aespa
Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment

aespa Straddle Realities on Debut EP ‘Savage’

As a nod to their AI-inspired concept, K-pop group aespa make electronic music that challenges the limits of genres and song structures in debut EP, Savage.

Savage
aespa
SM Entertainment
5 October 2021

How does one describe aespa’s music? It takes several genres to do so: hyperpop, pc music, EDM, electropop, bubblegum bass, glitch, cybergoth, and deconstructed club. You could try another combination of synonyms of electronic music and dystopia and they should work too. But all of these words are needed to explain aespa’s new EP, Savage (2021).

That aespa is a K-pop group adds another layer to the genre labeling. K-pop is not a music genre, but it is a label put on pop artists from South Korea. And it does have its share of common elements in songwriting, vocals, and production. For example, the unison vocals in the EP’s opening track, “aenergy”, which resemble sports cheerleaders’ chants, add a sugary counterpoint to the dry and bass-boosted instrumentals. These chants are a common feature in songs by young K-pop female groups.

The chord progression in “Savage’s” pre-chorus conveys a dark, haunting feeling. These are similar chords and feelings of songs such as BTS’ “Lie” (2016) and Taemin’s “Shadow” (2019). They also conjure the melancholy of the ppong element from Korean trot music. T-ARA’s “Day by day” (2012), uses similar chords, and the effect is similar too.

That all these emotional features are found in Savage is ironic, because the idea behind aespa is, well, not very human. Each of the group’s members, Winter, Karina, Ningning, and Giselle, have their own avatar. These avatars interact with the “real” members in the fictional universe that informs aespa’s lyrics and music videos. You don’t even have to dive into this universe if you don’t want to — the music alone might draw you in.

But the idea of inserting avatars amongst flesh-and-bone artists sparks mixed reactions. Some people are fascinated by the visuals of aespa’s videos, their cinematic universe, and the music production in their pre-debut singles like “Black Mamba” and “Next Level”. Others are uncomfortable with how the artifice of AI dehumanizes the artists. It’s an uncomfortable truth: aespa’s world, just like our current “real” world, is one where virtual versions of people coexist with “real” versions of themselves and others.

To aespa’s older fans who lived the success of the virtual band Gorillaz in 2001 (when aespa member Ningning wasn’t even born), the idea of an avatar band is hardly shocking. Even the younger fans have references like that, such as the K-pop virtual group K/DA. But at least for now, the artists in aespa get their spotlight too, not just their avatars. It would be a waste if it was the other way around, given these young women’s genuine love for music.

aespa make lore out of this not so alternative, alternative reality. The soundtrack is a mix influenced by Sophie, with some K-pop songwriting features. In theory, Savage could be just another work of electronic music, one that rings familiar to listeners of K-pop and artists like Charli XCX and Lady Gaga. It could’ve been just a regular attempt to make this kind of music as a complement to a metaverse.

Except that it is not just that. It’s not a mere attempt and it’s far from the usual. The creatives behind Savage are reaching for a sound that’s ahead of their time. The outcome is a compelling EP.

The sonic elements may not be innovative enough when considered by themselves. But together, yes, they are spellbinding. The melodies and harmonies are captivating enough to hold off any impression that this is experimentation just for the sake of experimentation. You can’t help but stay, you have to listen and see where it takes you.

When you listen to music like this (so electronic, so meant to be associated with a future dominated by technology), descriptives like “soulless” may occur. Paradoxically, this is not an EP that leaves the listener unresponsive. Some reaction is bound to happen. It’s like a dead version of feeling alive. 

There is a clear division in Savage. The first three tracks have punchy instrumentals and gloomy moods, while the last three tracks are more melodic and bright. “aenergy” is a fit introduction. The lyrics, in which the aespa members mention the superpowers of their avatars, can sound a little too cartoonish. But they go well with the rapping style and chants.

In the second track, “Savage”, an array of beats and melodies are displayed over multiple, well-defined song structures. If, eight years ago, aespa’s label mates GIRLS GENERATION pushed the boundaries of how fragmented a K-pop song can be (with “I GOT A BOY“), “Savage” is a strong contender for this generation’s K-pop rhapsody.

The lyrical theme in “Savage”, however, may be little worn out. After all, in 2020, Megan Thee Stallion, Jason Derulo, and Blackpink all had successful songs with the word “savage” in their titles. But the lack of originality is not a problem in this context. The theme takes a different turn when paired with the instrumentals. The attitude in this track is not just cocky or reckless, it’s brutal.

Brutality also sets the tone in the third track, “I’ll Make a Cry”. The synths hit the ear like missiles while the girls shout that they’re gonna make you cry. By the time they sing the second line of the chorus, you can picture their victim crying. Yet, aespa’s appetite for destruction is not over. The second line sounds like a beast’s roar. “I’ll make you cry” is a highlight in Savage.

The sequence “aenergy” – “Savage” – “I’ll make you cry” tells a story. The other three tracks bring cheerful, lighter vibes. Because the EP is so short, it makes you wonder if such vibes come in due time, or if we could be content with more of the robotic, punk side. But the final tracks fit like a rainbow appearing after the pandemonium and make good points about aespa’s ability to sing and entertain with different styles.

“Yeppi Yeppi” is the sweeter and most uplifting track of Savage. “Iconic” starts with a rapping style and tone that became a trademark of singer HyunA. The pre-chorus is cutesy. Its melody is typical of 2000s R&B and hip-hop groups such as Cherish and Danity Kane. While not as iconic as the tracks in the first part of the EP, “Iconic” connects with them more than “Yeppi Yeppi” and “Lucid Dream”.

The latter is an R&B track co-written by Hayley Kiyoko. It brings forth the elegant brand of aespa’s label mates Red Velvet and showcases fine vocals. “Lucid Dream” closes Savage in great style. The title itself is an oxymoron that applies to the journey throughout the EP: it is seemingly pure chaos, but this chaos is consciously planned.

Savage is quite a ride. Its first part has sounds that seem like the door of a spaceship opening, while the second part feels like you walked past the door and stepped into a new world of cute, jumping aliens. 

Whether you like this approach or not, it’s hard to deny that it is well done. Savage is chaotic and experimental in the right measure. The multiple genres and song structures sound deliberately messy in an attractive way. 

Savage is a very good EP. Good, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean beautiful, but rather aesthetically entrancing. Savage is like a well-scripted, high-budget cyberpunk film. A film like this doesn’t necessarily make you feel good, but it is good, and that’s why you watch it: because it entertains and fascinates. It’s not meant to warm your heart. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be moved. 

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters