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?

  • KingBeaArthur

    #1 – “Rainbow” is the only song I took away from this album; I have a half chub for “Milk”.
    #2 – Baby Baek Ji Young confirmed.

    I’ve softened on “Red Light” the song. First listen I fell HARD for the verses – Luna came alive on both – but the chorus felt like a slap in the face; the change up felt forced and severe. But like I said, I’ve softened on it.

    As far as the mv goes, it just felt like a behind the scenes video for a photoshoot with some dancing thrown in. Maybe I missed the point but it was just fashion & lasers & nothing else for me.

    The biggest positive for this comeback is Luna proved she’s been carrying f(x) all these years. All hail Princess Sun Young!!

    • James Smith III

      LUNA!!!! If there is anyone who I would want to get early-2000-boa-level-solo promotion it is her. Girl can sing and dance and do it at the same time.

  • this single AND album scream rihanna. very similar to her “rated r” era which was when she started to get musicaly experimental. and well, to push it further, if the red light mv contained any kind of nudity it would be perfectly obvious.

    anyways, i’ve always agreed with you abou f(x)’s overratedness. red light is an interesting song, but yeah it disappointed me because it got f(x) closer to 2ne1 than the sky rocket miles away it used to be.

    as for the album it’s fine treadmill material but i totally agree with u with it as a whole, there’s nothing memorable as pink tape was.

  • Db

    A dissenting opinion?! BRING OUT THE PITCHFORKS!!!!


    I kid. I kid. You’re entitled to your opinion and if this is not your taste then so be it. Personally, this is an album of the year contender for me, along with Dress To Kill.

    I like that the energy of the album is frenetic and relentless the entire time. When they usually throw in a ballad or a mid-tempo to break up the flow of an album, I find I tend to skip those tracks over the long run and stick to the more energetic tracks. Pink Tape most certainly had some of those.

    Some tracks do feel a little forced and like they were trying too many things, but they still work and are enjoyable. Tracks like Spit It Out and Rainbow come to mind. You still have your straightforward pop tracks as well. All Night is simply marvelous and so is Butterfly. The latter sounds like it would fit right in on Goldfrapp’s Supernature.

    Red Light, All Night and Milk alone make the album entirely worth it for me. The rest is just icing on the cake.

  • Marhaebwa

    WHAT!? Ariana Grande recorded Boyfriend Material…


  • vjx89

    My wigg was snatched by this comeback. All F(x) song’s are growers to me. It took me 5+ spins to really fall in love with rum pum pum pum, the same happened with red light. But after that, i just can’t stop listening to them

  • TerriDesu

    Red light,MILK and Dracula are my favorites xD

  • For a minute I was like “did you just diss Rainbow’s flawless Syndrome?”, but then I re-read it. I agree, it’s a good album, but it’s not perfect like Dress To Kill or NU ABO itself. Same for BEG’s last 2 albums (3 if we count Gain’s last minialbum which is just a continuation of their last album as a group) and Pink Tape also. With Red Light they slayed (kind of), but it wasn’t as good as Pink Tape, which will remain as their best album ever (even if NU ABO – song >>>>> anything they’ll ever do).
    I’m calling f(x) an Asian alternative-electronic group from now on, so your “different than the other groups” (but at the same time the exact same) has a point. :D
    Anyway, I can’t believe you actually mentioned most of my fave f(x) songs here, all of them but STEP (which is glorious) and a few more. It’s so good that they always give us solid albums that even if we don’t have one song that we play to death (like it usually happens to me with SISTAR, Orange Caramel and 2NE1), the rest of the album is good as well. Oh and the one thing I don’t get is the praise Shadow gets EVERYWHERE, for me it sounds pretty generic, while at the same time, for me Electric Shock sounds like this “overproduced mainstream song” that still stands out for its uniqueness, not as good as NU ABO, but better than the 90% of their songs, or maybe it was the video that won over me, I can’t with those colorful outfits and their looks. <3

    • By the way, you could talk about how Hyuna will try to take the crown of “sexy queens of summer” from SISTAR that still haven’t released their #1 best selling song and mini album of the summer. That shade, and allkflop are fueling it. Of course the regent queen Hyuna will do better than with Ice Cream, but the goddesses of “no big label” will probably take the top spot for some time, while saying bye bye to Girl’s Day, by the way. Okay, I’m bored, I need some shade and funny articles. u_u

  • ICONI3

    I feel rather indifferent towards the song. I like it way more than when I first heard, but I found my self loving the album tracks more.

  • Kris

    I really liked this comeback, but it wasn’t as dynamic or impacting as I expected it. However, it’s better than a lot of the K-Pop songs that have dropped this year, especially from the SM camp (minus TVXQ).

  • Egbutts Egbust

    Absolute First Album is still the best album to me.

    I don’t “get” MILK. I haven’t decided if I liked it or not, I just don’t get it. It’s got its positives, but it’s got negatives as well. I think it would be a horrible single, but in an album filled with the same level songs, it fits. My favorite from the album is actually Dracula, I don’t know why, I just enjoy Dracula. I compare MILK to Rum Pum Pum, everyone was going on about how the song was amazing, but I never saw it.

    Visual wise, it’s still Victoria >>>wall>>> Sulli > Krystal >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Luna >>>>>>Great Wall of China >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> wall >>>>>>> Amber. Victoria just has this unforced pretty, I don’t know how to describe it, like she’s prettiest when she’s on stage, she always catches my eye as the only person in f(x) that wants to really be there. If it was a pictorial Sulli and Victoria would be tied, but Victoria always looks best when moving. With Sulli and Krystal, they’re pretty with makeup and without, but they just have an aura or something that is just completely off-putting.

    Vocal wise, it’s still like Luna is the only one who puts effort into her vocals, and thus has been rewarded because she sounds 1000x better than the other girls. Not that that really matters, F(x) is a group you watch to see how beautiful they are, not to commend them on how strong vocally they are. Basically, Luna is Sera (RIP GIRL SOUL SURFER), Krystal is Hyuna (of Nine Muses), and the rest of them are Qri.

    Complete side-note: I love how Krystal forgot her camera cues and just looks at the random camera, and delays before switching to the next camera. I also hate the dance for Red Light.

  • James Smith III

    Sulli=baek ji young…if bjy ever gets abiotic that’s is who should play her

  • Dhruv Angrup

    What’s great is that opinions about which album out of pink tape and red light is better are almost equally divided.
    Personally i found this album much more accessible than pink tape which even though was the best album of 2013 was less cohesive than red light which is able to maintain a certain type of sound through the album.

  • Pauler

    “which prove that f(x)’s strongest sound is actually sugary, quirky synth-pop, not hard-edged electro.” Amen. This nails absolutely everything right about why “Shadow” and “Rum Pum Pum Pum” worked and why “Red Light” doesn’t.

    Take “Shadow” for example: not only it has one of the best pop production I’ve heard in years, it also pulls a surprise by being a creepy song about stalking while swimming in technicolor instrumentation. “Red Light”, which follows the trend of stitching several parts and transitions to spark interest like “I Got A Boy”, didn’t quite get there because the fusion doesn’t work this time, and the songwriting (including the necessary hooks) aren’t there behind to support its ambition. What we ended up with is a hot mess, though an interesting one at that too.

    This is why “All Night”, ironically the most straight-forward cut, is my favorite from this album. It’s not as interesting as the title, but it’s much more enjoyable.

  • UncleFan

    This album would definitely seem better if they left a couple songs out. But I guess I like it any way, because it’s one of the few this year that I enjoy hearing as a full album. BTW, “Milk” is my favorite!