There’s a moment in South Korean pop group Red Velvet’s newest video, “RBB (Really Bad Boy),” that truly stands out. The five women sit within the giant, menacing jaw of a wolf, singing as they stare straight into the camera, with the faintest glimmer of mischief in their eyes. Despite being in an unnerving situation, they’re in complete control — daring anyone to tell them otherwise.
It’s this boldness that has cemented Red Velvet as one of the current dominant female acts in K-pop. While it certainly helps that since debuting in 2014, members Irene (27), Seulgi (24), Wendy (24), Joy (22), and Yeri (19) — they go by stage names — have released plenty of hits, what has truly set them apart from other groups is they way they hone in on a duality that is not often seen from women in the industry. Red Velvet’s releases fall on opposite sides of the spectrum: “red,” their bright, quirky side, and then “velvet,” their softer, sensuous side. The group’s previous successes “Russian Roulette” (2016), “Red Flavor” (2017), and “Peek-A-Boo” (2017) reflected the “red,” but it wasn’t until this year’s sultry R&B mega-hit “Bad Boy” that the group’s “velvet” truly showed its full potential. And now, their most recent EP, RBB, makes the case that these two moods don’t have to be in conflict.
“It’s important for us to show off both sides because we want to show that we believe in ourselves,” says Wendy of their newest release on a recent phone call. The Korean-Canadian singer is the only fluent English speaker of the group. “We want to show people who believe in us that we can perform many different kinds of genres and styles.”
Most female acts tend to stick to one concept — saccharine or sexy — and more often than not, the bubblegum side wins out. It’s not often that groups strive to find harmony in both.
The name of the EP itself, RBB, represents how the women are seeking to push boundaries and “upgrade” their sound, as Wendy puts it. Listening to the title track, it’s clear that the difference between “Bad Boy” and “Really Bad Boy” is not just a matter of an added adverb, but an added layer of emotional complexity. While “Bad Boy” brazenly admonishes players (“If you play I fight back, I fight back/ I’ll show you who’s in control/ 'Cause I, I know how to make the devil cry”), “Really Bad Boy” explores the more nuanced difficulty of having to leave someone who you love, but who also doesn’t treat you well. “It’s so hard to let go of [a love] completely,” they collectively admit. “[The song is about] that dynamic of the push-and-pull we see in so many relationships, and we think it’s something that anyone can relate to.”
RBB ended Red Velvet’s milestone year with an exclamation point, with each of the four tracks playing to their core strengths: vocals, dynamic performances, and sonic creativity. Maknae (meaning youngest member in Korean) Yeri is partial to the song “Butterflies,” because the expressive choreography highlights their dancing. Seulgi, the strongest dancer, as well as group leader Irene say they’re most proud of silky track “So Good,” because it particularly showcases their singing. “It’s kind of like ‘Kingdom Come’ from our previous album,” says Irene, “but this one shows off more of our range and how much we’ve grown since then.” And now that they’re more confident in their own sound, they’re comfortable adding even more creative flourishes to their songs: Irene punctuates “Really Bad Boy” with a whistle tone-scream hybrid, and a seductive vocal fry is folded into the verses of “Sassy Me.”
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Red Velvet didn’t always feel this self-assured, though. In fact, Wendy concedes, “We didn’t know we would come this far.” The key to their success, she says, has been getting the freedom to keep making music that fits their own evolving tastes and styles, instead of the other way around. “We’re always discovering what works best for us and getting validation from our fans,” says Wendy. “But the greatest thing is we have lots of people who trust us. Even from the beginning, since [debut single] ‘Happiness,’ there have been people who have believed in us — the company, the people around us. That’s why we’ve been able to try things, new styles, and new concepts.”
Women largely dominated the pop sphere this year, and it’s from their female peers that Red Velvet draw inspiration. “I like Camila Cabello,” says Joy. “First, as a singer-songwriter, because she’s able help produce and write all the songs off her own album. I also really admire how she can pull off so many different styles, which is similar to us and what we aim to do in Red Velvet.”
As for Yeri, a long-time Ariana Grande fan (she’s even been nicknamed “Yeriana”), it was this year’s buzzy “Thank U, Next” that stuck with her. “I listened to it almost every day after it came out. When I was reading the lyrics, I really appreciated Ariana’s honesty and her confidence in being able to release that kind of track about herself and her life.”
Seulgi looks up to Beyoncé, as “she commands an entire stage even when she performs solo.” “I’d love to do that,” she says. “But also as a person, Beyoncé is so influential and has a really positive influence on the world and the people around her, which I also admire.”
Male groups (in K-pop and beyond) tend to get the most attention. Women not only make fewer headlines, but are often expected to stay within a narrow definition of femininity. But Red Velvet’s success and global reach is a sign that their more prismatic idea of what women are capable of is resonating. On this, Wendy is clear: “[Women] can be anything! You can be whatever you want, seriously. Even if you want to play somebody else — you can play someone else. But in the end, no matter what you decide, you’re always just you.”
Next year, Red Velvet embark on their first solo tour in the U.S., and tickets sold out so quickly that it was recently announced they will add an extra concert in L.A. And though expectations are high, the group’s goals are simple: “I just want fans to have fun,” Wendy says. “We don’t have many chances to go to the U.S., and finally we have our very own concert with our [fans], so I want them to have a wonderful time with us and just enjoy.”