Not Angel, Not Villain But Good-Spirited Girls
Kang Myungseok: “Good-spirited girls.” This is an expression that often shows up when searching LE SSERAFIM on the internet. “Good-spirited girls” could be narrowly interpreted as a simple gender-switch of the already existing expression, “Good-spirited fellow/guy.” But with LE SSERAFIM the expression speaks to the original path they are forging which neither girl groups nor boy groups have yet to show us. For instance, right after they wrapped the promotional work for their debut album, LE SSERAFIM released a documentary titled “The World is My Oyster.” In it we see a trainee fail to make the cut though she was in the running to debut with the team. We also witness KIM CHAEWON – already a star – experience frustration with herself after a critique of her dance moves. Now, in the latest album, “ANTIFRAGILE,” KIM CHAEWON sings, “I’m no f***in’ angel / I’m no f***in’ goddess.” These words from the song “No Celestial,” represent an unprecedented artistic decision to use “f***in’” even though it is rare for an idol group to do so this early in its career. This is a doubly rare decision when we consider that “f***in’” is being used in combination with “angel” and “goddess,” terms of admiration used for girl group members. Yet, just as “good-spirited girl” is not a forced inverse of the archetypal “good-spirited guy,” we should not jump from LE SSERAFIM’s declaration of “I’m no f***in’ angel” immediately to the other extreme of being a non-angelic, demon entity. LE SSERAFIM first performed their title track, “ANTIFRAGILE” at the COMEBACK SHOW : ANTIFRAGILE where they closed the song with bright smiles and heart shapes formed with hands. There were also bicep-flexing poses which did not feel like a one-dimensional message of power, but rather a shared moment of how strength can also be conveyed through real, uninhibited joy. This bright and upbeat vibe continued through to performances of “Impurities,” “No Celestial” and other tracks.
Still, during “No Celestial” the members punctuated the amiable, smiling performance with striking moves such as tipping over then picking up mics stands, or showcasing exuberant headbanging skills. In the Afro-Latin style “ANTIFRAGILE,” and in “Impurities” with its old school hip-hop beat and R&B melody, the former’s Latin music rhythm was naturally accompanied by the uninterrupted swaying of hips, and the latter’s hip-hop bass instructed the complex and varying dance steps. The refreshing cool of LE SSERAFIM’s brand of stage presence is a result of having successfully fused raw talent with dedication to practice. The resulting energy becomes the coherent throughline along which the entire album hangs, which becomes particularly clear when delivering performances across multiple genres – Latin Pop, R&B, pop-funk, and more. In “ANTIFRAGILE” the choreography comes on fast and unrelenting, but the formations are razor sharp and perfectly synchronized, while also showing off the so-called “shadow sequence” technique where the same moves are repeated in rapid succession by each member; all of which are extremely demanding when performed while the legs and hips are constantly in motion. “ANTIFRAGILE” succeeds in faithfully conveying the frolicking, almost cardio-exercise style energy of Latin Pop, while also finding a way to fit this together deftly with signature high-intensity K-POP performance elements. Throughout all of this, striking lyrics such as “I’m no f***in’ angel,” (“No Celestial”) or “Rising through the flames,” (“ANTIFRAGILE”) shout out a tough message even as members continue smiling, making heart signs, and never missing one beat in the complex full-body choreography that makes one want to ask them for core-toning fitness tips. LE SSERAFIM refuses to be pigeon-holed into either of the conventional boy group or girl group category. Instead, they blend together the “it” factor of each category to alchemize a completely new pop music moment. The industry might say this is a moment of expansion for K-POP where the boundaries of girl groups and boy groups are being creatively deconstructed; in phrase “good-spirited.”
In “ANTIFRAGILE” LE SSERAFIM does not make any grand proclamation, only that theirs is an indomitable will that will be “riding” thorny paths and “rising” from flames. This will to ascend, to run faster, to soar higher stands in powerful contrast to the imagery of leaden descent described in “The Hydra” as “Cast me down into the dark sea (私を黒い海に投げてみて).” “The Hydra” also contains a verse spoken in a low voice as a weighty EDM beat brings a somber tone to the whole track. In contrast, from the first “Anti-ti-ti-ti-fragile-fragile,” “ANTIFRAGILE” begins with punchy, high notes. Though initially the lower register notes are sparse, as the song progresses the heftier bass sounds, drums, and other such elements are carefully added to the track in just the right way as a counterbalance to the light, soaring vocals. This brings a steady, grounding effect to the overall track while at the same time masterfully using the resulting contrast to allow the listener to instantly intuit where the song will lift and where it will drop. What remains important throughout is the space between the deepest point and the highest point, and ultimately, the will to rise. (Uncannily, there is a moment on this track where the deep, pulsing bass beat suddenly stops, and it is this very moment that KAZUHA, SAKURA, and KIM CHAEWON choose to speak of their personal history using lower pitched voices : “Don't forget my pointe shoes I left behind,” “Don't underestimate the path I've walked.”) If indeed the hydra journeyed up through the deep waters to break through to the ocean’s surface, what drove it to do so? What was it trying to be? Or was it simply enjoying this ascent and eventual birth into this world? In their latest album, LE SSERAFIM does not define themselves as angels, demons, or any static thing. What matters is the direction of change, no matter how faint. The hydra that sank into dark depths after a decapitating blow to its neck has re-connected with its true source of energy that will drive its ascent back up into our world.
