What do you picture when you think of young love? If you are a K-pop fan, you might recall the adorkable energy of “Adore U”, the cheesy but endearing earnestness of “Just One Day”, or the playful innocence of “What is Love?”. Sweet melodies, bright visuals, light-hearted vibes, and cute details are what these songs have in common. Indeed, you will find these features in most K-pop tunes about youthful crushes and first blushes.

However, there is more to young love than what these tracks indicate. Adolescent romances can be overwhelming, filled to the brim as they are with intensity. There is infinite possibility in first affections, but the culmination of those possibilities is not guaranteed to be a happy ending. It is this more complex side of young love that Ateez have chosen to explore in their new track “Inception”.

The title of the song is likely a reference to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. The movie is about dreams, and whether the differences between the world we inhabit and the worlds we create in our sleep are really so significant. Dreams are Ateez’s metaphor of choice to describe young love’s surreal qualities, the way the feelings it triggers can seem both too inexplicable to be real, and too vivid to be fake. This is particularly true of love at first sight, which is the specific type of infatuation that Ateez experience in “Inception”:

Eye meets in that short instant
The moment all the senses stop
Little tremors spread inside me
For the first time I am swallowed by the feeling

Despite the brief nature of this meeting, Ateez are now consumed by desire, their only wish to again find the object of their adoration. For unexplained reasons, this person remains elusive. Consequently, Ateez are now stuck in an endless cycle of longing and seeking:

As if I have dreamed in a dream,
I am lost looking for you
You are the dream that I live in,
The dream I can never awake from
Every day & night I’m gon’ chase you

This young love is exciting and terrifying in equal measure, trapping Ateez in a cage they don’t truly want to escape from. And so they chase on, determined to see their love through to the end, whatever the cost. 

In tackling a darker, even potentially obsessive side to young love, “Inception” walks a thin line between compelling and creepy. Luckily, the song makes the choice to focus on how the feelings Ateez are experiencing are affecting them, rather than devolving into a dysfunctional examination of the expectations Ateez might have of their potential partner. This allows it to avoid problematic territory, and instead be a genuinely interesting reflection on how young love can forever alter the mindsets of those who undergo it.

The passion and volatility of Ateez’s emotions are communicated through the visuals of the MV. Shots of the members restlessly tossing and turning in bed are intercut with solo performances in dingy corridors and dark rooms, and group dance sequences filled with untamed energy. The color palette is cool and muted, but frequently disrupted by blazing flames.

Ateez slyly nod to the generally more light-hearted imagery of young love with their grungy spin on a school setting, accompanied by unkempt uniform-inspired outfits. The overall styling of “Inception” is excellent, flattering the whole group but especially Wooyoung and Yunho, who are rocking the schoolboy-gone-wrong look like they were made for it.

The MV’s performance scenes are full of the ferocious dynamism that rocketed Ateez to rookie stardom last year. More than any other aspect of the video, they best convey the multi-layered and powerful feelings at the core of “Inception”. The choreography is particularly effective, melding swagger, elegance, and intensity into something magnetic and surprisingly romantic.  

Besides being a refreshingly different take on young love, “Inception” is also a departure for Ateez. It is their first title track, and one of only a handful of songs period, that has seen the group looking to love for lyrical inspiration. Ateez’s Treasure series, which stretched from their debut to January’s Treasure Epilogue: Action to Answer, was full of tracks about, well, looking for treasure. The treasure in question was often vaguely defined, but it seemed to be success, or maybe purpose, and definitely had nothing to do with romance.

With “Inception” and its album ZERO: FEVER Part.1, Ateez are beginning a new series, and a new chapter of their careers. It is only right that they try something unexpected, and that is exactly what “Inception” is. However, it should be noted that this almost wasn’t the case. Ateez held a vote to determine their title track for this comeback. The other candidate, “Thanxx”, while undeniably catchy, is clearly reminiscent of their previous work. Which is to say, if “Thanxx” had triumphed, you might be reading a very different review right now, where the phrases “Once again” and “Why?!?” would have popped up a lot.

Fortunately, “Inception” took the win, so Ateez get to kick off Fever with a song that proves they can be versatile without sacrificing any of their signature flare. After all, it is not many impassioned love songs where the chorus is punctuated by repeated hollers of “I’m dream in a dream every night”. But while “Inception” is admirable in how it pushes the boundaries of Ateez’s artistry and K-pop’s representations of young love, there are times when it feels like it doesn’t push hard enough.

This issue is particularly apparent in the song’s musical composition. There are some fun experimental elements, notably the early EDM-influenced dance break. However, much of the song is generic dark-tinged synth pop, with few distinctive qualities to set it apart from its many sonic siblings and cousins. The MVs visuals are similarly competent but never strikingly original. Nothing here is something you have not seen before.

There are also times when production choices undercut possible highlight moments. For instance, during the previously mentioned dance break, Ateez perform some incredible footwork-focused choreography. Unfortunately, their steps are obscured by the water in which they dance, and by the slow-motion effects interspersed throughout the sequence. This blocks the momentum of what could and should be a jaw-dropping scene.

It is the huge potential of “Inception” which makes these failures to capitalize so disappointing. While the song and its MV are perfectly enjoyable, there is a sense that they could have been truly fabulous, if only KQ Entertainment had dared to really go for it, no holds barred.

Even so, “Inception” is an excitingly different take on young love, and an important step forward for Ateez. If the group can continue to cultivate and expand upon the emotional nuance and versatile artistry they show in “Inception”, then the sky will be the limit. The last shot of the MV, with Hongjoong standing alone in a vast space, points to the many chapters Ateez have yet to write. “Inception” proves that what the group does next won’t be predictable, and that’s a good thing.

(YouTube. Lyrics via YouTube. Images via KQ Entertainment)