Remember back when this song first came out, how I said that I wouldn’t be doing a full-length review on it because the repackage album was basically the original album plus one song? Well, I changed my mind.
DBSK released the repackage version of their fifth album, Keep Your Head Down, on March 16th. The repackaged version only features one additional song, entitled “Before U Go” – but this song sure is a doozy, what with its 5 minute runtime, its 16-minute long music video, and live performances that make fangirls’ hormones go wild. It may be one song, but it is also the song that marks the end of DBSK’s promotional efforts for now, and it’s got a lot to say. Or maybe I’ve just got a lot to say.
1. THE SONG.
R&B magic. Sex in your ear. SM The Ballad reject. “Sorry Sorry – Answer” ripoff. Babymaking music. Call it whatever you want, but “Before U Go” is, arguably, a prime example of Yoo Young-jin doing what Yoo Young-jin does best. The SM songwriter-producer extraordinaire is the mastermind behind catchy SM signature hits like Super Junior‘s “Sorry Sorry,” SNSD‘s “Tell Me Your Wish,” SHINee‘s “Ring Ding Dong,” and basically every other major SM lead single that’s ever been conveniently stuck in your head during a calculus exam. But apart from catchy hooks and synthesized refrains, Yoo Young-jin has also composed most of SM’s R&B gems – many of which are often overlooked by the mainstream. But judging from how Yoo Young-jin has this thing with putting his own voice on these ballads (re: Zhang Li Yin‘s “I Will,” Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry – Answer”), I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that R&B is Yoo Young-jin’s thing.
And when you put an artist in his element, then he’s going to put out good work. “Before U Go” is just that. Of course, it’s not as if “Before U Go” is the most brilliant thing to come out of SM. Heck, it’s not even the most brilliant thing to come out of DBSK. But I think that a lot of the appeal in “Before U Go” lies in the fact that this is the most vocally ambitious song that DBSK (2BSK, if you will) has ever released. Ever since the news of 2BSK’s comeback came out, many were concerned about the group’s vocal skills, especially seeing as their two main vocalists had called it quits. It goes without saying that Yunho and Changmin probably trained like mofos in order to get their vocal skills up to par for their comeback – but I wasn’t expected a gravity-defying R&B ballad from them; not this early in the game. Nor did I expect them to pull it off with such finesse.
Would SM the Ballad have done a better job with “Before U Go”? Hell yeah. But if we went by that philosophy, then SM should just give all of their ballads to SM the Ballad, all of their dance songs to SHINee and f(x), all of their performance-centric songs to BoA, et cetera. Comparatively speaking, SM groups are fairly well-rounded in terms of style and skill. And for six years, DBSK was the King of Well-Roundedness – they were the group that was good at everything. Granted, the group has become considerably less well-rounded with the departure of three-fifths of the group, but the reputation of the group remains, and it will continue to remain so long as Yunho and Changmin perform under the name Dong Bang Shin Ki. As a result, Yunho and Changmin need to work on their weaknesses in order to maintain their group reputation and standard. When they first debuted as a two-member group, their greatest weakness was in their vocals. But with “Before U Go,” it seems like the two are beginning to prove that they’re still able to uphold a part of DBSK that was formerly supported by Jaejoong and Junsu.
So musically speaking, “Before U Go” wins on a few levels. One, it is the kind of sexytime, ovary-exploding music that makes fangirls go wild. Two, it allows Yoo Young-jin, arguably SM’s strongest composer, to do what he does best. And three, it shows that Yunho and Changmin’s vocal skills have improved considerably, and that they are therefore able to bear the vocal weight that previously rested on Jaejoong and Junsu’s shoulders. Are they as good as Jaejoong and Junsu? No, but they’re good enough to “sub in” for them. And considering that 2BSK has only been 2BSK for 4 months, that’s good enough for me.
(And the 16 minute version, for those of you with that kind of time on your hands.)
2. THE VIDEO.
And this is where the mixed feelings began.
Not going to lie, I was squealing when the music video teaser came out. And I don’t squeal for anything. Not necessarily because the concept was all that great – it was clearly inspired by Athena and considering how SM basically monopolized the hell out of Athena, I refuse to give them creativity points for a concept that is, essentially, recycled. No, the squealing was primarily for two reasons:
One, hotties wielding firearms. And doing windmill kicks. And being angsty. Need I go on.
Two, A VIDEO THAT DOESN’T FOLLOW THE SM ENTERTAINMENT MUSIC VIDEO FORMULA®?! The world must be ending.
SM hasn’t released a drama-style music video since, what, Zhang Li Yin’s last album in 2007? Granted, if you look at the raw structure of the MV for “Before U Go,” you’ll notice that it really doesn’t deviate too far from SM’s Music Video Formula. But they sure did a good job of hiding it this time.
