Song Review: Ninety One, Oinamaqo” (with additional thoughts on their recent online concert)

28 January 2021 ☼ Song ReviewQ-popArtist: Ninety One

One of the side benefits of simultaneously following Kazakhstani and Korean idol pop is that you get to appreciate how much infrastructure matters to the idol-pop industry. It’s not just that Ninety One and their colleagues have a hard time even moving physical product out of the country; it’s that putting on an online showcase, which even not-well-established Korean idol groups can do, is that much more difficult an undertaking. During the Kevan Kenney interview ZaQ made a point of talking about how unprecedented this was in Kazakhstani pop music, which I believe, even though it was probably in part to soothe fans cranky about the performances being pre-recorded. But when you’re in a country where the government occasionally decides to slow Internet speeds to prevent self-described opposition leaders from getting the word out, organizing a live ticketed concert to stream via YouTube, yeah, that’s probably not the easiest thing.

(As it was there was confusion with the start time and I got kicked out and then had a hard time rejoining. On the upside, I did learn that I can, in fact, make myself understood in Russian, so long as it’s via email and I have Google Translate handy.)

So just putting the stream together was one major challenge; the other was performing a bunch of pre-August 2020 songs without AZ being around to do his parts. Their usual strategy was to cut AZs raps out altogether, which did real damage to some songs (“Kaytadan” in particular) and actually made sense in other cases (“Aiyptama” may actually be better without AZs eight bars before the first chorus). What they couldn’t cut they farmed out: Bala took the sit on my throne” rap in Men Emes,” ZaQ took the magic-spell portion of Su Asty.” The transition was always going to be awkward.

So it makes sense that Oinamaqo” is a little on the defensive.

At first hearing, before seeing Didi’s translation, I thought Oinamaqo” was a sweet believe-in-yourself song, like a less showy, more light-hearted Mooz.” But the chorus actually translates as Please don’t play, please don’t play / If you’re not going to play until the boss level. (And then ZaQ extends the metaphor into playing Super Mario Brothers, because he appreciates old-school Nintendo nostalgia as much as the next person.) On its own, as a romantic song to a generic love interest, it’s not all that interesting: pretty and catchy without being terribly compelling. Which is fine: the musical presentation doesn’t try to make it seem bigger than it is.

The video does try to make the song seem bigger than it is, by positioning it as a plea-slash-command from Ninety One to Eaglez. This low-key opening number becomes the excuse for all sorts of callbacks to previous videos, and blindfolded driving, and drone shots, and then setting cars on fire to release mythical animated golden eagles, and an overall air of self-serious purpose where I generally prefer them refusing to take themselves entirely seriously, as in Su Asty or Ah! Yah! Mah! Although I have to believe that there was at least some on-set joking that AZ, or something representing AZ, was in the trunk:

Image of the four members looking down at the camera, having just opened a car trunk

On the one hand, I want to say, guys, you’re a pop group; pop-group fandom is just not important enough to require loyalty demands. Much as I love Ninety One, they do not get to be exempt from the process by which changes in the group and its music lead to changes in the fanbase. On the other, after the year they’ve had, they’re allowed to feel a little embattled. Losing some portion of their audience due to AZs departure would never be fun, but to lose that portion when they’re unable to tour, and thereby get some money out of the audience they do have, must have been dispiriting. Hold more online concerts, guys! I will happily pay the $10 again and exchange polite emails with Juz Entertainment’s IT department even for recordings.