Are f(x) the Most Underappreciated Heroes of K-Pop?

With questions looming about f(x)'s place in Korean pop and their legacy, critics Madeleine Lee and Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy sit down to discuss the group and their excellent new album.

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Nov 9 2015, 6:05pm


f(x) on the cover of 4 Walls

Last month in Seoul, the K-pop quartet f(x) held an art exhibition. f(x)'s record label SM had hosted exhibitions before, but this promotional gambit felt particularly suited to their group. Like the gallery space they took over, f(x) represent something refined, exclusive even. They’re not just one of the most distinctive groups in South Korea; they're one of the planet's most exciting pop acts.

Assembled by SM in 2009, f(x) rounded the regular South Korean idol circuit—TV shows, mobile phone campaigns, forays into other Asian markets—until truly coming into their own in 2013. That year’s Pink Tape LP was stunning, a technicolor blow of surreal humor, engaged performances, and boundless imagination. 2014's Red Light lessened the surprises, but it too was full of stunning moments that crowned f(x) as K-pop's premier album act—a point echoed by Noisey contributor Jakob Dorof last year, when he called them "the standard to beat, for everyone."

Despite these successes, however, f(x) are often viewed as underdogs and outsiders. That image is partly due to a lack of attention from SM in comparison to the agency’s other stars like Super Junior and Girls Generation, but it also comes from their music being less accessible than that of their peers. This view was intensified when their Red Light campaign sputtered to a halt when Sulli, arguably the face of f(x), left the group. SM hastily debuted another girl group to cover the sudden gap, and f(x) retreated from the spotlight, their future thrown into jeopardy. Now they’ve resurfaced as a four-member group with 4 Walls, an album that may be their greatest yet—and, if rumors are true, their last. With questions looming about f(x)'s place in Korean pop and the legacy that they might leave behind if they do indeed call it quits, critics Madeleine Lee and Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy sat down to discuss the group and their excellent new album.

Daniel: Off the bat: Can we call f(x) one of South Korean pop's vanguard acts?

Madeleine: Among fans in South Korea and abroad, f(x) have a reputation as underdogs, when in reality they're quite popular—their singles always win on the weekly music show circuit and their members are individually known to the public, which is more than can be said for the majority of idol groups. This perception is probably partly due to the way SM has neglected the group and its fans as compared to the agency's other artists; f(x) have been around for six years but were only given a solo concert and an official fanclub name (normally a necessity for any group that survives its rookie years) for the first time this year. But it definitely is also due to their image as less accessible than other K-pop artists, both in their music and in their visual concepts. Compare them to SM's other major girl group, Girls' Generation, who are on the opposite side of the accessibility scale. Additionally, without getting too much into this, I think f(x) are marketed less explicitly toward male fans than other girl groups like Girls' Generation.

So yes, f(x) are definitely one of the vanguard acts of K-pop in that there is nobody really doing exactly what they do—and definitely not on the major-label scale SM can afford. Concept-wise, groups like Brown Eyed Girls are similarly avant-garde, but it's rare to find a group that experiments in the way f(x) does; their songs are usually assemblages of sounds and ideas with melodies on top. Their albums, particularly outside of the singles, ping from genre to genre: Consider the titular witchy trap single from Red Light. If they aren't seen at the vanguard, it's only because of the marketing.

Sulli's departure interrupted Red Light's promotional campaign, which was a blow. There are all sorts of gossipy reasons as to why she left, but ultimately, her heart wasn't in music anymore. However, in a way, her timing was perfect for f(x): 4 Walls is the fourth full-length album for a now four-membered group, a group that some people weren't sure would come back at all, given the way SM seems to feel about them already. How do you think it stands up to the rest of the group's discography?

Daniel: Pretty well! It’s interesting you mention f(x) songs by and large assembling interesting sonics in lieu of traditional pop catchiness, because 4 Walls sounds like—get this—a collection of pop hits. Familiar collaborators abound—crack industry songwriter Kenzie, publishing powerhouse Jam Factory—but new blood keeps the enterprise fresh. Carly Rae Jepsen donates a cut from her E-MO-TION album sessions, Zico of popular idol group Block B appears for a sleek cameo, and production outfit LDN Noise (behind SM bangers like Red Velvet’s ‘Dumb Dumb’) make 4 Walls feel different from past f(x) records. Greg Bonnick and DJ Hayde C of LDN provide three songs, including the lead single and title track, and their glistening pop-house compositions act as anchors throughout the album, almost dividing it into three acts.

