Technically speaking, if we’re going to judge by sales and CFs and hallyu success, then Girls’ Generation is the biggest Korean girl group of the past decade. But whether or not they’re the most iconic, the most loved, at least in Korea, is debatable.
Many would say that that honour belongs to the Wonder Girls, whose seminal hit “Tell Me” was the catalyst for a whole new era of girl group pop much in the same way that Seo Taiji and Boys’ “Nan Arayo (I Know)” birthed a new epoch of K-pop in the early nineties.
If you stack up their major singles, Wonder Girls’ hits catalogue is rather modest compared to their contemporaries like SNSD, T-ara, and 2NE1, but many Koreans will tell you that there hasn’t been a song since “Tell Me” to take over the nation like that JYP-produced classic did in 2007.
I’m not going to go into Wonder Girls ill-fated American debut or their decline in popularity because that narrative is beyond boring at this point. I’m interested in the present: a ‘rebooted’ Wonder Girls now promoting as a band with a sort of new/old lineup and a sexy new look.
These are all firsts for the group –a different mix of members, a grown up image, a band concept– but it all feels refreshingly familiar. Despite their changes, Wonder Girls have still kept the one thing that’s been their secret to success all these years: really good, really catchy, really retro songs.
“I Feel You,” the lead single from their new ’80s-heavy album Reboot, is a time warp back to the decade’s musical mainstays like quivering synth-pop and freestyle club beats. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call it an early Exposé record, literally. There’s barely a difference, and as a fan of Exposé I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
(Sidenote: Rookie boy band ROMEO also recently released a freestyle single.)
With only one strong vocalist left in the group (Yenny, obviously), Wonder Girls’ singing style is now primarily breathy proclamations of lust and whispered erotic nothings. This carries over to the chorus. which is soft and lush, allowing the real hook of the song to be a captivating synth refrain. It’s a technique used in countless ’80s hits — think A-ha’s “Take On Me” (or once again, Exposé or any freestyle track).
Unlike other retro groups like INFINITE, MAMAMOO, and pre-scandal T-ara, I like that Wonder Girls didn’t try to modernize “I Feel You.” Everything is deliciously vintage and of the time, and not in a contrived I-added-a-VHS-filter-and-some-other-crap-from-the-90s kind of way.
The music video –a sex-soaked Robert Palmer-homaging journey into vaginal moisture which plays out in the form of a classic MTV clip– introduces “I Feel You” as being from 1987. It’s an interesting choice considering that “Tell Me” was built on a sample of Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts,” a similarly synth-heavy song released just one year before the pretend date of “I Feel You.”
Either J.Y. Park is giving a sly wink to “Tell Me” for fun, or he’s hoping that he’ll strike gold again by tapping into the same era that inspired one of K-pop’s biggest hits.
As I said before, Wonder Girls are promoting as a ‘real’ band for this comeback despite Park producing “I Feel You.” But are they really playing instruments and writing music? Were The Bangles a real band? Is Maroon 5 a real band? Is YG real hip-hop? Who cares.
The other question is: Are there better songs on Reboot than “I Feel You”? From quickly skipping through the album I’d say possibly (“Candle,” anyone?), but the music on Reboot ranges from old-school rap-rock to full-blown new wave. A Wonder Girls single should never be too complicated or alienating. In that regard, “I Feel You” is similar to the perfect pop of Carly Rae Jepsen, a songstress who’s become a master at making shiny ’80s records which are impossibly catchy and chart-friendly without sacrificing substance or quality. (Taylor Swift’s 1989 is the opposite; a retro-tinged album that’s frustratingly commercial, joyless, and smug.)
So, how do I end this review? Wonder Girls reclaimed their crown! Wonder Girls showed y’all how retro is really done! Wonder Girls saved K-pop! In this case, I think the music speaks for itself.