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Since bursting onto the scene in 2019, Itzy have had two calling cards: impressive dance and performance skills, and a refreshing lyrical focus on self-love and independence. In recent comebacks, namely “Mafia in the Morning” and “Loco,” the group had moved away from their lyrical themes with mixed results. Their persona remained hyper-confident, but their message became less about empowerment, and more about menace and obsession. These two comebacks did allow Itzy to stretch their performance versatility, producing some of their best stages ever. However, it was slightly alarming to consider that Itzy’s approach to maturing might mean embracing reductive femme fatale stereotypes, especially since their early discography successfully rejected similar trope-y boxes that girl groups are often confined to.

In this context, Itzy’s newest comeback “Sneakers” is in many ways a welcome return to form. Their girl power vibes are back with a vengeance. “Sneakers” is all about claiming your uniqueness and owning your confidence, falling comfortably into the same lyrical area as previous hits like “Dalla Dalla” and “Wannabe.” However, the tricky thing about returning to a signature style is that you are essentially pitted against yourself. Because all of Itzy’s self-love focused songs are similar in tone and topic, they invite comparison. If your newest addition doesn’t bring something special or new to the table, it’s going to feel disappointing.

This is the exact pitfall “Sneakers” falls into. While not necessarily a bad MV, it fails to surpass or surprise in comparison to Itzy’s previous releases. If debut “Dalla Dalla” is the baseline for Itzy’s empowerment-focused title tracks, “Icy” brought a new summery flair, “Wannabe” upped the performance stakes, and “Not Shy” changed the lyrical game by adding in a dash of flirtation. “Sneakers” has many of the qualities listed, but executes them less dynamically, and it also doesn’t introduce anything fresh. For a comeback that is all about running confidently towards your future, “Sneakers” instead feels like a step back, or at least a step in-place, for Itzy.

The Sneakers “MV” follows a simple formula. It features three distinct sets that each claim one-third of the MV, and switches between an even mix of dance sequences and close-up performance shots, with a few narrative sequences sprinkled in. The MV’s narrative is strongest in its first section, which takes place in an opulent palace. Here, Yeji plays the role of a stressed royal, pestered by courtiers and weighted down by her duties. Meanwhile, the other members run around freely in the palace, and soon convince Yeji to join them in their light-hearted fun.

This section sets up an interesting contrast between power that comes with fetters versus the sense of joyful empowerment that Itzy are advocating for. All of Itzy have power in the palace, as seen when Lia authoritatively walks through a lineup of knights in armor, the warriors standing to attention at the flick of her fingers. The difference between Yeji and the rest of the members in this first part of “Sneakers” is that Yeji is conforming to convention and the rest of Itzy are defying it. When Yeji throws away the rules and embraces her unique confidence, regardless of what others think, she gets to be powerful in a delightful instead of burdensome way. This story captures the main message of the song: you can better and more happily pursue your goals when you are following your gut, instead of when you worry about others’ expectations:

I don’t run for no one else

I’m only running for myself

Don’t care now

Me against the open road

I wanna follow it where it goes

This theme of joyful power continues into the second section, where Itzy take charge in a mission control center working to send a rocket into space. However, this idea is never explored as clearly as it is in the first part of “Sneakers,” making it more the seed of a narrative rather than a fully realized storyline. By the time Itzy make their way to the final set, which can only be described as a futuristic technicolor sneaker wardrobe in outer space, the MV’s focus shifts completely to the performance elements.

Though it could have been interesting to see Itzy concentrate more on the intriguing narrative the MV hints at, there’s nothing wrong with having a light-on-narrative, heavy-on-performance and aesthetic MV. The shame is that the performance and aesthetic elements of “Sneakers” are lacking.

Aesthetically, each set is solid and fits comfortably into the lyrical themes of the song, with the royal and mission control sets focusing on the empowering message of “Sneakers” and the final, more playful set literally embodying the song’s title. The issue comes in the flow between the three locations. Because the MV is split very cleanly into three parts, and each set has their own solo parts (with the exception of the final chorus which switches between all the locations), the lack of visual continuity between the period set, office set, and space age set is painfully highlighted.