SM’s videos usually consist of one solo shot per member, one or two group shots (which usually just features an outfit/set change), and one storyline shot. The storyline shot probably has the biggest creative potential, but for some reason, SM has always skimped on it big time. Music videos like “Oh!”, “NU ABO,” “No Other,” and even (comparative) oldies like “Mirotic,” “Noona Is So Pretty,” and “Into The New World” all have some semblance of a storyline in it, but the storylines are almost always extremely weak and feature the idol’s pretty faces rather than an actual plot. Which is good for the fans who primarily watch music videos to catch a glimpse of their biases being cute…but not so good for SM’s artistic integrity.
Considering SM’s track record, I was a little surprised to see SM suddenly spending so much time and money making this music video, especially considering that “Before U Go” is a follow-up single…which, more often then not, gets the creative shaft. SHINee’s “Jojo” and f(x)’s “Mr. Boogie” didn’t even get music videos, and SM goes off and makes a sixteen minute long music-video-music-mashup-compilation thing for “Before U Go”? I’m kinda tempted to cite my famous Sunbae Theory right now and say that DBSK deserves an epic music video because of their seniority alone, but this is a little too suspicious even for me. Right now, I’m theorizing that SM finally figured out that they did a crap job for “Keep Your Head Down” and tried to make up for it with promoting “Maximum” for two weeks before pulling out that giant, inflatable beast named “Before U Go” and letting it bounce all over the K-pop scene for a month or two.
I’m also willing to believe that SM found out that DBSK would be promoting “Before U Go” at around the same time as Big Bang. And it’s pretty much undisputed that whenever a YG group makes a comeback, the other groups pretty much don’t stand a chance. YG is a creative marketing monster and everything they put out is just epic – obnoxiously epic at times, but epic nonetheless. In particular, YG generally does an excellent job with their music videos. Granted, I wasn’t 100% impressed with the “Tonight” MV, but regardless, it seems that YG’s mere presence was enough to send SM into a rush to one-up the competition. Of course, I can’t say that this is absolutely true, but it is possible.
As for the video itself…well, it was excellent fangirl fodder, but it wasn’t perfect. Everything was very pretty, but as aforementioned, the idea was an Athena rip-off, and the plot was hard as hell to follow. On top of that, Changmin and Yunho’s hair was pretty bad, and…well, I just dislike Go Ara in general and I tend to dislike her even more when she does nothing but stand around and look pretty, which is exactly what she did for the entire sixteen minute video.
All of these flaws can easily be attributed to SM’s inexperience in making music videos that consist of anything more than a few close-up shots and rampant matrix cam usage, but hey – they’ll get better at it. If they break out of the SM Music Video Formula mold for good, that is. But unfortunately, I have a gut feeling that that’s probably not gonna happen. As much as I’d like to say that “Before U Go” is a sign that SM is moving to the next level (or trying to, at least), I think that their promotional effort as a whole was pretty much just overkill…even if they were just trying to make up for their iniquities in “Keep Your Head Down” or to compete with Big Bang.
Oh, almost forgot. More flow-mo. Wheeeeee!
Seriously dudes, I’m like 95% sure that SM probably splurged for the (ridiculously expensive) matrix cam equipment when they shot the “Lucifer” video and now they’re like, oh shiet, now we need to get our money’s worth out of this thing and use it EVERYWHERE. Imagine “Hana Kimi” being shot completely in matrix cam. Yeah, I lol’ed too.
3. THE PERFORMANCE.
I was initially really worried about their live performances for obvious reasons: judging from the studio recording alone, “Before U Go” is a ridiculously hard song to sing live. The thing with R&B is that you either do it perfectly, or you don’t do it at all. Yunho and Changmin have obviously become better singers, but I don’t think they’re at that level where they can belt out a song like “Before U Go” three times a week and expect it to be perfect every time.
So when I saw their first MuBank performance and I saw them dancing while singing, I just kinda sat there in shock, thinking that this was possibly SM’s dumbest idea to date. The vocal adlibs in “Before U Go” are incredibly intricate and require a ton of concentration in order for them to come out precisely. And where is Changmin going to find the concentration to pull off those epic riffs while he’s doing that awkward-as-hell hip-crotch-roll thing? What was so wrong with standing still and singing?
My initial thought was that the dancing was a sign that everyone was just trying too hard to be impressive. Dance makes for more interesting live performances – especially performances that are broadcasted weekly on television – but it had the potential to be more harmful than helpful in “Before U Go,” considering the vocal difficulty of the song. So basically I was just kinda pissed about the whole ordeal and stopped following the broadcasts.
