Storytelling is as important for songwriting as it is for movies. And, especially in the 2020s, as so many K-pop groups started the decade getting deeper and deeper into conceptual, intellectual frameworks for their music, videos, and performances, there’s no need to say how much storytelling is important for K-pop too.
Yet sometimes you hear K-pop songs that dare to play with storytelling formulas in ways that almost tricks you into thinking it’s the same old “rising action-climax-falling action-resolution” when they’re actually a little bit more chaotic mix of these concepts. It’s the case of ATEEZ’s “Answer”.
K-pop is not a musical genre, of course. But, in the best case, the music that is part of the K-pop package leads — and in the worse, it supports — the story that is being told through the choreography, costume, videos, and album concepts.
Even if you don’t understand or delve into the lyrics of “Answer”, it’s impossible not to feel the type of story the song is about: it’s about conquering the world. It has that “group of friends achieving the unthinkable together” type of movie, type of vibe.
According to member Wooyoung, “ ‘Answer’ has a very celebratory tone and concept”. But it’s not a merry, happy-go-lucky type of celebration. It’s a darker, more dramatic one (“We’ll reveal our existence from the darkness where there is no answer”, the lyrics say) — made possible by songwriting and music production dynamics of tension and release, finalized by great mixing engineering and the energy in the members’ vocal performances.
The songwriting in “Answer” excels at these dynamics. Here’s why it’s so great — but, first, a brief explanation of the song structure I’ll use:
ATEEZ’s “Answer” song structure*
0:00–0:19 — Chorus
0:20–0:39 — Verse 1
0:40–0:59 — Pre-chorus
1:00 -1:18— Chorus
1:19–1:38 — Post-chorus
1:39–1:58 —Verse 2
1:59–2:17 — Pre-chorus
2:18 -2:36— Chorus
2:37–2:57 — Bridge
2:58–3:15 — Outro
3:16-end — Chorus
*There is no consensus about some song sections, especially in pop music. Some could consider that “Answer’s” chorus is actually a verse, and what I call post-chorus is actually the chorus. Anyway, here I go:
- The song starts by the chorus, and this is actually nothing new— pop songs have been placing the chorus in the beginning for some time; especially per the influence of streaming, you gotta capture the listener’s attention as quickly as possible. But what’s great about “Answer” starting with the chorus is that this chorus is not a boxed, melodically sufficient chorus. As its line’s melody and “1, 2, 3, let’s burn” shout suggests, it’s a chorus that was meant to lead you to the post-chorus. But the post-chorus does not appear yet; so the chorus ends up sounding climatic and anti-climatic at the same time. What a clever way to start a song.
- Behind the vocals of the pre-chorus, there is a track with an instrumental playing the melody of the chorus, as if you’re being subconsciously prepared to meet the chorus again. And then the chorus comes — it’s a melody you’ve heard before, so it doesn’t hit you as hard as it could — but wait, it leads you to a post-chorus that comes with more energy. The deep “Oh oh oh” lead & background vocal choirs and the “불러 불러 우릴 지금 불러” hook, along with Jongho’s melismas while singing “타올라 불꽃처럼”, make the post-chorus the catchiest part of the song.
- After that energy boost, the song slows down to a trap beat and a more spaced melody in the first half of Verse 2, only to speed up again in the second half, and lead you to the pre-chorus, and the chorus again.
- The “1, 2, 3, let’s burn” choir at the end of the second chorus prepares you to the post-chorus, but it just doesn’t come! It’s not a mood killer, though; instead, it feels like they’re holding the energy just to release it twice as hard in the proper moment.
- Instead of the post-chorus, what comes is the bridge; it’s almost like a pause, while it still has a strong beat and emotional vocals going on. There are sounds of marching feet in the background; you just feel like the chorus that will follow will be explosive; this is the moment we’ve been waiting for; this is when the hero conquers the world. But no! You’re wrong again. What comes is not the chorus. It’s the outro, with a totally new melody that comes a little less strong than the chorus — the perfect place for Jongho to deliver a wonderful high note, without neither being outshined by something stronger nor repeating the pop canon cliché of the highest note of the song being sung in the last chorus.
- After that, okay, here comes the chorus again. The last one. What a ride this was!
As Anna from KultScene says:
“(…) there is a great balance of loud and quiet moments — the song never gets overbearing and listeners have ample opportunity to appreciate the sick underlying beats that keep the song dynamic and alive.”
Like every good pop song, “Answer” plays with familiarity and newness in melodies, and tension & release dynamics in structure— but boy, they play hard. Every section of the composition seems to be calculated to take into an adventure.
The production & mixing of “Answer”, long time invisible heroes of ATEEZ, are surgically good. There’s just so much going on in the instrumentals, and it is not easy to make so many tracks fit so well in a way that is deliberately overwhelming, yet not “too overwhelming.”
(Also, it’s not easy to use 2008-ish EDM synths without sounding like, hmmm, 2008? Not that I wouldn’t like it if it did, lol)
One of K-pop’s inside stories that I still don’t know is if, when working on new instrumentals for performances for TV shows and music awards, the group’s teams create new tracks or use leftover tracks from the original mixes. Knowing how performance & music are so intrinsically related in K-pop, I wouldn’t be surprised if producers and mixing engineers worked on the albums with the Melons and Mamas performances in mind already, making strategic choices about which goes into the album and which will go into the remixes.
But regardless of what’s their modus operandi, the choices for ATEEZ’s 2020 Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) performance of “Answer” were superb. The performance remix brings intense new tracks — and the extremely powerful stage presence of the group matches their vibe perfectly.
I highly recommend watching/listening with your earphones on. Let me guide you through some gorgeous production details of the MAMA performance that you won’t find in the studio version of “Answer”:
- there are new background vocals in Verse 1; they’re humming to a quieter melody, and they give the song a new age vibe;
- the gregorian choirs in the post-chorus are even louder and thicker than the album version — such a liturgic vibe, holy Jesus, it literally makes you think of Jesus;
- at the end of the second verse and the second pre-chorus, there are some new, beautiful strings;
- but the strings in the last chorus, though! The strings! In the last chorus! So much urgency and beauty. The most beautiful thing about this remix.
“Answer”’s studio and MAMA versions are perfect examples of K-pop’s teamwork brilliance. The music producers give the ATEEZ members a hard task: to match the instrumentals’ energy. And ATEEZ not only accomplishes this but also make the producers’ work shine even more.
As you can see from everything in this review, “Answer” is intense, even in its calmest moments. After all, even the lows feel high when you’re operating at such an intense level.
From lyrics to the melody, from song structure to production, this song has no mood killers, only plateau extenders — and one can only handle that if they have lots of energy. But, paraphrasing the very lyrics of “Answer”, that is no big deal for ATEEZ. This is a group that can handle the intensity. They can handle “the burning sun and the crashing waves”.