t doubt that it has a direct correlation with why they are so successful.

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