The most important event to happen this week was that Dreamcatcher did a relay dance cover of Brown Eyed Girls’s “Abracadabra.”
I love Dreamcatcher. Not so much for their music, admittedly; I started following them after the release of “You and I,” and have found their singles less and less impressive since; their latest, “Boca,” is an unappealing mismatch. But Dreamcatcher is very, very good at selling a feeling of fun, of giving you the impression that you are watching a group of likable people enjoying themselves. No other group, to my knowledge, regularly films music videos while bored during music-show rehearsals, and then releases them:
Part of my definition of idol pop is that this short-form goofiness, rather than the music itself, that’s the real content; the music is just a gateway to get you interested enough to start watching the goofiness. Hence Dreamcatcher can do a dance cover of a well-known ten-year-old song, not putting their own spin on the song, not even re-recording it, and not take even the slightest hint of flak. The point isn’t new artistic interpretation; the point is Cute Girls Amusing Each Other While Doing Sexy Dances.
Relay dances are tailor-made for this kind of goofiness-first message. They’re relatively new: I poked around the M2 relay dance playlist and the earliest video I found was one for I.O.I.’s “Very Very Very” in October 2016. The original concept was as a sort of choreography-memory test: the idols would line up and whoever was up front would have to dance, regardless of whose part was actually playing. So initially they were very poorly lit, making it hard to see what was going on behind the performer in front. But pretty quickly it became clear that lighting the whole set allowed the audience to see all the performers, including the performers laughing at each other. (That last link is to the relay dance for Weki Meki’s debut song. Weki Meki is particularly good at putting on charming relay dances. There are those of us (cough) who have become fond of WeMe solely through watching their relay dances.)
So as someone who has watched a fair number of relay-dance videos, and enjoyed them, I am hardly in a position to be objecting to all this. But I feel like stepping back for a second and breaking down what’s going into these videos in particular.
Additional work, for one thing. A lot of times the work required to shoot a relay-dance video, like that to shoot a dance-practice video, isn’t a large addition: the idols can wear their existing stage outfits and do choreography they’ve already memorized. (The relay dances are filmed at the CJ E&M Center Studio, like M! Countdown, so it may be idols can just pop down a couple floors between M! Countdown takes and record the relay dances quickly.)The Dreamcatcher “Abracadabra” is an exception to the rule; somebody clearly had to do some thinking as to how to translate the original choreography into a six-person relay-dance format. And for that matter add more to it, since standards of idol choreography difficulty and activity change over time: compare how much SuA moves, including standing to kneeling and back again, during Miryo’s rap bridge to how static Miryo herself got to be. And then Dreamcatcher had to memorize the choreography, and figure out where to put in the goofiness; and I don’t know whether the performers themselves did that last part of if they had help from staff, but someone had to spend time doing it.
Additional work isn’t by itself a bad thing, mind you. The idols might genuinely enjoy filming relay dances as a change of pace. But we already know that working unhealthy amounts, and idols not getting paid relative to the work they put in, are two of the biggest flaws of Korean idol pop right now. In that context, the emphasis on how much fun idols seem to be having in relay dances risks obscuring that this is, after all, extra work. (A small example of the whole: Gahyeon, in the pink buns, may genuinely enjoy being able to jump up and down as part of the relay dance, but it’s very hard to jump up and down comfortably in two-inch heels.)
The other problem with relay dances is that, once some groups had demonstrated that goofiness was a good selling point (see above re: Weki Meki, but more famous groups such as Monsta Xand Mamamoo have also used relay-dance goofiness to their advantage), then goofiness becomes a sort of emotional labor in the original sense of the term. Whether or not you enjoy your groupmates’ company at any other time, when the relay dance starts you are required to hit all your marks and look as though you’re having a fine old time goofing off with your friends. Out of sheer curiosity, I went looking for AOA relay dances:
At about 2:20 Mina, up front, gets briefly distracted by something off-camera to her left, and has trouble transitioning into a bending-over move; Jimin, behind her, laughs while watching her, then glances at the camera and stops smiling. To me it looks as if Jimin just realized that she was about to be next and had to find her own place in the choreography. If you don’t know anything about AOA it looks as if this is just another lighthearted moment between two people who are required by work to spend a lot of time watching each other dancing but are otherwise on relatively good terms.
Of course, if you do know anything about AOA you know that earlier this year Mina (who had left the group by this point) posted a series of social-media messages accusing Jimin of mistreating her to the point that she contemplated suicide, leading to a whole lot of back-and-forth mess, Jimin officially getting fired, and Mina having further mental-health struggles which eventually led to her leaving the entertainment industry altogether. At the very least the incident suggests that Jimin, Mina, and the other members of AOA were in an environment where no one’s emotional health was being attended to. And you can’t tell that from a lighthearted relay video. And nor does learning “the truth” about AOA mean the lighthearted relay video was necessarily misleading. Jimin is not a one-note cartoon villain; it would be human of her to be abusively angry at Mina sometimes and affectionate and caring other times; her laugh isn’t proof of her evil intent, though I did see at least one YouTube video try to spin it that way.
My point is, the goofiness of relay dances is as much part of the performance as the choreography is. It may be harder to pull off such a performance if you don’t get along with or trust your fellow performers, but it isn’t impossible, especially when you’re trained and encouraged to be goofy on camera. Relay dances are fun to watch—Weki Meki is coming back on the 8th, by the way—but be wary of taking them as proof that your faves are actually having a good time.