Ballad Roundup: ChoA, Lee Suhyun, CHUANG2020, Red Velvet

Manifesting in 2020

Sorry for being away for a couple months, summer is not a particularly fruitful time for main-stage ballads, plus we’re all going a little COVID crazy, plus freelancing has been ramping up and all sorts of other unacceptable excuses.

But a couple recent huge developments plus I haven’t really talked about CHUANG 2020 so let’s do it!

CHOA – “Here I Am”

Choa back. CHOA BACK! AOA has been dominating the news cycle in 2020 for all the wrong reasons, as former member Mina’s revelations of bullying and struggle with the residual trauma have basically ended the group’s activities for the foreseeable future. But lost in all this is Choa’s first single in over 3 years since abruptly leaving her former group.

Though the tone is fitting for a generic, melodramatic OST track, “Here I Am” squarely fits Choa’s emergence from hibernation. For the majority of the song’s runtime, Choa is all breath and head-voice, hesitant to belt it out like she once used to. Her voice stands at the back, hesitant to find the spotlight, even when the chorus hits. It’s nigh unrecognizable to hear her voice like this. But right after the bridge, around the 3 minute mark, she hits that high note, pushing her way to the front, and in that third chorus we find the Choa we know and love. Unabashed, huge belting, that pop tone with the slight nasal charm.

When it comes to those “Vocal Analyses” that k-pop stans love to toss around like it means anything at all, Choa usually doesn’t fare very well. But having pristine vocal technique is like having a large vocabulary, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can string a sentence together. “Here I Am” reminds me how good of a vocal storyteller Choa is, and I’m glad her voice is back.

CHUANG 2020 – “That Girl Said To Me”

If it wasn’t apparent by my shoehorning of Youth With You Season 2 content into the last article, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time watching Chinese music competition shows this year. Along with YWY2, CHUANG2020 was the other big powerhouse idol show, featuring top-billed hosts, pedigreed trainees, and promises of a long(er) career in pop music. Personally, YWY2 charmed me a little more than CHUANG2020 did, the latter repeating the mistakes of the first season of PD101 China, focusing far too much on Tao and his 4D teasing of the trainees versus developing the personality of the top contestants. As a result YWY2 had me following along with at least 5 or 6 trainees’ narratives by mid-season, while the majority of trainees on CHUANG2020 felt nameless, even through the final eliminations.

Still, a few performances especially in the early rounds stood out, including this ballad performance featuring early front-runner and the #3 finalist Chen Zhuoxuan. Chen is kind of an anomaly to me; she’s lauded as a vocal power house but from her first audition to this stage it’s apparent that it’s precisely power that she lacks. #1 overall finalist Curley Gao is obviously the better singer, but maybe because of her Uigyur background she’s positioned as more of a girl crush center/leader type. Either way, the group composition here is good (Wang Ke and Tian Jingfan being particularly interesting) so let’s get on with it.

“那女孩对我说” is a classic sad sack mando-pop rock ballad and a great song to belt out at KTV. The song’s emotional core is callous, naïve, petulant and defeated, a narrative that doesn’t paint the singer in the best light. But for some reason, the concept decided for these girls is “deer in the headlights” for some odd reason, and it saps the strength of the performance entirely.

I think the song is actually a fairly difficult song to emotionally interpret, as it has been covered over and over again with inconsistent results. Fan Hong on SingChina2020 showcased a rather well-done take and this only happened last week. And a lot has to do with the robustness of her lower register, like the way she pronounces “女孩” in the chorus with a sort of sneer that limps back into regret just a second later. Per her example, there’s a lot of subtle detail in the performance that keeps the song glued together. Back on CHUANG2020 Luhan tries to teach the team these nuances, but the results don’t bear fruit, except for the aforementioned Wang Ke. Tian Jinfan also gets points from me but maybe because her stage IQ is very strange though never incorrect. Everyone else is all head-voice and air, even when coming together at the end.

I’ve actually rewritten this blurb maybe four or five times in the last two months; considering everything going on in 2020 and how China seems to be the focus of a lot of it, there’s a lot to say about Chinese reality TV and pop culture and politics and kind of this weaponization of pop culture, of which we can find parallels with both South Korean and American soft power campaigns. But brain hurty.

Red Velvet – “Milky Way”

2020 has been such a dumpster fire that Wendy having a near career-ending accident seems like eons ago. After hearing the news about how bad her injuries were, I was not expecting her to come back in any form at all this year. So having her back for Red Velvet’s turn at the commemorative ‘Our Beloved BoA’ project is a blessing for sure.

Unfortunately, the rearrangement doesn’t particularly do the original any favors. I can kind of tell they were going for a IU-esque, quirky jazz pop vibe here but I don’t think the melody line really lends itself to that aesthetic. The capital-J JAZZ harmony section right off the bat feels shoehorned in, and while Red Velvet aren’t bad singers by any standard, their vocal soup doesn’t really have any unique texture that would otherwise elevate this choice of musicality. Scares me to think how this song would sound if Wendy were still out of commission. What is good about the similarity of each RV member’s timbre is that you can treat it like a single instrument and play around with these chords without much tonal risk.

I love everything after the second chorus. The embellishments are dispensed with and they’re allowed to treat the melody like the pop genius it is, with phrasings more in Red Velvet’s favor. It just sounds so much easier compared to everything before. The gospel/R&B nuances take over and everyone just settles in and start to have fun. The tones here are really nice but I wish there was a little bit more commitment to a single line of musicality.

If the ‘Our Beloved BoA’ series has been good for anything, it’s reminding us how perfect BoA‘s hits actually were.

Lee Suhyun – “Reflection”

AKMU’s Lee Suhyun has one of my favorite voices in K-Pop so to see her finally getting her official Disney call-up after years of unofficial covers brings a tear to my eye. Her version of “Reflection” is effortless, subdued, confident, and maybe a little too quiet. Maybe Suhyun has such reverence for Disney she didn’t want to over do it, but “Reflection” is one of those songs begging to be overdone. When you have both 2020 Christina and 1998 Christina riffing all over the original version, that should be enough permission to get a little loose with it. Lena Park’s 1998 version comes to mind.

But also I recognize that riffing all over the place is not really Suhyun’s game to play, so maybe this straight-faced take is indeed her true reflection. And when paired with all the other 2020 covers, Suhyun’s version is uniquely reverential. Nonetheless, comparing all the different versions is pretty fun but it remains Christina’s song to lose.

PS: I watched about 15 minutes of the trash fire that is Live Action Mulan before bailing, Mulan 2020 is a stupid, stupid movie.


That’s it for this one, I’ve already got like 4 or 5 blurbs for the next article in my drafts. And winter is coming which means it’s my time to shine…

Editor’s Note: In before the next article is in December.

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