The crash course: the evolution of GFriend, K-pop’s unlikely heroes

[Update: the “anything drastic happening” at the end of this entry took place – GFriend’s Manila gig has been moved a week to Sunday, 26 August, because of the closure of NAIA’s runway.] This Sunday sees me take this K-pop thing further: I am watching my first K-pop concert. As it turns out, this is also Shalla’s first – and I thought the person responsible for introducing me to this world would have seen at least one Super Show. (She did see Siwon in the flesh, though.) We’re watching GFriend, and she’s really excited about it – she’d call herself a Buddy. I wouldn’t, mostly because I’m a stick-to-one-group guy, but I’ve learned to appreciate these girls enough to make sense of just what makes them tick, in that overanalytic way so-called music critics do. And that means a crash course, which might be unusual considering this is a girl group that hasn’t quite reached astronomic levels of fame (at least compared to Twice or Blackpink) – but then again, I’m writing.

 

GFriend debuted early in 2015, just three days after my birthday, with “Glass Bead”. The group’s innocent style meant it was hard for them to stand out, as there are a lot of them around in K-pop. Lovelyz debuted a few months before, come to think of it, and there’s APink, more or less the gold standard when it comes to the concept. But they must have done something right, because Shalla wrote about them, albeit two months after their debut. Her thoughts felt a bit tentative, but in hindsight, the seeds were being sown.

I’ll be honest and admit their first singles aren’t really memorable. What I remember from their early days was how the School Trilogy – this, “Me Gustas Tu” and their eventual breakout “Rough” – sound so similar they’re really interchangeable. One time I was driving her home and we were playing her K-pop playlist, and we challenged ourselves to sing, say, the chorus of “Rough” to the backing track of “Me Gustas Tu”, and it worked. Admittedly this was frustrating: Shalla didn’t like the group at this point, and I wasn’t sure where they’re headed at this point. Frustrating, because the other element of GFriend’s popularity – their incredibly precise choreography – was particularly noteworthy.

 

GFriend’s popularity partly came down to luck. A video of them performing “Me Gustas Tu” on a really rainy day went viral, because the girls soldiered on despite slipping multiple times. But I wouldn’t fully attribute it to a video the way we all attribute EXID‘s success to a fancam. When we went to Seoul, we saw “Me Gustas Tu” was a pretty popular song, a staple of shop soundtracks and the year-end specials we watched from our hotel room. But only a month later, they would release “Rough”, and everything would change.

“Rough” will always be GFriend’s signature song. The closer to their School Trilogy does what every good K-pop winter release does: evoke melancholy while being sonically warm. I never quite understood why they chose “Rough” as the English title: the actual title, translated, is “Running Through Time”, which is even sadder. If I could run through time and become an adult, I will hold your hand in this cruel world. I liked this song from the beginning, as I am wont to do, but then this steadily became one of my go-tos, the song I would repeat fairly often. It gets better with time. Heck, it’s timeless. That, or I was really entranced by the choreography at the very end, when SinB stares at you longingly while making her arms tick like a clock.

I haven’t gotten to the members yet. If I had to choose a bias, it’s SinB: the girl crush of the group, the lead dancer, and perhaps the most brutal of the six members – just watch her on their early appearances on Weekly Idol. It was almost Yerin solely because of her variety chops: she was just game for anything. Or maybe we could go the easy way and choose Umji, the maknae of the group who’s as cute as a button (this is a case in point) and has grown to be a beautiful lady in recent comebacks. (Everyone at Mamamoo loves her.) Or you could go for the statuesque Sowon, whose role in the group – and I’ll admit I learned this the hard way – is to be more of a steady anchor for the group (she’s the leader after all) than offer something extra vocally. That’s Eunha, for some reason – she whose supposed sexiness the group would make fun of, although she is the group’s face, for sure – or, most definitely, Yuju, whose vocal runs are a critical part of every GFriend single.

