Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

RM – Seoul

BTS member makes his own “One Great City!”…


Taylor Alatorre: You have to admit it’s a gutsy move. Just last year BTS released a song as part of a Seoul tourism campaign, along with a commercial that aired in over 100 countries. And then their biggest star goes and releases a song whose most memorable lyric is “I hate you, Seoul.” Taylor Swift, this is not. But by choosing instead to indulge his inner James Murphy, RM both stays true to his artistry and promotes the city with far more effectiveness than any consultant-driven campaign ever could. “Seoul” is still an ad of sorts, but it’s one steeped in a millennial model of authenticity: we expect to be lied to by authorities, so we seek out different authorities who will not hesitate to tell us precisely why something, even a mostly good thing, sucks. The music is not the kind you hear in tourist commercials, but rather the kind tourists might actually listen to when they want to bask in their dissociative loneliness. In other words, it’s your basic post-chillwave pop that Spotify recommends to you at night, but with an added kick to allow for contemplative rapping. For the most part, RM makes observations that anyone who’s lived in a big city can relate to, and even without a translation, the soft yet roughhewn tone of his voice makes his conflicted feelings shine through. One lyric stands out in particular: “the Han River that carries too much han.” Often translated as the “beauty of sorrow,” han is a cultural concept whose centrality to this song could form the basis of an entire essay. Here I will just note that Yanagi Sōetsu, the Japanese collector of Korean folk art who developed the “beauty of sorrow” framework, was one of the earliest recipients of South Korea’s prestigious Order of Cultural Merit. Last month, the members of BTS became the youngest recipients of this award in history. The burden of representing an entire country, or its largest city, is a tough one; with “Seoul,” RM displays the quiet confidence necessary to carry it.

Juan F. Carruyo: Seems that dedicating songs to cities is hot business right now. Reedy flute patches give way to jazzy Yamaha DX7 chords that remind me of the hypnagogic pop trend of years ago. Yet the main falsetto-ed hook that drives the composition is too saccharine and derivative for it to make a real impact. 

Nortey Dowuona: Bubbly, plush synths wash over RM’s syrupy croon. He launches into a lilting singsong flow, then hops into a sweetly appreciative cry for his home of Seoul. Then he drops into a soft-spoken flow, which morphs into singsongy again as he launches into the chorus once again, the 808s laughing behind him.

Thomas Inskeep: The track is nice enough, I guess, but I vastly prefer RM (f/k/a Rap Monster) when he sounds aggressive, not all soft and easy like this.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: The agreeable, synth-driven R&B that UK duo Honne makes has found surprising success in Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, and elsewhere. Anyone keeping tabs on Asian pop charts and record stores would, at the very least, have a passing familiarity with their existence, but those sticking with Western news outlets probably haven’t heard of them. Given their dearth of popularity in the West, Honne revels in the niche they’ve found. “We love you Seoul 💜” reads their comment on this single’s YouTube video. 4.6K people agree. There’s a poignancy in all this brushing up against RM’s conflicted relationship with the city. For Honne, Seoul is just another place where outsiders have welcomed them. For RM, it’s the very reflection of his success and its limitations, his joy and his pain, his past and his future. It’s the entirety of his life–his self–constantly holding a mirror to his face. Given his group’s enormous success, these feelings of urban isolation are only exacerbated by the role he inexplicably has in representing Seoul (and by proxy, South Korea at large). What else can he do but use his music to escape?

Micha Cavaseno: In a throwaway rejoinder to a musician’s anecdote about the many trials and tribulations of networking, another said, “You never connect with whom you try to, you simply connect with those you do.” It’s a lesson Kim Namjoon would do well to learn. It’s easy to pick on RM because he’s always been eager to do a little bit more in order to prove himself. “Seoul” bears a lot of that complex in how eagerly the sung and rapped parts strive for depth about the city that’s become a central force in his life and career, a place that dictated his past and his future in ways both trivial and inconceivable. The problem is, this personal act of labor comes across as dense and obtuse, a monolith in the sand that clearly has gravitas but is difficult to gain real context from. “Seoul” is just moments of tension away from being clear, but so fixed and pressed upon the listener that it simply cannot feel like a release.

Iain Mew: The song’s ambivalence via contradiction comes off as rather pedestrian. It’s elevated by two things: RM’s heartfelt tenderness, and the way that Honne break up the main mode of blank chill with the occasional wheeze of dinky The Research synths, like so many loved old spots amidst the skyscrapers. 

Alex Clifton: I grew up in Buffalo, NY. It’s a cold, snowy city that a lot of people say they’ll escape from, and then they make their way back and raise a family there. I left nearly ten years ago, and I was glad to leave it back then. But there are certain things I still love and miss, like the way the air smelled in October just before the first snowfall of the year, or the sounds of a Sabres game, or the feeling of being in a crowd at a hometown Goo Goo Dolls show. I can never get back to that place–the Buffalo I left is a different place now–but I was always drawn to the tension, the feeling of hating six months of snow while also secretly relishing it. “Seoul” hits on these feelings (more artfully than I can phrase them) and is exactly the kind of thoughtful work I expect from RM. Moreover, it makes me feel peaceful, like it’s okay to have these alternate feelings warring inside. RM’s overriding musical message has always been to remind listeners that they’re not alone, however they feel, and he’s done it again.

Reader average: [2.66] (3 votes)

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One Response to “RM – Seoul”

  1. Bands I did not expect to see referenced in a sub-head!