While it can be enjoyable to see an artist grow and refine their sound as their career progresses, there is also something delightful about a performer who knows exactly where their strengths lie. Such is the case of Key’s latest solo venture, “Bad Love”.

While he has done other music outside of Shinee, including a solo debut and the unit Toheart with Infinite’s Woohyun, most of his work as an individual has been as an actor, including quite a bit of stage work. The result is that his natural on-stage flamboyance has already been refined into a powerful theatrical ability that he is able to wield with ease. 

Theatre is the key element for both the MV and song “Bad Love”. The video appears to be playing to the meta side of things by framing Key as making a film, going on talk shows, reading scripts, and generally living as an entertainer. However, this presentation of Key as an actor serves instead as a metaphor for how he perceives himself in his relationship: someone playing a role.

“Bad Love” is about a toxic relationship that he is desperate to break out of. Every ounce of good brings just as much bad, and Key recognizes that this is not healthy and he does not need or deserve this hellish rollercoaster. And yet, the implied codependency keeps him locked in place. Even when he tries to end things, she still dominates his every thought, leading to them reuniting and another turn on the ride is underway. He is stuck in the role given to him by this bad love.

In the MV, Key repeatedly attempts to change his status quo. He rips up cue cards, burns scripts, runs away, blows up space ships; anything to reclaim agency over his own life. Yet, he ends up in exactly the same place he started in. Thus, even his attempts to break free of this toxicity are implied to be just another event in the script of his life. He references feeling deja vu, another sign that this anguish is simply part of the process of his relationship.

The visual palette of “Bad Love” is black and white, and red. The whole MV appears to have a red tint to it — and not a warm, soothing one. Instead, the color comes off as malevolent and depraved, the red blood of murder-suicide over the red hearts of romance. It’s oppressive, and omnipresent in it’s oppressiveness, mirroring Key’s feelings of being trapped into this toxic relationship from all angles. 

Black and white take the roles of rationality. Typically, “black and white” is usually used to denote a concerningly oversimplified perception, but here, it represents the absence of color. The passionate, warping red is stipped away, leaving Key able to think logically. Whenever Key is trying to escape his red nightmare, he is clothed in black and white. Yet, when Key gives into the chaos of his emotions, he is decked out in red.

Honestly, the MV is not going to stick in many people’s minds, and that is not because it’s mediocre. The symbolism is interesting and furthers the song’s meaning. It’s very visually arresting, but at the core, “Bad Love” the MV is competently good. “Bad Love” the song is utterly magnificent.

As stated earlier, “Bad Love” shows Key utilizing his theatrical experience in the best way. “Bad Love” is a massive song, the kind designed for crowds of thousands and compels the listener to sing along at the top of their lungs. It would be incredibly easy for his performance to get lost in something this big. Yet he is able to dominate the track.

From the lower, more aggressive verses to the slower, more drawn out pre-choruses to the stunning vocal runs of the chorus itself. The way the song is constructed, the belting requires both the technique to hit the notes and the performance skills to provide enough bombast and grandiosity to hold against the instrumentation, and Key’s ability to lean hard into pure musical theatricality ensures he can. 

The instrumentation and production is no slouch either. “Bad Love” is a very 80s song, drawing its scale from arena rock, but the specifics take cues from New Wave and all over at that. The opening synths are reminiscent of Thomas Dolby, the prechours of INXS, and the drums on the bridge are pure Stock Aiken Waterman.

And yet, by pulling from so many places, “Bad Love” is distinctly retro but doesn’t feel like a copy of any particular. It’s a modern reimagining of vintage sounds, able to trace the influences but still firmly its own thing. Add in some stunningly flattering production– clean without being sterile, enough reverb to really amp up the energy of the song without overpowering it, and a well-spaced, well-leveled mix that allows for plenty of dynamics in the instrumentals — and “Bad Love” is incredible. 

Key’s latest solo venture is magnificent. Agonizing codependency against ostentatious music, “Bad Love” is the kind of song that stops you in your tracks and demands your full attention. Moreover, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Key, with his decade-plus experience as a singer and actor, performing it. And when he sounds this utterly captivating, why you want anyone else to?

(Images via SM Entertainment, YouTube)