In 2017, Sunmi was already a major figure in K-pop. She had been an original member of the popular second generation girl group the Wonder Girls, and she was a successful solo artist in her own right. Then, she released “Gashina” and almost instantly leapt from K-pop star to genuine Hallyu icon.
Besides being a smash hit, “Gashina” introduced Sunmi’s signature concept. In her many comebacks since “Gashina”, Sunmi has continued to play in a technicolor world filled with wit, disarming vulnerability, and unmistakable femme fatale undertones. This might seem like a narrow artistic space to exist in, but Sunmi has found seemingly endless ways to tweak and twist her persona so that it doesn’t wear thin.
Her newest release fits easily into her overall discography, although it is arguably her most experimental to date. “Tail” presents a startlingly literal depiction of feline affection and aggression. The MV features a cornucopia of sparkling yet menacing images. At times, “Tail” cries out for a stronger editing eye. All of its visual elements are intriguing, but some clash, and there are just so many of them. Despite its chaos though, “Tail” casts a quirkily charismatic spell.
“Tail” opens with a cinematic sequence that sees Sunmi getting pushed out of a skyscraper, an homage to the storyline of the iconic comic book anti-heroine Catwoman in the 1992 film “Batman Returns”. Vaguer references to Catwoman continue throughout the MV, which evolves into something of a revenge story, with Sunmi hunting down and tormenting her executor.
The actual narrative of “Tail”, as summarized above, doesn’t take up much of the MV. Most of the screen time is filled with aesthetic shots of a decadently villainous Sunmi and dance scenes.
It would be impossible to call the choreography for “Tail” pretty, but that is rather the point. Sunmi and her crew of excellent backup dancers create a violently intense mood through their dancing. A choreographic highlight is when the backup dancers first use their legs and then their arms to create a literal tail for Sunmi. Everything about the dance is inventive and memorable, making the choreography one of the strongest elements of “Tail”.
As for Sunmi’s solo scenes, that’s where the visual discordance appears. Each individual image is stunning, from Sunmi prowling a silver and red room in matching get-up, to luxuriating on a pile of vibrantly colored stocking-covered legs, to being surrounded by furry CGI tails. But do they compliment each other?
Visually, not so much. Because each shot has such a clearly established independent aesthetic, it makes it impossible for them all to coordinate. Additionally, “Tail” constantly introduces new types and styles of imagery throughout its run.
It’s a bit overwhelming. Just as you are getting accustomed to one type of imagery, you have to abandon that and get used to another. It can also seem like crucial visual aspects are abruptly jettisoned at various points in “Tail”. For example, a grayscale filter is used liberally in the opening section of the MV, and then never appears again.
What stops “Tail” from disintegrating into a visually alluring but confusing mess is its tonal consistency. No matter its aesthetic elements, each image is full of charismatic danger. Sunmi is in peak femme fatale form in “Tail” and her electrifying performance helps tie each of the MV’s many parts together into one cooly menacing whole.
Like its visuals, the lyrical content of “Tail” is kind of all over the place. Again though, a clear message comes through the chaos. In “Tail”, Sunmi is a woman in love in a decidedly unstable way:
It’s too soon to be sorry
You know it, wait for it
We’re madly in love
Kiss each other like crazy
Rock your head like crazy
Sunmi employs feline and more generally animalistic references strategically in “Tail”. Lines like “Probably it began after I clawed at you” and “Wagging my tail for your last words” allow her to establish a uniquely absurd villainous tone. The lyrics of “Tail” are just as distinctive as every part of the comeback, and that’s a huge compliment.
Indeed, the strongest praise that can be given to “Tail” is that is feels truly one of a kind. K-pop is full of constantly recycled concepts and visuals. While femme fatale and cat-inspired releases have existed before, “Tail” carves out a space of its own that is utterly original.
“Tail” comes off an EP of the same name that also contains the b-side track “What the Flower”. The two songs make a wonderful pair. Both feature smoky soundscapes, although “Tail” is more electronic while “What the Flower” is instrumental and jazzy. Lyrically, “What the Flower” is the flip side of “Tail”. Where “Tail” is histrionic in its ill-fated love, “What the Flower” is wryly mature and grounded in its romantic disappointment. It’s impressive that Sunmi is able to showcase her range in an EP with only two songs.
Though not without its flaws, “Tail” is yet another strong comeback for Sunmi. It is worth noting that this means that Sunmi can boast a pretty much unbroken string of standout releases since her solo debut in 2013. That’s an incredible accomplishment in the notoriously volatile and punishing K-pop industry. “Tail” proves that Sunmi’s appeal and versatility as a songwriter and performer is only growing. What she does next is impossible to predict, but it doesn’t seem hasty to assume it will impress.