f(x) red light feature
It’s taken me a while to do a post on f(x)’s Red Light comeback because I’ve been trying to decide whether I actually like it or not. Much of that has to do with what f(x) is as a group, and the way that they’ve been designed by the SM laboratory. Both their image and music are experimental, but in a mainstream way; their fashion is cool and cutting-edge, but still wearable, while their music rejects the typically uncool sounds of ‘cute’ k-pop for a style that I’d describe as a slightly more avant-garde version of Britney Spears. Because (for some reason) most K-pop listeners consider trendy fashion and electropop to have more credibility and authenticity than matching stage outfits and Asian-y bubblegum pop, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just praising f(x) for being f(x) without really thinking about whether or not they’re actually any good — or at least if they’re really that much better than other Korean girl groups.

The same thing applies to 2NE1, except that unlike f(x), 2NE1 rarely take any risks with their music. They’re content to copy the American top forty, which is fine because they do a good job of it, but f(x) is a far more compelling group because of their willingness to take risks. Sure, for every “Shadow” there’s an “Electric Flop,” but they’re still one of K-pop’s more experimental acts, and that deserves a certain amount of respect.

The group’s new single “Red Light” is strange, but not for the reasons I was expecting. I anticipated something akin to the quirky “Pinocchio” or the genre-bending “Rum Pum Pum Pum”; what I got was something that looked and sounded like the kind of cheap electro bop that a rookie girl group like 2EYES or G.I. would release, just with more money behind it.

It’s still an interesting song with more going on than your average dance-pop ditty (the fat bassline alone is utterly hypnotic), but after a few spins I still didn’t feel like I was hearing anything wildly different from what I’ve heard before (unlike “Rum Pum Pum Pum” or SNSD’s “I Got a Boy,” which still stands as one of the most bonkers pop singles ever). It still got under my skin though, in a way that warranted repeated listens so I could try and figure the damn thing out.

Like most f(x) singles, the true meaning of “Red Light” can be a bit confusing. The K-pop Time Out tumblr provided a good analysis of the video and the song, explaining it as f(x)’s vow to break out of the box and fight conformity in the K-pop world. This statement plays out in the music, which lulls you into a false sense of security during its seductive verses before shaking you out of your daze with a completely jarring chorus. Yeah, it still contains strong similarities to the rookie flops I mentioned before, but those songs never reached out and jerked me by the shoulders like “Red Light” did.

My own interpretation of “Red Light” is similar, but I took it as a broader statement that also mocks manufactured girl groups. There’s an ‘us and them dynamic that continually plays out in “Red Light”: the song sounds both generic and innovative at once; cheap, yet also expensive and well-produced. The same goes for the music video, which at times resembles a glossy SM product and at others a low budget G.I. video. Even the obvious illuminati references smack of satire to me, as if f(x)’s is poking fun at noise marketing and faux controversy.

I don’t necessarily believe that my interpretation is correct, but just the fact that “Red Light” can provoke discussion and be read in multiple ways instantly makes it more fascinating than the music from K-pop’s more one dimensional girl groups, like SISTAR, Girl’s Day, and 2NE1.

However, promoting themselves as K-pop’s musical rebels would work better if f(x) were as believable as a group like Brown Eyed Girls, who already did this whole thing much better with “Sixth Sense.” As much as I love f(x), I’ve never bought them as anything more than pretty, uninteresting girls that have been dressed up like hipsters by their record label (a sentiment I expressed back when I reviewed the Pinocchio album on my old blog). Still, it’s a relatively small gripe for what I finally concluded (after a week of deliberating) is a very good song.

The accompanying album of the same name has been getting a lot of praise since its release, but I’m torn on it. It’s clearly been modelled after last year’s excellent Pink Tape, but it ultimately falls short as a full body of work.

The tracks work perfectly on their own or in small clusters, but listening to Red Light from start to finish in one sitting is a grating experience. The songs start off fresh and interesting –the bizarre bhangra number “Milk” is particularity weird and wonderful (even though “Rainbow” is my personal fave)– but by the end everything starts to sound the same. The endless synths and electro blasts can feel like an assault on the ears unless you’re feeling particularly turnt up, to the point where it all just becomes overproduced noise (something that many people claim the entire K-pop genre is).

With Red Light, f(x) just sound like they’re trying way too hard to fulfil their predetermined role as SM’s left-field girl group. Their experimentation only works when it has more palatable material to balance it out. And if you actually comb through f(x)’s entire discography, most of their best songs are the more straightforward stuff. The Sweetune-produced “Love” is better than most K-pop stars’ lead singles, “Hot Summer” will always be a smash, and Ariana Grande was a fucking fool to pass on “No More.” Then there’s songs like “Sweet Witches,” “Me+U,” and “Ice Cream,” which prove that f(x)’s strongest sound is actually sugary, quirky synth-pop, not hard-edged electro.

Pink Tape certainly had its fair share of abrasive electro-pop, but it was spaced out between softer tracks so that it never became too much. Red Light would’ve benefited from a less is more approach. If they’d just turned it into an EP using the album’s first five tracks only, it’d be a near perfect K-pop release. In its full form, Red Light is about equal with Rainbow’s Rainbow Syndrome, 2NE1’s Crush, and maybe KARA’s Full Bloom if its lucky, but I wouldn’t put it on the level of Brown Eyed Girls’ last two albums, After School’s Dress To Kill, or NU ABO and Pink Tape.

Still, overall Red Light is an above average pop album that could’ve been great if executed better. f(x) may have bit off more than they can chew, but that’s still better than not taking a bite at all.

P.S. Anyone else notice that Sulli is turning into Baek Ji Young, or is it just me?