We can be whatever we want to be. But we have to be strong enough to withstand the process because this is how we can prove ourselves to the biggest doubter: us. LE SSERAFIM’s documentary showed how incredibly intense the process of becoming a K-POP idol is, as evidenced by clips of it circulating the internet as ruthless motivation for those who want some ass-kicking. The unscripted “LE SSERAFIM Company” required the rookie group to create this candid content relying only on each other. It was well received by fans and the public and even became the centerpiece to the VCR segment in the COMEBACK SHOW : ANTIFRAGILE. The group also made an impression on stage when they committed to live performance of “FEARLESS” during a KBS Music Bank live broadcast though the sound system was experiencing unusual disruptions that transmitted all the ambient noises. When the members’ voices rang out clear even through the roar of fans during college campus festivals, LE SSERAFIM put to rest doubts about their capacities as singers. The album title “ANTIFRAGILE” is both a musical theme and the attitude towards their musical vision and work, the path that LE SSERAFIM has been forging over the past five months. Rather than waiting to have an identity or a role projected upon them, the members want to become strong enough to rise above any challenge. LE SSERAFIM is searching for a greater, more intense artistic inspiration to channel. And their every performance and interaction prove that they are successful in this search. Though this can be a gritty process, a sense of levity always finds them when they stand upon the stage. Yes, it is time to officially include “good-spirited girl” in the dictionary. Not as the female version of “good-spirited boy,” but as a self-defined idea of its own.
From “FEARLESS” to “ANTIFRAGILE”
Lee Yejin: “I want to reach the top,” these are the words to the opening verse of LE SSERAFIM’s debut single, “FEARLESS.” In the chorus of “ANTIFRAGILE” their second mini-album’s titular lead track, a similar message appears : “I'll climb higher, top of the world I itched for.” Then this is immediately followed by “No biggie if I were to fall.” LE SSERAFIM’s career trajectory starts with their debut with “FEARLESS” to “ANTIFRAGILE” where they are aiming to “climb higher” to “the top.” The “I’m fearless” attitude helps the members withstand the world staring at “my scars” even from before they were public figures (“What you lookin’ at”). “I’m fearless” has evolved into “I’m antifragile,” about being beyond fragility even when falling from the top, or even when some people actively root for their downfall (“They all pray for the day I’m falling,”). LE SSERAFIM’s experience of how the world can respond to an artist’s debut has been a curiously physical and almost prosaic experience that demanded a toughness that speaks to how consumption of pop culture has moved beyond passive witnessing, for better or worse.
Immediately after chanting “Antifragile” early in the track, LE SSERAFIM tells us how they are making use of the unexpected events of the past and the threats from an unfathomable future: “Riding over the trail of thorns / You made me boost up.” Both a key component of the hook and the album’s overarching message, the word “Antifragile” is deconstructed into “Anti-ti-ti-ti-fragile-fragile” to form a playful sound device for the song, while the bicep-flexing choreography initially seems to be signaling power, but the hands quickly morph into feline paws to impart levity. Where in “FEARLESS” the declaration of “I’m fearless” was dead serious as evidenced in the lyrics, the sound, and the performances, “ANTIFRAGILE” shows the members brushing off shocks and volatility with a smile and a wink. This is not about having a hard exterior that is robust against external shocks, but having access to a deeper well of true confidence that can laugh at these attacks. Unlike “FEARLESS,” “ANTIFRAGILE” shows us not only LE SSERAFIM’s current standing and message, but also their evolved attitude. If the world has decided to hit harder, then LE SSERAFIM will respond accordingly. The way the team interacts with the world has never stopped evolving even while they were on hiatus. In the documentary “LE SSERAFIM - The World Is My Oyster,” we are shown the path each member traveled to prepare for LE SSERAFIM all the way to their musical debut. Just as the performances steadily leveled up, the camaraderie blossomed along with the desire to succeed, as did a gritty determination to face up to judgment and critique. If “FEARLESS” introduced us to the transformative journey and commitment that led the members to their debut, then “ANTIFRAGILE” tells us of the ascent of the group’s career, determination, and ultimately their unflinching joy and laughter. With lyrics such as “I’m no f***in’ angel / I’m no f***in’ goddess” the likes of which we have yet to experience in the music of idol groups, and “Hear my voice, honest and vulnerable,” in “No Celestial” for which member HUH YUNJIN contributed lyrics, are all important indicators of the group’s deeper growth we ought to take note of. The words to LE SSERAFIM songs draw from conversations between the members and the staff that work tirelessly with them, and this unfiltered exchange contains the powerful present moment of LE SSERAFIM. This is the arrival of an idol group that tells their story like no other, all the while landing the most difficult dance moves with effortless ease, and with an impish smile as if we share a secret.
