I hope you are all as excited as I am to analyze the SHINee’s Dream Girl comeback. I will split this review into four main parts: album, music video, lives, and overall assessment. Let’s get on it.
(1) Spoiler. This song begins with the opening synth to Sherlock. As SHINee has said, Dream Girl: The Misconceptions of You should be viewed as a continuation of Sherlock. Moreover, this introduction mentions each song in the album; establishing a very clear connection between Sherlock and Dream Girl. In fact, the instrumentation used on this track is not unlike Sherlock, except a little lower and sultry. SHINee is definitely back but it is definitely in a more understated, sexier fashion. Case in point, we have wonderful chants of mostly Jonghyun singing “Tonight, tonight, tonight…” at the end of the song. In fact, this song– verses and chorus– is mostly dominated by Jonghyun’s voice. The biggest disappointment is this track is Key. There are times he does sound lovely, but often the endings of his singing parts stick out and seem largely unfinished compared to the sultry croonings of Onew and Jonghyun, and yes, even Taemin.
(2) Dream Girl. Praise lord that this is not “acid electro funk,” as described to the music critics who received a preview of Dream Girl before it officially released. This is just electro funk. If it were “acid,” it would be much more sharper and higher, and the electro part of the song would not be as full. Think Dream Girl on heroine and slowly wasting away but crying out for more to feed an addiction; now that would be “acid electro funk.”
Dream Girl is amazing electro funk. The tricky problem with funk is that if not done well, the novelty of the funk can overpower the singers– so, in essence, the audience is thinking this song is really weird and no matter how talented the performers are, they simply cannot ignore the weirdness of the funk. The song was assiduously mixed with this in mind: the funk elements are there but not in your face– we get treated to beautiful falsettos mostly sung by Onew and Jonghyun (heavy on the Jonghyun for the most part), and “funky” synths like guitar riffs and interesting bass lines, while present, are kept minimal in the background. These funky moments are likewise paired with minimal electro synthy tricks; the choruses are all our familiar Sherlock electro with a light percussive beat, so the track itself cannot be categorized as just plain funk, hence the electro funk. Dream Girl strikes the correct balance, which is what makes it such an exciting track to listen to.
There is nothing in kpop like Dream Girl now– at least for boy group singles– the Wonder Girls used to exploit a bit of funk, and TTS’s Twinkle just had a glimmer, but Dream Girl is really the first blown-up piece of pop funk out there. Let me repeat that again– there is nothing in kpop like Dream Girl now. Can you really imagine any other male group besides SHINee performing this song? Let me tell you the answer: no. The vocal gymnastics required in this song can only be attempted by a handful of kpop groups, and of them, which groups actually have the correct image to pull it off without attracting blank stares? SHINee is the prime example of excelling in a particular niche of kpop– modern, forward-looking, fresh, pretty, upbeat, and undeniable in collective skill.
There has been a bit of malcontent brewing the fandom over the amount of singing parts, and I have to agree with the people who contend Taemin sings a tad too much; in addition to his own singing parts in the verses, he gets lines in the chorus too. Not that I have anything against Taemin’s voice, because he sounds glowingly gorgeous in this track. Nonetheless, his high note left a little to desire (the ending felt raw like Key’s in Spoiler, like he had run of air), it was still solid, and this from a guy I was bashing so hard last year, no less. I am totally impressed and I surrender to 2013: Year of Taemin. However, it was not Taemin’s singing that was the biggest surprise in Dream Girl.
It was Minho’s.
Minho sounds almost like Minho. That is, Minho has ceased to sound exactly like a frog. A good comparison would be Taemin transitioning between Lucifer and Sherlock. That is where Minho is now, in terms of his vocals. He is getting there, but he still has a ways to go. He is finally singing in his natural voice, despite the register is still too high for him to sing comfortably. Another apt comparison I can think of is TVXQ’s Yunho. Yunho has steadily gotten better in singing, and so today, Yunho mostly sings instead of rapping– because of this, TVXQ has gotten rid of a lot of superfluous rapping parts. Imagine Duet with a obligatory rap; it would definitely not be the same. The sooner we can transition Minho to singing fairly well, the sooner we can have tracks that are not limited by Minho’s need-to-rap-because-he-does-not-have-enough-singing-parts. That being said, I largely view Dream Girl‘s rap as superfluous. Old-school funk never needed a rapper to sound cool; Dream Girl could have inserted some more funk and did a dance break instead. This song was very beautifully constructed, and it would have been nice to give some prominence to the instrumentals.
