Credit
Article. Randy Suh (pop music critic), Myungseok Kang, Yunha Kim (music critic)
Design. Yurim Jeon
​Expectations and defiance
Randy Suh (pop music critic): Music is the art of expectation and defiance. Sometimes our expectations are met perfectly with something so familiar we’re sure we have heard it before; other times, what we hear doesn’t follow a trendy formula and instead defies the listener’s expectations, giving us something fresh. K-pop pushes this to even further extremes: In the world of K-pop, more stimulus means more impact, and excess is a virtue.

In recent years, excess has become the very grammar of K-pop, and twists on the formula became attention-grabbing. This technique can be heard when a song begins with a massive build-up and then abruptly removes every instrument besides the bass and drums in the chorus, resulting in a dramatic drop in energy. Recently, international K-pop fans have come to adopt the descriptive term “anti-drop,” an expression borrowed from the making-of video for Charlie Puth’s 2017 release “Attention.” Perhaps because they give off the sophisticated impression of a choice to do something other than elevate the music, anti-drops were not typically used by newer artists and were more commonly heard from singers with many years of experience to demonstrate the captivating beauty found in moderation. f(x)’s track “4 Walls” had this way back in 2015, while a similar structure can be heard more recently in songs like CHUNG HA’s “Stay Tonight” or WSJN THE BLACK’s “Easy.” In fact, so many more are appearing lately that it’s hard to list them all out. In this case, as this method of defying standard expectations becomes a trend, it also becomes another part of the musical grammar.

The title track off LE SSERAFIM’s debut EP, FEARLESS, is like one big anti-drop in itself. It shows a sense of restraint with its energy compared to the dance songs that are (also—since this song is likely to join them soon—) on the charts. Even though there is an actual anti-drop in the song for the sake of contrast, on a chart of full-blown K-pop songs, where every part surrounding the chorus of every song is taken to excess, “FEARLESS” takes a firm stand alone. As if everything that came before it has been acting as the build-up to this anti-drop. The lyrics, packed with ambition as they are, likewise defy expectations for conventional newcomer girl groups. Both the words and the music are infused with a strong sense of pride, to the point that some might interpret it as borderline arrogant.

The composition of the song is simple and resolute. The intro and first verse introduce the mood of the main instrumentation and the lyrics through the bass, drums and the serious voices of the group members alone. There is no key change, and the melody consists solely of the diatonic A minor scale, using no black keys on the keyboard. The lone rise in the song comes in the pre-chorus: Tensions rise as we get a “whoa-oh-oh” and hear their vocal chorus harmonies for the first time, a tam-tam dramatically ringing out, and tightly interwoven vocals from CHAEWON and SAKURA. The two lines that follow live at the very center of the song and embody its theme: “If my scar is also part of me / Then I’m not scared at all, not at all.” Following this, the sparse chorus of bass, drums and serious vocals returns. Not only is it an anti-drop, but the song itself is also extremely restrained, making it more meaningful for acting as a repetition of the theme than for marking any obvious contrast. The guitar run through a wah pedal that rests lightly atop the tail end of the chorus is the only variation on the theme. Producing Team 13, who worked not only on “FEARLESS” but every track off the EP, make use of a MIDI keyboard but also play all their instruments themselves, including guitar, bass and drums. People say there is no sound that can’t be synthesized by virtual instruments in this day and age, but the subtle difference in timbre that real instruments provide adds a tasty twist to this new K-pop dance track. LE SSERAFIM includes members KIM CHAEWON and SAKURA, who previously debuted with IZ*ONE and found great success with that group. Since those two have already been in the public eye, the group would have needed a twist to reverse the existing image. IZ*ONE’s music had its own special charm about it that was light and upbeat but also fast. This new song is a minimalist track that defies the expectations of those earlier days as well, reducing the track down to only its bare essentials.

“Blue Flame,” despite its similar disco instrumentation to “FEARLESS,” is brighter and sweeter than the title track. The fourth track and the one I personally found most interesting, “The Great Mermaid,” is a particularly engaging song because of its tone and texture, with its rough, thick synth wearing the cool melody like a shiny sequin jacket. “Sour Grapes,” an R&B track whose credits include the familiar all-woman lyricist team danke, is based on Aesop’s fable and has quite a strong sense of synesthesia running throughout. The soft, plucking staccato cautiously moves along, and I can already imagine it finding popularity on TikTok alongside songs like “Build a B*tch.”