The Variation with Both Balance and Glamorous
Randy Suh (Music Writer): Mini-album number two is here. Already. But the debut album “FEARLESS” released this May is still a mainstay in my playlist as the musical theme running through all the tracks is incredibly balanced and remains compelling to this day. The second mini-album “ANTIFRAGILE” picks up right where “FEARLESS” left off. Their first tracks both open with a spoken verse, the second tracks are the lead tracks, and this symmetry continues across the five songs in each album. The matching song lists are artful echoes of the perfect one-two punch that is LE SSERAFIM’s first and second mini-albums. The order and patterns that thus emerge have a potent presence, like a masterfully balanced architectural design. Still, as we let this pattern guide us into a deeper exploration of the group’s recent music, we gradually become aware of what makes “ANTIFRAGILE” different from its pair.
In comparison to the simple, almost steely “FEARLESS” that has a simmering energy field just beneath the surface, what we first pick up in “ANTIFRAGILE” is the “boom--ch-boom-chick” of a dembow rhythm and its slight syncopation. However the song is not the sultry number one would typically associate with Latin Pop tracks with a similar beat. The drum and percussion don’t ring as much and feel cool and restrained enough to maintain the lineage of the industrial sound established in the first mini-album. From the song’s Phrygian mode riffs (these melodic phrases that feel like mysterious ceremonial music of an ancient civilization repeat in the wake of “Anti-ti-ti-fragile-fragile” at the beginning of the song), the presence of Supreme Boi in the song credits, and lyrics intimately tied to the singers’ personal lives all call to mind BTS’ “Mic Drop.” Punchlines like “Don't forget my pointe shoes I left behind,” “Don't underestimate the path I've walked,” land powerfully, carrying the weight of the members’ fierce lives behind them.
In “Impurities” we re-encounter the airy and sophisticated R&B of “Blue Flame.” Placed squarely in the center of the lineup, the number succeeds in bringing a touch of tenderness to the album that could have ratcheted into brittleness. Reminiscent of the style of American R&B girl groups of the 90s and the 00s, the crooning rhythm and harmonies are remarkably evocative yet easy.
The lyrical tongue-in-cheek of “No Celestial” that plays with the angelic imagery connected with the group’s name, LE SSERAFIM, is quite memorable. The song falls into the pop-rock genre, but instead of a Disney-esque brightness the song feels closer to the fin-de-siècle sentiment found in the theme songs of Japanese anime from the 20th century (indeed, the term “angel” and the related visual language were much loved by the pop culture industry at the turn of the century). The track title calls to mind such angel-related manga titles as Yazawa Ai’s earlier work of “I’m Not An Angel,” or Nishimori Hiroyuki’s “Cheeky Angel.” Just as “The Great Mermaid” from the mini-album “FEARLESS” did, “No Celestial” shows us the artist’s musical aspirations in a different manner from the lead track.
The song that feels the most different from the previous album is the final track, “Good Parts (when the quality is bad but I am).” Both this track and the “Sour Grapes” are lighter pieces that would be right at home in TikTok clips and other social media content. However, since “Good Parts” has significant contributions from the members in its production, the lyrics as a whole give off a more real vibe with a focus on candor. Perhaps “Good Parts” is more a continuation of “Raise Your Glass” – written and composed by HUH YUNJIN – that the group released in August on SoundCloud.
Variations truly shine through when ground rules have been firmly established. Recognizing the continuity between the two albums, or the underlying rules the new album is masterfully modifying could help unlock the richer flavors of “ANTIFRAGILE” for the listener.
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