With quite a collection of earworms under their belt, it has become clear that SM has a formula for successful Red Velvet red comeback: a chanted chorus, bright colors, a callback to previous releases and, of course, lots of campy outfits. Yet, even with a string of successes, SM has definitely been leaning towards the experimental for Red Velvet title tracks in 2019. After two experimental comebacks that polarized fans, Red Velvet attempt to return to their stride with “Umpah Umpah,” not by only drawing from what has worked in the past, but by keeping the concept light and whimsical.
While it may seem like another nonsense saying added to the lexicon of Red Velvet hooks, “Umpah Umpah” is the phrase taught as a breathing pattern when Koreans learn to swim. In the track, Red Velvet take this chant and expand it into a metaphor comparing swimming in the deep end to falling in love. The object of their affections might be afraid, but if they remember to keep the rhythm and breathe, everything will be alright.
You should be careful It might be deep
I’ve seen many
But they all couldn’t come out Why? I don’t know
Don’t ask me why
My eyes can’t see how deep it is
Hope that you’re different from them floundering around
Stifling and suffocating
Compared to “Zimzalabim,” “Umpah Umpah” actually has some depth to the hook, and most strikingly, it has a real chorus. After one too many chant-style and completely repetitive hooks, “Umpah Umpah” finally brings a touch of vocals and melody to Red Velvet’s red sound. Instead of Wendy taking control of the entire vocal space a la “Bad Boy,” other members like Joy and Seulgi are given a shot at runs and chorus time. More importantly, the group vocals are reinforced by underlying rhythmic chant of “umpah umpah,” and not overshadowed by it.
It’s so refreshing to hear a dynamic, yet cohesive melody from Red Velvet that I don’t even mind the vaguely familiar early 2000’s chorus, nor Joy’s rap verse that shouts out some of Red Velvet’s most successful tracks — “Ice Cream Cake,” “Dumb Dumb,” and “Red Flavor.” While some may say it’s more of the same for Red Velvet summer tracks, it’s nice to see SM take a step back from experimentation and choose a title track that allows Red Velvet’s strengths to shine and not get lost in the chaos. It may not be another “Red Flavor” kind of hit, but at least fans can sing along.
Much like the track, the MV for “Umpah Umpah” keeps it simple, but cute. Like with all Red Velvet MVs, the narrative is shifted away from romantic love and instead focused on the friendship of the members. Red Velvet start out as city slicking cowgirls excited for a weekend at the beach, only to be sorely disappointed by the arrival of a storm. Trapped indoors, things continue to go wrong: the roof leaks, and the television reception is lost.
A leaky beach house hardly seems like an exciting set for an MV, but the Red Velvet members manage to fill it with whimsy. The leaky roof allows the members to huddle together under a fort, make cute pouty faces while they play board games, and run around indoors with umbrellas. In the same vein, the television reception is an excuse to send Seulgi up onto the roof in cliched rain gear, as she battles an ancient antenna. Adding to the very real problems the members face are the miniature, beachy Red Velvet members on the game board that simultaneously taunt the members with all the fun they could be having.
What strengthens the whimsical elements of the narrative is the stylistic choices of the set designers. “Umpah Umpah” is very obviously filmed on a sound stage, and makes no attempt to hide that fact. Instead, it harkens back to olden days’ musicals with cardboard cut-outs of city buildings, fabric backdrops for skylines, and truly campy costumes. Everything outside of the house is artificial: the roads, the beach, even the waves Seulgi is surfing are actually just blue plastic. These elements and stylistic choices emphasize the fun of imagination, which is exactly what the Red Velvet members use to enjoy their time trapped indoors.
Umpah umpah umpah umpah
You and I Like it
Look at me with your eyes capturing the sun
I like this unforgettable moment
Feel the rhythm
By finding the fun in crappy circumstances, the members reinforce the song’s theme to just keep swimming and enjoy the moment you’re living in. With the right company, even a disaster of a beach trip can become a happy memory. So much so, that when the storm clouds clear in the final shots of the MV, the members choose to stay indoors with a smile on their face.
All in all, “Umpah Umpah” doesn’t exactly hit it out of the park, but after the headache of “Zimzalabim” a return to the familiar doesn’t feel so disappointing — especially when paired with a charming MV.