A classic Jukebox divide…
Cassy Gress: Is this the theme song/end-credits for a K-drama or something? It really sounds like it should be; it’s the piano and strings and dampened guitar line. Because it sounds so generically “heart pangs,” it’s not memorable.
Madeleine Lee: I described GFriend’s debut single,“Glass Bead,” as “winsome and wistful but not naive.” (The chorus goes: “I may seem like a glass bead, but I won’t break so easily.”) The same applies to “Rough” — and not because it’s a palette swap of “Glass Bead,” with the same soaring strings and gentle, S.E.S-inspired melodies under a new guitar-solo exterior, but because of its lyrics. Yes, the chorus hinges on the idea that “if I could run through time and become an adult, I’d hold your hand,” but this is described as being “like a wish from when I was young,” alongside an awareness of “this cruel world.” Heck, the entire thing is about trying to make up for the things you regret, which is definitely something I could already empathize with when I was in high school. It’s heartbreaking stuff, all the more so for its promise of hope at the end.
Thomas Inskeep: Squeaky-clean teen dreams sing of unspoken love. The verses don’t do much, but the chorus soars aided by some hot guitar licks (really!) and symphonic accompaniment.
Mo Kim: The beauty of GFriend’s name is that it can be read two ways: an allusion to romantic interest (no doubt for the benefit of their male fans), or a naming of female friendship. The group has played to both, their songs speaking in the charged language of trust and confession; yet their videos eliding the male love interest entirely, centering themselves instead on the small dramas of high school and summer adolescence. There’s an easy way to read “Rough” (“Running Through Time” in its native Korean) as a declaration of romantic love if one takes the “you” in the lyrics as the boyfriend lurking outside the camera’s lens. Even so, the song is too layered to let you get away with such a singular interpretation. There’s the anxiety of growing up and realizing the world you built as a child is slowly splintering apart: ambiguity runs through the text, the two subjects constructed as “parallel lines” that never meet no matter how far they move, continuing to “miss each other.” The song anticipates a future when these things can be more easily resolved: the possibility of “running through time,” of “becoming an adult,” just to promise that “in this rough world, I’ll hold your hand.” The song’s tension lies not in the excavation of a confession but in the promise of a commitment: “Please know that my words are sincere, even if I stumble over them.” These are not just the problems of romance but the problems of post-modern relationships tinged always with false readings, of neoliberal capitalism and the damage it has done to our emotional lives, of a world in which we have grown up knowing nothing but anxiety for our futures. Whether I imagine “Rough” as a promise to a lover, a friend, or a self, it speaks in the voice of somebody navigating that painful transition from adolescence to adulthood. Maybe the best we can do is to hold onto the love songs that speak to us and let time do the rest.
Patrick St. Michel: Trends are trends, but it’s still funny watching a rise in K-pop groups like GFriend and Lovelyz who look like the sort of groups that dominated J-pop for the last five years while Japan embraces units taking moves from outfits towering over the scene in Korea. This isn’t a new development for K-pop — school uniforms have been the norm for over a century, so of course they are going to intertwine with youth culture — and, despite no shortage of thin articles about K-pop’s more “mature” image, groups such as After School and Wonder Girls were sporting high school wear before “Hallyu” could anchor a book proposal. Yet seeing, say, EXO don them feels much different than GFriend’s “Rough.” The latter is, musically, a smooth bit of pop with disco in the corners, nothing spectacular but also catchy enough come the chorus. Lyrically, it exists in the same gloopy fantasy world of idol music at its worst, a bunch of flowery language ultimately feeling empty. “Rough” exists in a weird space where it’s both far removed from any soft power pushes but also comes off like it has no interest in what actual teens might like. “Rough” sounds fluffy and feels out of place, sonically and thematically.
Alfred Soto: As much as pop embraces camp, “Rough” strikes me as the wrong kind: of soaps, of inspirational music. This collision of strings and meathanded guitar would’ve served any identikit movie theme.
Brad Shoup: The mix is congested: a mildly funky backbeat holding forth against TV strings and pop-house piano. But the sentiment is similarly stuffy. That is to say, it’s a roiling cloud in the singers’ skulls, regret and retroactive boldness smashing it up. It’s the headiest kind of crush.
Jonathan Bogart: Disco strings and power ballad guitar do most of the work propping up a thin production, but the catchy urgency of the melody does its share. I can see why it would be huge, given half a sympathetic ear, but I can also see why its appeal would be strictly limited to a particular time and place.