The ingredients for super stardom are all present in Aespa’s storyline, the SM Label, strong vocals and visuals, a memorable group concept, and a mega-hit in this year’s “Next Level”. This is a group poised to race to the top of the fourth generation, making their next steps vital. Carrying on the virtual reality, AI, and gaming themes that sit under both their previous hit and their debut “Black Mamba”, “Savage” unfortunately falters. 

The MV attempts to build on the nonchalant cool of “Next Level” by turning more provocative and cockier, but in attempting so, loses the former’s originality and creativity. The virtual reality motifs are pulled out far more here, but again fail to add anything meaningful to the Aespa cannon. In the movements towards creativity or quirkiness, they instead expose what they have yet to develop.

Given that Aespa’s unique selling point comes from their members’ avatars featuring as, essentially, extra members, this play with virtual reality has been an understandable element of their work. In “Savage”, it comes across in many ways, not least the set design and CG effects.

The MV, as with others, is presented on a series of sound stages, with complex animations interplaying throughout. From the giant snake that wraps around Ning Ning, Giselle, and Winter to the gridded floor and flickering crystal structures, the opening moments show us that we are very much in the world of techno-punk.

 This theme is never let up; we see Winter amid full video game graphics, “combo” and “perfect” flashing on the screen as she shoots from a pink gun, and the sets only move from one electro-future concept to the next. A neon pink playroom to a post-apocalypse of green, black, and red dangling wires and piles of trash—each scene feels like a world in which avatars live, which, of course, it is in the Aespa universe. These sets are undoubtedly aesthetically interesting, the last in particular fitting with the darker edge to some of the song’s lyrics. 

I’m locked up in the glass

I want to play such a horrible expectation

I’m locked up in that hallucination frame

The problem is that, taking a wider perspective of the MV as a whole, these set pieces effectively become different set dressings to a structure we have seen before. Both “Black Mamba” and “Next Level” were also, at their core, different dance sequences and solos with a variety of backdrops. There is no outdoor setting here or anything created to look much like a real-world location, such as a bedroom or an arcade. It fits with the gaming motif that Aespa has, but it feels repetitive here, and a little restrictive on what could be possible. 

There are attempts to negate these restrictions, with the CG effects being the main one. Whilst the graphics of smoke creatures swirl around Winter and the screen seems to smash like glass as Karina punches it, it is the presence of the group’s avatars that feels the most significant. Here, they fully join the dance routine at one point, before a section where the physical members meet their counterparts in an animated lilac field. There is even a full anime moment, when the girls transform into 2D Sailor Scout-style characters, blasting into the air chasing a glowing butterfly. 

This effort is the biggest commitment that Aespa has yet made to this element of their concept, and it does seem to correlate with the more fantastical aspects of their lyrics. 

Your hallucinations are becoming

The reasons to construct you

It also pairs well with the references to, I assume, the extended lore around Aespa. Kwangya, a flat plain beyond our dimension, gets a nod, as does the concept of sync diving, when the members’ consciousness syncs up with that of their avatars. When these terms are understood, the animated scene becomes contextualised and starts to become part of a grander narrative. But, for many (myself included), this lore is a diversion that takes a bit more commitment than every listener, or even fan, can muster. World-building is fine, a K-pop standard, but here it just feels distracting. Particularly when the 2D animations are smiling and chasing butterflies, the mood feels at odds with a song clearly attempting an edgier girl-crush mode. 

Less conspicuous but more interesting is the use of camerawork in this MV. Again, this is referencing the shifting, 360 perspective of video games. The camera regularly swoops at various angles as the members dance, sometimes zooming in from the floor and offering the viewpoint of the mamba as it crawls. Less commonplace than their let’s layer computer graphics over sound stages as creative tactic attempts, these moments provide the most interesting angles to the MV. This camerawork has been seen in other Aespa MVs too. However, as a method of filming rather than an aesthetic, it is able to become more of a signature than an overused trope.

Aside from this less noticeable creative edge to the MV, the clearest push towards the punk elements that the set design is aiming for comes from its fashion. The avatar-esque styling comes in through the group’s first black ensemble, with neon green and blue detailing, heavy combat boots and Lara Croft style leg bands. Later they are decked in pink camo patterns, oddly reminiscent of Itzy’s pink check look from “Loco”, and just as Y2K in its references.

These, along with their final black-based look replete with rave boots, chaps and fringing, lean towards the notion of the tough girl in the most cartoonish way possible. With avatars as the reference point, this is not necessarily a criticism. The outfits never stray away from the surrounding set design’s colour scheme, and do give off a surface idea of badassery. 

But, as is so often the case with women’s fashion in K-pop, the limits of creativity here stop the full potential of some really savage concepts. These Y2K looks, well done as they may be, are not new at this point. The outfits match their surroundings—the members display all the attitude they can—but they are still mainly the essential recipe of two pieces and crop tops, thus failing to truly excite. With artists like CL and Hyuna really pushing fashion possibilities in MVs like “Hwa” and “Ping Pong”, it is disappointing that more creative decisions were not made in this case. It may be unfair to compare this rookie group to two established giants of the genre, but with SM behind them, there is surely room to play. 

Furthermore, it is not as though the song never attempts this. From the outset, Winter shows how irreverent the tone is supposed to be as she eye-rolls, saying, “Oh my gosh, don’t you know I’m a…savage?” Paired with the earworm chorus hook that I can only write as “zzu zzu zzu zzu”, the accompanying dance move is a finger wag that cannot be taken too seriously.

Winter’s aforementioned video game moments are clearly meant to be playful too. In fact, we actually see this more in the tinier styling details than in the clothes, from Giselle’s differently-coloured eyes to the amazingly ornate manicures the girls sport. Toes are being dipped in fun waters, but no part of the MV seems ready to really jump in. 

This is the ultimate issue with “Savage”. As a next step from the truly experimental “Next Level”, it feels as though the group have decided to build from that song’s attitude, rather than its inventiveness. There is a hook with a hand-based dance move here, but it feels derivative. There are bags of attitude from the members, but it feels like standard-issue girl crush, just this time with a more computerised backdrop. There is lore, but lore does not a hit make. Aespa still have every means to become legends at the level of so many of their SM contemporaries, but this is not the direction to go in to reach that status. 

(YouTube [1]. Lyrics via Genius. Images via SM Entertainment.)