by Toyosi Begbaaji
I’m fearless! On May 2nd, 2022, LE SSERAFIM made their much-anticipated debut with the same-titled song and album, FEARLESS. The EP includes 5 songs: The World is My Oyster, title track FEARLESS, Blue Flame, The Great Mermaid, and Sour Grapes.
LE SSERAFIM, backstage at SHOW CHAMPION (LE SSERAFIM official Twitter account: https://rb.gy/spjlmu)
The group, officially under the HYBE subsidiary label SOURCE MUSIC, is a first for both companies in differing ways. LE SSERAFIM is SOURCE MUSIC’s first new girl group since the sudden disbandment of GFRIEND. Additionally, they are HYBE’s first newly-debuted girl group (GFRIEND was already well-established at the time of their acquisition) since their last venture into the world girl groups with the short-lived GLAM, when the company was still known as BigHit Entertainment. There is, in short, a lot riding on this debut for both companies, as well as sky-high expectations for the group itself. Luckily, I believe the EP, FEARLESS, meets those expectations head-on, quite fearlessly, indeed.
FEARLESS is short, but sweet, displaying incredible versatility in genre and sound. How the producing teams for LE SSERAFIM managed to fit edgy house synths, groovy 70s bass, and ballad-like R&B onto one five-song album and make it all still fit together well is astounding, downright disrespectful (and I say this as a glowing compliment). But let me not yet get ahead of myself.
This album opener is less a full song and more an intro that establishes the attitude and vibes of LE SSERAFIM as a group. With pulsating, bassy synths, The World is My Oyster starts out bold and stark. The song feels heavily sequenced, creating a hefty atmosphere of imagined strobing lights and all black outfits. I’m reminded of the kind of music that populates neon-noir film scores, like the scores for The Matrix films or Matt Reeve’s The Batman.
Given that the LE SSERAFIM members are capable of speaking Korean, English, and Japanese, The World is My Oyster cheekily shows off by having all three languages spoken by the members throughout the track. The members’ voices, mixed in such a way to sound almost indistinguishable, are whispery like smoke, echoing through the song, repeating the album’s driving theme: “I am fearless.”
In my memory, and with my knowledge of multinational groups (TWICE and the now-disbanded IZ*ONE both come to mind), I can’t think of an instance of a group so boldly exhibiting their multilingualism on one song. The execution might not work for some, but I found it impressive as an attempt regardless. Of course, I don’t find myself ever listening to The World is My Oyster because of its lack of lyrics, but I think sonically, it speaks to a future musical direction for LE SSERAFIM as they continue to grow as a group.
In an attempt to keep from letting my first opinions on a song color how I see it, I first watched the FEARLESS music video, then listened through the song with the rest of the album twice before deciding to put proper words to how I feel on it. I think this song has one thing going for it especially: it’s catchy. This song is very, very catchy. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel or completely deconstruct the idea of a title track, but it doesn’t need to. The song shows off the confidence to be expected of the song’s title, made even more present by the music video. There’s a celebratory pride to how, during the pre-chorus, the members stride forward in unison with their arms around one another just ahead of the upcoming chorus refrain. In fact, the pre-chorus is my favorite part of the song, introducing a riffing guitar that falls in line with other title tracks by HYBE artists (namely TXT). The smiles on the members’ faces are contagious. In those moments, as the members belt with some of the strongest voices heard in this generation of K-pop, you feel their happiness, their confidence, their excitement to be debuting together. It’s electrifying. It’s good.
But the song isn’t perfect. One weaker aspect of this song is the first half of its chorus, which is annoyingly repetitive and simple, abruptly halting all of the energy created during the pre-chorus. While it’s certainly an earworm, when it comes to lyrical development, I’m a bit tired of writers “running out of lyrics” in key parts of their own songs. By the time the LE SSERAFIM members have asked, “What you lookin’ at?” for the fifth of six times, I’m already over it and ready to hit skip. Thankfully, the second-half of the chorus rectifies this by giving some change to the lyrics, using the same rhythm but playing around with what words fit into it. It’s an improvement, but if you’re turned off by the repetitiveness, I worry waiting for the second half of the chorus might not fix that. And then, there are the worrying similarities in song structure and rhythm to XG’s Tippy Toes, released in March of this year.
The song also lacks instrumental development. The song begins with the core bass line driving the melody, then proceeds to maintain that same bass line through the entire song with no further expanding of the rhythms, melodies, or harmonies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make the song feel a bit too subdued. Which might be the point.
LE SSERAFIM, backstage at INKIGAYO (courtesy of LE SSERAFIM official Twitter account: https://rb.gy/sgsn5c)
Thus far, LE SSERAFIM feels like a group intentionally aiming for a more mature sound compared to their contemporaries. FEARLESS is overwhelmingly laidback, exemplified by the softer, almost murmur-singing done throughout most of the song. And if that is the point — for this song to be lackadaisical and groovy, aiming to make a big splash by intentionally not rocking the boat instrumentally, then bravo.
Being in the dreaded spot of Third-Song-On-Album, I was nervous for Blue Flame. As previously mentioned, I made sure to not listen to any album highlights, going into this album with no expectations. Instrumentally, Blue Flame fits squarely into the recent throwback disco trend that’s been populating music since 2019. It’s groovy, keeping with the mood set up by the title track, and makes use of synths that send delicious chills up the spine. Each member sounds incredible, riding the beat with the same ease seen on the title track. Blue Flame, make no mistake, is good. But it sounds…a bit derivative. On my first few listens, I was too easily able to recall Dua Lipa’s Break My Heart, from the synth chords and the bass line driven verses. As I listen more, the stark Future Nostalgia-ness is unmistakable.
