Since the disbandment of IZ*ONE, it’s been an interesting wait to see where the members ended up. Some joined new girl groups, some ventured into acting, and some debuted as soloists. The most recent among the last category is 4th-place finisher Yena, who debuted in January with her EP Smiley, which earned a place on the Seoulbeats Mid-year Best Album list. Nearly six months later, Yena has returned with her follow up EP, Smartphone. Like it’s predecessor, Smartphone is a pop-punk EP that stands out from the crowd by casually defying three major conventions of not just pop punk, but K-pop in general.

From the opening track, Smartphone is clearly something out of the ordinary. Most K-pop EPs that have a ballad end on it, regardless of whether or not it fits there or on the album period. Yena opens with hers. “Make U Smile” is a tender, earnest track that depicts a fairly amicable break-up. Peace and genuine good wishes on both sides, with sweet vocals and a genuine earnestness, “Make U Smile” is about the best way a relationship can end, but it still hurts. However, by opening on the heartache, it allows Yena to grieve and recover.  Smartphone shows that break-ups are not inherently an ending, but can be a beginning of something new.

That clear rejection of the standard carries through the rest of Smartphone, including on the sound aesthetic. Pop punk leans far more into the latter’s influences, often treating pop as the necessary evil required for more complex layering and effective melodies. Yena embraces the pop. The rock elements are absolutely there, such as the crunchy riffs through “Smartphone”, or the excellent drums and garage band feel of “WithOrWithOut”. But she also makes some more unconventional choices. “Lemon-Aid” has cool, sleek instrumentals, relying on the vintage 70s synths to pull into line with the rest of the EP, while the mix on “Make U Smile”  gradually fills with snaps and synths to mirror her sincerity in wishing her ex well. Closing track “U” brings in brass and the bridge has elements of Mendelsson’s “Wedding March”. 

This embracing of pop gives Smartphone a notably feminine feel — as if bright pink had a sound, with punkier elements giving Smartphone musical and emotional depth. It is still high-energy and fun, with bouncy riffs and sardonic moments, but it feels more earned. It also feeds into Yena’s final deviation: she chooses happiness.

There is a bias against happiness in art. Any genre of anything that aims for warm and fuzzy is derided as inherently less artistic, less meaningful, and less genuine than something that focuses on drama and angst. Pop punk in particular relishes in rage, heartbreak, and general misery. Yena simply isn’t about that. And that isn’t from a place of innocence or childishness. On the first three tracks, her relationship ends, she’s basically living through her phone, and a close friendship falls apart, implicitly because her friend is dating her ex. “WithOrWithOut”, the least polished, most DIY-sounding track, is also the one where she realizes she can move on and feel better.

“Lemon-Aid” and “U” work in tandem to close the EP and bring closure by showing Yena’s active participation in her life. She meets a cute guy, asks him out, and ends up sublimely happy. He didn’t show up to save her. Instead, life gave her a lemon and she made something out of it. “Lemon-Aid” calls back to her debut “Smiley”, recounting the chorus’s opening of “And I say ‘Hey!’”, re-contextualizing it from a Stepford-eqsue determination to keep moving to an opening line that works out fabulously. “U” is one of the most joyous, grandiose love songs ever written. And because it comes after the Yena’s previous tribulations, it feels far more sincere and honest than angst for the sake of angst. 

What truly makes Smartphone remarkable is not just Yena’s bucking of established conventions, but how those defiance’s feed back into each other. The bias against happiness has a significant misogynistic aspect, with the most common targets being romance stories, which have a predominantly female fanbase. By marrying that lyrical theme to a soundscape whose creativity derives from its girliness, and then inverting the song structure, Yena amplifies the femininity and crafts a more interesting narrative. The music matches her improving mental state and ends on a high note, portraying it as a journey worthy of celebration rather than “merely” a love story. 

Smartphone is a rock-solid EP that cements Yena’s sound — punky and pink in equal measures, defying convention not for the sake of defiance, but because that is the best way to showcase her music, and a real sense that life is for living, and while it might not be easy, it is worth the effort.

(Images via Yuehua Entertainment, YouTube)