“My head hurts,” is a phrase that sums up my experience with Stray Kids’ latest title track, “Side Effects”. While the song falls under the same genre as their previous comeback, “MIROH”, “Side Effects” is nothing like what fans have heard from the group before. Not only was the song jarring, the music video that accompanied it made the entire viewing and listening experience more disorienting. 

When discussing their inspirations and themes for the latest album, Clé 2: Yellow Wood. Bang Chan constantly brought up the idea of choices and decisions one has to make in their lives. Even the album title, Yellow Wood, alludes to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”, a poem which explores decisions and uncertainty in life. 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both

However, “Side Effects” does not explore the idea of choice, but rather the regret and anxiety that comes as a consequence after making a decision. In a society where the younger generations are attempting to break out of traditional structures and forge their own paths, many have made this decision without thinking about the journey ahead. It is only when they face various challenges and obstacles do they realise that there are many trials and tribulations they have to overcome.

“Get out of the way you all,
I’m right,
You all wait and see.”
I’m scared that I might not keep these words.

Stray Kids has been very consistent in promoting the idea of self-identity in past comebacks, and the main message has always been to stay true to oneself. Yet, like many other decisions, staying true to oneself and forging one’s own path has its own consequences. Stray Kids express their regret and doubt, questioning whether their decision to stray away from the masses was the right thing to do. The lyrics question whether they will be successful in forging their own path, and indicate fear of failure which would ultimately prove that the system, which they have been rebelling against, was right.

This idea of uncertainty and wariness is depicted in the music video as well, and is represented by Hyunjin. While Hyunjin continues to follow his members, he is clearly hesitant towards the new choices. Due to his hesitance and constant worry, he becomes easily anxious and agitated, which leads to him acting irrationally. One example would be when Hyunjin notices Seungmin taking a picture, and instead of asking him to put his camera away, Hyunjin throws Seungmin’s camera onto the ground. This results in a fight between the two, which not only symbolises inner sabotage, but also disunity within a community.

The bus that we see in music video symbolises the easier choice. Its rear has the symbol of the lion that is also seen in “MIROH”, and it implies that the bus is the easier and conventional choice that is often taken by the masses. The members deliberately chose not to take the bus and instead walk, even though it means that the road to their destination would not be easy. However, when the car they used as a means of transport breaks down, the bus passes them again. This time, it also shows an alternate reality where the members are sleeping soundly in the bus, thus showing a “what could’ve been” for the members.

At the very end of the video, the members walk up to Hyunjin who is seen to be lying on the grass. Despite the ominous atmosphere due to the soft music playing in the background, it shows all nine members walking forward together as one. Amongst all the members, Hyunjin is the only who does not look happy, and yet he continues to walk, indicating that while there is no way to completely quell such doubts, the best course of action is to stick with one’s choice and believe in it.

Musically, “Side Effects” is unique in that it doesn’t follow the a traditional song structure. There are no distinct verses and choruses, but rather sounds like a space between the start and end. When paired with the music video, the beats of the song matches with the constant flashes and cuts between scenes, building a jarring effect. This causes the listener to always feel uncomfortable while listening to the song. This discomfort is a feeling one has when doubting their choices, never fully confident in their decision for the fear of failure and inability to overcome the challenges at hand.

“Side Effects” also symbolises Stray Kids’ current journey to success — although it is not completely unorthodox, their journey as a group is different from others. After all, Stray Kids was put together by Bang Chan, and it was the first group that JYP did not have much control or scrutiny over. The formation of Stray Kids deviates from the typical K-pop group, where members are put together by the company rather than being formed by themselves.

The phrase “nine or nothing” has been stressed upon ever since they debuted. In their reality program, JYP mentioned that a group of seven without Lee Know and Felix would have been more put-together as the members would not have to focus on making up for the two’s shortcomings. However, the group ultimately debuted as nine, indicating that Stray Kids will move forward with these “imperfections” in their group, and are willing to face these challenges.

Despite conveying their overarching message through “Side Effects” well, I must admit that the song and music video were not easy to go through the first time. Of course, they were brave and took a great risk in exploring a new style of music, but because the entire song on its own is so unnerving and jarring, it makes listeners feel uncomfortable and disoriented. “Side Effects” is definitely not a song you would use to introduce Stray Kids to first-time listeners. The phrase “my head hurts” never felt more relatable to listeners, and definitely not in a good way for those listening to it for the first time.

Through this comeback, I believe that Stray Kids will continue taking bigger risks in their music, but only time will tell whether these risks are worth it or not.

(YouTube [1] [2], Genius Lyrics, Poetry Foundation, VLIVE; Images via JYP Entertainment)