k-pop’s red velvet discuss their evolution, public scrutiny and secret dreams
As they lead the way for South Korean girlbands with a US tour, we catch up with Irene, Wendy, Yeri, Joy and Seulgi.
Red Velvet managed to squeeze this interview in between a concert in Chile, performing (and winning) at the Gaon Chart Music Awards, and their final preparations for the next leg of their Redmare tour, which is about to take them across Japan, followed by five US dates and two in Canada. The intensity of the schedule isn’t unfamiliar for Irene, Wendy, Yeri, Joy and Seulgi, who debuted in 2014 as a four-piece, before Yeri joined in early 2015. The latter tour dates, however, are an anomaly for a K-Pop girl group.
As Korean pop continues to rise in popularity across North and Latin America, it’s the boy groups who have frequently taken to the road. In fact, you can count the women-led American tours of the twenty-tens on one hand -- 2NE1 in 2012, Apink and CL in 2016. 2019, however, has already seen Red Velvet, Oh My Girl and BLACKPINK embark on US tours, making for a significant, although testing, shift in the landscape.
"Like with all modern forms of fame, there are caveats, and being one of K-Pop’s most successful groups comes with intense public reaction over everything from their stage clothes and their weight, to the selfies they post and the books they read."
“We owe this opportunity to all our fans who love our music,” says 27-year-old Irene, the group’s eldest member and leader. “We’ll work hard in return for all the love and support.” It’s a modest and quintessentially K-Pop response, but behind Irene’s words stands a fandom which is, significantly, populated by devoted young women. Women might be the financial backbone of K-Pop, but they often choose to spend heavily on boy groups (physical albums, merchandise, concert tickets) rather than female groups, who are traditionally marketed at a more generalised audience but, as evidenced by their concepts -- primarily sweetness or sex appeal -- with a definite male skew.
A major factor of Red Velvet’s appeal is that there’s no way to pigeonhole the quintet, who have become a fearsome force with their sophisticated duality; marrying the madcap pop fizz of their ‘red’ side (the visual quirks of Red Flavor and its suggestive portrayal of a summer romance) to their ‘velvet’ element (slower, sexier R&B, such as Automatic, One Of These Nights). They are as multifaceted as the women who love them – cute and bright, but also modern, sleek and cool-headed.
Recently they’ve parlayed K-Pop’s ‘girl crush’ concept – usually a fierce, empowering sound and look – into their output to create some of their finest moments; the sly, enticing Peek-A-Boo, whose American Horror Story-esque video sees them trophy hunt and kill a pizza delivery guy, and one of 2018’s best pop songs – Bad Boy – in which they harness the proverbial heartbreaker. The very idea of the female popstar as a submissive, doll-like creature, which they satirised in the video for Dumb Dumb, has become redundant in the Red Velvet world.
“There’s confidence in all of our songs,” says Wendy, fluent in English having lived in Canada as a teenager, “and we want to tell our fans that you can be whoever you want, as long as you have confidence.” Joy, who has a blossoming side-career in acting, adds, “We want to be a group who encourages people, and hope they can learn how to love and be themselves, living the life they were meant to.”
They, too, are still learning lessons in self-belief and confidence. As recently as last year they confessed surprise at the explosive success of Bad Boy, a song which they thought wouldn’t go down especially well, while their 2018 summer anthem, the hyperactive Power Up, scored them a PAK (a Perfect All Kill, #1 on all of South Korea’s major real-time and daily music charts), making them the only group from their label to have achieved one. Yet Yeri recalls thinking they “really had no idea that it would be such a hit”.
“Whenever we release a new album, we feel excited and nervous because we always try out different concepts, and never know how fans will react,” explains Seulgi. “We felt the same with Bad Boy, but so many people loved it and we felt proud we were able to broaden our musical horizons. It gave us the belief that we have a lot more to show to our fans.”
The constant movement of their sound and visual concepts provides a wide palette of emotions and experiences, and Red Velvet have taken to immersing themselves somewhere between method acting and self-analysis, to ensure they do it justice. “I do my own research on all our concepts, and there are times when they’re very different from the real me, so it’s interesting to discover new sides of myself,” says Seulgi.
“Right after I debuted, I thought my voice could only work with bright, cheery songs like Happiness and Day 1,” admits Joy. “But since working on songs like Peek-A-Boo and Bad Boy, I’ve become more interested in groovy, dreamy R&B.” Wendy shares her bandmate’s concerns; “At first, I was really worried about pulling off so many concepts.” Her eventual solution was to “try and find myself within each concept, although it felt really awkward at the beginning”.
Like with all modern forms of fame, there are caveats, and being one of K-Pop’s most successful groups comes with intense public reaction over everything from their stage clothes and their weight, to the selfies they post and the books they read. Wendy says she has come to “mostly deal with it on my own. As time passes, I think it’s become more like this. It’s because we’re all so busy and we don’t want to put our burdens on each other, but I’m always thankful to have the other members by my side, who take care of me or ask when I’m having a hard time.” The support they provide each other is invaluable and genuine, says Irene, who is often referred to as Red Velvet’s ‘mum’ figure. “I think the maternal nature is both something that comes naturally and a role I play as a leader. But I don’t think they’re different at all.”
Red Velvet’s schedule doesn’t leave much time for the freedoms afforded to you and I, but although the quintet have unexplored dreams, they’re also, reassuringly, experiencing sweet pockets of happiness. “My ultimate adventure would be travelling alone,” shares Seulgi. “I haven’t done it yet, and I can’t even imagine what it would be like because I wouldn’t know what to do!” For 19-year-old Yeri, the group’s youngest, it’s the simple things that give her a buzz, like “when I went shopping for a furry hat!”
Joy muses for a moment. “Recently I’ve been feeling frustrated because there wasn’t anything that really excited me,” she begins. “But I started feeling alive as I listened to my favourite jazz and R&B music. My ultimate adventure is learning from a person who knows a lot about my favourite genre, and making it my own based on what I learned.” Wendy, on the other hand, is both critical and encouraging of herself. “My adventure is singing, especially when I perform alone. No matter how hard I practice, there are times when I can’t be 100%, but recently I’ve been overcoming that more. As I see myself improving bit by bit, I realise I’m happiest when singing, but I still have a long way to go.”
Amongst their candidness lies a dry, often low-key sense of humour. Their most recent Korean single, Really Bad Boy (the sibling to Bad Boy), had some feisty moments – “He’s a really bad boy/ they say he lives trusting only his handsome face/ if it’s alright with you/ I’ll try to tame you” – but the burning question remains… what would they do with such a man in real life? “I wouldn’t date him. I hate being lonely,” Irene says, alluding to the girlfriend invariably left wondering where he is every other night. Seulgi tries for diplomacy – “It would be nice if I can actually tame him” – then shrugs it off – “if he’s a really bad boy, I’d just dump him”. Yeri, however, isn’t standing for any tomfoolery. “I’d definitely kick him to the curb because it’s only going to be tough for me,” she deadpans.
Over the next few months, says Seulgi, Red Velvet is concentrating on “our tour concerts, and we’d love to focus on putting together a new album.” But with their fifth anniversary coming up on 1 August, there’s introspection laced into their 2019 vision. “Because of the nature of the job, we receive a lot of love – sometimes a lot more than anyone can imagine – and because of this, I think every word and action has a huge influence on those who support us,” Seulgi continues. “So it’s really important for us to keep our mind and body healthy so that we can give good energy.”
“I’ve realised that every single stage we’re on is important,” Joy adds, “and that it really influences our fans. It makes me think about how to become a good person, and how I can give our fans back as much love as I receive.” Wendy’s parting thought, however, on what she’s taken away from the past four and a half years, is as much for herself as her bandmates. “Whatever happens, just forget everything while you’re on stage. Be genuine to the music, listen and enjoy it from the bottom of your heart.”