The MV does try to soften the transitions between each set with clever editing. “Sneakers” moves from the palace to the space station through the pages of a book–a photo of Itzy in their royal attire graces the pages of a book in the station as well, offering some continuity–and it transitions from the station to the sneakers set through a pair of dropped green Converses. But as strategic as these moves are, they can’t hide the fact that the three sets don’t visually complement each other. The styling, mood, and even color palette of each location clashes with the others: the royal set is jewel toned, the station set painted in washed out pastels, and the sneakers set blares with bold neons. With no aesthetic link to bridge these differences, “Sneakers” just seems messy, like three totally separate visual worlds uncomfortably crushed into one MV.

It’s interesting to note that Itzy have successfully used very different sets in one MV before. Coincidentally, the best examples come from their other summer releases, “Icy” and “Not Shy.” While “Not Shy” largely sticks to a Western theme, the final section of the MV abruptly shifts to a wintery, white theme. However, a consistently cinematic filming style filled with cheeky movie touches keeps the MV consistent. “Icy” employs an even smarter visual device, linking its many summery sets with comic book style visual effects. Itzy’s production team certainly have the capacity to make a satisfying MV out of diverse visual elements; they just aren’t doing it in “Sneakers.”

Musically and performatively, “Sneakers” also does not compare well to Itzy’s past releases. The song has an oddly slow tempo for a track about running forward, and this lethargy extends throughout the rest of its musical elements. It’s repetitive, with nearly every section recurring at least twice, and many of the track’s melodic lines are painfully generic. The catchy and energetic chorus of “Sneakers” is probably the highlight of the track, but “Icy” and “Not Shy” have arguably catchier, more energetic versions of the same shout-sung style refrain.

This musical mediocrity no doubt affects the surprisingly underwhelming choreography and performance elements of “Sneakers.” The dance, which takes up a lot of the MV’s real estate, is almost certainly the easiest title track choreography Itzy have ever done. While easy doesn’t inherently mean bad, the “Sneakers” choreography suffers from a lack of memorable moves. Some footwork moments and the final signature Itzy crown-move are solid, but everything else fails to leave a strong impression. Similar to the song itself, the choreography is also very repetitive, with minimal variation between each pre-chorus, chorus, and post-chorus. While dance sequences usually give a MV momentum, the middling quality of this choreography means that it adds little to nothing to the MV. For a group with such a strong history of exceptional dancing, it’s a shame to see them saddled with a choreography that detracts rather than adds to a song.

In terms of their performance, Itzy are a group of incredibly strong performers, and “Sneakers” is no exception. They bring energy, face, and conviction to the MV, with Ryujin especially standing out with enjoyably brash confidence. That being said, “Sneakers” is once again not their strongest outing. The flat nature of the song, with its repetitive musicality that sticks to one sweetly empowered tone the whole time, doesn’t give Itzy much to do. The members are forced to stay within one performance style the whole MV, and while they are great at that style, it feels like a disservice to their abilities to not give them more to work with.

Ultimately, “Sneakers” isn’t a terrible comeback, but it also isn’t a good one. While Itzy’s return to lyrical form is exciting, “Sneakers” fails to meaningfully advance their signature concept. It simply recycles many aspects of previous Itzy releases, and executes those elements in a comparatively lackluster way. Therefore, the comeback feels like a placeholder, or even a regression, rather than a step forward for the group.

Some might suggest that “Sneakers” inability to excite is a sign that Itzy need to move on from their empowerment concept. But their confident message is actually the saving grace of “Sneakers”, since it falls short visually, musically, and choreography-wise. Rather than cast aside Itzy’s powerful core theme, it would be exciting to see their next venture imagine a more mature, daring, and original vision of self-love, one that looks forward to the experienced and ever-more talented performers Itzy are becoming, instead of clinging safely and unsatisfyingly to their past successes.

(YouTube. Lyrics via YouTube. Images via JYP Entertainment.)