(3) Hitchhiking. Like Spoiler, this would have not been out of place in Sherlock. It is uptempo around the same speed at Dream Girl, but without as solid of a percussive line to underline it. Again, dominated by Jonghyun in the verses and the choruses. However, I suspect a bit of pitch-shifting / voice-correcting software was used generously in Hitchhiking, because their voices all sound suspiciously like Jonghyun’s– even Key’s. The mixers this time may have a bias towards Jonghyun, but then, given the genre, funk, which does utilize a lot of high harmonizations, Jonghyun comes naturally to mind.
(4) Punch Drunk Love. This track reminds me strongly of Lucifer, WOWOWOW. WOWOWOW was the only song that did not fit on Lucifer, because of its retro vibes, it sat uneasily amongst the dissonant and modernist tracks of Lucifer. Likewise, Punch Drunk Love is awkward as well. The producers placed the track as best they could in between tracks, following immediately after a more subdued electro Hitchhiking, and following it up with Girls, Girls, Girls, a light and minimal track, almost in the style of Bruno Mars, but definitely with a safer pop twist and not as carefree. The producers tried to gently guide listeners into unadulterated funk by sidelining it with two moderate songs, but sorry, Punch Drunk Love still sticks out like a polar bear in the rain forest. Unlike Dream Girl, Punch Drunk Love is almost entirely funk and very little electro, and so it sits very uncomfortably in this album.
(5) Girls, Girls, Girls. Another funk (electro-minimum) song in the style of a poppy and conservative Bruno Mars. I have a strong aversion to Jonghyun singing the word “girls” ever since I heard his Wheesung cover. This song could potentially be an up-tempo ballad instead of a slow(er) dance number. I was highly impressed by Minho’s singing part in the beginning half of the song–he blends so well in the midst of everyone.
Of course, I was disappointed by his lackluster rapping in the ending half. It is hard to define exactly what makes a good rapper, but it is someone who takes you in with his flow and makes you want to rap along (even if you fail miserably because he is Twista). A great contemporary example is Macklemore’s Thrift Shop. Of course, I am aware that the fact Minho raps in Korean is a barrier, but I regularly sing along with gibberish even if I do not know the language (see Love Like Oxygen). After almost five years, while he has gotten technically better, Minho has not become more compelling at rapping.
As an aside– because of Minho’s rather straightforward and low delivery, he reminds me a lot of Mike Shinoda, but there are dimensions between Minho’s rapping and Shinoda’s. The color of Minho’s rap will be yellow, but Shinoda will not only rap in yellow, but in gold, buttercup, amber, apricot, and saffron. Minho lacks the proper pathos in his rapping. It is hard to describe the subtle differences since I am not a rap aficionado, so I leave you to judge for yourself.
(6) Aside. Yet another up-tempo ballad; yet another song dominated by Jonghyun’s vocals. At first, we have an extended listen of Jonghyun’s lower register– amazing. Next up is Taemin, and he is gorgeous recorded, melting into Minho’s singing. Key pops up in the chorus and it sounds grating. Nonetheless, Minho slips into his frogginess in the second verse, and Onew, anchoring the second verse, is a little too agitated in comparison to the first verse. When bridging into the chorus, Key is agitated as well; the strain on his voice is such a stark contrast to the easiness with which Onew sang it the first time around. Not every song of SHINee’s has to be vocal gymnastics to show their considerable talent, but this track feels very ill-used somehow, agitating when it should be calming.
(7) Beautiful. A chill mid-tempo ballad; yet another song dominated by Jonghyun’s vocals. However, compared to Aside, this one is definitely the more polished. For the first time in this album, all five members actually fit and belong on this track, together. They match and complement, and Jonghyun restrains his wailing, and Key keeps his voice as smooth as possible. As always, we could have done without a Minho rap.
(8) Dynamite. This song sounds like it belongs to a power workout video from the 90s. Someone should be shouting “push it!” in the background. Jonghyun should be singing “push it!” instead of “feel it.” I am exaggerating, but this song’s instrumentals are grating and unsettling, especially after such a relaxing ballad like Beautiful.
(9) Runaway. This track pulls the whole album together again neatly, as an electropop-heavy song streamlined by a bit of funk. However, it is not exactly the most original closing song; it actually reminds me a bit of BEAST’s Midnight Sun album, it also reminds of Boyfriend, B1A4, and the whole slew of cutesy boy band newcomers– who have all been using electropop-plus-a-bit-of-funk formula. This song could have easily been recycled between any of these groups. The reason why the lead single, Dream Girl, is such a great example of mainstream funk is because the funk is an important part– compared to Runaway, in which it is mainly used for a sense of novelty and not actually important to the song itself. Take away the funky synths, and Runaway is still the same song.
