Tuesday, August 30th, 2022

aespa – Girls

We’re here for the backstory.

Crystal Leww: SM want aespa to be a label savior, crafting a mythology around them and Kwangya, the metaverse in which they reside. That’s fine, probably too much pressure, to be honest, but all I need to believe when I listen to aespa is encapsulated in the 15 seconds coming out of the bridge — the crunchy guitar, the propulsive beat, Winter’s “hold up.” I believe that aespa could be one of the biggest things that SM ever did if they ever just let these girls and their producers breathe. I want none of the ambition that SM has somehow wrapped them up in and I just want to punch someone in a moshpit to this (compliment).

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: A delightfully obnoxious, well-polished machine that makes Western pop feel infantile by comparison.

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Still can’t say I understand anything about the lore but I’m here for this for the same reason I engage with similarly pulpy sci-fi: the extreme confidence with which they turn their immensely convoluted worldbuilding into pyrotechnics. Anyone else would be left with pure incoherence — the aespa girls manage to turn it into an arsenal of hits, dramatic but not so overburdened with purpose that it doesn’t work as a banger.

Michael Hong: Their debut tested the concept but aespa have gone full force with it, throwing undefined pieces of lore like “REKALL,” “SYNK DIVE,” and on “Girls,” new highlight “nævis on the REAL MY WORLD.” It’s all utter nonsense but “Savage” and “Girls” have the good sense to combine it with sheer overstimulation so that every mention of “Kwangya” feels familiar if delightfully funny. The rest of “Girls” is the SM concept executed to perfection: cool girl posturing meets the absurd stupidity of the concept (check out the size of Winter’s meta-universe gun). Garish sections are messily meshed together only as a whirlwind of noise in the mechanical warnings, loud dance break and rock riffs underneath Giselle and Karina’s raps. Winter and Ningning bring the excess as they belt and shriek across its final sections. The rest is perhaps bits of aespa’s personality starting to come through, yelps and whoops paired with cold stares as if they’re also in disbelief they still have to sing about fighting the Black Mamba.

Jessica Doyle: I had to admit to myself that I’d tipped over from simply feeling like aespa isn’t for me to actively avoiding the group (and, furthermore, that I was a lot more receptive to this kind of nonsense when Everglow did it). I’m still allergic to the Kwangya worldbuilding, and it doesn’t help that as I get older and more wrinkled I also get more and more uneasy with the sheer amount of plastic surgery Korean idol pop seems to inflict upon / offer / require of its idols. But none of this has anything to do with the actual song, which at least has some fun dubstep energy. The second half of the chorus loses some of the momentum from the first half (and also, their being girls has nothing to do with anything else in the song, they could’ve just gone ahead and shouted something about Naevis again). But there are clearly worse things that could happen to both us and aespa than a danceable dystopian distant descendant of “Rude Boy.” If this is for you, enjoy it.

Anna Katrina Lockwood: Oh my god, I’m just so tired of this shout-singing chorus, minor key, “ooooh I’m a scary teen” K-pop nonsense. For god’s sake, just let the kids be cute for a couple years! What happened to all that charming NCT Dream type shit??? Now half these music videos are narrative-heavy dystopian trudges, accompanied by fractured synths and a harsh transition to the glissando-ing pre-chorus. Even freaking TXT have been showing up places covered in soot lately! Anyway, regarding aespa here — the only redeeming factor of “Girls” is that it’s an SM track, and those people cannot resist cramming at least one legitimately sticky melody in every song. I’ve added an additional point to my score because it’s just so entertaining to hear the senior SM artists complaining about Kwangya. Never change, Eunhyuk.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: While aespa’s Savage mini felt like a collage of older SM girl groups, “Girls” is a signpost for the austerity that defines K-pop’s current era. In one sense it’s very sad: the genre has undergone a considerable shift throughout the past 15 years from “ambitious and fun” to “ambitious and respectable.” Even SuperM’s “Jopping,” which is the precursor to SM’s desire to create a label-spanning superhero multiverse, was closer to the deliriously absurd maximalism of Fast & Furious than its dire “Avengers of K-pop” narrative. On the other hand, this change is just a matter of recalibration. When I listen to “Girls,” its steely electronics are trading in the dubstep bombast of SHINee’s “Everybody” for imperial cool (you don’t need Teddy’s production to see the Blackpink influence). And really, this is just f(x)’s “Red Light” if one doubled down on the humorlessness. More broadly, “Girls” points to how the industry today eschews balladry-informed singing for talk/shout-singing and hip-hop pomp. It works here because it’s a dazzling spectacle: listen to the guitar crunch, trace the flagellating synth horn melody, feel the drama of its stripped-down bridge before it tumbles into a ferocious instrumental break. After all these years, K-pop songs are still convinced of their ideas and energy; the confidence is magnetic.