But apparently I had spoken too soon. I can’t believe that I didn’t pick up on this sooner, but Yunho and Changmin actually perform an adapted version of the song for live performances. I initially thought that it was for time constraint purposes, but it took me a few performances (and a few more facepalms at my own stupidity) to figure out that a lot of the song had been replaced by an instrumental interlude. Basically, SM had created a version of the song that took out half of the vocal difficulty and replaced it with a performance-friendly dance break.
Which….is kind of a brilliant idea.
Of course, it’s not to say that the riffs that were left intact for the performance version are perfect either, and I still think that “Before U Go” could’ve worked just fine without any choreography at all. But this is a kind of logistic ingenuity that I haven’t seen from SM for quite some time. SM had three obstacles to face when planning out promotions:
1) Time constraints. No one gets a five-minute long slot on every single music show, every week. Not even if you’re a God of the East.
2) Vocal constraints. Having Changmin pull off that epic adlib break three times a week is not only a risky move performance-wise, but it could also damage Changmin’s voice pretty badly when all’s said and done.
3) Audience-attention-span constraints. Look, I loved watching Lee Hyun‘s “You Are The Best Of My Life” and Navi‘s “Turning Out For The Best” the first few times they performed it, but the magic tends to wear off quickly if you hear it every single week for a month and a half. Such is the plight of the ballad singer. Maybe it’s because humans are more visually wired than they are aurally wired, but dance performances tend to capture more attention than just straight-up singing, and audiences are more prone to follow a song week after week if it’s got cool choreography. This theory, in (probable) combination with the fact that dance-diva Yunho is in the group, probably resulted in the creation of a dance-centric version of “Before U Go” that would be used in weekly live performances.
The performance version of “Before U Go” addresses all three of these points, and does it in a really sleek, smooth, and discreet fashion. I can appreciate that. I still kinda wish that Changmin and Yunho’s vocals could be more on point, but what can you do.
And plus, if I want to watch them dance while having perfect vocals, then there’s always the dance version music video, courtesy of SM Entertainment. Yunho and Changmin’s dramatic faces and telenovela auras are, of course, complimentary.
When it comes to my bias groups, I always seem to have a ton to say because a) I have the fangirly motivation to sit through the albums, the MVs, the performances and analyze it all, and b) when you’re analyzing K-pop promotional efforts, it’s always wise to have a good understanding of an artist’s background: What are the strengths of each member? What standards have they set with previous songs? How has their management company promoted them in the past? What strategies do usually they use? It’s easy to simply say that Song A is better than Song B, but lately, it’s become more apparent that the gaps in quality between K-pop groups are actually quite wide. There’s no real set standard for quality K-pop anymore; not when groups who can barely sing are performing on the same shows as groups who can sing them to the moon and back. The only standard in K-pop, it seems, are the standards that each group sets for itself. And in order to know what those standards are, you’ve got to have a good understanding of the group itself.
DBSK has been a very interesting case to follow, because as a big DBSK5 fan, I have a pretty good understanding of how the group used to work as five members. When DBSK lost three members, it definitely threw off the group dynamic – but more importantly, it shifted my expectations of the group. Do I let them off easy if they have weak vocals now? Do I raise my expectations for their dance skills? SM undoubtedly struggled with these same questions when they were planning DBSK’s promotional materials. In a sense, SM was essentially debuting a new group when they brought a 2-member DBSK back to the K-pop scene, and it’s been interesting to see how SM has tried to work DBSK to their new full potential.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think either JYJ or 2BSK will last very long as separate acts. JYJ is pretty self-explanatory: everything they’ve done since their departure from SM has been a big mess, and if their own exhaustion doesn’t kill them, CJeS’s logistical failures will. 2BSK is a little trickier – even though they’re sitting pretty on top of SM’s giant corporate support system, they’re still going to struggle to maintain their relevance as an independent entity, rather than “the group that used to have five members.” It’s not like 2PM, where the group can move on and promote peacefully even after losing a member and going through a ton of drama. Unlike 2PM, DBSK was an extremely well-established group prior to the lawsuit, and they have almost always been known as a five-member group. In order for 2BSK to succeed, Yunho and Changmin not only have to push themselves to fill the holes left behind by Jaejoong, Junsu, and Yoochun, but they also have to redefine themselves as a two member group with different strengths, different standards, and a different personality. They need to maintain the DBSK name and reputation, while also completely redefining the DBSK name and reputation. It’s a very, very tricky task.
I’m glad that DBSK’s first promotional effort as a two-membered group went pretty smoothly, but I’m now all the more worried about where they’ll go next. A release like “Before U Go” is reassuring because it shows that Yunho and Changmin are able to step up to the plate, skill-wise. But it’s a whole other affair to try to change public opinion about their image – and it’s arguably more difficult than just pulling off a few ad-libs.