Son Dam-bi, Brave Brothers, and dancing aliens. If that isn’t the sign of a grandiose return, then what is? The last time the solo performer and hit producer collaborated on a promoted track was in 2009, for chart-topper “On a Saturday Night.” It’s been over two years since Son Dam-bi’s last promoted release and aside from her appearance almost a year ago in labelmate After School’s charity single, “Love Letter,” she’s been largely absent from the K-pop scene. Her return comes on the heels of several strong and mature solo comebacks from seasoned female soloists this year. Following upon the trend of conceptual growth from this stock of returning female soloists, “Dripping Tears” reveals a more vulnerable and sentimental side of Son Dam-bi.
Son Dam-bi has always been known for her lavish and elegant style of sexuality which has suited her music and concepts very well during her run of hits from 2008 to 2010. Her classy and sensual image remains ever the more prevalent in “Dripping Tears,” but is enhanced by a more emotional and sensitive side of her which appropriately transitions her image from her mid-twenties brand of domineering sexy to more of a vulnerable sex appeal in what is now her late-twenties, an age where Korean women are expected to tie the knot and start a family. As we’ll see, age is certainly a factor that plays into her concept.
“Dripping Tears” provides an emotional and melancholic punch through a matured image and musical style which was not present in her three biggest hits to date: “On a Saturday Night,” “Crazy,” and “Queen.” Although the lyrics and theme of “Crazy” are very similar to that of “Dripping Tears,” Son Dam-bi’s process of maturation can be realized through comparing the tone and concept of the two songs. Where the emotions conveyed in “Crazy” were that of a maturing female in her sexual prime, her sensual and sullen facial expression throughout “Dripping Tears” portrays that of a matured woman who is truly sad and lost. The beat and dance of “Crazy” is more upbeat and wild, emphasizing Son Dam-bi’s desirability more than her emotional angst while the choreography in “Dripping Tears” adds to the idea of sadness, mourning, and mental instability. Lastly, the theme of longing for a lost love driving one crazy is further developed in “Dripping Tears” as she is not only figuratively entrapped inside her mind, but also literally confined to a straight jacket inside a mental hospital inhabited by faceless, dancing aliens dressed in fancy belts and high heels!
The idea of longing is becoming a popular theme that aging female artists are running with. Albeit “aging” in the K-pop world for females means mid-twenties and beyond, BoA (although only 25 at the time) and Seo In-young (30, barely) have also gone with a theme of sadness and despair over a past relationship in their comebacks this year. Son Dam-bi, who was the ripe age of 26 when she promoted her last release, “Queen,” returns as a 29 year-old which most in the industry would consider past her prime in terms of looks and marketability. Because it’s no longer considered kosher for a woman in her late twenties to sing about being stylish to attract boys, a topic now butchered by girl groups in their teens to early twenties, Son Dam-bi must stick to a more mature theme of longing. Nevertheless, despite the restraints age has put on her career, she applies a sarcastic twist to the theme of longing by excessively portraying society’s expected outcome of an unwed aging woman who’s filled with longing – mental instability (cats not included).
Although the song’s lyrics express hopeless despair over a past lover, it’s not exactly clear whether the longing she feels in the MV is for a person or for the past itself. Son Dam-bi’s actions and mental state personify the inner conflict she faces with the changing present. In the scene in which she is simultaneously performing and searching the audience in hopes of catching someone’s eye, she discovers a room of men in hats, none of which even bother to look up at her. This reveals that she is no longer the attractive figure who effortlessly catches the gaze of men. Not accepting such a possibility, she lashes out at one of the venue’s oddly-placed, swaying light bulbs and is forcefully admitted to a mental institution whose patients are faceless aliens who resemble stuffed animals more than actual living, breathing creatures. These weird alien entities oddly mimic Son Dam-bi’s mannerisms, her dancing, and her need for escape. That is because they represent her, or a part of her who she is afraid of becoming – an expressionless, emotionless, and detached person whom the world has ignored and forgotten – an unwed aging woman.
As she and her new alien friends rebel against the institution, they are severely repressed and Son Dam-bi is shown being drowned in a bath tub. She awakens on the other side, on a clear beach with exploding waves. Is this a sign that she has come to accept her aging self and thus been reborn as a more refined and sensible lady, or does she remain trapped in the youthful delusions of an aging woman? Brave Brothers suitably supplies “Dripping Tears” with a sentimental piano-synth melody to go with an uplifting electro beat, giving the song a sense of desperate hope that runs parallel to the hopeless despair of the melody and the lyrics. Son Dam-bi is still sexier than ever and her age is beginning to show not in her physical appearance, but in the complexity of her concept.
So far this year we’ve witnessed the comebacks of a number of female soloists who have carved out a niche for the matured aging woman. Along with BoA and Seo In-young, Ga-in has also established herself as a solo artist who appeals to the sensibilities of women with her album Talk About S. Although being only 25 and the maknae of Brown Eyed Girls, the mature topic of her controversial single, “Bloom,” is that of a woman discovering her sexuality. NS Yoon-G also hints at a growing maturity in her recent release, “If You Love Me.” At the tender age of 27, she is also closely approaching the restrictions of the aging woman.
K-pop has experienced a rise this year in the number of female soloists debuting or making comebacks in the industry. Son Dam-bi and the returning artists mentioned above have carved out a niche for the mature female soloist who is not afraid to touch upon more complex themes of an adult manner. With young female soloists debuting as acoustic singer-songwriters (Juniel, Kim Greem) or powerhouse vocalists (Lee Hi, Baek Ah-yeon), Son Dam-bi and company are the remaining remnants of an older generation of female soloists who are marketed for their ability to sing and dance, along with their sultry aesthetics.
As girl groups begin to age and expire, the industry will soon be overflowing with aging yet multi-faceted female artists who will need to rely on a more mature image to sustain their careers. Luckily, their seniors will attempt to popularize the concept of the matured aging woman for the sake of extending their own careers. We’re already expected to see comebacks or solo debuts of a similar nature from industry legend, Hyori (33); Brown Eyed Girls leader, JeA (31); and former leader of After School, Kahi (31). We may be seeing more mature themes hopefully from G.NA (25) along with the aging members of Brown Eyed Girls and After School as they secede from the limited lifespan of being a group member and into the potential longevity of being a solo artist. Just as Pledis utilized Son Dam-bi to pave way for the emergence of After School, they once again deploy her to break ground for the graduation of its aging members. Is the concept of the refined aging woman here to stay, or is Son Dam-bi merely dripping tears over a prime that has long gone?
Overall Rating: 3.8 out of 5
(Pledis Entertainment, IY Company, Loen Entertainment)