The music video to Dream Girl is the most creative and out-there video we have seen from SHINee. However, it played too much on the safe side. It is a dream world, but all the producers imagined were ceilings on walls and walls on ceilings and falling on trampolines and a mystery woman inside painting with flowers for face and a spazzy pixellation and SHINee lying on beds and Onew flopping like a fish on the floor. Not very creative at all. Granted, still better than empty-room-plus-cars-dancing in Lucifer. If Dream Girl had taken just one page from G-Dragon’s Crayon, another music video that explores the dream world, it would not have taken such a long time to reach 4 million views. I personally theorize that S.M. Entertainment hedges its bets on the individual attractiveness of its groups; that is, they assume fans want as much screen-time of the groups as possible, and so it is better to have group dances in empty rooms as opposed to developing a story, in which the members may not get the maximum screen-time. For long-time fans, this poses not too much of a problem, because we have grown to love their faces; however, to pique people’s interest in watching SHINee for the first time, there often needs to be a point of interest other than just looks. Every kpop group that debuts nowadays is good-looking– so another pretty-boy SHINee music video is not enough.
This choreography is notable for its use of microphone stands– not used since Wonder Girl’s Nobody— this fit very well with the funk vibe of the song, and gave SHINee an extra element of difficulty in their choreography. The light-up microphone stands also give SHINee a point of interest as well in live performances, not unlike TVXQ’s glowing arm-band-things in Catch Me. Nevertheless, the inclusion of dance moves from previous dances made it seem stale, too stale for a fresh group like SHINee. It also made it seem that the choreographer was too lazy to choreograph a new routine, as well.
The fashion this time focused on florals, light colors (circle lens!), and suits, though Taemin was always given the youthful, less formal and Justin-Bieber-vibe. The only things that I felt was rather horrendous were Taemin’s overalls and his yellow suit with the awkward pink crotch area. Otherwise, I quite liked the fashion concept, because it is actually quite tasteful in balancing SHINee’s well-established image of youth and their obvious adulthood– most obviously, they wear suits throughout the video, albeit suits in bright colors and whimsical patterns.
(1) KBS Music Bank: 22 February 2012, Beautiful and Dream Girl
When SHINee breaks out their ultra-expensive body microphones, if there is any justice in the world, the performance must be live, and it is, and gloriously so. In Beautiful, Taemin’s and Jonghyun’s opening lower registers are fantastic and spot-on; the duo’s last few singing lines also are professionally sung and well-placed. Even Minho at 1.16s is shockingly true to the recording, and he sounds absolutely relaxed. Key also fits into this live performance extremely well, as his tones are coming out dulcet, relaxed and smooth– exactly what this song’s vibe is. Moreover, they all seem genuinely happy to be performing this song, and this renders this Beautiful performance particularly effective.
This performance of Dream Girl is rare live, because for almost 90% of live performances I trawled through for this review, SHINee has lip-synched, or has had their live vocal tracks overlaid with recorded version. Sadly, towards the end of this performance, the MR was too loud and even Jonghyun’s climax notes were buried underneath. One extremely spine-tingling moment is when either Jonghyun or Onew (bets on Onew) harmonizes with the background vocals at 4:05s. Another spine-tingling moment is Minho’s solo at 4.32s; Minho can actually sing perfectly fine live! I imagine a lot of Shawols wiped the cold sweat off their brows after that.
Given that this is one of the first live performances at the beginning of Dream Girl promotions, it is no wonder it is executed so well. I have no valid complaints against this performance at all.
(2) KBS Music Bank: 1 March 2013, Dream Girl
This performance was executed after around two weeks of promotions, and the wear is starting to show. Taemin is noticeably off-key in his beginning lines and at 1:44s, Onew is belting out his lines with unnecessary force from time to time, Jonghyun even has lost his voice’s usually smooth luster. Onew’s surprise harmonization at 2:09s was interestingly placed, except he was not quite on key at first and slid into the pitch. Even Jonghyun’s ending pitch was not quite “there.” While this was a solid performance (that really, any rookie group could aspire to), the 1 March performance is noticeably inferior to the 22 February performance.
Listening to Onew harmonize in the 22 February performance and again in this performance makes one wonder if SHINee will ever perform live harmonizations; clearly they have the capacity to do so, as they have a great range contained within their group already. In perhaps a year, continuing with Minho’s satisfactory development, he should be able to anchor as a bass suitably well.
When this album came out, I was reeling in the coherency of this album. Everything fit in this album and nothing could be labelled the odd duck out. Point for point, it matched SHINee’s youthful, increasingly eclectic and eccentric style. As a long-time SHINee fan, I was sold and I was crying tears over how amazing it was. As I have said endlessly, SHINee occupies an extremely special space in kpop and any other male group replicating their concepts, including difficult choreography and challenging singing parts, would be a recipe for disaster.
