20150722_seoulbeats_stellar2Stellar has been in the news a bit lately and for once it’s not just about their image. Late last year, the struggling group surprised fans by starting a crowdfunding campaign to complete their album. Their goal was quickly met, thankfully, and now the girls are back with “Sting.” I’ll be honest – I didn’t really have much interest in Stellar until their last comeback. “Vibrato” was a good song, but what was most interesting about the comeback was the suggestive and subversive Digipedi-directed MV.

“Vibrato” wasn’t Stellar’s first walk on the 19+ wild side. Their MV for “Marionette” caused quite a bit of controversy in 2014. However, the vibe between those two MVs is noticeably different. Whereas “Marionette” was artless in its pushing of overtly sexual imagery, “Vibrato” was winking and slinky and creatively intriguing. Watching it gives the impression that there was something smart being portrayed beneath the bedroom eyes and booty shorts. Selling sex is a dirty game, the members of Stellar seemed to be saying. Come play with us.

Fast forward to 2016. Re-teaming with Digipedi but now adding trending photographer Rotta to the mix, Stellar is back with a similar-but-different message. Whereas “Vibrato” featured bold women in bright red proclaiming their place in the pop music meat market, the concept photos for Stellar’s latest comeback push a deceptively innocent image. The members of Stellar — Ga-young, Hyo-heun, Min-hee and Jeon-yul — are photographed beautifully in flattering white light and styled in muted colors and natural makeup. They’ve regressed to child-like waifs with doe-eyes and glossy lips. Look! Stellar can be sweet and cute and wear fuzzy socks and cotton T-shirts, not black lace and lingerie. They’re not just sex-dols who thrive on controversy.

20160224_seoulbeats_stellar_minheeOf course, it’s all a joke.

The concept is overtly sexual and even a bit disturbing, by design. Rotta (and The Entertainment Pascal, Stellar’s company) knows what he’s doing. He specializes in a specific kind of photography. In fact, he’s done similar photoshoots with other young idols, including Sulli and the upcoming rookie group, Cosmo Girls. The concept seems, on the surface, to be a satirical look at the way women are portrayed in the media, but as one delves deeper, the message is actually quite shallow.

“Sting” is a break up song with bite. Over a bouncing dance beat, the lyrics are sharp and pointed toward a former lover. The protagonist is confused by what their ex-lover wants with them and they’re tired of being in limbo:

Your excuse and cheap lie
Your hesitating face
Pretending not to know
Judas kiss or what?
You say bullshit every time you open your mouth

Ouch.

Following the latest trend and utilizing a 90’s throwback style, “Sting” has a bit of house mixed with some electronica and a dash of funk thrown in for good measure. The chorus is not as hard hitting as I prefer, but it’s still got a melodic hook. Using mostly a synth beat but also containing a jangling guitar riff, the song is sonically bubbly and memorable. The vocal distribution is well-thought out and Jeon-yul’s rap is well-executed and flows well with the rest of the song. Stellar’s voices sound good, the mix is clear and the production value is pretty amazing, considering that they had to crowd-fund to get the album finished.

20160224_seoulbeats_stellar_5The MV is pleasing to look at, by all means. Shot using a cool, soft color palate of purples and blues with pops of pink and yellow and containing some of Digipedi’s signature quirky flourishes, it’s aesthetically consistent. All four members look great. The styling is what I would expect from the teaser photos. There’s short shorts and fuzzy sweaters and lots of creamy exposed skin. A black and white photograph of Clark Gable appears, as does an old tube television and some mid-century modern furniture, for some vintage visual flare.

The vintage aesthetic is offset by the appearance of modern mouse cursors that plague the girls throughout the MV. At first the cursors keep their distance, but they slowly multiply and begin attacking the girls. They poke the members of Stellar and attach themselves to their clothes and skin. Ladybugs, cacti, thumb tacks and rose thorns also make appearances as antagonists, pricking and bothering the members until they take action.

There’s an undercurrent of foreboding rippling through the MV that I like. This MV isn’t as bold with its imagery as “Vibrato,” but it has a similar layer of tension running through it that works with the lyrics of the song. The members are unhappy; they glare and pout in frustration. They scratch, claw and toss off the cursors and other annoyances that have invaded their personal space. They stare at themselves wistfully in mirrors, like they wish they could escape the constant attention. As Ga-young stares darkly into the camera near the end, I felt her frustration.

20160224_seoulbeats_stellar_2The MV culminates in a runway scene that at first, appears to be an attempt to have the members break free from the stifling constant surveillance. They’re stalking down a hallway, seemingly more brazen and powerful than they’ve been portrayed earlier in the MV, but it’s still closed-in and cut-off. There’s nowhere to go other than the maze of plain, undecorated hallways. There’s no way to break free. Then cameras start to flash as they primp – they’re still under the microscope. It feels claustrophobic and muted, thus the ending is anti-climactic. The MV has seemingly built up to this supposedly glorious moment of freedom, but they’re still caged. In the end, the disenfranchised ladies of Stellar haven’t really gained anything at all. It’s a contrived, stereotypical scene of female empowerment that ultimately doesn’t mean much. The MV ends with them not achieving the goal of escape.

The real irony of “Sting” is not in the juxtaposition of innocence and sexiness that the concept implies. The fact that the MV portrays the members as wanting to escape the constant click of a mouse cursor when their company does everything possible to make them controversial is where the true irony lies. The concept attempts to make a statement about the thin line between innocence and what’s considered not-innocent, but in doing so, the message is muddied by the fact that the women who are actually portraying the concept have no real agency or say in the matter. They can’t choose whether they’re portrayed as ‘sexy’ or ‘innocent’. Therefore, it’s meaningless click-bait.

20160124_seoulbeats_stellar_junyeolWhereas “Vibrato” made its mark by going deeper than few girl group MVs would dare to push, “Sting” dawdles and skims along the surface without taking any real hard stance on anything. It includes contrived imagery and doesn’t bother to do anything truly outside the box. Concept photos included, “Sting” amounts to little more than being sexy for the sake of being sexy, even though it tries to make itself seem deeper by slathering a thin level of irony on top. Judging by Rotta’s recent trendiness, the already weak message will probably get even more watered down each time another girl group attempts to do a similar concept.

However, despite my issues with the concept, I still enjoyed “Sting” on several levels. The song is good and has tons of replay value. The choreography is sexy, flirty and well-executed. The members are talented and undeniably charismatic. The MV is visually interesting and Digipedi’s eye is as sharp as always. But, ultimately, “Sting” is nowhere near as sharp as it pretends to be.

Song Rating: 3.75/5

MV Rating: 3/5

(YouTube, Images via The Entertainment Pascal, Lyric translation via kbeat.net)