 

“Rough” was really popular: it topped the Gaon download charts, ultimately becoming South Korea’s third best-selling song of 2016. But as the end of a trilogy of sorts, it posed an interesting question: where does GFriend go next? “Navillera”, which led the group’s first full album LOL, marks the moment I changed my mind about GFriend, when they busted expectations and made me realize they can seamlessly change tactics and not lose what made them distinct in the first place. Sure, in hindsight they didn’t really change things much – and their albums, then as now, are still filled with bubblegum pop – but “Navillera” had a different enough sound, something more aggressive, to highlight their more powerful side without yielding their established image. That, and the music video is stylistically different than their previous ones.

Funny how that angle got emphasized as the group moved through their career. After another arguably defining moment – when they were challenged to dance “Rough” at twice the speed, and pulling it off effortlessly, setting a standard every other idol group suddenly has to live up to – they’ve done all sorts of challenges involving dancing. They didn’t do quite well with the blindfolded one on Mamamoo x GFriend Showtime, though, because Eunha got lost. But you get to see how they practice.

GFriend pushed further in this direction with “Fingertip”, but Shalla would remind me that Buddys generally, in her words, forget that song ever happened. I’ll say it is a song (and album) that’s heavy on the concept but, for some reason, isn’t really memorable – not that I don’t appreciate the intention. Listening to this now, I wish their next comeback would go back in that adventurous, strong territory they staked a year ago.

 

With their next mini Parallel GFriend took a step back, returning to a more familiar sound. I gave that record a pretty negative review, complaining about how the whole thing was forgettable, seemingly losing sight of what made the group so strong in the beginning. In hindsight, this is really the group’s transitional stage. “Love Whisper”, its title track, has since grown on me, and you’ll have to admit the fact that they danced part of this song in a shallow pool has to be a callback to their earlier, reputation-forming days.

Their next single, “Summer Rain” – off a repackaged version of Parallel – firms up that direction. It’s when they’ve melded the innocence of the School Trilogy and the strength of “Navillera” and “Fingertip” into something elegant, perhaps elegiac. It’s like they answered the very question we grappled with during the release of “Rough”. Where will GFriend go from here? Here, a place of maturity and grace. It took a bit longer than expected for them to get there, but I’ll say “Summer Rain” and its follow-up, “Time for the Moon Night”, rivals “Rough” in quality.

 

“Time for the Moon Night” is not exactly a stylistic departure from what preceded it, but it does feel quite different. It’s more cinematic – especially the music video and all of the resulting “is Eunha dead?” theories – but its power is more subtle than in their previous releases. This is definitely the synthesis of all those concepts they went for in their career, and the whole mini accompanying it evokes that mournfulness more – and manages to do so more consistently across the record. Among the newer stuff this is my favorite; like “Rough”, it hits the right spots at the right time.

By this point GFriend are already well established. Their choreography isn’t as sharp as it used to be – they don’t have much to prove anymore; they’re already there. They’ve begun promoting in Japan with new versions of their existing songs, and their recent release, Sunny Summer, is a throwaway summer album that you should nonetheless not discount, because it is a throwback to their early days – and the title track even manages to shoehorn in all of the members’ names in the lyrics, beyond Umji meaning “thumb” in Korean. Yuju has even released a solo single, although the other members, individually or together, have done drama soundtracks before.

That brings us to Sunday: barring anything drastic happening, Shalla and I are watching our first ever K-pop concert. Sure, this MooMoo wishes it was Mamamoo he’s watching first, but this is GFriend, a group that’s managed to carve a niche for itself and go on top across the board nonetheless. When we first featured these girls on the blog I never thought they’d be on the top tiers of K-pop, but now, we’re watching them without having to fly out to Korea. (This is, in fact, their second time here – they had a showcase at Solaire last year.) We’re just watching them – we can’t afford the tickets with the hi-touch; we’re saving up for a Hong Kong trip – but it shouldn’t be a problem. We’ve got lots to write home about next week. [NB]

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3 thoughts on “The crash course: the evolution of GFriend, K-pop’s unlikely heroes

  1. Sounds like the piano riff “Summer Rain” comes from a classical piano piece. Elegiac indeed. Thanks for this crash course! Another group to follow and familiarize with.

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