Music is the art of expectation and defiance. What expectations are LE SSERAFIM under, and how do they defy them? Hopefully this new girl group defies as many of them as possible.

The power of one’s own voice

Myungseok Kang: The first track off FEARLESS, LE SSERAFIM’s debut album, is “The World Is My Oyster,” and the opening lyrics are made up of the three different languages the members of the group use in their everyday lives: “The world / sekai / sesang.” Later in the song, the subject becomes the entire sentence: “Na-neun / I / watashi wa.” The magic spell that can change the subject from the world to “I” is the words “I’m fearless”—the power to make oneself the subject in a world that “judges me” and “tries to change me.” It is inevitable, then, that the second track, “FEARLESS,” should begin with the self as subject as well: “I want to touch the very top.” It doesn’t matter what the world has in store for them, because they already tell the world what they want, and easily proclaim, “I’m not scared at all.” The world can attack or even judge them and call “that trouble that everyone had already known from the past” a “scar,” of course. But the first time through the chorus of “FEARLESS” starts by addressing “you” as the subject—“What you lookin’ at”—and finishes with, “I’m fearless.” Those words—“I’m fearless”—encapsulate the process of triumphing over the opinions of others and are the highlight of “FEARLESS.”

 

At the very core of that process is the first-person speaker’s voice. “FEARLESS” opens with a hook that feels like the members are marching along as they sing—“Bam ba ba ba ba bam”—with the arrangement progressively changing as the voices of other members arise. It starts with a minimalistic rhythm made up of bass and drums, but intricately evolves as each member takes their turn to sing by adding to the drums bit by bit. Other than the electric guitar, which makes a brief appearance during the chorus, there is no easy sound to pick up on throughout. Instead, it’s the voices of the members that lead the changes in the otherwise empty space of the song, and the dramatic change in vocals between parts leaves a lasting impression. Leading into the chorus, they sing, “Step on the pedal on the highway / Hit the cool ending / If my scar is a part of me / Then I’m not scared at all, at all,” showing off their most powerful vocals to lead the song to a climax, but by the time they reach the words “what you lookin’ at,” their voices become low, deep and emotionless—a turn for the cynical. The catharsis one usually finds from a climax is nowhere to be found. Instead, at the moment that would normally announce the coming climax, a single voice—the lowest in the whole song—sings out; then, the repetitive, catchy earworm, “What you lookin’ at,” lodges itself in the listener’s mind and finds it way back out through their mouth. This is when the idea of “I’m fearless” comes full circle. As the audience is “lookin’ at” the members dance to the repetitive rhythm, the song eventually moves on to the part where the listener hears the members sing, “I’m fearless.” By using others’ perceptions of the members to create repetitive lyrics, the group sublimates those perceptions into the form of a dance song that people in “the world” can sing along and dance to in the club. While “FEARLESS” is, for the singer—that is, the artist—the most efficient way to convey their message, it is also paradoxically a reconstruction of commercial music that you—the masses—can easily enjoy anywhere. Cynicism creeps in again during the bridge just before the last chorus with the words, “There is no more defeat / My payback is ready / Bring it to me right now.” But that cynical voice is finally met with the marching-like hook as they sing in high spirits through the chorus, confident that they will overcome.

 

The lyrics on FEARLESS are largely based on interviews held with the members of LE SSERAFIM, including CHAEWON SAKURA. Parts of the lyrics to “Blue Flame” were written by CHAEWON and YUNJIN, for example. CHAEWON and SAKURA, who have already had the world’s eyes on them for some time, have experiences that are a perfect encapsulation of the message of FEARLESS: that they will reach for their desires irrespective of the perceptions and judgment coming from the outside world. The meaning of the lyrics “What you lookin’ at” becomes clear when SAKURA sings it for the first time. When a short-haired CHAEWON next sings, “You should get away,” staring ahead with a mysterious smile, the position of LE SSERAFIM becomes that much clearer. In that respect, the personal histories of each LE SSERAFIM member, and their stance toward the outside world, come together to form one continuously expanding world of their own. The girl group sings a message that is knowingly filled with their own worldly experiences, creating a connection between itself, the way they sing, the tone of their vocals and the entire concept and tone of the album.

 

It speaks to the layout of the video, fully titled “FEARLESS TRAILER ‘The World Is My Oyster,’” which returns to the beginning of itself after reaching the end, even if this wasn’t the intention of the production crew. The CHAEWON at the end of the video looks the same as the CHAEWON at the beginning. However, she is now “fearless” inside as she experiences all-new things during the video. The same can be said for both her and SAKURA in their real lives. They are debuting once again, but because this isn’t their first time, what they will offer the world will differ from expectations. In the BLUE CHYPRE teaser photos, the members are in the water and bring to mind images of mermaids, playing on the theme of another of the album’s tracks, “The Great Mermaid.” But unlike the Little Mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Great Mermaid” isn’t living in fear of losing her voice; she screams out that she refuses to lose anything at all instead (“I don’t give a shit!”). LE SSERAFIM just debuted, but they are more than just a debuting girl group. Its members are restructuring the familiar elements of K-pop and girl groups and heading in a different direction. Even on “Sour Grapes,” the only track off the album that’s relatively light-hearted, the members betray hints of cynicism in their sweet voices as they worry about the sour taste of love that can bring them to tears. In the words of English novelist Mary Shelley, “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” But the importance of that quotation doesn’t stop at the word “fearless.” Only when fearlessness becomes one’s personal stance—the stance “I” hold onto—can one find the power to take on “the world.” The moment they send their fearless voice out into the world, they rewrite their own story.

The children are sprinting
Yunha Kim (music critic): The children are sprinting. Before they can stop to think or reflect, the children who choose to run are already that much further ahead. The children run, struggling to catch their breath, scattering laughter and tears out into the air behind them. As reckless as this running may seem, however, it has its own long history and traditions. They may come from their own backgrounds, but what chases them all is a fissure created in the conflict between an uncertain future and an unnamable expectation. These children run, run and run some more, beyond the reaches of time and space to avoid a rupture that seems to forever be following them with the threatening sound of cracks forming.

LE SSERAFIM, too, is sprinting. It’s obviously because they are young, but still, I zoom in close to their faces with my camera. Through the pouring rain of heavy techno beats, my eyes are fixated on the members’ lips as proverb-like quips pour out from them, too. “The world is imperfect.” “This world can never satisfy me.” “The world judges me.” They continuously recite such lines, cutting through the noise of a world that sticks around like a nightmare you can never wake up from. “I want to be stronger.” “I want to take up the challenge.” “I want the world in my hands.” “The World Is My Oyster,” the intro track to their debut album, FEARLESS, opens up the brave new world of LE SSERAFIM for us to see, but at the same time it also directly reveals the group’s attitude and how they first set out on their current journey. The group’s name is an anagram containing “fearless,” and the track ends with HUH YUNJIN firmly defining what that means to them: “The world is my oyster.” The title track is next and continues to explore the intense theme presented in the intro but with an alternative sound. The progression of the song shows a painting made with broad strokes, the beat one large arc dedicating its entire 2:47 runtime, which makes it feel like the members are looking straight at the listener, never awkwardly, and forgoes the use of a catchy melody. The gaze, fixed at one point and never wavering, engraves every bar of the track with the sense that the sentences are more than simply words. “The new wave that runs through my blood vessels / To hit the cool ending / If my scar is also part of me / Then I am not scared at all, at all” (“FEARLESS”).

There must be many reasons why they have no choice but to run so aggressively. For one, it’s difficult enough to debut once, and half the members have done it multiple times; for another, they face great expectations from an equally great number of people; moreover, the themes of liberation and independence common among the so-called fourth-generation K-pop girl groups is an undeniable force. But we might also guess that their run isn’t quite as rigid as one might expect—just listen to songs like the funky disco track “Blue Flame” and its thrumming bass line, the fascinating dark synths of “The Great Mermaid,” or the familiar soft pop of “Sour Grapes.” With their cards already on the table, it seems the road ahead will be anything but easy, but they have already begun this relentless race with clear goals in mind. The ominous noise behind them is ever-present and always in pursuit, but they have the energy to carry them a long way yet. The children are sprinting: They are LE SSERAFIM.