It’s unlikely that any female trainee joining Source Music would have expected that their eventual debut would look like Le Sserafim. Known for their success with the first-love concept and innocent schoolgirl aesthetic of Gfriend, the company’s 2019 absorption into Hybe Labels has seen that style completely dissipate alongside Gfriend’s own subsequent disbandment. The concept of Le Sserafim (an anagram of “I’m fearless”) is decidedly more forceful, and utterly Hybe in colour.
Chic and fashionable, the six-member group can so far be summarised as a walking luxury perfume ad. The glossy, commercialised sheen of their teaser videos and music style is so unmistakable that it seems almost intentional–but only almost. While this style sets them apart from their contemporaries, it is also hard to tell whether the way these girls have been so enthusiastically commodified is meant to be ironic–a question mark that leaves their audience just a little at unease.
Regardless, the group has produced a similarly glossy debut EP that is striking and enjoyable to listen to for the most part. Across five tracks, Fearless sees Le Sserafim introduce themselves and their sound with confidence. Although, bewilderingly, that confidence peters out to leave the EP at a limp end. Their sound is defined largely by the musical tropes we tend to associate with high fashion, such as that heard on runways and in perfume ads–think edgy basslines over snappy beats, set at driving tempos.
On the opening track “The World Is My Oyster”, the group declare their ambition–to become strong and fearless in a world that judges and tries to change them. It is bold and timely, given the feminist sentiments increasingly embraced by women in Korea (and of course globally), and that sentiment is delivered with impact on verses that are spoken over a grungy, rippling trance beat. Painting the picture of a futuristic highway at night, the track shows us Le Sserafim zooming away on high-tech motorbikes; they are not bothered by the dizzying speed of metropolitan life, and in fact, they relish it.
While musically this intro does not stand alone particularly well, it does give a backbone to their concept of fearlessness, and thus the album as a whole. Given that the EP ends on a weak note with the musically and thematically dissonant “Sour Grapes”, Fearless could have done with an additional, corresponding outro that could have hinted at the next chapter–a book’s opening paragraph may be the most crucial, but the last paragraph of its first chapter is almost as important.
In any case, “Fearless” follows as their title track and the opening statement of Le Sserafim’s career. Minimalistic and clean-cut in its design, the song abandons current girl group trends to give us something much more refreshing and unique, although that novelty does wear off somewhat quickly. Vocals, bass, and drums form the key components of this subtly groovy track, and its repetitive, catchy hook is its key offering as an alternative pop number. On it, the girls impressively realise that real courage does not come from having no fear, but from acknowledging and overcoming the fear that arises from pain previously experienced:
Step on the highway, highway
Get to that amazing ending
If my scars are a part of me
I got no fear, no fear
Musically, “Fearless” effectively sets the group apart from their peers, while imbuing them with the high-fashion chicness that Hybe is clearly aiming for. It deserves recognition for letting the girls utilise a lower vocal range, and for demonstrating with strong songwriting that doing so does not make them any less appealing. The song does, however, run out of steam after multiple listens fairly quickly, and it carries a similar commercialised quality to their teaser videos and imagery; it sounds like it was almost designed to be used in one of Apple’s latest ads, and that’s not as good a thing as it used to be.
“Blue Flame” pads out the EP’s middle section with an upbeat, retro-pop number that borrows from disco trends that are, at this point, extremely well-worn. The song benefits from pleasantly dreamy chords, a funky bassline, and some lovely, intricate vocal arrangements. However, these do little to make the song feel less generic; it sounds similar to disco-inspired songs from almost every other girl group that has tried on the trend. Thankfully, its lyrics are a little more interesting, describing a desire that is as hot as a blue flame:
I’m feeling something
Like I’m being possessed
A woozy glare from afar
A force that leads me into the fog
Even blue hotter than a flame
The EP’s remaining highlight is “The Great Mermaid”, a song that reimagines The Little Mermaid from the point of view of a much more opinionated and independent female protagonist. This version of Ariel defies the idea of having to give up her voice or risk dissolving into bubbles for the sake of a man:
I don’t give a shit!
No love, no golden prince
I don’t need such twisted love, love story
With a larger-than-life soundscape, comprising raucous vocals and grandiose basslines that recall ocean waves, it is a fun and energetic track that lets the group show a more playful side, without sacrificing their sense of strength. The audio is intentionally given a harsh, rough finish to complement the character’s rebelliousness; on any other song, it would be grating, but given the song’s theme, attention-grabbing composition, and short length, it works.
Confusingly, the EP’s closing song musically and lyrically negates the album’s otherwise cohesive message of strength and fierce independence. Within fifteen minutes of having declared that they are “fearless” and that they don’t need a “golden prince”, “Sour Grapes” sees them weak at the knees for a love interest that appears pretty much out of nowhere:
Grapes that are not ripe yet
Maybe it’s not the time for me
Your scent is still unripe and green
I’m feeling scared, I’m feeling scared, yeah
Sour, a bitter taste that makes you cry
Sour, if there’s such things as love
I don’t wanna taste, I just feel afraid
Love is sour, love is sour grapes
This could be Hybe’s attempt to give the group a sense of multifacetedness by peeling back a surface layer of strength to reveal some sudden vulnerability. Yet, the EP is simply too short and its initial statement too assertive for “Sour Grapes” to feel like anything other than inconsistency at best, and hypocrisy at worst. This is heightened by the fact that, while nicely performed and perfectly inoffensive, the song is a rather dull and generic soft R&B number, the kind seen on almost every other K-pop album; it disappointingly rescinds the bold and adventurous spirit seen in every other song.
As such, “Sour Grapes” (and to a lesser extent “Blue Flame”) could easily have been cut to give Fearless a more concise and cohesive structure that would have committed more fully to the group’s current message. Rather than trying to show from the get-go that this is a group that can do everything–because not even seasoned veterans can do everything, let alone a rookie group–Hybe should instead have focused on trying to show that this is a group that can do something, something meaningful, and do it well; Le Sserafim achieved that with “The World Is My Oyster”, “Fearless”, and “The Great Mermaid”, falter with “Blue Flame”, and fail with “Sour Grapes”.
As it is, the EP’s wide reach across genres lessens its impact with each and leaves the album overall feeling a little bit scattered and hesitant. That said, they do still achieve their overall aim of demonstrating strength, thanks in large part to the heavy use of bass in the album. After all, bass frequencies are associated with strength in all forms–earthquakes, explosions, the voices of animals and people with physical bulk–and Le Sserafim use this knowledge to their advantage, balancing out light and feminine vocals with a selection of room-shaking basslines. This is consistent right up until “Sour Grapes”, where they lose their strength–literally.
In the following months and years, it would thus serve the group well to be a little more focused. As a brand-new act under a wealthy label, they lack neither time nor budget. Instead, what they are limited by is the attention span of their audiences, especially at a time when highly anticipated girl groups are debuting abound and K-pop at large is so competitive. Anything which scatters our attention or confuses their message needs to be ruthlessly cut; moving forward, that is how Le Sserafim will demonstrate to us that they truly are fearless.