Ian Mathers: Seeing that “Girls” is about “aespa and ae-aespa having a full-fledged battle with Black Mamba” and then reading the English translation of the lyrics is the first time I’ve felt like I was reading item descriptions in Dark Souls in order to figure out parts of a pop video. More lore drops in pop music, I guess I’m saying, although the song itself feels kind of timid — the crazy techno bit is good enough but feels weirdly divorced or quarantined from the rest of the song. Have them sing over that bit! Make the rest of the song less standard! Lean into the less typical bits!

Scott Mildenhall: Talking big and saying little, “Girls” is less kitchen sink and more washing-up bowl. Bearing only traces of maximalism, it has the uncanny air of a workprint, with markers for “DATED DROP TO GO HERE” and “SASSY BIT NOW”. None of the disparate elements on display have half their intended power, and that’s a shame — irrespective of how played out they may be, they still have the potential to pack a punch.

Alex Ostroff: Other tracks might combine girl group vocals with four-on-the-floor handclaps and late-nite spooky synths, or grinding bass with sudden abrasive intrusions of guitar, or slightly out-of-tune saxophone-esque loops, but “Girls” just melds them all together and makes it sound natural. Since Rina Sawayama is seemingly pivoting towards more earnest and commercially accessible (but still excellent) songs for her sophomore album, I’ve been missing these types of Girls Aloud-era Xenomania-style aggressive sonic genre mash-ups in 2022, and I’m excited to learn that aespa are fully committed to bonkers stitched-together pop.

Rose Stuart: After spending 2021 releasing what I must charitably refer to as “unlistenable garbage”, it’s good of aespa and SM Entertainment to remember experimental doesn’t have to mean bad. Every idea in “Girls” is well developed, meaning that the small genre shifts create a cohesive collage instead of discordant noise. The rock, EDM, hip-hop and pop elements gel together perfectly, almost as if this is from the company that pioneered this style in K-pop. “Girls” may not be the best SMP song, but it gives me hope for a genre that I feared had been murdered by its mutant descendants.

Kayla Beardslee: On the scale from “Savage” (not something I would casually listen to, but decently successful at its ambitions and I respect it) to “Next Level” (my mortal enemy, etc), this lands somewhere in the middle, just below “Black Mamba.” I would be more generous to “Girls” if the production had more distinct sonic character and was less of a flat mishmash of noises, and if the vocals were less shouty and shrill (I prefer Karina’s high notes, even though she’s not in the vocal line, because her timbre doesn’t fall victim to this as easily as Winter or NingNing’s). Giselle going “pArT oF mY hEaRt” is funny, though not in an intentional way. The dance break is cool, but it feels like a tease at a more vibrant version of the song that exists in a (Giselle voice) PaRaLleL wOrLd. Choreo doesn’t affect my score, but I have to say it — someone save these girls from that dumb-ass flamingo hop. I’ve settled into a comfortable if unstable equilibrium with aespa: they do their thing, it generally isn’t for me, but I still observe and give low-stakes comments from the sidelines, hoping to see the execution of their music deliver on SM’s ambitions for it. I guess someone has to keep things interesting.

Alfred Soto: Guitar slashing, hand claps, horror film piano tinkle, vocals as savage as speakers at a political convention — “Girls” has so much going on without exhausting me, schlock and speed and pathos driving the car into the wall and walking out, unscathed and triumphant.

Nortey Dowuona: I will say this for aespa: they are those girls far more than Wiz Khalifa. Also NingNing hits a really nice note on the last pre-chorus that has my eyes floating out of my head.

Juana Giaimo: K-pop was the most intimidating genre for me when I started writing on the Jukebox back in 2013. I didn’t know how to approach it, and the fact that so many of our writers are experts on it made me feel there were better voices to cover it. However, following the spirit of this site, I always listened to the songs in the blurber and tried. Most times, I couldn’t put my thoughts together, but in 2017 we covered Jonghyun’s “She Is” and I felt a new music world open upon me. Not only could I hear his charisma, but for the first time I felt confident writing about a K-pop song. I didn’t become an immediate fan of the genre; instead it was only last year that I became fascinated with it. SHINee became my favorite group and SM my favorite label. On that journey, I found myself completely confused by K-pop songs many times — particularly ones from SM, a label known for that — but instead of being intimidated by them, I dove into the complexities of the songwriting and production and learnt how the choreography, concept and more played a huge role in it. When I listened to aespa’s “Girls” and the hard rock pre-chorus started I wasn’t turned off, but the opposite. It was exciting, made me curious to see where the song could go and made me love how it grew more and more intense with each second. NingNing and Winter’s piercing voices play a huge role in that, while Karina and Giselle’s tones bring it down, making a great balance. And look at me! Now I’m one of those writers who can distinguish each vocalist in a K-pop group. That seemed impossible to me ten years ago — and I started learning Korean this week (ask me in a couple of years how that played out). But what a decade it has been. I’m sure my thought of 2022 contradicts my reviews of 2013. I can’t avoid thinking that my musical growth can be seen in all my words here. In other music publications, it would just be words. But this is different: there’s a whole part of me that will be forever saved (and safe) in The Singles Jukebox.

Reader average: [8.66] (3 votes)

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