Then, as a snobby person who reviews SHINee despite her long-time SHINee fangirling, I took a step back. Dream Girl may be a coherent album, but it is not a well-balanced album. It is too much uptempo and it is too much the same. There is no real ballad in this album, except a few half-hearted midtempo attempts; the album feels so squished with no place to breathe: all climax but no resolution. Hopefully, the release of Chapter 2. Dream Girl – The Misconceptions of Me will allow for some breathing room. Additionally, halfway through the album, the sounds start meshing and one starts to wonder which song was which. It is electro-funk but it sounds like the same old funk that we listened in the previous songs. The focus on the funk genre forces SHINee into a niche– a niche that SHINee may not be able to dig itself out of and function successfully in the kpop mainstream. In today’s pop music, people simply do not listen to much funk.
To this end, there have been concerns in the Shawol fandom that SHINee’s popularity has actually been diminishing– despite selling more albums of Dream Girl today, SHINee’s hey-day was in Ring Ding Dong and Lucifer. With this sentiment, I have to agree. Sherlock and Dream Girl are not songs that can appeal extremely broadly– unlike fellow labelmates Super Junior’s dance singles– both songs require a few listens to understand and do not have immediate hooks. Even Lucifer was a hard single to promote, because it does not have a singable chorus; its popularity was mostly due to SHINee’s new hard-edge image.
Chapter 1. Dream Girl – The Misconceptions of You is a brave declaration of love to SHINee’s existing fans who have lapped up SHINee’s ‘contemporary’ concepts. However, this album does not explicitly set out to woo new fans. SHINee tipped to the extremes, by experimenting with a genre not often used for kpop singles, and espousing a fashion concept that is quite ridiculous to even some hardcore SHINee fangirls. For me, because I have been with SHINee for such a while and lived through Juliette, I am hardly fazed with all the floral patterns they have been wearing, but even in Korea, one hardly sees male idols wearing so much flamboyant floral. SHINee is excelling in their niche, but in terms of pure catchiness, Dream Girl lacks the anthemic feel and thus is not a track that can push SHINee out of its niche.
One more observation– SHINee has disappeared from Korea while they were busy in Japan, for almost a year and half, during which many upstarts like BEAST (which debuted a year later than SHINee) cemented their position in kpop. Indicative of this, at the 2012 MBC Gayo Daejun, BEAST and SHINee were pitted “against” each other– Korea considers BEAST and SHINee to be on relatively the same level of popularity. While I do think BEAST is a strong group and do not mean to offend them or their fans, their repertoire is not nearly as strong as SHINee’s in terms of cohesion, and good production, which can be proxied by the differences in total sales by each group. BEAST’s dancing and singing as a whole is not at the same level of technical precision, either. We see this difference reflected in the international fandom; there are more Shawols than Beauties. Yet, SHINee and BEAST are at relatively similar levels of popularity in Korea, and to sum it up, I have theorized that it is because (1) SHINee has not kept their music mainstream (2) SHINee has not been as aggressive in Korean promotions. SHINee is not losing popularity, but neither are they gaining popularity as rapidly as other groups or as compared to their previous promotions.
A final note about Minho: Minho has improved and continues to improve. Before, I mostly refrained from commenting on his rapping, yet as his singing becomes stronger, I can no longer ignore it. We can only hope that after Minho cements his prowess as a singer, obligatory rap breaks will soon go away, which are mostly just sink holes for the songs’ momentum (see 1000 Years). Judging by the Minho-Key splits on rapping parts, despite singing a lot more than before, Minho seems to be favored more heavily as a rapper, which I believe is due mostly to his naturally lower voice. This is a mistake; Key’s lower register functions equally well (see Two Moons), and Key usually has the more dynamic and punchier rapping.
In the end, this album was brilliantly executed– for SHINee fans, that is. SHINee is a B-side group of S.M., and that is what allows SHINee to take risks in sound, from something so recklessly dissonant as Lucifer and funkified as Dream Girl. Yet, despite the love the fans bear for SHINee’s original genre, a part of us still wants SHINee to be even more popular and have other people acknowledge SHINee’s technical precisions. Yet, taking the safe mainstream route to popularity may land SHINee into bad taste: Spectrum, Catch Me, and I Got a Boy. While none of the previous three tracks are terrible, they all fall into the trap of aping the mainstream trend too obviously. Unsurprisingly, these three tracks have not performed on music charts to expectations. SHINee rests in a niche, and if that niche never stops being original and never ever dips into dubstep, I am content for them to idle there for a long, long time.