After a nearly two-year hiatus, Red Velvet are finally back with “Queendom,” an infectiously cheery, bubblegum pop single that celebrates both their much-awaited reunion and their long-standing reign as one of K-pop’s wonderfully absurd queens. 

Though somewhat restrained in style and sound, “Queendom” is still enjoyable, cushioned by a whimsical concept and sweet, self-aware lyrics. The song is more sentimental than their previous work, notably lacking the edge and wit that have come to define them, but it also comes at just the right time in Red Velvet’s career. Shaken and separated by very public setbacks, the girls are together again, at ease at last. 

It should come as no surprise that towering castles and royal thrones do not make an appearance in Red Velvet’s “Queendom.” Aside from avoiding the obvious (and already perfected by (G)I-dle’s “Lion,” itself a Queendom production), it just makes sense that Red Velvet’s version of royalty is a kitschy, witchy paradise. Crystal balls, wands, capes, and quills adorn the sleek world of the MV. Irene says it all in the opening verse—they don’t need crowns. Their realm is anything and everything their magic touches. 

More fittingly, the girls are bewitching keepers of lost and found items. They collect forgotten objects and wrap them up with spells, before finally shipping them back to their owners (the name of their service: Rough Vehicle). It is a poignant nod to their own journey as a musical group, having repeatedly lost and found themselves in the last couple of years. 

As fans remember all too well, in 2019, Wendy sustained serious injuries from a high fall and had to be hospitalized for months. Almost a year later, just when it seemed like recovery and a reunion were on the horizon, Irene found herself at the center of a heated gapjil reckoning and subsequently stepped back from the limelight. Except for a subunit outing, the usually prolific group was largely absent in 2020. When worried fans sought a comeback date, SM Entertainment debuted another girl group, further fueling concern about Red Velvet’s uncertain future. They were nearing the dreadful seven-year curse, after all, and SM didn’t exactly have the best track record with girl group longevity.

This is the rocky, real-world backdrop against which “Queendom” is set. So, at least for followers familiar with these ordeals, the MV feels triumphant despite its musical flatness. Lyrics like “Even if it rains, strong and beautiful” and “Follow the light through the darkness, the new color is called together” carry a deeper meaning in the context of these events. More than just rainbow-after-the-rain platitudes, they are assertions of the group’s resolve to go on and continue the show, whether they are called back to or not. 

This is strengthened by the dynamism of the witch concept. Instead of being passive, regal queens, they are active sorceresses, in charge of their own paths and masters of their own fate. “La di da doo ba di da!” they chant with a flick of their wanded wrists, a swirl of kitsch surrounding them. “The moment we hold our hands together, that’s our queendom.” 

Like the group’s previous summer turns, “Queendom” is bright, colorful, and cheery. Unlike them, however, the MV is more intimate than eccentric. At its core is a message of comfort aimed at pained but loyal fans. In the same vein as Twice’s “Feel Special” and Iz One’s “Panorama,” both of which were released during respectively tumultuous eras (Twice’s Mina was on hiatus for health reasons, while Iz One was on the brink of their eventual disbandment), “Queendom” acts as a soothing, sentimental balm for those who have stuck with them. “We’ve been waiting for this moment,” Irene sings, while Yeri reassures them that “We strong, nothing missing.”

Sometimes, “Queendom” verges on over-the-top fluff, but the group narrowly avoids this by sneaking in some of their beloved camp. In one shot, Seulgi sits on a whimsical hill and waves the severed forearm of a half-buried skeleton. It is disturbing and delicious, and another possible allusion to the tough year they had. In another sequence, Joy smiles from ear to ear, basking in the MV’s pink glow while also gliding through the track’s syrupy synths. It is so deceptively cute that the bravado that escapes her lips is jarring, if not outright threatening. “Shout it out,” she commands, “we do it better.” 

In a similarly evocative scene, Irene places an AirPod under a magnifying glass and studies it with peculiar reverence. “Stereotype that’s clearly different,” she says while turning the bud over, possibly musing on the idea of sound itself. What will they sing this time around? What stereotype will they bust, if any? And will anyone still care to listen?

In the seven years since their debut, Red Velvet have run the gamut of nearly every sound and style imaginable—​​sometimes all at once, sometimes to their own detriment, but always with laudable courage. From red crush classics like “Red Flavor” and “Rookie” to velvety jams like “Automatic” and “Bad Boy” (to say nothing of their delightfully weird B-sides), Red Velvet have truly done it all. What else is there to prove?

Maybe the group will answer that question in their next single. Maybe not. Maybe they’ll go back to one-upping themselves with avant-garde levels of excess, or maybe they’ve rebranded for good. The joy of being a Red Velvet fan is that one cannot truly know for sure. What is known is that for now, the group seems content to simply express their heart’s song with “Queendom,” at once their cheesiest and most comforting comeback to date.

(Lyrics via Genius. YouTube[1][2][3][4][5]. Korea JoongAng Daily. Billboard. BBC. Forbes. Images via SM Entertainment)