It’s interesting to wonder if SM were themselves uncertain about the group’s future after Sulli’s exit. A rumor circulating earlier this year that 2015 would be “a make or break year” left me considering whether or not the the overall cohesiveness of this new album is a response to internal pressure. As a foursome, f(x) feel more on trend, dealing more exclusively in the sounds that have taken over the charts in the UK (appropriately the first location they performed in as an official quartet). The vast number of pop-savvy post-Disclosure offshoots on UK radio serve as notable inspirations here, as opposed to the scattershot genre gumbo of the group’s previous albums.

As a Brit, pop-house is something I’ve grown sick of, but the group strive to make familiar sounds interesting again. On songs like "4 Walls," the group’s romantic fervor fulfils the euphoria that drives some of the best house and pop music; later on in "X" they’re at their cheekiest, giggling melodies over bubbling Richard X-style Europop. When EDM touches pop up on "Cash Me Out," it’s jarring if only for its dated bursts of wub-wub breaks, but it makes more sense within the context of the surrounding material than when it happened two-thirds onto Pink Tape.

By the album’s midway point, it’s evident f(x) have adapted into a more cohesive unit by making a straight-up dance-pop album. They sound tighter as vocalists—particularly fan-fave rapper Amber, who used to be awkwardly shoehorned into post-chorus 16s but has grown into a confident presence on her own accord. Importantly, they sound like they’re having fun, which was not always the case on their previous work. Red Light felt suffused with danger, with abrasive blasts, percussive handguns and horror-movie screams peeking out from the mix. 4 Walls’ best song, the retro-fitted ballad "Traveller," uses the group’s ease with unease to tap into something different: restlessness, longing, melancholy. Their comfort zone used to be in ambition; with that toned down, they’ve transitioned into subtlety.

What do you think, Madeleine? Does a turn towards more accessible sonics fill you with as much optimism as it does me? And if this does end up being f(x)’s swan song, did they matter?

Madeleine: Yes! For all the reasons you mention, 4 Walls is their strongest album yet: more cohesive than their previous albums, without sacrificing the diversity that has become the backbone of the group’s sound. I would argue that their music has always been in pursuit of a trend, just not always the right or most current one. A large chunk of Pink Tape is predicated on the same kind of hybrid rap-EDM as 2NE1’s “I Am The Best,” for instance. So pop-house, which is probably the global sound of the moment, is a great choice, and it helps that labelmate SHINee’s LDN Noise-penned single “View” was a big hit earlier this year.

Listening to 4 Walls, I was struck by how often one song seemed to complement a previous one; for instance, “Rude Love” has a similar pop-house pulse to “4 Walls,” but the mood is less mystical and more wistful. If this ever happened on previous albums, it seemed coincidental, rather than part of the design as it does here. Even “Papi”, which most people agree is the worst song—and I don’t even think it’s that bad!—has a great rap from Amber over electro-swing. “Glitter” is the worst song to me for being the least ambitious, but perhaps its position as the second song helps announce that the approach is going to be different this time.

As for f(x)’s place in K-pop history, it helps that this would be a hell of a note for them to end on: 4 Walls debuted at the top of Billboard’s World Albums Chart and is already the number two best-selling girl group album of all time in South Korea. Musical influence in the K-pop industry tends to spread due to trends, but I think f(x)’s influence can already be felt in SM’s newest girl group, Red Velvet, who were hastily debuted around the same time f(x) went on hiatus last year. Their poppy, color-blocked debut felt similar to f(x)’s more humble electro-pop beginnings, and they’ve already released The Red, an album that balances a conventional take on R&B and pop alongside f(x)’s experimental approach; “Cool World” would be the calmest cut from 4 Walls.

However, it’s hard for me to think about f(x)’s legacy when, with 4 Walls, they’ve embarked on a new phase and new musical direction. Now seems like a tough time to quit, if it does indeed happen. And even as prominent Korean pop acts have hit a point of being more idiosyncratic and individual right now than ever before, that growing wave of individualism would make the loss of pioneers like f(x) stick out even more.

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy is a writer living in London. Follow him on Twitter.

Madeleine Lee is a writer living in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.