To make matters worse, this song has their weakest – dare I say, worst – rap: an off-tempo, generally awkward flow from member Kazuha that attempts to ride the beat but falters due to its lack of conviction. It’s a shame, because the other instances of rapping in this song, long or otherwise short snippets here and there, are actually quite confident and strong.
HUH YUNJIN performing BLUE FLAME at MCOUNTDOWN (Image Credit: https://rb.gy/lkabl0)
That all being said, I like giving the benefit of the doubt, especially for newer groups like LE SSERAFIM. Knowing that members Kim Chaewon (formerly of IZ*ONE) and Huh Yunjin (who participated on PRODUCE48 with fellow members Chaewon and Miyawaki Sakura) helped out in writing, it’s most likely that the sense of awkwardness comes from their general lack of songwriting experience. It’s fine. In fact, I don’t count it against the song at all. Because this song was promoted alongside FEARLESS, I was able to see how the members danced to this song. And it majorly improved my appreciation for this song. It’s fun, in the same vein as Lizzo’s About Damn Time, and when you watch live performances, you can visibly see how much fun each member is having. It’s hard to whinge about a song when I find myself dancing to it each and every time it comes on.
Admission time: I was a self-proclaimed “mermaid kid” growing up. I loved everything about them, wanted to be one, and loved any and all media featuring them. As I’ve grown up, I’ve still retained a love for mermaids, though lately have had a stronger interest in their tangential, unfriendly cousins, the siren.
The Great Mermaid, despite its name, is absolutely a siren’s song. It’s hypnotising, gritty and dark. While The World is My Oyster made use of house-style synths, the synths used here are much heavier, grungier and dirtier. At times, I feel like my chest is constricting, the air being suffocated out of them by how driving the instrumental to this song is. Combined with the members’ high, floaty voices, it makes you dizzy. There’s a kind of vocal filter placed over the singing to give it that same scratchy quality as the synths. For me, it’s these elements that tip this song over into being my favourite track from the album. It fits with their more mature sound, as well as the “mermaid-y” through-line seen in the album opener and their concept pictures. Coming directly after the upbeat and honey-sweet Blue Flame, The Great Mermaid grabs you by the throat. If Ariel was willing to give up her voice in order to gain legs and be with her prince, LE SSERAFIM reject that notion in its entirety. “I don’t give a sh*t,” they ground out. “I just want it all!”
(Image credit: https://youtu.be/H74vNdzXEoE)
The Great Mermaid, the title being a pastiche of The Little Mermaid, subverts the well-known story, using it as a framework to discuss female empowerment. As apart of the chorus’s hook and as the final line of the song, they sing, “Dive into the ocean,” like a rallying cry, encouraging women (and everyone, really) to reject the expectation to give up any part of yourself for someone else. Like mermaids — like sirens, we should dive into the ocean in order to live out our lives: freely and on our own terms.
Rounding out the album is Sour Grapes, an R&B-style ballad that allows each member to showcase their stunning vocals. Beginning with the staccato plucking of a harp and honey-like vocalisations, Sour Grapes feels anything but sour. The song itself is delicate and demure, shy and seemingly at odds with the other confident songs on this album. The beat carrying the song is modern, a mix of kick drum, snare, and high-hat. Throughout, the harp heard in the beginning appears, sprinkled throughout like fairy dust. The pre-chorus takes a different direction, bringing in hearty strings to replace the harp and changing the kick/snare/high-hat beat for something more laidback, like the brushes of a jazz drummer.
(Image credit: https://youtu.be/H74vNdzXEoE)
Lyrically, Sour Grapes feels like a prequel, the explanation for how LE SSERAFIM came to be The Great Mermaid as seen in the previous track. They sing of knowing that the love they’re after will only hurt them — “half-baked emotions, I just feel afraid.” All this within the overarching metaphor that, “love is sour grapes.” Like the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, this love tempts and terrifies them all the same. This song is refreshingly self-aware for a love song, acknowledging the nuanced complexities of relationships, particularly toxic ones. When the members all sing, “Yeah, you’ll hurt me,” at the end of the pre-chorus, you feel the resignation, the annoyance, and the frustration of the song’s speaker.
When listening to this song, a very specific image is conjured in my mind: a mermaid (or siren, in this specific case) mournfully singing while holding onto the drowned body of their lover, bemoaning the loss while still unable to parse that they’re the cause of it. Or, more likely, knowing they’re the cause of their lover’s demise, but feigning innocence in the matter. Given the lyrics up to this point, I wondered why that specific image would consistently come to mind, until I came to the bridge. Sour Grapes’s bridge flips everything on its head, the speaker admitting that they’d been lying to themself this entire time, that they never liked this unspoken lover, and that they don’t feel a bit sorry about it. It’s then when I feel the evolution of the mermaid into the siren, a perfect transition into The Great Mermaid from a story-telling perspective. After losing this lover, they move on, more confident and sure of themself.
FEARLESS manages to do what a lot of debut albums can’t. It’s sonically diverse, yet still feels cohesive through its overarching storyline. This is an album with themes — of love, confidence, female empowerment, and more. It’s masterful that in an album so short, LE SSERAFIM and their label were able to do so much. Not a single song feels unnecessary, each one contributing something to the establishment of what and who LE SSERAFIM want to be as a group. While I do feel the title track is a bit weak, it’s bolstered by some of the strongest b-sides released this year. More than anything, I’m looking forward to whatever LE SSERAFIM decide to do next.
1. Sour Grapes
2. The Great Mermaid
3. Blue Flame