Song Review: Yubin, Perfume”

9 February 2021 ☼ K-popSong ReviewArtist: Yubin

Korean idol groups, speaking very broadly, have a fairly casual relationship to consistency of musical style. There are exceptions to the rule: Blackpink, for example, has a stable songwriting team and a distinctive sound.” Super Junior had a run of similar-sounding staccato-chorused synthy singles. But you also have cases such as Red Velvet, who has hopped around from string-heavy AOR-ish ballads to chiptune-influenced to cheerful bass-guided chants to slinky and understated to percussion-dominated abomination. If you asked me what Red Velvet stood for, musically, I wouldn’t be able to tell you easily.

Also I would be a little nonplussed by the question, because the identity of an idol group such as Red Velvet doesn’t rest on musical style. SM is going to go out and pay for whatever producers and choreographers it wants, and still trust its audience to recognize a Red Velvet song as a Red Velvet song, because Irene, Joy, Wendy, Seulgi, and Yeri are the people performing it. This is why Red Velvet came to a screeching halt after Wendy was injured last year: not because her ability to hit certain notes was so crucial, but because Red Velvet is a group of five people who perform together first and a musical ensemble second, and promoting Red Velvet without Wendy would have implied that fans’ attraction to the group actually didn’t matter that much, when in truth it’s the most crucial element.

(“Hold on,” you’re saying at this point, idol groups go on without members all the time! Every male idol group that lasts long enough has to eventually—Super Junior went a decade without a full lineup! And even on the female-group side, Twice keeps having to give members time off to repair their mental health.” Fair. I will counterargue that, first, it’s easier for a nine-member group to temporarily have one member sit out than it is for a five-member group, and second, it’s easier to temporarily lose a member when there’s already a prescribed ritual for loss and reintegration, as there is with male idols and mandatory military enlistment. Also I suspect that narratives about in-group solidarity are more important to female groups than to male groups, and thus, say, Twice throwing hearts to an absent Mina may have been more about PR than about sincere affection, but I haven’t developed that argument at length.)

So to complain that a particular idol act has no coherent musical presentation would seem to miss the point. And nonetheless, that’s how I’m feeling about Yubin at the moment.

I like elements of Perfume” without loving them: mainly the keyboard runs in the back, and Yubin’s lower tone. (Less, her going higher for the chorus.) But I keep getting distracted by wanting to know why there’s a Bollywood-style keen to open the song and then never referred to again, and why Yubin switches from boasting about being toxic, bossy, nasty” in the first verse to murmuring that everything is nothing” in the second. A pretty keyboard-run song in which the female narrator comes on to a guy and then eventually confesses that she’s using him to fill her existential loneliness” is theoretically a description of Perfume,” but it’s also a better song than Perfume” turns out to be.

Part of the problem, at least for me, is that Yubin’s solo work doesn’t seem to add up to a coherent presentation. Here’s what she got out of the gate with:

Arguably Yubin deserves credit for being early to the city-pop-revival trend (this was the single for which the B-side had to be scrapped after someone noticed it was essentially a Plastic Love” ripoff). And it’s a good song! But when the Jukebox reviewed it my primary complaint was that Yubin seemed a little too confident to hit the wistful note that the song was calling for—in other words, that my perception of what Yubin” meant didn’t go with this song.

The Yubin-brand-in-my-head worked much better for her next single:

I’m not sure Thank U Soooo Much” actually works; the spacing in the chorus is a little odd, and the lyrics are repetitive. But Yubin hanging out with a robot dog and pretending to be a hacker, tongue firmly in cheek, while sarcastically singing, Hey Too-Much-Talker thank you so MUCH!” just makes more sense than the city-pop pastiche. This is far and away my favorite.

I haven’t liked anything else from Yubin quite as much, either before or after she left JYP (on good terms). Admittedly neither the soft R&B nor the vocal-processed party jam was going to appeal to me at first blush. The latter is the song that’s most directly reflective of Yubin’s own story: Thanks JYP but free now.” But Perfume,” with its references to the empty city, suggests a throughline going back to Lady,” only that throughline shouldn’t exist, partly because the former was recorded when Yubin wasn’t free” yet and partly because none of the other songs draw from the idea of Yubin as confident-yet-lonely woman in an alienating urban environment.

The contrast I want to draw is to Yubin’s former bandmate Sunmi, whose singles (“Siren,” Noir,” pporappippam) all seem to be coming from the same place, even though the themes differ. But it may be that I’m simply more familiar with Sunmi’s variety work and interviews than I am with Yubin’s, and conflating idol personality with musical presentation. Which would be fitting, if unfair to Yubin.