For the first half of their career, T-ara earned themselves the reputation of K-pop’s chameleons for their ever-changing concepts and sounds, but in recent years the group’s become better known for their club-friendly hits. Songs like “Lovey-Dovey” and “No. 9” have done exceptionally well for the girls both domestically and abroad, and as much as I love the campy, playful style that once defined the group, it’s clear that these days people are more interested in a darker, trendier, dancier T-ara.
EDM is T-ara’s calling now, and the girls have gone all-in with their new single, “Sugar Free.” It’s being promoted as K-pop’s first Big Room song, which, for those of you who don’t know, is just the proper name for that style of big fat commercial club music with all of those huge beat drops and breakdowns — think Avicci, Martin Garrix, and probably everything Paris Hilton plays in her DJ sets.
I stopped actively paying attention to dance music when I turned 20 and became a professional hermit, but when I was Googling Big Room for this review I discovered that EDM purists consider it a stain on the genre that’s been created for idiotic frat bros and crappy mainstream radio. That may be true, but in the realm of K-pop, Big Room is unique. Sure, K-pop has produced thousands of electro-pop songs before, but they’re still pop — “Sugar Free” is probably the closest thing to a pure EDM song, or at least a Big Room song, that we’ve ever gotten from an idol group before.
Even the dancier cuts from Britney Jean don’t embrace the genre as wholeheartedly as “Sugar Free” does, which is far more aggressive and sticks closer to the tried-and-tested blueprint of countless other Big Room hits. “Sugar Free” works so well for this reason; you feel like you’re actually listening to club music, as opposed to just dance-pop.
As strong as Shinsadong Tiger’s production is, the vocals are a letdown, even by lowly T-ara standards. Their voices are usually indistinguishable to anyone outside of the QUEEN’S fandom, but in “Sugar Free” they’ve masked the strongest performances in grating autotune, and also left in uncredited demo vocals from EXID’s LE. T-ara’s known for this kind of fuckery so it ends up being amazing in an ironic kind of way (just like how they ripped-off Justice’s cover art for their new EP), but it’s still some bullshit. I dragged JLo back in the day when she left Christina Milian and Ashanti’s vocals on her singles, and I’d do the same to T-ara if they weren’t outrageous enough to get away with it.
Anyway, as expected from T-ara, both the music video and choreography for “Sugar Free” are more perfect than Hyosung’s tits and Rain’s abs combined. The choreography almost feels like a homage to another defining K-pop dance hit, Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra,” with T-ara delivering their own version of the iconic hip dance as they’re surrounded by flashing strobe lights that bring the nightclub concept to life. The choreography is their fiercest ever, while their outfits are the coolest, uncampiest things they’ve ever worn.
The video will, however, probably give you an epileptic fit, but I think T-ara was just trying to recreate an authentic clubbing experience of what it’s like to pop one too many mollies. For that reason alone, it’s a win.
Also, for everyone who ever called Eunjung fat or dragged Soyeon for her QBS era nosejob, I have just one thing to say to y’all: WHO’S LAUGHING NOW BITCH?
Regardless of how “Sugar Free” performs in Korea, this comeback has really put T-ara exactly where they need to be in the whole K-pop world right now. They just celebrated their fifth anniversary in late July, and now it looks like they’re setting themselves up for the next phase of their career. Despite the vitriol they still receive at home, they remain one of the country’s biggest hallyu stars, and taking the full plunge into EDM should help them build the audience that they already have (just look at the success of “No. 9” in China). Plus, with official “Sugar Free” remixes and an English version currently in the works, the sky’s the limit for T-ara.